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City College professor Ternot MacRenato –a Sandinista, but not a Marxist

Add one part Graham Greene to two parts George Orwell, and presto! It's the Nicaraguan revolution.

MacRenato (left) with journalist Dave Helvarg in Nicaragua, 1979. MacRenato encountered political tourists who became known as “Sandalistas” and were thoroughly despised by the people.
  • MacRenato (left) with journalist Dave Helvarg in Nicaragua, 1979. MacRenato encountered political tourists who became known as “Sandalistas” and were thoroughly despised by the people.

I was walking across this open field, all by myself, kind of daydreaming, when the dirt started erupting all around me. I couldn't figure out what it was, then I looked up and saw this plane swooping down, machine guns blazing. It was one of Somoza’s T-33 jet trainers. I threw myself on the ground when I finally heard the reports, but by that time he had passed me. I got the hell out of there. Oddly enough, that day I was in charge of security ”

Nicaraguan army taking suspected Sandinista, 1979.  “If you weren't in the army, the Guardia assumed you were the enemy."

Nicaraguan army taking suspected Sandinista, 1979. “If you weren't in the army, the Guardia assumed you were the enemy."

We are sitting in the coffee shop on C Street across from City College. Professor Ternot MacRenato is remembering the Nicaraguan revolution. He has just returned from comparing notes with his former comrades in arms.

MacRenato was born in Diriamba, Nicaragua, in 1942 and moved to the United States at age 14. He earned degrees from the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley and has taught history at City College since 1971. But he didn’t spend all his time in the classroom.

Ternot MacRenato today. He earned degrees from the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley and has taught history at City College since 1971.

Ternot MacRenato today. He earned degrees from the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley and has taught history at City College since 1971.

MacRenato served with the Third Force Reconnaissance Company in Vietnam. Several times he saw action, and this experience was later to serve him well in his homeland. His direct role in the Nicaraguan revolution ended in 1980. But it’s all coming back to him now.

MacRenato with Alex Drehsler, former San Diego Union reporter, in Nicaragua, 1979

MacRenato with Alex Drehsler, former San Diego Union reporter, in Nicaragua, 1979

During the 1970s, Anastasio Somoza was the prevailing heavy of a dynasty that had run Nicaragua as a private fiefdom for decades. The National Guard, or La Guardia, served as Somoza’s personal army and police force. The corrupt dictator had become unpopular with virtually every segment of Nicaraguan society and had taken to hiding in a concrete bunker.

MacRenato with the USMC Third Force Reconnaissance Company, c. 1960s. "They broke every rule I learned in the Marine Corps. They were always pointing guns at people, putting their hand over the end of the barrel."

MacRenato with the USMC Third Force Reconnaissance Company, c. 1960s. "They broke every rule I learned in the Marine Corps. They were always pointing guns at people, putting their hand over the end of the barrel."

“I met Somoza once when I was a little kid in Diriamba," says MacRenato. “He had given me an award as a member of our soccer team.

“The next time, I met him as an adult when I interviewed him for my master’s thesis. He was a pretty impressive person when you saw him close up. Of course, he had deep flaws in his personality. He used to put real thugs and criminals in his inner circle and give them a lot of power, sometimes more power than generals.”

In the late 1970s, discontent erupted into outright revolution, with a number of factions trying to topple Somoza. Chief among them was the FSLN, the Sandinista Front for the Liberation of Nicaragua.

MacRenato became part of an anti-Somoza support network in the United States. In 1978, a group of commandos led by Comandante Zero Eden Pastora seized the national palace and captured the government. Though not then a combatant, MacRenato was in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua at the time.

“We got within two blocks of the place and saw the firefight. Then an army patrol came and told us to get out. We could see helicopters firing into the palace. That was an historic moment, when the whole government was captured. Eden Pastora masterminded the whole thing.”

MacRenato stresses that the Ortega brothers, Daniel and Humberto, future Sandinista president and minister of defense, were absent that day. Says MacRenato. “The founder of the Sandinista front, Carlos Fonseca, once expelled the Ortegas because they were not in the country enough. They spent too much time in Havana. All during the ofensiva final, they were playing politics in Costa Rica. They never came near the front line.”

MacRenato returned to the United States in 1978 and kept working with the support network. Then, in May 1979, he took a leave of absence from teaching and joined the armed struggle against Somoza. Before he left, he got word that his cousin, Eduardo Sanchez, had been killed in action.

“My cousin was the commander of a camp in Costa Rica that officially didn’t exist. I was in my tent when I heard all these people talking, including a voice I recognized. So I went into the next tent and there was my cousin, alive.

“They didn’t have enough eating utensils, so you had to wait in the dark until somebody was done with their dirty plate and fork. Then you took those and got some food for yourself. I remember thinking that I was going to die right there.”

What MacRenato found in camp was not exactly the Delta Force. It was more like the United Nations. “There were so many people from all over Latin America, with different accents. Sometimes the young soldiers would ask where I was from. I would tell them ‘Nicaragua’ and they would look at me in disbelief. I had been away for 20 years and my speech had changed. They thought I was an internacionalista.

MacRenato's immediate superior was Hugo Spadafora, whom General Omar Torrijos, Panama s strongman, was grooming for the presidency. Torrijos was backing those trying to get rid of Somoza, and Spadatora was one of his liaisons.

“Hugo had become a legendary figure throughout the area,” says MacRenato. “We hit it off and became friends. One day these two Venezuelans showed up. One was a colonel in the Venezuelan army and the other was this rich guy. They called for Hugo and wanted to offer help — give us weapons, special equipment — but they didn’t want to deal with the Sandinistas. They thought the Sandinistas were a bunch of idiots. Just out of courtesy, Hugo contacted the Sandinistas about the trip, and they said no, we don't want you to go. Afterward he regretted having asked them. They were jealous of him.”

Other foreigners were not so popular as Spadafora. “The Cubans didn't say much. A lot of the Chileans were elite upper- and middle-class Marxists and very arrogant. They didn't gel along with the Nicaraguans, who were mostly poor farmers The Chileans were often in charge because they had been trained in Cuba in artillery, and that’s not something you learn on the job. At one point Hugo and a Costa Rican fighter named Bernal went and complained bitterly about the attitude of the Chileans. You would talk to those guys, and they wouldn’t even answer you back. A lot of them got key posts in the government after the war. One of them was Humberto Ortega’s right-hand man.”

In spite of dissidence in the ranks and poor equipment, Nicaraguan recruits flowed into camp. “Many were young teenagers running away from conscription,” says MacRenato. “If you weren't in the army, the Guardia assumed you were the enemy. They would come into a neighborhood and grab all the teenagers and ask to see their elbows and knees. If they had scratches, they accused them of attacking the army and they would shoot them, sometimes right on the spot, sometimes in front of their family.

“You could tell that a lot of the young people had been indoctrinated,” says MacRenato. “I heard this one guy saying that as soon as the war was over, they were going to get even with the other factions. Everybody was saying that after the war, don’t give up your gun to anybody, because nobody trusted anybody.

“Training lasted between three and five days. A lot of our people would shoot each other. They didn’t know how to handle weapons and broke every rule I learned in the Marine Corps. They were always pointing guns at people, putting their hand over the end of the barrel. There was no discipline. The only time I was really scared was when I was surrounded by my own troops.”

Women handled all the radio communication for the rebel forces on the southern front. A number of them also served in combat. “One of them was nicknamed Monimbo, this squat little Indian girl. She used to be in charge of a radio station that broadcast Sandinista propaganda. One day we were under artillery bombardment, and everybody ran into the trenches. She stayed and continued fixing meals all the time we were under attack, shells falling all around. She had balls.”

Another problem was lack of equipment. “Many fighters didn’t have any knapsacks, so they got this plastic bag and tied it with strings. Some didn’t have belts to hold up their pants. This young guy asked me to help him put his knapsack on, and I wondered why since it wasn’t a very hard job. Then I noticed that he had a plastic hand. He had been making bombs in Managua, and one blew up and took off his hand. His father had a little money so he sent him to Mexico, where he got a plastic hand. He could move his fingers if he had a battery, but the battery was dead so he was out of luck.”

MacRenato’s luck served him well. “When I was in charge of a column, there was this young kid we called ’Transito,’ who said he pulled out of the front line because of migraine headaches. He was sort of a training sergeant. I gave him some of my Marine belts and dark T-shirts, the kind we wore in Vietnam. We were ready to go inside when they called me to headquarters. So this young guy took my place. They went with this group of about 15 men and crossed a river. As they walked down this road, the Guardia ambushed them. The guy with my shirt and belt was the first to fall dead. That’s the column I was supposed to lead.”

Both MacRenato and his troops were eager to engage the enemy. Soon they got their chance. “When we were fighting the National Guard, we felt we were on a mission from God. We felt good about what we were doing. Sometimes we would send combat patrols into certain areas, and our guys would go out raising hell. They were singing and slugging, like they were going to a football game. That was very impressive. The guys on the other side were quiet. I think they were intimidated by this. The morale of the other side was shot to hell. They didn't have much to fight for, except to defend Somoza.

“The Guardia were disciplined. They didn’t run away. They held tight until the end and didn’t collapse until Somoza left. Militarily it was a standoff, though we had no air power and only limited artillery.

“One of my first memories was when I came across this National Guard truck that had been ambushed. It was in the middle of the highway in no-man’s land. Everybody was killed. I climbed in the back and found that the soldiers had been dead for several days. The rain and the sun had kind of melted the bodies into each other. There were several soldiers on the side of the road covered by vegetation. One of them couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. a tiny little thing. His boots looked like children’s boots. I remember thinking that Somoza was a criminal for sending those kids out here. I felt so bad for him. I didn't feel hatred for the National Guard. I felt pity. The average soldier was just a little peon who had no place to go and joined for economic reasons or was conscripted.”

MacRenato’s men operated on the southern front in an area around Sapoa, near Lake Nicaragua. The distance between the front lines of the two forces was between 100 and 300 yards.

“One day Hugo wanted me to go on a special mission. We needed to know how much ammunition was left, that kind of thing. So I went out with my rifle and notebook. Then when I got out on the front line, they ordered us to move from one hill to another.

“The guy who led this particular group was a campesino from Spain. We called him Pedro el español — everybody went by first name only. He was dumb as hell and lost the whole column. 300.men. That night it rained, a real monsoon. We were walking around in circles, with the National Guard a few hundred yards away. People were beginning to panic, and you could feel it. A lot of the young guys were saying we should get out of there and everybody take off on their own. A rout was beginning.

“I stood up in the dark and said, ‘If any motherfucker leaves his place. I’ll stay here because I came here to die for my country, not to fuck around and be a coward. Nobody is going to fucking move out of here because if he does I’ll shoot him.’ That’s one thing I learned in the Marine Corps. To prevent a rout, you shoot the first guy who runs. That’s what they teach you.

“Finally, in the morning, we came up to this dirt road that went through a kind of tunnel made of trees. We could see the legs of people standing there, but we didn’t know if they were our guys or the National Guard. We didn’t know what to do. Finally, somebody decided to shout, and it turned out they were Sandinistas. They didn’t even know we were around.

“Then somebody said, ‘Is Pablo here?’ and that was me. Hugo wanted to talk to me. So I went to a ranch house where they had a radio. I walked down this trail and called Hugo, who told me to report back to headquarters. About an hour or two later, this guy from Panama walked down the same trail and a sniper picked him off.”

As it turned out, even revolutionary leaders could have been picked off with relative ease. “One time at night I came to report some strange lights out on Lake Nicaragua. I had to drive about five miles to where Eden Pastora was. We had an anti-tank weapon that I could use to take out a patrol boat. There were a lot of cows in the area and they were restless, so I thought there might be an enemy patrol around. When I got to headquarters, there were no sentries. If the Guardia had been smart, they could have sent a combat patrol and pulled a fast one on us. We weren’t very well organized as a military.

“This one young guy fell asleep on guard duty and got me very upset. So I tied him to a tree. He spent several hours there and it rained. Then there was an artillery barrage and he was still tied to the tree, all through the attack. Then I let him go, but the point was that you had to take all this seriously. This is war.”

The revolutionary zeal they had shown in camp was not enough to keep others in the fight, particularly the internacionalistas. “This guy from Venezuela asked me for permission to go out and have his eyes checked, and I sensed that it was a bullshit story. He never came back. Another guy was in his 40s and had been in the field a long time. He left and never returned. There was no relief for the troops, and that was one of the problems. It was mostly stress, and they didn’t know how to deal with that.

“The Guardia had helicopters that would circle like vultures and drop 500-pound bombs. This Costa Rican guy, Tico, was in charge of his own column. He was talking to us when this helicopter came and dropped a bomb that dug a huge crater. A big piece of shrapnel ripped through his shoulder. I couldn't find his arm, but his hand was in perfect shape. You could see his lung, and his eyes were still open.

“Another day there were about eight of us in a truck. The windshield had been blown away, so the driver had put up a burlap sack to keep out the bugs and din. He cut a little hole so he could see. Then this enemy plane fired some rockets at us, and they exploded above the truck. All I remember is that the driver’s eyes got real big. I couldn't stop laughing. But it was a close call.’*

On other occasions, the rebels captured key figures from the other side. “We had a guerrilla band operating behind their lines. We wanted to take Rivas, the major city in the south. This young schoolteacher named Ezequiel led the operation. They captured a man who used to be president of the Liberal party and president of the legislative chamber. His name was Comelio Hueck, a very famous and totally corrupt politician. A couple of years earlier, Somoza had a heart attack and was afraid this guy was going to make a move to take over the presidency. Somoza came back and fired him.

“During the war, Hueck found himself on this farm in the middle of this area controlled by guerrilla bands, a no-man’s land. I was in headquarters when Ezequiel called in. Eden was out and comandante Marvin was in charge. ’What should I do with this guy?’ Ezequiel asked. Marvin told him to apply revolutionary justice. Later I asked Ezequiel what happened. Hueck offered him one million pesos to let him go. Ezequiel turned him down and they executed the guy.”

President Carter, toward the end of his term, cut off military aid to Somoza. Without U.S. support, the regime’s days were numbered. Somoza eventually abandoned his bunker and fled to Paraguay.

“When Somoza left, the Guardia blasted us with everything they had. They rained shells on us the whole night. In the morning we saw that they had left their positions and ran to the nearest port, San Juan del Sur, and there they commandeered every boat they could find and sailed up to El Salvador.”

July 19, 1979, the victorious revolutionaries poured into Managua, a jubilant MacRenato among them. “We came into the main square of Managua in the back of the truck. We were really high with excitement, and all these people surrounded us. We were grubby, and they thought we were starving. Someone chopped up a pineapple and gave it to us. We had a megaphone and started shouting slogans like ’El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!' (’The people united will never be defeated’) and ‘Viva el pueblo heroico de Managua!’ (‘Long live the heroic people of Managua’). There were thousands of people, and they all responded. We used to call each other companero and compita, and now the people called us that. It was a real good feeling.”

Before long, the celebrations got out of hand. “After the war everybody was confiscating cars and crashing them right and left. They couldn’t drive worth shit and would just abandon the cars when they stopped running. There was no control. The country almost ran out of cars.

“I knew a guy named Baltazar, from Esteli, who used to drive around in a pickup truck. If you were a combatiente, you would just go to the station and fill up. He would bum a tank every day just driving around Managua taking furniture from abandoned houses. I started asking what he did before the revolution and found out he ran a cantina and house of ill repute. He was just doing what came naturally.”

MacRenato also found hangers-on who didn’t fight but tried to pass themselves off as revolutionaries. “Everybody was there after the triunfo, the PLO, East Germans, the Russians. It was a circus. Torrijos was there. Trotskyites were there, but they were expelled for trying to organize the people in the factories. Che Guevara's sister was there. Fidel Castro made several secret trips.”

The Cuban leader proved an inspiration to Tomas Borge, head of the Sandinistas’ secret police. “Tomas Borge immediately started talking like a Cuban and acting like Fidel Castro,” says MacRenato. “He even tried to dress like Fidel but couldn’t figure out which hat to wear. He looked like a clown. Before you never saw the guy. He never came to the front lines.

“There was a story that Somoza’s men had tortured Borge and crushed his balls. In Nicaragua, the slang word for the currency is bola. At the time La Prensa was selling for two pesos, or dos balos. The joke was, ‘Why doesn't Tomas Borge read La Prensa? Because he doesn’t have dos bolas. ’ Borge knew about the jokes, and it infuriated him. He told one of my friends that he was going to drop his pants in front of a crowd to prove that he had dos bolas.”

Within two months of the triumph, says MacRenato, new conflicts were starting. Without a common enemy, the revolutionary factions turned on each other, and often on the populace. “It was chaos. There was no organized authority. The revolutionary leadership, the Nine, were too busy in front of the news cameras and giving bullshit speeches to attend to the real business, to establish some kind of order. The Sandinistas needed another 20 years of maturity before they knew how to rule. They appointed this guy from Chinandega, about 21, to be ambassador to Cuba, which they considered the most important country. You had teenagers exercising authority. They had no notion of how to organize anything. A lot of people got shot by teenagers brandishing weapons and firing in the air.

“There was a lot of getting even, terrorizing neighbors by informing on them. The person being arrested had no idea of the charges, who made them, or how long he would be in jail. There was no access to lawyers. The families had no idea where these people were. One guy I went to school with was terrorized by interrogations. The only one who was safe was a guy with a gun, a uniform, and a beard. I kept my gun until the end.”

The first post-Somoza government was a coalition of Marxists and non-Marxists, but the hardline faction of the Sandinistas, headed by the nine comandantes, quickly tilted the country toward the Cubans and Soviets. Like Baltazar the furniture thief, the Sandinistas also helped themselves to property.

“It was the worst looting in the history of our country,” says MacRenato, “worse than Somoza because now nine people were doing it instead of just one. They did it at the beginning when they first came in, and they did it on the way out. Tomas Borge had three houses and spent thousands on air conditioning.”

MacRenato worked for Bernardino Larios, the minister of defense appointed by the coalition. One of MacRenalo’s tasks was serving as a liaison with the immigration department. “Borge had jurisdiction over immigration, and a few times I went to his building to get him to stamp passports. He had this young woman there who controlled the flow of people, a real bitch. I was in civilian clothes that day, and she gave me a lot of shit. I went back to the office and wrote a letter on official stationery and sent it to Borge with my title, assistant to the ministry of defense and jefe de protocolos — chief of protocol. He immediately removed her from the post.

“The next time I went there, I was wearing my uniform and packing a .357 magnum. I came up to the elevator, the door opened, and there she was. She started staring at me, and her eyeballs got big. She thought I was going to shoot her."

As MacRenato tells it, the lady in question wasn’t the only one causing problems. “When Somoza was in power, he had a mistress and everybody had to cater to her. Now, with the Sandinistas, there were about six of those women.” One was Gioconda Belli, the sister of Humberto Belli, the current minister of education.

“Gioconda comes from a very wealthy family, and the Sandinistas came to power foaming at the mouth about the burguesia. Anybody who had a good pair of shoes and a clean shirt, they called him a burgues. But the Sandinistas still grabbed mistresses from the wealthiest families. Gioconda was one of these.

“Gioconda had made a name writing revolutionary poetry published by Casa de las Americas in Havana. She worked for Henry Ruiz, one of the nine comandantes who was from a poor family. They were as opposite as you could imagine. Gioconda became the person who was running the ministry of economic planning. They used to joke that her best revolutionary credential was her pussy. Everyone was mad at her because she had a very abrasive personality. Even Ruiz eventually broke up with her.

“The Sandinistas moved quickly to squeeze out anyone who was not a Marxist. They made their working conditions unbearable. They would take you out of your office and make you listen to some idiot Marxist for three hours. Herty Lewites, minister of tourism, would drag everyone to these Marxist seminars.

“Lewites is now worth over $20 million, and he made all that money during the Contra War. The people were starved for consumer goods, and anyone who wanted them had to buy them from this guy. The country was at the mercy of the government monopoly”

MacRenato also encountered the political tourists who became known as “Sandalistas” and were thoroughly despised by the people. Many were dogmatic Marxists and more anti-American than the Sandinistas. “One of them was Margaret Randall.” MacRenato remembers. “She gave up her U.S. citizenship in the ’60s and moved to Cuba, where she married a carpenter. I was at dinner with her once. She had only been in Nicaragua two weeks and took the side that government was right no matter what. It was a perfect example of someone coming to the country and telling the natives what the hell was good for them. That was paternalism — maternal ism in this case. She wrote some book about Nicaraguan women and then decided she wanted to be an American citizen again and left.”

MacRenato stayed but became increasingly disturbed about the direction the revolution was taking. “Obviously, there were people with hidden agendas, a Marxist blueprint for Nicaragua, but that’s not what people were fighting for. People never voted to impose a more controlled society than before, with censorship worse than any Latin American nation except Cuba. People used to throw rocks at photographers from Barricada, the official Sandinista paper, because they regarded them as spies for the secret police.

“In late December of ’79, they removed Larios from defense and put in Humberto Ortega. It was a coup d’etat, and nobody protested, not even Violeta Chamorro or Alfonso Robelo, who were in the government. Now, 11 years later, that is the only post the Sandinistas refuse to give up, even with an overwhelming electoral defeat. This tells you how significant their move was at the time.”

MacRenato found some of his best efforts rejected. “I was there to fight a revolution and use my military knowledge, but I also had a Peace Corps mentality. I even tried to get the Peace Corps to come back, but the comandantes were not interested. The Sandinistas wanted the Cubans. I also brought an offer of $9 million, and all they had to do was ask for it. They wouldn’t have anything to do with that either.

“Some Sandinistas didn’t trust me because I was not a Marxist and had a mind of my own. This guy thinks too much and asks too many questions,’ they would say. Others knew what I did in the war and liked me. But I refused to become a political Moonie for them.”

MacRenato stayed until March of 1980, a year before the Contra War began, and left on good terms. He emerged unscathed, unlike Somoza, who was assassinated in Paraguay. MacRenato believes that the Montoneros, a group of Argentinian revolutionaries, killed the deposed dictator as an act of solidarity.

Another victim was Ezequiel, the teacher who led the guerrilla band behind enemy lines. “The Sandinistas killed him after the war.’’ MacRenato says. “He was not a Marxist.”

Eden Pastora survived an assassination attempt and is back doing what he did before the war — fishing for sharks. MacRenato’s comrade Hugo Spadafora was not so lucky. His mentor Omar Torrijos died, and Manuel Noriega took over. “I heard that Noriega said, ‘Bring me the head of Hugo Spadafora, who had exposed his drug dealing. Noriega’s men took him literally,” says MacRenato. “They pulled Hugo’s head off by tying a rope around his neck and dragging him behind a vehicle. Now Kevin Buckley claims in Panama: The Whole Story that the Medellin cartel gave the order to kill Hugo.”

Does MacRenato believe that he and fellow rebels did the right thing?

“I was once interviewed for a White House fellowship. One of the questions, which I didn’t expect, was ‘Do you regret anything in life?’ I thought about it and realized that the correct answer was ‘I regret nothing,’ because there is nothing you can change.

“The fact that we were naive in certain areas or were betrayed by the Marxists doesn't change the fact that we had to get rid of Somoza and his thieves. The people later took care of business and got rid of the Sandinistas, although they are not all out. And to the extent that they remain, creating mischief, the economy will sink deeper and deeper.

“But we made the right move.”

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