Destabilization in slow motion
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.