On August 7th, 1987, the five Central American presidents signed a peace accord known as Esquipulas II named after the city in Guatemala where the first round of meetings had taken place the year before. The accord included a number of provisions for cooperation between the five countries, and most notably called for an end to support for “irregular forces” by all of the signatories. This provision was aimed at ending the Contra war in Nicaragua, and included an offer of amnesty to those Nicaragua contra fighters who chose to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society. This groundbreaking document was later used as a basis for other peace agreements in the region. The process was also important because the U.S. government, the main funder of the Contra forces, was actually pushed out of the negotiations and had little influence over their outcome.
In October of that year, a small group, including me, traveled by panga (small motorized boats) up Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast to interview contras that were surrendering and returning to their communities. We traveled from Bluefields to the coastal towns of Haulover, Pearl Lagoon (Laguna de Perlas), Brown Bank, La Fe, Orinoco, and Tasbapauni. In each location we met with members of local Peace Commissions and Sandinista military and political officials. In some areas we accompanied local residents as they affixed posters to trees in the surrounding bush areas that proclaimed “amnistia” (amnesty) and showed a photo of the five presidents at the signing ceremony of Esquipulas II in Guatemala City.
I carried two Pentax K1000 cameras (one with Black & White film, one color) and an old brown Marantz PMD200 cassette recorder, but my load was light compared to the Bluefields regional TV crew with their Sony 3-tube analog video camera, 3/4” tape deck, tripod, cables and mics. We spent nights bunking with Sandinista patrols and sharing their scant provisions. A short video from that trip can be found here.
In a novel, and seemingly successful, approach, the local political leadership provided every pair of returning contras (called “desalzados”) with a fishing net (a venture funded by donations from the government of Norway). The idea was to give the returning youth a means of employment and a way to reintegrate into the life of their community. Many, it seemed, had joined the contras because it provided a way out of unemployment, and they were each given a backpack!
The desalzados, mostly young men in their late teens, told of being led into the bush and then mostly abandoned by their commanders. “Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don’t eat,” one young man told me. They had very little direction and often turned to staging raids on their own communities in order to get needed provisions. Many kept secretly in touch with their families when they could, others had no contact and returned to parents who had not known if they were still alive. All of them seemed, at least at this time, glad to have put this portion of their lives behind them. However, none returned with weapons. Many may never have had one. Others, one local resident told me, “probably buried them somewhere, just in case they want to go back.”
It was a turning point in the Contra war in many ways. Although later that month I was to travel through one of the largest Contra offensives to date on the Rama Road, overall, the exposure of the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986, combined with international recognition of corruption within the leadership and human-rights abuses by contra forces hastened the decline the contras as a military force. In 1990, it was an electoral defeat, not a military one, that unseated the Sandinistas from power. The February 1990 loss for Daniel Ortega came in the wake of years of a harsh economic embargo by the United States combined with a US military invasion of Panama in December of 1989 (which further cut off the flow of consumer goods to the starved Nicaraguan economy).
Today, thirty-five years since the Sandinista victory on July 19, 1979, Daniel Ortega is again president of Nicaragua. But both Ortega, and the country he governs, have changed a great deal since the hopeful days of August 1987 when the five Central American presidents joined together to thumb their noses at a US president and seek to solve their own issues in their own way.
(All photos by Norman Stockwell)
Peace Commission member posting amnesty sign in bush outside Tasbapauni.
Sandinista soldiers rest on an ancient cannon in Pearl Lagoon.
Sandinista soldiers taking a break in the town of Haulover.
Two Sandinista soldiers on patrol in the community of La Fe.
Taking advantage of a quiet moment in Orinoco.
Peter Martinez, regional political officer, meets with member of the local Peace Commission in Haulover as Sandinista officer looks on.
Peter Martinez, regional political officer, meets with members of the local Peace Commission in Haulover.
A young man recounts his story of serving with Contra forces. He was too shy of the video camera to come outside.
Young men recount their stories as community members listen in.
Young man, back at his home, is congratulated by a member of the local Peace Commission.
Another young man is welcomed back into the community by local
Peace Commission members.
Local Peace Commission members explain the gift of the fishing net to the two returning Contras. The net was to be used to help them start a business.
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. He also serves as operations coordinator for WORT-FM Community Radio. Stockwell has reported from numerous countries in Latin America. A version of this article also appeared in Costa Rica’s TicoTimes.