What Everyone Should Know About Nicaragua

November 07, 2001

Mark Weisbrot
Houston Chronicle, November 7, 2001

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, November 6, 2001 

The United States’ first post-September 11 foray into Latin American politics—in Nicaragua’s election—provides a glimpse of how Washington’s new “counter-terrorism” policy may play out in this region. 

Conservative candidate Enrique Bolanos defeated the Sandinistas’ Daniel Ortega, in an election that had been cast as too close to call. US officials publicly warned against a Sandinista victory, accusing them of “links to terrorism,” and openly supported Bolanos.

But to understand the meaning of these events, we need a bit more history than most press accounts are providing.

The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan who led a guerilla war from 1927-33 against US Marines who had invaded his country. The Marines finally left in 1933, but not before setting up a National Guard, led by Anastasio Somoza Garcia, to run the country. Sandino was murdered by the Guard, and Somoza established a family dictatorship that ruled the country with US support until the Sandinista-led revolution in 1979.

When Anastasio Jr. fled to Miami—our haven for retired dictators—in 1979, Nicaraguans celebrated the departure of “the last Marine.” Tens of thousands of people had been killed in the insurrection, as Somoza’s air force bombed poor residential neighborhoods of Managua, figuring that all of the people living there were his enemies. 

Partly because of the church-based, pacifist background of the organizations that joined their movement, the Sandinistas broke with the pattern of modern revolutions and rejected vengeance. They set a 30-year maximum sentence, even for the most vicious of their former tormentors and torturers.

But their enemies in Washington were not so forgiving. While the Sandinistas were rebuilding the war-ravaged economy—it quickly reached the highest growth rate of Central America—Washington was planning violence. While the Sandinistas built health clinics and waged literacy campaigns that won international acclaim and awards from the United Nations, the Reagan Administration built an army to overthrow the new government.

The “Contras” as they were called—from the Spanish for counter-revolutionaries—were recruited, armed, trained, and paid by the CIA. They waged war not so much against the Nicaraguan army as against “soft targets:” teachers, health care workers, elected officials (a CIA-prepared manual actually advocated their assassination). They blew up bridges and health clinics, and with help from a US trade embargo beginning in 1985, destroyed the economy of Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas took the United States to the World Court for its terrorist actions—the same Court where the US had won a judgment against Iran just a few years earlier, for the taking of American hostages. The Court ruled in favor of Nicaragua, ordering reparations estimated at $17 billion. The US refused to recognize the Court’s decision.

In 1984 there were elections in Nicaragua. Over 400 observers from 40 countries, including the Latin American Studies Association of scholars from the United States, found that the election was basically free and fair.

Although there was no doubt the country had voted for the Sandinistas—including Ortega as president—Washington continued its violent efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government. But the Contras’ extreme brutality sickened many Americans, especially among the religious community. Within a couple of years a grassroots movement persuaded Congress to cut off funding to the Contras. That’s when Oliver North and his friends sought out creative new sources of financing, such as illegal arms sales to Iran—leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.

By 1990 the Nicaraguans had suffered more than they could take from the war and economic embargo, and so when President George Bush made it clear that their misery would continue until the Sandinistas were voted out of office, a majority cried uncle. Washington got the government it wanted, but of course it did not end Nicaragua’s suffering. A decade of IMF and World Bank tutelage has left Nicaraguans with the most crushing debt burden in the hemisphere, 70 percent of its people in poverty, and—alone among Latin Americans—less income per person than they had 40 years ago. 

Bolanos’ victory assures a grim future, although neither Ortega nor the Sandinistas represent the kind of hope that they did 20 years ago. It is not surprising that Nicaraguans would, after once again hearing the threats from the North, decide they could not afford another Sandinista government. But as the ignorant and depraved breathe their sighs of relief in Washington, they would do well to consider the warning of John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

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