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Former Contra fighters divided over Ortega

One pair of brothers stopped speaking after the younger defected.

October 29, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — The old guerrilla fighter has many battle scars. He'll roll up his pant leg and show you his prosthetic device if you're interested. Years ago, during the war, he lost his leg when he stepped on a mine laid by his enemies, the Sandinistas.

It's been a long time since Jose "the Jackal" Talavera has tried to kill Sandinistas. The leftists haven't ruled the country for 16 years, but the onetime Contra commander still despises them.

"They filled the country with Cubans and Bulgarians," Talavera, 46, said of the Sandinistas, who had close ties to the former Soviet bloc. "Our war against them was just and heroic."

The Talavera family lost three brothers in the 1980s to the U.S.-backed war against the leftist regime. Now, like many other Contra families, the surviving brothers are split over whether they should support the Sandinistas in next month's presidential election.

Last month, "the Jackal" turned on his TV and saw his younger brother, Salvador "the Little Jackal" Talavera, not only shaking hands with Sandinista leaders but embracing them.

Salvador Talavera is the president of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, the conservative political group started by the demobilized Contras a decade ago. Last month, the 40-year-old signed a "peace agreement" with the Sandinistas by which the Contras promised not to go to war again should their bitterest foe, Daniel Ortega, win the Nov. 5 presidential election.

The agreement was a big boost for Ortega, and the Little Jackal is now featured in Sandinista campaign commercials.

"We Contras are becoming conscious of our rights for the first time," Salvador Talavera said, explaining his party's decision to break with its conservative allies, who've won every presidential election since 1990.

"Years of bad decisions by these right-wing governments have brought Daniel Ortega to the brink of power," he said.

Jose Talavera said he told his younger brother that supporting the Sandinistas was immoral. The brothers haven't talked since. "Like good democrats, we have to respect the political decisions other people make," Jose Talavera said.

The split in the Contras highlights a growing frustration among the rural population that makes up the movement's rank and file, analysts say.

Thousands of peasants who were granted land in exchange for giving up their armed struggle against the Sandinistas have yet to receive formal title to those properties, despite 16 years of right-wing government. And Nicaragua's adoption of free-trade policies has hurt the nation's agricultural sector.

"There's a lot of frustration in the Contra corridor," said Oscar Rene Vargas, a political analyst here, referring to a stretch of rural Nicaragua reaching from the Honduran border southward. "Promises were made to them, and those promises were not kept." As a result, Vargas said, the Sandinista National Liberation Front was gaining ground in rural areas that have long been conservative strongholds.

Several Contra leaders who have defected to the Sandinista cause say they feel the movement's right-wing political allies have taken them for granted.

"Seven thousand of our wounded war veterans are neglected," Salvador Talavera said. "We've been working in this alliance, but what's in it for us? We left our companions buried in shallow graves to bring these people to power. And now they have forgotten about us."

The younger Talavera believes that guerrilla veterans have been used as right-wing political props in three consecutive victories over the Sandinistas in presidential elections.

"They've used us as their shock troops," he said. "When the elections come, they go and get the old Contra commanders and give us new suits."

Talavera's decision to sign the agreement with the Sandinistas on Sept. 15 was a stunning setback to the presidential aspirations of Eduardo Montealegre of the conservative Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance.

The Nicaraguan Resistance had backed Montealegre until Salvador Talavera's appearance last month with Ortega on a stage in Managua, the capital. Montealegre is the favored candidate of the U.S. Embassy here and is seen by many Nicaraguan conservatives as the best hope for preventing an Ortega victory.

"It was a low blow against Montealegre ... and also very astute on the part of Salvador Talavera," said Carlos Tunnermann, a political analyst and former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. "And it allowed Daniel Ortega to put forward an image of reconciliation."

Salvador Talavera said many Contras also felt "a profound resentment" toward their old U.S. allies. "We kept gringo blood from being shed here, and we stopped what was then known as communism from reaching the frontiers of the United States," he said. But recently, the U.S. has "not considered even a small budget to help those heroic fighters who served them."

Jose Talavera understands his brother's frustrations, but not the decision to aid the family's old enemies.

"We have to keep the government from falling into the hands of the Sandinistas," he said. The older Talavera has just opened a new office for his group of Contra dissidents behind Montealegre's campaign headquarters.

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