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A long way home

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


The Chilean officers immediately organized artillery brigades and three of them were incorporated to the Sandinista Front’s Chief of Staff. The rest participated as "advisers" to guerrilla columns, though owing to their formal training they often became de facto column leaders. Other Chilean officers set up a basic military training school for the dozens of Latin American volunteers who were flooding Nicaragua’s southern border to join the ranks of the Sandinistas.

“Many of the Nicaraguans were relieved when we got there, at least in terms of the use of their artillery. At first, when we had to take their artillery pieces away from them to create organized units, we encountered a lot of resistance. But they didn’t know how to use them. Soon they realized that it was better to group the pieces under the direction of people who did know,” Vasquez recalled.

Somoza fled the country on July 17, 1979, and the Chileans joined in the euphoria, accompanying the thousands of triumphant guerrillas in caravan towards the capital, Managua.

“We had read and talked a lot about revolution, but the fact that we actually participated in a revolution that triumphed is something that happens only exceptionally in someone’s life. The experience in the guerrilla put us to test as persons; we realized the value of life and how material things have absolutely no value,” reflected Avelina Cisternas, one of the military doctors who were part of the Chilean contingent.

Many of them stayed in Nicaragua to help create and train the new army, police and air force. They were joined by several former officers of the Chilean Air Force and dozens of other Chileans who throughout the 1980s continued to train in Cuba as career officers or guerrilla tacticians.

In Nicaragua, most were assigned to special army battalions set up to combat the counterrevolutionary forces (“contras”) funded by the United States that were operating from Nicaragua’s southern and northern borders.

Four Chileans died during the final offensive. More than a dozen more lost their lives later combating the contras, in accidents or fighting alongside guerrilla forces in El Salvador.

After the return to democracy in Chile in 1990, the relatives of many of the combatants who died in Central America began the painful task of repatriating their remains. They eventually brought back a dozen of them, and built a mausoleum in Santiago’s General Cemetery to bury them together. Others still lay in Nicaraguan or Salvadoran cemeteries, while a handful remain disappeared.

A group of officers eventually returned to Cuba, but only a handful finished medical school — among them, Vasquez, who is now a doctor in a public hospital in Santiago.

In fact, most had serious difficulties pursuing studies or holding a job in the years that ensued. After Nicaragua, many entered clandestinely into Chile, living underground with false names until at least 1990, when Pinochet stepped down. Most were left with resumes featuring an unexplained 15-year gap from 1975 to 1990, when they were guerrillas or underground combatants in Chile.

Although proud of their past, most aren’t willing to speak about it in public.

“When politicians negotiated the transition from dictatorship to civilian rule in Chile, those of us who resisted, who confronted the regime, became a thorn on their side,” said Patricio Stuardo, another artillery officer, and now a university employee. "This is a deeply ethical question, especially for those that called for civil disobedience, national uprising and armed confrontation during dictatorship, and now turn their backs on the role we played."

Over the past year, they have timidly revealed their past, speaking in forums, offering press interviews, and cooperating in recent documentaries, academic projects and books that tell their story.

Three decades later and with the Sandinistas back in power, Vasquez, Jiles, Stuardo and Cisternas are part of a 50-plus group of former combatants who returned this month to Nicaragua to celebrate a revolution they feel as their own, and honor their dead.

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