IMAGE: JUAN GREGORIO RODRIGUEZ
David Adame  /  AP
Miami resident Juan Gregorio Rodriguez holds a photo of himself during his Contra days. He says many ex-Contras feel they've "lost to the same enemy we fought."
updated 2/10/2008 2:10:41 PM ET 2008-02-10T19:10:41

At the end of Nicaragua's civil war, Juan Gregorio Rodriguez traded his life as a Contra rebel for that of auto mechanic in Florida. He kept in touch with other rebels and supported their political efforts, but mostly from afar.

That changed in 2006, when the Contras' nemesis, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, was elected president, 16 years after his Soviet-backed government lost power in a vote that ended the guerrilla conflict in which some 30,000 people died.

His return to power has galvanized dozens of former Contras in the United States to plunge back into the politics of their Central American homeland, lobbying for support from the U.S. Congress and joining anti-Ortega movements with former colleagues in Nicaragua. Some even warn darkly that armed resistance is again a possibility.

What really disturbs these former Contras is Ortega's plan to revive Sandinista neighborhood watch committees, which became his eyes and ears during his first presidency. Rodriguez and some other ex-Contras also feel betrayed by compromises made by their former comrades in arms since the war. Some have even joined the Sandinistas: Ortega's vice president, Jaime Morales, is a former Contra spokesman.

"Many of our former leaders sold out to the Sandinistas. The leaders in the field were left to help the families of those who fought in the resistance," said the wiry Rodriguez, who lives in Miami and was once known as Comandante Camilo. Now they wonder how "we've lost to the same enemy we fought," he said.

Today's Contras are a shadow of the movement the CIA built around a core of former soldiers who had served the dictatorship toppled by the Sandinistas in 1979. With U.S. arms and funds smuggled into Nicaragua from clandestine bases in neighboring Honduras, it grew into one of Central America's largest guerrilla armies.

But continued support despite a congressional ban damaged the Reagan administration's reputation, and the Contras disbanded before the 1990 election led to three consecutive anti-Sandinista governments.

'True war' still possible
Some entered politics. Some continued to fight as irregulars, demanding benefits for ex-fighters or as bandits. Many struggled for jobs in a Nicaraguan economy devastated by years of war and muddled Sandinista policies. And a few left for the United States, even as other refugees were returned home.

The newly energized Contras in Florida say their opposition will be peaceful, but some suggest they could rearm if Ortega attempts to reinstate socialist policies.

"We are trying to focus on civic efforts, to build political leaders," said Salvador Marin, a surgeon who treated Contra rebels in the mountains during the 1980s. "When we started, we had pistols and hunting rifles and no experience. Through the years, we gained that experience and still have it ... A true war would depend on how extreme are the conditions imposed by Ortega."

But Nicaragua's army chief, Gen. Omar Halleslevens, says he sees no sign of Contras rearming there.

"We don't have any information about some military movement of the Nicaraguan Resistance," he told The Associated Press. "If it were happening, our intelligence agencies would already know."

He also noted that Nicaragua's society is far different from what the people now in Miami left behind. Former rebels "have been integrated in a civil manner. They are in the Congress, in productive activities and many of them dedicated to personal matters," he said. "What's more, we have excellent relations with them."

Former Contras who stayed in Nicaragua also seem to have no appetite for militancy.

"We had the experience to be led by heroic commanders," former Contra commander Noel Valdez said in a phone interview from the Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa. "But we're now in a context that is very different from the past."

Ortega has made no sign of a return to Marxist policies such as land seizures, and he's openly working with the Bush administration, which hopes to provide Nicaragua with $32 million this year for health care and anti-terror and drug programs.

Citizen councils causing conflict
But his decision to reactivate the citizen councils has enraged opposition lawmakers. They passed a law blocking them, but Ortega established them anyway, and his allies on the Supreme Court threw out the law in a late-night session the court president declared to be illegal.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress are worried by Ortega's alliances with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Cuba's Fidel Castro and even Iran.

A small group of former Contras and other Nicaraguan opposition figures met recently to plot strategy at the Miami office of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican Cuban-American who is no stranger to fighting socialist governments. Miami has the country's largest population of Nicaraguan immigrants and is where the Contras originally organized.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua's opposition is trying to end the divisions that let Ortega win the presidency in 2006 with just 38 percent of the vote. Leaders of six parties, including the Contras' small Nicaraguan Resistance party, agreed to join forces to challenge the Sandinistas in November's municipal elections.

Just how much support they'll get may be evident at a march next Saturday in Matagalpa to mark the anniversary of the death of one of their founders. They also plan a national meeting of ex-rebels in the U.S. this spring.

U.S. officials openly tilted against Ortega in the 2006 campaign, but they since vowed to work with the elected leader. With the Cold War over, Ortega seems like less of a danger to Washington.

"You don't have a strategic threat," said Mark Schneider, a Latin America expert with the International Crisis Group. "You don't have the Soviet Union backing Nicaragua."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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