On July 19, 1979, the leftist Frente Sandinista de Liberacion
Nacional (FSLN/Sandinistas) rolled into Managua, Nicaragua as the vanguard of the popular insurrection that
had finally succeeded in overthrowing one of Washington's favorite dictators,
the depraved Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
The Sandinistas took their name after Augusto Sandino, an early 20th century Nicaraguan patriot who rebelled against U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua. Sandino fought the U.S.
Marines to a standstill, and after they finally left Nicaragua, a civilian government was installed.
Sandino was assassinated in 1934 after peace negotiations with the new Nicaraguan government, on orders
from the head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza Garcia.
In 1936, Somoza was "elected" president of Nicargua, and the dynasty that he founded was rewarded
for its tough stance against democracy with 43 years of unwavering support from the United States.
(See also Somoza Dynasty.)
In 1979, Democrat Jimmy Carter was President, and even though he had finally convinced
Somoza to leave Nicaragua, he was also a good American. Thus, he tried hard to
ensure that the Sandinistas would be marginalized in the new, post-Somoza government.
efforts to stack the new government with "liberal" Nicaraguan business types failed when the Sandinistas
exercised the moral authority that they had earned in 18 years of struggle against Somoza, and simply took over.
The overwhelming majority of Nicaragua's desperately poor, and erstwhile brutally exploited, majority were
ecstatic, as were true American liberals and progressives. (I use the term "liberal" as it
should be used, not as code for "capitalism".) Even so, as unpleasant as this outcome was for
President Carter, it is unlikely that a Sandinista-led Nicaragua would have been so thoroughly destroyed, and
the Nicaraguan people so thoroughly savaged had he won re-election in the 1980 election.
Even before his inauguration in January 1981, President Reagan's covert action
team was preparing a
so-called "low intensity" war against the peasants of Nicaragua. Why? To punish
them for choosing the Sandinistas to lead them in the reconstruction of their war-and-dictator-ravaged nation.
President Reagan, yearning for the good old days of the anti-communist 50s and 60s, was
committed to avenging this affront to American hegemony in Latin America.
And, avenge it he did. He trained and armed
a group of counter-revolutionaries, called contras, and placed them
under the leadership of some 46 former officers
of Somoza's National Guard. Just before Somoza's fall, these guardsmen had relocated to
Honduras, where they dreamed and schemed of someday returning to power in Nicaragua.
Reagan was happy to oblige them, and he sent them back into Nicaragua with orders
to destroy every Sandinista achievement that might bring a measure of comfort and dignity
to Nicaragua's poor.
Indeed, the Sandinistas' founding principle of governance was the
"preferential option for the poor," a notion that grew out of Catholic Liberation Theology, itself
a product of the Papal conference Vatican II, convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. (The government
included three priests that I know of: Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto; poet/Minister of Culture Ernesto
Cardenal; and Minister of Education Fernando Cardenal. I do not know if the two Cardenals were related.
There may have been more priests in less visible positions.)
On the other hand, Somoza's former National Guard officers were virtually indistinguishable
from the mass murderers who took their orders from Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Thus, it made perfect sense
for President Reagan to call the contras "freedom fighters."
The "freedom fighters" were soon striking hard into the campo, destroying health clinics and
killing the doctors, nurses, and patients they found there; destroying schools, and killing the teachers and
students they found there; destroying farm cooperatives, and killing the peasant farmers they
found there — peasants who had never before enjoyed the luxury of a plot of land on which to grow enough
food for their families; killing Delegates of the Word, lay religious leaders whom the progressive Catholic
clergy trained to go into the remote campo and teach the previously illiterate
campesinos that the Bible was meant for them to read and interpret for themselves. This of course was a dire
threat to the authority of the Pope, and so John Paul II was dead-set against liberation theology. Visiting Nicaragua
on his world tour after the triumph, he publically rebuked Ernesto Cardenal for being part of the Government.
President Reagan's "freedom fighters" were equal opportunity killers of men,
women, children, livestock; anyone or anything that was associated with, or benefitted from, Sandinista
programs to help the poor. Former Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White's description of the Salvadoran
army—a deranged killing machine—fit these so-called "freedom fighters" perfectly.
Knowing that many Americans were aghast at the carnage Reagan was visiting on Nicaragua, the Sandinistas
pulled a fast one on Washington: they invited Americans to visit Nicaragua without restriction, in the
hope that if enough decent
Americans saw how hard they were trying to rebuild Nicaragua, and how they were actually helping the poor
majority, they would return
the United States and build a movement of support, as well as a movement opposing the Reagan administration's
And, that's just what happened. Thousands of decent, caring, loving Americans did go to
Nicaragua, and were captivated by the essential decency and high idealism shown by
virtually every representative of the Sandinista government they met. And, as patriotic Americans intending
to "set their country right", they did start a movement against the monstrous
crime President Reagan had so cheerfully set in motion. I was fortunate to be a part of that movement.
My first of four trips to Nicaragua took place in October 1983, with a
group sponsored by the Santa Monica-based peace and justice organization
Office of the Americas. We were led by OOA's Director, Blase
Bonpane, a former Maryknoll priest who had worked in Guatemala as Liberation Theology began to
take hold in the Western Hemisphere. I first met Blase in the early 70s, when
he was working on behalf of the farm worker movement. He introduced me to California's farm labor problems, which
ultimatley led to my week with the United Farm Workers Union in August 1974.
Blase continues to be a genuine Force in the struggle for peace and justice, and is one of my major role models.
I returned to Nicaragua in 1984 as an election observer
with the anti-intervention group US Out of Central America (USOCA);
in 1985-86 as a participant in La Marcha Por
La Paz En Centro America; and in 1990 as an election observer with Witness for Peace.
Finally, in the 1990 election, after 10 years of unrelenting violence of the most brutal kind, the Nicaraguan people
cried "uncle" and elected Washington's favored candidate, Violetta Barrios de Chamorro. Chamorro's win was hailed
as a triumph for democracy in Latin America by the U.S. mainstream media.
Media critic, academic, and foreign policy expert Noam Chomsky had a different view: