Under siege, Sandinistas grapple with rebels, US
Inside southern Nicaragua — Roger carries a Soviet-made AK-47 rifle. A United States-made hand grenade is clipped to a strap on his chest. He is a mechanical engineer by profession, educated in part in the US, and for the second time in four years he has taken up arms in the jungle of southern Nicaragua in what he likes to call ''liberated territory.''
Roger first fought here with the Sandinista rebels against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was overthrown in 1979. This time Roger is fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas.
''On the 19th of July, 1979 (when the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua), I thought I could never again hold a gun in my hands against anybody because I thought we were free, free forever,'' Roger says.
His only political ambition, he says, is to vote. ''I have never voted in my life, really. With Somoza they were never free elections. I came back to Nicaragua with the nine (Sandinista) commanders believing I could vote. I couldn't.''
The Sandinistas have promised elections in 1985.
Since May 1, when the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) declared war on the Sandinistas, Roger has directed several hundred men, including his son. Roger is one of six commanders on the southern front inside Nicaragua.
His men, who like Roger will give only their first names, travel along a dirt road on the border with Costa Rica and a jungle trail to an outpost about half a mile inside Nicaragua. The rebels live in makeshift tents - sheets of black plastic draped as canopies over white nylon hammocks. Open cans of sardines, corned beef, and insect repellent litter the ground. Soup with rice is being warmed over a fire.
About a dozen guerrillas take turns keeping watch from a nearby cliff about 30 feet high. They wait in ambush for Sandinistas traveling to a camp about three miles away.
Most of the guerrillas are in military uniform. Their canteens, spoons, and shoulder straps bear US markings. They wear the red and black kerchief that symbolized the first Sandinista revolution - and the blue and white ARDE armband that stands for what they hope will be the second revolution.
Most of the fighters are Nicaraguan, though Roger says some of his soldiers come from Panama, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. There have been suggestions that the Sandinistas are supported by the peasants, while the middle class has deserted them. Most of the guerrillas say they are campesinos - peasant farmers.
''The last war was a city war. This is strictly a campesino war. It surprises me, but I know exactly why - the repression. They want to make the campesinos communists by force,'' Roger says.
''A campesino is a free person,'' he says. ''They are religious people. They want their own land. They want to be a little capitalistic. They want to have money to buy things. That's why they are here.''
Indeed, most of the soldiers talk about Sandinista pressure on them to change their life style. They say the Sandinistas are communists. Many say they have been threatened, and others jailed. Some talk of economic hardships caused by shortages and rationing. In each case, they blame the nine members of the ruling Sandinista junta.
Johnny said his father was held in jail for refusing to join a Sandinista organization. When he was released, his father sent Johnny to join the rebels. ''We want to live in a free country,'' he said. After one month, Johnny sent word to his father, who joined him.
Doni, a farmer and father of 10, is the oldest and newest of the group. He has been with them only one month, just long enough to learn how to fire an automatic weapon. ''The hunger among the people, they can't stand it anymore,'' he says. ''We are peasants working the land, but it doesn't serve for anything. There is no sugar, soap, or oil. It all goes for exports. That is why we are fighting.''
The Sandinista government, he says, obligates the farmer to sell to the state at a fixed price. Though that price may be higher than four years ago, the money earned buys less today than it used to. For instance, he said, a shirt today costs 10 times as much as it did four years ago. ''Things are worse now than under Somoza,'' Doni said.
Roger said his force would be considerably larger if he had more arms to give the peasants who want them.
The Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN) - which is fighting the Sandinistas in the north with 7,000 men and reportedly receives support from the CIA - has offered weapons to ARDE. But ARDE military leader Eden Pastora Gomez, known as Commander Zero during the Sandinista revolution, has publicly refused the offer because of the FDN's association with the late dictator Somoza's followers.
Both Pastora and Alfonso Robelo Callejas, a businessman and ARDE's political leader, served in the Sandinista government after the revolution, and both turned against it after deciding the Sandinista government had betrayed the goals of the revolution.
In an interview, Robelo said that although he hoped ARDE could coordinate some activities with the FDN, the northern group had not supplied any arms to his group. He said ARDE's arms are purchased on the black market.
The guerrillas accompanying Roger are some of about 50 now based at a camp just inside Nicaraguan territory. Their daily routine includes physical and military training, though their arms are not fired for fear of attracting the enemy. Most of the guerrillas have a minimum of training, though those with the movement longer have received infantry training in the Nicaraguan mountains or in hidden and now abandoned camps in Costa Rica.
Since May 1, Roger's men have conducted seven guerrilla missions, including attacks on a Nicaraguan border post and a Sandinista fort, and the ambush of a Sandinista boat on the San Juan River.
''The Sandinistas don't go out. We must obligate them to,'' said Roger, who surmises that the Sandinistas are conceding a portion of the jungle to the rebels. According to his count, ARDE guerrillas have killed 60 Sandinistas and lost three. ARDE claims to control almost an entire corner of southeastern Nicaragua and part of the San Juan River east of El Castillo, Robelo says. Their immediate goal is to secure a territory from which they can safely operate.
''We're just starting. It's going to take a long time,'' Roger says.
Roger may seem an unlikely leader for this group composed mainly of peasant farmers. A city dweller from Managua, he speaks excellent English, having studied business at Tulane University in New Orleans. After the Sandinista victory, he was appointed to head the national sugar directorate, which runs Nicaragua's sugar industry. ''I was working 24 hours a day if I could. We had so much work to do, the industry was completely down,'' he says. Then about 50 Cubans were brought in, undermining his authority. ''I accepted them as advisers , but they were trying to run the place.''
After Pastora left Nicaragua in July 1981, abandoning the post of deputy minister of the interior, Roger was jailed with about 150 others who had fought with Pastora. He was suspected of fomenting a movement against the Sandinistas.The charge is untrue, Roger says, although he admits he was unsatisfied with the direction the government was going. He fled to Costa Rica, where he joined other dissidents, including Pastora.
''We were just a few, less than 10,'' he said. In October 1982, ARDE was formed. Three months ago he moved into the field.