[back] Nicaragua

Nicaragua 1981-1990

Destabilization in slow motion

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope by William Blum


When the American military forces left Nicaragua for the last time, in 1933, they left behind a souvenir by which the Nicaraguan people could remember them: the National Guard, placed under the direction of one Anastasio Somoza ... Three years later, Somoza took over the presidency and with the indispensable help of the National Guard established a family dynasty which would rule over Nicaragua, much like a private estate, for the next 43 years. While the Guardsmen, consistently maintained by the United States, passed their time on martial law, rape, torture, murder of the opposition, and massacres of peasants, as well as less violent pursuits such as robbery, extortion, contraband, running brothels and other government functions, the Somoza clan laid claim to the lion's share of Nicaragua's land and businesses. When Anastasio Somoza II was overthrown by the Sandinistas in July 1979, he fled into exile leaving behind a country in which two-thirds of the population earned less than $300 a year. Upon his arrival in Miami, Somoza admitted to being worth $100 million. A US intelligence report, however, placed it at $900 million.

It was fortunate for the new Nicaraguan leaders that they came to power while Jimmy Carter sat in the White House. It gave them a year and a half of relative breathing space to take the first steps in their planned reconstruction of an impoverished society before the relentless hostility of the Reagan administration descended upon them; which is not to say that Carter welcomed the Sandinista victory.

In 1978, with Somoza nearing collapse, Carter authorized covert CIA support for the press and labor unions in Nicaragua in an attempt to create a "moderate" alternative to the Sandinistas. Towards the same end, American diplomats were conferring with non-leftist Nicaraguan opponents of Somoza. Washington's idea of "moderate", according to a group of prominent Nicaraguans who walked out on the discussions, was the inclusion of Somoza's political party in the future government and "leaving practically intact the corrupt structure of the somocista apparatus", including the National Guard, albeit in some reorganized form. Indeed, at this same time, the head of the US Southern Command (Latin America), Lt. General Dennis McAuliffe, was telling Somoza that, although he had to abdicate, the United States had "no intention of permitting a settlement which would lead to the destruction of the National Guard". This was a notion remarkably insensitive to the deep loathing for the Guard felt by the great majority of the Nicaraguan people.


After the Sandinistas took power, Carter authorized the CIA to provide financial and other support to their opponents. At the same time, Washington pressured the Sandinistas to include certain men in the new government. Although these tactics failed, the Carter administration did not refuse to give aid to Nicaragua. Ronald Reagan was later to point to this and ask: "Can anybody doubt the generosity and good faith of the American people?" What the president failed to explain was:

a) Almost all of the aid had gone to non-governmental agencies and to the private sector, including the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the long-time CIA front.

b) The primary and expressed motivation for the aid was to strengthen the hands of the so-called moderate opposition and undercut the influence of socialist countries in Nicaragua .

c) All military aid was withheld despite repeated pleas from the Nicaraguan government about its need and right to such help-the defeated National Guardsmen and other Supporters of Somoza had not, after all, disappeared; they had regrouped as the "contras" and maintained primacy in the leadership of this force from then on.

In January 1981, Ronald Reagan took office under a Republican platform which asserted that it "deplores the Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua". The president moved quickly to cut off virtually all forms of assistance to the Sandinistas, the opening salvos of his war against their revolution. The American whale, yet again, felt threatened by a minnow in the Caribbean.

Among the many measures undertaken: Nicaragua was excluded from US government programs which promote American investment and trade; sugar imports from Nicaragua were slashed by 90 percent; and, without excessive subtlety but with notable success, Washington pressured the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank, and the European Common Market to withhold loans to Nicaragua. The director of the IDB, Mr. Kevin O'Sullivan, later revealed that in 1983 the US had opposed a loan to aid Nicaraguan fishermen on the grounds that the country did not have adequate fuel for their boats. A week later, O'Sullivan pointed out, "saboteurs blew up a major Nicaraguan fuel depot in the port of Corinto", an act described by an American intelligence source as 'totally a CIA operation''.

Washington did, however, offer $5.1 million in aid to private organizations and to the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua. This offer was rejected by the government because, it said, "United States congressional hearings revealed that the [aid] agreements have political motivations, designed to promote resistance and destabilize the Revolutionary Government.'' As Nicaragua had already arrested members of several of the previous recipient organizations such as the Moravian Church and the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) for involvement in armed plots against the government.

The Reagan administration was not deterred. Cardinal Miguel Obando and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua received hundreds of thousands of dollars in covert aid, from the CIA until 1985, and then-after official US government aid was stopped by congressional oversight committees-from Oliver North's off-the-books operation in the White House basement. One end to which Obando reportedly put the money was "religious instruction" to "thwart the Marxist-Leninist policies of the Sandinistas''.

As part of a concerted effort to deprive the Nicaraguan economy of oil, several attacks on fuel depots were carried out. Contra/CIA operations emanating in Honduras also blew up oil pipelines, mined the waters of oil-unloading ports, and threatened to blow up any approaching oil tankers; at least seven foreign ships were damaged by the mines, including a Soviet tanker with five crewmen reported to be badly injured. Nicaragua's ports were under siege: mortar shelling from high-speed motor launches, aerial bombing and rocket and machine-gun attacks were designed to blockade Nicaragua's exports as well as to starve the country of imports by frightening away foreign shipping. In October 1983, Esso announced that its tankers would no longer carry crude oil to Nicaragua from Mexico, the country's leading supplier; at this point Nicaragua had a 10-day supply of oil.

Agriculture was another prime target. Raids by contras caused extensive damage to crops and demolished tobacco-drying barns, grain silos, irrigation projects, farm houses and machinery; roads, bridges and trucks were destroyed to prevent produce from being moved; numerous state farms and cooperatives were incapacitated and harvesting was prevented other farms still intact were abandoned because of the danger.

And in October 1982, the Standard Fruit Company announced that it was suspending all its banana operations in Nicaragua and the marketing of the fruit in the United States. The American multinational, after a century of enriching itself in the country, and in violation of a contract with the government which extended to 1985, left behind the uncertainty of employment for some 4,000 workers and approximately six million cases of bananas to harvest with neither transport nor market.'

Nicaragua's fishing industry suffered not only from lack of fuel for its boats. The fishing fleet was decimated by mines and attacks, its trawlers idled for want of spare parts due to the US credit blockade. The country lost millions of dollars from reduced shrimp exports.'

It was an American war against Nicaragua. The contras had their own various motivations for wanting to topple the Sandinista government. They did not need to be instigated by the United States. But before the US military arrived in Honduras in the thousands and set up Fortress America, the contras were engaged almost exclusively in hit-and-run forays across the border, small-scale raids on Nicaraguan border patrols and farmers, attacks on patrol boats, and the like; killing a few people here, burning a building down there,' there was no future for the contras in a war such as this against a much larger force. Then the American big guns began to arrive in 1982, along with the air power, the landing strips, the docks, the radar stations, the communications centers, built under the cover of repeated joint US-Honduran military exercises, while thousands of contras were training in Florida and California.

US and "Honduran" reconnaissance planes, usually piloted by Americans, began regular overflights into Nicaragua to photograph bombing and sabotage targets, track Sandinista military maneuvers and equipment, spot the planting of mines, eavesdrop on military communications and map the terrain. Electronic surveillance ships off the coast of Nicaragua partook in the bugging of a nation. Said a former CIA analyst: "Our intelligence from Nicaragua is so good ... we can hear the toilets flush in Managua."

Meanwhile, American pilots were flying diverse kinds of combat missions against Nicaraguan troops and carrying supplies to contras inside Nicaraguan territory. Several were shot down and killed.' Some flew in civilian clothes, after having been told that they would be disavowed by the Pentagon if captured. Some contras told American congressmen that they were ordered to claim responsibility for a bombing raid organized by the CIA and flown by Agency mercenaries. Honduran troops as well were trained by the US for bloody hit-and-run operations into Nicaragua ... and so it went ... as in El Salvador, the full extent of American involvement in the fighting will never be known.

The contras' brutality earned them a wide notoriety. They regularly destroyed health centers, schools, agricultural cooperatives, and community centers-symbols of the Sandinistas' social programs in rural areas. People caught in these assaults were often tortured and killed in the most gruesome ways. One example, reported by The Guardian of London, suffices. In the words of a survivor of a raid in Jinotega province, which borders on Honduras:

"Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off, and their eyes poked out They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit."

Americas Watch, the human-rights organization, concluded that "the contras systematically engage in violent abuses ... so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war."

In November 1984, the Nicaraguan government announced that since 1981 the contras had assassinated 910 state officials and killed 8,000 civilians.

The analogy is inescapable: if Nicaragua had been Israel, and the contras the PLO, the Sandinistas would have long before made a lightning bombing raid on the bases in Honduras and wiped them out completely. The United States would have tacitly approved the action, the Soviet Union would have condemned it but done nothing, the rest of the world would have raised their eyebrows, and that would have been the end of it.

After many contra atrocity stories had been reported in the world press, it was disclosed in October 1984 that the CIA had prepared a manual of instruction for its clients which, amongst other things, encouraged the use of violence against civilians. In the wake of the furor in Congress caused by the expose, the State Department was obliged to publicly condemn the contras' terrorist activities. Congressional intelligence committees were informed by the CIA, by present and former contra leaders, and by other witnesses that the contras indeed "raped, tortured and killed unarmed civilians, including children" and that "groups of civilians, including women and children, were burned, dismembered, blinded and beheaded". These were the same rebels whom Ronald Reagan, with his strange mirror language, called "freedom fighters" and the "moral equal of our founding fathers". (The rebels in El Salvador, in the president's studied opinion, were "murderers and terrorists".)

The CIA manual, entitled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, gave advice on such niceties as political assassination, blackmailing ordinary citizens, mob violence, kidnapping, and blowing up public buildings. Upon entering a town, it said, "establish a public tribunal" where the guerrillas can "shame, ridicule and humiliate" Sandinistas and their sympathizers by "shouting slogans and jeers". "If ... it should be necessary ... to fire on a citizen who was trying to leave the town," guerrillas should explain that "he was an enemy of the people" who would have alerted the Sandinistas who would then "carry out acts of reprisals such as rapes, pillage, destruction, captures, etc."


In January 1983, the so-called Contadora group, composed of Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, began to meet periodically in an attempt to still the troubled waters of Central America. Rejecting at the outset the idea that the conflicts of the region could or should be seen as part of an East-West confrontation, they conferred with all the nations involved, including the United States. The complex and lengthy discussions eventually gave birth to a 21-point treaty which dealt with the most contentious issues: civil war, foreign intervention, elections, and human rights.

Then, much to Washington's surprise, on 7 September 1984 Nicaragua announced its intention to sign the treaty.


The American ambassador to Costa Rica likened Nicaragua under the Sandinistas to an "infected piece of meat" that attracts "insects." President Reagan called the country a "totalitarian dungeon", and insisted that the people of Nicaragua were more oppressed than blacks in South Africa.

Members of the Kissinger Commission on Central America indicated that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was as bad or worse than Nicaragua under Somoza. Henry Kissinger believed it to be as bad as or worse than Nazi Germany. Reagan was in accord-he compared the plight of the contras to Britain's stand against Germany in World War II.

"Central America," noted Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, "now exercises the same influence on American foreign policy as the full moon does on werewolves.

So all-consuming, so unrelenting, was the hatred, that Kissinger demanded that the American ambassador to Nicaragua be removed simply because he reported that the Sandinista government was "performing fairly well in such areas as education". And in the wake of the terrible devastation in Nicaragua wrought by Hurricane Joan in October 1988, the Reagan administration refused to send any aid nor to help private American organizations do so.

So eager was the State Department to turn the Sandinistas into international pariahs, that it told the world, without any evidence, that Nicaragua was exporting drugs, that it was anti Semitic, that it was training Brazilian guerrillas. When the CIA was pressed about the alleged Sandinista drug connection, it backed down from the administration's claim.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig referred to a photograph of blazing corpses and declared it an example of the "atrocious genocidal actions that are being taken by the Nicaraguan Government" against the Miskito Indians. We then learned that the photo was from 1978, Somoza's time.


By the time the war in Nicaragua began to slowly atrophy to a tentative conclusion during 1988-89, the Reagan administration's obsession with the Sandinistas had inspired both the official and unofficial squads to embrace tactics such as the following in order to maintain a steady flow of financing, weaponry and other aid to the contras: dealings with other middle-eastern and Latin American terrorists, frequent drug smuggling in a variety of imaginative ways, money laundering, embezzlement of US government funds, perjury, obstruction of justice, burglary of the offices of American dissidents, covert propaganda to defeat domestic political foes, violation of the neutrality act, illegal shredding of government documents, plans to suspend the Constitution in the event of widespread internal dissent against government policy ... and much more, as revealed in the phenomenon known as Iran/Contra ... all of it to support the band of rapists, torturers and killers known as the Contras

This then, was the level of charm reached by anti-communism after 70 years of refinement. The imperial sensibility of America's leaders could be compared favorably with that of Britain circa 1925.

But it worked.

On 25 February 1990, the Sandinistas were defeated in national elections by a coalition of political parties running under the name National Opposition Union (UNO). President George Bush called it "a victory for democracy"... Senator Robert Dole declared that "The final outcome is a vindication of the Reagan policies."... Elliott Abrams, former State Department official and Iran/Contra leading light, said "When history is written the contras will be folk heroes.''

The opposing analysis of the election was that ten years of all-encompassing war had worn the Nicaraguan people down. They were afraid that as long as the Sandinistas remained in power, the contras and the United States would never relent in their campaign to overthrow them. The people voted for peace. (As the people of the Dominican Republic had voted in 1966 for the US-supported candidate to forestall further American military intervention.)

"We can't take any more war. All we have had is war, war, war, war," said Samuel Reina, a driver for Jimmy Carter's election monitoring team in Juigalpa. In some families "one son has been drafted by the Sandinistas and another has joined the contras. The war has torn families apart.''

The US invasion and bombing of Panama just two months earlier, with all its death and destruction, could only have intensified the commitment of hardcore Sandinistas to resist yanqui imperialismo, but it could not have failed to serve as a caution to the large bloc of undecided voters.

The Nicaraguans were also voting, they hoped, for some relief from the grinding poverty that five years of a full American economic embargo, as well as the war, had heaped upon their heads. Commented Paul Reichler, a US lawyer who represented the Nicaraguan government in Washington at the time: "Whatever revolutionary fervor the people once might have had was beaten out of them by the war and the impossibility of putting food in their children's stomachs.''

... For ten years the people of Nicaragua had shouted [the] slogan-"Here, no one gives up." But in February 1990, they did exactly that. (Just as the people of Chile had chanted "The people united will never be defeated", before succumbing to American power.)

The United States had more than war and embargo at its disposal to determine the winner of the election. The National Endowment for Democracy spent more than $11 million dollars, directly and indirectly, on the election campaign in Nicaragua. This is comparable to a foreign government pouring more than $700 million dollars into an American election, and is in addition to several million dollars more allocated by Congress to "supporting the electoral infrastructure, and the unknown number of millions the CIA passed around covertly.

As a result of a controversy in 1984-when NED funds were used to aid a Panamanian presidential candidate backed by Noriega and the CIA-Congress enacted a law prohibiting the use of NED funds "to finance the campaigns of candidates for public office." The ways to circumvent the letter and/or spirit of such a prohibition were not difficult to conceive. NED first allocated millions to help organize UNO, building up the parties and organizations that formed and supported the coalition. Then a variety of other organizations-civic, labor, media, women's, etc.-run by UNO activists received grants for all kinds of "non partisan" and "pro-democracy" programs, for voter education, voter registration, job skills, and so on. Large grants made to UNO itself were specified for items such as office equipment and vehicles. (Rep. Silvio Conte of Massachusetts pointed out that the $1.3 million requested for vehicles would pay for renting 2,241 cars for a month at $20 per day.) UNO was the only political party to receive US aid, even though eight other opposition parties fielded candidates. Money received by UNO for any purpose of course freed up their own money for use in the campaign and helped all of their candidates. Moreover, the US continued to fund the contras, some of whom campaigned for UNO in rural areas.

Afterwards, critics of the American policy in Nicaragua called it "a blueprint" for successful US intervention in the Third World. A Pentagon analyst agreed: "It's going right into the textbooks.