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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.1 (2004) 163-165

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The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua. By Timothy C. Brown. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Appendixes. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. xxvii, 352 pp. Cloth, $29.95.

In Nicaragua's civil war of the 1980s, peasants from the mountainous interior formed the bulk of the armed Contra opposition and from 1990 onward contributed to continuing electoral defeats of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). A large body of literature has examined the formation of U.S. government policies of low intensity warfare toward Nicaragua and support for the Contras. There has been a relative dearth of historical works, however, that explore Nicaragua's conflict from the bottom-up perspective of the rural residents who most directly lived and suffered the consequences of the war. Brown, who worked for the U.S. State Department as a senior liaison officer to the Contras from 1987 to 1990, seeks to address this gap and to refute the "black legend" of the Contras (p. 5): scholarly and journalistic portrayals of the Contra forces as an abusive force of ex-National Guardsmen dependent on U.S. government funding. Drawing on interviews with Contra leaders and primary source documents, Brown contends [End Page 163] that the Contras were "a spontaneous grassroots rebellion" (p. 92) of "simple peasant farmers trying to protect their tiny farms and families from outsiders they saw as trying to 'revolutionize' them against their will" (p. 5).

Through a series of brief biographical sketches, Brown first explores the origins and growth in 1980 of the first rural guerrillas, MILPAS ("cornfields") in north-central Nicaragua, under the leadership of local "campesinos," some of whom had earlier fought with the Sandinista guerrillas. By 1981, the lure of U.S. military aid led MILPA leaders to join with ex-National Guardsmen who were organizing along the Honduran border. Within a few years, this merged Contra force had mobilized tens of thousands of peasants from Nicaragua's interior as combatants and civilian collaborators. This discussion offers interesting new details of the early period of Contra mobilization, although one wishes that Brown had provided the reader with less summary and more direct testimony and language from Contra leaders.

The second half focuses on the underlying sources of rural resentment against the revolution. Brown lays the blame on Sandinista government policies, which he argues "impoverished them [peasants]" and "threatened their land and freedom" (p. 203). Specific grievances include the perception that the Sandinista government initially misrepresented its "communist" intentions, equated all dissent with counterrevolutionary activity, arbitrarily confiscated land and property, forcibly regulated the sale of crops and consumer goods, and abused human rights.

In addition, Brown argues that Nicaragua's war can be understood as a cultural/ethnic clash between urban-based "Spanish" Sandinista cadre and those who self-identified as "campesinos" and "indios." Brown cites data on the historical presence of Chibchan indigenous people in central Nicaragua and suggests that the Contra forces drew on this "highland" cultural tradition of resistance. The nature and content of this cultural/ethnic clash in rural Nicaragua would benefit from further elucidation, however. Brown makes little mention, for example, of the impact of extensive prewar mestizo migration to Nicaragua's agricultural frontier and leaves key concepts like "indio" ambiguous. Brown also hints at class conflicts between "elite" Sandinistas and Contra military leaders, whom he concludes were largely "lower class" men emerging from a subsistence-based rural society (p. 167). It is not clear, however, what criteria Brown uses to label Contra leaders (a number of whom came from locally economically powerful families) as "lower class" or how he determined this from the documentary evidence. A number of other studies, in fact, portray a more complex, hierarchical rural social structure in Nicaragua's interior, linked to increasing participation in national and export markets.

With his unique access to key Contra leaders, Brown contributes to our understanding of Contra perceptions and experiences of the Nicaraguan conflict and highlights the role of rural popular culture and networks...


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