Anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan Rebels Would Become a Thorny Issue
President Ronald Reagan did little to hide his disdain for the Marxist Nicaraguan leaders who seized power after the dictator Somoza was ousted. The Somoza family ruled the country with an iron hand for 46 years. Then the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Spanish Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), overthrew Somoza and ruled the country between 1979-1990.
Reagan was convinced that the USSR (the former Soviet Union) and Cuba were helping in the arming of Communist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador thru the Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega. And he was going to turn up the heat on them. Reagan during his administration never shied away from calling out Ortega and the regime for being little Soviet stooges.
At various times Reagan called Ortega a “dictator in designer glasses,” after he learned that he had gone on a shopping spree while visiting the United Nations in New York City.
“Nicaragua today is an imprisoned nation; it is a nation condemned to unrelenting cruelty by a clique of very cruel men; by a dictator in designer glasses and his comrades, drunk with power and all its brutal implications,” Reagan said. He also dismissed the Marxist leader Ortega as “the little dictator who went to Moscow in his green fatigues.”
So, it was no surprise that his administration put a priority on creating an anti-Sandinista force to oust the Marxists from power. On November 23, 1981, the President signed National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), a top secret document that gave CIA the authority to identify, recruit, train and support a 500-man Nicaraguan rebel force that would rise against and ultimately oust the leftist, Marxist Sandinista regime.
The Reagan administration was heavily involved with the civil war in El Salvador, however, Congress had strict limitations on the U.S. involvement and to aid to the country. Therefore, the administration was hoping to cut the flow of arms to the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador, most of which they opined flowed thru Ortega’s borders.
Who Were the Contras?
The forces that CIA would array against Ortega were divided into three main groups.
- Right Wing Followers of Somoza- These men traditionally tended to be either from the National Guard forces of the former dictator or his close allies.
- Disgruntled Sandinistas- Many of the early Contras were men who fought against Somoza and banded together with Ortega. But after they saw the direction the government was taking after seizing power, they left and joined the resistance. One of these was Edgar Chamorro who would become a key Contra leader.
- Ordinary citizens- Many of these didn’t like Somoza and took no direct involvement with the overthrow, but disliked the Sandinistas and joined the forces trying to oust them.
CIA and the Argentine intelligence services worked together on this venture and they first went to Honduras to secure bases for the Contras to train, equip and refit and then the Argentines went about trying to recruit another 1000 rebels in addition to the original 500.
Officially the Contras were not allowed to be in Honduras as an armed force, but the government, worried about their own latent and incipient insurgency, turned a blind eye to the goings on and housed a tent city in at least one location that would easily hold a battalion of troops.
The Contras manning the base had a large base station radio that could communicate with deployed elements inside the country. And twice a day, runners would bring fresh intel reports to the Honduran 6th Infantry Battalion, located in Ojo de Agua.
CIA also covertly brought several hundred fighters to the U.S. and trained them with Special Forces troops of the 7th SFG at Eglin Air Force Base.
The Contras militarily were broken up into three main groups:
- The FDN, Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense, FDN) which was composed of mostly National Guard Somoza men. However, the political directorate was comprised of businessmen and anti-Somoza activists. Led by former National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the FDN was the most active of the Contra groups and was stationed in Honduras. They received the bulk of American support.
- Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), commanded by former Sandinista Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), who fought for the Ortega regime but grew disgruntled over the course of the revolution. His group operated in the southern part of the country until a bomb plot against him forced him to withdraw.
- The third group, Misurasata, was comprised of Miskito, Sumo and Rama native peoples of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. In December 1981 the Sandinistas, following the Communist playbook, decided to nationalize Indian land. This drove over 10,000 native Indians to relocation centers and several into armed conflict.
Money Cut, Iran-Contra Begins:
Congress never fully embraced the Contras, their aid began at a paltry $19 million dollars. CIA Deputy Director Admiral Bobby R. Inman argued that the $19 million allocations provided little buying power for arms and other materials, saying that “Nineteen million or $29 million isn’t going to buy you much of any kind these days, and certainly not against that kind of military force.” That amount would grow only to about $24 million.
Congress cut aid to the Contras with Boland Amendment, the lifeline for Contra activity was cut, but the Reagan Administration quickly worked around that. Using funding and support from third countries and private individuals, Reagan’s National Security Council raised $36.7 million dollars between 1984-1986. This effort was headed up by Marine LTC Oliver North.
North created an organization called The Enterprise, which was the NSC’s covert operation for the Contras. Enterprise had its own airplanes, pilots, airfield, ship, operatives, and secret Swiss bank accounts. It received extensive support from CIA personnel in Latin America. This operation would have its cover blown and culminated in the Iran–Contra Affair, where the funding of the Contras was done through the proceeds of arms sales to Iran.
The Contras were never a large military force and charges of corruption were rampant inside the organization. They, for years, produced little militarily and were reduced to isolated acts of terrorism. But in late 1987, they clashed with Sandinista forces in large battles in La Bonanza, La Siuna, and La Rosita in Zelaya province that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.
International pressure to end the conflict resulted in the meeting of five Central American presidents (including Ortega) in 1989. They voted to disband the Contras in return for free elections in February 1990.
During that election, Ortega was roundly defeated by UDN candidate Violetta Chamorro and the Sandinistas were removed from power. The Nicaraguan people were fed up with years of war and were ready for a change. And it began with the directive from President Reagan.