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Adolfo Calero, 80, Nicaragua Contra leader attended Notre Dame

FILE - In this Nov. 26 1996 file phoformer Nicaraguan Contrleader Adolfo Calero gestures while testifying Capitol Hill Washingtbefore Senate

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 1996 file photo, former Nicaraguan Contra leader Adolfo Calero gestures while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Intelligence Committee on allegations of CIA involvement in drug trafficking. Calero, one of the principal leaders of the U.S.-backed Contra rebels who battled Nicaragua's Sandinista government in the 1980s has died, according to reports Saturday, June 2, 2012. He was 81. (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite, File)

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:22AM

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Adolfo Calero, who led the largest force of U.S.-backed rebels against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s and found himself entangled in the Iran-Contra scandal, died Saturday at age 80.

Mr. Calero died of lung problems in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, his aide Julio Romero confirmed on Sunday.

As leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, Mr. Calero helped pressure the Marxist Sandinistas toward the elections that pushed them from power in 1990.

He also was the key contact with senior U.S. officials during the Iran-Contra affair, when Reagan administration officials secretly arranged the sale of weapons to Iran to finance the Central American rebels, bypassing Congressional restrictions.

Mr. Calero attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and told a U.S. congressional committee in 1987 the experience awakened him to the value of freedom.

He said he returned home in the mid-1950s as “a knight in democratic armor, in my own country,” opposing first the right-wing Somoza dictatorship that ruled Nicaragua for 43 years and later the leftist Sandinistas, who ousted the Somozas in 1979.

“When Somoza was driven from our country, we had a right to expect that our dreams of democracy would be fulfilled. Instead, we got the Soviet totalitarian regime, an oppressive dictatorship operated by the Soviet Union and its proxy, Cuba.”

Mr. Calero was a prominent figure in Nicaragua’s Conservative Party and worked against Anastasio Somoza, even meeting in 1978 with Sandinista leaders to overcome differences in the struggle against the dictator.

But when the Sandinistas pulled the government sharply left, Mr. Calero, who had headed the local Coca Cola bottling company, went into exile in Florida.

By 1983 he emerged as the political head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest of the Contra groups, organized with U.S. aid. It claimed to have 22,000 men.

The conflict killed thousands and added to economic chaos in the country. It eventually led to international mediation and the Sandinistas agreed to accept free elections if the Contras demobilized. The resulting vote removed the Sandinistas from power in 1990. AP

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