Nicaragua – Origins and Effects of the Contra War

The Contra War took place in the Central American nation of Nicaragua and lasted approximately from 1981 to 1988. The war began as a series of rebellions against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua that that overthrown the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. The various factions and armies involved in the Contra War against the Sandinistas cooperated very loosely and in general had their own agendas, which greatly hindered their common goal of removing the Sandinistas from power.

Although the Sandinista government was not universally popular within Nicaragua, the Contra forces squandered many opportunities to win the people of Nicaraguan over to their side by engaging in alleged atrocities and human rights abuses.

The republican administration in the United States led by president Ronald Reagan saw the Contras as a convenient tool for removing the Sandinistas from power in Nicaragua. However, Congress and the American people did not share this view and the administration found that they were increasingly restricted in the ways that they could arm and finance the Contra forces. Eventually, what is known as the Iran-Contra scandal was made public, bringing much disrepute to the Reagan administration. A curious cast of players that included the government of Iran, Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, cocaine traffickers, and Colonel Oliver North concocted a complex scheme in which American weapons were sold to Iran and the funds, as well as additional funds from drug trafficking, were routed to the Contras.

American support, both above and below the table, was not sufficient to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Contras, so both sides settled for a ceasefire in March of 1988 that was followed in 1990 by an internationally monitored election in Nicaragua in which the Sandinistas were defeated. Over the past 15 years, Nicaragua has made great strides economically and may have at last achieved a measure of political stability. The country has resumed its place as a premier tourist destination and has generally succeeded in healing the wounds received in the difficult decade of the 1980s.