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Nicaraguan Lesson

One of the more telling events of the post-September 11th period was the recent election in Nicaragua. With the media focused on Afghanistan, it was virtually ignored in the American press. My sources for this commentary are British newspapers, especially The Guardian, and the Agence France-Presse.

The major presidential contestants were Enrique Bolanos, backed by the Nicaraguan business community and the Bush Administration, and ex-president Daniel Ortega, leader of the left-wing Sandinista movement. For reasons of personal scandal, Ortega was a tarnished candidate who might have lost even a fair election. But the U.S. Administration wasn't taking any chances. It intervened in Nicaraguan politics to assure Bolanos' victory.

No one knows how much money the Bush Administration covertly poured into the Bolanos campaign, but we do know what the money paid for. One of the most effective of Bolanos' ads was a picture of Osama bin Laden carrying an AK-47 assault rifle with a voice-over message, "If he could vote in Nicaragua, he would vote for Commandante Daniel Ortega."

The attempt to link the Sandinistas with international terrorism is an old U.S. ploy, an update of the Cold War Era attempt to link governments we don't like with international communism. Shamelessly, the Bush Administration resurrected it. In remarks directed at Nicaraguans, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the U.S. has "serious reservations" about Ortega and accused the Sandinistas of "destroying the economy and maintaining links with those who support terrorism." John Keane, a State Department honcho for Western Hemisphere Affairs, added that under the Sandinistas, "Nicaragua became a haven for violent political extremists from the Middle East, Europe and Latin America." Jeb Bush, the President's brother and the Governor of Florida, weighed in with an article in the Miami Herald, calling Ortega "an enemy of everything the United States represents....[and] a friend of our enemies. Ortega," he lied, "has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism." All these comments, ignored in the U.S., were much discussed in Nicaragua.

Countries should be able to elect public officials without foreign interference. We insist upon that for our own elections but, as happened in Nicaragua, we reserve the right to intervene in other country's elections.

History may seem old stuff when compared to the excitement of yesterday's news, but it has a way of coming back to haunt us. The 9-11 terrorist attack and the current war in Afghanistan all have their roots in the U.S. decision in the early 1980s to arm Afghan tribal leaders against the Soviet invasion.

Recall, then, these facts in U.S. and Nicaraguan history: Until 1979, Nicaragua was ruled by a military dictatorship supported by the American government. The Sandinistas, a coalition of Marxists, liberal reformers, and radical Catholics, overthrew the dictatorship and thereby earned the enduring enmity of the U.S. Government.

Though there is much to criticize in Sandinista policies, their reforms earned the approval of the international community. The World Bank acknowledged that its projects were "extraordinarily successful in Nicaragua in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world." The Inter-American Development Bank, in 1983, wrote approvingly that "Nicaragua has made noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying the basis for long-term socio-economic development." Jose Figueres, considered the father of democracy in Central America, said that "for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that cares for its people."

Perceiving Nicaragua as a model for third world development, the Reagan Administration geared up to overthrow it. Secretary of State George Shultz called it a "cancer, right here on our landmass," and President Reagan declared that his objective was to "remove it...."

At the same time that the U.S. was training and arming the Afghan resistance, it was financing, arming, training, and directing "Contra" forces in a guerrilla war against the Sandinista government. 40,000 people were killed and the economy was devastated. Yet, in 1984, Nicaragua held its first free election. Despite U.S. financial aid to the opposition, the Sandinistas won 67% of the vote.

In 1983 Congress passed the Boland Amendment cutting off aid to the Contra guerrillas. In order to circumvent this law, the Reagan Administration made a secret deal to sell weapons to Ayatollah Khomeini's theocratic dictatorship in Iran (then condemned by the U.S. as a terrorist government) and then used money from the sale to secretly finance the Contras.

The Sandinistas had the gumption to sue the U.S. in the World Court at the Hague, the very same court in which the U.S., in cooperation with the U.N., is bringing Serbian leaders to trial for their crimes against the Bosnian and Kosovar people. In 1986, the World Court condemned the U.S. for "unlawful use of force," ordered us to end our support of the Contras and pay the Nicaraguan's $17 billion in reparation. We ignored that court order.

Now, in our war against terrorism, we call for the support of the international community. This is easy to do because all governments fear terrorism. But when it suits us, as it did in Nicaragua, we not only ignore international rulings but support terrorism ourselves. Further, we undermine our fight against terrorism - and discredit the meaning of terrorism -- by accusing any group or country that we don't like as supporting terrorism no matter what the evidence.

Militarily, our sophisticated air power can destroy any country. We can now win wars without having to suffer many casualties. At the same time, we remain as arrogant as we were before the 9/11 bombing. We believe we can bully the world and that other countries, fearing our might, will always support us. I wouldn�t count on it. Our belief that we have the right to intervene in other country's elections, as happened in Nicaragua, will come back to haunt us. When it comes to international terrorism we remain part of the problem, rather than a contributor to finding a solution.


Marty Jezer

Marty Jezer

Marty Jezer  was a well-known Vermont activist and author. Born Martin Jezer and raised in the Bronx, he earned a history degree from Lafayette College. He was a co-founding member of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, and co-authored influential model legislation on campaign finance reform that has so far been adopted by Maine and Arizona. He was involved in state and local politics, as a campaign worker for Bernie Sanders, Vermont's Independent Congressional Representative, and as a columnist and Town Representative. Jezer had been an influential figure in progressive politics from the 1960s to the time of his death. He was editor of WIN magazine (Workshop In Nonviolence), from 1962-8, was a writer for Liberation News Service (LNS), and was active in the nuclear freeze movement, and the organic farming movement (he helped found the Natural Organic Farmers' Association). Marty died in 2005.

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