Daniel Ortega and Oscar Manuel Sobalvarro: Interviews with Sandinista and Contra Leaders
In 1979, a leftist government came to power in Nicaragua after the overthrow of ruling strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The youthful new president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, had spent years in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNLF), the anti-Somoza urban guerrilla movement. Ortega was initially only one among a five-person junta established in 1979, but as representatives of other parties left this coalition he became de facto leader, winning a large majority in national elections called in 1984. The administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan denounced these as a sham and refused to recognize the new government, although outside observers thought them reasonably fair. As a young revolutionary, Ortega had already established a close relationship with Fidel Castro's communist government of Cuba, which sent 2,500 military and political advisors to assist the new government. When Reagan became president in 1981, his administration began to provide aid to anti-Sandinista Contra forces of Nicaraguan exiles, based in camps in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica, who waged civil war against the new regime, mounting various types of disruptive sabotage. Reagan also imposed economic sanctions and embargoes on the Sandinista government. Even though Nicaragua's population was only 4.5 million, the Reagan administration argued that the Sandinista regime represented a major communist threat to all of Latin America, providing Soviet and Cuban forces with another base in the Western Hemisphere. In 1987 Costa Rican President Óscar Arias Sánchez helped to negotiate a cease-fire agreement between the Contras and the SNLF under whose terms national elections were scheduled for 1990. The Sandinistas lost these elections probably in part because their conscription policies and suppression of human rights had made them unpopular, as had economic difficulties and infrastructural damage due to the impact of the U.S.-backed civil war and other sanctions.
Interview with Daniel Ortega, Sandinista Leader, Nicaraguan President (translated from Spanish)
On the origins of the Sandinista revolution:
We grew up in a situation where we didn't know what freedom or justice were, and therefore we didn't know what democracy was. … The people of Nicaragua were suffering oppression. This made us develop an awareness which eventually led us to commit ourselves to the struggle against the domination of the capitalists of our country in collusion with the U.S. government, i.e. imperialism. And that's why our struggle took on an anti-imperialist character.
One has to bear in mind that during my childhood and adolescence, I suffered the repression of the Somoza dictatorship in every way: economically, socially, as well as at the hands of the police—because if we went out on the street to play baseball, for example, the police would come and beat us up and put us in prison. There was nowhere for young people to play sports, and all we experienced was repression. I also became aware through the experience of my family, because my father had fought alongside Sandino and had been imprisoned by Somoza, and my mother was also anti-Somoza and had been sent to jail. And they used to tell all those stories. On the other hand, there were no civic channels through which one might try to achieve change in our country, so we came to the conclusion that the only way to overthrow the dictatorship was through armed struggle.
The Cuban Revolution hadn't triumphed yet. My idol was Sandino, and also Christ. I was brought up a Christian, but I regarded Christ as a rebel, a revolutionary, someone who had committed himself to the poor and the humble and never sided with the powerful. I had a Christian upbringing, so I would say that my main early influences were a combination of Christianity, which I saw as a spur to change, and Sandinism, represented by the resistance against the Yankee invasion. Later, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution was very influential, and Fidel, Che, and Camilo [Cienfuegos] became our main role models. There were also wars going on in Algeria and in Vietnam, which further encouraged us to believe that victory was possible.
On Latin American support for the Sandinistas:
[Cuba and Nicaragua] were close together and both suffered a dictatorship backed by the United States: there it was Batista, here it was Somoza. And there was a desire for profound change; I mean, not just replacing one dictatorship with another, or going from an iron dictatorship to a formal dictatorship within the framework of liberal politics: we wanted a more profound social change, a socialist change, and naturally that led us to identify with the Cuban Revolution.
[Visiting Cuba], I really felt transported to a country that was challenging imperialism, that was putting forward an alternative to capitalism. I mean, it was challenging world capitalism and also the heavy weight of international imperialism. And one came face to face with these very spiritual, moral people who had a great fighting spirit. That's what I felt when I went to Cuba for the first time. …
Before the triumph of the Revolution, we received aid primarily from Cuba. Cuba had always supported the Sandinista struggle. Later on, as we developed the struggle in our country, Cuba was able to give us much more support. When the governments of Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela, Omar Torrijos in Panama and Rodrigo Carazo in Costa Rica coincided in power, it became easier to bring in weapons from Havana through Panama, and then from Havana directly to Costa Rica, which of course assisted us greatly in overthrowing Somoza's dictatorship. …
On the Sandinistas’ relationship with the United States:
[We took power] with great enthusiasm and a great desire to transform the country, but also with the worry that we would have to confront the United States, something which we regarded as inevitable. It's not that we fell into a kind of geopolitical fatalism with regard to the United States, but historically speaking the United States has been interfering in our country since the last century, and so we said, “The Yankees will inevitably interfere. If we try to become independent, the United States will intervene.”
I would say that we tried to neutralize that confrontation with the United States, and around September of Page 2849 | Top of Article’79 I went to the United Nations, and before that I visited Washington and had a meeting with President Carter. During the meeting with President Carter, we proposed the development of a new kind of relationship with the United States. During our exchange, [he said that] the American government was worried about the implications of the revolution and that the conservative sections of the United States perceived it as a threat. We insisted that this was an opportunity, as I said to Carter, for the United States to make good the historical damage they had inflicted on our country. Our national anthem still includes the words “Yankee, the enemy of humanity,” and we said to him that the only way to abolish that line would be for the attitude of the imperialist powers to change throughout the world, and specifically towards Nicaragua. And then, in concrete terms, we asked President Carter for a certain amount of economic help, and for material support to build up a new army, because the old one had been wiped out. We needed weapons, because Nicaragua didn't manufacture any at the time, so we were asking them to help us in this respect. But they couldn't respond, because there was a public debate going on in the United States at that moment, and the conservatives were accusing Carter of opening the door to “communism,” which was the word they used for these changes. It was up to the U.S. Congress to make these kinds of decisions, and the Congress did not want to approve such decisions.
[Our relationship with Cuba] was precisely the challenge —that the United States should respect our right to maintain friendly relations with whoever Nicaragua wanted. If the United States wanted to put conditions on Nicaragua's relations [with other countries], then it meant that we were starting off on the wrong foot, that the old imperialist attitude was still the same and there was nothing democratic about it at all, and that they were keeping up their dictatorial attitude throughout the world, supported by their economic and military power. So this meant that we started trying to find weapons in other parts of the world. Of course, the kind of support that Cuba could give us was very limited when it came to building up our army, since they didn't manufacture armaments in the quantities that we required. So we turned to Algeria and the Soviet Union for support. The first weapons that we received came from Algeria. Algeria identified very much with our struggle. We conducted a series of negotiations at the time, and the first reply we received came from Algeria. Then we began to receive support from other countries of the socialist community, and mainly from the Soviet Union. …
I remember perfectly well that when we began working in that direction, which we did quite openly, the U.S. government sent us an emissary, Mr. Thomas Enders, and I remember my conversation with him. He came to tell us very clearly that the United States was not going to allow a Soviet-Cuban communist bridgehead to be established in this continent. I said that we had a right to maintain relations with any other country, and that they should respect that right. And then he said that I should understand that they had the power to crush us, to which I replied that we were ready to fight and confront them even though they were a big power—that Sandino had already confronted them in the past and that we were ready to do so again if they tried to crush us.
On Soviet support for the Sandinista regime:
Well, first of all, we did not assume that others would fight on our behalf; we the Nicaraguans were ready to fight ourselves. What we asked for were weapons so that we could defend ourselves—that's what we asked of the Soviet Union, of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, of the Algerians, of the Vietnamese; and that's what we received so that we could arm the Nicaraguan people and defend ourselves in that war imposed on us by Ronald Reagan's Administration over a number of years.
[From the Soviet Union] we received rifles, which were still what our government most needed, because clearly, if the United States invaded us, we wouldn't be in a position to wage a mobile war with heavy armaments, so our defense would have to rely on our ability to develop popular resistance forces, guerrillas, throughout the country. So rifles were our main request, plus a few heavy armaments. Some tanks and helicopters arrived from the Soviet Union, but we never managed to get any MiG planes. We asked for planes so that we could use them in this war imposed on us by the United States, because with interceptor planes we could have Page 2850 | Top of Articleneutralized the Contras’ aerial logistics from Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. But it seems that the United States put such heavy pressure on the Soviet Union, that even though the Soviets were willing and had already committed themselves in writing to send us MiG-21 planes and trained [our] pilots … they began procrastinating. And I even remember that in one of the exchanges we had with them, they said that the United States had threatened [them]—and I remember they even did it publicly during a visit to France, in the presence of President Mitterrand. We had explored the possibility of the French sending us Mirage [planes], and the French were willing; and when this became known, the Americans reacted by announcing publicly that they would not allow those armaments to enter Nicaragua and that they would bomb the Nicaraguan ports [if they arrived]. We asked the Soviets and the French to send the planes regardless, that we were willing to take the risk of Nicaragua being bombed. But in the end it wasn't possible for the planes to arrive in our country. There was an attempt, I remember, to send some smaller planes from Libya, and those planes got as far as Brazil, where they were intercepted and sent back to Libya.
I think that the Soviet Union was guided by a socialist agenda, and that this socialist agenda was in the minds of the Soviet leadership and Party members. There was a conviction that the socialist cause was a just one, and so wherever there were struggles against colonialism, imperialism and neocolonialism, the Soviet Union would support those struggles and those causes, in the form of economic and military help. The economic assistance that the Soviet Union gave Nicaragua was invaluable.
On the Sandinistas’ war with the Contras:
The fact is that the United States is behind what has happened in Nicaragua, and what they did was to promote a confrontation between Nicaraguans. And we already know how many millions of dollars and armaments they approved for the war in Nicaragua, and the things that were openly discussed in the U.S. Congress about our ports, the contempt of the United States for international law, for the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and the decisions of the International Court of Justice, and so on. And of course, it was painful to have to accept that we were being confronted by another part of the Nicaraguan people, who were as poor as the Sandinistas who were defending the Revolution, but who acted as tools of an imperialist policy. …
This was a war that went beyond [Nicaragua], and without the United States the Contras would not have existed. Without the United States it would have been impossible for Somoza's former Guard to regroup, and it was they who started to organize the first counterrevolutionary units. Without the United States, there simply would not have been an armed uprising in our country. So I think it's very clear that external factors played a role in this matter, because I repeat, if I had had the resources to start fostering wars, I could have done so anywhere in the world—in the United States, for example: first stir people up and then provide them with the weapons to defend the rights they feel they have been denied. …
I would say that what was going on here was a confrontation with the United States. That was their discourse and that's how they trained [the Contras]. I mean, they trained them to make the same speech to the people as Somoza had made. Somoza set himself up as dictator of our country in the name of anti-communism and the fight against communism, and according to Somoza, Sandino was a communist, as he was in the eyes of the United States. So the training they gave the Contras—that whole manual the CIA prepared and all the rest of it—was aimed at exacerbating an already backward mentality, because a population with more than 60 percent illiteracy is obviously a backward population; and a good part of the Contras themselves come from this same section of the population.
Interview with Oscar Manuel Sobalvarro, Chief of Staff, “Contra” rebel army, Nicaragua (translated from Spanish)
On why he opposed the Sandinistas:
It was the repression carried out by the Sandinistas which forced me to take the decision to fight, in particular because we saw that Nicaragua's democracy was under threat. The Sandinistas promised democracy, but what we began to see a few months after their triumph was very different. …
My father is a peasant; his name is Justo Pastor Sobalvarro. He is a man of few means, hardworking, who serves his community. He used to grow coffee in the province of Jinotega, but his property was confiscated by the Sandinista regime. …
My father, who was a liberal, said to me: “I think that these people are communists.” That's what Somoza used to say in his speeches, and my father—though he didn't support Somoza and was a great liberal— believed it. And being the age I was at the time—I was 19, very young—listening to my father say that every day influenced me, and I started thinking that yes, the Sandinistas were communists. And when they began to give signs that they were, I believed it, and that's what made me decide to fight against them, even though the idea of joining the military and taking up arms to fight against someone hadn't crossed my mind.
At the beginning of their government, the Sandinista Front promoted a literacy campaign, and this program included first and foremost the education of adults in the rural areas. And they sent student brigades to the mountains. These brigades included foreigners who were appointed coordinators of the groups. One of these coordinators came to our house, and this person turned out to be a Soviet, and in his speech he said that God didn't exist, that God was Fidel Castro, and that it was necessary to serve Fidel Castro; that the government of Nicaragua was at the disposal of Fidel Castro, and that it was necessary to serve the government, and all this kind of thing—which we the Nicaraguans weren't used to, because we've been very Catholic, especially my family. And I would say the Nicaraguans in general are very Catholic. And for someone to suddenly turn up and tell us that God doesn't exist really started putting a lot of doubts in our minds. …
There was a lot of hatred. Personally speaking, I was first and foremost affected physically by the Sandinista Front, because we were taken out of our homes and our families and threatened with being shot, and at that moment I began to build up a tremendous hatred against the Front's structures, and I felt the desire to fight against these people because they were doing a lot of damage. Just as they hurt me and my family personally, we also saw how they hurt other people, and we really had the desire and the morale to fight. …
[We didn't like the] systems which the Sandinista government implanted in Nicaragua, such as the control of private property, the political persecution of all those who didn't identify with the Sandinista regime, who didn't say “I'm a Sandinista.” All this forced many Nicaraguans to fight against the Sandinistas, because, first of all, we weren't prepared to give up what was ours, our property. The Sandinistas came and confiscated our properties. All those who didn't agree with the Sandinista policies were subjected to confiscations and imprisonment, and their lives were threatened. Many were murdered just for disagreeing with the Sandinista Front. This sort of thing turned many Nicaraguan peasants against the Sandinistas and made them decide to fight [against them] militarily. …
On joining the Contras:
I started [fighting] on March 20, 1980, with hunting rifles. My purpose in fighting the Sandinista Front at that time was not to wage war against them but to convey to the Sandinista government the message that the peasants and many other Nicaraguans did not agree with [the introduction of] new things which were alien to the way of life that we knew, and that if what they were trying to do was to implant a totalitarian communist regime, well, we weren't going to agree to that. And that's how we began the struggle. Initially we were a group of 15 young men, and then it grew to 30, and I was one of the leaders and main promoters of the group. That's how the Contras were born: what were known as the MILPAS: Milicias Populares Anti-Sandinistas [Anti-Sandinista People's Militias].
As part of the struggle against the Sandinista regime, we started laying ambushes; and it was during one of these ambushes that we retrieved two Soviet rifles. And it then became necessary to show the world that the Sandinistas really were being supported and supplied by the Soviet Union and Cuba. The best way of showing it was to present the Soviet-made weapons to the public, so after we retrieved these weapons I decided to go to Honduras to ask for support to present the weapons. After some time, we managed to make contact with Commander Enrique Bermudez, known Page 2852 | Top of Articleas “Commander 380,” and through him we showed the weapons to the U.S. government authorities who were in Honduras, and they were persuaded that the Sandinistas were indeed being supported and supplied by the Soviet countries. …
This, of course, was in 1981, almost a year after the struggle began. Initially, we had used pistols and hunting rifles, but by now we had war weapons which we had captured, and their number was gradually increasing.
On U.S. support for the Contras:
It was through some contacts with the U.S. government that we started to receive help—first of all through Argentine instructors, who trained us, and then the Americans became directly involved in giving us help. There were difficult moments, times when we were getting help, and then the U.S. Congress cut off the aid, so we had to renew the struggle to seek help. Some of our people who represented the political side of the resistance lobbied the U.S. Congress to try to get help to continue the war against the Sandinistas. However, we were always fighting against the Sandinistas, even without help from the U.S. government. …
I think that the support we received from the U.S. government wasn't aimed at us achieving a military victory in Nicaragua. I think we received help to pressurize the Sandinista government into making changes. And it was not just the pressure that we exerted as guerrillas, but there were also the interests of the neighboring countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras, who through the Esquipulas II agreement managed to get the Sandinistas to commit themselves to a process of democratization. And after these agreements, we became involved in negotiations with the Sandinistas. I also think that the Sandinistas were forced to negotiate not only because of the pressure exerted by the Central American countries, but because of the military pressure we exerted on them; because we were on top of them, gaining terrain every day, and they were unable to stop the guerrilla movement in Nicaragua through military force. So it was a combination of those two factors, and of course the [Sandinista] Front made mistakes—the Front made many more mistakes than we did as a resistance movement.
On Nicaragua's role in the Cold War:
There was a war going on in Nicaragua, there was a war going on in El Salvador, there was guerrilla warfare in Guatemala, there were small movements in Honduras —so naturally the big powers had a political interest in these events. We, as armed guerrilla groups, were an important factor in these big powers achieving their aims. …
The interests of the Soviet countries were to spread the guerrilla movements throughout Latin America, and so of course we were protecting, let's say, the interests of the Americans by preventing these subversive movements from going any further. And I think that we, the Nicaraguans, were a very important factor in preventing the guerrilla movement in El Salvador from consolidating itself and taking power … mainly because their strength depended on the support they received from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and since we were confronting the Sandinistas directly, the Sandinistas didn't have time to help the Salvadoran guerrillas, as well as other guerrillas in Guatemala and so on. So in this sense we were an important factor, and this was shown by the fact that when the resistance was dismantled, the Salvadoran guerrilla movement had to be dismantled too because they no longer had any base from which to continue fighting. … And I think that at that very moment, the United States also achieved their aim of forestalling the emergence of any more guerrilla movements.
Source: “Daniel Ortega, Sandinista Leader, Nicaraguan President,” CNN.com , http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/18/interviews/ortega/ , Courtesy of CNN. “Oscar Manuel Sobalvarro, Chief of Staff, ‘Contra’ Rebel Army, Nicaragua,” http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/18/interviews/sobalvarro/ .