Today I came across an interesting bit of information while writing about the role of Nicaraguans during the Costa Rican civil war of 1948. It involves the ever-changing allegiances of Abelardo Cuadra, a Nicaraguan who fought against Augusto Sandino, later plotted to assassinate Anastasio Somoza García, and managed to fight for and against the Caribbean Legion. Although it is not quite clear whether he was an idealist or an opportunist, Cuadra’s story highlights the paucity of both ideological and national boundaries in the post-war Caribbean.
Much of what we know about Cuadra comes from his memoir, Hombre del Caribe (1977), in which he recounts his numerous exploits. As a young man, Cuadra was a member of the Nicaraguan Conservative party, which largely represented the country’s elites, and left school at the age of 22 to fight for them during the 1926 civil war. During the Sandino Rebellion, Cuadra served as a second lieutenant in the Guardia Nacional in the Segovias, Sandino’s home department, and later aided in the plot to assassinate Sandino. However, he was not unswervingly loyal to Somoza García. Cuadra believed Somoza García had corrupted the ideals of the Guardia and conspired to assassinate the jefe director in 1934 and 1935. Both attempts failed and Cuadra was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to exile. It was while in exile that Cuadra found like-minded individuals committed to removing Somoza García and the region’s other dictators from power.
After having lived in exile in Costa Rica, Cuadra traveled to Cuba in 1947 and joined with other Caribbean exiles planning an invasion of the Dominican Republic. As discussed in a previous post, following World War II democratic and dictatorial forces battled over the ideological future of the Caribbean. Towards the end of 1947, a group Caribbean democrats conspired to launch an invasion of the Dominican Republic from a small island off the coast of Cuba. Their goal was to oust the Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo. Ultimately, the invasion never materialized, but this group of revolutionaries constituted what, less than a year later, would become the Caribbean Legion. With the Dominican invasion canceled, Cuadra returned to Costa Rica, however it would not be his last encounter with the Caribbean Legion.
In 1948 Jose Figueres, an exiled landowner and future president of Costa Rica, launched what he termed a “war of national liberation” to free his homeland of what he saw as a communist and autocratic government. Figueres secured the support of many democratic exiles, including those involved in the failed invasion of the Dominican Republic, as well as many Nicaraguans fighting under the promise that after its liberation Costa Rica would become the springboard in ousting Somoza García. It was this group of exiles that journalists first labeled the Caribbean Legion. However, the term soon came to cover all of the region’s revolution-minded democratic exiles, which leads us back to Abelardo Cuadra.
Because he had served with and shared many of the ideals of the Caribbean Legion, it would be easy to assume that Cuadra fought for Figueres in the Costa Rican civil war. However, Cuadra proves to be a more complex figure than we might imagine. Cuadra related that at the beginning of the conflict Figueres’ men approached him about joining their struggle. However, he declined the invitation and instead allied with the government forces. Cuadra said that he could not justify joining the revolutionaries because he believed that Figueres’ cause served the nation’s elites, and he preferred to fight for the poor of Costa Rica. Cuadra could not reconcile the fact that the forces “organized to fight against military dictatorships, such as Trujillo and Somoza, came to Costa Rica to overthrow a government that had authored many social programs” and done much to help unions and the poor. Ironically, by allying with the government, Cuadra would be fighting on the same side as the Somoza regime, which supported the Costa Rican government. Apparently, Cuadra’s distaste of Somoza García was not enough to push him into Figueres’ camp. Despite the rhetoric of the antidictatorial struggle, Cuadra saw the government, and not Figueres, as the true advocates of social justice in Costa Rica. Cuadra, at least in his own words, fought for the people of Costa Rica.
During the civil war, Cuadra led a column of government troops against Figueres’ forces, battling against Nicaraguans and other Caribbean nationals that he had considered his brothers in arms less than a year before. Ultimately, Figueres’ forces won the civil war, and Cuadra fled to Venezuela, where he taught high school classics. In 1979, following the success of the Sandinistas, he quickly became a vocal critic of the regime. Like many moderate Nicaraguans who fought to remove the Somozas from power, Cuadra became disillusioned with the apparent lack of democratic reform under the FSLN and voiced his opposition.
Cuadra, like many historical figures, is inherently more complex than we might assume. According to his own memoirs, his varying allegiances represented a commitment to democratic principles and social justice. However, sometimes the most flattering pictures we paint are of ourselves. It is unclear whether Cuadra was an idealist or an opportunist: a mercenary or a freedom fighter. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
What Cuadra’s story does reveal is the paucity of the region’s national boundaries and the ambiguity of the ideological line separating the democratic and dictatorial camps. Cuadra, like many Caribbean exiles, moved freely from one country to another with relative ease, highlighting the weakness of the region’s national boundaries. Also, his ability to travel back and forth between political camps points to the ill-defined ideological tenets that underlined each movement. Survival motivated the dictators, while those opposed to them varied in their commitment to democracy. There were those who sought to create a Central American republic based on high democratic ideals and others who viewed democratic structures and institutions as the rightful tools of the elites. What united the opposition was their hatred of the dictators. With such varying and ambiguous ideals, it proved easy for someone like Cuadra to move back and forth between factions. He could be both a mercenary and a freedom fighter.
Abelardo Cuadra, Hombre del Caribe: memorias (San José, Costa Rica : Editorial Universitária Centro Américana, 1977)
Charles D. Ameringer, The Democratic Left in Exile (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1974).