Adolfo Calero: Commander of the US-backed Nicaraguan guerrilla group the Contras

Phil Davison
Monday 04 June 2012 19:54 BST

Although he was a lawyer and businessman – a former Coca-Cola executive – Adolfo Calero was also the overall commander of the so-called Contras, who launched a guerrilla war against Nicaragua's ruling communist Sandinistas in the 1980s. A good friend of the US President Ronald Reagan and of the CIA, it was Calero who lobbied successfully for tens of millions of dollars in military and other aid for the Contras – short for Counter-revolutionaries, since the Sandinistas had won power through a 1979 revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza.

As the public face of the Contras, Calero had a major role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal after it emerged that US agents had secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran and funnelled some of the profits as military aid to the Contras. At the time, Calero's top contact in the White House was Reagan's national security adviser Lt-Col Oliver North, who, with the help of the CIA, devised the plan to use the money from the Iranian arms deals to support the Contras. How much Reagan knew of the illegal deals was never clear, but the US President was a staunch supporter of the Contras, convinced that the Sandinistas would spread communism north towards the US. The Contras, Reagan once famously said, "are the moral equivalent of our founding fathers." Reagan also saw US aid to the Contras as an essential balance to Fidel Castro's support for the Sandinistas. Calero would later describe Reagan as "one of the greatest personages of the 20th Century."

Mr Calero said he trusted Lt-Col North and never asked where the US funds came from. "When you're in the desert and you're dying of thirst, you don't ask if the water they are giving you is Schweppes or Perrier," he said. "You just drink the damn thing." In 1987, Calero testified at a US congressional hearing into the Iran-Contra affair, during which he said: "I used to tell Col. North, frankly, everything. I had no reservation. I had full confidence and trust in him." Amid the mutual backscratching, Calero even admitted to giving $50,000 in travellers cheques to North in a clandestine push to liberate US hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

Calero also testified that he had set up secret bank accounts and dummy corporations to receive funds from North, some of it from Saudi Arabia after prodding by Reagan. North was later convicted on several counts, including shredding documents relating to the Iran-Contra affair, and given a suspended sentence. It was later lifted and the former US Marine officer is now a political commentator, author and military historian regularly seen on US TV.

Based mostly in neighbouring Honduras, the Contras had considerable success fighting Sandinista forces in the hills and jungle of Nicaragua in the early 1980s. It was Vietnam-style combat, with the Contras playing the role of the Viet Cong, ambushing government forces or launching hit-and-run attacks. But a 1984 US congressional ban on aid to the Contras would gradually end their military capability. The war cost thousands of lives and delayed the nation's economic progress for the best part of a decade.

In 1988, Calero, on behalf of the Contras, agreed to meet Sandinista leaders for peace talks in the Nicaraguan village of Sapoá, near the Costa Rican border. They signed a ceasefire, international mediation ensued and the Sandinistas agreed to accept free elections if the Contras demobilised. With funds dried up, the Contras had little choice but to lay down their arms, but Calero had achieved through talking what his men could not achieve by fighting. In 1990, the Sandinistas were ousted at the ballot box, their leader, Daniel Ortega, yielding power to conservative publisher Violeta Chamorro, who had supported the Contras.

Calero, who had been based mostly in Florida, returned to his homeland, practised law and became active in conservative politics. He allied himself with liberal Arnoldo Alemán, who became president from 1997-2002, and was a member of parliament during that time, as well as a member of the regional Central American parliament. As things turned out, Ortega and the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007 and were re-elected last year.

Adolfo Calero Portocarrero was born in Managua on 22 December 1931, the eldest of four children of the writer Adolfo Calero Orozco. He was sent to the US to study Law, first at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, later at Syracuse University, New York. While the dictator Somoza was running Nicaragua, those days in the US brought home to Calero the value of freedom, he later said.

He returned home in 1957 to marry Ernestina Lacayo, joined the Nicaraguan Conservative Party and set about opposing the rule of the US-backed Somoza. He was imprisoned briefly in 1978 for taking part in a strike by Somoza opponents.

Going into business alongside his law practice, he was manager of a Coca Cola bottling plant when the Sandinistas ousted Somoza in 1979 and the bespectacled Daniel Ortega and his fellow comandantes took over the country. Calero was glad to see Somoza go, but soon became disenchanted over the direction of the Sandinistas and left for exile in Florida in 1982. As Reagan's administration sought to undermine the Sandinistas, the CIA was instrumental in installing Calero as leader of a guerrilla army it was training. He became commander of the main branch of this army, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, in 1983, and its attacks on Sandinista forces and supporters plunged the country into civil war.

After his death on Saturday, his friends called him a "hero of Nicaraguan democracy" and noted that, despite the millions of dollars that passed through his hands for the Contras, he himself never became a wealthy man. Last year, he published his memoirs, entitled Chronicles of a Contra.

Adolfo Calero died in a Managua hospital after suffering from pneumonia. He is survived by his wife, María, their daughter, Myriam, two sisters and three grandchildren. A son, Adolfo Jnr, died in 1994.

Adolfo Calero Portocarrero, businessman, lawyer and guerrilla leader: born Managua, Nicaragua 22 December 1931; married María Ernestina Lacayo 1957 (two children, one deceased); died Managua 2 June 2012.

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