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Contras, an anti-Sandinista military force funded by the administration of President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. Conceived in 1981 as an armed force to interdict arms supplies shipped from Nicaragua to anti-government guerrillas in El Salvador, the contras grew from a five-hundred-man force to an estimated twelve thousand men with the objective of ousting the Sandinistas from political power. The contras eventually represented Nicaragua's diverse political factions: ex-Somocistas, Miskito Indians and disgruntled Sandinistas, and members of Nicaragua's upper, middle, and lower social sectors. U.S. congressional discontent with the contras' attacks upon civilian targets and their continued human rights violations led in 1984 to the Boland Amendment, which cut military aid to them. The Reagan administration then turned to the National Security Council, where Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North solicited money from leaders of oil-rich nations and generated funds from missile sales to Iran. Operating from base camps in Honduras, the contras conducted forays into Nicaragua but never controlled any territory inside the country, nor did they ever gain popular support. As Reagan's Central American policy came under increasing criticism at home, Central American peace initiatives took hold. In 1989, first at Tesoro Beach, El Salvador, in February and then at Tela, Honduras, in August, the Central American presidents forged an agreement that provided for free elections in Nicaragua and the disbanding of the contras. Under these conditions, the U.S. Congress appropriated $49.7 million in humanitarian aid for the contras pending the results of the February 1990 elections. When Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega Saavedra for the Nicaraguan presidency, the justification for the existence of the contras disappeared. Under the supervision of a United Nations peacekeeping force, the contras were disbanded by June 1990, but not all returned to Nicaragua. Some remained scattered throughout Central America, while the wealthier supporters resided in the United States.

See alsoNicaragua, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); United States-Latin American Relations.


Robert A. Pastor, Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua (1987).

Bob Woodward, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981–1987 (1987).

U.S. Congress. House Of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, Iran-Contra Affair. 100th Congress, 1st session, House Report No. 100-433, Senate Report No. 100-216 (1987).

Roy Gutman, Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua, 1981–1987 (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Brown, Timothy C. The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Cameron, Bruce P. My Life in the Time of the Contras. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.

Sobel, Richard. Public Opinion in U.S. Foreign Policy: The Controversy over Contra Aid. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993.

Webb, Gary. Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

Zamora R., Augusto. El conflicto Estados Unidos-Nicaragua, 1979–1990. Managua: Fondo Editorial CIRA, 1996.

                                      Thomas M. Leonard

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