Within a year of the Sandinistas’ capture of power, those opposed to the regime began to engage in violent actions. In the summer of 1980, crude organizations of fighters were seeking to start a counterrevolution. These disparate groups comprised former National Guardsmen, ex-Sandinista soldiers critical of the new regime, and peasants and farmers upset with “intrusive” Sandinista land policies. Nicaraguan exiles, including former guardsmen and members of the Conservative Party, gathered in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Miami and discussed the prospect of both unarmed and armed opposition to the Sandinistas. Many exiles came to see armed resistance as the only feasible means to moderate Nicaragua; two of them, José Francisco Cardenal (a former president of the Chamber of Construction) and Enrique Bermúdez (a former colonel in the National Guard) formed a “political-military alliance” that would come to be called the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main contra faction.
The soldiers under the contra leadership consisted of former National Guard enlistees, many of whom had fled to Honduras after the revolution and who sought revenge; former Sandinista fighters who felt betrayed; some Protestant evangelicals and Catholics, who were angered by Sandinista opposition to their religion; farmers who were disaffected by the revolution; and Nicaraguan Indians and Creoles who opposed the regime. According to Kagan, when the Americans began their covert support of the contras, there were fewer than 2,000 anti-Sandinista fighters, only a few hundred of which were members of the FDN. By the end of 1983, however, there were up to 6,000 contra fighters. The contras gained support among populations who were disaffected by Sandinista economic policies.
Early Foreign Support
The Argentinean government had begun supporting Bermúdez and his military forces (the Fifteenth of September Legion) even before the founding of the FDN. The Argentineans gave money and advisers to Bermúdez’s forces in Honduras and also provided training. The Honduran military also provided support and shelter to the contras. This support continued throughout much of the counterrevolution due to the Honduran government’s dislike of the Sandinistas and U.S. financial and military assistance to Honduras.
In late 1981, the Reagan Administration settled on a policy of providing arms, money, and equipment to the Argentinean-backed contras. This followed President Carter’s authorization, in early 1980, of CIA financial support to the Nicaraguan opposition (for the purposes of “organization and propaganda,” but not “armed actions”) and President Reagan’s March 1981 authorization of CIA covert action to interdict arms trafficking to El Salvador (which allowed the CIA to meet with Nicaraguan rebel leaders and their Honduran supporters but which did not allow the CIA to arm rebel groups). U.S. covert support for and involvement in contra operations would eventually culminate in the Iran-Contra Affairs; more specific information on operational support can be found here.
Leadership and Organization
Early on, the Argentineans chose the contra leadership. This leadership consisted of the former National Guard officers in the Fifteenth of September Legion. Once the United States became involved, it sought to unite the anti-Sandinista forces (the FDN and others) and create an “attractive” political identity for to attract support at home and abroad. In late 1982, the CIA introduced the FDN’s new political directorate to counter the criticism that the contras were a continuation of the Somoza regime. The directorate included Edgar Chamorro, a prominent aristocrat; Bermudez, the FDN’s military leader; and, later Adolfo Calero, a pro-democracy Conservative who opposed both Somoza and the Sandinistas.
After a March 1982 attack by anti-Sandinista forces prompted more radical measures taken by the Sandinistas, Alfonso Robelo, a former member of the post-revolution Nicaraguan government, and Edén Pastora, who led anti-Somoza troops during the revolution, expressed their support for armed resistance against the Sandinistas. Pastora formed an armed anti-Sandinista resistance group in Costa Rica called the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE). Arturo Cruz, also a member of the Nicaraguan government, resigned in protest of what he saw as an increasingly radical regime and supported armed revolution. In June 1985, after U.S. efforts to unite these opposition leaders, Cruz, Robelo, and Calero formed the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), which theoretically subsumed the FDN.
Criticism over Human Rights
The contras are frequently criticized for their alleged human rights abuses. Kagan notes “reports of murders and kidnappings by contra forces.” Reed Brody, a U.S. lawyer who investigated contra actions (but who was supported in his investigation by the Sandinistas), and Americas Watch, also criticized alleged contra abuses. Gilbert argues that the contras “employed brutal tactics against noncombatants” and notes that Edgar Chamorro resigned from FDN due to its attacks against civilians. While these allegations may be somewhat overstated, and the Sandinistas may have “placed those whom they considered civilians in harm’s way,” Kagan argues that the contras would conduct summary executions of alleged Sandinista informers, prisoners, and officials. However, to keep perspective, one must bear in mind that Americas Watch also criticized the Sandinistas for human rights abuses.