From M-16 to John 3:16

International | Sandinista-turned-Contra-turned-Christian brings economic and spiritual hope to Nicaragua's poor

Issue: "Religious liberty fight," June 20, 1998

in Managua - Central America is still choking from the smoke of 9,000 forest fires. The international airport at Managua, Nicaragua, has been closed periodically over the last month due to skies heavy with "the brown mist." In this year's El Niño-driven climate, it is uncertain how long the parched summer will continue. Hope is, the cleansing rains will come soon, bringing with them the promise of a green landscape. For Mario Avilés, who has endured decades of political drought and breathed the gun smoke of a hundred battles, this kind of waiting is nothing new. For 26 years, Mr. Avilés carried a gun in his hand and vision in his heart for a free and democratic Nicaragua. He fought first with the Sandinista guerrilla army to topple the Somoza dictatorship. Unhappy with the Sandinistas' growing Marxist agenda, he switched allegiances, joining the Contra army and eventually rising to the rank of commander. The civil war claimed the lives of 150,000 Nicaraguans. Now Mr. Avilés offers a much abbreviated version of his life story: "I gave up my M-16 for John 3:16," he says. No longer fighting a guerrilla war, he battles daily to rebuild the nation-economically, socially, politically. "I went from being a commander in the Contra forces to being a private in God's army," he says. From that vantage point, he heads one of the most successful micro-enterprise projects in Central America, known by its Spanish acronym as FUNAD. FUNAD administers and distributes medicine, clothing, vegetable seeds, and other agricultural products donated from the United States. It also runs an orphanage and and a growing Christian school 20 miles outside Managua. But the beating heart of FUNAD is micro-enterprises, where small business loans-usually not more than $500-are made to industrious poor people, enabling them to become self-sufficient with a small family business. "We use money as a ministry tool," says Mr. Avilés. "A micro-loan, along with proper guidance, can enable a destitute person to start a small business and begin feeding his family." Small businesses account for 90 percent of gross domestic product in most Third World countries. In that setting, a small business can exist and thrive just by acquiring a sewing machine, mechanics' tools, or an arc welder. In one case, loan recipient Carmen Reyes Calero used a $300 micro-loan from FUNAD to buy a refrigerator. The purchase allowed her to expand her small produce stand to also sell fresh meat. Don Felix, another recipient, received a $250 loan to improve his cement block business. Now he has three employees and produces 400 blocks a day. Loan recipients are carefully screened, according to Mr. Avilés, before repayment terms are agreed upon. With each loan-which usually runs 4-6 months-the interest covers administrative costs. The principal is recycled into new loans. FUNAD's fund has grown to more than $100,000 since its beginning in 1990. Only 2 percent of loans made since then have defaulted. Currently 130 business loans are active, and either Mr. Avilés or one of two FUNAD staff members interviews two or three new potential loan candidates each day. Material provided by Mr. Avilés indicates that over 300 new jobs per year are created under this micro-enterprise program. The concept is part of a growing movement worldwide to help the poor boot-strap their way out of poverty. Where the U.S. Agency for International Development has made micro-enterprises a centerpiece of its overseas development efforts, it has met with varying degrees of success. Even at the bureaucratic level, it is generally regarded as a more viable system of help than handouts. This year, the U.S. government will hit up taxpayers for $8 million to fund micro-enterprise programs in Nicaragua. Mr. Avilés, however, won't see any of that money. Unlike most micro-enterprise programs in Nicaragua, he has raised his capital from private sources. This gives him the freedom to add an additional dimension to the program: "We teach the small business owners the biblical principles of running a business. Our staff meets with loan recipients each week to give them guidance and assistance in their business. As a result of being in their homes each week, and because we are sharing biblical truths, we inevitably get into more personal matters. We have found the micro-enterprise program is not only a great way to create jobs, it is a great tool for evangelism." Mr. Avilés's survey of loan recipients found 43 percent had become Christians. Aside from using a "business" approach to evangelism, Mr. Avilés also uses politics as a tool for bringing about change in Nicaragua. A member of former President Violeta Chamorro's "kitchen cabinet," he was one of the framers of the Constitution, which outlawed abortion and homosexual conduct. He advises members of congress, including Noel Arguello, a likely presidential candidate and head of the Conservative Party. And, though he differs radically with the current president, Arnoldo Alemán, Mr. Avilés also occasionally meets with him to discuss the national condition. Asked three times to run for vice-president, Mr. Avilés says, "I was not called to politics. I don't want to be making decisions about spending money on roads and airports. I want to advise politicians to make ethical decisions." When Mr. Avilés was 14, he watched as his father was taken off in handcuffs by Somoza police. His father's crime was speaking out against government corruption. The family home was burned. In 1958, at 18, he left home to join Sandino guerrilla fighters in the effort to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. By the time Sandinistas took control of the country in 1979, Mr. Avilés was branded for speaking out against the Communist ideology that infiltrated the regime. As a result, the Sandinistas put him in prison. As soon as he was released, he fled to Costa Rica where he joined the newly formed Contra movement. For the next three years, he commanded the 2,000-man army defending the Southern Front, reporting directly to top guerrilla commander Eden Pastora. Asked which was worse, the Somoza dictatorship or the Sandinista regime, he replies with his own riddle: "Which is worse, having your left arm cut off or your right arm?" As a Contra commander, Mr. Avilés had a life-changing experience on night patrol through the jungle. Thirty feet behind him on the trail was a sudden, blinding flash and a deafening explosion. He ran back to find that one of his soldiers had stepped on a land mine. "The mine had taken off the lower half of his body," Mr. Avilés vividly recalls. "His legs were gone. We knew he was going to die, but we told him, 'You're going to make it.' He looked right at me and said, 'Hefe [meaning "Chief"], I am not afraid to die-I know where I am going. But, Hefe, you do not know where you are going.' The soldier died that night in the jungle. Before he did, he gave me his pocket Bible. That night, I read that Bible and when I came to Psalm 23, I found his blood was on the pages. He was reading it when he died. That was when I gave my heart to Jesus." A few days later, Mr. Avilés was hit by mortar shrapnel and rushed to a Costa Rican hospital for surgery. When he recovered, he met with commander Pastora, telling him of his faith conversion and a new-found conviction that he could not return to the battlefield. That was 1984. Mr. Avilés did not return to Nicaragua until 1989, when the Sandinista regime was ousted in the nation's first-ever democratic elections. Mr. Avilés has a name for his brand of theology that brings the Bible into the context of politics, economics, and social reform. He calls it the "kingdom message." "Churches in Nicaragua are preaching how bad the world is and are telling their people, 'Don't worry about the world around you. You're going to heaven.' Some Apostolic denominations in Central American do not believe in social work, such as orphanages. That's not the theology in my Bible," he says. "The kingdom of God is not just something in the hereafter. It means establishing morality, justice, and ethics in a nation today. God will use people to do it." Mr. Avilés insists he is not promoting a religious state in Nicaragua. "My goal is not to see an evangelical government. Rather to see men and women who fear God be in positions of leadership." Nicaragua is making measurable progress. The economy is in its fourth consecutive year of solid growth, estimated at five percent last year. Investment has jumped, and trade to and from the United States has soared. Current aid from the United States is almost $30 million this year, including a program to help Nicaragua mitigate agricultural production losses from drought. All told, the nation carries $6.1 billion in foreign debt. Thousands of confiscated property cases left over from the civil war are unresolved. Corruption at all levels of government is rampant. It is a ripe situation for a "kingdom message."

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