Like an old broken bone that still aches when the air turns cold, Nicaraguan commander Edén Pastora has returned to torment Costa Rica when it seemed his legend had long been laid to rest.
But true to Pastora’s friend-turned-enemy, hero-turned-villain history with Costa Rica, the seemingly forgotten Comandante Cero has again assumed a controversial role in the national spotlight.
Last week, in perhaps the most publicized Costa Rican arrest warrant issued in years, prosecutors in northern Caribbean canton of Pococí announced that Pastora, now 73 years old, is wanted for environmental damage caused in the eastern Limón province near the Río San Juan.
In a television interview after hearing a warrant for his arrest had been issued, Pastora remained combative and said he would stay on the Río San Juan, which he considers Nicaraguan territory.
Being shouldered out of a country is nothing new for Pastora, who is commanding the dredge boat that recently cut through Costa Rica’s Isla Calero and sparked a messy border dispute (TT, Nov. 19, Nov. 12, Oct. 29, Oct. 22).
In his long history in the border region, Comandante Cero has been exiled from, and welcomed back into both countries. He has been loved. And he has been equally hated.
Pastora gained Costa Rican citizenship and then renounced it. Changing sides is a recurring theme in his life. As a Sandinista leader, he commanded his fighters to overthrow the Nicaraguan National Palace in 1978. Later, he turned his back on the party of the poor and became a Contra leader with the Nicaraguan Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), commanding that group’s southern front.
It is only fitting that Pastora should now re-emerge into the international spotlight atop a dredge boat on the river dividing the two countries he has both served and fought against.
Pastora’s public image was born on Aug. 22, 1978, when he led 25 members of the Sandinista Liberation Front in an attack on the Nicaraguan National Palace in Managua, a key moment in the Sandinista’s successful attempt to overthrow the government of President Anastasio Somoza.
The raid was the first Sandinista triumph in the revolution, and after a year of fighting and bloodshed – much of it along the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, – Somoza resigned on July 17, 1979, ending his family’s 63-year reign over Nicaragua.
Before he stormed the palace, Pastora became a Costa Rican citizen. One of the first members of the Sandinista party in the 1960s, Pastora was arrested and jailed three times by Somoza’s National Guard before he fled to a small, quiet Costa Rican fishing town named Barra del Colorado, on the mouth of the Río Colorado.
From 1974 to 1978, Pastora lived in the village, fished for sharks, ran the town’s largest electrical generator and sold light bulbs (TT Apr. 2, 1976).
“Everybody here liked him and he generally got along with everyone in town,” Wilton Hodgson, a long-time resident of Barra del Colorado told The Tico Times in September. “We knew his history but he didn’t bring any trouble. He worked and fished just like every one else.”
In an interview with The Tico Times in 1976, Pastora, who was referred to as “Pedro” in the interview to protect his anonymity, said he was retired from combat and guerilla warfare, though he did predict that Somoza’s regime would come to an end in “four to five years.” Pastora also said he felt at home in Costa Rica, where he was naturalized, though he longed to help his native country.
“My heart and soul are across the border with my people, who are fighting the most noble fight, for their freedom,” he was quoted as saying (TT Apr. 2, 1976).
In ’78, after the Sandinista triumph, Pastora assumed the role of interior vice-minister. Despite the triumphant overthrow of the Somoza regime, Pastora soon became disenchanted with the Sandinistas, believing their newly found power had corrupted the party’s original ideals.
“One of the errors of the revolution is not to accept criticism,” Pastora said in 1982. “The nine (commanders) interpret criticism of them as criticism of the revolution. They think Sandinismo begins and ends with them” (TT Apr. 23, 1982).
Miffed by the direction of the revolutionary government, Pastora again fled to Barra del Colorado. After several months of reclusive silence, he held a press conference in April 1982 to denounce the Sandinista party and hint at waging war against his former comrades.
“I’m going to take them out of their mansions and Mercedes at gunpoint,” he said (TT Apr. 16, 1982).
Pastora also reiterated his appreciation and respect for Costa Rica, which he referred to as his second home.
“It’s my second country; here I have many brothers, friends. And maybe it’s the last democracy that remains in America that lets us express ourselves” (TT Apr. 16, 1982).
In the years to follow, Pastora’s anti-Sandinista movement materialized in the southern hills of Nicaragua and in San Juan del Norte, in the southeast corner of Nicaragua. As momentum grew for the rebel offensive, Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge asked Pastora to leave the country on two occasions, fearing that Costa Rica would be implicated as an enabler of war (TT May 28, 1982).
Coincidentally, in the midst of the rumblings of Pastora’s revolutionary attempt, Costa Rica and Nicaragua held their first binational commission meeting in June 1982. The meeting was used to discuss navigation rights and territorial disputes along the Río San Juan (TT June 18, 1982).
This week, 28 years after the first meeting, Costa Rica and Nicaragua were scheduled to hold the eighth meeting of the binational commission to discuss the same issues. The meeting was not held due to Nicaragua’s refusal to remove troops from the Isla Calero.
La Penca, Disappearance, Return
Pastora’s anti-Sandinista rebellion came to an abrupt and violent end on May 30, 1984, when a press conference he was holding on a southern Nicaraguan farm known as La Penca was bombed. Four people died in the blast, including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier (TT June 1, 1984). Weeks later, Pastora “voluntarily withdrew” from the Contra struggle and drifted out of the public eye.
In the ‘90s, Pastora, who claims he never strayed from the original ideals of Sandinismo, flirted with the idea of running for President in 1996. However, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) denied him a place on the ballot, citing, amongst other things, his dual Tico-Nica citizenship. He later renounced his Costa Rican citizenship.
Prior to his recent return to the Río San Juan last month, Pastora ran for mayor of Managua in 2004 with the Liberal Independent Party (PLI), receiving only 3 percent of the popular vote. He also ran for President in 2006 as a member of the party known as the Alternative for Change (NT, July 24, 2006). He was again defeated and two years later in 2008, he reunited with the Sandinistas and pledged support for his old friend, President Daniel Ortega.
And now he’s back. Thirty-six years since moving to Costa Rica, becoming Tico and declaring himself retired, Comandante Cero is again at the heart of another international conflict.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have a book here in the embassy titled, ‘Costa Rica: The Forests of Eden’,” said Rodrigo Carreras, a former Costa Rican Ambassador to Nicaragua and current ambassador to Israel.
“I’ve joked that because Pastora has his Tico citizenship, he must have seen this book and thought that the Costa Rican forests belong to him… Somehow, he always ends up in the middle of conflicts between the two countries.”