President Ronald Reagan and Nicaragua

excerpted from the book

Lying for Empire

How to Commit War Crimes With A Straight Face

by David Model

Common Courage Press, 2005, paper


Created on December 2, 1823, the Monroe Doctrine was originally defined by President Monroe in his seventh annual message to Congress and states that:

... We owe it, therefore to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers [European] to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

The duplicity of American foreign policy is exemplified by the inconsistency between these commitments and the policies actually implemented by these same governments. While unequivocally agreeing to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations in the hemisphere, American governments have repeatedly intervened in South and Central American nations to pursue their own economic, political, and military agenda. American presidential signatures on the OAS Charter and on other international agreements are an expedient to create an illusion of commitment to international law while America is engaging in brutal acts of imperialism.

Nicaragua-a History of Crises

American intervention in Nicaragua is a salient example of both an interventionist interpretation of both the Monroe Doctrine and of the Truman Doctrine offering " support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures..." (referring to the Soviet Union). When a populist, reformist movement, the Sandinistas, overthrew the brutal and corrupt dictator, Anastasio Somoza in 1979, President Reagan organized a guerrilla force to embark on a war of attrition against the Nicaraguan people which ultimately ended in the Sandinistas' defeat.

During a brief respite from the Liberals and Conservatives ongoing war, the National Congress elected Adolfo Diaz as president in 1926. Violence erupted again between the Liberals and Conservatives. U. S. President Calvin Coolidge, fearing that the violence might threaten U.S. interests, sent Henry L. Stimson (later Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State) as his special envoy to negate a peace between the warring parties. Coolidge, a proponent of the interventionist interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, stated in an address to Congress in 1927 that:

I have the most conclusive evidence that arms and munitions in large quantities have been on special occasions.., shipped to the revolutionists in Nicaragua... I am sure it is not the desire of the United States to intervene in the internal affairs of Nicaragua or of any other Central American Republic. Nevertheless, it must be said, that we have a very definite and special interest in the maintenance of order and good government in Nicaragua at the present time .... The United States cannot, therefore, fail to view with deep concern any serious threat to stability and constitutional government in Nicaragua tending toward anarchy and jeopardizing American interests, especially if such a state of affairs is contributed or brought about by outside influence or by any foreign power. (William Blum, Killing Hope)

The revolutionaries mentioned in the address were the Liberals, one being Augusto Cesar Sandino whose name was taken by a successful revolutionary group in Nicaragua in 1961. Sandino was an illegitimate son f of a wealthy landowner and a mestizo servant. In 1926, Sandino worked as a gold miner at an American company. He lectured the mine workers about social inequalities, and eventually organized his own army consisting mostly of peasants, workers, and Liberals, to wage war against the Conservative government.

After negotiating with both the Liberals and Conservatives, Stimson achieved a peaceful settlement resulting in the Pact of Espino Negro. Both sides agreed to disarm and to create a nonpartisan military force, the National Guard, to be established and trained under American supervision. As well, the agreement called for the stationing of American forces in Nicaragua to supervise the 1928 elections.

Sandino refused to sign the pact and denounced the U.S. for making Nicaragua an American protectorate. He organized an independent guerrilla force to wage war against the Nicaraguan government and the United States. American marines embarked on a six-year hunt for Sandino without success.

As American casualties increased in Nicaragua, the United States decided to withdraw the marines in 1933. Command of the National Guard was transferred to the Nicaraguan government, which appointed Anastasio Somoza Garcia as its director.

Somoza had attended school in Philadelphia and was trained by U.S. marines. He was fluent in English and had formed friendships with military, economic, and political leaders in the United States. He maintained his close ties with the United States despite his brutal and corrupt leadership, inspiring President Roosevelt to comment that "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

Three years later, Somoza took over the presidency with the assistance of the National Guard, establishing a family dynasty which would rule Nicaragua for the next 43 years.

During the Somoza dynasty, the Somoza family's tentacles extended into all sectors of the Nicaraguan economy, allowing them to amass a large fortune. The family invested heavily in agricultural exports, cattle and coffee, and owned textile companies, sugar mills, rum distilleries, the merchant marine lines, the national Nicaraguan Airlines, and the country's only pasteurized milk factory. Somoza and his family also owned 10 to 20 percent of the arable land.

The corruption, repression, and lack of freedoms triggered the growth of opposition groups including political parties, labour, student, and business groups.

... Somoza's policies and brutality had produced many political enemies r including some within the National Guard, one of whom assassinated him in 1956. His eldest son, Luis Somoza Debayle, an American-trained engineer, succeeded him as president while another son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate, became leader of the National Guard. A brutal campaign of repression including torture, imprisonment, executions, press censorship, and a suspension of civil liberties followed Somoza Garcia's death.

When Luis Somoza's health deteriorated and he was unable to seek another term as president, his brother, Anastasio Somoza, was elected president amid a repressive campaign against his political opponents. After his brother Luis died of a heart attack, Anastasio also became leader of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military power.

Several major opposition groups emerged in the 1960s and 1970s oppose and eventually release the Somoza family's grip on power. In 1961, a small group of student activists at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Although the FSLN's members faced imprisonment and exile in the early years of its existence, by the early 1970s new recruits, including students and peasants, empowered it to the point where it could launch limited military initiatives. The FSLN guerillas held a group of leading Nicaraguan officials hostage in 1974 and negotiated an agreement with the government. When a government declaration appeared in the media and 14 Sandinistas were released from prison, the guerillas' prestige soared and the government was humiliated. Somoza's reaction to the growing opposition to his regime was more censorship, torture, and murder.

Differences in philosophy temporarily fractured the guerilla movement but they united under Daniel José Ortega Saavedra's faction which believed that conditions were primed for immediate action.

By 1977, the FSLN had become sufficiently strong to pose a threat to the Somoza Regime. The Carter administration then shipped weapons to Somoza covertly to avoid accusations of supporting a government that regularly violated the human rights of its citizens.

President Carter, fearing a FLSN victory, attempted to cajole Somoza into adopting a more flexible stance in an effort to win back middle class support but Somoza was in no mood to grant concessions. With military support from Israel and Brazil, he continued his brutal acts of suppression. At this point, the United States withdrew all economic and military support although support for the National Guard continued in anticipation of its role in a post-Somoza government.

When it became obvious to the Carter administration in 1979 that the FLSN would overthrow Somoza and form the next government, the U.S. sent officials to Nicaragua to negotiate an agreement with the Sandinistas. The U.S. officials offered to persuade Somoza to resign if the FLSN would incorporate a reformed National Guard into the new government. When the National Guard began to disintegrate on July 17, 1979, Somoza fled to Florida with an estimated $100 million which he had accumulated during his dictatorship. After the departure of Somoza, many members of the National Guard fled to Honduras and Guatemala. On the same day, the FLSN triumphantly marched into Managua concluding the Sandinista revolution.

One of the new government's first economic reforms was to pass the Agrarian Reform Law which called for the redistribution of land owned by the Somoza family, which comprised 20 percent of Nicaragua's cultivated land. Nicaragua, like many other developing countries, had to seek a balance between feeding its own people and earning foreign exchange through export crops to repay its debt. Nevertheless, the Sandinistas aimed for complete self-sufficiency by the year 2000.

When the Sandinistas took power, the educational system in Nicaragua was one of the poorest in Latin America. Limited spending on education and severe poverty forced many children into the labour market before their education was complete. By the time Somoza went into exile only 65 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in school and only 22 percent of those who attended primary school completed the full six years. In rural areas, most secondary schools had only one or two grades and there was a 75 percent illiteracy rate. To improve the educational system, the Sandinistas doubled the proportion of GNP spent on primary and secondary schools, increased the number of teachers, and built more schools. Using volunteer teachers, the Sandinista government succeeded in reducing the illiteracy rate from 50 percent of the population to 23 percent. Enrollment in colleges skyrocketed from 11,142 students in 1978 to 38,570 in 1985.

Health care was a disaster under the Somoza regime with many Nicaraguans having limited or no access to modern health care. The Sandinistas completely restructured the entire health care system by spending substantially more on health care, increasing the number of students entering medical school from 100 to 500, building five new hospitals, and building 363 primary health care clinics.

The Sandinistas, who had themselves been victims of the brutal dictatorship of Somoza, were determined to construct new political institutions and to introduce a new constitution which guaranteed human rights.

The new Minister of the Interior, Tomás Borge Martinez, was committed to eliminating human rights abuses and as a start he allowed all people imprisoned by Somoza to be given a fair trial. As an urgent priority, the Sandinistas wrote and passed a new provisional constitution called the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua which guaranteed human rights, equal justice under the law, the right to free expression, and the abolition of torture.

To replace the National Guard, the Sandinistas created the Sandinista People's Army and a new police force. The goal of the Sandinistas was to build a well-equipped professional military.

An important step toward democratization was the creation of mass organizations representing most popular interests such the Sandinista Workers' Federation representing labour unions, the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women's Association, and the National Union of Farmers and Cattlemen.

All these progressive measures were interpreted by the new American President, Ronald Reagan, as symptoms of communism requiring immediate action by the United States. David Womble, in The CIA in Nicaragua stated that:

In January 1981 Ronald Reagan took office under a Republican platform which asserted that " deplores the Marxist Sandinista take-over of Nicaragua" and he greatly expanded the CIA's guerilla warfare and sabotage campaigns. In November 1981 Reagan authorized a covert plan for $19 million to help the Argentina dictatorship train a guerilla force operating from camps in Honduras to attack Nicaragua.

William in Killing Hope wrote that:

The President [Ronald Reagan] moved quickly to cut off virtually all j.. 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.

To overthrow what George Shultz, former Secretary of State, referred to as a "cancer right here on our land mass," the United States decided to create a surrogate guerilla force, feigning to be Nicaraguans, to rise up against the evil communist government in Managua. The alternative, an invasion by American forces, was ruled out for fear of a backlash from the American public who were not quite over the Vietnam War. The CIA covertly created a paramilitary force known as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) or the Contras, many of whom were former members of Somoza's National Guard. By 1983, there were between 16,000 and 20,000 Contra troops who were operating along the Honduran border and from bases in Costa Rica.

The purpose of the Contras was not to defeat the Sandinista army in battle but to use terrorist tactics to destroy infrastructure, health, and educational services. Their intention was not to confront Sandinistas but to blow up bridges, power plants, oil pipelines, ports, schools, health clinics, grain silos, irrigation projects, and farmhouses. The underlying purpose of these acts of terrorism was to destroy the morale of the Nicaraguan people and to force the Nicaraguan government to divert a high proportion of its budget to defence as discussed in detail below. Diverting government resources to the war, forcing the Sandinistas to cut back on their reform programs, had a considerable negative impact on the people of Nicaragua. David Womble., in The CIA in Nicaragua, discussing the atrocities of the Contras called attention to:

Witness For Peace, an American Protestant watchdog body, collected a list of Contra atrocities in one year, which include murder, the rape of two girls in their homes, torture of men, maiming of children, cutting off arms, cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, castration, bayoneting pregnant women in the stomach, amputating the genitals of people of both sexes, scraping the skin off the face, pouring acid on the face, breaking the toes and fingers of an 18 year old boy, and summary executions. These were the people Ronald Reagan called the "freedom fighters" and the "moral equivalent of our founding fathers."

The Contras were trained by the CIA in terrorist warfare and were provided with a manual of instruction which encouraged the use of violence against civilians. According to William Blum, in Killing Hope:

The CIA manual, entitled Psychological Operations in Guerilla 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 guerillas can "shame, ridicule and humiliate" Sandinistas and their sympathizers by "shouting jeers and slogans".

In 1982, the Standard Fruit Company announced that it was suspending its operations in Nicaragua while foreign oil tankers refused to deliver oil to Nicaragua after Contra threats to blow them up. In October 1983, Nicaragua lost its primary oil supply when Esso (Exxon) announced that it would no longer ship oil from Mexico to Nicaragua. Nicaragua suffered the destruction of oil pipelines and the mining of oil-unloading ports, creating a critical shortage of fuel.

Another result was an acute food shortage stemming from Contra attacks on crops, grain silos, irrigation projects, farm silos, and machinery. In addition, the fish industry suffered from lack of fuel for its boats, spare parts, and the mining of Nicaraguan waters.

In addition to the guerilla warfare against the Sandinistas, the United States embarked on a devastating campaign of economic warfare to starve the people of Nicaragua in the hope that eventually they would "vote with their stomachs." Washington's ultimate objective was to impose a complete economic blockade against Nicaragua by blocking foreign aid, trade, and loans. The United States persuaded the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Development Fund to cut Nicaragua off from any form of assistance. A total trade embargo imposed by the U.S. was a serious blow to the Nicaraguan economy. Foreign trade with Nicaragua was almost severed when the CIA mined Nicaraguan harbours in 1984. The placing of 300-pound mines in three harbours not only discouraged foreign trade but destroyed Nicaragua's fishing industry.

August 13, 1983, President Reagan stated that:
We are on the side of peaceful democratic change in Central America and our actions daily prove it.

David MacMichael, who served with the CIA from 1981 to 1983 as an analyst of military and political developments in Central America, noted after an inter-agency meeting that:

"Although the stated objective was to interdict arms going to El Salvador, there was hardly any discussion of the arms traffic... I couldn't understand this failure until months later when I realized, like everyone else, that arms interdiction had never been a serious objective... the Administration and the CIA have systematically misrepresented Nicaraguan involvement in the supply of arms to Salvadorian guerillas to justify [their] efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government." (William Blum, Killing Hope)

The propaganda apparatus in Washington was determined to l demonstrate that El Salvador was a paragon of democracy and Nicaragua a dangerous dictatorship with plans to inject its poison into El Salvador. In fact, El Salvador was run by a brutal dictator who was forced to implement very repressive measures to contend with a negative nationalist reaction to American domination. President Reagan made a statement on May 18, 1984, in which he noted that:

On Wednesday, May 16, the Central Elections Commission of El Salvador certified Jose Napoleon Duarte as the winner of the May 6 presidential election in that country. By this act, the people of El Salvador have made clear their choice of Mr. Duarte as the first popularly elected President of that country in recent history.

The voters have chosen as president a man who has dedicated his life to achieving democracy for his homeland. (From

In a radio address to the people of the United States on March 24, 1984, the President stated that:

Unlike El Salvador, the Nicaraguans don't want international oversight of their campaign and their elections... Nicaragua is a communist dictatorship armed to the teeth, tied to Cuba and the Soviet Union, which oppresses its people and threatens its neighbors.

... some of the lies propagated by the United States as part of a propaganda campaign to characterize Nicaragua as a communist dictatorship whose objective was to spread communism to the entire hemisphere. The other lies include:

* Members of the Kissinger Commission concluded that Nicaragua was worse off under the Sandinistas than under Somoza;

* Henry Kissinger believed that Nicaragua was worse than Nazi Germany;

* The State Department reported to the world that Nicaragua was exporting drugs without any evidence;

* Secretary of State Alexander Haig displayed a photograph of burning corpses and declared that it was an example of the Sandinista atrocities perpetrated against the Miskito Indians. The photo was actually taken before 1978 and therefore was before the Sandinistas came to power;

* George Shultz called the Sandinistas "a cancer in our backyard."

Nicaragua was under attack from the United States on many fronts including the propaganda campaign, the Contra attacks, the economic embargoes and the mining of Nicaraguan harbours. This small country with limited resources was no match for the giant superpower seeking to remove the Sandinistas from power. President Reagan was not some lone psycho at work here but the point man for an apparatus of propaganda and empire building.

Nicaragua responded to these acts of aggression by the only means available to them and that was to institute proceedings at the World Court in 1984. Nicaragua requested the court to adjudge and declare that:

* The U.S. was under a duty to cease and desist immediately from the use of force against Nicaragua, from all violations of sovereignty and political independence of Nicaragua, and from the effort to restrict access to and from Nicaraguan ports;

* The United States has an obligation to pay reparations for damages caused by these violations.

In the judgment of the World Court "the Court finds it established that... the President of the United States authorized a U.S. government agency to lay mines in Nicaraguan ports." The ruling is based on the following violations of International Law:

* The UN Charter, article 2, paragraph 4-"All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state... ;"

* Geneva Conventions, Protocol 1, chapter 2, clause 3-"Those who employ a method or means of combat, the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol, and in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.";

Hague Convention viii, Article 2-It is forbidden to lay automatic contact mines off the coast and ports of the enemy, with the sole purpose of intercepting commercial fishing.

With respect to the Contra guerillas, the Court found "It clearly established that the United States intended by its support of the Contras to overthrow the present government of Nicaragua. It [the Court] finds that the support given by the United States to the Contras by financial support supply of weapons, intelligence and logistical support, constitutes a clear breach of the principle of non-intervention"

On the issue of reparations, the Court determined that "...the court considers appropriate the request of Nicaragua for the nature and amount of the reparations to be determined at a subsequent phase of the proceedings."

In response to the ruling, the State Department commented that the World Court was "...not equipped for complex cases." State Department legal advisor Abraham Sofaer justified the United State's rejection of the World Court decision by explaining that America must "...reserve to ourselves the power to determine whether the Court has jurisdiction over us in this particular case" and that "The United States does not accept compulsory jurisdiction over any dispute involving matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States as determined by the United States." In their response, the United States invented a new principle of jurisprudence, namely that the convicted party, and not the court itself, has the right, after the trial, to determine the jurisdiction of the court.

To continue its support for the Contras, the Reagan administration descended to the level of common outlaws and drug dealers. In addition to violating the Boland Amendment, the Arms Export Control Act, and the Neutrality Act, the Reaganites engaged in narcotics trafficking and gunrunning, and ignored the oversight controls of Congress in order to maintain a steady flow of weapons to the Contras.

President Reagan gave a speech to the American people on March 4, 1987 and stated that:

A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade in arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not as the lower Board [President Reagan appointed a special commission headed by John Tower to investigate the Iran/Contra affair] reported, which began as a strategic opening to Iran but deteriorated in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.,.

Now, another major aspect of the Board's findings regards the transfer of funds to the Nicaragua Contras. The Tower Board wasn't able to find out what happened to this money, so the facts here will be left to the continuing investigations of the court-appointed Independent Counsel and the two Congressional Committees..

One thing still upsetting me, however, is that no one kept proper records of meetings and decisions. This led to my failure to recollect whether I approved an arms shipment before or after the fact. (

Economic strangulation was the result of a number of factors beginning with the economic and social conditions inherited from 43 years of Somoza rule. The Sandinistas inherited a country suffering from crushing poverty, a $1.6 billion debt, and a lack of progress under Somoza. The United States tightened the noose with a trade embargo and severed sources of credit. U.S. Support for the Contras was also devastating to the Nicaraguan economy as more and more resources had to be diverted to defence. In 1980, the Nicaraguan government spent only 18 percent of its budget on defence and 50 percent on health and education compared to 1987 when the government Spent 50 percent on defence and only 20 percent on health and education

At a time when the reputation of the CIA was tainted from its covert v activities, Congress created the NED to overtly perform many of the same political functions such as funding political parties, labour unions, newspapers and other opposition groups. Although Congress enacted a law in 1984 prohibiting the NED from financing candidates for public office, the loopholes in the legislation provided an opportunity for NED to contribute to the building of the National Opposition Union (UNO), the main opposition party in Nicaragua.

As well, Mark Weisbrot, in What Everyone Should Know About Nicaragua, reports that:

By 1990 the Nicaraguans had suffered more than they could take from the war and economic embargo, so when President George Bush I made it clear that their misery would continue until the Sandinistas were voted out of office, a majority cried uncle.

In 1990, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became President of Nicaragua but the Sandinistas won 43 percent of the popular vote in the election despite the threat of continued American warfare against Nicaragua if the Sandinistas had won.

President Reagan lied repeatedly to the American people and Congress to conceal the covert activities of his government to support the Contras. Some of these lies include:

* He warned that Nicaragua was only two days from Brownsville, Texas, implying that the Nicaraguan army intended to attack the United States. o

* He suggested that the Contras were Nicaraguan peasants rebelling against their own government.

* He violated the Boland Amendment when he continued to fund the Contras.

* He lied about the elections in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

* He lied about Nicaragua's willingness to allow a team of inspectors to oversee the elections in 1984.

* He lied when he claimed that the Sandinista government was oppressing its own people.

* He lied about the sale of arms to Iran to buy weapons for the Contras.

Nicaragua was a victim of the Cold War and also of the American obsession with creating client states in Latin America. According to U.S. policy-makers, whenever Latin American countries experimented with progressive reforms they were communist and a threat to American corporate interests. Then the mighty American military and intelligence machine jumped into action. Human rights and respect for the sovereignty and political independence of other states dropped off the radar screen. All that remained was American self-interest.

Lying for Empire

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