Nicaragua and the Sandinistas

By David B. Kopel. 1987.


There are evil empires in the world, and for most of this century, Nicaragua has been the victim of an American evil empire. During the first third of the century, American troops occupied Nicaragua almost every year. Marine Corps General Smedley Butler supervised several elections in Nicaragua and Haiti: "The opposition candidates were always declared bandits, when it became necessary to elect our man to office...(In one district) notice of the opening of the polls was given five minutes beforehand, the 400 voters were assembled in a line and when they had voted, in about two hours, the polls were closed."

In the 1928 American election, Governor Al Smith of New York, the Democratic candidate, demanded that America end its imperial role in Nicaragua. Republican Herbert Hoover won the election.

After Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, United States troops were pulled out, but a native Procurator was soon safely in place. Anastosio Somoza Garcia, the commander of the National Guard, seized power and founded a dynasty that would rule Nicaragua for almost half a century.

For the next four decades, America more or less ignored its Central American colony. The Somoza family knew enough to keep the U.S. President happy, and firmly sided with the U.S. against Nazi Germany and later the Soviet Union. The American Ambassador's face appeared on Nicaraguan currency. American politicians of all persuasions accepted Franklin Roosevelt's endorsement of Somoza: "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch." Somoza would do anything the Americans asked, and opened his country to U.S. investment. All he asked in return was that the U.S. not interfere with his treatment of the Nicaraguan people.

Roosevelt, perhaps, had some reason for tolerating the Somoza regime. The main goal was to defeat Germany and Japan, and so Roosevelt allied with dictators like Somoza and mass-murders like Stalin. But in the 1950's and 1960's, America's neglect for the people of Nicaragua became more and more inexcusable and shortsighted. Presidents from Truman onward appreciated the short-term stability that Somoza provided, but failed to understand that in the long run, Somoza's oppression of the Nicaraguan people would lead to revolution.

True, Somoza was not the worst of dictators. La Prensa published more or less freely, and often critically. The political opposition might be jailed for a while, but never executed. No stream of refugees ever fled across the borders. Nicaragua has excellent farmland, and found a ready cattle, coffee, and cotton market in the U.S.

Even after Somoza had skimmed off a large share for himself, there was some wealth left to spread around. A significant middle class shared in the prosperity. For most of the Somozas' reign, the middle class found the family tolerable.

But Somoza's feudal control of the economy helped perpetuate the poverty of a large population of campesinos, who worked the large export farms. In a land that produced so much luxury food for export to the United States, half the population went hungry.

A canny strategist, Somoza used the method that keeps many world dictatorships in power: forging an alliance between city-dwellers and rural landlords. Together, they can suppress the peasantry, keep it too hungry and listless to fight back, and get rich by exporting farm crops. If the dictator then finds a friendly powerful country to trade with, he can stay in power for a long time. 

In the late 1950's, Eden Pastora founded a revolutionary army named after Cesar Augusto Sandino, leader of the 1930's rebellion against the United States. Pastora, Commander Zero, would eventually become the chief military hero of the revolution.

Another revolutionary group, also taking the name "Sandinista" was founded by Carlos Fonseca, who had studied in the Soviet Union. Fonseca's book, A Nicaraguan in Moscow, depicted the USSR as a model for Central America. Fonseca died before the Sandinista victory, and was immortalized as an official Sandinista saint.

Eventually, three separate Sandinista factions were fighting in Nicaragua's jungles. Although Pastora carried off a bold raid on the Presidential Palace, the revolution had made little progress by the mid-1970's.


Two key decisions helped the Sandinistas achieve power. At the insistence of Fidel Castro, the three Sandinista factions united under a single command.  Pastora, the ally of Panama's dictator, was head of the military wing of the Sandinista Front for the Liberation of Nicaragua (FSLN).

Second, the newly unified Sandinistas reached out to Nicaragua's non-Communist majority, and proposed an alliance to topple Somoza. Commandante Humberto Ortega drew up a "minimum plan" to win the alliance of the middle class. The Minimum Plan had three tenets: political pluralism, a mixed economy, and international non-alignment.

Joaquin Cuarda Chamorro, Nicaragua's leading corporate lawyer, secretly joined the alliance. In a June 1977 meeting in Honduras, the FSLN's Ortega told Chamorro that the Sandinistas were willing to set aside Marxist-Leninism to form a broad front and oust Somoza. Arturo Cruz, a wealthy banker and opponent of Somoza, joined the revolution after being assured there would be honest elections on all levels, that the economy would allow private enterprise, and that the army would be non-political. The Broad Opposition Front was formed.

Indeed, much of the middle class had begun to turn strongly against Somoza. After a 1973 earthquake devastated Managua, Somoza stole virtually all the foreign aid, and began take more and more of the economy under his personal control.


Realizing Somoza's weakness, the American Ambassador began urging President Carter to ease Somoza out, replacing him with Somocismo sin Somoza (the same system, just without Somoza). President Carter and his Ambassador failed to understand that the Nicaraguan people were demanding power for themselves, not for a new boss.

1978 marked the beginning of the end for Somoza. In January, the nation was shaken by the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the immensely popular publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa. Business leader Alfonso Robelo led a nationwide strike against Somoza. The U.S. State Department, however, still contended that there was no need for fundamental change in Nicaragua. The Ambassador assured Somoza that if he promised to resign by 1981, everything would be fine.

Meanwhile, Latin American leaders such as President Perez of Venezuela were telling Carter that Somoza had to go. Carter demurred, and merely urged Somoza to release a few political prisoners.

As usual, President Carter's halfway measures only made things worse. Jimmy Carter and his State Department failed to understand that anything less than total support for Somoza would fatally weaken his standing in Nicaragua eyes. The choice was to back Somoza fully, or to maneuver him out. Carter did neither.

Alfonso Robelo argues that if Carter had put serious pressure on Somoza in late 1978 (perhaps by threatening to deny him sanctuary in the U.S.) Somoza would have resigned and moderates would have taken over. But because of Carter's indecisiveness, "We lost the best opportunity we had at the time." After that, "the only people who had initiative were those in the violent mode, the FSLN."

The Sandinistas, who had fewer than 300 soldiers under their command, were rapidly growing stronger, thanks to the prestige of their alliance with the middle class, and the realization that the Somoza regime was no longer invincible.

Eden Pastora, the most pro-American of the Sandinista leaders, tried to give President Carter one last chance. Pastora cabled Carter, and urged him to force Somoza to pull back the National Guard from the Southern front; Pastora's forces could then advance to Managua ahead of the hardline Sandinista forces in the North. Carter refused.


On July 19, 1979, the Sandinistas rolled into Managua. Six days later, a Cuban medical brigade landed at the airport; the Sandinista commander who greeted them predicted: "These ties of revolutionary friendship will be expanded more and more in the struggles of oppressed people against Yankee imperialism." Although not publicly announced, Cuban military and security advisors arrived too. Fifteen days after the revolution, Sandinista commanders returned from a trip to Havana wearing Cuban uniforms.

At a high-level Sandinista Party meeting a few weeks later, the Sandinista leadership announced that the revolution was entirely the work of the FSLN, and that the Broad Opposition Front (the alliance with the middle class) had been "an alliance of convenience." The alliance would have to be maintained for a while, to avoid U.S. intervention, and to encourage Western financial aid. Two years later, Commandante Humberto Ortega would declare that the coalition with the middle class had been "temporary and exclusively tactical."

Although willing to allow a token opposition, the Sandinistas began to make it immediately clear that they would make all the decisions. In June of 1979, the Sandinistas had promised a government run by a 33 member "Council of State," of whom only 13 would be Sandinistas. Before the Council had its first meeting, the Sandinistas declared they would take a majority of seats.

Still, there was some diversity in the government. Eden Pastora, and Alfonso Robelo (the anti-Somoza business leader), both belonged the five-man ruling junta. Trying to look on the bright side, President Carter hoped that sufficient aid would keep the Sandinistas out of the Soviet camp. It was naive, though, for President Carter to imagine that the Sandinistas would forget their 20 years in the jungles being shot at with American bullets. Nor would the Sandinistas forget America's imperial abuse of Nicaragua during most of the 20th century. Jimmy Carter, who until almost the very end had tried to replace Somoza with another National Guardsman henchman, was hardly the President to convince the Sandinistas of American good will.

Nevertheless, the United Sates provided a record $118 million in aid to Nicaragua between July 1979 and November 1981. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, both heavily influenced by the U.S., handed out $12 million per month in new credit.




In 1987, Sandinista apologists blame Nicaraguan censorship on the Contra war, as if censorship occurred solely in reaction to Reagan's funding of the Contras. In truth, censorship and harassment of the press began far before the Contras even existed.

As in most other endeavors, the Sandinistas take their cues in press policy from hard-line Communist dictatorships. Sandinista leader and poet Ernesto Cardenal, who spent years in Somoza jails for his writing, proclaims that there are no failings in Cuba, a country that has been imprisoning poets for decades. Like Warsaw Pact journalists, reporters in Nicaragua must join government-run trade unions.

In September 1980 -- while Jimmy Carter was still sending record amounts of aid to Nicaragua -- Junta Decree 488 announced that anyone who published "articles with the aim of harming the people's interests" would be sentenced to two years hard labor.  According to the Sandinistas, it would harm "the people's interests" if the press reported shortages or price increases in basic food items, or land takeovers, or breakdowns in public services, or anything else that might undermine "the legitimately constituted authorities." The first victim of Decree 488 was a radio editor who reported that government-controlled youth mobs (turbas divinas) were attacking non-Sandinistas.

Radio Catolica, the Catholic church's station, ran into trouble, and Priests who did not toe the government line were often forced off the air. Eventually, the station was just shut down.

The newspaper La Prensa, which had always been harshly critical of Somoza, was required to clear all its articles with the government. Soon, the censorship became preposterous. The paper was forbidden to publish a picture of an elephant doing a handstand, because it would detract from revolutionary seriousness.

Some Americans blame the closing of La Prensa on a Congressional vote to fund the Contras. Yet several years before, the Sandinistas had made their intentions clear. In 1983, the editor of La Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper, explained "there is no essential need to learn the other point of view," and thus, La Prensa "serves no purpose in the revolutionary process." Actually, La Prensa did serve one Sandinista purpose: its continued publication convinced some credulous American Congressmen that the Sandinistas would tolerate dissent.

True, La Prensa had more in common with the New York Post than the New York Times, but so what? In a country where the other newspapers sound like Pravda, the Post is a good thing.

Some defenders of censorship, fancying themselves hard-headed realists, contend that press freedom is unimportant. As one official as Oxfam (a private aid agency) put it, the press is primarily for the bourgeoisie. Who cares about their spare-time entertainment? 

But the press does not exist merely to satisfy the cultural whims of its audience. Even if economic justice were all that mattered, the press would still be essential, for it performs a "checking function" by contradicting government lies, and exposing corruption.

Sandinista supporters may rationalize that the Sandinistas treat the press no worse than do many other Latin American countries, and better than some. (Unlike in Guatemala, they don't routinely assassinate journalists.) But so what? Like Pinochet in Chile, the Sandinistas still allow a certain degree of press freedom, within an overall structure of repression. Yet the Nicaraguan people did not fight a revolution so they could have a medium-bad dictatorship. They fought for complete freedom, and the Sandinistas are the enemy of the free press.


Again, by Central American standards, Nicaragua is not the worst abuser of human rights. The Guatemalan military and the Cuban police are far worse than the Sandinistas. Nevertheless, the human rights situation in Nicaragua bears little resemblance to the freedom promised by the Sandinistas.

Certainly the Sandinistas in their first months in power were far less bloodthirsty than Pinochet had been in Chile. For example, the government announced that it would not execute members of the hated National Guard. Still, in the first four months after the revolution, the government killed 43 people, according to the Permanent Commission on Human Rights.  After the Commission reported that the Sandinistas were holding 8,000 political prisoners, the Commission's chairman was jailed. Thus, while the government pretends that the only people ever arrested are supporters of the Contras, anyone who speaks too forcefully for other people's freedom will probably lose his own.

According to Amnesty International, the State Security Service normally holds prisoners for two weeks to several months before notifying anyone that the prisoner has been arrested. Political prisoners are brought to Managua's El Chipote prison. Freed from meaningful supervision by the judiciary, the Cuban-trained security forces subject prisoners to various forms of degradation, such as being refused toilet paper, or long-term sleep deprivation.

Compared Iran or China or Haiti, the police are restrained and moderate. Compared to Costa Rica or Venezuela, they are thuggish and brutal.


Under the supervision of Soviet-educated Leticia Herrera, the Sandinista government moved rapidly to create Block Committees, modeled after those in Cuba. As in other Communist countries, the Block Committees (also known as committees for the defense of the revolution), are the instrument of day-to-day social control by the ruling party. Fall out of favor with your Block Committee, and you might forfeit your ration cards, job recommendations, permission to travel abroad, automobile license plates, and even vaccination permits. Serving as the "eyes, ears, and voice" of the revolution, the Block Committees denounce domestic enemies. The Block Committees are reminiscent of the less organized Somoza system of orejas (neighborhood informers). In fact, some of the old Somoza informers simply switched sides, and joined the committees for defense of the revolution.

Of course Nicaragua is not the only Latin American country where people spy on their neighbors. In Paraguay, for instance, members of the ruling Colorado party who betray their neighbors go to the front of the line for jobs, scholarships, and medicine. But the standard of Nicaragua is not whether it is worse that Paraguay. The standard is freedom, and the Sandinista government falls far short.


In the Sandinistas' liberation theology, the Kingdom of God is not an ideal, but something to be built by Christian revolutionaries right now. Explains one Brooklyn resident involved in the Sister Cities project, liberation theology means "The church should be involved in the world because this is Kingdom of God, here." Ernesto Cardenal, the Sandinista poet-priest, declared that Fidel Castro's Cuba constitutes the Gospel in practice.

In the Sandinista scheme, the Party is the Church. The FSLN claims Sainthood for certain dead guerrillas, such as Party founder Carlos Fonseca (who considered the Soviet Union a model for Central America). The "Sandinista Creed" declares: "I believe in the doctrines and struggles of Marx, Engels, and Lenin...I believe in the immortality of the respect for our heroes and martyrs. I believe in the people's power in the hands of workers and peasants, and its existence until the end of time. Amen." One FSLN slogan even claims immortality for the party itself. According to Agriculture Minister Jaime Wheelock, the Sandinistas are Christ, and the U.S. is the persecuting Roman Empire.

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest liberal theologians of our century, observed the dangerous tendencies of those who believe they have a lock on truth: "It is a very good thing to seek the Kingdom of God, but it is very dubious to claim to have found it." Niebuhr observed the similarities of different "total truth" ideologies: "Stalin can be as explicit in making unconditional claims as the Pope."

The Sandinistas profess to be combining Christianity and Marxism, and they are right. In the Sandinistas, one finds a powerful mixture of self-righteousness and intolerance: the traditional authoritarianism of Latin Catholicism, added to the "scientific" certitude of Marxist-Leninism.

 But won't everything be fine once the proposed Arias peace plan goes into effect? In exchange for an end to the contra war, the Sandinistas will democratize. Don't hold your breath.

For an end to the war, the Sandinistas may well pay the price of re-opening Radio Catolica and La Prensa, and freeing a few prisoners.  But once the contras are finished, there will be nothing to prevent the resumption of press censorship and arbitrary arrests. In the late 1970's, the Sandinistas promised freedom, but later repudiated that promise as "temporary and tactical." If they allow a little freedom in 1987, that freedom will also be a temporary and tactical ploy. Once the contras are safely out of the way, freedom again will vanish.


During the Somoza reign, when Nicaragua was more or less an American colony, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers toiled as virtual slaves on giant export farms. Sandinista guerrillas proselytized the employees at the places like the Nicaragua Sugar Estates, and promised that after the revolution, the workers would own the land.

The revolution came and went, and the Nicaragua Sugar Estates remained in the same private hands. The workers did get a union, but it was a government-controlled union that prohibited strikes. When the workers struck anyway, the government threatened to call in the army. One Sandinista organizer was asked why he had told the workers lies about owning their own property; he rationalized that he had the greater good in mind.

Not only on the sugar estates, but throughout the country, the "new Nicaragua's" economy looks very much like the old one. Before the revolution, the Somoza family directly owned about 25% of the land. Although the Sandinistas had guaranteed the campesino farm workers their own land, huge Somoza farms remained intact, the Sandinista government becoming the new owners. Farmworkers still pick coffee for bosses in Managua, not for themselves. To add insult to injury, now the farmworkers must attend mandatory political indoctrination after work, with lectures on the good intentions of their overseers in Managua.

The workers do have unions now, but they are toothless and controlled by the government. According to the General Secretary of the government's "Worker's Association," the idea of a right to strike is spread by the Trotskyites and the bourgeoisie. "If you go on strike in this country, you can be fired, branded a counterrevolutionary or put in jail," complains Ariel Bravo, a leader of Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista Communist Party. "So how can you say this country is not ruled according to capitalist principles?" According the Amnesty International, leaders of the Nicaraguan Workers Confederation have been arrested for displaying too much militancy.

In some ways, the Sandinistas who run the giant farms do an even worse job than the Somoza family did. Grain production is less than 3/4 of the level it was in 1978, during the anti-Somoza civil war. Cotton production has fallen by more than 70% Twenty thousands pounds of beef rotted this year in one incident, because the central planners forgot to refrigerate it properly.

In 1984, the government announced rationing for 20 basic goods, including rice, sugar, milk, and toilet paper, all of which had previously been sold by Nicaragua's energetic vendors in open-air markets.  The rationing was justified by the need to re-orient the economy to produce more export crops like sugar, and less goods for domestic consumption. Thus, Nicaragua's economy remains on the export agriculture treadmill, as a government puts foreign exchange over the basic needs of the people.

The rationing system does more than boost foreign exchange, however. The artificial scarcity helps maintain the power of the neighborhood police agents (the Sandinista Defense Committees), who hand out the ration cards.  Of course the elite of Nicaragua, the Sandinista leadership and the wealthy, don't feel the effects of rationing, since they do their shopping at air-conditioned stores that only accept hard currency -- just like in the Soviet Union.

Certainly there have been some important steps towards social justice. A national literacy crusade has had great success, and the number of teachers has more than doubled. A vaccination program has reached almost every child under five years, and virtually eliminated whooping cough and polio. Infant mortality has been cut in half. Despite the significant gains in preventative medicine, "curative medicine is a disaster," says a former Sandinista Health Minister. "The hospitals are in terrible shape, and the doctors do not have the tools for even the most basic diagnosis and treatment." Both hospitals and schools are usually short of supplies.

In agriculture, the government promoted innovative approaches such as Integrated Pest Management -- which teaches farmers how to combat insects without heavy (and often ineffectual) doses of pesticides. Yet as the revolution's military hero, Eden Pastora, concluded, "If it weren't for the national literacy crusade, I would dare say to you that it is almost like the time of Somoza. We have more poor people, no less corruption, more foreign debt, less infrastructure, fewer liberties."

Of course the war has made the economy worse. But one must ask what shape the economy would be in without the war. For the campesinos on the giant export farms -- some privately owned, some government owned -- the root problem is not the war, but rather the lack of long-overdue land reform. Much of the rest of the economy is centrally planned. The results are what one might expect for a country that imports Bulgarian economists to advise its Ministry of Economic Cooperation. Commented an East German economist, "I can't think of any East European economy as messed up as this one." Inflation rages at over 1000% percent annually, and even Sandinistas admit that the government uses inflation as a hidden tax -- a tax which hurts the poor the worst.

The one-time (and perhaps future) existence of a free press in Nicaragua fulfilled Sandinista tactical needs, by convincing some foreign observers that the government tolerated pluralism. The present mixed economy also fulfills tactical purposes, especially the production of export crops. Like the free press, the mixed economy will one day be a thing of the past. As the Sandinista Directorate announced: "The mixed economy and the private sector are only necessary in the current stage of revolution, a stage that will be surpassed when certain economic conditions are achieved in this country."


In agricultural policy, the ostensibly leftist Sandinista regime behaves much the same as a right-wing dictatorship, where workers with no rights produce export crops on giant farms owned by somebody else. In the treatment of Indians, the Sandinistas also seem like a conventional right-wing regime.

In the United States, one hears two very different stories about the fate of the Indians. Conservatives such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the Wall Street Journal cry passionately about Indian rights in Nicaragua. But these critics never complain about abuses of indigenous peoples elsewhere -- such as the anti-Indian genocide campaigns in rightist Guatemala and Indonesia.

The Sandinistas themselves acknowledge mistakes in dealing with the Indians. The Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, where the Miskito and other tribes live, had always had a distant relationship with the central government in Managua.  Admittedly, overzealous young Sandinista cadres did go too far in trying to exert control over the Indians, but everything has been resolved now, the Sandinistas claim.

Who to believe? Russell Means -- the American Indian commander of the Wounded Knee uprising -- charges the Sandinistas with "systematic genocide." His brother William, however, led a delegation to a Sister City project in Puerto Cabezas.

Significantly, non-ideological, pro-Indian international organizations side with Russell Means. Of particular concern to groups like Cultural Survival and the Minority Rights Groups is the forcible removal of indigenous peoples from their lands.  20,000 Indians have been moved away from the Honduran border, and into government camps. The Sandinistas claim they are protecting the Indians from cross-fire in the civil war.

The evidence seems to indicate that the resettlement program has more to do with controlling the Indians than protecting them. Some resettled Indians have been deported to the far-away Wiwili and San Jose do Bocay plantations, to produce coffee for export. The Indians themselves started fighting the Sandinistas well before the Contras went into business. Cultural Survival argues that the Indians were uprooted to deprive anti-Sandinista guerrillas of a popular base of support. As Chairman Mao said, guerrillas are fish, and the people are the water they swim in. Apparently the Sandinistas decided to drain the pond.

"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," was another of Mao's apt observations. In the fall of 1980 (while Jimmy Carter was sending Nicaragua record aid), the Sandinistas confiscated the Indian's hunting rifles. That the Sandinistas are afraid of an armed citizenry speaks volumes about how little popular support the Sandinistas know they have. A few months after the rifle round-up, the Sandinistas carried out a mass arrest of Indian leaders. According to Amnesty International, the move was intended to decapitate authentic Indian leadership.

Today, some of the remaining Indian leaders claim that things are better with the government. Indeed, many Indians have abandoned guerilla resistance. In part, the new attitude reflects more humanitarian government policy. Another factor has been the Indians' refusal to bow to CIA demands that they integrate their military operations into the Contra command, which, like the Sandinista government, is a Pacific Coast entity foreign to the Indians.

 In sum, as far as farmworkers are concerned, the new Nicaragua looks just like the old Nicaragua. As for Indians, the new Nicaragua is much worse; full autonomy for Atlantic Coast peoples is gone forever. The Sandinista promises of social justice seem as hollow as their promises of press freedom.

In the short run, the Sandinistas may once again find a tactical advantage in easing pressure on the Indians, opening up the economy, or allowing La Prensa to publish. The history of the Sandinistas makes it clear, however, that once the tactic has served its purpose, limited freedom will again disappear.


Who lost Nicaragua? Ronald Reagan asked this question in 1980. With some justification, Reagan blamed Carter's vacillation for weakening Somoza. Also sharing the blame were most of Carter's predecessors in the 20th century, who exploited Nicaragua as a quasi-colony, run by local despots. Yet in the story of how Nicaragua was lost to the Sandinistas, the Reagan administration has earned a large share of the blame. By fundamentally ignoring the true aspirations of the Nicaraguan people, the Reagan administration lost the Nicaraguan civil war, and repeated the folly that has plagued our Nicaraguan policy for this entire century.

In the early months of the Reagan administration, covert aid to a Contra force began. At American behest, Argentinean army officers arrived in Nicaragua as Contra trainers. Yet the trainers were not men skilled in guerilla war. They were the officers of Argentina's military dictatorship, expert mostly in torture and repression. And as the Falklands War demonstrated, the Argentine military couldn't run a war of its own, much less teach anybody else. (Gratitude for Argentine Contra aid was one of the major reasons that Reagan took so long in supporting Britain in the Falklands War.)  Picking up the military skills of the Argentineans, the first contra units were notoriously reluctant to carry out genuine guerilla raids.

For years, the United States had dealt with Nicaragua through the prism of the Somoza family. All the Americans had to do was express their wishes to Somoza, and he took care of running the rest of the country. Thus, it is not surprising that the Reagan administration could not accept the legitimacy of authentic, non-subservient Nicaraguan revolutionaries.

The true revolutionaries were not the Guardia officers taking Argentine graduate courses in torture. Nor were the true revolutionaries the ruling Sandinistas, learning similar lessons from the Cubans.  The real revolutionaries were led by the mercurial and charismatic Eden Pastora -- Commander Zero, in southern Nicaragua. The real revolutionaries were the Miskito and other Indian tribes on the Atlantic Coast, fighting for their autonomy.

Pastora, who had founded the first "Sandinista" front in the 1950's, and his guerrillas lived among the people, and never insisted that the civilians join the war. The Guardia's contras, on the other hand, often recruited at the point of a bayonet.

The Reagan Administration ordered Pastora to subsume his force in the C.I.A.-controlled Contra army, the F.D.N. Pastora refused. He said his alliance with the Sandinistas had taught him not to join up with people who wanted a dictatorship. So the C.I.A. cut off his funds, and Pastora's army dissolved.

The Miskito Indians were treated the same way. The Miskitos had been the first Nicaraguans to take up arms against the Sandinistas. The Indians too, the C.I.A. insisted, must join the F.D.N. Indian leadership splintered, and Sandinistas were able to convince some Indians to quit the civil war. Recently, the tribes as a whole have concluded an agreement with the Managua government; the agreement provides that armed Indian militias, rather than the Sandinista army, will be responsible for the defense of the Indian villages.  A fractured Indian resistance has won a measure of freedom for the Indians. A resistance not divided by Reagan's tactics might have won even more.

Yet, by fits and starts, even the main Contra army has acquired a greater and greater degree of legitimacy. National Guard officers are now a minority in the officer corps. And the foot soldiers in 10,000 man army are mostly disaffected peasants: campesinos who are outraged at the Sandinistas for taking their land, small farmers who want nothing to do with an intrusive government from Managua.  To call the Contra army a mercenary one, as Richard Gephardt does, is simply ridiculous. Does he really think all 10,000 of those peasants have a Swiss bank account someplace?

Still, these soldiers are appropriately called "Contras," for they are not fighting for any particular vision of Nicaraguan society. They fight simply to end Sandinista misrule. Accordingly, they have difficulty garnering international support.

At the top of the Contra leadership are men like Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, both pro-Western leaders of the revolution against Somoza. They do have vision of a new Nicaragua. But, as one disillusioned pro-Contra lobbyist recently stated, the Reagan administration "never wanted Cruz and Robelo as anything more than fig leaves." The Reagan administration still prefers to deal with the military figures.

Thus, the Contras have only sporadically been able to win majority support in the United States. Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan cannot convince most Americans that he has Nicaraguan freedom truly in mind.  What really matters to him, and what mattered to William Casey, was American control.

Perhaps an American President who preferred Eden Pastora and the Miskitos to the National Guard might have done better with the American Congress.  The 1983 cut-off in aid to the Nicaraguan revolutionaries came as the Contras were taking the offensive in the field, pressing the Sandinistas harder and harder. But by the time Congress resumed full-scale American aid, the Sandinistas had been beefed up with the Soviet Union's best helicopter gunships, and boatloads of other hardware.

Today, the Contras face a similar aid cut-off.  Many express certainty that the most powerful nation in the world will not let them fail. But American support for guerilla war has often ended in disgrace. In the past, America has backed groups fighting for their independence -- like the Kurds in Iran and Iraq, and the Hmong in Laos -- and then pulled out the rug. In Agents of Innocence, Jonathan Kwitney writes of the American experience in Lebanon, but the words apply elsewhere too: "When the real trouble begins, you are gone. And you leave your friends, the ones who trusted you most, to die."

Completely abandoning the Contras now means abandoning a force that has demonstrably improved Sandinista behavior. In 1984, Commandante Bayardo Acre explained that the elections were only being held because of the war situation. Many rural farmers have been given title to their own land (as opposed to becoming serfs on a state farm), in part because the Sandinistas have had to co-opt Contra promises of individual land ownership. To state the obvious, the Arias peace treaty, with Sandinista promises of democracy, is being signed so the Sandinistas can get the Contras off their back.

The battlefield performance of the Contras demonstrates that they have become a viable guerilla force. They have effective control of the Chontales province. There, the Sandinistas have to reduce rations of rubber boots, because peasants give them to the Contras, and of batteries, because peasants use transistor radios to listen to Contra broadcasts. The Sandinistas exiled a local bishop who spoke of the right of oppressed people to bear arms.

In the rest of the nation, the Contras thus far can only carry out raids. One should keep the Contras in historical perspective. The Sandinistas fought Somoza for 20 years, never held any territory until the very end, and even by the end of the war the Sandinistas had less than half as many volunteers as the Contras do now. As the war against Somoza illustrates, most Nicaraguans will stay out of the cross-fire, and hesitate to oppose a dictatorship until it becomes clear that the dictatorship is on its way out.

Moreover, the Contras do not need to capture Managua tomorrow to do good. As long as they tie down the huge Sandinista army, they prevent that army from threatening countries like Costa Rica, which has no military at all. 

Do the Contras fight dirty? Yes. Just like the Sandinistas. Americas Watch and the Puebla Institute report Sandinista shootings and bombings of civilians.  Refugees tell stories about how a Sandinista military commander raped a 15 year old girl. As the Contras have done, the Sandinistas kidnap unwilling soldiers, like the mass round-ups at schools and movie houses.

Similar to the right-wing dictatorship in Guatemala, the Sandinista regime carries out relocation programs to clear the countryside of peasants who might support guerrillas. Peasants who refuse to move are shot, or bombed. "Search and destroy" missions aimed at Contras ignore civilian casualties. If the Contras are known to have passed through a village, the Sandinistas will retaliate by bombing it, even if the Contras are known to be gone.

Because of Sandinista tactics, "Nicaraguan refugees now compose the majority of refugees fleeing from countries in Central America," according to an administrator for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. About 170,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica, and about half as many have fled to Honduras. For the peasants stuck behind in Nicaragua's resettlement camps, they must live in what the New York Times described as "miserable, muddy fields of broken people living in palm-thatched lean-tos and rude tents built of stakes and sheets of black plastic."

If one believes that a nation's sovereignty is embodied in whoever happens to be the de facto government, U.S. support for the Contras is interference with Nicaraguan self-determination. But if one believes that sovereignty flows only from popular consent, then it is the thousands of Cuban advisors who are violating Nicaragua's independence.

A Gallup Poll asked citizens of other Central American nations whether they think the Nicaraguan people favor the Contras or the Sandinistas. By a margin of 72% to 12%, Costa Ricans thought that Nicaraguans preferred the Contras. Hondurans thought the same thing, by a margin of 75% to 15%; Salvadorans split 46% to 20%, and Guatemalans 60% to 23%. It would be interesting to know how Nicaraguans would respond to the poll, but we can't find out, since the Sandinistas forbid opinion polling.

President Hoyo of Honduras urges the United States to put aid for the Contras into escrow, until it becomes clear whether the Sandinistas will comply in good faith with the Arias peace plan. "If a decision is made in the United States to cancel all aid to the Contras," he predicted, "the Sandinistas will harden their position." President Hoyo worried particularly about Sandinista reluctance to release political prisoners. Costa Rican President Arias concurs that some escrow aid would not violate the plan.

Already, it is becoming clear that the Sandinistas will not observe the Arias Peace Plan. The Catholic church's radio station recently re-opened, but has been forbidden to broadcast news shows. The government has continued to ignore requests from people who want to open a non-Sandinista television station, and an independent radio station with news broadcasting. President Arias states that the Sandinistas will be in breach of the peace plan unless they allow these stations to open.

Whether the Sandinistas can retain power in a genuinely free political system is not clear. The Sandinistas, therefore, may not live up to their promises under the Guatemala City accord. It makes sense to put some Contra aid into escrow, in case the Sandinistas treat their recent promises of political freedom the same way they have treated all their previous promises.


America has failed badly in Nicaragua. For 50 years, a bipartisan coalition indulged the Somoza family, local procurators for America's neo-colonial rule. Today, Ronald Reagan and the rest of his inept State Department continue that mistake. Blinded by their anti-communist ideology, Reagan and his colleagues badly misread the Nicaraguan civil war, failing understand that Nicaraguan peasants would not rally under former National Guard commanders, to trade in the new Sandinista dictatorship for the old Guardia dictatorship.

In a perverse way, the American defenders of the Sandinistas are a mirror of Reagan. They too have failed badly in Nicaragua, for they too put their ideological worldview ahead of true justice for the Nicaraguan people.

Several years ago, Guatemala was ruled by a far-right loony tune named General Efrain Rios Montt. A born-again Protestant, Montt commandeered the airwaves every Sunday, to give Guatemala's overwhelmingly Catholic majority a good religious talking-to. Reverend Jerry Falwell and the rest of the Christian Right bubbled about what a swell guy General Montt was, for preaching the Word of the Lord. Falwell forgot to tell his followers that Montt and his army were committing genocide on Guatemala's Indians.

What General Montt was to the American Right, Commandante Ortega is to the American Left. The Sandinistas take torture training from Cuban instructors and herd dissident Indians into concentration camps. In attempt to eliminate non-governmental structures of authority, the Sandinistas persecute the Nicaraguan Indians' Moravian Church, and the Nicaraguan campesinos' Catholic Church. Every time the Sandinistas crack down on domestic dissent, their American supporters justify it as an understandable response to war and domestic turmoil.  If only these American leftists understood how much they sound like Jesse Helms defending Mr. Botha.

Instead of criticizing the Sandinistas, their American supporters shift the topic, by fulminating about the Contras. The demonization of the contras shows how far the American friends of the Sandinistas are from reality. The Contras have been operating freely throughout all the provinces in North Central Nicaragua. Are the peasants who feed them, who tell reporters stories about Sandinista torture and rape, all they all C.I.A. mercenaries too?

On September 15, all the nations of Central America celebrate Independence Day. At the 1984 ceremonies, a team of Nicaragua's best young athletes approached the Costa Rican border, to pass the "torch of independence" to a team of runners from Costa Rica. After passing the torch, the Nicaraguan team kept right on running, past all the international dignitaries, and down the highway into Costa Rica. Are these young athletes also C.I.A. agents?

The Nicaraguan people have had it with the Sandinistas. Polls in every nation in Central America (except Nicaragua, where polling is illegal) reveal that huge majorities of Central Americans believe the Nicaraguan people favor the Contras over the Sandinistas. The only place the Sandinistas are still popular, it seems, is certain parts of the United States.

Many people who today admire the Sandinistas also claim to admire the Civil Rights movement in America. They respect the way men like James Meredith, as well as little girls, braved angry Southern mobs, and stood up for their beliefs. These brave people, not the cowards in the lynch mobs, embodied the true progressive spirit.

In Nicaragua however, many Americans cannot see who the heroes are, and who the bullies are. Government-inspired youth gangs called Turbas Divinas(divine mobs) regularly brutalize the peaceful opposition in Nicaragua. One victim was the dissident Father Bismark Carballo. Posing as a parishioner in need of counsel, a young woman went to Father Carballo's house. A few minutes later, a Sandinista security agent, posing as the woman's husband, arrived Father Carballo's house, and supposedly caught the Father in flagrante delicto with the woman. The police arrived, and forced Father Carballo to undress. A turba mob, conveniently waiting outside, dragged Father Carballo naked and bleeding through the streets while Sandinista television cameras (also coincidentally in the neighborhood) filmed the whole thing. From a nearby van, Interior Minister Tomas Borge and Security Chief Lenin Cerna orchestrated all the players.

The government uses the Turbas frequently, especially to break up opposition political rallies. When Turbas Divinas sacked the headquarters of Alfonso Robelo's Nicaraguan Democratic Movement, the Sandinistas censored all news of the event. No wonder Robelo, like many other leader of the revolution against Somoza, concluded that armed rebellion against the Sandinistas was essential. Today, the Sandinistas make promises for Western consumption, about how the political process will be opened up. Then Daniel Ortega promises that when opposition politicians face the streets, they will have to face the turbas.

The tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King and Henry Ward Beecher tells us that Christianity, and other religions, command us to side with the victims of oppression. The Sandinistas' "liberation theology" teaches that the immortal Sandinista Party is Christ, being persecuted by the Roman Empire of the United States. One wonders if a better vision of Christ might be Father Carballo, bleeding and naked in the street, or Miskito Indians in miserable shacks in concentration camps. One may also wonder why so many Americans who claim to act in the name of God end up on the side of Pontius Pilate -- whether Pilate appears as Rios Montt or Tomas Borge.


Sadly, the American Left's romance with Nicaragua is merely the latest in a long string of misplaced affection.  While Comrade Lenin created the structure of the modern totalitarian state, and Comrade Stalin perfected it, the American Left cheered them on. The same years that Stalin was deliberately creating famine in the in the Ukraine, and staging show trials with fake confessions extracted under torture, magazines like the Nation and the New Republic promised that the Soviet Union was "an economic democracy" that was on its way to becoming a political democracy. Later, Henry Wallace lectured that Cold War was the result of American insensitivity, rather than violation of the Yalta accords and the Stalinization of Eastern Europe.

The same decade, misguided State Department dispatches assured America that Mao Zedong and his Red Army were simply "agrarian reformers." They reformed 30 million Chinese right into their graves, and starved many more with an inept agricultural bureaucracy.  Today, even the Chinese Communist Party condemns the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's as a reign of terror back. At the time, American campus "progressives" were toting the Little Red Book and preaching how Mao was bringing genuine power to the masses.

An even larger circle of Americans was asserting that the Viet Cong were genuine South Vietnamese nationalists. After they won, they would not merge South Vietnam with the North for many decades. The Viet Cong fooled not only Americans, but themselves. A few days after South Vietnam fell, Hanoi took full control, and the Viet Cong were forgotten.

Next door, the Khmer Rouge were coming to power. New York Times columnist Sidney Schanberg explained that they were simply agrarian reformers. They killed a third of the Cambodian nation.

Even to this day, Fidel Castro still enchants many Americans. Back in 1959, he toured America to cheering college crowds, who praised him as a Jeffersonian revolutionary who loved baseball. They were half right. Jefferson, though, never put homosexuals in prison torture camps, and never saw his own citizens drown while trying to swim to a freer nation.

As Tad Szulc's recent biography of Castro details, Castro did make gestures towards pluralism, including putted respected democrats in leadership positions. But from the start, Castro was meeting with Communist cadres, outlining step-by-step plans for turning Cuba into a fully Communist state. America's increasingly hostile policy was nothing for that a pretext for already-planned repression.

For too long, the American foreign policy debate has been dominated by two extremes. On the right, Ronald Reagan praises murderous thugs like General Montt, and allies himself with Somoza's old National Guard. On the left, Jesse Jackson toasts "Viva Fidel Castro!" and affiliates himself with the Sandinistas and their Cuban-trained secret police. The American public, meanwhile, passively sits by for half a century while thugs like Somoza use American dollars to rape Nicaragua. The few Americans who oppose American neo-colonialism fall into such a frenzy of anti-anti-Communism that they erase from their minds all evidence that their idols might be the new oppressors.

But dictatorship is dictatorship. When you're being tortured, it doesn't matter if your persecutor was trained by Argentineans or by Cubans. Indians in Guatemala and Nicaragua don't care about the philosophical divisions between the armies that are killing their people.

The future of American foreign policy belongs neither to the Ronald Reagan nor Jesse Jackson. While American cannot right every wrong, America must not ally with the wrong. Leaders like Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Congressman Stephen Solarz of Brooklyn, and Mayor Koch (an opponent of Somoza during his Congressional tenure) are the heirs of America's best traditions of freedom. Of course there is always room for tactical disagreement -- Bradley and Solarz, for example, differ on Contra aid.

Yet on the fundamental issues are clear. In Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, the Philippines, South Africa, and around the world, America must support democratic reform. If we ignore the legitimate democratic aspirations of the rest of the globe, one nation after another will fall to its local Sandinistas.

America's foreign policy must reject both the extreme right of the Somozas and the extreme left of the Sandinistas. The Vital Center -- democratic trade unions, small farmers, free thinkers -- is where we need to direct our support. In this Vital Center lies the best hope -- indeed the only hope -- for a policy that will move beyond the mistakes of the past and present, American mistakes which have inflicted such tremendous suffering on the Nicaraguan people.

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