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A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaragua Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era.

If some clever member of President Bill Clinton's legal staff were to read

William Robinson's book, he might order an investigation into the multiple improprieties that Bush Administration officials pulled in rigging the 1990 Nicaraguan election. Indeed, we might have four years of digging into the behavior of national-security officials who "did not content themselves," as the late Senator Sam Ervin would have said, "to remain on the windy side of the law."

But don't hold your breath. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have embraced the democracy crusade and welcomed into their ranks some of the neocons who jumped like rats from the sinking Reagan ship. Others - before George Bush granted their Christmas Eve pardons - complained bitterly about the injustice done to them by vengeful special prosecutors.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams, for example, published an apologia titled Undue Process: How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes. Rather than risk serving time for lying to Congress, Abrams copped a plea to several misdemeanors. But, instead of seeing his behavior as destructive of life in Nicaragua and inimical to the democratic process at home, Abrams whines about how his career was damaged and his life interrupted. He shows no awareness that he violated the primary moral and legal codes of democracy.

In one passage - which Gore Vidal might have, but didn't, write as parody - Abrams reveals the depth of his thinking. Fearing his children will read about the scandal, Abrams tries to clarify the issues for them. The United States, he explains, was "fighting the communists in Nicaragua. Well, I knew lots of secrets about that, and Secretary Shultz and President Reagan didn't want me to tell. Now, some people are saying, you should have told Congress. You had to tell. When they asked you, you had to tell, and not telling is a crime. And I'm shying, no, it isn't."

Abrams as Faust? Besides money and the pleasure of beating up a weaker adversary, what did the national-security mavens receive for selling out U.S. law? Did any of them possess a soul worthy of a devil's bargain? And if so, what knowledge - power - could they have hoped to gain from defeating the Sandinistas? I can see the nuclear gang back in the 1940s trading their essences for an atomic monopoly, but the people engaged in trying to cook the 1990 Nicaraguan election, as Robinson portrays them, are less than heroic in their ambition.

Robinson picks up the intervention story where Peter Kornbluh's Nicaragua: The Price of Intervention left off, in the mid-1980s. After the phase-out of multiple covert operations in the late 1980s, Bush Administration officials designed, financed, and organized the anti-Sandinista opposition's election campaign. The author amasses a vast array of documentation to show how even former President Jimmy Carter was used as a kind of unwitting consigliere to get the Sandinistas to agree to U.S. conditions: free, U.S.-style elections.

Robinson shows how CIA operatives worked with other national-security officials, members of Congress, and the filthy rich crowd that sucks off political power to create a private-public network, international in scope, to finance and build an anti-Sandinista coalition out of spatting Nicaraguan sects and narrowly focused political parties. Then the self-styled protectors of freedom fashioned their imperfect progeny into a "civic front." Another team ran the propaganda apparatus. The CIA continued to run its agents in and out of Nicaragua, turn contra mobsters into "civic leaders," and plant anti-sandinista and pro-contra stories in the world's press.

Robinson shows how this gang of officials and "private citizens" laundered money through Miami and coordinated the efforts of PR men, ad hustlers, press agents, fixers, and hangers-on, finally setting up UNO (the acronym of the anti- Sandinista coalition) headquarters. This "democracy" bunch allowed its right-wing Nicaraguan clients to take cuts off the top of the loot raised from the right-wing rich. In addition, Robinson details the efforts that went into the actual campaign, from the design of posters, T-shirts, and buttons to the newly purchased vehicles required for U.S.-style electioneering.

The startling fact that Robinson emphasizes is that the Sandinistas calculated they could overcome all of this U.S. input because the masses still believed in them. "The Sandinistas designed their own electoral strategy," he writes, "on the basis of a completely mistaken assessment, that a majority of Nicaraguan people still stood behind them, ready to endure more hardship and sacrifice for hopes and ideals that ... simply could not be realized."

In his "Afterword," Robinson enters into an interesting polemic with Robert Pastor, former National Security Council point man on Latin America for the Carter Administration, and Sandinista official Alejandro Bendana. The debate centers around the blame question: Was the playing field level? Pastor says, "The election was a referendum on ten years of Sandinista rule."

True enough, agrees Robinson, but insufficient. "U.S. intervention radically altered the political system in Nicaragua and was crucial in determining the conditions as well as the constraints under which the electoral process unfolded." Bendana offers the insight that the United States generated the "conditions that force difficult decisions, or the choice between lesser evils," which he sees as "an objective of low-intensity warfare."

The book's strength is in the persuasive way it presents the data on intervention. Robinson uses the argument with Pastor to show the difference between his viewpoint and that of the liberal establishment. In Pastor's gentle but paternalistic rebuke of Robinson's thesis, he offers the reader an exercise in temporal polemics, that form of discourse bereft of historical perspective, yet full of specific historic data. "Although I disagree with much of Robinson's book, I believe it reflects an idealism similar to that which motivated many Sandinistas." Such commentary is beyond condescending.

Pastor downplays the larger historical facts - i.e., that the U.S. Government installed and supported the Somozas uncritically for more than four decades. That's the kind of history that makes the eyes of policy mavens glaze over, while for the Sandinistas it is the very context from which flows their analysis and action.

Robinson's book is marked less by naive idealism, which would be hard to justify in the post-revolutionary era, than by anger and frustration, appropriate responses to U.S. criminal activity and to the hypocrisy used to rationalize it.

"Between September 1978 and July 1979," Pastor reports, "the National Security Council met twenty-five times to develop a strategy for dealing with a country struggling to rid itself of the oppressive Somoza dynasty." Why should the NSC have convened twenty-five times over Nicaraguan transition? Because, Pastor explains, the Carter Administration "viewed the key [Sandinista] leaders as Marxists, who saw Cuba and the Soviet Union as allies and the United States as an enemy. Caught between a dictator it refused to defend and a guerrilla movement that it would not support, the Administration tried to facilitate a democratic transition for Nicaragua, but it failed."

Did Pastor suggest allowing the Nicaraguans to determine their own destiny?

Pastor disingenuously argues that the portrait Robinson paints of the U.S. Government as efficient and coordinated subversive agent is much too conspiratorial. The point is that even bumblers and clowns with major power and money behind them can defeat a weak and beleaguered opponent. For Pastor and most aspirants to Government posts, historical and moral factors are subsumed in the heady cloud of imperial hubris that hangs in the policy rooms.

Historians may ponder why the United States expended so much time, energy, and resources to defeat the fledgling revolutionary government of Nicaragua. Fred Halliday, in The Second Cold War, argues credibly that Managua and Kabul were perceived by Reagan ideologues as vulnerable Soviet flanks, strategic roads to Moscow. Roy Gutman offers a less ideological case in Banana Diplomacy, in which a bunch of irresponsible, second-rate players found a bureaucratic turf game to play with each other at the expense of the Nicaraguan people - and the U.S. taxpayer.

For whatever reason, as Robinson cogently demonstrates, the Nicaraguan revolution could not have survived the war of attrition waged against it by the United States. The United States asserted its control of the region, as it has done historically - except in Cuba. The denouement, Robinson concludes, is that from a policy of "low-intensity warfare" in the 1980s, we have evolved to "low-intensity democracy" in the 1990s.

Clinton and Gore have already declared their intention of raising the National Endowment for Democracy budget and creating a Democracy Corps to spread the word. It's hearts-and-minds time again! Is there no learning?

At least George Bush and James Baker as Secretary of State tried to make Central America into a nonissue, which it should have been since there was no "threat" to the region. Indeed, extreme caution is indicated. Under U.N. auspices, difficult peace arrangements are being attempted in El Salvador and a modicum of progress is being forced on even the murderous thugs in the Guatemalan military. Can you imagine teamloads of American do-gooders bringing "high-intensity democracy" to the region?

Behind the facade of democracy rhetoric is the old evil of banality, the opposite of heroic Faustianism. Nicaragua, as Robinson shows, is a prime example of the U.S. policy elite not getting proper satisfaction for its efforts. So it continues to bully Violeta Chamorro, its candidate, to grovel still more. After the Sandinistas and their supporters - and most of their enemies - were shocked by the election results, the U.S.-designed game appeared to be over. Imagine Chamorro's surprise when she discovered that the name of this contest was not "Beating the Bad Commies" but rather "Moving the Goal Posts."

She began her presidency believing Washington's promises of largess. After all, the American-backed war cost Nicaragua more than $14 billion, a figure arrived at by the World Court in assessing U.S.-inflicted damage up to 1986. Shock number one came when Congress voted only $325 million in aid - conditioned, Chamorro discovered, on her immediate withdrawal of the World Court suit. She refused. The U.S. Government withheld the paltry aid. Faced with economic disaster and a sea of needs, she capitulated. The State Department released a dribble of aid, but the game continued.

Three years after her election, Chamorro faces yet another obstacle. If she wants the rest of the money, she must purge the Sandinistas from the army leadership, dissolve her political coalition with them even though they are the minority partner - and return properties that Senator Jesse Helms and friends decided were unfairly seized.

With the Cold War fading into ancient history, why is so much attention still paid to a small country that never had strategic importance or critical resources? Moving the Goal Posts may be fun for contemporary bureaucrats who don't like to change job descriptions, but Central Americans have long understood the real meaning of U.S. behavior.

In 1909, Nicaraguan President Jose Zelaya refused Washington demands for monopoly canal rights, a banking monopoly, and a naval base, and he was punished by President William Howard Taft, who sent his Administration's equivalent of CIA covert warriors to subvert him. Nicaraguans were then given obedience lessons by the U.S. Marines for the next twenty years, but nationalist Augusto Sandino and his followers continued to resist, as the Marines vainly chased them through the mountains.

The classic obedience model was the Somoza dynasty, which reigned from 1934 to 1979 - until the very end, when Tachito Somoza defied Washington's resignation order and hung on for a few months to destroy people and property for the hell of it. For those who have occupied the seats of power at State and NSC, there is a message etched indelibly in the chairs they sit on, one that is osmotically absorbed after the first contact. Independence for Latin American leaders is defined as first asking permission and then obeying orders.

Robinson's book is a case study of a U.S. policy rooted in official lies to the American public for the purpose of carrying out hanky-panky abroad. Anyone who wants to find a reason to continue using the word "imperialist" to describe U.S. policy need only read this book.
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Author:Landau, Saul
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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