Internationalists’ role in Nicaragua’s 1979 Revolution
By Hernán Cano
The Argentine author conducted this interview with Venezuelan Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein for the news agency Sputnik in preparation for the July anniversary of the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution. Its introduction noted that Rodriguez Gelfenstein, whose guerrilla father was forced out of Chile by the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet, was, at 22, an officer in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces and participated in the last month of Nicaragua’s war of liberation with an international contingent fighting the Somoza dictatorship and later in the training of the national army. Translation: John Catalinotto.
Since that July 20, Nicaragua has been an accumulation of indelible, eternal memories, of enormous happiness that demand a continuous commitment to the revolution. “Just as we [Venezuelans] have [Simón] Bolivar, Nicaragua has Sandino, and that creates an imprint, a way of being and looking at ourselves,” says Rodriguez Gelfenstein.
And he recalls that “It is not in Playa Girón, where the first defeat of imperialism in America took place, but in Nicaragua [in 1933], when General Augusto César Sandino expelled the invading Yankee army.” Today, four decades after those convulsive years, “Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela have configured, not an axis of evil, but a triangle that continues with the tradition of anti-imperialist struggle,” he emphasizes.
Hernán Cano: How did you connect with the Sandinista Revolution?
Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein: My father was imprisoned in the National Stadium in Chile after the coup d’état against Salvador Allende. Then he left for Peru and could not return to Venezuela, because he had pending cases from when he participated in the guerrilla struggle.
Under those conditions and after receiving several offers, he chose to go to Cuba. I was 17 years old, and when I arrived in Havana, I requested military training. Together with a group of Chilean comrades, because I was also Chilean, we received military training in the Cuban regular army.
It was the period when almost all the Cuban military were going on internationalist missions, for example in Africa, and many of us asked to be sent on one of those missions. But Fidel, in his infinite wisdom, said no, we should wait, that the time would come for those of us who were not Cubans.
HC: Excuse me for interrupting. Were you an officer in the Cuban Armed Forces?
SRG: Yes, at that time I was a lieutenant; I was head of an artillery battery, and I was in charge of 64 soldiers, with six 122 mm howitzers, and I performed duties like any regular officer of the Cuban army. That was already 1979; I was 22 years old.
HC: Then, your time came with Nicaragua. How did you find out that you were going to fight with the Sandinistas?
SRG: I was returning to my unit from a maneuver at a firing range; it was after 11 o’clock at night; and since we returned all the weapons to a safe place, with all the security measures in place, it was 1 o’clock in the morning.
When I left everything ready, and the soldiers went to bed to sleep, I went to the General Staff of my regiment and reported that everything was in order and everything was safe. And I retired.
When I had walked about 40 meters, an officer came running and told me that I had to return to the General Staff. I thought the worst. And then I was informed that an order had arrived to report to the General Staff of my division, in Havana, at 5 a.m., and that we were going on a maneuver to Camagüey, where the Armed Forces main polygon was located.
I was 40 kilometers away from Havana, bearded, full of mud. I could not go like that. They put me in a truck to get to the first town, and then I found a taxi and arrived at my mother’s house at 2:30 a.m. She lived two blocks away from my house.
My mother woke up and asked me what I was doing at that hour. I told her that I was called to a maneuver and that I had to leave early. And my mother, who never knew why, told me: “No, you are going to Nicaragua.”
HC: At 5 a.m., Lieutenant Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein arrived in Havana. . . .
SRG: I arrived, and other comrades from other divisions began to arrive. We were informed that at 6 o’clock we had to be at the Army General Staff. And the first surprising thing was that there were not only officers, there was a lot of movement, a lot of secrecy; and we began to see officers from the special troops of the Ministry of the Interior.
They gathered us together; they told us that we were going to a school — I later learned that it was one of those schools where guerrillas were trained — and they informed us that we had to get ready, because we were going to Nicaragua. And that night Fidel arrived to tell us about the mission.
HC: What was the mission he proposed to you?
SRG: Fidel’s idea was that there was a stalemate in Nicaragua that could not be broken; and that to break that stalemate, it had to be broken on the Southern Front by creating a large contingent that would initiate an offensive that would break with the Sandinistas’ traditional form of combat, which was to strike and retreat.
For Fidel it was necessary to “strike and stay, occupy the territory.” He said that with the arrival of a large contingent of internationalist fighters, [President Anastasio] Somoza would sell the idea that he was fighting against international communism in order to ask for help from the whole world. This would force Somoza to concentrate most of his military force on the Southern Front, loosening the tension on the other guerrilla fronts and allowing the Sandinistas to go on the offensive.
That was Fidel’s great strategic conception. He told us: “You have to go in, advance as far as you can, dig a trench, stay there, resist and create a liberated territory.” That was the mission he set out for us.
HC: When did you arrive in Nicaraguan territory?
SRG: We left Havana on June 16, , slept in Panama on the 17th; and on June 18, we arrived in Nicaragua on a Panamanian Air Force plane that Omar Torrijos had arranged. We arrived at a landing paddock that had been set up for us, some 20 kilometers from Nicaragua in Costa Rican territory, because there had been an agreement between Fidel, General Torrijos and the president of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Carazo, who was an enemy of the Somoza dictatorship.
HC: What references did you have at that time about the insurrection in Nicaragua and the Sandinista Front?
SRG: When we arrived at the place where we were concentrated in Cuba, which was called Punto Cero, a legendary place in the history of the Latin American revolutionary movement, we knew the history of Sandino’s resistance and the defeat of the U.S. in Nicaragua. We knew about the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front], because the Cuban press reported on the actions being carried out, but it was general information.
But for us it was like going to Uruguay or Honduras, because in Cuba we were trained in an internationalist spirit, and we had the conviction that we had to fight against imperialism, as Che said, wherever it was. And it was Fidel, who went there every day, who explained to us what was happening in Nicaragua, the political situation, the issue of the internal unity of the Sandinista Front, the general conception of the war.
Moreover, at that time there were no projectors; and one of those days, Fidel took a piece of chalk and drew the map from memory. At the place where we were going to arrive, he detailed the hills, the river, the nearby towns, the road, an incredible level of detail, all from memory, so much so that when we arrived we said: “Fidel was here.” No, he was a genius.
HC: You arrive on the 18th, and what do you find?
SRG: On the 18th I took part in my first combat, a crazy one, because without authorization from the higher command, the leader of a column tried to take a completely bare hill and sent the Sandinista troops to cross the river and advance. And the machine guns swept them away.
I was there directing the artillery fire, and they radioed me the order to withdraw. There were dozens of casualties that day. That was my baptism of fire in the Southern Front, in a contingent where there were Chileans, Uruguayans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Sandinista fighters who were being trained in Cuba and who were sent back but subordinate to us. It was a very curious thing, a true internationalist contingent.
HC: You were in combat for a month until the Sandinista victory — how do you remember it?
SRG: This is a look from the perspective of the knowledge I have today; at that time, I was a low-ranking officer who had a mission to accomplish and did not have the big picture.
At some point it became clear that the stalemate was going to be maintained; we did not have the capacity to break it, but they did not have the capacity to defeat us. Especially because we had open logistics, we had the border with Costa Rica and through there everything could reach us, we could continue supplying ourselves with ammunition, weapons, food, everything.
And as expected, Somoza concentrated, first the EEBI, which was the School of Basic Infantry Training, an elite force whose chief was his son, and then the little aviation that Somoza had was concentrated in the Southern Front, the artillery also — they had a battery of multiple rocket launchers that had been sent by the military of the Argentine dictatorship. It was a month of tug of war, but what Fidel predicted finally happened.
Hernan Cano: How was the victorious march to Managua?
Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein: We started the march north after noon on July 19, , because once they gave us the order to get ready to go to Managua, we had to store the ammunition, box it up, secure it for the trip; we had mortars buried, etc. And it was a very slow march, because people came out to the road to greet us; they gave us mangoes, coffee; they wanted to get on the trucks with their children.
We advanced, but they gave us the order to turn off and go to the city of Granada, which was the cradle of the Nicaraguan oligarchy, a very reactionary city, and I think the Sandinista Front wanted to make a show of force. So we slept there, and we left very early for Managua.
There, in the final stretch we made toward Managua, the massiveness of the people in the streets was impressive. At the end, they told us that we had to go to what was called “Somoza’s bunker,” the National Security Office. There we left the artillery, the trucks, the ammunition; and the comrades began to go to the plaza, because it was known that a big celebration was being organized in the plaza.
And that day, which was July 20, was impressive — the guerrilla fronts were in the square, the national leadership of the Sandinista Front, the Government Junta of National Reconstruction, and the people were totally involved.
HC: How do you feel about that day?
SRG: I say that it was the most beautiful day of my life. For the march, for the outpouring of people, for the happiness of the elderly and the children, for seeing so many happy people and for feeling that we had managed to help make the ignominy of decades disappear.
Transform the guerrilla army into a regular army
And there begins another story, since we had to transform the guerrilla army into a regular army. And we were the ones who knew how to do it. We did, because we had training from the military academies.
HC: What was that process like?
SRG: It was up to us, the artillerymen, to train the artillery school; we made plans, schools and the structuring of the Armed Force that was needed to defend that country. That was the task of July and August. And on August 27, the heroic day of Pancasan was commemorated in Nicaragua, in which they celebrated some important struggles that had taken place in the past and which is a very important anniversary for the Sandinista Front — and it was decided that year to hold the first military parade of the then Sandinista Popular Army.
So, the tank men started to fix the tanks; we fixed the artillery, and the infantrymen taught the soldiers, who were guerrilla boys, to march in formation for the parade. And the parade was impressive; a little more than a month had passed since the triumph of the Revolution.
That is how we began the military training, the methodology, the study of what is called the theater of military operations: the study of the terrain and the enemy, the capacity of our troops, and that year 1979 was all about that.
At the end of 1979 in December, the first manifestations of counterrevolutionary action began to take place.
HC: Were there still remnants of Somocismo?
SRG: No, there was nothing left of Somocismo. But there was a right wing that was anti-Somocista and was also part of the Government Junta of National Reconstruction. And in the first days of December ’79, I was sent with a battery of artillery to reinforce an infantry battalion on the border with Honduras, because there were some provocations by the Honduran army.
They sent us to make a show of force. We even made an extraordinary move there, because we closed the highway where trucks go to all of Central America; and with the infantry battalion, the artillery and the truckloads of soldiers, we left the highway to a side road and re-entered further on. And we did it again and again. The next day the newspapers reported a large contingent of thousands of soldiers arriving at the border, and it was just us.
HC: When did you decide to leave Nicaragua?
SRG: I stayed until 1983. I went through several assignments — we restructured the army; I went to work in the General Staff, then in the Air Force General Staff, and at the end I was sent to a school created for the training of sergeants. But there, Cuban officers with a lot of experience were already in Nicaragua; they were our teachers.
The head of the mission was a colonel, and all the others were colonels and lieutenant colonels — even our first chief had fought in the Cuban Revolution against [Fulgencio] Batista. The structure of the mission had already been set up in accordance with the requests made by the Sandinistas, according to the army they wanted to have.
Then in the ’80s, I was part of the contingent of the Communist Party of Chile; and in the restructuring that we did, I was in charge of political relations, which were not public. And some Salvadoran collaborators arrived and contacted us to have a meeting with a leader from El Salvador. We went, and the meeting was with Schafik Handal [1930-2006, leader of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)].
Schafik told us that progress was being made toward the construction of the unity of all the forces, that an organization was being created, the FMLN, and that an offensive was being prepared for the first days of 1981. And he asked us for help, because the Communist Party had great experience in mass struggle, workers’ struggle and great organizational capacity, but not military. And then we supported the construction of the General Staff of the Armed Liberation Force, which was the armed wing of the Salvadoran Communist Party.
And I was there for three years because when the war began, the General Staff of the FMLN continued to function in Managua with Schafik until they created conditions and moved that structure. But our eyes were set on Chile, on the struggle against the dictatorship, so we began to put pressure on our leadership to leave.
In 1982 the first comrades who returned founded the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front. I returned to Cuba in 1983 and entered Chile in 1984.
HC: And what is your assessment of these long 43 years?
SRG: Nicaragua has a very particular pull, which makes you always feel linked to it. I have many great friends there — note that today’s army generals were combatants 43 years ago; they were soldiers. And when you forge bonds of friendship in war, in insurrectional struggle, in that beautiful period of construction of the Army, they are bonds that do not fade. For me they are eternal, and I believe that for them too.
In all these years, there are three well-marked stages:
From 1979 until they lost the elections in 1990, a stage of revolution under harassment, aggression, blockade, with armed mercenaries, they had almost no time for peace in the midst of a war supported by the United States. And yet all social and economic levels of Nicaragua grew. Despite the devastation of the war, the revolution made the country literate.
And in the second stage, when neoliberalism was enthroned in the 1990s, all of this went backwards. Nicaragua is the only country in the world where two literacy campaigns had to be carried out, because when Sandinismo returned in 2007, it had to be started again.
Since 2007 different international organizations began to talk about the Nicaraguan miracle; but in 2018 there was an attempted coup instigated, organized and financed by the United States and Europe, and everything that had been going well was stopped, so much so that the aftermath of that coup attempt is still being felt.
Now Nicaragua is beginning a fourth period that we can call recovery, the fight against poverty and resistance.