The Miami Herald
Fri, Nov. 20, 2009

For contras, a reprise of bitter discontent

Special to The Miami Herald

The red and black Sandinista graffiti scrawled on buildings, street lamps and trees in downtown Jinotega makes it seem like this traditionally conservative coffee town has suddenly had a political change of heart. But behind the facade of leftist propaganda, a right-wing rebellion is brewing.

For several months, a group of former contras identified as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) has been quietly conspiring against what they call "the second dictatorship of Daniel Ortega.''

Group leader Mario Espinoza, who goes by the nom de guerre "Pajarillo,'' said they are unarmed and that their goals are "peaceful and democratic'' -- but that all "depends on the government's attitude.''

Espinoza, who already led a rearmed contra group in the 1990s -- the Frente Norte 3-80 -- claims that the FDN is ready to make its presence felt by facing off against the Sandinistas on Saturday during nationwide protest against President Ortega's government.


Unlike other opposition groups, which were forced to flee every time Sandinista mobs attacked protesters on more than 30 occasions over the past year, FDN leaders said they will hold the line.

"This rooster has already been in a fight,'' Espinoza said of the FDN. "We'll answer a rock for a rock, and we'll see which side backs down first. We are not going to run.''

The protest promises to be the largest opposition march of the year. After months of sometimes violent clashes between the Sandinista and its opponents, many fear tensions could erupt into political violence.

In Managua, the opposition's ability to channel political discontent into civil protest will also be tested Saturday. Nicaragua's opposition is attempting to reclaim the streets and protest a series of moves they claim have pushed the country toward dictatorship, including last year's alleged fraud in the municipal elections and last month's questionable move to scrap a constitutional ban preventing Ortega from seeking reelection in 2011.

"We can't allow another dictatorship to consolidate itself in Nicaragua,'' said march organizer Violeta Granera.

The FDN says it hopes to mobilize several thousand former contras to block the northern highways and prevent the Sandinistas from busing their supporters into the capital to squelch the anti-government protest. But they admit financial restraints could make their mobilization plans difficult.

Though the Sandinistas initially planned a "march for happiness and victory'' at the same time and place as the opposition, they changed their time and route Friday afternoon to reduce the potential for violent clashes.

The Sandinistas expect more than 150,000 state employees and government supporters to march, in the words of first lady Rosario Murillo, to reaffirm the Sandinistas' commitment to a government based on "a Christian model -- a model that's advancing towards socialism.''

The government has also been trying to paint the opposition as a disgruntled and bitter minority, compared to the joyous and celebratory Sandinistas.

"One march will be filled with bitter people, and the [Sandinista march] will be filled with happy people,'' said Sandinista lawmaker and union boss Gustavo Porras.

Human rights leaders say the Sandinistas' insistence on holding a countermarch shows its intolerance and insecurity.

"The government is terrified of the possibility of a massive protest, so they are using their methods to impose violence,'' said Gonzalo Carrión, director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. "The government is driving this country toward chaos, and people's patience is running out.''


In the north, former contras say their patience is particularly thin.

"Following the [municipal election] fraud of 2008 and everything else that has followed, there comes a moment when the people don't have any other alternative than to take up arms,'' said former contra commander Germán Zeledón, who is part of a group of 23 former mayoral candidates who claim the Sandinistas robbed them of victory last year.

Though several ex-contra leaders and a Catholic bishop report there is at least one smaller band of rearmed contras already training in the rural northern mountains -- something the military has flatly denied -- most of the former contra combatants are poor farmers who are still suffering a painful hangover from the first war.


Following the triumph of the revolution in 1979, a group of U.S.-backed right-wing "contras'' battled the Sandinista government for most of the decade -- a war that claimed some 50,000 lives.

"The war in the 1980s left 13,000 contra dead in the mountains, and thousands more injured or widowed,'' said an FDN organizer identified only by the pseudonym Danilo. "This is not something we want to repeat.''

Former contra leader Roberto Ferrey, who held the top directorate post of the contras in the 1980s, said it's unlikely the former anti-Sandinista resistance will rearm on a large scale -- a move, he said, that would be "practically suicide.''

But he said there is an indisputable resurgence of the contra identity in the countryside.

"Many people are saying, 'We didn't hand in our weapons for this,' '' Ferrey said.

Tim Rogers is editor of The Nica Times, in Nicaragua.