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The Contras is a label given to the various rebel groups opposing Nicaragua's FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government following the July 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle's dictatorship. Although the Contra movement included a number of separate groups, with different aims and little ideological unity, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) emerged as by far the largest. In 1987, virtually all Contra organizations were united, at least nominally, into the Nicaraguan Resistance.

From an early stage, the rebels received both overt and covert financial and military support from the United States government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initially supplemented by the Argentine dictatorship of the time. At other times the US Congress wished to distance itself from the Contras and withdrew all overt support.

The term "Contra" comes from the Spanish contra, which means against but in this case is short for la contrarrevolucion, in English "the counter-revolution". (Many references use the uncapitalized form, "contra", sometimes italicizing it.) Some rebels disliked being called Contras, feeling that it defined their cause only in negative terms, or implied a desire to restore the old order. Rebel fighters usually referred to themselves as comandos ("commandos"); peasant sympathizers also called the rebels los primos ("the cousins"). From the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration and the rebels sought to portray the movement as the "democratic resistance," members started describing themselves as la resistencia.

During the war against the Sandinista government, they carried out many violations of human rights. Their supporters in Miami and the White House usually countered that the Sandinista government carried out more such violations, but in retrospect it is clear that they downplayed the severity of the abuses of the contras. In 1989, Human Rights Watch released a report on the situation, which stated: "[The] contras were major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners." Several other human rights organizations, including the Catholic Institute for International Relations, released similar reports, each coming to roughly the same conclusions.

Contra Commandos from FDN and ARDE Frente Sur, Nueva Guinea area, 1987

Members of ARDE Frente Sur taking a smoke break after routing the FSLN garrison at El Serrano, southeast Nicaragua, 1987.


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