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    Members of the Nicaraguan Contra in 1987

    Ráfagas for My Birthday

    Ending the cycle of violence in Nicaragua required more than collecting guns.

    By Margarita Mooney Suarez

    November 1, 2021
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    At the time this story took place in 1996, I was working as a speechwriter, translator, and program officer for the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress based in San José, Costa Rica. The Arias Foundation was founded by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez, the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. As part of my work there, I studied the reintegration into civilian life of former combatants in the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s. In 1979, the Sandinistas, a group of armed rebels inspired by the Cuban and Soviet Marxist revolutions, overthrew the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Supported by the United States, many Nicaraguans popularly called the Contras fought the Sandinista military, which was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

    While president of Costa Rica, Arias proposed to all the presidents of the Central American nations to end the international involvement of the Americans, Soviets, and Cubans that was throwing gas on the fire of armed struggles not only in Nicaragua but also in El Salvador and Guatemala. Arias persuaded every Central American president to commit to ending foreign intervention in their armed conflicts and to hold democratic elections.

    The Sandinistas went to the ballot box confident the results would confirm popular support for their revolution. But in 1990, Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega Saavedra lost the presidency to Violeta Chamorro of the National Opposition Union. Six years later, as I made my way to Quilali, Ortega hoped to get power back through elections, whereas former Contras supported a center-right candidate for president. Whoever won the elections, my work at the Arias Foundation aimed to help all Nicaraguans – especially former combatants – peacefully pursue economic development together.

    “Bbbbooom!”

    Juan pointed his right hand in the air like he was holding an AK-47. It was a Saturday, the day before my twenty-third birthday. Juan promised me that at midnight, he would mark my birthday by taking one of the machine guns from the back of our pickup truck and firing ráfagas.

    “No!” I begged him, “please don’t do that!”

    When he turned around, I poured my rum and coke into the grass.

    Adrenaline pounded through my veins. I lit a cigarette, hoping nicotine would calm my fear.

    Earlier that afternoon in 1996, Carlos, an ex-commander of the Nicaraguan Resistance, also known as the Contras, rang the doorbell of my bed-and-breakfast in Managua, Nicaragua. He apologized for picking me up late. We had a seven-hour drive to Quilali ahead of us, a town in Nueva Segovia, on the border with Honduras.

    Members of the Nicaraguan Contra in 1987

    Members of the Nicaraguan Contra in 1987 Photograph public domain

    Carlos opened the door of a Ford pickup truck. He introduced me to Juan and Manuel.

    “This is Margarita. She works for Oscar Arias in Costa Rica.”

    I smiled and hopped in.

    Carlos walked around to the other side of the truck and got in the driver’s seat.

    “She’s coming with us to see how after the war we have helped our people in Quilali,” he continued.

    Carlos told Juan and Manuel we would not be able to arrive by nightfall. They assessed the weapons and ammunition on hand in case we got into a skirmish on the way.

    Then Manuel used the butt of his pistol to pop open a beer bottle.

    Listo. Vamos,” he said with a grin. Let’s go!

    Only minutes before, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast had tried to persuade me not to go. Workers of international development agencies often stayed at her old colonial-style mansion. None of them ever went to Quilali. It was too dangerous.

    After graduating from Yale in 1995, I moved to Costa Rica to work at the foundation started by former President Oscar Arias with money he received from the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. I was there to study the reintegration into civilian life of ex-combatants on both sides of the three civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Here in Nicaragua, thousands of powerful weapons remained in the hands of former combatants of both sides. Armed bands of former Contras called recontras and former Sandinistas called recompas roamed the countryside, seizing lands and kidnapping people.

    Getting former soldiers to turn in their swords for ploughshares was such hard work. Asking them to hand over their weapons for nothing was never going to work. Many more resources were needed to recover from the destruction caused by the war and prevent a descent into chaotic violence.

    In this midst of this chaos, Quilali was supposed to be a bright light shining on a hill. Quilali’s economic turnaround had been sparked by a kidnapping. In 1993, the central government in Managua had sent a delegation to negotiate the disarmament of former Contras. But a group of former Contras kidnapped the delegation, holding them hostage for three days. They presented a plan for economic investment in their community. When the central government agreed to send millions of dollars to Quilali to support their plan, they released the hostages.

    My birthday, August 25, 1996, was the third anniversary of that kidnapping. Local and national elections were just a couple of months away. The people of Quilali were gathering to hear from local candidates running for office.

    I wanted to see Quilali for myself. And I trusted Carlos, who was invested in creating peace and economic opportunity among former combatants. And I wanted to meet the Jackal (Jose Talavera), the leader of the Contras who had kidnapped the government delegation. The Jackal was reputed to be extremely good-looking. During the war, the daughter of a CIA agent reportedly fell in love with him and nearly stayed in Quilali.

    As I walked out the door, the bed-and-breakfast owner shouted, “Don’t fall in love with the Jackal!”

    As we passed through old colonial Managua, buildings at the central plaza lay in rubble, in ruins ever since the 1973 earthquake. International relief funds had reportedly been stolen by the dictator Anastasio Somoza.

    In 1979, the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza. Inspired by the Marxist Cuban and Soviet revolutions, they began a socialist revolution in Nicaragua. Carlos, the Jackal, and many others took up arms with the Contras, supported by US military aid and training. A decade of fighting ensued.

    Oscar Arias, who was president of Costa Rica from 1986-1990, proposed that all of the Central American nations hold democratic elections, including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas never imagined they would lose. But they did. Now, six years later, they hoped to get power back through the ballot box.

    Managua hardly looked like a capital city. In 1996, it had few street lights or ATMs. Phone and electricity lines were scarce. Outside the capital, infrastructure just got worse. Although the roads were unpaved and rutted, the green mountains and sunshine were beautiful. I hoped Quilali would look like a phoenix arising from the ashes of war.

    Along the way, we drank cheap local beer and rum, mixing it with Coca-Cola. My companions drank eagerly and tossed paper bags with empty bottles out the window. But I sipped very slowly. I needed to stay sober. I needed to stay alive.

    At a pit stop for gas and booze, I asked, “Is there a bathroom here?”

    “Margarita,” Carlos replied, “we lived in the mountains for ten years.” The great outdoors it was.

    Back on our way, the road got rougher. Carlos maneuvered around boulders on the road, honking as we turned sharp, narrow corners. Suddenly, another pickup truck came into sight. In the bed of the truck, a group of men wearing camouflage stood carrying machine guns.

    “Who are they?” Carlos asked.

    Juan and Manuel grabbed their weapons and shoved rounds of ammo into their pistols.

    Slowly, the two trucks with armed ex-combatants bounced towards each other. Just as they met, Carlos smiled and waved. He recognized the driver.

    “They used to fight under us,” Carlos explained. “They are our friends.”

    My companions smiled, laughed, and put their guns away.

    But nightfall was coming. Carlos decided it wasn’t safe to keep going. We stopped in a small town for the night. Former civilian supporters of the Contras welcomed us into their home. They served us food. They played music. And Juan poured me more rum and cokes, smiling and promising me he would celebrate my birthday with ráfagas.

    I longed to leave this impromptu party, but where would I go? Carlos had slipped out. Where had he gone?

    I kept dumping the rum and cokes into the kitchen sink. Finally Carlos returned, having found me a place to sleep. He escorted me through the dark and knocked on the door of a modest home. A woman in her fifties opened the door and smiled warmly. She showed me her bedroom, which had two twin beds.

    I felt safer in a room with another woman. I lay down, not sure I’d sleep much. About an hour later, my hostess’s daughter came home. When she went to climb into her bed, she ripped the covers off and gaped at me.

    Hola!” I smiled, nervously.

    Her mother told her I was their new friend. Her daughter climbed into the twin bed with her mother. We all tried to sleep.

    The roosters began crowing before dawn.

    I waited for my hostess to get out of bed. When I got up, she offered me a fruit and some juice. I longed for coffee but lit a cigarette instead.

    In the equivalent of the bathroom, which was a small indoor courtyard with a commode, a well, a sink, and a bucket of water, I splashed cold water on my face and brushed my teeth.

    Carlos picked me up, and we arrived in Quilali around midmorning, an hour before the rally. The central plaza was bustling with thousands of campaign workers. Hanging all around the columns of the government buildings were signs for the presidential and local candidates, including one of the Talavera brothers.

    I followed Carlos around as he greeted his friends, mostly former commanders of the Contras. He introduced me with explanations such as:

    “She works for Oscar Arias.”

    “She’s here to today so she can tell Oscar Arias all we have done to help our people.”

    “She’s Cuban-American.”

    “Her uncle, Xavier Suarez, supported us when he was mayor of Miami.”

    “Today is her birthday!”

    Carlos told me he needed to go help arrange things, and left me alone. I scanned the crowd. Most of the men were in jeans with t-shirts. Some men wore sombreros. Others wore baseball caps. Women mostly wore long skirts, loose shirts, and sandals.

    I was wearing jeans, a sleeveless shirt, and sneakers. I had polished nails, dangling earrings, and two silver rings on my right hand. I carried a backpack with my camera, notebook, and overnight toiletries.

    I greeted people around me, saying:

    Hola, cómo estás?”

    Buenos días, que tal?”

    Most people offered a quick reply and turned away. They seemed hesitant to hold eye contact.

    When I was a child, my mother welcomed Central American and Mexican migrants into our home. The men in particular would greet me politely, take off their sombreros, and keep their eyes to the ground. One day I asked my mom why they wouldn’t sit down with me at our kitchen table when I invited them.

    “They are humble people,” she said.

    Here in this crowd of people similar to those I met growing up, I felt unworthy of their respectful humility towards me.

    But the women who came to our house not only sat at our dinner table, but babysat me and gave me rides to school, like they were part of our family. Perhaps the women here might be more willing to talk to me.

    Finally, one young woman approached me. Softly, she asked if I was interested in buying some fruit she had brought that morning from her farm.

     “Claro que sí!”

    We weaved our way through the crowds as we walked across the plaza. When she told me we had to walk further to get the fruit, I paused. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to go too far. But, not wanting to disappoint her, I followed her. We turned one corner, and then another. We passed a few small shops on the way, but the streets were mostly desolate.

    We finally reached a small store, not much bigger than a kiosk. She pointed to a bag of fruit – two large papayas. I handed the shopkeeper doubled what he asked me for – fifty cents instead of twenty-five. He handed me the bag of fruit. When the papaya reached my hands, I suddenly turned and handed them to her. What I spent regularly for a single cigarette at the kiosk on the way to work or a cheap beer at happy hour would probably feed her and her whole family for a day.

    I wanted to honor her hard work to cultivate and transport the fruit. Although my family didn’t have much extra income growing up, my mother always had tried to pay our Central American friends something to clean our house or do yardwork, believing that even just a small amount of money would give them a little hope.

    The young woman’s eyes met mine. “Muchas gracias,” she beamed.

    When we arrived back at the plaza, Carlos ran towards me and grabbed me by the shoulders. “You’ve been gone for fifteen minutes!” he yelled. “Where did you go?”

    “I was just buying some fruit from this girl here,” I said.

    “I thought you had been kidnapped!” Carlos replied.

    He pointed all around the plaza, and I saw at least ten men scurrying around, waving signals at each other. “I told all those men to go find la chelita” (the light-skinned girl). Carlos waved to them and pointed at me.

    “Margarita, you don’t understand where you are,” he said. “You have no idea how many guns are in this plaza right now.” He ordered me not to leave again, and grabbed a tall young man about my age wearing a Houston Astros baseball cap. “Don’t let her out of your sight!” he shouted.

    I took a deep breath. My new companion had fled to Houston with his family during the conflict. Now, he had returned to live in Nicaragua, hoping to promote peaceful post-war economic development.

    We stood a football-field length away from the stage. The Talavera brothers, other ex-commanders of the Contra, and local civic leaders came out. They reminded the crowd of the election six years earlier that had knocked the Sandinistas out of power. Applause broke out.

    But the hoped-for goods of peace and development were far from secured, they continued. They would continue to stand up for their people to the central government in Managua. People waved party flags. The candidates and leaders vowed to keep building infrastructure like roads and homes. They pledged to clear the land of landmines, allowing agriculture to flourish once again. Trucks around the plaza honked their horns.

    Towards the end of the rally, Carlos escorted me up to the stage and took the microphone. “Please welcome Margarita!” he shouted. “She’s from a Cuban-American family in Miami that never lost hope in us!”

    Hurrah! The crowd exploded.

    “She lives in Costa Rica and works for ex-president Oscar Arias, who helped us get democratic elections in Nicaragua!”

    Hurrah! The crowded cheered.

    “Today is her birthday and she came here to be with you! Let’s wish her a happy birthday!”

    Wild applause broke out. I stepped to the front of the stage, swept my eyes over the thousands of faces, and waved.

    When the rally ended, campaign workers loaded up on the backs of pickup trucks. Men, women, and children filled old yellow American school buses that had brought them into town. The vehicles drove away honking their horns. People waved banners or their sombreros or baseball caps out the window.

    Only a few people remained. Carlos introduced me to a woman named Carmen who was dancing to the music. Her face was as bright as the sunshine. She reminded me of Maria, a woman from Honduras who had been my favorite babysitter. “Carmen helped us during the war,” Carlos explained. “Now we are helping her.”

    Only fifteen when the fighting started, Carmen would give water to the Contras who came to her house. The Sandinistas threatened to kill her. She fled to the mountains and lived in a camp with the Contras. By day, she did her best to blend in with the men, learning to use heavy weapons. She did women’s work of harvesting food and cooking in the camp. “I was a man by day and a woman by night,” she told me. She fell in love with a commander of the Contras. They married secretly. I was too afraid to ask whether he survived the war or if they parted ways after they came out of the mountains. But now she lived only with her son.

    Thanks to the Talaveras and other Contras, she now had a new home, with a small plot of land where she cultivated vegetables. She worked with other former Contras to clean up their towns and villages. I couldn’t imagine what she had lived through. Her hope for the future astounded me. She beamed as she told me she trusted in God’s providence. She knew the Virgin Mary would help her.

    Carlos then escorted me to lunch. The Jackal walked in. He was as handsome as his reputation. He was wearing a prosthesis to replace a leg he lost when a landmine exploded, though I couldn’t tell this by his gait. He hoped that advances made in infrastructure for roads and homes, tools for farming, clearing landmines, and prostheses for those who lost limbs would continue. But even under auspicious conditions, making farming profitable isn’t easy.

    That’s why getting former soldiers to turn in their swords for ploughshares was such hard work. Asking them to hand over their weapons for nothing was never going to work. The millions of dollars of investment in Quilali had been spent wisely – but it wasn’t enough. What little progress had been made was precarious. Many more resources were needed to recover from the destruction caused by the war and prevent a descent into chaotic violence.

    Our conversation was cut short by the urgency of getting back to Managua before sundown. As we rolled over the dusty, rugged roads, I pondered how getting out of poverty requires much more than money. People need to unite under a vision, a shared project. Comradery and a shared sense of belonging and place mattered just as much to the economic turnaround in Quilali as the money that came in. Ending the cycle of violence requires much more than collecting guns. Although thousands of men and women had given up their arms, they still needed armed protection from organized crime groups that forcibly occupied land, raped women, or took people hostage for ransom.

    Taking baby steps to plant and sell a few papayas requires not just laboring with one’s hands but having hope that small efforts will be met with more help from God.

    Sunburned and pensive, I rode back to Managua sandwiched between two men in the backseat of the truck. Juan kept drinking. I slowly inched closer to the sober, friendly, and unarmed young man with a Houston Astros cap.

    Juan passed out drunk and began drooling on my shoulder, never having celebrated my birthday with ráfagas.

    In the twenty-five birthdays I have marked since that day in Quilali, the Sandinista Daniel Ortega, who lost the elections in 1990 and in 1996, was elected president of Nicaragua in 2007, an office he holds to this day. The Talavera brothers remain active in politics.

    After more than three years working for the Arias Foundation, in 1998 I enrolled in graduate school in sociology at Princeton University. I spent hours in the basement of Princeton’s Firestone Library voraciously reading as many books as I could about international development and peacemaking. I also threw myself on my knees in the Princeton University chapel, asking God to give me hope that the horrors committed through political violence can be healed.

    When the United States, the country that has welcomed so many refugees from war and revolution, erupted into unprecedented violence in recent years, I pondered my experiences in Nicaragua anew. One thing I learned is that the human heart is easily corrupted by the power of the sword. I experienced how violence used for political ends very easily spreads beyond the initial political objectives.

    The real miracle of Quilali was the fact that many men and women like Carmen had come down from the mountains, exchanged their swords for ploughs, and settled peacefully into community life. Carmen placed her ultimate hope not in any political leader or economic system, nor on her own actions, but in God.

    Contributed By

    Margarita Mooney Suarez is the founder and executive director of Scala Foundation, an associate professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the author, most recently, of The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts (Cluny Media, 2021).

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