Latin American Politics & Society 47.3 (2005) 145-157
[Access article in PDF] The Nicaraguan Contras:
Were They Indios?
That peasants are structurally disposed to social revolution is one of the truisms of the last several decades in Latin American studies. It has been shared by an array of intellectuals, not just Marxists. Peasant-based guerrillas represent popular upheavals of the oppressed against their exploiters, according to the prevailing opinion. Skeptics stress the role of urban intellectuals in starting rural guerrilla movements, but everyone seems to agree that peasants––or at least the more literate and upwardly mobile––are a promising constituency for revolutionaries.
If so, what do we make of the Nicaraguan Contras? Could they be infamous not just for the atrocities they committed but for the expectations they violated? The highland peasants who revolted against the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s have not received much attention from scholars. They reversed the usual signs in the wars that ravaged Central America. Unlike the Marxist-led guerrillas of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, who fought right-wing dictatorships, in the Nicaraguan case culminating in the Sandinistas' 1979 overthrow of the Somoza regime, the Contras were supported by Washington and fought a Marxist government––a government that was doing more for peasants than any other in the region.The Contras seemed like such an anomaly that their very identity as peasant rebels took several years to establish. No one expected opposition to the Sandinista revolution to extend so deeply into the peasantry. [End Page 145]
When the first Contra attacks occurred in 1980, the Sandinistas blamed the Somoza dictatorship's ex–national guardsmen. Some of the raiders indeed were former guardsmen. Most proved not to be, but the equation stuck, and for understandable reasons. The Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) was led by former guardia officers chosen by the Reagan administration, which also financed the base camps in Honduras. Shake-ups of the FDN leadership to mollify the U.S. Congress made it easy to dismiss the Contras as the manipulated simulacrum of a peasant revolt, not a real one. As U.S.-appointed FDN head Colonel Enrique Bermúdez said of U.S. involvement, it could be sensed like "the steps of an enormous beast" (Bendaña 1991, 30).
From my own perspective two countries away in Guatemala, the Contras looked like one more example of how elites project their power struggles into the most available supply of cannon fodder. In Guatemala, by the time I began systematic interviewing of war zone peasants in 1987, it was hard to find any who would admit to feeling represented by either Marxist rebels or army counterinsurgents. Some peasants acknowledged supporting the guerrillas at an earlier date, before they realized the high price the army would exact. The cost of guerrilla warfare for noncombatants was so high that, as far as I could see, it was guaranteed to burn off genuine support. Once soldiers were chasing guerrillas through populated areas, with both sides demanding cooperation from the inhabitants and killing anyone they suspected of being an informer, the predictable response from most peasants would be neutrality, if necessary masked by unenthusiastic collaboration with the stronger side (Stoll 1993).
This, however, does not seem to describe the many Nicaraguan peasants who supported the Contras. When U.S. journalists accompanied a Contra unit on a raid into Nicaragua in March 1983, they were amazed by the popular support that the Contras seemed to enjoy...