When The Tico Times interviewed a Sandinista guerrilla-turned-shark fisherman in the Costa Rican Atlantic-coast fishing village of Barra del Colorado in 1976, nobody suspected that when next seen, the man who asked to be identified only as “Pedro” would have a new name, “Comandante Cero”, and would be leading the daring attack on Managua’s National Palace in August, 1978 that sparked the end of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.
Like many of his countrymen, Edén Pastora lived quietly here while plotting the overthrow of the 43-year-old Somoza dictatorship. Most Ticos shared the Sandinistas’ disgust with the Somozas, who held Nicaragua in an iron grip with the help of the U.S.- trained and equipped National Guard, known as “gorillas” because of their reputation for brutality and corruption. Both Anastasio (“Tachito”) Somoza, 52, and his father, “Old Tacho”, had proclaimed themselves loyal friends of the U.S. (prompting U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to say of the senior Somoza, “I know he’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”) and had managed to stay in power by insisting their regime was “a bulwark against communism in Central America.”
Cracks in the Bulwark
That bulwark began crumbling when it was discovered that Guardsmen had stolen much of the international aid that poured into the country for victims of the quake that destroyed Managua in 1972. Rebels with the leftwing Sandinista Front for National Liberation, whom Somoza charged were being trained and supplied by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, had been harassing the government for years and, mostly because of abuses by the Guard, had been gaining popular support.
Moderate Nicaraguans, fearing another Cuba, had been trying to convince Somoza to step down and allow a coalition government to be formed.
Among them was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, well-loved publisher of the daily La Prensa, who was gunned down in 1978 on his way to work, apparently by rightwing elements in the Guard who didn’t want Somoza to quit. Chamorro’s assassination marked the beginning of the end for the Somoza regime, igniting a wave of popular outrage and revealing that the ailing strongman was losing control over his own Guard.
Worries about War
Meanwhile, the growing conflict had spilled across the border into Costa Rica. As 100,000 refugees fled the fighting, filling camps to overflowing in the northern province of Guanacaste, attacks by Nicaraguan warplanes pursuing rebels into Costa Rica, killing Two Tico Civil Guardsmen and wounding several civilians, prompted repeated urgent inspection visits by Organization of American States (OAS) teams and Venezuela and Panama to rush to Costa Rica’s defense by sending warplanes to San José.
Somoza accused Costa Rica of harboring the Sandinistas. The government of President Rodrigo Carazo insisted it was doing everything it could to locate and clean out rebel camps in the dense jungle along the border and reiterated its adherence to unarmed neutrality in the conflict.
As the war heated up, the drama of the valiant “muchachos” battling the despised “gorillas” captured the hearts of more and more Ticos. The TT ran several stories on the young, idealistic rebels, recounting their hardships and bravery. Despite their aversion to all things military, many Costa Ricans openly proclaimed themselves Sandinistas, or at least sympathizers. “Comandante Bigote,” one of the TT’s “Deep Throat” sources, was a Tico businessman during the week and a rebel pilot on weekends.
A Conspiracy of Silence
Costa Rica’s “unofficial” involvement in the conflict was becoming increasingly evident, but the government warned the local press that to even hint at the Sandinistas’ use of Costa Rican territory would threaten national security by inviting an attack by Nicaragua.
The resulting conspiracy of silence was finally broken by the international press – and by The Tico Times, the first local paper to report what was really going on in the border area.
Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s future government was organizing in exile here. Though the Sandinistas’ military leadership was Marxist and closely aligned with Cuba and the Soviets, pressure from moderates inside and outside Nicaragua had raised hopes for shared power, and the first government junta included Chamorro’s widow, Violeta, and businessman Alfonso Robelo. Even the U.S. finally had to admit that Somoza’s rule had ended. The strongman headed for exile in Paraguay, where he was later assassinated by Sandinista agents.
With jubilant Ticos cheering them on, the Sandinistas finally marched into Managua in July, 1979. Later it was reported that the more moderate “Southern Front” – whose leaders had lulled Ticos into believing the Sandinistas had democratic leanings – was late in reaching Managua, which had already fallen to the hardline Marxists who had been fighting in the north.
The war left some 30,000 dead and 300,000 homeless. It also left Costa Rica’s credibility as a neutral, defenseless nation in tatters, as it was revealed that Costa Rica had been part of an air bridge to ferry arms from Cuba to the rebels.
Costa Rica’s honeymoon with the Sandinista government would prove to be short-lived, and as the ’80s began, so did the next bloody chapter in the tortured history of Costa Rica’s northern neighbor.