Within a year of the July 1979 triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution, there emerged a counterrevolutionary (contra) movement against the Sandinista regime. From around 1982 the war expanded to include large parts of the country, especially in rural zones of the north and east, due in large part to U.S. funding, training, equipment, and organizing under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Combining an internal civil war with an external war of aggression, the contra war was waged by several counterrevolutionary armies that were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguans and millions of dollars of property damage.
By the mid-1980s the war compelled the Sandinista regime to devote around half of the national budget to national defense and to institute universal military conscription. By the late 1980s the latter measure proved widely unpopular among Nicaraguans, as did the economic and human cost of the conflict and the shortages of basic goods caused by the war and the May 1985 U.S. trade embargo. Most observers agree that the contra war was a critical factor in causing the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in February 1990, effectively ending the Sandinista revolution. It was also central to the Iran-contra affair in the United States, which rocked the second Reagan administration (1984–88).
With the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and an internationally supervised demobilization process, by the early 1990s the war effectively ended, though armed groups continued to destabilize many rural areas well into the 1990s. It is estimated that the war uprooted some 600,000 people (around 15 percent of the national population) and caused the deaths of 30,000 to 50,000 civilians and combatants.
Small-scale armed resistance to the Sandinista regime by autonomously organized militias began within a month of the FSLN’s takeover, principally in the region north of Jinotega. These earliest contras, calling themselves milpistas (combatants of the MILPAS, or Militias Populares Anti-Sandinistas, successor organizations to the pro-Sandinista Militias Populares Anti-Somocistas, and a play on an indigenous word for “cornfield”), launched their first armed assault against the Sandinistas in November 1979 in the mountains near Quilalí. The MILPAS were generally kinshipbased, composed of fewer than 100 members each and rooted in rural dwellers’ long tradition of antipathy to state authority.
During this early period (1979–81), contra organizing also emerged in the borderland zones of Honduras and Costa Rica among exiled Somocistas and National Guardsmen. Like the MILPAS, these paramilitary groups were small in scale and organized principally around personal relationships. By late 1980 some of these exile groups began to receive covert funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Argentine military.
In April 1981 elements of the MILPAS and ex-Guardia—dominated exile groups in Honduras formed the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democratica Nicaragüense, or FDN), under the command of exGuardia colonel Enrique Bermúdez, composed of some 500 troops. Portraying the Sandinistas as clients of the Cubans and Soviets, in November 1981 Reagan signed a secret order (National Security Decision Directive 17) granting $19 million to the CIA to recruit and train contra forces. On December 1, 1981, he issued a presidential finding calling for U.S. support in conducting paramilitary operations against the Sandinista regime. Around this time a second contra army was formed in the north, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARN), under the political direction of the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN), and led by exiled businessman José Francisco Cardenal.
Henceforth the contra war rapidly gained steam. In April 1982 a second front was opened in the south with the formation of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and its military wing, the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), based in Costa Rica and commanded by former Sandinista Edén Pastora. Another largely autonomous armed rebel group formed in the Atlantic Coast region in late 1981, led by Brooklyn Rivera, among disaffected elements of the mass indigenous organization MISURASATA—an organization composed primarily of Miskitu Amerindians and represented in the FSLN’s newly created Council of State.
In the United States, congressional opposition to the Reagan administration’s funding of the contra forces mounted. In December 1982 the House passed an amendment sponsored by Edward Boland (D., Mass.) banning the use of federal funds to overthrow the Nica- raguan government. The Reagan administration found legal ways to circumvent the ban. By 1983 the contra forces had grown to some 13,000 to 15,000 troops, and by 1985 to some 20,000. By this time the contras had committed hundreds of atrocities against Nicaraguan civilians, as documented by the human rights organization Americas Watch and others. In May 1984 Congress passed a second Boland amendment, requiring an end to all military aid to the contras by October 1. For the next two years, the Reagan administration illegally funneled covert aid to Iran in exchange for Iranian arms shipments to the contras.
By the late 1980s contra armies were active across much of the northern and central parts of the country. In 1988 and 1989 a series of peace accords (notably the Sapoá Accord of 1988) created a framework for contra demobilization. With the Sandinista defeat in the February 1990 elections, the administration of President Violeta Chamorro negotiated with the leaders of the Nicaraguan Resistance (Resistencia Nicaragüense, or RN, successor to the FDN), culminating in the Disarmament Protocol of May 30, 1990. Agencies of the United Nations and Organization of American States supervised the disarmament process, which by mid1990 had processed some 23,000 contras, from an estimated fighting force of 170,000, many of whom demobilized informally. Through the early 1990s armed groups continued to destabilize large parts of the interior, consisting of both ex-contras (recontras) and former members of the Sandinista Army (recompas)—groups that sometimes merged to form groups of revueltos (a play on words meaning both “rebels” and “scrambled eggs”). By 1992, with the contra war officially ended, as many as 23,000 armed insurgents continued to operate in rural areas, posing severe challenges to governance in the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
See also Sandinista National Liberation Front.