Selective Justice: The US Has Been Sponsoring Terror in My Native Latin America for Decades

My involvement in human rights issues and my commitment to justice was inevitable, for I was born in Nicaragua, a country which endured almost 50 years of despotic rule. In the early 20th century it suffered invasion and repeated occupation by US forces. In 1932 they helped General Anastasio Somoza to seize power. The oligarchy that followed pillaged the country of its natural resources while following a policy which opened the door for US business.

I was born into a well-to-do family but my parents divorced when I was 10. This changed my life. My mother, now single, had to support three children and was often discriminated against because of her sex and status. As a teenager I too felt powerless when I saw the student massacres perpetrated by Somoza's national guard. From a very early age I wanted to make a difference, to demonstrate against state brutality, to become an instrument for change.

I wanted an education which would protect me from my mother's fate. Never would I be a second-class citizen because of my gender. Never would I feel powerless when forced to witness atrocity at first hand. Armed with a French government scholarship, I left Nicaragua to study political science in Paris.

In my native land, liberty and equality were the stuff of dreams. But in Paris, where I arrived on July 14, I discovered the value of those words; the true weight of their precious meaning. In 1971, I entered my well-known marriage - and that marriage, along with its consequences, changed my life profoundly. My marriage placed me under the glare of the world media. No longer was I a person in my own right, able to articulate my own thoughts, and to live my own life.

It was ironic that I had left Nicaragua in order to escape its narrow view of women. Now I faced the same prejudice in the world of supposed enlightenment. I was changed by what I endured - and my political consciousness was heightened. I had to fight for my rights and for my identity - and to establish myself in a public context. Later on I would have to learn how to change my public image into a force for justice.

My divorce coincided with the fall of Somoza, when a popular uprising ousted the tyrant. In 1979 the Sandanistas seized power. But the revolution was also a problem for the US government. Here was a third world country daring to break away from subservience.

In 1981 I traveled to Honduras with a US congressional fact finding mission and we visited a Salvadorean refugee camp in Honduran territory. During my visit, an armed death squad of some 35 men marched across the border from El Salvador, rounded up about 40 refugees and took them back to El Salvador, with their thumbs tied behind their backs. And all of this was done with the blessing of the Honduran army.

The relief workers and the delegation I was with decided to give chase. We ran behind them along a river bed accompanied by the mothers, the wives and the children of the prisoners. As we neared the border the fear that both the refugees and ourselves would be shot seized us. We came within ear shot. The guards turned round, pointing their M-16s towards us. Then they yelled "These sons of bitches have caught up with us." We screamed back at them that they would have to kill all of us. For some unknown reason - perhaps, as I believe, we were in the hand of God - they let both us and their captives go.

This moment was an existentialist experience. I realized there and then that even the smallest act of courage can save a life - even, perhaps, change the direction of history.

In 1982 I began to speak out against the Contra war and the series of US sponsored military interventions in Central America. It was a policy of wholesale state-sponsored terrorism which continues to astonish in its scale and repression. At first the Nicaraguan revolution had presented a feasible, third world alternative. It was a popular policy which also encouraged the virtues of independence, of self-reliance. It was obvious that if the Nicaraguan experiment flourished there would a knock-on, domino, effect. For the US it was a bad example - endangering other Latin American countries which were client states of the Big Brother to the north. And the Nicaragua effect represented a huge potential loss of investment.

It was on another memorable September 11 - that of 1973 - that Hunter jets attacked the presidential palace in Santiago. With the backing of the CIA and of the Nixon administration, Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende. It was only the first stage of what would prove to be a 17-year protracted terror. And in El Salvador the US supported a series of governments from 1979 to 1992 who were directly responsible for the deaths of over 70,000 people. It was the Salvadorean army which murdered in cold blood the martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In 1989 the US invaded Panama to overthrow the former CIA agent, General Manuel Noriega - a man who had now become an enemy; 5,000 civilians were killed by American forces and buried in mass graves. And in 1982 the US began funding the Contra war against the Sandinista government. Corinto harbor was mined in 1984 and the court of world opinion recognized that the policy of the United States was that of a war criminal.

Nicaragua, now the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, has never recovered from that war. There were 40,000 Nicaraguan dead, the innocent who were categorized as "soft targets".

Monday is the anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a document which reminds us that law is the basis of all civilization, of respect for human dignity, in both the domestic and the international arena.

But in George Bush we have a president who thinks that it is the rights of America that must take pre-eminence over that of any other country. His government has been prepared to wage all-out war on the people of Afghanistan. But the killers of the thousands of Latin and Central America dead have never been apprehended. Indeed, the new American ambassador to the UN is John D Negroponte. As ambassador to Honduras, he was the official face of American repression. And why are we so slow in bringing to justice those convicted of the terrible genocide in Srebrenica, when 8,000 civilians, the town's entire male population, were slaughtered - and delivered to their murderers by an indifferent international community?

We will not eradicate terrorism by waging war on the oppressed and the ravaged nations, the wretched of the earth. And it will certainly not be achieved by drafting legislation depriving us of civil liberties, which gives away so carelessly both due process and judicial review. Coexistence and dialogue between nations, races and faiths is not just a vision - it is a practical goal and one enshrined in the language of the UN declaration. It remains the true beacon for humanity.

This is an extract from the 2001 lecture of the Bar human rights committee of England and Wales.

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