CONTRA AID. As President James Earl Carter prepared to leave office in 1980, his administration began funneling money to Nicaraguan dissidents in Honduras who planned to interdict the flow of arms from the Sandinistas (who had overthrown the Somoza family dictatorship after more than forty years of rule) to leftist rebels in El Salvador. Soon after taking office in January 1980, President Ronald Reagan approved National Security Decision Directive 17, which increased aid to these dissidents, a small army of anti-Sandinista guerrillas that became known as the contras.
Over the next nine years the contra numbers grew to nearly twelve thousand soldiers. Working from bases in Costa Rica and Honduras, they attacked military and civilian targets in Nicaragua. Initially the stated goal of the contras was the interdiction of arms and containment of the Sandinista threat, but some American policymakers focused on the force as a possible alternative to the Sandinista government. Despite millions of dollars of assistance, the contras gained little support in Nicaragua. The presence of many former members of the regime of Anastasio Somoza—the president of Nicaragua from 1967–1972 and 1974–1979—among the contras undermined efforts by the Reagan administration to portray the organization as a group of freedom fighters.
Ultimately, U.S. congressional efforts to limit contra funding under the Boland Amendments caused a constitutional crisis in the Iran-contra affair. Oliver North and other National Security Council members circumvented congressional restrictions on aid to the contras with funds secured from arms sales to Iran. A significant scandal followed, limiting the ability of the Reagan administration to assist the contras. Furthermore, President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica helped negotiate an end to the fighting in Central America. By 1990 most of the contras had laid down their arms. That same year, the Sandinistas lost power in an election to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. One of the last Cold War struggles ended with the transfer of power from the Sandinistas to her government.
Kagan, Robert. A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977–1990. New York: Free Press, 1996.