The year 2003 ended with the ratcheting up of alerts for signs of terrorist activity. Given such concern, it's somewhat surreal to learn that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is bringing Oliver North, notorious for his support of various 1980s terrorist activities, to Madison.
Yep. The retired colonel of Iran-Contra fame, now repackaged as a FOX News commentator and "embedded reporter," is coming to town.
We should not forget that North ran a bizarre series of operations out of the Reagan White House that involved the attempted subversion of the U.S. Constitution and total disregard for legality and the democratic process.
The WMC Web site notes that North "will draw on his knowledge as a former staff member of the National Security Council and assess the United States' role in the world - militarily, economically and politically."
What knowledge from his NSC days might North share? Will he recount the arrogance of his efforts to assemble the monies and materiel necessary to keep the Contra war going in Nicaragua, against the wishes of the U.S. public and the Congress?
In 1983, the CIA mined the harbors off Corinto (Nicaragua's major port). Later that year, the Company blew up the country's key oil storage tanks at the same port. Throughout the '80s, constant attacks by U.S.-funded Contra forces based in Honduras shattered Nicaragua's economy and led to over 30,000 deaths (in a country with a population smaller than Wisconsin's).
Essentially, every tangible benefit of the Sandinista revolution - health care centers, schools, new phone lines, agricultural cooperatives - became a target of the U.S./Contra war. Outraged citizens in the United States and across the world mobilized against that war, and found some allies in Congress, leading to the passage of the Boland amendment, which prohibited the Defense Department, the CIA and any other government agency from providing aid to the Contras.
Furious, the Reagan administration circumvented the amendment by using the National Security Council to supervise covert military aid to the Contras, under the direction of Oliver North.
As that covert war raged, the United States remained far more interested in what was at stake in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, then the site of the bloody Iran-Iraq war. While Reagan envoy Donald Rumsfeld was meeting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the administration was trying to free U.S. hostages held in Beirut. With hopes of winning Iranian support, the United States, with North as its envoy, secretly sold arms to the ayatollahs. The money from those illegal weapons sales went directly to the Contra assault.
Military planes loaded with guns from Miami and elsewhere also flew to the Contras' aid.
It was the downing of Wisconsin native Eugene Hasenfus' plane in Nicaragua that led to the unraveling of the Iran-Contra web of deceit. Hasenfus' capture prompted congressional investigation into North's role in the Contra war. In December 1986, North invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in testimony before Congress.
As the enormity of the scandal became clearer, the House and Senate appointed special Iran-Contra committees. Hearings were scheduled for 1987 and North agreed to appear only after being granted limited immunity.
North admitted he had lied to Congress and destroyed evidence. He said, "I am ... not at all ashamed of any of the things that I did. I was given a mission and I tried to carry it out." North remained adamant that he at no time acted on his own, a "loose cannon" as some in the administration claimed.
In Nicaragua, the war dragged on. By 1990, an exhausted population hoping for peace went to the ballot box and elected U.S.-backed Violeta Chamorro. Many Nicaraguans then thought that the United States would magically bring not only peace, but also prosperity. Instead, the 1990s brought the country continued strife, under the guise of "free trade."
In early March 1991, just a year after taking office, Chamorro's government introduced the first U.S.-imposed structural adjustment measures. Nicaraguan producers and business people, still reeling from a wartime economy, were suddenly expected to compete with products from all over Central and Latin America and the United States in accordance with the new gospel of "free trade."
Numerous U.S. firms moved in. For example, in the mid 1990s Tyson Foods (yes, that Tyson!) flooded the Nicaraguan market with nicely cut chicken, cheaper by the pound than that raised in the country. Within six months, most of Nicaragua's small poultry producers went belly up and a few relatively rich companies cornered the market.
With Ollie North's help, the U.S./Contra war paved the way for a docile, defeated Central America. Last month, all the Central American countries, with the exception of Costa Rica, signed onto the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In other words, we can expect most Central Americans to see their economic options worsen.
It's not surprising then that Oliver North is now speaking of "free trade" instead of guns and arms. In the end, the interests are virtually the same, and while talk of "free trade agreements" and "globalization" is relatively new, the marriage of political, military and economic interests is hardly novel.
As Ollie North speaks before the WMC, we would do well to remember the candid confession made by another former Marine, Gen. Smedley Butler, in 1931:
"I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. ... I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints."
If only Ollie North would be so forthcoming in Madison.
Educator Donna Vukelich, a Madison native, spent the greater part of the 1980s in Nicaragua, where she reported on the effects of U.S. policy and worked for several nongovernmental organizations providing assistance to women and children.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times