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A long way home

In Nicaragua, Chilean combatants recall their unsung role in the Sandinista revolution.

SANTIAGO — They were a small force — about the number Fidel Castro relied on to carry out his audacious rebellion against the rule of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.

The year was 1979, and more than 80 Cuban-trained Chilean military officers had snuck into Nicaragua to join the Sandinista guerrillas in their final offensive against dictator Anastasio Somoza.

And like Castro's 26th of July Movement, these would-be Chilean revolutionaries were ultimately key to the ouster of one of Latin America's most despised regimes.

They had arrived in small groups at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border aboard spindly aircraft in June that year from Havana, Cuba. Once there, they shed their real identities and civilian clothes and started advising column leaders, establishing command posts, assisting the wounded and teaching the poorly trained Nicaraguan guerrillas the basics of warfare.

Now, 30 years later, they are back in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of a defining chapter of their lives.

Back then, most of them were young, disciplined members of Chile’s Communist and Socialist parties who had arrived in Cuba in the early 1970s on scholarships to study medicine. The military coup in their home country that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende in September 1973 reshuffled their priorities.

“We felt isolated in Cuba, and felt bad because people were being killed in Chile and there we were, studying to become doctors,” recalled Juan Luis Vasquez, then a medical student and later an artillery officer. "We started demanding military training so we could return to Chile and fight the dictatorship."

Two years later, Cuban president Fidel Castro made a welcome offer: Cuba would admit them in its military academies to begin formal careers as infantry and artillery officers.

And so the 20 young Socialists and 60 Communists began training in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), with the same rights and duties as the Cubans. They were told they would be the seed of a new revolutionary army that would eventually overthrow the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

Other Chilean leftists who had arrived from exile from Europe or Latin America also entered the academies. Ten women, all medical students, received special military training and were assigned to army units after graduation.

After several trying years in Cuban military units, in June 1979, they were sent to Nicaragua. The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, or FSLN) had launched its final offensive against the Somoza dictatorship, and had asked Cuba for help. They needed officers to help them use the artillery they had obtained and serve as advisers to their guerrilla columns. The task fell on the Chileans. More than 70 Chilean officers and the 10 military doctors were soon on their way to fight a war on foreign soil.

They were ecstatic. But how did they feel about the possibility of dying in combat for a country they barely knew about?

“I never thought about that,” said Carlos Jiles, a former medical student turned infantry officer, and now a cab driver in Santiago. “When you participate in these things, you’re not thinking about death. Maybe we blocked that possibility from our minds, or thought we were superheroes, but we thought those things happened only to others. We had higher ideals, we were revolutionaries and we had one goal in mind: to win the war.”