The Miami Herald
July 18, 1999

We shipped weapons, Sandinistas say

 Herald Staff Writer

 MANAGUA -- When Ronald Reagan and Sandinista leaders slugged it out during
 the 1980s over what was going on in Nicaragua, Reagan was right more often
 than they liked to admit, the Sandinistas have admitted.

 In a series of interviews with The Herald as the 20th anniversary of their July 19,
 1979, rise to power approaches, several past and present Sandinista officials
 confirmed for the first time that they shipped weapons to Marxist guerrillas in
 neighboring El Salvador.

 The Sandinistas also said that the Soviet Union agreed to supply them with MiG
 jet fighters and even arranged for Nicaraguan pilots to be trained on the planes in
 Bulgaria. But the Soviets reneged on the deal, sending the Sandinistas scurrying
 to make peace with the contras, the officials said.

 ``The Sandinista leadership thought they could be Che Guevaras of all Latin
 America, from Mexico to Antarctica,'' former Sandinista leader Moises Hassan
 told The Herald. ``The domino theory wasn't so crazy.''

 During their explosive battles with Congress over U.S. aid to anti-Sandinista
 rebels in Nicaragua, Reagan administration officials frequently justified helping the
 rebels on the grounds that the Sandinistas were shipping arms to the Salvadoran

 Reagan's deputies also accused the Sandinistas of planning to acquire the MiGs,
 a move that they warned that the U.S. ``would view with the utmost concern.'' In
 1984, when American officials spotted large crates being unloaded from Soviet
 ships in Nicaraguan ports, there was a widespread fear that the two countries
 would go to war. But the crates turned out to contain helicopters, and tensions

 Sandinista leaders always denied that they supplying the Salvadoran guerrillas.
 ``We are not responsible for what is happening in El Salvador,'' said Sandinista
 party cofounder Tomas Borge in 1980 in a typical speech. ``We are only guilty of
 our example and we cannot help it if our example reaches other places....There
 will never be any aggression from our country against any other country.''

 But earlier this month, Borge and former president Daniel Ortega both admitted
 the denials were false. They said the Sandinistas had shipped arms to Salvadoran
 guerrillas because the Salvadorans helped them in their successful insurrection
 against Anastasio Somoza, and also because they thought it would be more
 difficult for the United States to attack two revolutionary regimes instead of just

 ``We wanted to broaden the territory of the revolution, to make it wider, so it would
 be harder for the Americans to come after us,'' Borge said. Ortega added that it
 was ``amatter of ethics'' to arm the Salvadorans.

 Neither man offered details on how many weapons were supplied to the
 Salvadorans. But a former Sandinista official -- Moises Hassan, who was a
 member of the revolutionary junta that governed Nicaragua in the early 1980s --
 said he believed about 50,000 weapons and a corresponding amount of
 ammunition were sent to El Salvador just in the first 16 months of the Sandinista

 ``Ortega and Borge didn't tell me about it, because they thought I was unreliable,
 but other people who just assumed I knew would casually bring it up,'' Hassan

 Hassan, who resigned from the Sandinista party in June 1985 but continued to
 work closely with his old colleagues as mayor of Managua until late 1988, also
 confirmed that the Sandinistas had a commitment for MiGs from the Soviet Union.

 He said he learned of the plan for the MiGs during 1982, when he was minister of
 construction and the Sandinistas began building a base for the jet fighters at
 Punta Huete, a remote site on the east side of Lake Managua.

 The site included a 10,000-foot concrete runway -- the longest in Central America
 -- capable of handling any military aircraft in the Soviet fleet, and protective
 bunkers for 16 aircraft.

 ``It was top secret -- we even had a code name, Panchito, so we could talk about
 it without the CIA hearing,'' Hassan said. ``But somehow the Americans found out

Alejandro Bendaña, who was secretary general of foreign affairs during the
Sandinista government, said Nicaraguan pilots trained to  fly the MiGs in
Bulgaria. But in 1987, soon after the Punta Huete site was finished, the Soviets
backed out, he said.

 The news that they weren't getting a weapon they had always considered a
 security blanket, coupled with Soviet advice that it was ``time to achieve a
 regional settlement of security problems,'' made the Sandinistas realize that they
 could no longer depend on the USSR for help, Bendaña said.

 Quickly the Sandinistas signed onto a regional peace plan sponsored by Costa
 Rican President Oscar Arias, which required peace talks with the U.S.-backed
 contra army, Bendaña said. Those talks in turn led, eventually, to an agreement
for internationally supervised elections that resulted in a Sandinista defeat in 1990.

 ``It wasn't the intellectual brilliance of Oscar Arias that did it,'' Bendaña said. ``It
was us grabbing frantically onto any framework that was there, trying to cut our losses.''