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Sandinista redux.

 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 reader,
 And up he flew ...
 With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

--The Crash, "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, to be our new secretary of defense, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. The Nicaraguans, for their part, just returned to office the party and the president that our dirty little war had ousted. And they did this despite direct threats last month from the Bush administration, delivered by Oliver North, 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 deja 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 U.S.-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 electrical 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 seventeen years earlier when Nicaragua was a military dictatorship ruled by Anastasio Somoza, a brutal U.S. 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 Rica-based journalist at the time, helping lead a liberal guilt trip tour of Nicaragua that my magazine regularly sponsored as a fundraiser. 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 U.S. 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 Cesar Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary who led an uprising against the U.S. 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 Simon Bolivar.

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 United States 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, U.S.-backed government and effectively address problems of hunger, healthcare, 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.

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. The Contras 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. Despite reports from international governments who observed the election, Reagan also unilaterally declared the Nicaraguan election a sham and imposed a devastating economic embargo against the country. 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, spiraling the country into a hyperinflationary cycle and making Nicaragua the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti.

When the U.S. 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 U.S. Senate investigation released in 1989, by helping the Contras smuggle cocaine into the United States.

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, members of 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 United States 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 H. W. Bush 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-person discussion. Nobody blamed me. They just thought, as an American, I might have some insight. They were stressed out. More than 50,000 of their citizens 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.

They were just plain tired. A few months after I left Nicaragua they cried uncle and voted the Sandinistas out of office. They voted for promised U.S. aid rather than an embargo and endless war. But the aid never came. Neither did the reparations the World Court ordered the United States 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 backs 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 became 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 scandal, was appointed by Bush Junior to be 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 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 to be 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 United States 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 United States, told the Nicaraguans that a Sandinista victory would be "the end of Nicaragua."

Any enthusiasm for Ortega's victory must be tempered by a sobering reminder of his flawed history.

Given North's 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 U.S. election that "thumped" the Republicans, once again elected Sandinista Daniel Ortega president.

Any enthusiasm for Ortega's victory must be tempered by a sobering reminder of his flawed history. Far from being the Marxists that the Reagan administration claimed they were, the Sandinistas were actually a bit too tight with Nicaragua's religious establishment last time they ran the country. Back then, when the Sandinista government expanded the public education system, they farmed almost all of the nation's schools out to churches to run. Since then, Ortega has aligned himself with conservative forces in the Catholic Church and supported Nicaragua's new anti-abortion bill--the most draconian in the hemisphere. The original Sandinistas also ran roughshod over the English-speaking Black and Native Miskito populations on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, forcing open a separate front during the Contra War. Still, November's Sandinista victory is an inspiration, if nothing else, because of the spirit of resistance that it represents.

And back in the United States, a week after Ortega's election victory, George W. Bush appointed one more IranContra criminal to his cabinet. This time it was the former 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 dominoes of democracy before they sweep right up to Washington DC.

Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism at Buffalo State College in New York. This article is adapted from the version appearing in the November 16, 2006, issue of ArtVoice. Dr. Niman's articles are archived at
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Author:Niman, Michael I.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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