COLUMN ONE : Nicaragua Pulls Up Red Carpet : Leftists, idealists and fugitives flocked to the Sandinista-led nation in the ‘80s. Now, embarrassing scandals push the new government to crack down on unwanted foreigners.
Even now, with its Italian chef “Guido” on the lam, the popular Magica Roma restaurant hardly seems to be a hotbed of international intrigue.
Diners come and go at a leisurely pace, and the cozy eatery is still the best place in town for pasta. Never mind that Guido was a veteran of the Red Brigade terrorist organization and a fugitive wanted in the 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
Guido has taken a break from his guise as successful restaurateur and is in hiding. But his exposure late last year unleashed a scandal still reverberating in a Nicaragua that grapples daily with its polarizing past of revolution, counterrevolution and war.
From radical leftists and terrorists to starry-eyed pacifists, thousands of people from all over the world descended on Nicaragua during the 1980s, the decade of Sandinista rule.
The idealists believed that they were joining a revolutionary experiment. The international fugitives were seeking a haven where Sandinista authorities, themselves embroiled in battle with U.S.-backed Contra rebels, shared tips on urban warfare and supplied jobs, homes and new identities. Many of the revolutionaries joined in the fight against the Contras, and many obtained Nicaraguan citizenship.
But after a series of embarrassing incidents that revealed the presence of people like Guido, the center-right government that vanquished the Sandinista regime at the polls is trying to figure out how to crack down on unwanted foreigners and root out the revolutionaries.
Sandinistas say the campaign by President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro to cancel foreigners’ citizenship and deport suspected terrorists is a witch hunt aimed at pleasing other governments, which in turn will give aid.
Chamorro, worried about her government’s image in post-Sandinista Nicaragua, says it must safeguard its own national security by ridding the country of violent criminals.
The foreigners themselves have mixed reactions. Some, such as Guido, vow to fight any effort to deport them. Others are fed up with the whole mess, disenchanted with the current politics of Nicaragua and plan to leave, finally forced to recognize the end of an era.
“People feel like they’re in limbo,” said Moises Arana Cantero, a former Sandinista diplomat in Spain who organized a support group for the foreigners. “There’s a certain amount of anxiety. People don’t know quite what to do.”
The controversy is one of many tests the Chamorro government has faced as it tries to exert authority over the Sandinistas, whose influence and legacy remain powerful long after their formal role in government ended.
When Sandinista President Daniel Ortega lost--unexpectedly--to Chamorro in 1990 elections, many of the radicals who had enjoyed Sandinista protection hoped that they could continue to live in Nicaragua, confident of their Sandinista-supplied covers and unwilling to face the law in their home countries.
In the weeks after the election but before Chamorro assumed office, Sandinista authorities hurriedly granted citizenship to 990 foreign nationals, including 92 Spaniards, 56 Jordanians, 20 Palestinians, 94 Guatemalans and 510 Salvadorans, according to government records.
Many of those who had used Sandinista Nicaragua as a sanctuary worked directly for the Interior Ministry run by intelligence czar Tomas Borge. The foreign radicals exchanged weapons training and used Nicaragua as a base of operations, running spy networks and plotting guerrilla missions, according to former Sandinista officials.
“It was a beautiful time,” said Sergio Buschmann, a Chilean arms smuggler and drama teacher who lived in Nicaragua sporadically after March, 1980. “In the morning we’d film a TV program . . . and in the afternoon we’d have militia training.”
Buschmann, 51, has been living in Managua as the Chilean government tries, for the fifth time, to extradite him for his role in what he claims was the largest arms-smuggling operation by Latin American revolutionaries.
The guns and rocket launchers, Buschmann says with pride, were used in a 1986 assassination attempt on Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. Pinochet was unharmed, but five of his bodyguards were killed.
A founding member of Chile’s Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front guerrilla movement, Buschmann also spent considerable time in Chilean prisons during the 1970s and ‘80s, having been captured during his clandestine sabotage missions.
In Nicaragua, he worked with the Sandinista Culture Ministry, gave acting classes and formed a theater troupe with Salvadoran guerrillas that toured Europe.
And he joined the Sandinista People’s Army fighting the Contra rebels in the early 1980s.
Because of the changed climate in Nicaragua, Buschmann believes that the Chamorro government may honor Chile’s extradition request this time. Hoping to preempt such action, Buschmann returned to Chile this month to face the charges against him. He was immediately arrested in Santiago. Los Angeles human rights attorney Peter Schey is helping with the case.
The web of safety that Sandinista protection gave the revolutionaries and radicals first began to unravel with a mysterious explosion at a clandestine arms dump in Managua last May.
The weapons were being stockpiled by Salvadoran rebels, in violation of 1992 peace accords that ended the Salvadoran civil war, and kept underneath an auto repair shop owned by a Basque who allegedly belonged to the Basque separatist group ETA.
The Basque had obtained Nicaraguan citizenship in 1990 using the name Miguel Antonio Larios. He disappeared after the explosion, although news reports last month quoted Interpol as having spotted him in Brazil.
The scandal around the explosion widened dramatically in the months that followed. Not only had it exposed the illegal hoarding of weapons, but officials discovered along with the guns and antiaircraft missiles documents proving the existence of a vast kidnaping and forgery ring involving leftists from Europe, the Mideast and all of Latin America.
Once again, the Sandinista legacy had come back to haunt the Chamorro government.
International condemnation was mighty, and the U.S. Congress suspended millions of dollars in aid, accusing Chamorro of failing to rein in Sandinista intelligence operations and of harboring criminals.
To counter the attacks, Chamorro swiftly rounded up and deported three alleged ETA terrorists who had lived in Nicaragua for years.
The men were dispatched to Spain, where they originally were to face a battery of murder charges. Recent reports from Spain, however, indicated that two have been released for lack of evidence.
The Chamorro government, which itself employs a number of former Contras, then ordered all 990 people who obtained citizenship in the waning days of the Sandinista regime to report to the Interior Ministry with documents to prove their legal status and background.
Fewer than 100 naturalized citizens bothered to appear, but the passions of Nicaragua’s still-polarized society had been ignited.
Sandinista militants rallied in protest. They accused the government of capitulating to foreign pressure. They burned Interior Minister Alfredo Mendieta in effigy and marched outside the Spanish Embassy.
Arana Cantero and others formed the Dignity and National Sovereignty Movement, a Sandinista support group for the foreigners, arguing that the human and civil rights of naturalized citizens were being violated.
“It was a campaign of political persecution, with a touch of xenophobia,” said Evelyn Palma, an attorney with a Sandinista human rights organization. “These are people associated with the Sandinista Front, identified with the revolution, and for that reason the government labels them ‘terrorists.’ ”
Some, like Guatemalan guerrillas, cannot go home because their native countries are still at war. Others have established roots in Nicaragua, marrying Nicaraguans and raising families.
Amid the furor, the heat was turned up on Guido, the Magica Roma restaurateur whose real name is Alessio Casimirri.
Italian newspapers delving anew into the Moro case discovered and reported his whereabouts late last year, and the shadowy chef has been lying low ever since.
Casimirri, through an intermediary, refused to be interviewed for this story--unless he was paid.
But he told the Sandinista newspaper Barricada that he had no intention of leaving Nicaragua.
“A lot of people would like me to go, but I am Nicaraguan and I have every right to be in this country,” he said from his hide-out, speaking what Barricada called an Italian-accented Spanish sprinkled with Nicaraguan slang.
Casimirri opened the Magica Roma restaurant last year. Under his gregarious management, the restaurant quickly became all the rage, frequented by Managua’s elite and members of the international community.
An Italian diplomat was so fond of the place his family used it for a wedding reception.
Those who knew Casimirri’s background didn’t care; others never suspected. In the Barricada interview, Casimirri claimed that the Italian government knew for some time that he lived in Managua and only began to pursue him recently for domestic political reasons aimed at discrediting Italy’s former Communists.
Italian courts have sentenced Casimirri in absentia to several life terms. His partner at the restaurant, Manlio Grillo, is another reputed Red Brigade member wanted in a bombing that killed two children. Grillo can still be found at the restaurant most nights.
According to a former Sandinista intelligence officer who handled many of the foreign cases, Casimirri first arrived in Nicaragua, from Libya, in 1983. He obtained Nicaraguan citizenship in 1988 using the name Guido di Giambattista. Rene Vivas, deputy interior minister in the Sandinista government and former police chief in the Chamorro government, signed the order.
Casimirri married a Nicaraguan, Raquel Garcia, and they have two children. Mendieta canceled his citizenship, but an appellate court recently stayed the order.
Sandinista militants defend the protection they gave radicals.
“The terrorist thing is very relative,” said Sandinista political science professor Silvio Prado. “Yitzhak Rabin directed a terrorist commando unit before Israel became a state, and now he is a chief of state. Don’t forget that in the ‘70s, the armed struggle was an option for many people. Who is to determine which terrorism is good and which terrorism is bad?”
U.S. officials do not share that ambivalence, pointing out that the actions of terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades and ETA have claimed many innocent victims.
“The Sandinista Front, feeling itself under attack, felt they had the right to defend themselves with many sorts of actions which perhaps in the past could be justified according to their opinion,” said Chamorro’s chief adviser, Antonio Lacayo. “The problem is, today that is over.”
One flaw in the government’s efforts, say critics, is that all foreigners who sought out Nicaragua’s revolution end up getting painted with the same “terrorist” brush.
In addition to the radical leftists, there were pacifists, social workers and doctors for whom Sandinista Nicaragua seemed a romantic challenge, a chance to participate in a society trying to remake itself.
Barbara Stewart, a Canadian specialist in library science, moved to Nicaragua in 1983, attracted by the excitement of potential social change. Instead, she witnessed a country go to war, then enter a peace that it seems unable to reconcile with the past.
Stewart, 43, spent the last 11 years setting up databases for think tanks and other organizations and teaching computer skills. She became a citizen in 1990 and is among those whose status the government is questioning.
While she does not feel threatened by the government’s campaign, Stewart opposes it because it ignores due process and the norms of international law.
“I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a criminal,” she said. “I’ve done everything to contribute to my field in Nicaragua. I work seven days a week. If someone wants to attack me as someone who doesn’t deserve (citizenship), well, I’m very defensible. Many others are not.”
Still, Stewart has decided to sell her house and leave for Los Angeles, where she plans to work at a university library. It is not just the harassment and constant uncertainty that have taken their toll. Like many who were once true believers, Stewart has become disenchanted with the Sandinista Front and generally discouraged about Nicaragua’s future.
“I have no hope for Nicaragua,” she said. “That’s why I’m leaving.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.