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In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The Nicaraguan Election—Fair or Foul
Bill Becker
Emerson Unitarian Church, Canoga Park, CA April 1, 1990
Copyright © 1990

Talk about dejá vu. It is getting to be old hat to stand at this podium and discuss what goes on in Nicaragua at election time. 5 years, 3 months, and 16 days ago, I reported on my observations of Nicaragua's first post-Somoza election, and I didn't expect then that I would repeat the experience a second time. You might not know about the '84 election, since there was almost no mention of it whatever in all the mainstream commentary on the election that you just saw in the slides.

Let me begin with a word of thanks for the support that I have felt from so many of you over the years. I went down on this trip, as I have on my previous trips, feeling that I represented many of you who would have also gone if you could have.

I also need to acknowledge my appreciation for all of the other activists in the anti-intervention movement with whom I have shared beans and rice in Central America. They have provided me with both inspiration and logistical support, and I can only give the palest reflection of my real feelings for them here.

I feel that I should say a word or two by way of preparing you for what I have to say about the role the U.S. has played in the lives of Nicaraguans from 1981 until today.

Most of you know that I have been a strong critic of the policy that Ronald Reagan put into play, that Congress could not find the strength to stop, and that George Bush more or less continued with only cosmetic changes.

I know that my previous judgments on U.S. policy toward Nicaragua have often seemed overly negative and have been discomfiting in their intensity. Nevertheless, I need to let you know—and I do so without apology—that those judgments are as bland as tap water compared to what I feel today.

But, I do not intend to indulge in polemics or name calling this morning. Instead, I will proceed in classic Unitarian fashion. I will offer you an hypothesis, and then I will present evidence which I believe supports my hypothesis. Your job will be to evaluate the evidence, and assess whether I have made my case or not. Naturally, I will be open to challenge during the question period.

First, my hypothesis. It is simply this: as a nation, our moral compass is seriously out of whack.

Now when I say "as a nation," I mean just that. But, since I obviously cannot examine, here, the personal moral beliefs of 250 million Americans, let me present evidence from a representative sample of those 250 million. And, this cross-section of Americans is an important one—they help to define the overall frame within which our national goals are pursued, as if by a single purposeful entity.

Exhibit A:

A few typical post-election commentaries from the editorial and op-ed pages of our mainstream press:

In the Christian Science Monitor's first editorial about the election results, "Chamorro's Upset," Feb. 28, we read that "the victory of Violetta Barrios de Chamorro was another stunning assertion of democracy in a year of such surprises."

Then, March 6, the Monitor asks "What in the World Is Going On?" in a world seemingly gone topsy-turvy. Addressing the Nicaraguan election, the Monitor answers its own question in no uncertain terms: "The vote is mightier than the gun," and "what fighting couldn't accomplish, a free election appears to have done: the Sandinistas lost."

Finally, on March 15 the Monitor goes Latin in " La Democracia, Si!" There we read that "in Panama and Nicaragua, the end of dictatorships was hastened by the United States." But, in the Monitor's judgement "this does not taint the new democracies," because their voters were "given a fair chance" to express their will.

February 27th was the big day for the pundits and the editorialists at the Los Angeles Times. Abraham F. Lowenthal of the Interamerican Dialogue praises the election results under the headline "Credit Efforts of Diplomats, Not Guns of the Warriors."

Elliot Abrams, the former deputy Secretary of State says we should "Ask Not If, but How, to Aid Liberty."

The Times editorialist calls the UNO victory a "triumph of democracy," and congratulates the Nicaraguan people on their "good judgement and decisiveness."

In the Daily News on March 2nd, David Shipler of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace says, under the banner "Nicaragua a victory for open U.S. support of democracy, fair play," that "in dislodging the Sandinistas, Nicaraguan voters have done peacefully what the U.S.-backed contras could not do violently."

And these are only a few of the paeans to Nicaraguan democracy.

Now, without boring you with unpleasant details, let me outline quickly the situation in Nicaragua going into the election: upwards of 30,000 people have died in 9 years of the U.S-sponsored contra war—this is over and above the 50,000 that died in the insurrection that toppled Somoza; diseases the Sandinistas had wiped out in the early days of the revolution have returned, due to the destruction of health clinics and diversion of medical resources to treat war-related medical problems. The same is true for infant malnutrition. The economy, which was progressing nicely in the early days of the revolution, has been effectively destroyed through the U.S.-imposed embargo and the forced devotion of 60% of Nicargua's economic resources to fighting an enemy supplied by the U.S. and operating out of safe havens. Finally, President Bush made it clear that the war would stop and the embargo would be lifted, if Dona Violetta won the election.

Perhaps you guessed by now that I see our moral problem precisely in these hosannas to Dona Violetta's victory. Well, if so, you are right. And, I'm not alone.

Dennis marker, of Witness for Peace, says that "what we've learned is that the U.S. is willing to kill 30,000 people, to maim tens of thousands of others, and to completely destroy an economy in order to get a sovereign nation to elect who we want them to elect." (National Catholic Reporter, p.7, March 9, 1990)

Noam Chomsky says that calling the elections "free" under these circumstances is extreme hypocrisy. (Boston Globe, March 4, 1990)

"A Vote Against Annihilation" reads the headline over Phil Roettinger's article. (L.A. Times, Feb. 27) Roettinger is the ex-marine and and former CIA officer who led the overthrow of Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz, by the way, was elected to office by the majority of Guatemala's voters, just as Daniel Ortega was elected in 1984. After having eliminated the so-called communist menace to the United Fruit company in Guatemala, Washington installed the first of a series of dictatorships so vicious that even Congress finally became embarrassed and cut off military aid in 1978. Roettinger repented, and now works full-time against U.S. Third World policy as President of the Association of National Security Alumni.

A few weeks ago, I sat on a panel with former contra spokesman Edgar Chamorro, who has also been working hard against U.S. policy in Nicaragua. As the former chief of public relations for the contras, he should know better than anyone how the Nicaraguan people have been pressured and manipulated. "They were not electing a president, they were electing a way out," he said.

Columnist Randolph Ryan, in the March 1 Daily News, was perhaps the most eloquent. He sees the vote as a victory for "violence pays;" "for money talks;" "for cynicism;" and "for terrorism, fading into mere cruelty." He finds all this "triumph of democracy" talk sad, and suggests that instead of Nicaraguans achieving democracy, we have forgotten what it is.

And so, of the 67% of Nicaragua's voters who ratified the Sandinistas' "preferential option for the poor" in the 1984 election, some 27% decided they had been punished enough. They knew that they would be ground to dust if they didn't repudiate the Sandinistas this time. It was time to cry "uncle."

Now, all of this might seem uncomfortably close to an Orwellian vision of foreign policy. Unfortunately, that line has been crossed, at least at the Times.

Exhibit B:

On July 15, 1989, discussing "Nicaragua's Next Decade," the Times reckoned that "despite Reagan's scary rhetoric, this country's problems with Nicaragua's Sandinista government were never that serious." Then, post-election on February 27th, in "Now Comes the Hard Part," the Times says that "there never was much reason for the contras to exist, and now there is none."

Now, these two comments are far more important than they appear. They are clear admissions that the people at the Times have known all along that the Sandinistas were not stalking horses for a Soviet incursion into this hemisphere. They show that Times editors knew all along that the 70,000 strong Sandinista army had no plans to scorch the earth of Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico on its way to lay waste to Harlingen, Texas. Perhaps they knew this because they had read the Defense Department reports that Nicaragua's military capacity was primarily defensive.

Randolph Ryan laments the self-congratulation of the nation's press and politicians. I observe that never once did the Los Angeles Times use this knowledge—or belief, if you will—as the wellspring for a sustained, and thoroughly justified, editorial anger at a policy as brutal as it was unnecessary.

For every half-hearted criticism of the President Reagan's contra war, the Times hints that the Sandinistas had provoked a reluctant, but essentially well-meaning giant. The provocation might be the censorship of La Prensa, the stridently anti-Sandinista newpaper funded by Washington, or it might even be Sandinista "mismanagement of the economy," which was always given equal weight with the war and the embargo as the cause of Nicaragua's problems.

Finally, on election day, February 25th, the Times advises Bush to end the "cold war" with Managua, even if the Sandinistas win. Why? Because "the Reagan policy of supporting the contras and CIA activities against them has brought us little but grief. [my emphases]" ("And If the Sandinistas Win?" editorial, 2/25)

I ask you to think about this for a moment ... A "cold war"—in which 30,000 Nicaraguans died, many after being hideously tortured by "the moral equivalents of our founding fathers"—has brought us little but grief. Where is the concern for the anguish suffered by the people of Nicaragua, anguish resulting from a policy that the Times knew all along was a scam? Is this moral myopia, or what? I think it is pathetic.

Now, I reject utterly the proposal that it "goes without saying" that there are deeply felt sentiments of concern for the Nicaraguan people at the Times. Likewise for the kindly suggestion that the real problem is the trouble upper middle class types have in expressing their "real" feelings (especially those in the mainstream power structure). To all such apologies, I say "rubbish."

Now, what could the Times have done, given its understanding of the essential harmlessness of the Sandinistas. Well, it could have run editorial after editorial packed with righteous anger at the brutal and unnecessary policy.

Times foreign desk editors could have provided us with more information about the positive achievements of the Sandinistas over the years. They could have reported the opinion of Oxfam, the British-based private development agency, which said that the Sandinistas had pursued their goals on behalf of the poor more effectively than any Third World government in their experience. A confidential memo from the office of the U.S. executive director to the World Bank noted that "project implementation has been extraordinarily successful in Nicaragua in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world." (Peter Kornbluh. Washington Post National Weekly Edition, p.23, Sept. 4-10, 1989) We never read anything about it in the Times.

The Times could have devoted at least as much space to detailing the atrocities of the contras as it did reporting the criticisms of the Sandinistas made by the civilian opposition, which never once condemned the contra war.

This approach, however, would require an adjustment of the current criterion for "balance" in reporting this controversial issue. Presently, the rule seems to go something like this: if the Sandinistas commit ten atrocities, and the contras commit one hundred, you report ten of each. To report more than ten contra atrocities is seen as prima facie evidence of "bias," besides opening one to the charge of trying to reduce human suffering to mere numbers.

Finally, the Times could have proposed—or, rather, demanded—a display of faith by Washington—faith in the so-called moral superiority of our system over any other system. This faith could have been manifested in honest efforts to help the Sandinistas with their "preferential option for the poor."

Yes, the Times, and the rest of the "establishment" could have done a lot to prevent all that death and destruction In Nicaragua. If they had, the contra war would never have gotten off the ground. Nicaragua would, I believe, be a healthy nation today, and a solid, and honorable, friend of the U.S.

But they didn't, and the evidence suggests that the same moral timidity is in effect as regards the administration's policies in El Salvador and Guatemala. But, that is a subject for a different discussion.

I believe that navigating with a moral compass as out of whack as ours is as dangerous for us as it is for the victims Washington chooses in our name. The "war on drugs" now seems to have replaced the cold war as the major threat to our national security, and the CIA is seeking an expanded operational mandate inside the U.S.

Let me close with Nicaraguan Foreign minister Miguel D'Escoto's response to a request for a message to be taken back to the American people:

"Tell them that we are deeply concerned about them, because a country that exports repression will one day unleash that repression against its own people. A nation that wages war against the poor in Nicaragua will ignore the needs of its own poor. A country which in the name of democracy fights wars against the self-determination of other peoples cannot remain a democracy. I have felt for a long time that the U.S. people will one day be the most repressed people in the world."
(Newsletter of the Southern California Interfaith Taskforce on Central America, 4/14/89)

Postscript after 21 years

In his fine book Nemesis, the late Chalmers Johnson quotes Arundhati Roy on the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's dark Doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilized. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of "full-spectrum dominance," its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. . . . Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable.
Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, September 27, 2001

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