The Contras is a label given to the various rebel groups opposing Nicaragua's FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction following the July 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Although the Contra movement included a number of separate groups, with different aims and little ideological unity, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) emerged as by far the largest. In 1987, virtually all Contra organizations were united, at least nominally, into the Nicaraguan Resistance.
From an early stage, the rebels received financial and military support from the US through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initially supplemented by Argentina. At other times the US Congress wished to distance itself and withdrew all support.
The term "Contra" comes from the Spanish la contra, short for la contra-revolucion, in English "the counter-revolution." An expected and natural byproduct of any revolution. (Many references use the uncapitalized form, "contra", sometimes italicizing it.) Some rebels disliked being called Contras, feeling that it defined their cause only in negative terms, or implied a desire to restore the old order. Rebel fighters usually referred to themselves as comandos ("commandos"); peasant sympathizers also called the rebels los primos ("the cousins"). Today, many veterans remember their movement as la resistencia.
Meanwhile, some of the Nicaraguan middle class, whose discontent with Somoza had led them to back the Sandinistas, soon became disillusioned by Sandinista rule. Businessman José Francisco Cardenal went into exile and founded the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN), centered around fellow Conservative Party exiles, with the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARN) as its armed wing.
The earliest Contras inside Nicaragua were the MILPAS (Milicias Populares Anti-Sandinistas), peasant militias led by disillusioned Sandinistas. Founded by Pedro Joaquín González, the Contra Milpistas were also known as chilotes (green corn). Even after his death, other MILPAS bands sprouted during 1980-1981. The Milpistas were composed largely of the campesino highlanders and rural workers who would later form the rank and file of the rebellion.
The creation of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and its armed wing, the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), in September 1982 saw the opening of a second front in the war. The group was founded in neighboring Costa Rica by Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), a former Sandinista and participant in the August 1978 seizure of Somoza's palace. ARDE consisted largely of Sandinista dissidents and veterans of the anti-Somoza campaign who opposed the increased influence of Soviet Union, Eastern bloc and Cuban officials in the Managua government. Proclaiming his ideological distance from the FDN, Pastora nevertheless opened a "southern front" in the war.
A third force, Misurasata, appeared among the Miskito, Sumo and Rama Amerindian peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, who in December 1981 found themselves in conflict with the authorities following the government's efforts to nationalise Indian land. They had a number of grievances against the Sandinistas, including:
The Misurasata movement led by Brooklyn Rivera split in 1983, with the breakaway Misura group of Stedman Fagoth allying itself more closely with the FDN. A subsequent autonomy statute in September 1987 largely defused Miskito resistance.
Mediation by other Central American governments under Costa Rican leadership led to the Sapoa Accord ceasefire of March 23, 1988, which, along with additional agreements in February and August 1989, provided for the Contras' disarmament and reintegration into Nicaraguan society and politics. The agreements also called for internationally-monitored elections which were subsequently held on February 25, 1990. Violeta Chamorro, a former Sandinista ally and widow of murdered anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, defeated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and became President with the backing of the center-right UNO. Some Contra elements and disgruntled Sandinistas would return briefly to armed opposition in the 1990s, sometimes styled as recontras or revueltos, but these groups were subsequently persuaded to disarm.
The Sandinista government, its supporters, and outside groups such as Americas Watch frequently accused the Contras of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The Contras and their backers, especially in the Reagan Administration, dismissed these accusations as a propaganda campaign and accused the Sandinistas of the same crimes against humanity.
The Catholic Institute for International Relations summarized contra operating procedures in their 1987 human rights report: "The record of the contras in the field, as opposed to their official professions of democratic faith, is one of consistent and bloody abuse of human rights, of murder, torture, mutilation, rape, arson, destruction and kidnapping."
An influential report on alleged Contra atrocities was issued by lawyer Reed Brody shortly before the 1985 U.S. Congressional vote on Contra aid. The report was soon published as a book, Contra Terror in Nicaragua (Brody, 1985). It charged that the Contras attacked purely civilian targets and that their tactics included murder, rape, beatings, kidnapping and disruption of harvests. Brody's report had been requested by the Sandinista government's Washington law firm Reichler & Applebaum and the Sandinista government had provided his facilities in Nicaragua. In a letter to the New York Times, Brody asserted that this in no way affected his report, and added that the newspaper had confirmed the veracity of four randomly chosen incidents.
A Sandinista militiaman interviewed by The Guardian stated that Contra rebels committed these atrocities against Sandinista prisoners after a battle at a Sandinista rural outpost:
Americas Watch - which was subsequently folded into Human Rights Watch - stated that "the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses... so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war. It accused the Contras of:
American news media published several articles accusing Americas Watch and other bodies of ideological bias and unreliable reporting. The media alleged that Americas Watch gave too much credence to alleged Contra abuses and systematically tried to discredit Nicaraguan human rights groups such as the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, which blamed the major human rights abuses on the Sandinistas.
In 1985, the Wall Street Journal reported:
In 1987, New York Times reporter James LeMoyne wrote a series of articles chronicling human rights abuses by the Sandinstas in the southeast of Nicaragua. At various times throughout the war, thousands of campesinos were uprooted from their homes with no warning and forced to move to "resettlement camps". According to the New York Times, this was due to "pervasive" support for the Contras. According to a June 28 1987 article in the New York Times "Refugees in Government camps in Costa Rica and peasants interviewed two weeks ago in southern Nicaragua were unanimous in accusing the Sandinistas and not the rebels of human rights violations. Many, but not all, of the refugees and peasants said they supported the contras."
After the new Chamorro government took office in 1990, several people came forward to report previously unknown killings by Sandinista forces, a phenomenon that journalist Shirley Christian observed, "rais[ed] doubts about the long-held perception by Sandinista defenders outside Nicaragua that the Sandinistas were not as brutal as their opponents." In one incident in November 1984, a Sandinista special forces unit masquerading as Contras recruited dozens of volunteers around Bijagua, then massacred them.
A 2004 article in the Washington-based peer-reviewed academic journal Demokratizatsiya describes many human rights violations by the Sandinistas, both during and after their period in power, like that Sandinista security forces assassinated more than two hundred Contras commanders who had accepted the terms of the United Nations-brokered peace accords and had laid down their arms to join the democratic process. Among other sources (29 out of 103), the article uses interviews with Lino Hernández, director of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, leading opposition politicians, reports produced by the US State Department during the 1980s and the conservative Washington Times.
Beginning in 1983, the CIA began a campaign of seaborne raids against Nicaragua's ports, carried out not by the Contras but by its own force of Ecuadorian mercenaries it called "Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets." This campaign culminated in the mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1984. The mining provoked Nicaragua to file a suit in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States (Nicaragua v. United States), which challenged the legality of not only the mining, but the entire enterprise of providing training, funding, and support for the rebel forces. The case resulted in a 1986 judgment against the United States on several of the counts.
The mining also triggered the collapse of Congressional support for the Contras. Unease about the CIA program had already manifested itself in the Boland Amendment, passed by the United States Congress in December 1982. The Boland Amendment was extended in October 1984 to forbid action by the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Administration officials sought to arrange funding and military supplies by means of third-parties. These efforts culminated in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986-1987, which concerned Contra funding through the proceeds of arms sales to Iran. However, by the time the scandal broke, Congress had already approved $100 million in aid. In 1987 American public opinion was divided by the killing of American engineer Ben Linder by the Contras. On February 3, 1988 the United States House of Representatives rejected President Reagan's request for $36.25 million to aid the Contras.