by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 11/16/06
For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America
Well the people fought the leader,
And up he flew…
With no Washington bullets what else could he do?
—The Clash, “Washington Bullets” (1980)
In the flash of this moment
you’re the best of what we are—
don’t let them stop you now—
—Bruce Cockburn, “Nicaragua” (1983)
The Bush administration just appointed Robert Gates, a man who helped orchestrate an illegal terrorist war against Nicaragua in the 1980s, as our new Secretary of Defense, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. The Nicaraguans, for their part, just returned the party and the president that our dirty little war ousted back to office. And they did this despite direct threats last month from the Bush administration, delivered by a convicted war criminal, who went to Nicaragua days before the election and told the Nicaraguan people that if such a victory occurred there’d be hell, literally, to pay. It’s not déjà vu—this is the story of a White House bent on world domination and a little democratic revolution that just won’t go away.
The last time I was in Nicaragua was 1989. Public transportation was crippled by an army of 15,000 US-backed terrorists with a penchant for blowing up or burning buses—sometimes full of passengers. Known as the Contras, they also crippled the nation’s electric system and regularly assassinated elected officials from the ruling democratic-socialist “Sandinista” party. Downtown Managua, the capital, was in ruins, not from Contra attacks but from an earthquake that had hit 17 years earlier when Nicaragua was a military dictatorship ruled by Anastasio Somoza, a brutal US ally. It seems his regime pocketed all the international relief aid and murdered any Nicaraguan who objected to this looting. The Sandinistas inherited a bankrupt government and had no money to rebuild the capital. Cows grazed near the ruins of the National Cathedral.
I was a Costa Rican-based journalist at the time, helping lead a liberal guilt trip tour of Nicaragua that my magazine regularly sponsored as a fund-raiser. Our clients were middle class Americans who came to marvel at a revolution that was gasping its last breath. My most important job was to wake up each morning before dawn and change the day’s money from American dollars into worthless Nicaraguan cordobas. Sometimes I’d do this twice a day as the money lost its value by the hour. The inflation rate was running at 16,000 percent. Nicaragua’s currency was sloppily printed, sometimes with new numbers sporting three or four extra zeros hastily stamped over the old ones. Each time I’d walk away with a shopping bag of cordobas—bills that doubled as toilet paper.
The Sandinista story began in the late 1970s, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the Nicaraguan people rose up to support a decade-old revolutionary struggle that took its name from Augusto César Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary who led an uprising against the US occupation of his country from 1927 to 1933. Sandino was killed in 1934 but his memory remains very much alive across Latin America alongside other revered heroes such as Ernesto Che Guevara and Simón Bolívar.
The Sandinistas took power in 1979 after Jimmy Carter, abiding by his stated human rights policy, refused to intercede on behalf of the Somoza dictatorship. The new government established friendly relations with the US and immediately began a crash program of building schools and health clinics. Idealists from around the world flocked to Nicaragua. An army of 225,000 volunteers cut the nation’s illiteracy rate by 50 percent in six months. Music and hope filled the air.
The celebration was short-lived, however. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. Using what later proved to be false and fabricated intelligence reports—sound familiar?—Reagan argued that the impoverished Central American country represented a military threat, and hence set out to wage an undeclared war against Nicaragua. The Reagan administration, with the help of the former Argentinean military junta, armed, trained and funded the Contras, a mercenary army led by former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen loyal to the ousted dictatorship.
The Contras combined amorality and ruthlessness with a smart strategy: defeat the Sandinistas by turning their country into hell on earth. The problem, as political theorist Noam Chomsky put it in his book, The Managua Lectures, was that Nicaragua posed “the threat of a good example.” If Nicaragua could oust its oppressive, US-backed government and effectively address problems of hunger, health care, education and political oppression, then why couldn’t, say, neighboring Honduras do the same thing? This was the real domino effect Reagan feared in Latin America—the one we’re seeing now (see “Democracy’s Northward March,” Artvoice v5n14).
To defeat the Sandinistas, the Contras had to erase the gains of the revolution.
Working in conjunction with the CIA, they targeted schools and health clinics as well as public services and the institutions of democracy. The American Christian peace group Witness for Peace collected evidence of Contras using systematic rape of civilians as a terror tactic, as well as castrating, cutting out the tongues and gouging out the eyes of government supporters. They also destroyed bridges, phone lines and port facilities as well as schools, clinics and power stations. They failed, however, to break the will of the people, who, in an internationally supervised election in 1985, handed a landslide victory to the ruling Sandinistas, electing Daniel Ortega president with two thirds of the popular vote.
Undeterred, the personable, grandfatherly Reagan turned the screws harder, giving more weapons to the Contras and illegally mining Nicaraguan harbors in an attempt to destroy the country’s economy. Reagan also, despite reports from international governments who observed the election, unilaterally declared the Nicaraguan election a sham and imposed a devastating economic embargo against Nicaragua. The combined forces of the war, the embargo, the mining of the harbors and terrorist attacks against economic infrastructure led to the total collapse of the Nicaraguan economy, making Nicaragua the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti (thanks to the French—see “Our Nasty Little War with Haiti,” Artvoice v4n23)) and spiraling the country into a hyperinflationary cycle.
When the US Congress finally said enough was enough and outlawed Reagan administration aid to the Contra terrorists, the administration began covertly funding the war, raising cash by selling arms to Iran and, according to a US Senate investigation released in 1989, by helping the Contras smuggle cocaine into the US.
When this story broke, first in the alternative press, then years later in the mainstream press, it became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Put simply, the Reagan administration allowed American inner-city communities to be destroyed by a growing cocaine epidemic and armed Iran, which they also claimed was a terrorist state, in order to fund internationally condemned terrorism against a democratically elected government in a neighboring state, all in contempt of Congress. This was the real Reagan revolution—turning the US into a rogue state. The Reagan administration’s point man overseeing the whole operation was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. North and five other high-ranking officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were all pardoned for their crimes by George Bush the First as he was leaving office.
In the end, the Contras won. Back in 1989 I was walking through a poor neighborhood in Managua when someone hailed me. Soon a small crowd formed. They all had the same question. Did I think my country would launch an air war? Did I think they’d bomb Managua? It was a friendly, people-to-people discussion. Nobody blamed me. They just thought, as an American, I might have some insight. They were stressed out. More than 50,000 of them died in the Contra war. The rest were tired of queuing up for buses that never came—or having to ride on the roofs of the ones that did. They were tired of having to spend their money the hour they earned it, before it lost all its value. They were tired of worrying about Contras blowing up their kids’ school, maybe with the kids in it.
And they were tired. Just plain tired. A few months after I left Nicaragua they cried uncle and voted the Sandinistas out of office. They voted for promised US aid rather than an embargo and endless war. But the aid never came. Neither did the reparations the World Court ordered the US to pay. There was money for death, but never for life. We just stopped funding the Contras. After turning Nicaragua into the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, we turned our back on them.
Now let’s fast-forward to the future. Twenty years after Reagan launched the Contra war, classified documents showing the roles of public figures such as the first President Bush were due to be released to the public. That all changed after September 11, 2001, when history itself was classified.
Then the ghosts from the Iran-Contra scandal started to reappear, haunting the new Bush White House. Elliot Abrams, pardoned by Bush Senior for his criminal activity in the Iran-Contra scandal, was appointed by Bush Junior as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council—the folks who wage covert wars.
Then there was John Negroponte, who, as ambassador to Honduras under Reagan, was the White House’s point man in the region, ultimately supervising the Contra terrorism in Nicaragua. George W. Bush appointed him as Director of National Intelligence, ostensibly managing our current dirty wars wherever they may be.
During the Contra war, the Reagan administration appointed Cuban-born Otto Reich to oversee, in conjunction with Oliver North, the White House’s propaganda operation to demonize the Sandinistas while painting the Contra terrorists as “freedom fighters.” In 2002, George W. Bush appointed Reich as Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the Secretary of State. Convicted Iran Contra felon John Poindexter was appointed by George W. Bush as Director of the Information Awareness Office, where he was supposed to oversee spying on law-abiding Americans. While Reich and Poindexter no longer hold these positions, they are still Bush administration insiders, essentially treating the White House as their own personal halfway house. North went on to become a Fox News analyst.
Fast-forward to this month. It seems there has been another bit of a revolution in Nicaragua—this time an electoral revolution. Friendship with the US got the Nicaraguans nothing except the right to work in sweatshops “assembling” our clothing. Perhaps there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. Or perhaps they remember the dignity they enjoyed for that brief decade when they served as a beacon of hope to the world. Or perhaps it really is the threat of a good example—this time the example of Venezuela—that did it.
Not even the sickeningly gross spectacle of a visit from Oliver North last month deterred them. Yes, North, a major architect of the Contra war, who is to Nicaragua what Osama bin Laden is the US, told the Nicaraguans that a Sandinista victory would be “the end of Nicaragua.” Given his history of working with mercenaries coordinating barbaric terrorist attacks against that country, North is not to be taken lightly. Undeterred by threats—perhaps, like the people in Haiti, fearless because they have nothing left to lose—Nicaragua, two days before the US election that “thumped” the Republicans, once again elected Sandinista Daniel Ortega as president.
And a week later George W. Bush appointed one more Iran-Contra criminal to his cabinet. This time it’s the former Iran-Contra era-Deputy Director of the CIA, Robert Gates, our new Secretary of Defense. Perhaps the plan is to quickly chop Iraq into a few small, weak, feuding countries locked in fratricide, and return our focus to Latin America to stop the dominos of democracy before they sweep right up to Washington, DC.
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns, including those on Haiti and Latin America referenced above, are archived at www.mediastudy.com/articles.
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