SANTIAGO — They were a small force — about the number Fidel Castro relied on to carry out his audacious rebellion against the rule of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.
The year was 1979, and more than 80 Cuban-trained Chilean military officers had snuck into Nicaragua to join the Sandinista guerrillas in their final offensive against dictator Anastasio Somoza.
And like Castro's 26th of July Movement, these would-be Chilean revolutionaries were ultimately key to the ouster of one of Latin America's most despised regimes.
They had arrived in small groups at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border aboard spindly aircraft in June that year from Havana, Cuba. Once there, they shed their real identities and civilian clothes and started advising column leaders, establishing command posts, assisting the wounded and teaching the poorly trained Nicaraguan guerrillas the basics of warfare.
Now, 30 years later, they are back in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of a defining chapter of their lives.
Back then, most of them were young, disciplined members of Chile’s Communist and Socialist parties who had arrived in Cuba in the early 1970s on scholarships to study medicine. The military coup in their home country that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende in September 1973 reshuffled their priorities.
“We felt isolated in Cuba, and felt bad because people were being killed in Chile and there we were, studying to become doctors,” recalled Juan Luis Vasquez, then a medical student and later an artillery officer. "We started demanding military training so we could return to Chile and fight the dictatorship."
Two years later, Cuban president Fidel Castro made a welcome offer: Cuba would admit them in its military academies to begin formal careers as infantry and artillery officers.
And so the 20 young Socialists and 60 Communists began training in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), with the same rights and duties as the Cubans. They were told they would be the seed of a new revolutionary army that would eventually overthrow the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
Other Chilean leftists who had arrived from exile from Europe or Latin America also entered the academies. Ten women, all medical students, received special military training and were assigned to army units after graduation.
After several trying years in Cuban military units, in June 1979, they were sent to Nicaragua. The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, or FSLN) had launched its final offensive against the Somoza dictatorship, and had asked Cuba for help. They needed officers to help them use the artillery they had obtained and serve as advisers to their guerrilla columns. The task fell on the Chileans. More than 70 Chilean officers and the 10 military doctors were soon on their way to fight a war on foreign soil.
They were ecstatic. But how did they feel about the possibility of dying in combat for a country they barely knew about?
“I never thought about that,” said Carlos Jiles, a former medical student turned infantry officer, and now a cab driver in Santiago. “When you participate in these things, you’re not thinking about death. Maybe we blocked that possibility from our minds, or thought we were superheroes, but we thought those things happened only to others. We had higher ideals, we were revolutionaries and we had one goal in mind: to win the war.”
The Chilean officers immediately organized artillery brigades and three of them were incorporated to the Sandinista Front’s Chief of Staff. The rest participated as "advisers" to guerrilla columns, though owing to their formal training they often became de facto column leaders. Other Chilean officers set up a basic military training school for the dozens of Latin American volunteers who were flooding Nicaragua’s southern border to join the ranks of the Sandinistas.
“Many of the Nicaraguans were relieved when we got there, at least in terms of the use of their artillery. At first, when we had to take their artillery pieces away from them to create organized units, we encountered a lot of resistance. But they didn’t know how to use them. Soon they realized that it was better to group the pieces under the direction of people who did know,” Vasquez recalled.
Somoza fled the country on July 17, 1979, and the Chileans joined in the euphoria, accompanying the thousands of triumphant guerrillas in caravan towards the capital, Managua.
“We had read and talked a lot about revolution, but the fact that we actually participated in a revolution that triumphed is something that happens only exceptionally in someone’s life. The experience in the guerrilla put us to test as persons; we realized the value of life and how material things have absolutely no value,” reflected Avelina Cisternas, one of the military doctors who were part of the Chilean contingent.
Many of them stayed in Nicaragua to help create and train the new army, police and air force. They were joined by several former officers of the Chilean Air Force and dozens of other Chileans who throughout the 1980s continued to train in Cuba as career officers or guerrilla tacticians.
In Nicaragua, most were assigned to special army battalions set up to combat the counterrevolutionary forces (“contras”) funded by the United States that were operating from Nicaragua’s southern and northern borders.
Four Chileans died during the final offensive. More than a dozen more lost their lives later combating the contras, in accidents or fighting alongside guerrilla forces in El Salvador.
After the return to democracy in Chile in 1990, the relatives of many of the combatants who died in Central America began the painful task of repatriating their remains. They eventually brought back a dozen of them, and built a mausoleum in Santiago’s General Cemetery to bury them together. Others still lay in Nicaraguan or Salvadoran cemeteries, while a handful remain disappeared.
A group of officers eventually returned to Cuba, but only a handful finished medical school — among them, Vasquez, who is now a doctor in a public hospital in Santiago.
In fact, most had serious difficulties pursuing studies or holding a job in the years that ensued. After Nicaragua, many entered clandestinely into Chile, living underground with false names until at least 1990, when Pinochet stepped down. Most were left with resumes featuring an unexplained 15-year gap from 1975 to 1990, when they were guerrillas or underground combatants in Chile.
Although proud of their past, most aren’t willing to speak about it in public.
“When politicians negotiated the transition from dictatorship to civilian rule in Chile, those of us who resisted, who confronted the regime, became a thorn on their side,” said Patricio Stuardo, another artillery officer, and now a university employee. "This is a deeply ethical question, especially for those that called for civil disobedience, national uprising and armed confrontation during dictatorship, and now turn their backs on the role we played."
Over the past year, they have timidly revealed their past, speaking in forums, offering press interviews, and cooperating in recent documentaries, academic projects and books that tell their story.
Three decades later and with the Sandinistas back in power, Vasquez, Jiles, Stuardo and Cisternas are part of a 50-plus group of former combatants who returned this month to Nicaragua to celebrate a revolution they feel as their own, and honor their dead.
Read more on Nicaragua: