TEACHING NICARAGUA LESSON
It wasn't just El Salvador that was ignored by the mainstream
US media during the 1970s. In the ten years prior to the overthrow
of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, US television-all
networks-devoted exactly one hour to Nicaragua, and that was entirely
on the Managua earthquake of 1972.
From 1960 through 1978, the New York Times had three editorials
on Nicaragua. It's not that nothing was happening there-it's just
that whatever was happening was unremarkable. Nicaragua was of
no concern at all, as long as Somoza's tyrannical rule wasn't
When his rule was challenged, by the Sandinistas in the late 1970s,
the US first tried to institute what was called "Somocismo
[Somoza-ism] without Somoza"-that is, the whole corrupt system
intact, but with somebody else at the top. That didn't work, so
President Carter tried to maintain Somoza's National Guard as
a base for US power.
The National Guard had always been remark ably brutal and sadistic.
By June 1979, it was carrying out massive atrocities in the war
against the Sandinistas, bombing residential neighborhoods in
Managua, killing tens of thousands of people. At that point, the
US ambassador sent a cable to the White House saying it would
be "ill advised" to tell the Guard to call off the bombing,
because that might interfere with the policy of keeping them in
power and the Sandinistas out.
Our ambassador to the Organization of American States also spoke
in favor of "Somocismo without Somoza," but the OAS
rejected the suggestion flat out. A few days later, Somoza flew
off to Miami with what was left of the Nicaraguan national treasury,
and the Guard collapsed.
The Carter administration flew Guard commanders out of the country
in planes with Red Cross markings (a war crime), and began to
reconstitute the Guard on Nicaragua's borders. They also used
Argentina as a proxy. (At that time, Argentina was under the rule
of neo-Nazi generals, but they took a little time off from torturing
and murdering their own population to help reestablish the Guard-soon
to be re named the contras, or "freedom fighters.")
Reagan used them to launch a large-scale terrorist war against
Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal.
We also intimidated other countries so they wouldn't send aid
And yet, despite astronomical levels of military support, the
United States failed to create a viable military force in Nicaragua.
That's quite remarkable, if you think about it. No real guerrillas
anywhere in the world have ever had resources even remotely like
what the United States gave the contras. You could probably start
a guerrilla insurgency in mountain regions of the US with comparable
Why did the US go to such lengths in Nicaragua? The international
development organization Oxfam explained the real reasons, stating
that, from its experience of working in 76 developing countries,
"Nicaragua was...exceptional in the strength of that government's
commitment...to improving the condition of the people and encouraging
their active participation in the development process."
Of the four Central American countries where Oxfam had a significant
presence (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), only
in Nicaragua was there a substantial effort to address inequities
in land ownership and to extend health, educational and agricultural
services to poor peasant families.
Other agencies told a similar story. In the early 1980s, the World
Bank called its projects "extraordinarily successful in Nicaragua
in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world."
In 1983, The Inter-American Development Bank concluded that "Nicaragua
has made noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying
the basis for long-term socio-economic development."
The success of the Sandinista reforms terrified US planners. They
were aware that-as Jose Figueres, the father of Costa Rican democracy,
put it-"for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that
cares for its people." (Although Figueres was the leading
democratic figure in Central America for forty years, his unacceptable
insights into the real world were completely censored from the
The hatred that was elicited by the Sandinistas for trying to
direct resources to the poor (and even succeeding at it) was truly
wondrous to behold. Just about all US policymakers shared it,
and it reached virtual frenzy.
Back in 1981, a State Department insider boasted that we would
"turn Nicaragua into the Albania of Central America"-that
is, poor, isolated and politically radical-so that the Sandinista
dream of creating a new, more exemplary political model for Latin
America would be in ruins.
George Shultz called the Sandinistas a "cancer, right here
on our land mass," that has to be destroyed. At the other
end of the political spectrum, leading Senate liberal Alan Cranston
said that if it turned out not to be possible to destroy the Sandinistas,
then we'd just have to let them "fester in [their] own juices."
So the US launched a three-fold attack against Nicaragua. First,
we exerted extreme pressure
to compel the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to
terminate all projects and assistance.
Second, we launched the contra war along with an illegal economic
war to terminate what Oxfam rightly called "the threat of
a good ex ample." The contras' vicious terrorist attacks
against "soft targets" under US orders did help, along
with the boycott, to end any hope of economic development and
social reform. US terror ensured that Nicaragua couldn't demobilize
its army and divert its pitifully poor and limited resources to
reconstructing the ruins that were left by the US-backed dictators
and Reaganite crimes.
One of the most respected Central America correspondents, Julia
Preston (who was then working for the Boston Globe), reported
that "Administration officials said they are content to see
the contras debilitate the Sandinistas by forcing them to divert
scarce resources toward the war and away from social programs."
That's crucial, since the social programs were at the heart of
the good example that might have infected other countries in the
region and eroded the American system of exploitation and robbery.
We even refused to send disaster relief. After the 1972 earthquake,
the US sent an enormous amount of aid to Nicaragua, most of which
was stolen by our buddy Somoza. In October 1988, an even worse
natural disaster struck Nicaragua-Hurricane Joan. We didn't send
a penny for that, because if we had, it would probably have gotten
to the people, not just into the
pockets of some rich thug. We also pressured our allies to send
very little aid.
This devastating hurricane, with its welcome prospects of mass
starvation and long-term ecological damage, reinforced our efforts.
We wanted Nicaraguans to starve so we could accuse the Sandinistas
of economic mismanagement. Because they weren't under our control,
Nicaraguans had to suffer and die.
Third, we used diplomatic fakery to crush Nicaragua. As Tony Avirgan
wrote in the Costa Rican journal Mesoamerica, "the Sandinistas
fell for a scam perpetrated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias
and the other Central American Presidents, which cost them the
February  elections."
For Nicaragua, the peace plan of August 1987 was a good deal,
Avrigan wrote: they would move the scheduled national elections
forward by a few months and allow international observation, as
they had in 1984, "in exchange for having the contras demobilized
and the war brought to an
end...." The Nicaraguan government did what it was required
to do under the peace plan, but no one else paid the slightest
attention to it.
Arias, the White House and Congress never had the slightest intention
of implementing any aspect of the plan. The US virtually tripled
CIA supply nights to the contras. Within a couple of months the
peace plan was totally dead. As the election campaign opened,
the US made it clear that the embargo that was strangling the
country and the contra terror would continue if the Sandinistas
won the election. You have to be some kind of Nazi or unreconstructed
Stalinist to regard an election conducted under such conditions
as free and fair- and south of the border, few succumbed to such
If anything like that were ever done by our enemies...I leave
the media reaction to your imagination. The amazing part of it
was that the Sandinistas still got 40% of the vote, while New
York Times headlines proclaimed that Americans were "United
in Joy" over this "Victory for US Fair Play."
US achievements in Central America in the past fifteen years are
a major tragedy, not just because of the appalling human cost,
but be cause a decade ago there were prospects for real progress
towards meaningful democracy and meeting human needs, with early
successes in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
These efforts might have worked and might have taught useful lessons
to others plagued with similar problems-which, of course, was
exactly what US planners feared. The threat has been successfully
aborted, perhaps forever.
from the book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, published in 1993
Tucson, AZ 85751
tel 602-296-4056 or 800-REALSTORY
other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies, and Democracy
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
Uncle Sam Really Wants