WASHINGTON — As the debate in Washington over continued U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries heats up, people pay little attention to the reasons why earlier support has not transformed the contras into an effective political and military organization threatening Sandinista rule. Contra links to dictator Anastasio Somoza's old National Guard are rightly mentioned as a cause; similarly, references to "totalitarian" control imposed by Nicaragua's leaders are invoked, though the prevailing disorganization argues against this explanation.
A different picture of why the contras have made such little headway in unseating Nicaragua's commandantes emerged over the course of several week-long stays in Managua since 1985. How the Sandinistas gained the upper hand as of mid-1985 also sheds light on why new money for the contras is unlikely to alter current trends. If anything, the three most important reasons behind the Sandinistas' success may well be irreversible.
First, the Nicaraguan government rectified a mistake that, given its members' guerrilla warfare past, it should never have made. Until late 1983, and perhaps not before mid-1984, the Sandinistas refused to acknowledge that the contras had a real following--or "mass base" in Marxist jargon--within Nicaragua. The fact that this small following was localized in the sparsely inhabited and isolated northern part of the country and the Atlantic coast led the governments' political and military strategists to commit the cardinal sin of war: underestimating the enemy. More important, it rendered impossible the only policy that could defeat the contras : political reconquest of the disaffected "mass base."
In private, many Sandinistas recognized that their revolution had done little, if anything, for the poor and backward peasantry of the northern reaches. This neglect, when linked with ties the Somoza National Guard had in remote, poverty-stricken areas--traditional recruiting grounds for most Latin American armies--made this sector of the population ideal for contra enrollment. But it was also relatively easy to neutralize once they decided to acknowledge and solve the political problems.
In 1984, the Sandinista Directorate took the step that most Latin American analysts believe marked a turning point. Instead of insisting on agrarian reform based on claiming, for state control, existing large agricultural units, or piecing together cooperatives with small peasant holdings, the government took a 180-degree turn. It began parceling out land, individually, to Nicaragua's peasants. Not always good land, not even necessarily useful--if not accompanied by seeds, fertilizer and tools to cultivate it--but land nonetheless. As all Latin America revolutions have shown, this is more than enough to win peasant support.
From 1979 until early 1983, the National Institute for Agrarian Reform had distributed 125,000 hectares in individual plots benefitting fewer than 5,000 families. But during the following three years, 1.2 million hectares were parceled out to nearly 50,000 families. More important, of the 21,000 families favored by land reform in 1986, 18,000 received individual plots, deeds and a rifle to defend them with. They had never expected more, and their motivation for supporting the contras, or even for remaining neutral, diminished overnight. Furthermore, as the Sandinistas evacuated peasants living in war zones, giving them land along with resettlement, the contras' limited popular following shrank considerably. As one Sandinista military commander said to me recently, referring to Mao Tse-tung's dictum that a guerrilla force should be like a fish in water, "We dried up the sea in which the contras were swimming." In addition, the government recently began delivering part of the value of agricultural exports to the producer in dollars, thus undermining support for the contras among medium-size coffee, cotton and cattle exporters.
But this policy was made possible largely by the second explanation for the contras' current and future weakness. President Reagan's accusations notwithstanding, until late 1984 the Nicaraguan government had no real army. It had commandantes , militias and some Soviet weaponry (tanks, AK-47s and artillery), but no army. During 1983 and 1984, the few trained and combat-ready Sandinista troops were not used against the contras ; through early 1985, they were held in reserve, awaiting a U.S. invasion (viewed as possible after the 1983 Grenada episode) or the opening of a southern front along the Costa Rican border. Mainly, they were not used because the Sandinistas thought their untrained, irregular militias would be sufficient. They weren't.