1980s US Central America Wars


Virginia S. Williams, Roger Peace and Jeremy Kuzmarov | US Foreign Policy – TRANSCEND Media Service

I. Introduction
II. Historical context:  Dictators, democracy, and human rights
III. El Salvador
IV. Guatemala
V. Nicaragua
VI. Domestic dissent: The Central America movement
VII. Crime and cover-up: The Iran-Contra affair
VIII. Lessons and legacies

The Monument to the Memory and the Truth in San Salvador commemorates 75,000 people who died in the Salvadoran civil war between 1980 and 1992.

Did you know?

  1. During the 1980s, the United States supported a counterinsurgency war in El Salvador and directed a guerrilla insurgency in Nicaragua.
  2. In December 1981, the Salvadoran Army massacred close to 1,000 men, women, and children in the village of El Mozote and in neighboring hamlets.  Denying that a war crime had taken place, the Reagan administration certified to Congress that same month that the Salvadoran government was making progress in human rights and requested more U.S. aid for the government.[1]
  3. In April 1985, former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner testified before a Congressional committee that the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas, known as Contras, had engaged in numerous acts of “terrorism.”[2]  Only the previous month, President Ronald Reagan had praised the Contras as “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”[3]
  4. In response to a suit by Nicaragua, the World Court ruled in June 1986 that the U.S.-directed war against Nicaragua constituted illegal aggression under international law and that the U.S. must cease its support for the Contras and make reparation payments to Nicaragua.[4]  The U.S. refused to comply.
  5. After Congress had temporarily banned aid to the Contras, administration officials illegally raised money through arms sales to Iran and other means.  The covert operation came to light in the Iran-Contra Congressional hearings in the spring of 1987, leading to the prosecution of fourteen U.S. officials and agents.[5]
  6. Although Congress had banned U.S. aid to the Guatemalan government based on human rights abuses, the Reagan administration aided this government’s counterinsurgency war as well.
  7. Between 1981 and 1990, an estimated one million refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala fled repression and violence in their homelands and entered the United States.[6]
  8. In late 1987, the Reagan administration’s Office of Public Diplomacy was forced to shut down after an investigation by the General Accounting Office concluded that the agency had engaged “in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies.”[7]
  9. U.S. citizens opposed to U.S. intervention formed the Central America movement, a loose-knit coalition of over 1,000 local, state, and national organizations.  Their efforts reinforced those of Latin American leaders promoting peace negotiations and an end to foreign intervention.[8]
  10. In the aftermath of the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, truth commissions determined that state security forces and associated rightist paramilitary groups were responsible for 85% of assassinations and murders in El Salvador, and 93% in Guatemala, while leftist rebels were responsible for 5% in El Salvador and 3% in Guatemala.[9]

I. Introduction

Nicaraguans celebrate the revolutionary victory in Managua, July 19, 1979

Less than a decade after U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States became deeply involved in Central America.  The catalyst was a popularly supported leftist revolution in Nicaragua led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).  The revolution ousted the U.S.-backed dictatorial government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in July 1979, ending more than four decades of dynastic rule.  President Jimmy Carter initially accepted the new Sandinista government, even inviting its leaders to the White House for a visit, but the Reagan administration was intent on overthrowing the government and undermining its socialist economic experiment.  To these ends, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited, armed, and directed counterrevolutionary guerrillas, known as Contras, who terrorized rural communities, mined roads, and disrupted coffee harvests.  The nine-year Contra War left nearly 31,000 Nicaraguans dead, more than 2,000 civilians maimed, and some 350,000 people internally displaced out of a population of 3.5 million.[10]  The war contributed to a near-total economic collapse and paved the way for the Sandinistas electoral defeat in 1990.

In neighboring El Salvador, the successful Nicaraguan revolution spurred both increased government repression and revolutionary ambition.  Notwithstanding the Salvadoran government’s egregious human rights abuses, the U.S. supported that government’s counterinsurgency war with military aid and advisers.  The aid expanded from a trickle under President Jimmy Carter to a flood under President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).  Civilian casualties mounted, mainly at the hands of the government and allied paramilitary forces.  Between 1979 and 1992, an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans perished in political violence, about two-thirds of whom were civilian.  Over 500,000 fled the country and another 500,000 were internally displaced out of a population of roughly 5 million.[11]
Between 1980 and 1992, the United States supplied the government of El Salvador with over $5 billion in military and economic aid, and funneled another $400 million to the Nicaraguan Contras.[12]  The aid signified a retreat from human rights reforms in the 1970s and a return to earlier interventionist and hegemonic policies.
The Reagan administration’s efforts to maintain pro-U.S., rightist governments in the region extended to Guatemala, where revolutionary groups had been operating since the early 1960s.  Although Congress had banned military aid to the Guatemalan government in the late 1970s due to its systematic human rights abuses, President Reagan found ways around the ban, offering moral and material support for the government’s counterinsurgency war.  In December 1982, Reagan met with Guatemalan leader José Efraín Ríos Montt and praised the general as one who is “totally dedicated to democracy.”[13]  Montt was at the time conducting “scorched earth” military campaigns against indigenous Mayans and was later put on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.  Guatemalan military forces targeted Mayan communities where guerrillas were thought to reside, razing villages, massacring inhabitants, destroying food crops, and displacing between 500,000 and 1.5 million people.[14]

Ben Linder, a young engineer from Oregon, was working on a hydro-electric project near the village of San José de Bocay, Nicaragua, when he was killed by the Contras in 1987.

Ben Linder (left), an American engineer working in Nicaragua, was killed by the Contras in 1987

Many U.S. citizens were outraged that their tax dollars were being used to support murder and mayhem in Central America.  The activists among them, including religious leaders, formed the Central America movement in 1980.  Movement groups organized, educated, lobbied, demonstrated, and initiated a variety of transnational projects designed to increase understanding and empathy across national borders.  The movement was important not only because it underpinned Congressional opposition to administration policies, but also because it exposed the manifest falsehoods of official rhetoric and put forth principled alternatives to U.S. military interventionism based on human rights, economic justice, international law, and peaceful diplomacy.

To understand how and why the United States became involved in Central American wars during the 1980s, it is necessary to examine preceding developments and patterns:  the hegemonic role played by the United States in the region, U.S. support for rightist authoritarian regimes, Cold War fears of “communist subversion,” and human rights reform.
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II. Historical context: Dictators, democracy, and human rights

“Since the late nineteenth century,” writes the historian Stephen Rabe, “inter-American relations have fulfilled the well-known reflection of Thucydides on international relations – large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.”[15]  In 1927, Undersecretary of State Robert Olds applied this dictum to U.S. relations with Central American nations:  “Until now Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall.”[16]
During the first third of the 20th century, the U.S. maintained hegemony in the region through a combination of economic leverage, support for strongman governments, and periodic military interventions and occupations.  Widespread outrage at “Yankee imperialism” across Latin America, however, ultimately led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare the Good Neighbor Policy in 1933, promising an end to unilateral U.S. military interventionism.  This self-imposed limitation on the use of force did not mean that the U.S. would give up its economic influence or support democratic governance.  Indeed, the U.S. continued to rely on a number of autocrats to secure its interests, including Anastasio Somoza García in Nicaragua, Jorge Ubico Castañeda in Guatemala, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.  During World War II, notes Rabe, even as the United States “waged war against dictatorship in Asia and Europe, the Roosevelt administration conducted cordial, even effusive, relations with these unsavory tyrants, because they bowed to U.S. leadership, professed to be anti-Nazi, and kept their countries quiet.”[17]
That the people were “quiet” did not mean they were content.  Opposition to authoritarian governments and exploitative economic systems seethed below the surface, catalyzing reform movements, labor strikes, peasant revolts, and, when all else failed, revolutionary agitation.  In Guatemala, a popular movement convinced Ubico to step down and democratic elections were held in December 1944.  Juan José Arévalo was elected president on a reform platform that included labor rights and the protection of indigenous Mayan communities.  The Roosevelt administration welcomed the new liberal democracy as a natural ally, but the Truman administration viewed Arévalo’s labor policies as an affront to U.S. investors, siding with the landowning elite in Guatemala (two percent of the population controlled more than 72 percent of Guatemala’s arable land).

Sen. Joe McCarthy identifies an alleged communist network at a hearing in June 1954. “McCarthyism” had more effect on foreign policy than domestic policy.

With the advent of the Cold War in 1947, the Truman administration came to view reformist governments in Latin America as potential allies of the Soviet Union and thus a threat to the United States.  In 1950, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Miller warned “the basic situation in the hemisphere is this.  The 21 American states together face the challenge of Communist political aggression against the hemisphere.”[18]  Miller’s novel term, “Communist political aggression” was one of many euphemisms used to delegitimize left-leaning reform movements in Latin America.  The term “aggression” did not actually mean aggression in the sense of violence; rather it meant participation in the political system; and the participants were not necessarily “communists” but more likely, any number of reformers seeking redress of grievances.

As Cold War ideology took hold in Washington, U.S. leaders labeled as “communist” a wide variety of reformers, including leftist intellectuals, unions, popular organizations seeking economic uplift for the masses, democratic socialist and communist parties, and religious advocates of liberation theology.[19]  Also branded as “communist” were governments that redistributed land to poor peasants or nationalized resources such as oil and copper, administrations that included Communist Party members, and governments that received aid from the Soviet Union or Cuba although this was entirely within their sovereign right.

George F. Kennan

This amalgamation of perceived threats led influential U.S. diplomat George Kennan to suggest in February 1950 that the United States should support repressive methods to meet the challenge.  Following a tour of Latin America, he wrote that “harsh government measures of repression may be the only answer; that these measures may have to proceed from regimes whose origins and methods would not stand the test of American concepts of democratic procedure; and that such regimes and such methods may be preferable … to further communist successes.”[20]  Kennan’s recommendations were in accord with the Cold War views of President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who also committed the U.S. to supporting the French reconquest of Vietnam as an antidote to Asian communism.

Kennan’s suggestions seeped into U.S. policymaking mainly through U.S. support for Latin American military and police forces.  In May 1950, President Truman signed National Security Council (NSC) 56/2, authorizing military aid to Latin American governments for the ostensible purpose of combating “communism.”  In 1951, Congress authorized $38 million in direct military assistance; and in 1952, $90 million.[21]
President Dwight D. Eisenhower went further in the direction suggested by Kennan.  In March 1953, the president signed NSC 144/1, quietly shelving the non-interventionist Good Neighbor Policy.[22]  This was prelude to approving a plan in August to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala.  The Árbenz government was labeled a security risk because it had allowed Communist party members in the cabinet and initiated a land reform program that infringed on holdings of the United Fruit Company.  In June 1954, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the Árbenz government and installed a repressive military regime led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.[23]

Colonel Jacobo Árbenz was elected president of Guatemala on Nov. 10, 1950, receiving 65.4% of the vote in a seven-way race

Administration officials publicly denied any involvement in the coup even as they welcomed Armas to the White House and praised him as a “democratic leader.”  Three years later, the State Department published an ex post facto justification for the coup in “A Case History of Communist Penetration: Guatemala,” which described the Árbenz government as part of “a coldly calculated armed conspiracy to extend the system of the Soviets to a small and strategically located country in the hemisphere.”[24]

U.S. actions in Guatemala signaled to reactionary forces across Latin America that they could count on the U.S. to support them in suppressing leftist reform without regard to constitutional law, democratic procedures, political freedoms, and human rights.  During the next two decades, the U.S. provided economic and military aid, police training, and intelligence assistance to a host of repressive regimes.  The recipient governments typically used the aid to secure their power and suppress even moderate economic and political reform.[25]
To obfuscate U.S. support for repressive, anti-democratic regimes, U.S. leaders employed Cold War ideological stereotypes that identified dictators such as Somoza and Batista as “free world” allies, ignoring their systematic human rights abuses and fraudulent elections.  When pressed to explain the bad behavior of U.S. allies, occasionally noted in the media, U.S. leaders typically responded that U.S. support for unsavory regimes was the lesser of two evils, the other being “communist” takeovers.

Fidel Castro addresses a crowd in front of the presidential palace in Havana, January 1959 (AP)

Aside from the immorality of supporting authoritarian and repressive regimes, the policy was not always effective in maintaining U.S. hegemony.  Repression could, and sometimes did, lead to rebellion and the overthrow of a pro-U.S. regime.  In the case of Cuba, the Cuban people so detested the U.S.-backed Batista government that Fidel Castro and a handful of revolutionaries were able to recruit an army as they marched across the island, receiving a jubilant welcome as they entered Havana on January 1, 1959.  Castro’s subsequent turn toward leftist authoritarianism provided U.S. leaders with a great propaganda weapon, enabling the U.S. to preach democracy to the fallen Cubans, but U.S. policies across Latin America belied such rhetoric.

President John F. Kennedy considered the dilemma of Cuba and decided to add economic incentives for moderate reform in Latin America through the Alliance for Progress program, established in March 1961.  This included, ironically, a land reform program similar to that rejected in Guatemala.  The U.S., in other words, offered carrots as well as sticks to keep Latin American nations from falling to the “communists.”  Yet Kennedy also added more sticks, increasing U.S. aid to Latin American police forces through the Office of Public Safety, initiated in August 1962.  The latter program effectively canceled out the potential benefits of the Alliance for Progress program.  U.S. security aid was used by repressive regimes in league with economic elites to more thoroughly suppress reform movements and terrorize the reformers.  The land reform program went nowhere.

As for Cuba, the Kennedy administration attempted to overthrow the Castro government in a covert operation similar to that of Guatemala (the Bay of Pigs invasion), but the Cuban government was prepared to defend itself.  Cuba solidified its alliance with the Soviet Union thereafter.  Cuba’s subsequent misguided attempts to foment revolution in other Latin American nations provided the U.S. with an opportunity to expand its connections with military and police forces in the region.  The Kennedy administration initiated new counterinsurgency courses at the School of the Americas, located in the Panama Canal Zone (established in 1946), notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. had coordinated two major insurgencies in the last ten years (Guatemala and Cuba).  Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, some 7,886 Latin American military and police personnel had been trained at the school.  In the following decade, 13,500 attended.  The training was accompanied by an ideological indoctrination that “emphasized the threat posed by internal enemies, not only communists but also those critical of the regime,” according to the historian Brian D’Haeseleer:

Anticommunist rhetoric disseminated in US service academies established a negative image of actors critical of US-supported regimes and those who demanded reforms as synonymous with enemies of the state.  The heavy indoctrination cadets received in US military schools increased their distrust of groups pursuing political reforms and reinforced conservatism in the military.  In El Salvador, as in the rest of Latin America, the term “communist” was a catchall phrase for anyone opposed to the government, from students to labor organizers to religious workers.[26]

Kennedy is remembered for his uplifting rhetoric in support of freedom and democracy, but his lack of commitment to democratic governance was demonstrated in March 1963, when he encouraged the military in Guatemala to seize power rather than allow the election of former President Juan José Arévelo.  The Guatemalan army suspended the Constitution, dissolved Congress, called off elections, and installed a military government.  U.S. officials in Washington chalked up the military coup as “a gain” and noted with satisfaction that a “friendly government” had come to power.[27]

President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ Library, photo by Yoichi Okamoto)

U.S. support for despotic military regimes only increased under President Lyndon B. Johnson.  In March 1964, the Johnson administration held a three-day policy conference for all U.S. diplomats in Latin America.  Thomas Mann, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, made it clear that the U.S. would support any government that allied with U.S. political and business interests, no matter how dictatorial or repressive (the Mann doctrine).  The Alliance for Progress withered on the vine.  In April 1964, Brazilian military officers overthrew the constitutional government, instituting a military dictatorship.  Following the overthrow, Johnson sent a congratulatory telegram to the new military leaders expressing his “warmest good wishes.”  This was followed by generous U.S. aid amounting to $1.5 billion between 1964 and 1968, even as the Brazilian dictatorship arrested and tortured thousands of its citizens.[28]

The Johnson administration also approved loans to the tyrannical governments of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Somoza in Nicaragua.[29]  In the Dominican Republic, where military leaders had ousted the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch, Johnson dispatched 20,000 U.S. troops in April 1965 in order to sustain the military junta, claiming that Bosch’s followers were communists.  On May 2, 1965, Johnson announced what became known as the Johnson Doctrine, vowing to prevent “communism” from taking root anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.  The doctrine was essentially a remake of the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary doctrine, which had declared the right and responsibility of the U.S. to intervene in the Western Hemisphere in cases of “chronic wrongdoing.”  In the updated version, “chronic wrongdoing” became “communist subversion.”  Both conceptual frameworks allowed U.S. leaders to interpret security threats as they wished and to take action as they saw fit.

Salvador Allende on the campaign trail in 1969. His reform program included national health care, land redistribution, and a free glass of milk for schoolchildren.

President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger viewed the election of democratic socialist Salvador Allende as president of Chile in 1970 as yet another act of “Communist political aggression.”  The Nixon administration first attempted to prevent Allende’s election through CIA covert action; failing that, the U.S. abetted a military coup on September 11, 1973, in which President Allende was killed (a subsequent investigation ruled it a suicide).  Following the coup, the Nixon administration offered full U.S. support for the right-wing police state formed under General Augusto Pinochet, providing grants and loans as the regime murdered or imprisoned thousands of Allende supporters.  On October 1, Assistant Secretary for Latin America Jack Kubisch reported to his State Department colleagues that legislators on Capitol Hill were asking him questions about massive atrocities by the new military regime in Chile, and that Newsweek magazine had reported 2,700 bodies piled up in the central morgue in Santiago.  Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the staff to avoid controversy.  “But I think we should understand our policy, that however unpleasant they act, the government is better for us than Allende was.”[30]

The U.S. backed overthrow of the Chilean government marked a quarter century of U.S. hostility to democracy in Latin America.  U.S. officials nonetheless proclaimed “democracy promotion” as a key U.S. foreign policy goal.  At best, this meant influencing and manipulating elections through the CIA to turn results in favor of U.S.-supported candidates.  At worst, this meant destabilizing and overthrowing actual democracies in order to place pro-U.S. regimes in power, typically repressive military regimes, as in Guatemala and Chile.  The employment of euphemisms such as “democracy promotion” and the “free world” was not thoughtless but intentional, designed to mask the huge chasm between stated U.S. ideals and actual practices.  The target of this propaganda was primarily the U.S. public.  Americans were led to believe that their nation was the leading force for freedom, democracy, progress, and peace, presumably justifying U.S. military interventions and wars.  The agony of the Vietnam War, however, led many to rethink assumptions about the U.S. role in the world and to re-examine a wider range of U.S. foreign policies.

Human rights reform

Reform stirred the air in the mid-1970s.  Fear of “communism” receded in the wake of détente; the lesson of the Vietnam War cautioned against U.S. interventionism; a throng of reform-minded Democrats was elected to Congress in the wake of the 1974 Watergate scandal; and human rights reformers in the U.S. and Latin America were growing in number and influence, demanding an end to U.S. support for despotic regimes.  “By 1977,” writes the historian Lars Schoultz, “the combined interest groups concerned with repression of human rights in Latin America had become one of the largest, most active, and most visible foreign policy forces in Washington.”[31]
In the fall of 1973, Representative Donald Fraser of Minnesota, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, conducted forty hearings on the human rights situation in eighteen countries:  Chile, South Korea, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, South Africa (Namibia), Rhodesia, Paraguay, Indonesia, Iran, Cuba, Haiti, North Korea, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador, Argentina, and India.  Some countries were U.S. allies, some were neutral, and some were adversaries.  Fraser’s goal was to establish an independent standard of human rights by which to assess whether U.S. aid should be given to particular countries.
In 1974, Fraser’s subcommittee produced a 54-page report titled “Human Rights and the World Community:  A Call for U.S. Leadership.” The report criticized “the prevailing attitude [that] has led the United States into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.  Through foreign aid and occasional intervention – both overt and covert – the United States supports those governments.”[32]  Heretofore, U.S. leaders had conflated the promotion of freedom and democracy with the nation’s Cold War mission, transmogrifying these cherished principles into U.S. support for dictatorial and repressive regimes.  Fraser’s human rights reform recognized the hypocrisy and sought to correct it.
Fraser’s reforms met with resistance in Congress.  Some members viewed restrictions on U.S. aid to “free world” allies as a retreat from the anti-communist mission; others were hesitant to assert Congressional authority over the executive branch in matters of foreign policy.  The result was a watered-down “sense of Congress” act (Foreign Assistance Act of 1974), which declared that “except in extraordinary circumstances, the President shall substantially reduce or terminate security assistance to any government which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”[33]
The act was nevertheless a first step.  Congress shut down the U.S. Public Safety Program in 1974, as the program had become identified with brutal interrogation techniques rather than the professionalization of security forces.  In 1975, Congress began banning U.S. military aid to specific countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, and Guatemala, citing reports of gross violations of human rights.  A conservative wing of the human rights movement also arose.  Led by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which imposed trade penalties on non-capitalist countries that denied their citizens the right to emigrate, especially Jews in the Soviet Union.  However sincere, Cold Warriors used it to reinforce the idea that oppression existed only in Soviet-allied countries.

President Jimmy Carter prepares to sign the American Convention on Human Rights at the Pan American Building in Washington, DC, on June 1, 1977 (AP)

President Jimmy Carter embraced the rhetoric of human rights but was hesitant to cut off aid to important allies.  In his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 22, 1977, he declared that Americans “are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.”  Carter nonetheless embraced the dictatorial Shah of Iran (placed into power with the help of the CIA in 1953) when visiting the country.  Speaking on December 31, 1977, he praised the modernization of Iran under the Shah and blithely declared, “The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations.”  One year later, notwithstanding continued U.S. aid to Iran, Carter announced at a White House meeting on the 30th anniversary of the signing of the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” that human rights “is the soul of our foreign policy.”[34]

The implementation of human rights legislation continued during the Carter years.  In 1978, Congress prohibited all military sales, aid, loans, and training to the government of Argentina, which at the time was engaged in a “dirty war” against its own citizens.  Argentine human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.[35]  Congressional constraints placed on U.S. foreign aid led the Somoza government of Nicaragua to undertake an extensive lobbying effort, seeking out conservative allies in Congress and employing public relations firms to improve its image.[36]  The military governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, in contrast, chose to forego U.S. military aid after receiving low marks on the State Department’s 1977 human rights report.  The government of Guatemala was one of the worst offenders of human rights.  Amnesty International, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, estimated that Guatemalan security and right-wing paramilitary forces killed 20,000 people between 1966 and 1976.[37]  In 1978, Congress banned Guatemala from purchasing arms through the foreign military sales program; and in 1980, through commercial channels as well.

The limits of reform

Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, activist and former First Lady, helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN General Assembly approved on Dec. 10, 1948

The positive steps made by Congress and the Carter administration to establish human rights standards for U.S. foreign aid were limited not only in their application but also in their conception of human rights, which generally neglected economic rights.  The 1948 UN “Declaration of Human Rights,” in contrast, embraced economic, social, and political rights.  Among the economic rights enumerated in the document is “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”[38]  These declared economic “rights” underscored a proposal by developing nations in 1974 for a New International Economic Order, which the UN General Assembly adopted and Washington rejected.

The exclusion of economic rights from the conceptual framework of “human rights” discussed by U.S. policymakers hindered their understanding of the struggles for reform in Latin America.  Latin American reformers demanded political rights, to be sure, but they also sought economic justice, whether through New Deal-type programs or a fundamental restructuring of the economy in the direction of socialism.  Capitalism’s reputation in the United States, where roughly 80% of Americans could claim middle class status and 15% were officially poor, was far more positive than in Latin America, where the majority were poor and capitalist prerogatives were tainted by foreign exploitation.[39]  Given the possibility of socialist candidates being elected, as in the case of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, rightist groups, economic oligarchies, and military governments often turned to repression to forestall the possibility.  Repression, in other words, was not simply an overused tactic but rather a vital part of right-wing and elite efforts to thwart economic justice and the empowerment of the poor.
Efforts by U.S. human rights advocates to restrict U.S. military aid to abusive governments were necessary and important, but they did not address the underlying economic injustices that gave rise to rightist repression.  Few U.S. leaders, moreover, were prepared to accept socialist-oriented movements, leaders, and governments; and the Cold Warriors among them were quick to demand that “political stability” be restored.
Cold War ideology created a barrier to bridging economic and political rights.  Capitalism was identified with democracy, as in the United States, and socialism was identified with authoritarianism, as in the Soviet Union and Cuba.  Yet capitalism could and did function well under authoritarian regimes in many countries – to the benefit of elites rather than the masses – and socialist-oriented candidates, parties, and policies could well be the people’s choice.

The Reagan reversal

Ronald Reagan discouraged citizen support for social welfare programs and encouraged identification with national military power

The “Reagan revolution,” as it was called, heralded the return of hardline Cold War ideology and the reversal of previous human rights reforms.  “Let us not delude ourselves,” said Ronald Reagan while on the campaign trail in June 1980.  “The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on.  If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hotspots in the World.”  As president, Reagan embarked on an aggressive rollback strategy that involved covert support for guerrillas in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia, countries either led by Marxist governments or embroiled in civil wars.  In his State of the Union Address in January 1984, Reagan cast his policies as part of a “crusade for renewal” in which the U.S. has “the will to defend peace and freedom.”[40]

The Reagan administration throttled human rights reform not by denying the importance of human rights but by coopting the language, turning principles into propaganda.  As in the early Cold War era, human rights progress was conflated with U.S. foreign policy goals.  Secretary of State Alexander Haig let it be known in his first press conference on January 28, 1981, “International terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern because it is the ultimate of abuse of human rights.”[41]  The “terrorists,” in all cases, were U.S. adversaries, never allies.  The Reagan administration denounced human rights violations in Poland, a Soviet client-state over which it had little control, while denying and whitewashing human rights violations in El Salvador, a U.S. client-state over which it had much influence.  The administration thus presented itself as a champion of human rights while hiding indications to the contrary.
A double standard was similarly applied to revolution.  The administration described U.S. backed guerrillas in Nicaragua as “freedom fighters” whose use of force against the government was presumably justified because the U.S. supported them.  Leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, on the other hand, were depicted as violent offenders of civilized order and the rule of law.  Invoking the ghost of Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State George Shultz told the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations in Congress on March 22, 1983, that the United States would not tolerate “people shooting their way into power” in Central America.  The historian Walter LaFeber responded with an op-ed article in the New York Times, reminding readers that the U.S. had done exactly that in 1776 and still managed to create a decent government.[42]

U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, right, walks with Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova in San Juan Opica, El Salvador, Sept. 7, 1983 (AP)

The Reagan administration’s interventionist policy in Central America rested on an integrated set of ideological, institutional, rhetorical, and policy elements.  The administration framed its intervention, first, as a protective mission against alleged Soviet and Cuban expansionism and “communist subversion,” and second, as a benevolent mission to bring freedom and democracy to oppressed peoples.  The fact that the U.S. supported repressive governments in El Salvador and Guatemala was explained away by Reagan adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick, who put forth a speculative theory that repressive rightist regimes were amenable to democratic reform whereas repressive leftist regimes were not.  Missing in her argument was the fact that the U.S. had engaged in or encouraged the destabilization and overthrow of democratic governments in Guatemala, British Guiana, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Chile, and after 1984, Sandinista Nicaragua – a leftist revolutionary regime that instituted democratic procedures, contrary to Kirkpatrick’s theory.

Institutionally, embassies and bureaucracies were filled with officials who would toe the party line; among them, Elliot Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – a fox in the hen house.  Under Reagan, Haig, and Abrams, the State Department’s annual human rights reports became an opportunity to spread administration views.  Administration propaganda was both structural and eclectic.  The structural elements reinforced notions of U.S. protection and benevolence, noted above.  The eclectic elements allowed the administration to handle day-to-day challenges.  The many atrocities committed by U.S. patrons, for example, were managed in something like the following sequence:  ignore, deny, minimize, rationalize, attack the messenger, and declare that reforms were underway.
When reports of atrocities by Washington’s patrons (the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments and the Nicaraguan Contras) were made public, administration officials typically deflated accusations by saying the investigations were inconclusive or by blaming the enemy (Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrillas and the Nicaraguan government).  If it was proven beyond a doubt that Washington’s patrons had committed the atrocities, officials then attempted to minimize the number killed, avoid mention of torture, rape, and mutilation, and place the blame on a few “bad apples” at the lower echelon.  More comprehensive rebuttals included the argument that the enemy’s atrocities were much worse, and that the enemy was responsible for starting the war and thus whatever killing took place was the enemy’s fault.  Those who pointed out consistent patterns of human rights abuses by Washington’s allies were typically disparaged as ill-informed, biased, and supporters of the enemy.  Administration officials furthermore accused critics of conducting a systematic “disinformation campaign” in league with communist agents, even as the administration conducted its own illegal propaganda campaign to influence the American people.
In terms of policies, little effort was expended to hold Salvadoran and Guatemalan military leaders accountable, as the U.S. depended on these same leaders to win their respective counterinsurgency wars.  In the case of the Contras, the U.S. was directly responsible for atrocities, even producing an instruction manual on how to conduct assassinations of civilian officials (see Section 5).
Notwithstanding the administration’s call to arms, there were practical limits as to what the administration could do to carry out its “crusade for renewal,” particularly in Central America.  In deference to public and Congressional fears of “another Vietnam,” President Reagan agreed in March 1981 to limit the number of U.S. military advisers in El Salvador to fifty-five (actual numbers reached 130).  He also promised not to send U.S. troops into Nicaragua, although he hinted that this may become necessary if Congress stopped funding the Contras.  As if to prove the point, the U.S. conducted a surprise invasion of the tiny island of Grenada on October 25, 1983, removing a leftist government from power.  The idea of invading Nicaragua, however, faced strong public and Congressional opposition.  A contingency invasion plan drawn up by Lt. Col. Oliver North in 1985 listed as the first obstacle to overcome, not the Sandinista Army, but U.S. citizen opposition.[43]
*                    *                    *

III. El Salvador

El Salvador’s history is marked by a succession of authoritarian military regimes, a small but powerful landholding elite, and long-standing repression of reform.  After independence from Spain in 1823, El Salvador became a member of the United Provinces of Central America.  In 1838, the latter dissolved and the five nations of Central America emerged (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica).  Independent El Salvador was ruled by a landed elite that advocated economic modernization.  The Liberals in power promoted agricultural exports, dominated by indigo at first, and coffee in the last third of the nineteenth century.  Between 1880 and 1914, the value of coffee exports rose by 1,100 percent and made up 58.7% of the government’s revenues, and 90% of the nation’s exports.[44]
The coffee growers effectively drove out campesino and indigenous landholders.  By the 1880s, traditional communal landholding was outlawed, giving the coffee elite the opportunity to further consolidate their landholdings.  By the early twentieth century, El Salvador had the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America.  The coffee elite, referred to as the “fourteen families,” controlled most of the nation’s resources and retained substantial control over the economy and politics, especially as foreign investors had less influence in El Salvador than in Guatemala and Honduras.

Augustín Farabundo Martí

The Great Depression of the 1930s ended the coffee boom and highlighted the problems of El Salvador’s monocrop economy and lack of development.  Coffee growers reacted to the Depression by cutting the wages of their already impoverished workers.  In response to poor working conditions and to the establishment of a reactionary dictatorship in 1931, many peasants revolted in 1932.  Led by Marxist intellectual and Communist Party leader Augustín Farabundo Martí, the revolt was quickly crushed, ending in a massacre of over 30,000 people, known as known as la Matanza, “the slaughter.”  The memory of the revolt and its leader would be resurrected decades later in the form of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a rebel alliance that would attempt to overthrow another military dictatorship.[45]

A succession of military governments effectively ruled El Salvador until 1979.  The military and economic oligarchy consolidated their power in 1948 by establishing the military-dominated political party, Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification (PRUD), which was replaced in 1960 by the National Conciliation Party (PCN).  These military-led parties protected the coffee elite and attempted to usher in modernization projects with the help of the U.S. economic aid and the Central American Common Market.  The government developed infrastructure while capitalists, domestic and foreign, invested in manufacturing and commerce.  The economy grew by more than two percent annually (per capita Gross Domestic Product) between 1962 and 1978.
Yet the benefits of economic growth were uneven.  Wealth concentrated into fewer hands while the majority of the population became increasingly poorer.  Changes in Salvadoran land tenure laws increased rural unemployment and poverty.  A 1965 law lowered the number of subsistence farmers a landowner could have working his farm, leaving many subsistence farmers homeless and jobless.  Between 1961 and 1971, the percentage of landless campesinos rose from 12% to 41%.[46]  El Salvador’s economy, like the economies of other Latin American nations, also suffered when the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries (OPEC) quadrupled the price of oil in 1973.  The oil “crisis” drove up inflation and led to diminished purchasing power.  Real working-class wages lost an estimated one-fifth of their purchasing power between 1974 and 1980.  Unemployment rose from 16% of the workforce in 1970 to 21% in 1978.[47]
Salvadoran citizens attempted to ameliorate these economic conditions and improve their lives by organizing new political parties, civil society organizations, labor unions, peasant cooperatives, and church communities.  Labor union membership increased in the 1960s and 1970s, and the number of farming cooperatives doubled between 1973 and 1980.  Unions became more militant and strikes took place frequently as workers saw their wages drop and their standard of living erode.  Organized peasants demanded land reform; workers unions demanded higher wages; and Catholic Christian base communities advocated for the rural and urban poor.
The Catholic Church played an important role in the quest for reform.  Prior to the 1960s, the Latin American Catholic Church had aligned with the economic status quo, albeit while offering charity.  During the 1960s, a new mission to liberate the poor emerged, set forth by Pope John XXIII (1958-63), the Vatican Council (1962-1965), and Latin American bishops meeting at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968.  At the Medellín conference, the bishops affirmed the Vatican’s “preferential option for the poor” and called for “conscientización,” social education, and the building of Christian Base Communities.[48]  The consciousness-raising aspect of this mission was further developed by Latin American theologians into a comprehensive “liberation theology,” which mixed Christian values with Marxist economic critiques.

In the political arena, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), formed in 1960, became the vehicle for many Salvadorans seeking moderate reform.  Under the leadership of José Napoleón Duarte, the PDC made political gains in the Legislative Assembly and Duarte himself was twice elected mayor of San Salvador.  Duarte’s popularity alarmed the conservative oligarchy and its military allies.  When it was clear that Duarte would win the 1972 presidential election, the military overthrew the election and installed Colonel Arturo Armando Molina as president.  Duarte was arrested, tortured, and exiled.

Following the military coup, President Molina ramped up the repression.  As the historian Robert A. Pastor writes, “each positive reformist step in El Salvador was followed by grotesque murders by right-wing death squads.”[49] The effect was to push reform groups underground and turn would-be reformers into revolutionaries.  Between 1970 and 1979, five guerrilla organizations aligned with various political groups rose up to challenge the military government in power.  The Salvadoran military responded with more repression.  Among the worst incidents was the massacre of an estimated 100 demonstrators who had gathered at the Plaza Libertad in San Salvador on February 28, 1977, to protest the fraudulent presidential election of General Carlos Humberto Romero.

Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, military president of El Salvador, 1977–1979

In November 1977, the Romero government enacted the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order, which eliminated almost all legal restrictions on violence against civilians.[50]  The “brunt of the repression,” writes the historian William LeoGrande, fell not upon the “clandestine guerrilla organization,” but “upon the more accessible moderates.  The resulting human rights abuses further radicalized the population and attracted widespread international condemnation.”  Human rights reports from Amnesty International and other organizations in late 1978 and early 1979 “unanimously condemned General Romero’s government for its systematic torture, murder, and persecution of political dissidents.  According the archbishop’s Legal Aid Office, 727 people were killed by death squads and the government’s security forces in 1978 and 1979.”[51]

Mano blanco (white hand) death squad signature left on the door of a slain peasant organizer, 1980 (Susan Meiselas, Magnum photos)

In the countryside, the Salvadoran military aligned itself with a powerful paramilitary group, the Nationalist Democratic Organization (ORDEN), whose goal was to ensure peasant loyalty to the government.  According to D’Haeseleer, “when verbal persuasion failed, it [ORDEN] resorted to other means, including kidnapping, torturing, and killing supposedly subversive campesinos.”  U.S. military advisers were on hand to help “plan the structure and ideology of ORDEN” and train its leaders.[52]

Officially, the U.S. role in El Salvador was to “professionalize” the army and police forces.  Between 1950 and 1972, more than 1,000 Salvadoran soldiers and officers received training at the School of the Americas in Panama.  The U.S. also provided the Salvadoran government with $22.5 million in military aid between 1946 and 1980.[53]  In early 1977, however, new human rights requirements imposed by Congress prompted the Salvadoran government to reject further military aid, although previously authorized aid in the pipeline continued to flow.[54]

In October 1979, just after the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, growing discontent within the military brought about a regime change.  Disgruntled senior military officers and younger junior officers ousted President Romero and installed a new junta that included civilian leadership.  The junta quickly returned to repression, however, compelling its civilian members to abandon it.  A new junta formed and, under pressure from the U.S., invited Duarte to participate. In an effort to win hearts and minds, the U.S. also pushed a land redistribution program that was hated by the economic elite.  As in the 1960s, when President Kennedy imposed land reform under the Alliance for Progress, the unholy alliance of the landed oligarchy, Salvadoran military, and paramilitary death squads made sure that the land reform program failed.  In April 1980, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) was founded, representing center-left and leftist political parties and popular organizations.  In October, the FMLN was formed as the paramilitary arm of the FDR.  In December, Duarte became the official junta president, but he exercised little influence over the armed forces, which went on a rampage in 1980 and 1981.

Carter’s choice

President Jimmy Carter was faced with a troubling dilemma during his last year in office.  He could hold to his stated human rights principles and not abet the crimes of the Salvadoran government, letting events take their course, or he could aid the Salvadoran government in the interest of preventing another successful leftist revolution.  He thought he could do both when he approved the Pentagon’s request to reprogram $5.7 million in nonlethal aid (trucks, communication equipment, and uniforms) to the government.[55]  Carter argued that the aid would give the U.S. leverage over the Salvadoran military.  This proved not to be the case.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero

On February 17, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador wrote a letter to Carter imploring him not to send military aid, equipment, or advisers to the government of El Salvador:

The present government junta and, especially, the armed forces and security forces have unfortunately not demonstrated their capacity to resolve in practice the nation’s serious political and structural problems.  For the most part, they have resorted to repressive violence, producing a total of deaths and injuries much greater than under the previous military regime, whose systematic violation of human rights was reported by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights.  The brutal form in which the security forces recently evicted and murdered the occupiers of the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party, even though the junta and the party apparently did not authorize the operation, is an indication that the junta and the Christian Democrats do not govern the country, but that political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy….

For this reason, given that as a Salvadoran and archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country, I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights:  to forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government; to guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people…. I hope that your religious sentiments and your feelings for the defense of human rights will move you to accept my petition, thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.[56]

Funeral procession for Archbishop Romero outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, March 26, 1980 (AP photo, Valente Cotera)

Bishop Romero, formerly a conservative critic of liberation theology, had become a champion of the poor and the oppressed after witnessing the death of so many innocent people.  During his last homily on March 24, 1980 he begged government soldiers to stop killing their own people, saying, “No one has to obey an immoral law.  It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.”[57]  His assassination that day demonstrated that the military would kill anyone.

In Washington, Romero’s plea fell on deaf ears.  On April 2, 1980, Congress approved Carter’s $5.7 million “non-lethal” aid package over the objection of critics who decried U.S. support for “gross violators of human rights.”[58]  The aid had the predictable effect of emboldening the Salvadoran military and death squads.  On November 27, 1980, six top leaders of the FDR were kidnapped from a press conference and tortured and mutilated before being killed.  On December 4, the bodies of four American churchwomen – Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and missionary Jean Donovan – were found near the airport after they had been raped and murdered by soldiers of the National Guard.

Slain American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan

In January 1981, as the FMLN launched its so-called “final offensive,” the Salvadoran military and death squads killed 2,644 civilian noncombatants in that one month alone, according to the legal aid office of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of San Salvador.  In March 1981, Amnesty International submitted testimony to a Congressional committee, stating, “Repression at the hands of the government security forces and paramilitary groups has continued to escalate in recent months,” and that in the last year, “some 8,000 Salvadorans are estimated to have died as a result of political violence; government forces have been reportedly implicated in at least 6,000 of these deaths.”[59]

The murder of the U.S. churchwomen induced Carter to suspend distribution of the $5.7 million aid package pending an investigation, but this was largely symbolic.  Before leaving office, Carter resumed the aid and also authorized an emergency grant of $5 million in combat equipment in response to the FMLN offensive.  Accompanying the aid were three U.S. military advisory teams tasked with improving the Salvadoran government’s counterinsurgency operations.[60]
Domestic politics no doubt weighed heavily in President Carter’s decision.  In running for re-election in 1980, he had been pilloried by Ronald Reagan and the New Right for allegedly “losing” Nicaragua to communism, “losing” Iran to Islamic fundamentalism, “giving away” the Panama Canal, “appeasing” the Cubans, and being “weak” on defense.  Carter had hoped to blend human rights policies with the maintenance of U.S. influence in the world (and dominance in Latin America), but the situation in El Salvador had gone too far and demanded a choice:  hold to human rights standards or maintain a U.S.-friendly government irrespective of human rights abuses.  Immersed in the empire mentality of the foreign policy establishment, he chose the latter.  Just as President Truman had sought to avoid being accused of “losing Vietnam” after allegedly “losing China” in 1949 (the U.S. began aiding the French recolonization of Vietnam in February 1950), so President Carter sought to avoid being accused of “losing El Salvador” after allegedly “losing Nicaragua” in 1979.

The Reagan years

The Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Battalion, formed in March 1981 under the guidance of U.S. military advisers, shown here patrolling the Usulutan zone in 1983

In contrast to the Carter administration, Reagan administration officials appeared confident and certain of their mission.  El Salvador was presented as a “test case” for the revival of U.S. power and influence in the world. On February 23, 1981, the State Department released a White Paper titled “Communist Interference in El Salvador,” which was said to contain documented evidence of Communist bloc support for the leftist revolutionaries.  The press accepted the report at face value at first, but within six months the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post had concluded that most of the administration’s claims were not backed up by the documents and that many of the documents were not authentic.  “Above all,” writes LeoGrande, “the documents did not support the White Paper’s central thesis – that a massive external interference by the Communist bloc had transformed the Salvadoran conflict from a civil war to a case of indirect external aggression.”[61]  Although the White Paper failed to convince, the administration nonetheless operated on the assumption that the Salvadoran revolution was a product of Soviet and Cuban expansionism, presumably justifying a militant U.S. response.

On March 2, 1981, the Reagan administration announced that it was sending $25 million in additional military assistance to the Salvadoran government along with four more training teams.  Congress approved the funds (shifted from other accounts), but exacted a pledge to limit the number of U.S. military advisors in the country to fifty-five.  This limit coupled with national elections held in 1982 and 1984 enabled the administration to win Congressional approval for most of the aid it sought for the Salvadoran government through the decade.  In 1982 and 1983, the administration gained Congressional approval of $117.4 million in military aid; and in 1984, another $196.5 million.  In addition, the U.S. arranged for international loans to the Salvadoran government amounting to $280 million between July 1981 and September 1984.[62]

Congress attempted to salvage some measure of its earlier human rights principles by passing a law in December 1981 that required the president to certify every six months “that the Government of El Salvador is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights” and that it “is achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces, so as to bring to an end the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens by these forces.”  The law had virtually no effect, as it allowed the president, rather than Congress, to certify “progress” in human rights.  Before the law was allowed to lapse in November 1983, President Reagan certified on four occasions that “progress” was being made.[63]

Rufina Amaya, sole survivor of El Mozote massacre whose testimony was instrumental to the UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran army’s most elite unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, whose officers had been trained by U.S. Special Forces, massacred close to 1,000 villagers in El Mozote and surrounding hamlets (located north of San Miguel).  The truth commission created by the United Nations in 1992 concluded that the El Mozote massacre was the worst war crime in the nation’s twelve years of civil war.  Forensic anthropology teams determined that 57% of the identified victims were children under the age of 18, including 136 children and adolescents killed inside a convent next to the village church.  The murders were calculated and systematic, with men and women ordered into buildings before being shot.  In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights reported that “Salvadoran authorities systematically denied and concealed the facts,” and “that for nine years the State failed to open an investigation.”  The court furthermore chastised the Salvadoran government for passing an amnesty law in 2012 that exonerated the perpetrators without identifying them and called on the government to make reparation payments to victims’ families.[64]

Forensic evidence of the massacre at El Mozote was later collected

The Reagan administration worked in tandem with Salvadoran officials in covering up the massacre.  The U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, denied that a massacre had taken place, blamed the guerrillas for putting civilians in harm’s way, and was photographed giving a big hug to Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa of the Atlacatl Battalion.  Only a few days after the massacre, President Reagan certified to Congress that the Salvadoran government was making progress in “internationally recognized human rights.”  Congress as a whole went along with the charade.  In early 1982, when reports of the massacre began appearing in the U.S. media, Elliott Abrams, the administration’s point man on human rights, told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths “were not credible” and that the “incident” was being “significantly misused” by the guerrillas.[65]

One interesting twist is that, by October 1982, Ambassador Hinton had seen enough gruesome violence in El Salvador to make his stomach – and conscience – turn.  In a speech before the American Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador that month, attended by the Salvadoran oligarchy, Hinton pointed out that 30,000 people had been “murdered, not killed in battle, murdered!”  He then asked, “Is it any wonder that much of the world is predisposed to believe the worst of a system which never brings to justice either those who perpetrate these acts or those who order them?”  The Reagan administration promptly rebuked the ambassador and forced him to resign.[66]

Salvadoran Army unit on the coastal road, February 8, 1982 (photo by Alain Keler / Corbis)

The human rights situation remained dire in 1982.  The Archdioceses legal office attributed 5,399 civilian deaths to the army and related paramilitary forces, and yet this was an “improvement” over the previous year’s total of about twice the number.  In September 1982, leaders of the PDC, including Duarte, charged that hundreds of PDC activists and nine PDC mayors had been murdered that year (a total of 35 had been killed over the years).  Government security forces also targeted labor union officials, campesino leaders, and human rights activists.

The counterinsurgency war provided the right with cover for a murderous campaign against virtually all popular reform movements.  One example was a massacre at Las Hojas on February 22, 1983, conducted by a Salvadoran army unit led by Col. Elmer Gonzalez Araujo.  Several truckloads of Salvadoran soldiers arrived at the farming cooperative and, advised by spies, seized 20 young men and executed them on the spot.  “The massacre at Las Hojas grew out of a dispute over land and water rights between the members of the Indian farming cooperative and landowners in the region,” according to human rights analyst Cynthia Brown.  “It had nothing to do with the East-West conflict, nor anything to do with the guerrilla war under way in El Salvador….  The army garrison at Sonsonate [region] was performing a traditional function: murdering peasants who managed to annoy El Salvador’s well-to-do landowners.”[67]

The March 1982 elections for Constituent Assembly provided an opportunity for the U.S. to establish the legitimacy of the Salvadoran government in the eyes of the U.S. public and the world.  Although the left (FDR) was excluded and two independent newspapers had been shut down by death threats, the military government nonetheless found it necessary to inflate vote totals by 25% so as to secure a better showing for the two parties on the right, the traditional military party, PCN, and the far right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which together won 38% of the vote (19% and 29%, respectively).  Duarte’s moderate PDC party won the largest share with 40% of the vote.  A coalition government representing these three parties was subsequently formed under the presidency of Álvaro Magaña.  The rigging of the vote was kept secret, of course, while the U.S. news media published photos of citizens waiting in line to vote as evidence of progress in democracy.

Another partial indication of progress was the conviction in May 1984 of four national guardsmen for murdering the four American churchwomen in 1980.  They received 30-year prison sentences, but their superiors remained free.  According to the United Nations Truth Commission report of 1993, Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, director of the National Guard, and Jose Guillermo García, Minister of Defense, organized an official cover-up of the murders.   Both were graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas and later moved to Florida.  Vidas Casanova was invited to the school as a guest speaker in 1985.[68]

José Napoleón Duarte speaking before a crowd in the 1984 presidential election campaign

The Reagan administration undertook a dual approach to El Salvador.  On the one hand, it supported the reformist-minded PDC and its leader, Napoleon Duarte; on the other hand, it supported hardline military elements who sought to suppress the rebellion by any means necessary.  The dual orientation led the U.S. to constantly preach human rights principles to the Salvadoran military while doing little to actually stop extrajudicial executions and death squad disappearances, lest the counterinsurgency effort be undercut.  The public face of the administration policy necessarily emphasized the reformist orientation, given the tarnished reputation of the Salvadoran military.  This was especially true in the presidential election of 1984 when the Reagan administration used its influence to assure that Duarte came out on top over ARENA party founder Robert D’Aubuisson, who had been identified by former ambassador Robert White as the key figure in the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.[69]  The Salvadoran military command went along, being thoroughly dependent on U.S. funding by this time and also knowing that the civilian leadership would not be allowed to control the military.

Roberto d’Aubuisson, 1984 presidential election campaign

The dual approach did not blend well in the overall U.S. strategy.  Military efforts to annihilate the rebels and dry up their sources of popular support clashed with humanitarian efforts to win the hearts and minds of the populace through programs of economic uplift.  As in the Vietnam War, military objectives undermined reform efforts, especially in the countryside.  As D’Haeseleer writes:

To remove insurgents, the Salvadoran military bombed these areas first, then initiated large-scale sweeps to force them out of the contested regions.  After the areas were secure, or the guerrillas had fled, the civic action programs began.  These programs were considered necessary to kick-start rural development and bind the civilians closer to the central government.[70]

The Salvadoran civil war became a war of attrition.  For the most part, rebel forces held their own against the U.S. backed, trained, and financed government forces, even as the latter grew in strength and number over the course of the decade.  By 1985, government forces had quadrupled to about 55,000 troops.  U.S.-supplied helicopters greatly increased the Salvadoran Army’s ability to conduct “search and kill” missions in the countryside.  Despite the superiority of government forces, insurgent attacks in the capital city of San Salvador increased from 36 in 1985 to 54 in 1986.  The rebels divided into smaller units, conducted economic sabotage operations, laid land mines to hamper government troops, and sought to build stronger bases of support in rural communities.  FMLN leaders also found safe haven in Nicaragua when needed.[71]

Salvadoran refugees arriving at the Mesa Grande camp in Honduras

The war took a heavy toll on the civilian population.  The widespread violence forced over one sixth of the population to flee, further crippling the nation’s economic and human capital.  In 1987, Salvadoran and U.S. officials estimated that more than 400,000 refugees had fled to the United States since 1982.  Others found their way to refugee camps in Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere.  A 1988 Congressional report titled “Bankrolling Failure” noted that only a small portion of U.S. aid to El Salvador addressed the endemic poverty and injustice that were the root causes of the war.[72]

Although the rebels had considerable support in the countryside, this did not prevent them from engaging in their own forms of violence against the civilian population.  These included the forced recruitment of young men into rebel groups, the use of land mines, and the killing of mayors who cooperated with the Salvadoran military government.  The antipersonnel mines killed and maimed children and farmers.  In 1986, at least 46 civilians were killed and 162 wounded by mines.  The number rose to 150 killed in 1988.  The practice of killing mayors was controversial within the FMLN but nonetheless carried out.  At least eleven mayors were summarily executed.  In 1985, the FMLN abducted 25 mayors and government officials and exchanged them for wounded FMLN guerrillas who were required to leave the country.   As with rightist death squad activity, FMLN terrorism arguably cost the rebels popular support.[73]

Joaquin Villalobos, leader of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the five FMLN rebel groups

Attempts at peace negotiations were made in 1984, 1985, and 1987, all without effect.  Productive negotiations were unlikely as long as either side believed that military victory was possible and preferable to a negotiated settlement.  The hardliners in the Reagan administration joined the hardliners in the Salvadoran military and the political right, led by D’Aubuisson, in seeking victory not peace.  Some officials, such as Thomas Enders, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, were cognizant that a political solution was ultimately needed in El Salvador.[74]  Some FMLN leaders believed that the revolution could be won by wearing down the U.S. over time.  Others drew a lesson from Nicaragua, speculating that if the FMLN did win,, the U.S. would initiate a new war against them.

In early 1989, U.S. officials expressed confidence that government forces would soon win, reporting that the rebels had lost between 15 and 19 percent of their forces.  Newly inaugurated President George H. W. Bush followed his predecessor in fully backing the Salvadoran military irrespective of human rights abuses.  In March, the ARENA candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, won the presidential election, making the prospect of successful negotiations appear more remote.  A new round of talks nevertheless began in the fall.  Yet the bombing of a labor union by rightists on October 31, 1989, killing nine people, prompted the FMLN to suspend the talks.  On November 11, the FMLN launched a major offensive in San Salvador, bringing the war to wealthy parts of the city and utterly surprising U.S. officials.[75]
It was during the Salvadoran government’s counteroffensive that members of the Atlacatl Battalion murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter at the Universidad Centroamericana.  Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, Vice Minister for Public Security, had previously denounced the priests as being “fully identified with the subversive movements.”[76]  During the counteroffensive, the Salvadoran military and right-wing death squads killed hundreds of others, but the murder of the priests caught the American public’s attention.  Nine years of ostensible “progress” in human rights in El Salvador had not reformed the Salvadoran military, including the very unit that had carried out the El Mozote massacre in 1981.  The Bush administration initially blamed the murders on FMLN guerrillas, but subsequent investigations revealed a calculated assassination plan on the part of the Salvadoran military.

Photo collection of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, all murdered by the Salvadoran military on Nov. 16, 1989 (Salt & Light Media, a Catholic organization based in Canada)

Disenchantment with administration policy in Congress was palpable.  Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts declared that “not a dime of military aid should go to El Salvador” until the armed forces were purged of human rights abusers.  “It’s our money,” he said.  “We have a right to decide what to do with it.”[77]  Congress passed an amendment in 1990 cutting U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government in half, but the measure contained a mile-wide loophole.  It allowed the president to reinstate the restricted aid if he certified that the FMLN did any of the following:  refused to negotiate, received weapons shipments from abroad, or killed civilians.  In January 1991, only two months after signing the measure into law, President Bush restored the restricted aid.

The Bush administration attempted to downplay the significance of the November 1989 rebel offensive, describing it as a “stunning military defeat” for the rebels.  In reality, the offensive convinced U.S. officials that military victory could not be attained.  In February 1990, General Maxwell Thurman, the senior U.S. military officer of the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for Latin America, was asked in a Congressional hearing whether the Salvadoran military could defeat the FMLN.  Thurman replied, “I think they will not be able to do that.”[78]

Salvadoran peace accords

A young girl with a pet parrot, Chalatenango, El Salvador, Feb. 1984 (Mike Goldwater)

From April 1990 through December 1991, representatives of the Salvadoran government and the FMLN met in a series of meetings under the auspices of the United Nations, attempting to hammer out a peace agreement.  The ultimate success of these negotiations may be attributed to a number of factors:

  • recognition by U.S. officials, the Salvadoran (Cristiani) government, and FMLN leaders that victory was unattainable;
  • the ending of the Cold War, which greatly diminished the geostrategic importance of El Salvador in the eyes of U.S. officials (just as détente in the early 1970s had reduced the importance of Vietnam);
  • the electoral defeat of the Sandinista party in neighboring Nicaragua in February 1990 (which ended U.S. predictions of falling dominoes in Central America);
  • the weariness of Congress and the U.S. public with funding the unsavory war (by 1990 the U.S. had provided $4 billion in overt military and economic aid to the Salvadoran government); [79]
  • at least some recognition of the immense cost of the war in El Salvador – approximately 75,000 Salvadorans killed (about 1.5% of the population) and more than a million displaced;
  • new U.S. military adventures that preoccupied the administration, including the invasion of Panama in December 1989 and the Persian Gulf War in early 1991.

The negotiating parties reached an opening Agreement on Human Rights in July 1990.  A cease-fire was declared in September 1991, and a comprehensive settlement, the Chapultepec peace accords, was signed on January 16, 1992.  Beyond ending the fighting, the peace accords sought to help the Salvadoran people heal, to prevent the recurrence of abuses, and to move forward toward a more peaceful and democratic society.  The National Guard was abolished and replaced by the National Civilian Police; UN observers would ensure fair and free elections; the FMLN agreed to demobilize its troops and registered as a government political party, and perhaps most important for the nation in the healing process, the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was established in July 1992.  The UN played important roles both in supporting peace negotiations and in implementation of the peace pact.

Memorial at El Mozote

The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador was comprised of three international commissioners, appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and chaired by former Colombian president, Belisario Betancur.  Given six months to carry out its work, the Commission was charged to clarify the worst human rights abuses of the war by all sides, to analyze the impunity with which the Salvadoran military and security forces committed abuses, and to make recommendations to prevent a repeat of past abuses and stimulate national reconciliation.  The Commission released its report on March 15, 1993, and concluded that of the 22,000 official complaints, 25% involved disappearances, 20% torture, and some involved more than one form of violence. The Commission found that 85% of the atrocities committed against civilians were carried out by the military government, and in predominantly rural areas; approximately 5% were committed by rebel forces.

The report named individual actors accused of human rights violations from both the government and the FMLN, and called for the removal of office and the Salvadoran armed forces of more than forty military personnel, including those found responsible for the killings of Archbishop Romero and the four U.S. churchwomen, and the massacre at El Mozote.[80]  Although the Commission believed that justice demanded punishment for the perpetrators of violence and reparations for some of the victims, it lacked the authority to carry out both, and in 1993 the government passed the Amnesty Law which protected perpetrators and the high ranking military personnel who ordered them to act from facing charges and imprisonment for human rights violations.  In July 2016, after twenty-three years, El Salvador’s Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Amnesty Law, allowing the Salvadoran government to bring former military personnel to trial.  In November of 2017, the United States Department of Justice had Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran colonel living in the U.S., extradited to Spain to stand trial on charges related to the assassination of the Jesuit priests.

Although highly imperfect, El Salvador’s Truth Commission was lauded as a model for the world to begin healing from genocides, civil wars, and grave human rights abuses.  For many Salvadorans, however, the “peace” remained elusive as perpetrators roamed free, and people struggled to survive while dealing with their many losses and unanswered questions.  One of the Truth Commission’s recommendations was to construct a monument containing the names of all those killed during the civil war.  It took a coalition of human rights groups to get the project off the ground in 2003.
Inscribed in the Monument to the Memory and the Truth are the names of 30,000 known victims of the Salvadoran civil war, out of a total of 75,000 killed.  The monument also lists over 200 massacres that occurred during the war.  The text accompanying the monument reads, “a space for hope, to continue dreaming and to construct a more just, human, and equitable society.”[81]
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IV. Guatemala

Guatemala’s history, like that of El Salvador, is marked by authoritarian military regimes, a small landholding elite, and repression of the majority.  Guatemala’s case differs in that the U.S. played a deciding role in the country in 1954, covertly organizing the overthrow of a democratic government and installing a repressive authoritarian one.  Guatemala also differs from its Central American neighbors in that the majority of its population is indigenous – and that population in particular has been historically repressed and marginalized.
Like other Central American nations, after becoming an independent republic in 1847, Liberals and Conservatives fought for control of the Guatemalan government.  Liberals ruled Guatemala from 1871 until the 1940s.  They modernized Guatemala with infrastructure and established coffee as the major export crop.  By 1900, coffee accounted for 85% of Guatemala’s exports, and the coffee elite came to control the nation politically and economically.  As in El Salvador, the government allowed the landed elite to take indigenous communal lands and establish forced labor systems.  Through U.S. investment, Guatemala began building its railways, which facilitated the transportation of coffee and a second major crop, bananas.[82]
In the early 20th century, the United Fruit Company (UFCO) became the dominant player in the economy, with the Guatemalan government granting the U.S.-based company large tracts of land.  The company was formed in 1899 from the merger of Minor C. Keith’s banana-trading concerns with Andrew W. Preston’s Boston Fruit Company.  It flourished in the early and mid-20th century, and came to control vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies, driving out other banana growers and companies.  Coffee and bananas continued to dominate Guatemalan economic, social, and political life through the 1960s.
The Great Depression of the 1930s highlighted Guatemala’s dependence on exports.  Lower prices resulted in lower wages, which brought on labor uprisings.  In 1931, President Jorge Ubico Castañeda assumed dictatorial powers and stifled all opposition.  Ubico continued building Guatemala’s infrastructure and repressing the indigenous population, forcing them into unpaid labor agreements with the state.  Large sectors of Guatemalan society eventually opposed Ubico and in the face of pressure, he resigned in 1944.
Democratic elections were held in 1944 and Juan José Arévelo won the presidency, running on a reform platform.  As president, he initiated efforts to create a social security system, a labor code, public health and education programs, and a rural cooperative system.  Arévelo encouraged democratic elections and workers unions and rights, but he held back on land reform.  The election of Arévelo and his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, is referred to as the “Revolution of 1944.”
In 1950, the Guatemalan people elected Árbenz, an army officer, as president.  Árbenz proposed further reforms, including land redistribution.  In his 1951 Inaugural Address, he articulated the goals of agrarian reform:  “to convert our country from a dependent nation with a semi-colonial economy to an economically independent country; to convert Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state; and to make this transformation in a way that will raise the standard of living of the great mass of our people to the highest level.”  The 1952 Agrarian Reform Law sought to achieve these goals be redistributing uncultivated hacienda lands to some 100,000 peasants, greatly increasing the number of small private landholders.  “In return for having their lands expropriated,” the law stated, “landholders would receive compensation in the form of twenty-five year bonds with three percent interest, paid at the declared tax value of their lands.”[83]
Árbenz’s reforms alarmed the military, the landed elite, and some U.S. business interests, especially the United Fruit Company, which owned much uncultivated land.  Árbenz nationalized, with compensation, 1.5 million acres of property, including 1,700 acres of his own family’s land and, most importantly, 234,000 acres of uncultivated land owned by UFCO, offering $1 million in compensation.  UFCO owned over 3,000,000 acres along with major utilities and railroads.  Guatemala’s land reform program set off the Eisenhower administration, in part because of its close ties with the UFCO.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, represented the company.  Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, and brother of John Foster Dulles, had served on UFCO’s Board of Trustees and owned shares in the company.  The Guatemalan government’s actions led UFCO to create a propaganda campaign directed at the Árbenz administration.  UFCO hired publicists to publish articles and advertisements in U.S. newspapers critical of Árbenz, labeling him a communist.  To be sure, the president was on friendly terms with Guatemala’s Communist Party, the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo, which formed in 1949, but the party was democratic, rather like the communist parties of France and Italy, and posed no threat to the United States.

Guatemalan counter-revolutionaries at a CIA training camp in Honduras

President Eisenhower nevertheless perceived communist participation in the Árbenz government as a threat to U.S. hegemony in the region.  In August 1953, he approved a covert plan to overthrow the constitutional government.  To carry out the plan, the CIA recruited right-wing Guatemalan military officers and organized a few hundred men into a small army.  In June, 1954, the CIA-backed “National Liberation Army” invaded Guatemala from Honduras while unmarked U.S. World War II fighter planes flew over Guatemala City, firing into the air.  Convinced that a large army was approaching, the Guatemalan armed forces put up no resistance.  Árbenz resigned, but not before lambasting the anti-democratic actions of the United States:  “The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States is responsible for what is happening to us.”[84]

Notwithstanding the covert nature of the U.S. operation, it was clear to those outside the propaganda bubble of the United States that the U.S. had orchestrated the overthrow.  The coup sparked outrage in Latin America:  demonstrations were held in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, and Cuba, and resolutions were passed by the Argentine, Uruguayan, and Chilean legislatures condemning U.S. aggression.  Taking note of the criticism from abroad, Life magazine disparaged it as an example of the pervasive influence of communism in Latin America.[85]
In the immediate months after the overthrow, the Guatemalan military, police, and vigilante groups engaged in wholesale murder of Árbenz supporters, union organizers, and peasant leaders.  Colonel Castillo Armas, after assuming the presidency through a fraudulent plebiscite, rolled back the social and political reforms of Árbenz and Arévelo.  The CIA helped Armas compile a register of those deemed threats to the state; by November 1954, the list included over 72,000 names.  Aided by U.S. intelligence and military personnel, Guatemala became a police state.  “By the mid-1960s,” writes Stephen Rabe, “Guatemala had descended into a hell of violence, torture, and death that lasted three decades.”[86]

Revolution and state terrorism

During the 1960s, rebel groups formed to overthrow Guatemala’s military government.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the 13th of November Revolutionary Movement (MR-13) borrowed ideological and strategic lessons from the Cuban revolutionaries.  In the face of growing political opposition, the Guatemalan military decided to allow for democratic elections in March 1966.  A conservative representing the Revolutionary Party, Julio César Méndez Montenegro, won the presidential election.  He was obliged to sign an agreement allowing the military to continue to wield power without civilian accountability.
That same year, 1966, Guatemalan military and police forces carried out Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup).  Advised by U.S. military trainers, the Guatemalan forces carried out roundups, torture, assassinations, and “scorched earth” tactics in which whole villages were destroyed in order to undermine popular support for insurgents.  Associated rightist paramilitary groups terrorized whomever they perceived to be a part of the opposition.  Most of the violence was directed at the indigenous population living in rural areas.  By the end of the 1960s, the insurgents had largely disbanded.  They would regroup again in the late 1970s under new conditions of repression.
Guatemala achieved a measure of economic growth in the 1960s, but the benefits continued to be unevenly distributed.  Workers overall experienced economic hardship in the 1970s, due to a mixture of domestic conflict, the OPEC oil crisis, the world-wide recession, and a devastating earthquake in 1976.  Economic adversity, in turn, fueled new opposition groups and political parties.  Labor unionists, indigenous groups, Christian Base Communities, and the Christian Democratic Party led efforts to effect political change, but without success.  The military regime rigged elections and kept itself in power, destroying hopes for electoral reform and alienating the masses from participating in political elections.

A traumatic memory of state violence – Comalapa Mural

Reform efforts were met with increasing repression under President-General Romeo Lucas García, who ruled from July 1978 to March 1982.  Wanton killing, kidnappings, torture, and forced disappearances were unleashed, deepening Guatemala’s crisis and causing the military government to lose credibility abroad.  Rightist death squads aligned with the military murdered campesinos and other political enemies in increasing numbers.  The average murder rate soared from 75 per month in 1979 to nearly 303 per month in 1981.[87]

 A 1981 Amnesty International report described the repression in Guatemala as “a government campaign of political murder.”  A Pastoral Letter issued by Catholic bishops in May 1982 declared, “Never in our history have such extremes been reached, with assassinations now falling into the category of genocide.”[88]
Despite the repression, campesinos continued to organize.  Led by the Peasant Unity Committee (Comité de Unidad Campesina), they staged a major strike against sugar planters in 1980.  Guerilla forces also regrouped – the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), and the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP).  The latter two were based in indigenous communities.  Estimates place the number of guerrillas at about 4,000 in 1982, but their support was widespread.[89]
The Guatemalan Army shifted its operations to the rural areas, targeting indigenous villages.  A February 1982 CIA cable reported that the Guatemalan army had “launched a sweep operation into Ixil Province.  The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the EGP [guerrilla group] and eliminate all sources of resistance….  When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”[90]

Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt and President Ronald Reagan meeting on December 4, 1982

On March 23, 1982, General José Efraín Ríos Montt overthrew General García with the aid of junior military officers and the CIA.  The Reagan administration needed a more presentable leader if it was to gain Congressional approval of more aid for the Guatemalan government.  Ríos Montt was considered part of the modern, technically proficient sector of the army, trained in special warfare at the U.S. School of the Americas.  He had served as head of the Department of Studies at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington during the mid-1970s and developed close ties with the U.S. intelligence and counterinsurgency experts.  Not surprisingly, he was welcomed by Thomas Enders, Assistant Secretary of State for inter-American Affairs, who stated that “a coup has installed a new leader who has improved the human rights situation, and has opened the way for a more effective counterinsurgency.”[91]

Ríos Montt’s 17-month rule, in fact, resulted in the killing or disappearance of 800 victims per month.  Village massacres were conducted with more thoroughness.  According to the historian Kathryn Sikkink, in 1982 alone, “the Guatemalan government killed or disappeared at least 17,953 Guatemalan citizens, most of them unarmed civilians and primarily rural indigenous peoples.”  The government combined its “scorched earth” military campaign with a “Shelter, Work, and Food” program and a promise of democratic elections in the future.  This combination of carrots and sticks was known as the “beans and bullets” approach.  As explained by one Guatemalan army officer to a New York Times reporter, “If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not we’ll kill you.”  In a June 1982 interview, Ríos Montt’s chief aide, Francisco  Bianchi, was asked about army killings of unarmed civilians.  He replied:

The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators.  Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right?  And how do you fight subversion?  Clearly you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with the subversion.  And then they would say, “You’re massacring innocent people.”  But they weren’t innocent.  They had sold out to subversion.[92]

The U.S. role

The Reagan administration aided and abetted the Guatemalan government’s genocidal campaign while denying that it was taking place.  Embassy officials, State Department human rights reports, and President Reagan himself all did their part.  Reagan met with Ríos Montt in Honduras on December 4, 1982.  Following the meeting, he stated publicly that Ríos Montt was “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” whose country “is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala.”  In a media question-and-answer session, Reagan said that he believed Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala….  And frankly, I’m inclined to think they’ve been getting a bum rap” (on human rights).[93]

Mural depicting the democratic spring (left) buried by the U.S.-backed coup in 1954

The outside power arming the Guatemalan government was the United States (which also armed guerrillas in Nicaragua).  From 1954 to 1972, some 2,000 Guatemalan army officers were trained in U.S. military schools.  By 1965, there were 34 U.S. military advisers in Guatemala.  The U.S. organized and equipped the Mobile Military Police, a unit involved in massacres.  The U.S. also supplied an average of 12% of the Guatemalan military budget in the 1960s and 1970s.  When Guatemala refused further military aid in 1977, Israel, Taiwan, and Argentina stepped in to fill the gap.  Israeli advisers actively assisted the Lucas and Ríos Montt counterinsurgency campaigns.[94]

The Reagan administration’s push for new military aid to the Guatemalan government began with a proposal to sell $2 to $6 million in helicopter spare parts and other quasi-military items.  In January 1983, one month after the Reagan- Ríos Montt meeting, the U.S. State Department announced that the Guatemalan government would “buy from the Defense Department $6.3 million worth of spare parts and other equipment for its air force, mostly to rehabilitate American-made helicopters for use against guerrillas,” according to the New York Times.[95]  The administration also quietly arranged the sale of 23 Bell helicopters to the government, worth close to $25 million, by reclassifying them as nonmilitary hardware.  Upon receiving them, the Guatemalan military immediately outfitted them with machine guns.  Furthermore, notes Cynthia Brown, “Between January and March 1982, more than twenty Guatemalan air force pilots came to Texas for flight training and received advice on how to mount the guns.”  The Reagan administration also arranged for multilateral loan agencies to provide Guatemala with $397 million in economic assistance between July 1981 and September 1984.[96]
According to the investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who was in Guatemala in 1982, “There were actual U.S. military personnel in Guatemala, working with the army as they were doing the massacres.  I interviewed one of them, a Green Beret captain, Jesse García, and … I actually went on a maneuver with him.  And he described how his instruction included how to destroy towns.”  Nairn also notes that CIA personnel were working with Guatemala’s military intelligence “which coordinated the assassinations and disappearances.”  Many of the Guatemalan intelligence officers “were carried on the payroll of the CIA.”[97]
In August 1985, following years of pressure by the Reagan administration, Congress lifted the seven-year-old ban on military aid to the Guatemalan government, subject to administration certification that human rights were improving.  The administration duly certified that progress was being made, despite all evidence to the contrary, and Congress authorized $109.5 million in economic and military aid to the Guatemalan government for fiscal year 1986, and another $117 million in 1987.[98]

Democratization and peace accords

In August 1983, Montt was deposed and replaced with another general.  Political reforms moved forward, in part to dissuade popular organizations and political parties from allying with the revolutionary left.  A constituent assembly was elected in 1984, which in turn produced a new constitution in 1985.  Elections for president, Congress, and municipalities took place late in 1985.  Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo won the presidency and his Christian Democratic Party won the majority of congressional seats.  The Cezero government enlarged the political space for civil society groups and parties to operate, but it offered little in the way of economic improvement and was unable to curb the human rights abuses of Guatemalan security forces.  Several human rights groups denounced continuing army and police targeting of labor activists, union members, students, religious workers, political party leaders, and human rights advocates.
In 1990, Guatemala held elections again with new political parties participating.  Jorge Serano Elías, a former cabinet member during the presidency of Ríos Montt and candidate of the Solidarity Action Movement (MAS) party, won the election.  When economic troubles worsened under Serano, he attempted an autogolpe in 1993, in which he dissolved the Supreme Court and Congress, and shut down the press.  The organized civil society groups protested this retreat from democracy.  With pressure from the U.S., the Organization of American States, and other international actors, the Guatemalan military removed Serrano by invoking the terms of the 1985 constitution.[99]  The Guatemalan Congress then appointed an interim president, Ramiro de León, and passed further constitutional reforms.

Guatemalan women warming tortillas, part of a group of 46,000 Guatemalan refugees at a camp in the state of Campeche, Mexico, July 7, 1984 (AP)

Under President de León, the Guatemalan government began peace negotiations in earnest.  With the Cold War over, the U.S. no longer had any interest in sustaining the war. Assisted by the United Nations, representatives from different political parties, non-government organizations, and indigenous groups negotiated many issues associated with the war, including refugee resettlement and indigenous rights.  In 1995, Guatemala held elections again, and Alvaro Arzú beat out Ríos Montt, then worked diligently to move the peace process forward.  In March 1996, a cease-fire was declared between the URNG (Unidad Revolucionario Nacional Guatemalteco, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) and the army, and agreements were reached shortly thereafter that severely limited the authority of the military and replaced the national police.

The historic peace agreement, The Final Peace Accord in Guatemala City, was signed on December 29, 1996, effectively ending the 36-year civil war.  The war had taken a great toll, as Guatemala was more impoverished in the 1990s than it had been the decade before.  Moreover, many armed actors remained.  Demonstrating that a violent culture still existed, on April 26, 1998, two days after the Catholic Church announced the release of its report on victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, Guatemala: Nunca Más, Archbishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was killed by officers of the Guatemalan army.
The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) report of 1999 established that 200,000 Guatemalans had died in the civil war and that 83% of “fully identified victims were Mayan.” The commission reported that “state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the [human rights] violations documented by the CEH,” while leftist rebels were responsible for 3% of the violations.[100]   In 2001, in the first trial in a civilian court of members of the military in Guatemalan history, three Army officers were convicted for his murder.

Rigoberta Menchú, born in Quiché, Guatemala, to indigenous Mayan parents, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work in human rights

Guatemala is the first Latin American country to place a former president on trial for genocide.  In 2011, Ríos Montt was placed under house arrest while awaiting trial.  On May 10, 2013, in Guatemala City, a three-judge trial court convicted Ríos Montt of crimes against humanity and genocide for ordering the murder of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans.[101]  The six-week trial drew the testimony of over 90 witnesses, dozens of forensic and other experts who presented documentary and other evidence.  Prosecutors presented a month of chilling testimony from survivors of army massacres carried out 30 years earlier during one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s long civil war.  Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison.  His case, however, was overturned on May 20 and he was ordered to be retried in 2017.

Although Montt will not likely serve time in prison, this is the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a national, as distinct from an international, court.  The trial is an important milestone in holding political and military leaders accountable for international crimes.  For Guatemalans, it was an opportunity to address their nation’s violent past and move toward a more peaceful, politically inclusive, and democratic future.
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V. Nicaragua

The United States has a long history of intervening in Nicaraguan affairs.  Early in the 20th century, Nicaragua was declared a “protectorate” of the United States.  Governments that the U.S. recognized stayed in power; those disfavored did not.  During a lengthy occupation from December 1926 to January 1933, the U.S. organized and trained a Guardia Nacional and chose Anastasio Somoza García to lead it.  Three years after U.S. troops departed, Somoza seized control of the government.  He created a family dynasty that dominated Nicaragua for the next 43 years.  U.S. aid to the Somoza government began to flow after World War II.  Between 1946 and 1978, Nicaragua received about $350 million in direct U.S. economic and military aid.  Hundreds of national guardsmen were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas.[102]  Private U.S. investments in Nicaragua were not large, but Cold War political ties were strong.  The CIA used the country as a staging ground for interventions in Guatemala and Cuba.
As in El Salvador and Guatemala, the combination of deepening poverty, economic inequality, government authoritarianism, and repression of reform provided fertile soil for revolution.  The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was founded in 1961, inspired by socialist idealism, the Cuban Revolution, and the anti-imperialist example of Augusto Sandino, who led a rebellion against U.S. occupation from 1927 to 1933 (see “Yankee Imperialism,” 1901-1934 essay).  The FSLN remained small and ineffectual until the latter half of the 1970s, when popular opposition to the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle (nephew of the first Somoza) gained momentum.  Somoza alienated all classes through his graft and election fraud.[103]  In the aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck Managua on December 23, 1972, killing 18,000 people and leveling the center of the city, Somoza diverted much of the international aid to his profit-making businesses.  Even the elite Superior Council for Private Enterprise came out against Somoza’s candidacy for president in 1974.  Somoza was nevertheless re-elected in what was commonly regarded as another fraudulent election.

President Somoza examining damage from the earthquake, Dec. 24, 1972

The murder of a popular newspaper publisher, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, on January 10, 1978, presumably by Somoza’s thugs, marked the beginning of an eighteen-month insurrectionary period.  Chamorro had been a fervent advocate of democracy and the most likely candidate to succeed Somoza.  The Carter administration pressured Somoza to step down, but he refused, calculating that the U.S. would support him if the only other option was the FSLN.  This proved to be an error, as the Carter administration cut off new aid to Nicaragua in the 1979 budget and blocked pending arms deliveries.[104]

In early 1979,  the FSLN united its three factions (distinguished by their different strategies for achieving revolutionary victory) and established a nine-person directorate led by Daniel Ortega.  Between February and July 1979, FSLN fighters increased in number from about 2,500 to 5,000, and proceeded to ‘liberate” towns and regions.  Somoza’s National Guard, aided by Argentine security forces, responded with greater force, resulting in many civilian casualties.  In late May, the FSLN launched its final offensive.  On July 17, Somoza left the country.  Two days later, Sandinista guerrillas marched into Managua amidst cheers and celebration.  The revolution had cost the lives of some 50,000 Nicaraguans.[105]

The Sandinista program

The Sandinista literacy campaign combined reading skills with promoting the FSLN – founder Carlos Fonseca’s picture is on the wall (photo by Alice Bag)

The most daunting and immediate problem facing the new Sandinista government was an impoverished economy devastated by war.  With the treasury left bankrupt by the Somoza government, the FSLN appealed for international assistance and encouraged Sandinismo at home, a spirit of cooperation and volunteerism in rebuilding the country.  FSLN leaders were intent on creating a socialist-oriented economic system that would meet the basic needs of the majority, but they did not regard the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc countries, or Cuba as appropriate economic models.  Sandinista Nicaragua was to be a new socialist experiment, allowing for individual ownership and private enterprise.  Daniel Ortega later claimed that “it is the Sandinista Revolution which invented perestroika,” the reform model adopted by the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the latter half of the 1980s.  The FSLN directorate, being of mixed class origin itself, was decidedly pragmatic in its approach to reform.[106]

“Your milk is irreplaceable, and it comes with love.” FSLN government billboard counters the aggressive marketing of Nestle’s infant formula (photo by Bill Becker)

Initial FSLN programs focused on literacy, land reform, and health.  From March to August 1980, the FSLN government coordinated a highly successful literacy campaign that involved over 100,000 volunteers who taught some 400,000 people to read and write.  The country’s illiteracy rate dropped from 50% to 13% of the population.  In 1981, the government instituted a new Agrarian Reform law, designed to redistribute land to over 100,000 campesinos (much of the land was expropriated from Somoza’s supporters who left the country).  This was followed by a public health campaign consisting of sanitation measures, mass vaccinations, nutritional programs, encouragement of breast-feeding, the training of more doctors, and health education.  One result was that infant mortality dramatically declined within a few years, earning praise from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Partly because of better health care, Nicaragua’s population rapidly increased, from 2.5 million in 1978 to 3.2 million in 1985, a 28% increase, which strained the economy.[107]

A key demand of the Nicaraguan people in the wake of Somoza’s ouster was free and fair elections.  FSLN leaders were well aware of this demand but reluctant to subject themselves to a popular vote before their reform programs could prove their value.  In the meantime, they sought to assure their party’s supremacy in the new Council of State, which opened on May 4, 1980, by reserving a majority of seats for representatives of FSLN mass organizations.  This action prompted two members of the five-member Junta (the official governing body in Nicaragua) to resign in protest – Alfonso Robelo Callejas, a businessman, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, wife of the martyred publisher.  In August 1980, the FSLN directorate announced that national elections would be held for the presidency and national assembly within five years.  Despite misgivings, the FSLN proceeded to create a multiparty political system in which its leadership and program were not guaranteed.[108]
The FSLN leadership followed the Cuban model in its literacy and health care campaigns but diverged significantly in other areas:  the establishment of a mixed economy and democratic institutions, the outlawing of the death penalty (setting a maximum prison term of thirty years), and support for freedom of worship.  Fidel Castro, the leftist dictator of Cuba, had been a mentor to the mostly youthful FSLN leaders during the revolution, encouraging them to unite their three factions, yet he fully supported the independent direction of the Sandinista government.  On a visit to Managua to witness the inauguration of Daniel Ortega as president in January 1985, he expressed support for Nicaragua’s political pluralism, saying, “Each revolution is different from the others.”[109]

Christian Nativity mural at Batahola Norte Community Center in Managua emphasizes the sharing of goods

On October 7, 1980, the FSLN National Directorate issued an official communiqué on religion that guaranteed the inalienable right of citizens to profess their religious beliefs and the right of churches to operate schools and conduct their activities free of government interference.  The conservative Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo was not appeased by this declaration, however, believing that the FSLN was intent on undermining the Catholic Church hierarchy and expanding the “popular church.”  The popular church emerged in the late 1960s in conjunction with the liberation theology movement.  There was tension, in other words, between conservative and progressive factions of the Catholic Church.  Three Nicaraguan priests associated with liberation theology, Miguel d’Escoto and Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, served in the FSLN government.[110]

The Sandinista leadership did not expect a counter-revolutionary war at the outset, despite the fact that some 3,000 former National Guardsmen had fled to nearby countries in the last days of the revolution.  In May 1980, defense minister Tomás Borge Martínez announced the existence of thirty-two counter-revolutionary camps in Honduras.  The Argentine security forces that had aided Somoza in his final days were on hand in Honduras and Guatemala to help the counterrevolutionary “Contras” get organized.  The “honeymoon” period following the Revolution was over and the FSLN government began to take a harder line toward its political opponents, fearing conspiratorial ties with the Contras or the CIA.[111]

Initial U.S. relations with the Sandinista government

On August 23, 1979, thirty-five days after the Sandinista triumph, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Lawrence A. Pezzullo sent a twelve-page memorandum to the State Department, assessing the FSLN government and recommending U.S. actions.  The long telegram gave no indication that the new Sandinista government constituted a threat to the U.S.:

The Sandinista movement represents a societal consensus that a radical change was needed in Nicaragua…. The broad outlines of “Sandinismo” have already been defined by its leaders.  It includes a commitment to a democratic form, a compassionate attitude toward its enemies, defense of human rights, respect for private property, a commitment to allow the private sector to be part of a mixed economy, a commitment to freedom of expression and of the press and, in foreign policy, a desire to have good relations with all countries while pursuing a non-aligned posture…. It includes a strong Christian element which may explain the very compassionate approach taken toward former enemies.

Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, right, and FSLN Defense Minister Tomás Borge in 1979 (New York Times)

Regarding the influence of Cuba, Pezzullo observed, “There is no reason to believe that the Cuban model is more attractive than any other…. Cuba will be influential in Nicaragua only insofar as its contributions are acceptable to the Nicaraguans.”  He noted that “Cuban involvement thus far publicly has been limited to the supply of medical personnel and equipment” and other humanitarian assistance.  On the issue of human rights, Pezzullo wrote, “We are not aware of any press reports of systematic violations of human rights of the new government.  On the contrary, most stories expressed wonderment at the peacefulness of the transition.”  Pezzullo described in detail the “grave economic crisis” in the country, including “an enormous foreign debt” inherited from the Somoza government and a business community “bereft of funds and suffering serious losses during the insurrection.”  He concluded his report with a recommendation to assist the struggling FSLN government:

Realistically, we face only one option: to continue our economic and political support to the Nicaraguan people and government so that they can pursue their own destiny in a peaceful and democratic manner. We welcome the repeated assurances from the GRN [Government of National Reconstruction] of their willingness to establish close and friendly relations with the U.S.  We have no moral alternative but to reciprocate generously with a helping hand to a friendly people in economic distress.[112]

Daniel Ortega, Alfonso Robelo and Sergio Ramirez -- were accorded the unusual courtesy of a 30-minute White House meeting that included some of the administration's highest-ranking officials and that ended with handshakes and posing for pictures in the White House Rose Garden. Joining Carter at the meeting were Vice President Mondale, National Security Affairs Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and other representatives of the State Department and White House staff.

President Jimmy Carter invited three Nicaraguan junta members for a cordial visit to the White House on Sept. 24, 1979. Foreground, left to right: Alfonso Robelo, Carter, Daniel Ortega, and Sergio Ramirez

The Carter administration only partly embraced Pezzullo’s recommendations. It provided $20 million in emergency aid and economic assistance to the new Sandinista government, but at the same time secretly authorized covert aid to dissident political groups within Nicaragua.  In May 1980, Congress approved a $75 million aid package that included $70 million in loans, of which 60% was reserved for the private sector.[113]  The aid package was designed as a carrot to encourage economic moderation (limited state control of property and business enterprises), political pluralism, and ties with the West rather than the Soviet bloc.

In June 1980, House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-TX) traveled to Nicaragua at the behest of President Carter.  After meeting with Junta members Daniel Ortega and other Nicaraguan leaders, Wright noted that prospects for democracy and moderate reform in Nicaragua looked promising.[114]  In January 1981, three liberal Democratic members of Congress, Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Robert Edgar of Pennsylvania, toured Nicaragua and met with FSLN leaders.  A follow-up report written by Studds stated that the Sandinistas’ main “accomplishment has been to create within Nicaragua a universal commitment to greater social equity and concern for the country’s multitude of poor, ill-clothed, ill-fed and sick people.  There is a fully shared sense the revolution is necessary and just.”[115]

Relations between the two countries took a downturn in mid-January 1981 when the Carter administration received reports of arms transfers to Salvadoran guerrillas.  The administration suspended further distribution of the $75 million aid package to Nicaragua pending an investigation.  On February 14, Ambassador Pezzullo met with Junta leaders Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez to discuss the issue.  Ortega said that a firm decision had been taken by the FSLN Directorate to “not permit use of our territory for the transit of arms to El Salvador” and that orders had been given to all units to interdict any such arms traffic.  Ortega added, “We understand your concerns about El Salvador and we will not risk our revolution for an uncertain victory in El Salvador.”[116]

The U.S.-backed counterrevolution

As Nicaragua moved to the left under the FSLN government, the United States moved to the right under the Reagan administration and its New Right supporters.  The Republican Party platform of 1980 deplored “the Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua and the Marxist attempts to destabilize El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”  It implicitly endorsed the idea of ousting the Sandinistas, asserting that “we will support the efforts of the Nicaraguan people to establish a free and independent government.”  This was an extraordinary statement, as the U.S. had been an accomplice in the suppression of freedom and democracy under the Somoza dynasty for 43 years.

Sergio Ramírez

Sergio Ramírez, noted Nicaraguan writer and Junta member (elected vice-president in 1984), perceived the situation differently.  Nicaragua’s alleged “export of revolution” was not based on encouraging violent revolution abroad but rather on promoting an alternative to the capitalist model of permanent underdevelopment in Latin America. “How can one prevent a peasant from another Central American country from hearing, from finding out, from realizing that in Nicaragua land is given to other poor and barefoot peasants like him? . . . In this sense, we export our revolution.”[117]

President Ronald Reagan, upon entering the White House in January 1981, was intent on ousting the Sandinista government and undermining its socialist-oriented economic experiment.  Yet, as many members of Congress did not view the Sandinista government as a national security threat, Reagan used the issue of arms transfers as a wedge to build a counter-revolutionary army in Nicaragua – the Contras.  On March 9, 1981, he signed a secret Presidential Finding authorizing the CIA to organize a guerrilla force for the purpose of interdicting weapons transfers from Nicaragua to El Salvador.[118]  The House Committee on Intelligence secretly approved this operation but expressly forbade the CIA from undertaking activities “for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras.”[119]

With the Contras funded on this basis, the Reagan administration continued to accuse the Sandinistas of transferring arms despite a paucity of evidence to back the charge.  A report by the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Evaluation in September 1982 concluded that administration claims of arms transfers were “flawed by several instances of overstatement and overinterpretation.”[120]  David MacMichael a CIA analyst specializing in the Western Hemisphere from 1981 to 1983, resigned from the CIA rather than falsify reports alleging Sandinista arms transfers.  A year after leaving, MacMichael went public, telling the New York Times in July 1984 that “the Administration and the C.I.A. have systematically misrepresented Nicaraguan involvement in the supply of arms to Salvadoran guerrillas to justify its efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government.”[121]

Enrique Bermúdez Varela (photo from Nicaragua Hoy)

In August 1981, Duane R. Clarridge, the new division chief for CIA operations in Latin America, met with Contra leaders and their Argentine advisers in Honduras to formally establish the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main Contra fighting force.  Contra attacks began in earnest in March 1982.  According to a Defense Intelligence Report, “In the 100 day period from 14 March to 21 June, at least 106 insurgent incidents occurred within Nicaragua.”[122]  Led in the field by former National Guardsman Col. Enrique Bermúdez, the FDN recruited former National Guardsmen and peasants from northern highlands.  Some of these poor farmers joined for pay, generously provided by the U.S. government; some, because of religious fears of Marxism; and some, in response to the FSLN government’s economic policies, which established price and market controls.  Some peasants were also kidnapped by the Contras and forced to serve, fearing retribution against their families.[123]

On the Atlantic Coast, a separate wing of the Contra movement formed among Miskito, Sumu, and Rama ethnic communities. These Afro-Caribbean cultures had long been at odds with the “Spaniard” majority to the west and some leaders saw an opportunity for independence, or at least political autonomy, in the aftermath Sandinista Revolution. A Contra attack on a Sandinista military outpost in the Río Coco region near Honduras in December 1981 prompted the FSLN government to relocate some 8,500 Miskitos and Sumus into a resettlement camp fifty miles south of the border.  The forced removal along with FSLN security sweeps, arrests, and unauthorized extrajudicial killings in 1982 led to open war.  The FSLN government belatedly recognized its errors and began a series of negotiations in late 1983 that eventually led to the return of indigenous peoples to their lands in 1985, and to an Autonomy Statute enacted in September 1987, establishing a large measure of self-rule for the peoples of the Atlantic Coast.[124]

Former Sandinista Comandante Cero refused to align his group with the FDR, which was headed by former National Guardsmen of the Somoza regime.

A third Contra faction emerged to the south.  Sandinista military hero Edén Pastora Gómez, known as Comandante Cero, defected in July 1981 and was recruited by the CIA.  In April 1982, he announced via radio that he was at war with the Sandinistas.  His small band of guerrilla fighters based in Costa Rica remained independent of the larger, Honduran-based FDN, despite repeated attempts by Washington to bring the two factions together.  Pastora abandoned the fight in 1986 and returned to Nicaragua in 1989.

Contra operations were designed not only to destroy the economic basis of Sandinista Nicaragua, but also to force the government to become more authoritarian, suppressing civil liberties and instituting conscription.  The goal was to undermine both popular support within Nicaragua and international aid from Western Europe.  The Reagan administration increased the economic pressure on May 1, 1985, announcing an embargo against Nicaragua – cutting off all U.S. trade.  Although the embargo hurt private business owners in the country, the administration calculated that it would further depress the Nicaraguan economy and undermine popular support for the Sandinistas.

Another aspect of the Reagan administration’s strategy was to keep the FSLN government constantly on edge and force it to use scarce resources for military rather than social welfare purposes.  In what appeared to be preparation for a direct U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, the U.S. conducted a series of military exercises in the region and constructed military bases and airfields in Honduras.  The Pentagon’s Big Pine II, a six-month military exercise lasting from September 1983 to February 1984, involved 5,000 U.S. soldiers, nineteen ships, and over two hundred jet fighters.  The U.S. furthermore employed CIA operatives to mine Nicaraguan harbors and destroy oil storage facilities in early 1984.  The mines damaged seven vessels owned by six different nations.  Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called it “an act of international terrorism.”[125]

Contra terrorism

FDR Contra group in Honduras plans its next attack, March 1988

The FDN, the main Contra force, rarely engaged the FSLN military directly. Its preferred method of “warfare” was to attack weakly defended rural communities deemed pro-Sandinista and kill government civilian workers — doctors, nurses, educators, and local officials.  Such tactics were utterly repugnant to the vast majority of Nicaraguans, as noted by the new U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Anthony Quainton. In a memo dated August 13, 1983, regarding “allegations of a Contra massacre,” the ambassador informed the State Department that Nicaraguan newspapers were full of photographs and eyewitness accounts of a recent Contra ambush of a bus carrying eighteen civilians near the town of Jinotega two days earlier.  Quainton commented, “Incidents such as this in which unarmed civilians, including women and children, are victims provide invaluable grist for the Sandinista propaganda mill. Reports of such activities revive memories of the brutality of Somoza’s National Guard.”[126]

The CIA “assassination manual,” authorized by CIA supervisor Duane Clarridge, provided illustrated instructions in Spanish on how to make a bomb and blow up a local police station. Other pages explained how to assassinate victims with a rope, wire, belt, pistol, rifle, shotgun, machine gun, or explosives.

Yet Contra attacks on civilians were not occasional incidents.  They were the main “war” strategy.  Contras roamed the rural areas, attacking towns and farming villages, and murdering anyone suspected of being a government worker or Sandinista supporter.  Contra atrocities were reported by American missionaries in Nicaragua, but American correspondents initially cited them only as allegations.  This changed in October 1984 with the discovery of a CIA “assassination manual.”  Titled “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare,” the 134-page manual was published in Spanish and distributed to groups of Contras.  It advised the guerrillas to avoid “explicit terror” against the general population in favor of the “selective use of violence” against Nicaraguan officials, judges, security officers, and others.  “If possible, professional criminals should be hired to carry out specific selective ‘jobs,’” the manual stated.[127]

Upon learning of the manual, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented, “The administration has launched an aggressive anti-terrorism campaign, and yet we seem to be engaged in the very same terrorist activities which we deplore elsewhere.”[128]  The Reagan administration attempted damage-control by claiming that the manual had been produced by a low-level CIA employee with no official authorization.
“It’s clear we have a situation where the Contra targets are primarily and almost exclusively civilians. . . . Should Congress approve the administration’s request for Contra aid, we would become knowing accomplices to the crimes of the Contras.”
— Rep. Samuel Gejdenson, March 1985
In early March 1985, Reed Brody, former Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York, released a report documenting twenty-eight cases of Contra attacks on Nicaraguan civilians between September 1984 and January 1985, based on the sworn affidavits of 145 witnesses.  The New York Times sent reporters to Nicaraguan war zones to interview four of Brody’s witnesses, selected randomly.  All confirmed their testimony.[129]  Rep. Samuel Gejdenson, Democrat of Connecticut and chair of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, commented, “It’s clear we have a situation where the Contra targets are primarily and almost exclusively civilians.” He furthermore warned, “Should Congress approve the administration’s request for Contra aid, we would become knowing accomplices to the crimes of the Contras.”[130]
In mid-April 1985, Gejdenson’s subcommittee held a three-day hearing on the issue.  Among those testifying was Sister Nancy Donovan, a Maryknoll Sister who had been kidnapped by the Contras on January 8, 1985, and held at gunpoint for a day.  Donovan offered detailed evidence of recent Contra attacks, describing the sequence of events and names of those killed, wounded, or kidnapped.  Former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner also testified, reluctantly acknowledging Contra terrorism:

Rightly or wrongly, there are many of us today who see the actions of the Contras as being beneath the ethical standards we would like the United States to employ. And specifically, I believe it is irrefutable that a number of the Contras’ actions have to be characterized as terrorism, as State-supported terrorism. Until we put this issue of the Contras behind us, I believe we are going to have a deeper controversy in our body politic than is healthy. And I believe that the CIA already has been badly hurt by its involvement with the Contras, and will be hurt more if we continue.[131]

Former Contra director Edgar Chamorro in 1990 (photo by Bill Becker)

The CIA director’s admission was reinforced by former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro, who stated in a letter to the New York Times in January 1986, “During my four years as a ‘Contra’ director, it was premeditated policy to terrorize civilian noncombatants to prevent them from cooperating with the Government.  Hundreds of civilian murders, tortures, and rapes were committed in pursuit of this policy, of which the ‘Contra’ leaders and their C.I.A. superiors were well aware.”[132]

President Reagan denied all charges and discounted all evidence of Contra terrorism, labeling it “Sandinista propaganda.”  At a press conference on June 13, 1986, he told reporters that Contra attacks against civilians were not to be believed, as “much of this we have found is a part of a disinformation campaign tending to discredit them.”[133]

Administration rationales

President Reagan delivers his first major address on Central America at the Capitol, April 27, 1983, with Vice-President George Bush and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (right) behind him (Ronald Reagan Library)

The U.S. war against Nicaragua began in secret, but once exposed in the media, the Reagan administration went all out to win public and Congressional approval.  The press began to get wind of the Contra War in early 1982.  Rumors swirled for a time before nine-page cover story in Newsweek (November 8, 1982) confirmed its existence.  For the next four years, the Reagan administration conducted an intensive propaganda campaign to convince the public and Congress that the Contras deserved their support.  President Reagan himself delivered three nationally televised addresses on Central America or Nicaragua (April 27, 1983, May 9, 1984, and March 16, 1986) and twenty-two radio addresses with a major focus on Nicaragua.  According to political scientist Cynthia Arnson, “Reagan devoted more speeches to Nicaragua than to any other single topic.”[134]  Top administration officials also made speeches, the State Department issued a series of White Papers, and the administration created two new “public diplomacy” agencies were in 1983 to promote its views far and wide, the White House Outreach Group and the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (S/LPD).

The administration went beyond the law in propagating its views.  The S/LPD was forced to shut down in late 1987 after an investigation by the General Accounting Office concluded that it had engaged “in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies.”[135]  A subsequent report by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, dated September 7, 1988, stated that S/LPD had employed “groups of private citizens outside the government” which had “raised money for Contra weapons, lobbied the Congress, ran sophisticated media campaigns in targeted Congressional districts, and worked with S/LPD to influence American public opinion through manipulation of the American press.”[136]
The major themes and arguments of the administration fell into three main categories: security issues, the nature of the Sandinista government, and the role of the Contras.
The Reagan administration had ample opportunity to resolve its security concerns through negotiation, but peaceful co-existence with Sandinista Nicaragua was not its goal.  Ambassador Pezzullo’s last attempt at diplomacy before leaving his post in August 1981 involved setting up talks between Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders and Sandinista officials in Managua on August 12-13.  The two negotiating parties succeeded in establishing an equation in which Nicaragua would guarantee an end to arms transfers to Salvadoran guerrillas and limit the size of Nicaraguan armed forces in exchange for a pledge of non-intervention from the United States.  Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d’Escoto proposed a joint international patrol along the Honduras-Nicaraguan border to verify that no arms were being transferred.  Senior Reagan administration officials, however, would have nothing to do with either the Enders agreement or d’Escoto’s practical suggestion, as they were organizing the Contras into military units at that very time.

Time magazine, March 31, 1986

Although there was no legal justification whatsoever for U.S. meddling in Nicaragua, Reagan made it seem so by focusing on the alleged evils of the Sandinista government.  “There seems to be no crime to which the Sandinistas will not stoop – this is an outlaw regime,” declared Reagan in a televised address to the nation on March 16, 1986.  “Could there be any greater tragedy than for us to sit back and permit this cancer to spread, leaving my successor to face far more agonizing decisions in the years ahead?”[137]  The purpose of such rhetoric was to delegitimize the Sandinista government in order to justify its overthrow.  Administration officials repeatedly denounced the Sandinista government as totalitarianism, in conformity with Cold War ideology, and also accused the government of terrorism and drug running.  S/LPD furthermore compiled a list of negative words and phrases for administration officials to use whenever referring to Nicaragua.[138]

Many U.S. scholars of Latin America challenged the administration’s depiction of Sandinista Nicaragua.  Writing in journals such as the Journal of Latin American Studies, Latin American Perspectives, Latin American Research Review, and Report on the Americas, they described the Sandinista government’s assistance to privately owned farms, popular support for Sandinista programs, and the diversity of political parties within Nicaragua.  Thomas W. Walker, in Reagan versus the Sandinistas: The Undeclared War on Nicaragua (1987), wrote that most of the Reagan administration’s “allegations were either completely groundless or very nearly so…. Far from being a coterie of wild-eyed ideologues, the Sandinistas behaved in a pragmatic and indeed moderate fashion throughout the first seven years.”[139]
One of the many false claims made by the Reagan administration was that the Sandinista government was persecuting Nicaraguan Jews.  Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, having twice visited Nicaragua, felt obliged to refute this claim in an opinion column in the Philadelphia Daily News in December 1984.  “No Jew I met in Nicaragua complained about anti-Semitism,” he wrote.  “In fact, they most vigorously rejected the charge. The government doesn’t persecute Catholics or Protestants either. It does challenge, and sometimes expels, those who, in religious garb, conduct counter-revolutionary activities.” Addressing the U.S. role in Nicaragua, Rabbi Brickner asserted, “America is waging an illegal and an unjust war against the sovereign nation of Nicaragua.” This, he said, “is sinful. Ought not that be a matter of Jewish concern?”[140]

Daniel Ortega campaigns for president in downtown Managua, Nov. 1, 1984 (Pat Hamilton, AP)

The Reagan administration’s public pronouncements that Sandinista Nicaragua must embrace democracy were all for show.  The administration did not want to see democracy flourish in Nicaragua if the people’s choice was the FSLN party.  Alejandro Bandaña, an official in the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put the matter succinctly:  “The U.S. would support the results of a ‘free’ election only if its own side won.”[141]  The U.S.-backed counterrevolution, moreover, was designed to produce repression rather than openness, forcing the Sandinista government into a position of restricting freedoms and censoring the press in order to maintain security (the U.S. acted similarly in World War I, enacting the Espionage and Sedition acts, and in World War II, incarcerating Japanese-American citizens).  To the degree that the FSLN leadership was seen as illegitimate and oppressive, the administration could claim to be freeing the Nicaraguan people from “totalitarian” rule.

Virgilio Godoy, founder of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), campaigning in the 1984 presidential election (the PLI won 9.6% of the vote)

Notwithstanding U.S. propaganda, the Sandinista government developed an electoral system modeled on European multiparty systems and held national elections on November 4, 1984.  The Reagan administration tried to undermine the elections by pressuring its favored presidential candidate, Arturo Cruz, to pull out of the race and declare the elections unfair.[142]  On the very day of the elections, moreover, the administration “revealed” to the press that Soviet fighter planes were arriving in Nicaragua.  The charge was utterly baseless but nonetheless served to divert U.S. media attention.  Administration officials declared on that same day that “any agreement on security issues must be linked to moves toward democratic rule,” implying that no democratic elections were taking place.[143]

Daniel Ortega is sworn in as president of Nicaragua in January 1985

In fact, seven parties participated in the elections.  The FSLN won 63% of the vote and 61 of 90 seats in the national assembly.  Three non-Marxist parties, including Virgilio Godoy’s PLI party, won a total 29 seats.  Three socialist and communist parties (not associated with the FSLN) won a total of six seats.  The elections were observed by some 1,000 foreign journalists and 450 official observers from thirty-five countries.[144]  Among the official observers were fifteen U.S. scholars affiliated with the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).  LASA delegates met with representatives of all political parties, electoral officials, government officials, and leaders from different sectors of society during their week-long stay.  The final LASA report concluded:

Clearly, the Nicaraguan electoral process in 1984 was manipulated, as the U.S. Government so often charged.  However, the manipulation was not the work of the Sandinistas – who had every interest in making these elections as demonstrably fair, pluralistic, and competitive as possible – but of the Reagan Administration, whose interest apparently was in making the elections seem as unfair, ideologically one-sided, and uncompetitive as possible.[145]

The College Republican National Committee came up with a different way of selling the Contras in this fundraising ad for its “Save the Contras” campaign in 1985 (Congress Iran-Contra Depositions, v. 22, 855)

In contrast to the dark, foreboding picture drawn of the Sandinistas, the administration painted the Contras in the bright colors of American idealism.  Administration officials grafted onto the Contras what many believed to be the global mission of the United States – to promote freedom and democracy.  The Contras were hailed as democratic reformers, “freedom fighters,” heroes, and “our brothers.”  President Reagan told the American people at various times that it was “our moral responsibility” to aid the Contras; that the U.S. had the “moral authority” to do so; that subduing the Sandinistas constituted “a great moral challenge for the entire free world”; and that the Contras were the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”  The overall theme for propagation was summarized in an S/LPD “Public Diplomacy Action Plan” dated March 12, 1985:  “The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters are fighters for freedom in the American tradition; FSLN are evil.”[146]

Once the administration had established these themes, it was loath to alter them, as any acknowledgement of improvement in the security situation, progress in democracy, or evidence of Contra atrocities would weaken its case for Contra aid before Congress and the public.  Beyond this, the administration offered no explanation as to why the U.S. supported the dictatorial Somoza dynasty for more than forty years, but was now presumably intent on establishing democracy in Nicaragua.  Nor did the administration recognize its actions against Nicaragua as foreign intervention.  Typical of the administration’s thinking was an S/LPD strategy paper in March 1984, which declared that the U.S. would not allow any “foreign inspired and supported insurgency” in Central America, as if the U.S.-supported Contra insurgency were not exactly that.  Similarly, in November 1987, President Reagan stated in his weekly radio address, without a hint of irony, that the Contra War was “a Nicaraguan conflict that should be resolved by Nicaraguans.”[147]

U.S. intervention in Honduras was also substantial.  The U.S. military appropriated large areas of the country for the construction of bases, military exercises, and the operations of the Contras.  The Honduran government officially denied the presence of the Contras, as this would make it subject to the very same charges that the U.S. was making against the Nicaraguan government – being a base of support for revolutionary groups.  The Reagan administration channeled millions of dollars worth of arms to Honduran security forces and paid for some 800 Honduran soldiers to attend classes on counterinsurgency warfare at the U.S. School of the Americas during the 1980s.  The net effect was to bolster repression in Honduras.  As anthropology professor Lesley Gill writes:

The military assistance strengthened right-wing elements, who, like their patrons in Washington, favored a military solution to the Central America conflicts, and who assumed the task of repressing domestic opposition.  Even though Honduras did not possess a major guerrilla insurgency, military hard-liners targeted students, unionists, and peasants, as well as anyone who belonged to political parties or groups considered leftist.  They also forcibly detained, tortured, and disappeared supporters of, or those believe to support, the Sandinista government or the Salvadoran guerrillas.[148]

Congress and U.S. public opinion

Opponents of Contra aid challenged the Reagan administration on a number of counts.  They argued that the root cause of revolutionary ferment lay in poverty, injustice, and long-standing U.S. support for repressive regimes in the region rather than “communist subversion.”  They challenged the administration’s secrecy and disregard for law, especially in the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, and cited evidence of Contra terrorism.  They warned that U.S. aid and advisers could lead to troop deployments and “another Vietnam,” an argument that resonated with the public.  They supported the diplomatic efforts of Latin American leaders to negotiate an end to the Central American wars and took note of the World Court decision in June 1986 that condemned U.S. aggression (see next subsection).  Missionaries and others familiar with developments in Nicaragua took the lead in challenging the administration’s diabolical image of Sandinista Nicaragua, and many vouched for the worthwhile programs of the FSLN government as well.

Maryknoll sister Peggy Healy

Among the prominent Congressional opponents of administration policies were Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts and Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, chair of the House Task Force on Nicaragua.  O’Neill attributed his views to his connection with the Maryknoll Catholic order.  As he told the New York Times (September 12, 1984), “I have great trust in that order. When the nuns and priests come through, I ask them questions . . . and I’m sure I get the truth.  I haven’t found any of these missionaries who aren’t absolutely opposed to this policy. . . . I think it’s disgraceful what the Nicaraguan rebels are doing, tearing down schools and health care centers and murdering the civilian population.”[149]  Among his contacts was Maryknoll sister Peggy Healy, a nurse practitioner and human rights advocate who had been working in Nicaragua.  She encouraged O’Neill to stand firm against Contra aid.

Rep. Bonior was often chosen to present the Democratic Party’s response to Reagan’s addresses on Central America.  He had traveled widely in the region and was fully aware of its tragic history (he was also a history major).  “The fact that we were arming and financing the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua was very, very disturbing to me,” said Bonior in an interview.  “I was opposed to this kind of imperialism.  Cold War proxies end up in wars in which people lose their lives.”  Another concern was administration illegalities.  “The drive to wage this war has led the administration to bypass our system of checks and balances, to ignore the Constitution of the United States, and to subvert the law of the land,” he told his colleagues.[150]  Bonior’s task force worked closely with the Central America Working Group, the lobbying arm of the Central America movement (see Section IV).

Rep. David Bonior

To the consternation of Reagan administration officials, public opinion tended toward the side of critics.  Public support for Contra aid never reached a majority and was more often two-to-one against it, according to polls taken over the course of the decade.  Surveys taken between April 1983 and June 1988 showed public support for Contra aid ranging from 25% to 29%, and opposition ranging from 56% to 58%, with one exception between July and September 1987, when the gap narrowed to six percentage points.

The public was particularly receptive to the argument that U.S. Central America policies could lead to “another Vietnam.”  When asked whether the U.S. should engage in direct military intervention in Nicaragua, public opposition ranged from 60% to 76% in Harris polls conducted between 1985 and 1987.[151]  Members of Congress who opposed Contra aid took heart in these polls and Central America movement activists took some credit for them.
Congress engaged in numerous heated debates on the issue of Contra aid during the 1980s.  The House of Representatives was about evenly divided on the issue, thus enabling a small group of “undecideds” to determine the outcome of periodic votes.  Particular events and compromise packages tipped the balance one way or the other.  Over the course of the decade, Congress vacillated between restricting the purpose of Contra aid, blocking it, approving it, and limiting it to “non-lethal” aid.
On December 8, 1982, Senator Harkin introduced an amendment to the 1983 Defense Appropriation bill that called for a cut-off of U.S. assistance to any group “carrying out military activities in or against Nicaragua.”  In the ensuing debate, it was revealed that the House Intelligence Committee had already secretly approved this restriction in April 1982.  Rep. Edward Boland, Democrat of Massachusetts and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, subsequently offered an amendment barring U.S. covert actions “for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.”  The amendment was approved and signed into law by President Reagan.  To get around this prohibition, Reagan signed a second Finding on September 19, 1983, that tweaked the rationale for Contra support from interdicting arms to making the Sandinistas cease their support for “regional insurgencies” and to bringing “the Sandinistas into meaningful negotiations and constructive, verifiable agreement with their neighbors on peace in the region.”[152]

Advertisement in the New York Times, March 16, 1986, signed by over 200 religious leaders

With the covert war now overt, the amount of U.S. aid to the Contras was a matter of Congressional policy.  Congress set a limit on $24 million in aid for fiscal year 1983.  In early 1984, however, revelations in the press that CIA agents had mined Nicaraguan harbors – an act of war – without Congressional knowledge or approval sparked outrage, even among some Republicans.  Congress cut off all U.S. aid to the Contras that year.  The Contras nonetheless continued to receive funding due to Lt. Col. Oliver North’s illegal operations out of the basement of the White House.  North, a National Security Council staff member, and his cohorts tapped hidden Pentagon funds, solicited money from other nations, including $32 million from Saudi Arabia between July 1984 and March 1985, and sold arms to Iran and used the profits to purchase arms for the Contras (Iran-Contra affair).[153]

In the spring of 1985, despite hearings on Contra atrocities, Congress reversed itself and approved $27 million in “nonlethal” aid to the Contras.  Factors influencing this shift included President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, the administration’s all-out media and lobbying campaign, and a trip to the Soviet Union by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, which some members of Congress viewed as an affront to the United States.  In June 1986, the Reagan administration won the political battle outright, as Congress approved $100 million in military and economic aid.  In the fall of 1986, however, the Iran-Contra affair began to unravel, placing the administration on the defensive.  From 1987 to 1990, Congress appropriated only “nonlethal” aid to the Contras, which nonetheless kept them in the field.  All told, direct U.S. aid to the Contras amounted to over $400 million.[154]

International diplomacy and the World Court

The Reagan administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations might well be labeled “scuttle diplomacy.”  In February 1982, Mexican President José López Portillo proposed an agreement whereby the Nicaraguan government would agree to limit its military forces and halt any arms transfers to Salvadoran rebels, and the United States would agree to close the Contra camps and not invade Nicaragua.  The European Parliament endorsed the Mexican proposal and over one hundred members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Reagan urging acceptance, but the Reagan administration rejected it.  According to political scientist Kenneth E. Sharpe, the Reagan administration was opposed to any negotiated settlement “that recognized the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government.  By destroying all other alternatives, the Contras were made to seem the only alternative.”[155]

The Rev. Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaraguan minister of foreign affairs (2nd from right), addresses the Security Council, May 9, 1983 (UN)

In January 1983, the foreign ministers of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama launched a regional peace initiative known as Contadora, named for the island off Panama where the diplomats met.  In September 1984, a breakthrough occurred when five Central American presidents agreed to a draft treaty that required the cessation of all outside support cease for “irregular forces and armed bands” and banned foreign military bases, schools, and exercises in the region.  “Prospects for the treaty seemed excellent at first,” noted political scientist Peter H. Smith. “The United Nations, the OAS, and the European Community all expressed their strong support,” but “Washington set out to scuttle the plan.”[156]  Caught off guard, the administration sent Secretary of State George Shultz to the capitals of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to pressure the respective leaders to upend the treaty.  Shultz succeeded in persuading Honduras to insist on adjustments to the treaty, which effectively destroyed it.

International Court of Justice official seal

Following the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by U.S. covert agents in April 1984, Nicaragua brought suit against the United States in the International Court of Justice, or World Court.  The Reagan administration informed the UN that it would not recognize the jurisdiction of the court in the matter, but nonetheless attempted to defend itself in the court of public opinion by arguing that its actions were consistent with the established principle of “collective defense,” alleging Nicaraguan arms transfers to Salvadoran rebels.

On June 27, 1986, the court ruled against the U.S. in a 142-page opinion, supported by twelve of the fifteen judges.  The ruling stated that “the evidence is insufficient to satisfy the Court that the Government of Nicaragua was responsible for any flow of arms.”  The court declared that “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the Contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua,” the U.S. was acting “in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State.”  The ruling obliged the U.S. to cease its support for the Contras and to make reparation payments amounting to $370 million “for all injury caused to Nicaragua.”[157]  Although the Reagan administration ignored the ruling, it was nonetheless a diplomatic coup for Nicaragua, as it clearly identified the U.S. as the aggressor and buttressed European and Latin American opposition to U.S. Central America policy.

Costa Rican President Óscar Arias

Renewed negotiations began in July 1985, when Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Peru formed the Contadora Support Group.  Together with the original Contadora nations, the eight governments represented 85% of the population of Latin America.  Diplomatic efforts eventually produced a peace treaty signed by five Central American presidents at Esquipulas, Guatemala, on August 7, 1987.  Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez played a key role in pressuring all sides to compromise.  The agreement required a cessation of all outside support for guerrilla forces and stipulated that the Sandinistas hold talks with the Contras.  Once again, the Reagan administration tried to sabotage the treaty.  Failing this, it simply ignored the stipulation that the U.S. end its support for the Contras.  According to Rep. James M. Jeffords, a moderate Republican Congressman from Vermont, “Our government undermined that agreement almost immediately.”[158]

Washington’s defensive diplomacy was accompanied by an Orwellian publicity campaign that proclaimed the administration’s ardent desire for a peaceful settlement, while blaming the Sandinista government for lack of progress at the negotiating table.  FSLN leaders, for their part, believed that they had made reasonable concessions.  They had guaranteed that there would be no arms transfers from Nicaragua and called for joint border patrols; they had pledged not to allow any Soviet or Cuban bases on Nicaraguan soil; and they had refrained from importing Soviet warplanes.  Beyond these concessions, however, they asserted the right to defend themselves against a foreign-supported insurgency operating out of bases in neighboring states.

Elliott Abrams, 1987 (AP)

When, at times, negotiations progressed despite administration intransigence, U.S. officials fell back on the fail-safe argument that the Sandinistas could not be trusted to carry out any agreement.  As the recently appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Elliot Abrams, said in August 1985, “It is preposterous to think we could sign a deal with the Sandinistas and expect it to be kept.”  Again in January 1988, a State Department official remarked, “Our basic strategy doesn’t change. It is to persuade Congress that Ortega cannot be trusted and there is a need to maintain [Contra] aid as an insurance policy.”  Negotiations, in other words, would never be allowed to undermine U.S. support for the Contras.[159]  The depiction of the Sandinistas as inherently evil, based on their alleged totalitarian ideology, allowed the administration to claim that negotiations were doomed to failure and thus forceful measures were the only answer.  The formula had been used in Vietnam and would be used again in Afghanistan (the Taliban) and Iraq (Saddam Hussein).

Western European influence
A large measure of international and transnational support for Sandinista Nicaragua came from Western Europe.  Western European leaders expressed their disagreement with U.S. policy by supporting the Contadora peace negotiations, endorsing adjudication by the World Court, opposing the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua, and offering material assistance to the Nicaraguan government (and encouraging democratic reform).
Public opinion in Western Europe supported these measures, as confirmed by a series of unpublished polls taken by the United States Information Agency (USIA).  A USIA survey in June-July 1984, for example, asked the citizens of four countries whether they approved or disapproved of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua.  The results in all cases showed high rates of disapproval as compared to approval:  44% to 14% in Great Britain; 40% to 9% in the Netherlands, 50% to 22% in Italy; and 44% to 6% in Spain.  The survey also found that that those who were better educated and more informed about Central America issues were more likely to oppose U.S. policies.[160]
The issue of U.S. policy in Central America became a concern in Western Europe just after a series of massive demonstrations took place between 1981 and 1983, protesting a NATO decision to deploy U.S. Pershing II and Cruise nuclear missiles in Western Europe.  The official purpose of these weapons was to deter a Soviet nuclear or conventional attack, but many in Europe saw them as a provocation. The Reagan administration’s Cold War ideological fanaticism – e.g., blaming the Soviets for all the social unrest in the world – and loose talk about demonstration bombs and a separate nuclear war in Europe furthermore incited fear and outrage.  Foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis, writing for the New York Times from Copenhagen (April 19, 1984), noted that “the peace movement has burgeoned here in the last two years,” with massive protest marches in Western Europe cities.  More recently, she wrote, U.S. “moves around Nicaragua” were giving President Reagan an “image of recklessness.”
When President Reagan visited Ireland on June 3, 1984, he was met with a protest march of some 3,000 to 5,000 people and given a lecture on diplomacy by Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald. According to the New York Times, the prime minister “implicitly rebuked the United States for its policy in Central America” and endorsed the Contadora negotiations. “With many of these Latin American countries,” said FitzGerald, “our people have close emotional ties through the work of our priests and nuns and lay helpers there, who seek to relieve the poverty of the people and to give them back their dignity.”[161]
Spain’s Foreign Minister, Fernando Moran, warned the U.S. in early 1985 that an invasion of Nicaragua would force Spain to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  This diplomatic warning was followed a few months later by massive demonstrations in Spanish cities against both NATO bases in Spain and U.S. policies toward Nicaragua.  The catalyst for the demonstrations was a visit to Spain by President Reagan on May 6, 1985.  An estimated one million Spaniards marched in “largely peaceful protests across Spain,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  “A Nicaraguan flag was tied to a tall pedestal topped by a statue of Christopher Columbus in Madrid’s central Colon Plaza, drawing wild cheers from what the police estimated were 75,000 protesters.”  Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez subtly indicated his opposition to the U.S. policy toward Nicaragua by welcoming Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to Spain the following weekend.[162]
Amsterdam was the site of the “First European Conference on City Linking with Nicaragua” in May 1988, attended by some 350 people from over fifteen countries.  One point of agreement among the activists East and West was that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had the right to control the destiny of other nations.  This point was the heart of a petition circulated by the Center for Peace and Democracy/East & West and signed by leading peace, labor, social justice, religious, and cultural figures in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere.  The first paragraph of the petition read:  “As opponents of the Cold War East and West we protest the Reagan Administration’s escalating war on Nicaragua.  The nature of the Nicaraguan regime is not the issue.  We defend the democratic right of every nation to self-determination in complete freedom from superpower control, whether that domination is justified by the Brezhnev doctrine in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, or by Reagan’s claims of U.S. special interests in Central America and the Caribbean.  The application of force against weaker nations blocks democratic social and political change, tightens the superpower’s grip on their respective blocs and spheres of influence, and fuels the arms race with catastrophic consequences for all of us.”[163]
The differences between U.S. and Western European leaders over Nicaragua had deep roots.  First, the devastation wrought by two world wars left Europeans with a legacy of realism about war and a strong desire to pursue diplomacy over war.  Leaders such as Willy Brandt led the way toward détente beginning in the mid-1950s, and many Western Europeans saw no reason why progress made along these lines in the 1970s should be abandoned because Americans had elected a conservative president in 1980.  Second, as militaristic nationalism (and not solely German militarism) was seen as a major cause of the two world wars, Western Europeans moved gradually after World War II to dilute nationalistic rivalries by forming the European Economic Community and European Union, creating in their wake a stronger commitment to international cooperation.  Third, the demise of European colonialism in the thirty-year period following World War II engendered a more critical view of Big Power hegemony, whether applied to Soviet control over Eastern Europe or U.S. domination over the Central America-Caribbean region.  Fourth, American-style Cold War ideology had little appeal in Europe, particularly among Socialist and Communist parties.  While wary of the Soviet Union, many Western Europeans regarded America’s Manichean division of the world into free and totalitarian spheres as a faulty and dangerous blueprint for policymaking.  Even British ambassador Sir Oliver Wright, speaking in Washington in April 1985, noted that Europeans had “adopted over the years a distinctively less apocalyptic way of thinking and talking about the threat to their neighborhood than the Reagan administration conveys when it speaks of the comparatively minuscule Soviet presence in Cuba and Nicaragua.”[164]

The 1990 Nicaraguan elections

Voters line up to vote in a rural community, Feb 25 1990 (photo by Bill Becker)

Upon entering the White House in January 1989, President George H. W. Bush continued to support the Contras but shifted emphasis to organizing political opposition within Nicaragua.  The goal was to unite all opposition political parties against the FSLN in the upcoming democratic elections set for February 25, 1990.  Fourteen parties were persuaded to join the National Opposition Union (UNO); four on the right, seven in the middle, and three on the far left, including the Nicaraguan Communist Party.  The lack of agreement on ideology and policy was of no concern to the Bush administration, as its only objective was to defeat the FSLN at the ballot box.

Congress as a whole went along with the strategy, authorizing $9 million for the ostensible purpose of supporting democratic institutions in Nicaragua.  Much of that money went to UNO presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro, enabling her to promote her campaign and keep the disparate parties of her coalition in line.  The CIA has since admitted to planting misleading stories in Nicaraguan newspapers about alleged corruption in the FSLN government.[165]

Daniel Ortega transfers the presidential sash to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, April 25, 1990 (La Prensa)

The Sandinista leadership expected their party to win the election despite the depressed state of the economy and ongoing Contra War.  It was thus a shock to FSLN leaders and their supporters when the FSLN lost their majority.  UNO won 54.7% of the national vote and gained 51 seats in the National Assembly, as compared to the FSLN with 40.8% of the vote and 38 seats.  The Sandinista Party was ousted from power by the very election machinery it had created.  Nicaraguan observer María López Vigil believed that the vote was largely a response to U.S. intimidation. “Everyone understood that if Violeta won, the war would end,” she said. “Nicaraguans voted for peace and for an end to the draft.”[166]  The FSLN nevertheless remained the largest single political party.  Daniel Ortega graciously conceded victory to Violeta Chamorro and her coalition.

With the transfer of power in Nicaragua, the Bush administration called off the war.  Its costs were substantial:  approximately 31,000 Nicaraguans killed, thousands more maimed and wounded, 350,000 internally displaced, and approximately $9 billion in economic damages.  “By any measure,” writes the sociologist Lynn Horton, “Nicaragua’s armed conflict of the 1980s took a devastating human and economic toll.”  To Latin Americanist historian Thomas Walker, the Contra War was “one of the greatest human tragedies of the second half of the twentieth century.”[167]
*                    *                    *

VI. Domestic dissent: The Central America movement

The Central America movement of the 1980s has been described as a human rights movement, peace movement, and solidarity movement.  It was all of these.  It coalesced in 1980, mainly around the issue of halting U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government based on human rights concerns.  The surprise U.S. invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in October 1983, which ousted a leftist government, led many to believe that Nicaragua was the next U.S. target.  Hundreds of peace groups took up Central America issues around this time.  The proximity of Central America to the U.S. allowed for extensive transnational connections in the form of study tours, sister city partnerships, humanitarian aid, peace witnesses, and various solidarity activities.  As hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees poured into the U.S., escaping oppression and war, a related Sanctuary Movement developed to aid them.

1990 protest in Union Square, Manhattan (photo by Gabe Kirchheimer)

Many people who became involved in the Central America movement had participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement less than a decade earlier, thus adding experience and perhaps a bit of wisdom.  The Central America movement co-existed with other progressive peace movements in the 1980s, notably, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, and federal budget priorities campaigns (redirecting federal spending from military to human needs programs).


By 1986, there were 1,075 local, state, and national organizations in the United States working on Central America issues.[168]  National organizations included:
— Solidarity organizations focused on a specific country, including the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Nicaragua Network, and Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA);
— Religious-based organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Witness for Peace, Ecumenical Program for Interamerican Communication and Action (EPICA), Inter-religious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), the Catholic Religious Task Force on Central America (RTFCA), and the Protestant Interreligious Task Force on Central America (IRFTCA);
— Washington-based lobby groups such as the Coalition for a New Military and Foreign Policy, SANE, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA);
— “Think tanks” such as the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), the Center for International Policy (CIP), and Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America (PACCA);
— A variety of other organizations, including the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC), North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), MADRE, Mobilization for Survival (MFS), Veterans for Peace (VFP), and others.

Unitarian Universalist Church members protest in front of the federal building in Los Angeles, 1986 (photo by Bill Becker)

Religious organizations and institutions were instrumental in the Central America movement, providing leadership, volunteers, a respectable public image, an organizational base, institutional support, and transnational connections.  Between 1982 and 1984, over twenty U.S. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and ecumenical organizations issued statements opposing administration policies in Central America and supporting legal asylum for Central American refugees.[169]  Each statement provided authoritative approval for local congregations and individuals to challenge the U.S. government on these issues; in essence, to assert the primacy of peace and justice values.

Faith networks also had clout in Washington.  According to Cynthia Arnson and Philip Brenner, “The most numerous and effective groups arrayed against the president’s policies in Central America were religious . . . virtually all of the major Protestant denominations had Washington offices responsible for linking their congregants to the national political process.”[170]  The influence of the religious lobby was acknowledged with frustration by Robert Kagan, head of the Reagan administration’s Office of Public Diplomacy, as his job was to discredit and nullify it.  In a memo to National Security Council adviser Walter Raymond Jr. on September 18, 1986, Kagan noted that “church-based supporters of the Sandinistas have been able to frame much of the public debate on Nicaragua … dominating the flow of information to local churches, parishes, and synagogues.”  The influence of “such church-supported groups as the Washington Office on Latin America and Witness for Peace” has been “reinforced by inexpensive solidarity tours of Nicaragua.  Opposition to U.S. policy in Central America has continued to be a central effort of many DC-based religious offices and their support network.”[171]

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit

What united opponents of the administration’s Central America policies was not support for the FSLN, as Kagan surmised, but rather a common belief that the administration’s policies were grievously wrong.  As Bishop Thomas Gumbleton told a Congressional subcommittee in 1987, speaking for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S.-directed Contra War “is immoral, illegal, and unwise.”  Opinions regarding the FSLN were more diverse.  Thomas Quigley, head of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace noted that “people who disapprove strongly of U.S. efforts to overthrow the [Nicaraguan] government and fund the Contras can still be quite critical of the Sandinistas.”[172]

The leftist solidarity networks, Nicaragua Network and CISPES, on the other hand, fully supported the FSLN government and the FMLN rebels, respectively.  Nicaragua Network was formed in February 1979 with the help of Nicaraguan émigrés, including Washington DC activist Saúl Arana Castellón who later became the director of the North American Section of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry.

Nicaragua Network theme (photo by Bill Becker)

At the second Nicaragua Network conference in Detroit, held November 17-18, 1979 (after the Sandinistas took power), U.S. activists conferred with a blue ribbon panel of Nicaraguan officials and FSLN representatives, including Moisés Hassan Morales, a member of the Junta, Rafael Solis, Ambassador to the U.S., Victor Hugo Tinoco, Ambassador to the UN, and FSLN representatives Mónica Baltodano and Hilda Voldt.  The conferees committed Nicaragua Network to assisting FSLN programs in education, health care, and agriculture.  Ambassador Solis also discussed the need to “strengthen information dissemination from Nicaragua,” as the Nicaraguan point-of-view had been pushed out of U.S. news.[173]  Nicaragua Network subsequently arranged for Nicaraguan speakers to tour U.S. cities.

Demonstration in Los Angeles, 1986 (photo by Bill Becker)

CISPES openly supported the FMLN and its political arm, the FDR.  At its founding East Coast Conference in New York on October 11-12, 1980, participants declared that Salvadoran revolutionaries were engaged in a “just war of legitimate defense.”  CISPES itself was not a revolutionary group, nor did it send arms to the rebels; rather, it provided tangible assistance to the FMLN through projects such as Medical Aid to El Salvador, a Los Angeles-based operation that distributed aid to regions under FMLN control.  At the CISPES national convention in 1985, CISPES attendees agreed to define their organization as the “North American front of the Salvadoran revolution.”[174]

Notwithstanding its support for the FMLN, CISPES shaped its outreach message in the U.S. to highlight the human rights abuses of the Salvadoran government and the danger of “another Vietnam.”  CISPES organizers avoided leftist ideological rhetoric so as not to appear too radical to potential supporters and allies.  Van Gosse, who served as a CISPES student outreach coordinator, pointed out that “anyone looking for the words ‘capitalist,’ ‘socialist’ or ‘imperialist’ in its direct-mail appeals, its newspaper Alert! Focus on Central America, or its voluminous internal program mailings, would be severely disappointed.”[175]  By stressing salient themes and minimizing revolutionary jargon,  CISPES was able to maintain amicable relations with liberal, religious, human rights, and peace groups.  CISPES also developed a dynamic outreach program.  By March 1982, the group claimed 300 local committees and campus groups, a half-dozen regional centers, and a strong central committee at the national level.

Protest in Grand Rapids, Michigan (photo by Barb Lester)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated CISPES as a potential illegal foreign agent and supporter of international terrorism.  After years of FBI surveillance, no charges were brought against the organization.  In September 1988, the Center for Constitutional Rights obtained through the Freedom of Information Act 1,320 pages of documents on FBI activities from 1981 to 1985.  The documents revealed that the FBI had placed under investigation 2,370 individuals and 1,330 groups in the United States.  In July 1989, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a 150-page report that called the FBI investigation of CISPES “a serious failure in F.B.I. management.”[176]

Movement activities

The Central America movement was energetic, creative, and largely decentralized.  There was no single leader or central organization planning strategy and representing the movement in the media and Congress.  Common national endeavors nonetheless united disparate organizations in specific areas:
Educational outreach.  “Central America Weeks” were organized in March of each year, commemorating the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador with a variety of speakers and activities.  National and local groups also circulated speakers and shared common educational themes and “talking points.”  Educational themes commonly sought to enhance understanding of Central American history and empathy for the people of Central America.
Lobbying.  Legislative strategy and lobbying was coordinated by the Central America Working Group in Washington.  The group worked closely with the Democratic Party’s House Task Force on Central America and regularly sent out legislative alerts.  In early 1984, Washington-based groups created the Central America Peace Campaign, which convinced delegates to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco to approve an anti-interventionist plank in the party platform.  Religious missionaries also testified before Congressional committees on human rights abuses by Salvadoran security forces and the Nicaraguan Contras.
National demonstrations.  Nationally coordinated, multi-issue demonstrations took place in November 1983, April 1985, October 1986, and April 1987.  The 1987 demonstration had strong union support and drew an estimated 100,000 people to Washington, D.C.  The Saturday rally was followed by “lobby days” and a civil disobedience action on Tuesday, in which more than 300 protesters blocked entrances to the White House.
Humanitarian aid network.  When Congress appropriated $27 million in so-called “humanitarian assistance” to the Contras in mid-1985, the Catholic-based Quixote Center initiated a campaign to provide an equivalent amount in real humanitarian aid to the Nicaraguan people.  Estimating the value of all material aid and donated labor to Nicaragua, director Bill Callahan announced that the goal of $27 million had been reached in May 1986.  The project ultimately involved 425 organizations and 2,500 individuals, creating an informal network of humanitarian aid groups.  When Congress appropriated $100 million in Contra aid the following year, the process was repeated.  (See also transnational connections below.)

Civil disobedience at the Federal Building in San Francisco, March 1988 (photo by Keith Holmes)

Pledge of Resistance campaign.  Following the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983, religious activists initiated a Pledge of Resistance campaign to deter an expected invasion of Nicaragua.  Some 100,000 people signed the pledge over the next five years, promising to engage in legal protests or civil disobedience actions should the U.S. invade Nicaragua.  The pledge was activated in March 1988, when U.S. troops were dispatched to Honduras in response to a border-crossing incident; demonstrations and civil disobedience actions took place in over one hundred U.S. cities.  The pledge was also activated in response to Congressional votes related to funding for the Contras and the Salvadoran government.

One action that gained national attention was the “Fast for Life,” undertaken by four U.S. veterans.  On September 1, 1986, Charles Liteky, George Mizo, Brian Willson, and Duncan Murphy, began a fast to protest $100 million in Contra aid approved by Congress in June and scheduled for release on October 24.  Mizo, who had served in Vietnam, described their mission as simply, “to stop the killing in Nicaragua.”  They spent much of their time on the Capitol steps and were buoyed by supportive demonstrations in Washington and Boston.  The four ended their fast on October 17, after forty-six days for Liteky and Mizo.  All vowed to continue their protest through other means.[177]
The following year, on September 1, 1987, Willson continued his protest by attempting to stop a train from departing the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, California.  The train was thought to be bound for Central America with arms.  Willson and two others sat on the tracks in civil disobedience.  The train did not stop and Willson was run over, his legs crushed beyond repair.

On prosthetic legs, Brian Willson dances with peace activist Sherri Maurin (photo by Mike Hastie)

Ten days before the incident, Willson had written a letter to Commander Lonnie Cagle at the naval station, informing him that he planned to sit on the tracks every day for forty days while fasting. He recounted the destruction and murder wrought by the Contras in Nicaragua and asserted that U.S. support for the Contras “violates a number of domestic and international laws.” An attorney by profession who had served in the Air Force in Vietnam, Willson said he felt obliged, based on the precedent of the Nuremberg trials of 1945, to “do everything reasonable in our power to make known the crimes of our country and to stop them from continuing.”  He presented similar testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Investigations on November 18, 1987, explaining that Contra attacks on civilians violate international law as well as “fundamental standards of decency and fair rules.”[178]

Transnational connections

Transnational connections were an essential part of the Central America movement, informing and energizing local activism.  Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens journeyed to Central America, often as part of study tours, and reported back to friends, associates, congregations, and communities.  Many noted the discrepancy between administration rhetoric and reality, especially in Sandinista Nicaragua, which welcomed international visitors.  Nicaraguans generally distinguished between the imperialist actions of the U.S. government and U.S. citizens.
Transnational connections worked in both directions.  In June 1981, Jesuit priests at the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica in Managua launched Envío, a high-quality news journal published in Spanish, English, German, and French for international audiences.  “We felt that Nicaragua was not understood because of the ideological campaign of the United States against Nicaragua,” said Fr. Alvaro Argüello, a founder of the journal.  “We wanted to clarify, explain, from the people who lived the experience, what was happening in the country and to ask for solidarity. That was the motivation.”

Vilma-Núñez de Escorcia

Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, vice-president of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, came into contact with many Americans through the Nicaraguan Commission for Peace (CONIPAZ) and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), both of which worked with many international and U.S. groups.  “I realized,” she said, “there was a big difference between the position of the people and the government of the United States, because I was working with people that opposed their government’s policy toward Nicaragua.”

Dr. Gustavo Parajón

Dr. Gustavo Parajón, a Baptist minister, medical doctor, and director of the Nicaraguan Council of Protestant Churches (CEPAD), facilitated many international aid programs.  In 1983, he wrote to U.S. Protestant denominations, urging them to “denounce the atrocities committed by the counter-revolutionaries attacking our country, of which our brethren are victims.  These groups are clearly trained and financed by the government of the U.S. and as they invade our country they are planting death, panic and desperation among our people.”[179]

The FSLN government created the semi-official Nicaraguan Committee in Solidarity with the Peoples (CNSP) in 1980 for the dual purpose of facilitating international solidarity relationships and cultivating an internationalist consciousness among the Nicaraguan people.  When the FSLN government called for national and international volunteers to assist the coffee harvest in the winter of 1983-84, it was up to the CNSP staff to recruit the internationalists and help make arrangements for their stay.   CNSP later recruited and arranged for brigadistas to assist cotton harvests, building construction, and environmental projects as well as more coffee harvests.
FSLN officials also visited U.S. cities during the 1980s, to the chagrin of the Reagan administration.  The list includes President Daniel Ortega, Vice-President Sergio Ramirez, Ambassador to the U.S. Carlos Tünnermann, Vilma Nuñez, and a dozen others.  Speakers were in demand.  The Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington worked with activist groups to set up speaking engagements in different cities.  In October 1984, Ortega, his poet wife, Rosario Murillo, and Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto along with about 20 security and staff people conducted a nine-day speaking tour through New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta.  Their purpose, said Ortega in an interview, was to counter “the campaign of disinformation about Nicaragua” by the Reagan administration.  The entourage met with activists, opinion makers, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities.  In Los Angeles, the office of Mayor Tom Bradley officially welcomed Ortega with a symbolic key to the city.  The visit was followed by a series of discussion meetings advertised as “The National Town Meeting on Central America,” sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Committee of Concern for Central America.[180]  FSLN leaders also made their views known by writing op-ed articles in the New York Times and Washington Post on occasion.

Every Thursday was protest day at the U.S. Embassy in Managua, 1983 (photo by Bill Becker)

A number of transnational initiatives emerged from the U.S. side:

  • The Committee of U.S. Citizens Living in Nicaragua (CUSCLIN), formed in 1983, organized weekly vigils in front of the U.S. Embassy in Managua, an activity that became a popular attraction for international visitors.  At the heart of CUSCLIN were U.S. religious workers with long-standing relationships in Central America.  CUSCLIN members wanted both the U.S. government and the Nicaraguan people to know that U.S. citizens living in Nicaragua did not support the Reagan administration’s aggressive policies.  Most importantly, they did not want to be used as an excuse for a U.S. invasion, as had happened in Grenada (the administration claimed that U.S. medical students were in danger).  CUSCLIN’s vigils were intended in part to “generate energy for ongoing organizing and consciousness-raising among visitors who will return to the U.S. and work in solidarity.”[181]
  • Witness for Peace (WFP), created by religious activists in 1983 with the help of Sixto Ulloa of CEPAD, brought more than 4,000 U.S. citizens to Nicaragua to witness first-hand the destruction wrought by the Contras.  Their presence was also designed to deter Contra attacks.  Long-term volunteers conducted interviews with witnesses of Contra attacks.  The information was relayed from the field to the Managua office, to the Washington office where it was repackaged into press releases, WFP newsletter articles, mailings to local contacts, and Congressional briefings.  As U.S. reporters were largely absent in the hinterlands, WFP played a vital role in documenting Contra terrorism, prompting Congressional hearings in the spring of 1985.[182]
  • Boulder-Jalapa sister city project

    More than 80 U.S.-Nicaragua sister cities and at least 17 U.S.-Salvadoran partnerships formed during the 1980s, facilitating local interest, travel, and humanitarian aid projects.  Sister cities originated in the 1950s as part of a Cold War cultural offensive.  When the Wisconsin-Nicaragua Partners was launched in 1964, Wisconsin Governor John W. Reynolds praised the Somoza government as a “bastion of Western democracy and freedom, facing Castro and Communism.”  The new U.S.-Nicaragua sister cities that formed in the 1980s were quite at odds with this Cold War perspective.  The guiding ethos centered on dissolving enemy images through personal contact and cultural understanding.  Sister city projects had a number of desirable attributes for activists:  they were locally organized, facilitated travel and interpersonal relationships, provided tangible benefits to the Nicaraguan people, and served to educate U.S. citizens.  The idea was also popular in Western Europe, which established 209 Nicaraguan-European sister cities during the decade.[183]

  • The National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC), formed in 1981, sent labor delegations to El Salvador, established “sister unions,” and brought Salvadoran labor leaders to the U.S. to testify before Congressional committees.  Staff member David Dyson, an ordained Presbyterian minister, made ten trips to El Salvador during the 1980s, some of which involved looking for “disappeared” Salvadoran labor leaders.
  • Nicaragua Network organized work brigades to assist in Nicaraguan coffee harvests.  The first took place in the winter of 1983-84, involving 1,500 international brigadistas, including 660 U.S. citizens.  A Washington Post reporter who embedded himself in a volunteer work brigade in 1985 noted, “The word ‘brigadista’ carried power” in Nicaragua, implying “work, political support and comradeship.”[184]

  • Among the U.S. organizations contributing humanitarian aid, working with counterparts in Central America, were AFSC, APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua), Bikes Not Bombs, MADRE, Medical Aid to El Salvador, Nicaragua Network, Oxfam America, the Quixote Center, TecNica, and others.  Don Mosley, a former Peace Corps director, began the “Walk in Peace” project after discovering that some 2,000 Nicaraguans had lost arms or legs due to Contra-laid land mine explosions.  Funds were raised for prosthesis centers at the Aldo Chavaria Rehabilitation Hospital and the Velez Pais Children’s Hospital, both located in Managua.  Two groups, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization and Veterans for Peace, organized truck caravans to Nicaragua, driving 4,000 miles to deliver tons of aid as well as the trucks.

Memorial service for Ben Linder in Matagalpa, April 30, 1987. From left to right: Daniel Ortega, David Linder (father), Elizabeth Linder (mother), Miriam Linder (sister), and Rosario Murillo

  • A number of individuals contributed their professional expertise.  Dr. Charlie Clements, a former Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War committed to healing and nonviolence, treated casualties in the rebel-held areas of El Salvador.  Ben Linder, a young engineer from Oregon, was working on a hydro-electric project near the village of San José de Bocay, Nicaragua, when he was killed by the Contras.  His burial took place in Matagalpa on April 30, 1987.  Among the pall-bearers were Daniel Ortega and Andrew Young, Atlanta mayor and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN.  A funeral procession of 10,000 people proceeded through the streets of the city to a hillside cemetery.  CUSCLIN named their new meetinghouse Casa Ben Linder.

Contra violence did not stop international solidaridados from working in Nicaragua.  According to the Envío team, writing in February 1988:

The number of international brigadistas visiting Nicaragua doubled in 1987, totaling more than 8,000 from Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Latin America, the United States and other parts of the world. Since 1983, according to the Nicaraguan Committee in Solidarity with the People (CNSP), more than 20,000 brigadistas have given their services to Nicaragua, and many internationalists involved in solidarity, religious or NGO-sponsored social service and development projects have taken up residence here for longer periods.  Some have given their lives, as well.  Since 1983, the Contras have killed 14 internationalists, raped 4, and kidnapped 59.  But they have not managed to put a stop to this very personal way of showing international support for Nicaragua.[185]

The Sanctuary movement

Roughly one million Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees made their way to the United States during the 1980s, escaping violence and oppression in their home countries.[186]  In compassionate response to this influx, hundreds of U.S. congregations and communities declared themselves “sanctuaries,” offering protection and material support.  The Refugee Act of 1980 had established political refugee and asylum classifications in the United States, but the Reagan administration rejected almost all Central American applicants, despite numerous appeals by members of Congress, churches, and sanctuary organizations.  Hence the refugees were “illegal.”

Press conference at University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California. March 29, 1982

The Sanctuary Movement created a new “underground railroad” to move Salvadorans and Guatemalans into the safety of churches and people’s homes.  According to social scientists Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and James Loucky, “By 1987, there were over 420 Sanctuary groups, including 250 churches, 41 synagogues, 25 ecumenical religious groups, 24 cities, 15 universities, and 13 other secular groups.”

The Sanctuary movement played an important role in the broader Central America movement in terms of raising consciousness about U.S. policies toward the region.  “Of particular significance was the role of the refugees themselves, who gave testimony of their personal experiences of violence and persecution,” note Chinchilla and company.  Their presence in local communities compelled people to ask, “What were the conditions from which refugees were fleeing?  Why were many of these refugees – despite personal experiences of violence and persecution – refused asylum in the United States?  And why was the U.S. government supporting Central American governments and military forces that were perpetuating these conditions?”[187]
In an interview with the sociologist Sharon Erickson Nepstad, one North American sanctuary activist explained that the sharing of refugee stories “did two things.  First, it gave people a human face to the reality in Central America, to this foreign policy debate that was going on in Washington.  But it also taught people something about their own government, because in the face of these compelling stories we were told that our government said they had no right to be here.”  Nepstad estimates that 70,000 North Americans and 2,000 to 3,000 Central Americans actively participated in assisting refugees.[188]
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VII. Crime and cover-up:  The Iran-Contra affair

The 2017 Hollywood blockbuster, American Made, stars Tom Cruise as a mercenary pilot named Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal who allegedly smuggled guns and drugs as part of the CIA’s dirty war in Nicaragua.  According to the film’s rendering, Seal worked as a Tran World Airlines (TWA) pilot, and then was recruited by a CIA agent named “Schaefer” to take reconnaissance photos and to smuggle arms to the Contras.  Seal in turn brought Contra operatives for paramilitary training in Mena, Arkansas, where his operations were headquartered.
When Seal was caught smuggling for the Medellín cartel, Schaefer orders his CIA colleagues to burn any documents pointing to his recruitment as an “agency asset.”  Seal is in turn arrested, though Colonel Oliver North recruits him for more gun-running expeditions in return for a lessened sentence.  Seal is exposed as a spy when his photos are used by President Ronald Reagan to accuse the Sandinistas of drug smuggling.  Seal is again indicted and then assassinated because he betrayed the Medellín cartel and knows too much.  Seal’s activities, however, are shown to be a prelude to wider gun-running that culminated in the Iran-Contra scandal.[189]

Director Gary Liman said that American Made was not a biopic but was inspired by “stories that we learned about Barry.”[190]  The thrust of the film appears to be true, even if some aspects may be misleading.  For example, Seal only met with Medellín cartel bosses after he had become a DEA informant and was originally arrested in Florida for smuggling Quaaludes.  Seal also lost his TWA job after being caught smuggling plastic explosives to anti-Castro Cubans in Mexico during the late 1960s in an operation that is suspected to have been linked to the CIA.  It was reported that Seal died with George H. W Bush’s personal card in his pocket, though retired FBI agent Del Hahn, said it was merely the South Florida Drug Task Force’s card, which Bush headed.  The illicit activity in Mena, meanwhile, was covered up by Governor Bill Clinton who supported the Contras.[191]

Seal’s career and the milieu with which he was associated exemplifies the workings of the American deep state in which high-level National Security and intelligence operatives collaborate with drug smugglers and criminals in the service of nationalist goals.  The Iran-Contra affair united many veterans of past CIA shadow wars who were expert in circumventing legal and congressional oversight and setting up front companies to launder money and arms and in recruiting criminal assets.[192]  The Laotian secret war set an important precedent in being partially financed through opium smuggling on Air America flights and by CIA proxies like General Ouane Rattikone and General Vang Pao.[193]

President Reagan with Contra leader Adolfo Calero (left) and National Security staff member Oliver North, April 4, 1985 (Reagan Presidential Library & Museum)

The necessity for illicit activity was prompted by the 1982 Boland amendment, spearheaded by Edward Boland (D-MA), which barred U.S. covert actions “for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua.”  In December of the same year, Congress voted a $24 million ceiling on CIA spending for its covert war in the coming fiscal year.  Then in May 1984, Congress barred lethal military aid after CIA agents, acting in the name of the Contras, seeded Nicaraguan harbors with mines in violation of international law.[194]

National Security Council staff led by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter continued to arm the Contras clandestinely through illegal sale of Hughes TOW and Hawk missiles and plane loads of spare military parts to Iran, which since its 1979 revolution was an American enemy.  The receipts to the Pentagon were doctored to cover up the arms sales, and profits funneled to the Contras through Swiss bank accounts and other front companies used to purchase arms.  As part of the deal, the U.S. agreed to provide secret battlefield intelligence for Iran’s war against Iraq when the CIA had already provided Iraq with intelligence.  In return, the Iranians were to use their leverage over Hezbollah in Lebanon which had taken hostages in retaliation for the U.S. arming of Israel during the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee and Marine occupation.[195]

Vice President George H. W. Bush meets with Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega in 1983 (Sygma/Corbis photo)

President Ronald Reagan publicly lied to protect the CIA though he privately was a staunch champion of the arms-for-hostages scheme and an all-out war against the Sandinistas.  Reagan told Cabinet level officials in a December 1985 meeting, as transcribed by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, that “he could answer to the charges of illegality but he couldn’t answer the charge that ‘big strong President Reagan’ passed up a chance to free the hostages.”[196]  In another meeting, Reagan urged quick and decisive covert aid to the Contras.  After a gun-running plane was shot down and the surviving pilot, Eugene Hafenfus was put on trial in Nicaragua in October 1986, Oliver North sent a message to fellow NSC-staffer Robert “Bud” McFarlane indicating that Reagan had been briefed about a plan to secure Hasenfus’ legal defense and cover-up illegal activity.[197]  On November 4, 1986 Vice President George Bush recorded in his taped diary that he was ‘one of the few people [who] knew the full details about the release of American hostages,” adding that “this is one operation that had been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak.”[198]  These comments show that Bush was aware of the illicit arms-for hostage scheme along with his boss and concerned about it becoming public knowledge.[199]

Eugene Hasenfus, an air cargo handler, survived the downing of his plane on Oct. 5, 1986. Records found inside the plane revealed extensive illegal Contra supply operations, opening the door to the Iran-Contra investigation. The FSLN government convicted, then released Hasenfus at Christmas time as a good will gesture.

The Iran-Contra deals were secretly brokered through Israeli and CIA middlemen like Richard Secord, former director of the Air Wing of the Pentagon-CIA Special Operations Group at Udorn Air Force base in Thailand which helped command the secret war in Laos, General John Singlaub, the head of the World Anticommunist League, and Richard Gadd, who had set up a private air transport service for clandestine government operations.  Thomas Clines, who helped Secord to arrange clandestine arms deliveries to the Contras out of Portugal, recruited ex-CIA pilots for the supply operations and helped North obtain a ship used in the attempt to rescue American hostages in Lebanon.  Clines had put together a private network of CIA agents functioning as a kind of shadow CIA after Jimmy Carter had cut the CIA’s budget and fired many of its staff.  In 1978, he and disgraced agent Edwin Wilson – later convicted of supplying explosive devices to Libya – negotiated a $650,000 deal with then Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza to “create a search and destroy apparatus” against Somoza’s enemies, which was the forerunner of the Contra army.[200]

Besides the illegal weapons sales, clandestine funding for the Contras was obtained through private right-wing financiers like oil baron Nelson Bunker Hunt and Joseph Coors of Coors Beer as well as mercenary organizations like Soldier of Fortune Magazine, and Christian evangelical groups like the Virginia based Christian Broadcasting Group founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson.[201]  The National Security Council (NSC) also, with approval from the White House, secured financial support from key strategic proxies such as Israel, the Argentines, Taiwanese and Saudis who provided millions in high tech weaponry and, in the Israeli case, military advisers.[202]

Illegal drug sales and other criminal activity provided another source of Contra financing.  In addition to Seal, historian Alfred W. McCoy has pointed out that the agency struck a deal with drug smuggler Alan Hyde to use his port facilities in the Caribbean for arms smuggling to the Contras in exchange for Hyde’s immunity from criminal prosecution.[203]  The Office of the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO), which was overseen by North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers, further gave $300,000 to one of America’s top marijuana traffickers, Michael Palmer, to ferry supplies to the Contras.[204]

John Hull, CIA asset in Costa Rica

Vast amounts of cocaine were smuggled by Contra operatives from the Costa Rican ranch of an American businessman, John Hull, who received a $110,000 monthly retainer from North and worked with the CIA on military supply operations to the Contras.[205]  Mexican drug cartels allied with Mexico’s revolutionary party (PRI) allegedly served as liaisons in some of these operations.  Tosh Plumlee, a CIA contract pilot involved with the Contra operation, said the U.S. government was “running guns.  We were running drugs.  We were using the drug money to finance the gun running operation.”[206]

In 1996, Gary Webb published an exposé detailing how the Contras financed some of their counter-revolutionary activities through drugs including through connection with Los Angeles crack cocaine dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross.  The series raises particular outrage in the African American community, which was devastated by crack.[207]  Mainstream news outlets attacked Webb’s credibility and Webb was demoted and later committed suicide though many facts of his reporting have been corroborated, and new information about the scandal and cover-up have since come to light.[208]

July 20, 1987 issue

Oliver North’s declassified notebooks, for example, point to his awareness of Contra drug smuggling operations and include the recording of a conversation between North and Secord in which Secord told North that $14 million used to finance weapons purchases from a Honduras warehouse came from drugs.  North had struck a close relationship with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega who provided intelligence support to the Contras and had close relations with the Colombian drug cartels who also backed the Contras.  CIA assets in Honduras, which was used as a staging base for the Contra supply operation, also trafficked in drugs and the DEA was suspiciously given an ultimatum to close its office in Tegucigalpa.  A 1989 Senate investigation headed by John Kerry (D-MA) concluded that “senior U.S. policy-makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contra funding problem.”[209]

In December 1986, an independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, was appointed by Congress to investigate Iran-Contra.  Televised Iran-Contra hearings in Congress took place from May 5 to August 6, 1987.  Lt. Col. Oliver North pointed to his superiors as the source of the Iran-Contra arms exchanges, but Congress let President Reagan and Vice-President Bush off the hook.  Bush declared he was “out of the loop.”  Walsh concluded in his final report (August 1993) that the “policies behind both the Iran and Contra operations were fully reviewed and developed at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration.”[210]

March 17, 1988

Fourteen people were charged with criminal offenses and eleven convicted including North, Poindexter, Secord, Clines as well as NSC staffer Robert “Bud McFarlane,” and CIA agent “Dewey” Clarridge.  Two people were pardoned before trial and one case was dismissed when the Bush Administration declined to declassify information necessary for trial.  On December 24, 1992, President Bush pardoned Weinberger, Clarridge, Clair E. George, Elliott Abrams, Alan D. Fiers, Jr., and “Bud” McFarlane.  Apart from the Kerry committee, the extent to which drugs helped finance the Contras illegally was never formally investigated and no American was charged in conjunction with this.[211]

The Iran-Contra affair generally exemplifies the abuse of executive power in the age of the imperial presidency and near impunity enjoyed by executive branch officials for state crimes.  Reagan and Bush remained unscathed despite their heavy involvement and Oliver North became a right-wing folk hero after giving televised testimony before Congress in which he played up his patriotic motives.  Nicaragua’s tormentor served only a year in prison and would go on to run for the Senate and become host of a series on “War Stories” airing on Fox News.
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VIII. Lessons and legacies

The United States played a regrettable role in Latin America during the Cold War.  Imagining that socialist-oriented economic reforms constituted a threat to U.S. national security, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all supported repressive right-wing regimes and undermined democratic reform.  President Carter sought to narrow the gap between stated principles and practices, but the ideological curtain had only partly been drawn back to reveal truths about U.S. foreign policies before President Reagan shut it tight again.
Leftist rebellions and governments in Central America posed no threat to U.S. national security, only to U.S. hegemony.  Moreover, the U.S. was partly responsible for creating the conditions of revolution, setting up a police state in Guatemala, training and arming Salvadoran security forces, and buoying up the Somoza family dynasty for four decades.

Casa Ben Linder wall mural in honor of the young engineer from Oregon killed by the Contras in April 1987 (Linder, center, is riding a unicycle and wearing a clown outfit)

The Sandinista experiment in Nicaragua might have fallen on its own due to intransigent poverty, poorly managed programs, business opposition, or other internal causes, but the Reagan and Bush administrations were not willing to take that chance.  They sought to foreclose the possibility of a viable socialist-oriented economy in Latin America by beating Nicaragua into submission through terror and sabotage.  In the end, this proved nothing about socialism, only that a powerful nation can bully a smaller one.

It was all unnecessary.  The Reagan administration could have easily secured an agreement with the Sandinista government on arms trafficking, with international monitors and overflights established to verify the agreement.  Two decades earlier, the Kennedy administration had secured a diplomatic agreement in a much more difficult situation – keeping Soviet nuclear missiles out of Cuba – and the agreement was kept.  Regarding El Salvador and Guatemala, the U.S. could have held to its human rights standards and facilitated dialogue between antagonistic parties rather than supporting state repression and counterinsurgency war.  This peaceful approach would have been far more honorable.

In 2006, sixteen years after the FSLN was voted out of power, Daniel Ortega and the FSLN were voted back in.  Ortega was re-elected president in 2011 and 2016, but the idealism and cooperative spirit that once marked the FSLN dissipated while Ortega gradually assumed the role of strongman in Nicaragua.  Democracy advocates such as Sergio Ramirez, Dora María Téllez, and Víctor Hugo Tinoco broke away to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) in 1995, later renamed the Democratic Renewal Movement (Unamos).  Ortega’s actions became more dictatorial.  In June 2021, his national police arrested six former FSLN allies, including Téllez and Tinoco, on specious charges.  Many U.S. solidarity activists and others who held great hopes for post-revolutionary Nicaragua have been disheartened by the decline of democracy in Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, after two decades of rightist ARENA party rule, voters elected FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes to the presidency in 2009.  Funes, a television journalist, had not fought with the FMLN in the civil war but his brother had been killed by the military.  In February 2014, Salvadorans elected Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former FMLN commander, as president.  The right-left struggle has largely been political rather than military since 1992, but larger problems of economic deprivation and social violence remain dire.[213]
What is remembered most in the U.S. about the Central America wars of the 1980s is the Iran-Contra affair.  To be sure, it is important to be cognizant of the dangers of the “imperial presidency” and the need to hold the president accountable to Congress and domestic law.[212]  At the same time, the larger crimes committed by the U.S. in Central America have been overlooked or obscured.  In 1986, the World Court ruled that the U.S.-directed Contra War constituted aggression against another state, a breach of international law.  The U.S., by ignoring the ruling, effectively declared its right to act as a rogue nation, to go above and beyond the law.  This has grave implications for world order, as it enshrines power and the use of force – the “law of the jungle” – as the basis for international relations.

What has received much less attention in the U.S. are the findings of the truth commissions established in El Salvador and Guatemala.  Based on thousands of witness testimonies and statements, the commissions concluded that government security forces and allied rightist death squads were responsible for the vast majority of murders, disappearances, and massacres:  85% in El Salvador and 93% in Guatemala.  The Reagan administration repeatedly lied about the human rights situation in these countries.  While claiming to promote democracy and fight terrorism in Central America, the U.S. instead aided and abetted repression and terrorism.

8_President Clinton, left, and Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen review a military honor guard at the presidential palace in Guatemala City on Wednesday. (AP)

President Clinton with Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, Mar. 10, 1999 (AP)

President Bill Clinton at least apologized for U.S. actions in Guatemala during his visit in 1999.  Speaking just after the release of the truth commission report, Memory of Silence, he said, “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engage in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”[214]

To not repeat the same mistakes is, of course, the point of studying history.  On the other side of the adage, we should build on what has proven worthy and beneficial, such as human rights reforms and truth commissions.  Truth commissions were established in Bolivia (1982), Argentina (1983), Chile (1990), Uruguay (1995), Panama (2001), Peru (2001), Ecuador (2007), and Brazil (2012), as well as in El Salvador (1992) and Guatemala (1994).  Their purposes were to document atrocities, identify and hold accountable persons and groups responsible, and help the societies to heal.  While U.S. students typically learn about repression in Cuba, the greater part of repression in Latin America during the Cold War came from rightist governments.  Government security forces and allied death squads murdered, imprisoned, and tortured their own citizens, including political leftists, priests, nuns, intellectuals, teachers, labor union leaders, and human rights advocates.  The U.S. was complicit in these crimes.  According to Stephen Rabe:

The United States undermined constitutional systems, overthrew popularly elected governments, rigged elections, and supplied, trained, coddled, and excused barbarians who tortured, kidnapped, murdered, and “disappeared” Latin Americans…. Through its Cold War words and actions, the United States sent clear signals to Latin American authorities what they had to do to defeat communism and protect the United States.  Armed groups in Latin America received those signals and resorted to political terror to preserve and protect their own power and the elite socioeconomic groups that they served.[215]

One of the odd legacies of the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador is that some military strategists have adopted it as a model for U.S. counterinsurgency operations elsewhere, including Iraq.  According to Brian D’Haeseleer, “Former US participants and military writers … have portrayed the conflict as a successful application of COIN [counterinsurgency strategy].  Most supporters argue that US aid established democracy, prevented the leftist rebels from overthrowing the Salvadoran government, professionalized the military, and curbed human rights abuses.”  D’Haeseleer disagrees with this portrayal, arguing that “US intervention in El Salvador prolonged the war, devastated the country, and contributed to distortions in the country’s socioeconomic landscape.”  The idea that the U.S. professionalized the military and curbed human rights abuses amounts to wishful thinking and a denial of responsibility for the immense death toll reaped by U.S-backed security forces.[216]

The main question driving historical inquiry for military strategists is how to win the next war, irrespective of whether the war is right or wrong.  This will not do for the public, which must consider a wider set of questions, especially whether war is necessary at all.  It is citizens, after all, who foot the bill, provide the soldiers, and are ultimately responsible for the nation’s foreign policies in a democratic society.  Victory in a wrong war does not make it right.

Citizens and historians have an obligation to inquire as to the nature of alleged “threats” to national security; that is, whether another country actually threatens U.S. citizens and society or, more likely, challenges U.S. presumptions of global hegemony.  Secondly, it is necessary to ask whether the use of military force will resolve international crises and challenges, and how these might be resolved without recourse to violence.  In the case of Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, ameliorating underlying economic conditions, ceasing support for dictatorial and repressive regimes, and providing positive, nonviolent incentives for democratic reform would have gone a long way toward diffusing the revolutionary crises.


[1] “The massacre of children and others at El Mozote,” El Salvador Perspectives, December 10, 2017, 1, http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com/2017/12/the-massacre-of-children-and-others-at.html. See also, Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote (New York: Vintage, 1994).

[2] “Statement of Admiral Stansfield Turner, Former Director of Central Intelligence” (April 16, 1985), U.S. Support for the Contras, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Ninth Congress, First Session, April 16, 17 and 18, 1985 (Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), 4.

[3] President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the Annual Dinner of the Conservative Political Action Conference,” March 1, 1985, The American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38274.

[4] “Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America),” http://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/70.  See also, Abram Chayes, “Nicaragua, the United States, and the World Court,” Columbia Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 7 (Nov. 1985): 1445-1482.

[5] See Cynthia Arnson, Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America, 1976-1993 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), Appendix, which lists each major player in the Iran-Contra investigation, the charges, and the results.

[6] Susan Gzesh, “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,” April 1, 2006, Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era.

[7] Harry Van Cleve, Comptroller General of the U.S. General Accounting Office, non-classified letter to Rep. Jack Brooks and Rep. Dante B. Fascell, Sept. 30, 1987, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC04287.

[8] Central America Resource Center, Directory of Central America Organizations, Third Edition, 1987 (Austin, TX: Central America Resource Center, 1986), Introduction.

[9] From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993), page 36, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/ElSalvador-Report.pdf; Guatemala, Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (1999), pages 17, 42, https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/mos_en.pdf; and Stephen G. Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 168.

[10] According to Lynn Horton, in Peasants in Arms: War and Peace in the Mountains of Nicaragua, 1979-1994 (Athens: Ohio Univ. Center for International Studies, 1998), “Out of a population of approximately 3.5 million, 30,865 Nicaraguans were killed during the war” (p. xv). Internal displacement figures are cited in Thomas Walker, ed., Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), 52. The number maimed by Contra-laid mines was most likely larger; see Don Mosley, with Joyce Hollyday, With Our Own Eyes: The Dramatic Story of a Christian Response to the Wounds of War, Racism, and Oppression (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996).

[11] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 168.

[12] Ibid., 167; and John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker, Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2006), 79.  According to the latter, the total of U.S. military and economic aid between 1980 and 1992 was close to $6 billion (p. 103).  The figure of $5.7 billion is cited in Brian D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible: The Failure of US Counterinsurgency in El Salvador, 1979-1992 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 7.

[13] “Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files,” Consortiumnews.com, Nov. 3, 2011, http://consortiumnews.com/2011/11/03/reagan-and-guatemalas-death-files.

[14] Guatemala, Memory of Silence, 30.

[15] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 194.

[16] Undersecretary of State Robert Olds, Memorandum, January 2, 1927, quoted in David F. Schmitz, Thank God They’re on Our Side:  The United States & Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 1999), 50-51.

[17] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 17.

[18] Office of the Historian, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Guatemala” (Introduction), https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54Guat/intro; and Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 335.

[19] See CIA Directorate of Intelligence, “Liberation Theology: Religion, Reform, and Revolution,” April 1986.  This research paper, declassified in 2011, notes, “While liberation theology has served to promote US interests by assisting popular efforts to bring democratic reform to authoritarian states, it has also posed a major threat to US interests by providing a fertile ground for Communist exploitation” (p. vi).

[20] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 24.

[21] Ibid., 33-34.

[22] Ibid., xiii.  That same month, March 1953, the CIA, working with British intelligence, succeeded in overthrowing the democratic government of Iran under Mohammad Mosaddegh and installing a dictatorship under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

[23] See Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States 1944-1954 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); and Nick Cullather, Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[24] Schoultz, Beneath the United States, 344.

[25] On U.S. support for repressive regimes in Latin America during the Cold War, see Rabe, The Killing Zone; Schoultz, Beneath the United States; Patrice McSherry, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Jeremy Kuzmarov, Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), Chapter 10; and Peter H. Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[26] Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 72, 74; and Brian D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible: The Failure of US Counterinsurgency in El Salvador, 1979–1992 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 47-48.

[27] Max Paul Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 155.

[28] See James N. Green, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[29] Smith, Talons of the Eagle (1996), 157-58.

[30] Peter Kornbluh, “The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, National Security Archive Briefing Book Number 110,” February 3, 2004, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB110.

[31] Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), 75.  See also, William Michael Schmidli, The Fate of Freedom Elsewhere:  Human Rights and U.S. Cold War Policy toward Argentina (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

[32] David Weissbrodt, “Human Rights Legislation and U.S. Foreign Policy: An Overview,” University of Minnesota Law School, 238-42, 256, http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2141&context=gjicl.

[33] Ibid., 241-42.

[34] President Jimmy Carter, “Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame, May 22, 1977,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/jimmy_carter.php; President Carter, “Tehran, Iran Toasts of the President and the Shah at a State Dinner,” December 31, 1977, ibid., and President Jimmy Carter, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights Remarks at a White House Meeting Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Declaration’s Signing,” December 6, 1978, ibid.

[35] See Margaret E. Keck and Kathyrn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), Chapter 3; and Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (New York: Century Foundation, 2004).

[36] Schoultz, Human Rights and United States, 60.

[37] Flora Montealegre and Cynthia Arnson, “Background Information on Guatemala, Human Rights, and U.S. Military Assistance,” in Stanford Central America Action Network, Revolution in Central America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), 294.

[38] United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.

[39] See, for example, Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973, 1997).

[40] Ronald Reagan, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1980, 1, cited in Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2000 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 316; and President Reagan, “Address before a Joint Session of the Congress Reporting on the State of the Union, January 25, 1984,” The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu (hereafter referred to as the Reagan Public Papers).

[41] “Excerpts from Haig’s Remarks at First News Conference as Secretary of State,” New York Times, January 29, 1981.

[42] Walter LaFeber, “Marking Revolution Opposing Revolution,” New York Times (op-ed), July 3, 1983, E13.

[43] Lt. Col. Oliver North, “U.S. Political/Military Strategy for Nicaragua” (Plan to Overthrow the Sandinista Government), July 15, 1985, reprinted in Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, eds., The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History (New York:  New Press, 1993), 50.

[44] John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker, Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change (Berkeley: Westview Press, 2014), 139.

[45] See Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago, “The Culture and Politics of State Terror and Repression in El Salvador,” in Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez, eds., When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

[46] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2014), 142, 103.

[47] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2006), 98.

[48] “Catholic Bishops: Medellín Declaration (1968),” reprinted in Robert S. Leiken and Barry Rubin, eds., The Central American Crisis Reader (New York: Summit Books, 1987), 126.  See also, Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions (Orbis Books, 1984), and Berryman, Liberation Theology: Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond (Pantheon, 1987).

[49] Robert A. Pastor, “The Carter Administration and Latin America: A Test of Principle,” July 1992, 47, https://www.cartercenter.org/documents/1243.pdf; see also Paul D. Almeida, Waves of Protest: Popular Struggle in El Salvador, 1925-2005 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[50] “The 1970s: The Road to Revolt,” in Richard A. Haggarty, ed. El Salvador: A Country Study (Washington: Government Printing Office for the Library of Congress, 1988), http://countrystudies.us/el-salvador/9.htm.

[51] William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard:  The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 1998), 39.

[52] D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 48.

[53] Ibid., 45; and Thomas Carothers, In the Name of Democracy: United States Policy toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 266, note 7.   The U.S. dispensed military aid and training through the Military Assistance Program, International Military and Education Training program, Foreign Military Sales program, Office of Public Safety (police aid), and School of the Americas.

[54] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 38.

[55] See Robert A. Pastor, “The Carter Administration and Latin America: A Test of Principle,” July 1992, page 47, https://www.cartercenter.org/documents/1243.pdf; and LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 44.

[56] “Romero’s Letter to President Carter,” February 17, 1980, http://www.esnavillages.org/documents/Romero%20letter%20to%20Pres%20Carter.pdf.

[57] “Archbishop Oscar Romero: The Last Sermon,” in Robert Leiken and Barry Rubin, eds., The Central American Crisis Reader: The Essential Guide to the Most Controversial Foreign Policy Issue Today (New York: Summit Books, 1987), 377.

[58] Michael Getler, “New Diplomacy Tested by U.S. In El Salvador,” Washington Post, April 17, 1980.

[59] Cynthia Brown, ed., With Friends Like These: The Americas Watch Report on Human Rights and U.S. Policy in Latin America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 118; and Amnesty International, USA, “Repression in El Salvador” (from testimony before the Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives, March 1981), in Marvin E. Gettleman, ed., El Salvador: Central America in the Cold War (New York: Grove Press, 1982), 152-53.

[60] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 62-63; and Gettleman, ed., El Salvador: Central America in the Cold War, 64-65.

[61] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 86-87.

[62] Brown, With Friends Like These, 14, 26, 246.

[63] Arnson, Crossroads, 71-74.

[64] “The massacre of children and others at El Mozote,” El Salvador Perspectives, December 10, 2017, 1, http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com/2017/12/the-massacre-of-children-and-others-at.html; and Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of the Massacres of El Mozote and Nearby Places Versus El Salvador, Judgment of October 25, 2012, pp. 76, 82, http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_252_ing1.pdf.  See also, Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote (New York: Vintage, 1994); and D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 72-73.

[65] Raymond Bonner, “The diplomat who wouldn’t lie,” Politico, April 23, 2015, http://www.politico.eu/article/robert-white-the-diplomat-who-wouldnt-lie; and Mark Danner, “The Truth of El Mozote,” The New Yorker, December 3, 1993), 4, 50. Bonner arrived at the site with photojournalist Susan Meiselas to record the results a few days after the massacre.

[66] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 166-67.

[67] Brown, With Friends Like These, 122-23, 125.

[68] In 1984, the president of El Salvador’s Central Elections Council, Armando Rodriquez, admitted that more than a 25% inflation in the vote totals had taken place. “It’s clear that there was fraud. We didn’t denounce it because we didn’t want to foul up the good results and the good image of the election,” said Hugo Barrera, a leader of ARENA; cited in Brown, With Friends Like These, 121.  Regarding the four guardsmen convicted of murdering the American churchwomen, in 1998, while serving 30-year sentences, they divulged that they acted only after receiving “orders from above.”  See Larry Rohter, “4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military,” New York Times, April 3, 1998.

[69] Arnson, Crossroads, 151; and LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 188.

[70] D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 126.

[71] Ibid., 112-16.

[72] Ibid., 163; and Mark Hatfield, Jim Leach, and George Miller, Bankrolling Failure: United States Policy in El Salvador and the Urgent Need for Reforms (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, 1987).

[73] D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 115, 120.

[74] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 189.

[75] D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 143, 149.

[76] Ibid., 150.

[77] Robert Pear, “U.S. Official Links Salvadoran Right to Priests’ Deaths,” New York Times, November 21, 1989, cited in Arnson, Crossroads, 248.

[78] Arnson, Crossroads, 249; and D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 154.

[79] Arnson, Crossroads, 231.

[80] “Truth Commission: El Salvador,” United States Institute for Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/1992/07/truth-commission-el-salvador; “Charter: El Salvador: Mexico Peace Agreements—Provisions Creating the Commission on Truth,” https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/resources/collections/commissions/El%20Salvador-Charter.pdf; and “The massacre of children and others at El Mozote.”

[81]United States Department of Justice, Department of Public Affairs, “US Extradites Former Salvadoran Military Officer to Spain to Face Charges for Participation in 1989 Jesuit Massacre,” November 29, 2017; and Robin Maria DeLugan, Reimagining National Belonging: Post-Civil War El Salvador in a Global Context (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 122.

[82] Paul Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899-1944 (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1993), 17.

[83] Peter H. Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, The United States, and the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 149; and Douglas W. Trefzger, “Guatemala’s 1952 Agrarian Reform Law: Critical Reassessment,” International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer, March 22, 2002, http://www.ditext.com/trefzger/agrarian.html.

[84] Trefzger, “Guatemala’s 1952 Agrarian Reform Law,” 151.  For a more detailed review of the 1954 CIA operation, see Section VI of this website’s essay on Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990.

[85] Smith, Talons of the Eagle (1996), 137-38.

[86] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 57, 55.

[87] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2014), 176, 177, 122.  See also, Michael Cangemi, “Ambassador Frank Ortiz and Guatemala’s ‘Killer President,’ 1976-1980,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2018): 613-39.

[88] Flora Montealegre and Cynthia Arnson, “Background Information on Guatemala, Human Rights, and U.S. Military Assistance,” in Stanford Central America Action Network, Revolution in Central America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), 294; and Brown, With Friends Like These, 183.

[89] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2006), 122.

[90] Sikkink, Mixed Signals, 165.

[91] Jennifer Schirmer, The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 23-24; and Sikkink, Mixed Signals, 167.

[92] Sikkink, Mixed Signals, 168; and Brown, With Friends Like These, 185, 201.

[93] Sikkink, Mixed Signals, 168.

[94] Brown, With Friends Like These, 191, 193.

[95] Bernard Gwertzman, “U.S. Lifts Embargo on Military Sales to Guatemalans,” New York Times, January 8, 1983.

[96] Brown, With Friends Like These, 196; Sikkink, Mixed Signals, 159; and Elisabeth Malkin, “In Effort to Try Dictator, Guatemala Shows New Judicial Might,” New York Times, March 16, 2013.

[97] Dennis J. Bernstein, “Seeking Justice for Guatemalan Slaughter” (interview with Allan Nairn), Consortium News, January 27, 2016, https://consortiumnews.com/2016/01/27/seeking-justice-for-guatemalan-slaughter; and “Reagan and Guatemala’s Death Files,” Consortium News, Nov. 3, 2011, http://consortiumnews.com/2011/11/03/reagan-and-guatemalas-death-files.

[98] Tanya Broder and Bernard D. Lambek, “Military Aid to Guatemala: The Failure of U.S. Human Rights Legislation,” Yale Journal of International Law, Vol. 13, Issue 1 (1988), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjil/vol13/iss1/6.

[99] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2014), 124-26, 180.

[100] Guatemala, Memory of Silence, 20, 17, 42.

[101] Mariano Castillo. “Guatemala’s Ríos Montt Guilty of Genocide.” CNN, May 13, 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/05/10/world/americas/guatemala-genocide-trial.

[102] Richard Grossman, “The Blood of the People: The Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua Fifty Year War Against the People of Nicaragua, 1927-1979,” in Cecilia Menjíar and Néstor Rodriguez, eds., When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005); and Gill, The School of the Americas, 76.

[103] The brutality of the Somoza government was documented by Amnesty International in The Republic of Nicaragua (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1977) and by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Nicaragua: Findings of the “On-site” Observation in the Republic of Nicaragua, October 3-12, 1978 (Washington: Organization of American States, 1978).

[104] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2006), 76.

[105] Mary B. Vanderlaan, Revolution and Foreign Policy in Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), 65.

[106] Pierre Hurel, “Ortega ne red pas les armes” (interview with Daniel Ortega), Paris Match, March 22, 1990, quoted in Thomas Walker, ed., Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), 10.  In regard to the nine-member Sandinista Directorate, two were from upper class families, four from middle class homes, three from the working class, and one was the son of a peasant family who grew up in poverty. See Dennis Gilbert, Sandinistas: The Party and the Revolution (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 42.

[107] FSLN National Directorate, Participatory Democracy in Nicaragua (Managua, 1984, English translation), 75-77; Envío team, “The Agrarian Reform Law In Nicaragua,” Envío, No. 3 (August 1981); and Larry Rohter, “Nicaragua Has a Postwar Baby Boom,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 1985, 15.

[108] On the tension between the FSLN vanguard approach and participatory democracy, see Katherine Hoyt, The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy (Athens: Ohio Univ. Center for International Studies, 1997).

[109] William R. Long, “Radicalism Not Necessary, Castro Advises Sandinistas,” January 13, 1985, Los Angeles Times.

[110] “Official Communiqué of the National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front on Religion,” October 7, 1980, in FSLN National Directorate, Participatory Democracy, 133-37. See also, Teófilo Cabestrero, Revolutionaries for the Gospel: Testimonies of Fifteen Christians in the Nicaraguan Government, translated from the Spanish by Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986); and Michael Dodson and Laura O’Shaughnessy, The Other Revolution: The Church and the Popular Struggle in Nicaragua (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990).

[111] See Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 181-82.

[112] Lawrence A. Pezzullo (U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua), “Confidential Cable to the U.S. State Department,” Aug. 23, 1979, National Security Archive, Nicaragua collection, NI01063, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/index.html.

[113] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 30; and Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 41-42.

[114] Rep. Jim Wright, Worth It All:  My War for Peace (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1993).

[115] Gerry E. Studds, “Central America, 1981: Report to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives,” quoted in Robert E. Surbrug Jr., “’Thinking Globally’: Political Movements on the Left in Massachusetts, 1974-1990” (PhD diss., Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst, 2003), 428-31.

[116] “U.S. Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, Cable to Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr., Dept. of State, Secret, February 18, 1981,” 1-2, Declassified Documents Retrieval System (DDRS) online.

[117] The Committee of Santa Fe, A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties (Washington, D.C.: Council for Inter-American Security, 1980), 1; “1980 Republican Party Platform,” The Patriot Post, http://patriotpost.us/histdocs/platforms/republican/rep.980.html; and Sergio Ramírez, “The Unfinished American Revolution and Nicaragua Today,” July 14, 1983, reprinted in Marlene Dixon and Susanne Jonas, eds., Nicaragua Under Siege (San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1984), 211.

[118] “Finding Pursuant to Section 662 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as Amended, Concerning Operations Undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency in Foreign Countries, Other Than Those Intended Solely for the Purpose of Intelligence Collection” (Presidential Finding, declassified sections), March 9, 1981, National Security Archive, Nicaragua collection, NI01287.

[119] Bernard Weinraub, “Congress Renews Curbs on Actions Against Nicaragua:  Measure Forbids U.S. Support for Military Moves Aimed at Toppling Sandinists,” New York Times, Dec. 23, 1982, A1.

[120] David Hoffman and George Lardner Jr., “Hill Panel to Disclose Criticism of Intelligence on Central America,” Washington Post, Sept. 22, 1982, A3.

[121] Philip Taubman, “In From the Cold and Hot for Truth,” New York Times, July 11, 1984, B6.

[122] Defense Intelligence Agency Report, July 1982, quoted in Peter Kornbluh, Nicaragua: The Price of Intervention; Reagan’s Wars Against the Sandinistas (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1987), 23.

[123] Ariel C. Armony, Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-communist Crusade in Central America, 1977-1984 (Athens: Ohio Univ. Center for International Studies, 1997), 115.  See also, Alejandro Bendaña, Una Tragedia Campesina: Testimonios de la Resistencia (Managua, Center for International Studies, 1991); Dieter Eich and Carlos Rincón, The Contras: Interviews with Anti-Sandinistas (San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1985); Christopher Dickey, With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985); and Lynn Horton, Peasants in Arms: War and Peace in the Mountains of Nicaragua, 1979-1994 (Athens: Ohio Univ. Center for International Studies, 1998).

[124] Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua, 101-05; and Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003), 114.

[125] Jonathan Lemco, Canada and the Crisis in Central America (New York: Praeger, 1991), 17.

[126] “Allegations of Contra Massacre,” Confidential Cable from Ambassador Anthony Quainton to Dept. of State, Aug. 13, 1983, 1-2, National Security Archive, Nicaragua collection, NI01791.

[127] “C.I.A. Said to Produce Manual for anti-Sandinistas,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 1984.

[128] Joel Brinkley, “Democrats Assail C.I.A. Primer for Latin Rebels,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 1984, A6.

[129] Reed Brody, Contra Terror in Nicaragua: Report of a Fact-Finding Mission, September 1984-January 1985 (Boston: South End Press, 1985); and Larry Rohter, “Nicaragua Rebels Accused of Abuses: Private Group Reports Pattern of Attacks and Atrocities,” New York Times, March 7, 1985, A1.

[130] Joanne Omang, “Inquiry Finds Atrocities By Nicaraguan ‘Contras,’” Washington Post, March 7, 1985, A14.

[131] “Statement of Adm. Stansfield Turner, Former Director of Central Intelligence” (April 16, 1985), U.S. Support for the Contras, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Ninth Congress, First Session, April 16, 17 and 18, 1985 (Washington, DC:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), 4.

[132] Edgar Chamorro, “Letter to the Editor,” New York Times, Jan. 9, 1986, A22.  See also, Edgar Chamorro, Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation (New York: Institute for Media Analysis, 1987).

[133] President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a White House Luncheon for Regional Editors and Broadcasters,” June 13, 1986, Reagan Public Papers.

[134] Arnson, Crossroads, ix.

[135] Harry Van Cleve, Comptroller General of the U.S. General Accounting Office, non-classified letter to Rep. Jack Brooks and Rep. Dante B. Fascell, Sept. 30, 1987, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC04287.

[136] Committee on Foreign Affairs Staff Report, U.S. House of Representatives, State Department and Intelligence Community Involvement in Domestic Activities Related to the Iran/Contra Affair, Sept. 7, 1988, 24, National Security Archive, Nicaragua collection, NI02137.

[137] President Ronald W. Reagan, “Address to the Nation on the Situation in Nicaragua, March 16, 1986,” Reagan Public Papers.

[138] “Public Diplomacy Action Plan: Support for the White House Educational Campaign,” Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, March, 12, 1985, cited in Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2007), 125.

[139] Thomas W. Walker, ed., Reagan Versus the Sandinistas:  The Undeclared War on Nicaragua (Boulder, CO:  Westview Press, 1987), 3-4.

[140] Rabbi Balfour Brickner, “What’s Jewish in Nicaragua” (Guest Opinion), Philadelphia Daily News, Dec. 1, 1984, 14.

[141] Alejandro Bandaña, “Nicaragua’s and Latin America’s ‘Lessons” for Iraq,” March 1, 2004, http://aworldtowin.net/documents/Iraq_Dossier.pdf.

[142] See Philip Taubman, “Key Aides Dispute U.S. Role in Nicaraguan Vote,” New York Times, Oct. 21, 1984, A12. Taubman writes:  “Since May [1984], when American policy toward the elections was formed, the Administration has wanted the opposition candidate, Arturo José Cruz, either to not enter the race or, if he did, to withdraw before the election, claiming conditions were unfair.  ‘The Administration never contemplated letting Cruz stay in the race,’ one official said, ‘because then the Sandinistas could justifiably claim that the elections were legitimate, making it much harder for the United States to oppose the Nicaraguan government.’”  See also, Taubman, “U.S. Seeks to Sway Opinion on Nicaragua,” New York Times, Nov. 14, 1984, A10.

[143] Philip Taubman, “The Nicaraguan Vote; Results Will Probably Heighten Tensions Between Washington and the Sandinistas,” New York Times, Nov. 5, 1984, A12.

[144] “Election Draws Many U.S. Observers,” New York Times, Nov. 4, 1984, 21.  See also, “Nicaragua’s 1984 Elections—A History Worth the Retelling,” Envío, No. 102 (Jan. 1990).

[145] Latin American Studies Association (LASA), The Electoral Process in Nicaragua:  Domestic and International Influences (Austin, TX:  LASA, 1984), 1, 31-32. Other reports of international observers include:  Thom Kerstiens and Piet Nelissen (official Dutch government observers), “Report on the Elections in Nicaragua, 4 November 1984”; Irish Inter-Party Parliamentary Delegation, The Elections in Nicaragua, November, 1984 (Dublin: Irish Parliament, 1984); Parliamentary Human Rights Group, “Report of a British Parliamentary Delegation to Nicaragua to Observe the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, 4 November 1984”; and Willy Brandt and Thorvald Stoltenberg, “Statement [on Nicaraguan Elections on behalf of the Socialist International],” Bonn, Nov. 7, 1984.

[146] President Reagan, speeches on April 27, 1983, May 9, 1984, October 21, 1984, March 1, 1985, March 30, 1985, Feb. 4, 1986, and Feb. 2, 1988, Reagan Public Papers; Bernard Weinraub, “President Calls Sandinista Foes ‘Our Brothers,’” New York Times, Feb. 17. 1985, A1; President Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on “Central America,” Feb. 16, 1985, American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38231; and Col. Daniel Jacobowitz, “Public Diplomacy Action Plan: Support for the White House Educational Campaign,” March 12, 1985, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC00934, 2-3. On the College Republican “Save the Contras” campaign, see Terry Atlas, “Contra Aid Pipeline Goes Private As U.S. Funds Dry Up,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1985.

[147] “Public Diplomacy Strategy Paper: Central America,” March 19, 1984, 7, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC00369; and John Goshko, “Diplomacy by Wright, Ortega Hit,” Washington Post, Nov. 15, 1987.

[148] Gill, The School of the Americas, 83.

[149] Philip Taubman, “The Speaker and His Sources on Latin America,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 1984, B10.

[150] Rep. David Bonior, telephone interview with Roger Peace, June 27, 2011; and LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 487.

[151] Poll results are tabulated in Richard Sobel, ed., Public Opinion in U.S. Foreign Policy (Lantham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 22-28, 59-70.

[152] “Secret, Presidential Finding, September 19, 1983,” https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/documents/d-nic-24.pdf.  See also, Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne, The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History (New York: The New press, 1993), 382.

[153] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 392.

[154] Booth, Wade, and Walker, Understanding Central America (2006), 79.

[155] Kenneth E. Sharpe, “The Post-Vietnam Formula under Siege: The Imperial Presidency and Central America,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 102, No. 4 (Winter 1987-1988), 564.

[156] LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, 361; and Smith, Talons of the Eagle, 212.

[157] “Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities In and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America).” See also, Abram Chayes, “Nicaragua, the United States, and the World Court,” Columbia Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 7 (Nov. 1985): 1445-1482.

[158] Senator James M. Jeffords, An Independent Man: Adventures of a Public Servant (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 184.

[159] “Joanne Omang and David Hoffman, “Reagan Sends Dole to Seek Pope’s Advice on Central America, Washington Post, April 6, 1985, A16; Shirley Christian, “Reagan Aides See No Possibility of an Accord with Sandinistas,” New York Times, Aug. 18. 1985, A1; and Elaine Sciolino, “Reagan Will Seek Contra Arms Aid Despite New Move; Managua Vow Dismissed,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 1988, A1.

[160] USIA Office of Research, “West Europeans Critical of U.S. Central American Policy” Research Memorandum, August 30, 1984, 1, 4, 5, National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), RG 306, Regular and Special Reports of the Office of Research, 1983-1987.

[161] Flora Lewis, “Foreign Affairs:  Signal From the Voters.” New York Times, April 19, 1984, p. A19; and R. W.  Apple, “Ireland’s Premier Chides President,” New York Times, June 4, 1984, A1.

[162] Jack Nelson, “Latin Policy of U.S. Viewed as Dividing NATO,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1985; and “Spaniards Protest Visit by Reagan,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 1985, 13.

[163] Dion van den Berg, “Local Governments’ Support for the Peace Movement in the 1980s:  the Example of Dutch Municipalities,” http://www.citydiplomacy.org/fileadmin/user_upload/813093_Binnenwerk_en4.pdf; and Steven Becker, Jiri Dienstbier, et al., “Protests on Nicaragua,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Feb. 13, 1986).

[164] Phillip Geyelin, “Do Americans Really Understand Western Europe?” Washington Post, April 25, 1985, p. A23.

[165] CIA officials admitted this to Loch K. Johnson, “the dean of American intelligence scholars,” cited in Scott Shane, “America Meddles in Elections, Too,” New York Times, February 18, 2018, Week-in-Review, p. 5.

[166] “1990 Election Results,” Nicaraguan Perspectives, Issue No. 19, Fall/Winter 1990, 3; and María Lopez Vigil, director of Envío magazine in 2006, comments at a meeting with a visiting group of U.S. citizens, Kairos House in Managua, June 19, 2006.

[167] According to Lynn Horton, in Peasants in Arms, “Out of a population of approximately 3.5 million, 30,865 Nicaraguans were killed during the war” (page xv).  Internal displacement figures are cited in Thomas Walker, ed., Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), 52.  Economic damage costs of $9 billion are cited in both of the above studies.  Walker, Reagan Versus the Sandinistas, xiii.

[168] Central America Resource Center, Directory of Central America Organizations, Third Edition, 1987 (Austin, TX: Central America Resource Center, 1986), Introduction.

[169] Inter-religious Task Force on Central America (IRTFCA), Peacemaking II: U.S. Religious Statements on Central America (New York: IRTFCA, July 1984), 49, 39-40.  Denominational statements were issued by the American Baptist, American Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Episcopal, Mennonite, Moravian, Presbyterian, Religious Society of Friends, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, and United Methodist churches, and the United Hebrew Association.  Pastoral letters were issued by five Catholic bishops and archbishops.

[170] Cynthia J. Arnson and Philip Brenner, “The Limits of Lobbying:  Interest Groups, Congress, and Aid to the Contras,” in Sobel, ed., Public Opinion in U.S. Foreign Policy, 195.

[171] Robert Kagan, “Public Diplomacy Plan for Explaining U.S. Central American Policy to the U.S. Religious Community,” Confidential Memorandum to Walter Raymond Jr., Sept. 18, 1986, 1, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC03439. For a comprehensive account of the Nicaragua campaign within the Central America movement, see Roger Peace, A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

[172] United States volunteers in Nicaragua and the death of Benjamin Linder; Hearings before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, first session, May 13, 1987 (reprint from the collection of the University of Michigan Library, 2010), 118; and Joanne Omang, “Catholic Groups Differ With Pope Over Nicaragua,” New York Times, July 23, 1984, A1.

[173] Jim McGinnis, “Notes (rough copy) from Nicaragua Conference, Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit, November 16, 17, 18 [1979],” Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Central America Working Group files, DG-145; Diane Passmore, “Outcomes, Resolutions, Directions from the Second National Conference on Nicaragua,” ibid.; “Second National Conference On Nicaragua, Detroit, Michigan, Nov. 16-18, 1979, Conference Agenda,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Nicaragua Network files, box 3; and Judith Valente, “D.C.-Area Hispanics Collect Funds to Spread Revolutionary Information,” Washington Post, Feb. 25, 1980, A20.

[174] “Resolution from the East Coast Conference,” Oct. 11-12, 1980, quoted in Van Gosse, “’The North American Front’: Central American Solidarity in the Reagan Era,” in Michael Sprinker and Mike Davis, eds., The Year Left, Vol. 3: Reshaping the U.S. Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s (New York: Verso, 1988), 45-46, note 15.

[175] Van Gosse, “Radical, Pragmatic, and Successful,” Crossroads Magazine, No. 40 (April 1994), http://www.nathannewman.org/EDIN/.mags/.cross/.40/.40salv/.40salv.html.

[176] Philip Shenon, “Papers Show Wide Surveillance of Reagan Critics,” New York Times, Jan. 28, 1988, A1; Kathy Bodivitz, “U.S. Salvador Policy Foes: Big FBI Probe of Protest Groups,” San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1988, A1; Ross Gelbspan, “Suit Seeks FBI’s Files on Dissidents,” Boston Globe, Nov. 30, 1988, 8; and Michael Wines, “Panel Criticizes F.B.I. for Scrutiny of U.S. Group,” New York Times, July 17, 1989.

[177] Joel Brinkley, “Four Veterans Ending Fast on Policy in Nicaragua,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1986, A16; “War Medals Returned To Protest U.S. Policy,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 1986, A22; and Penny Pagano, “Four Veterans Say Other Efforts Will Go On, Fast Over Central America Policy to End,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1986, 14.

[178] S. Brian Willson, letter to Captain Lonnie Cagle, Commander Concord Naval Weapons Station, Aug. 21, 1987, WHS archive, VFP files, box 2, folder 11; and “Excerpts from Testimony Prepared and Presented by S. Brian Willson for Hearings Conducted by the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Investigations, Washington, D.C., November 18, 1987,” http://www.brianwillson.com/evracnwstest.html.

[179] Father Alvaro Argüello, in person interview with Roger Peace, Managua, June 26, 2006; Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, in person interview with Roger Peace, Managua, June 26, 2006; and Inter-religious Task Force on Central America (IRTFCA), Peacemaking II: U.S. Religious Statements on Central America (New York: IRTFCA, circa late 1984 or 1985), 55,57.

[180] “Policy and Guidelines for Thursday Vigils, CUSCLIN,” Managua, no date. CUSCLIN organizational records and literature were made available to author Roger Peace by Penn Garvin.

[181] Joanne Omang, “Nicaraguan Leader Makes U.S. Tour,” Washington Post, October 9, 1984.

[182] See Ed Griffin-Nolan, Witness for Peace: A Story of Resistance (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).

[183] Liz Chilsen and Sheldon Rampton, Friends in Deed:  The Story of U.S.-Nicaragua Sister Cities (Madison: Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua, 1988), 20, appendixes; and Alexandra Early and Jan Morrill, “Sister Cityhood is Powerful Learning From Twenty-Five Years of Solidarity, Struggle, & Tortilla-Making in El Salvador,” Social Policy 41, 2 (Summer 2011), 36.  See also, Molly Todd, Long Journey to Justice: El Salvador, the United States, and Struggles Against Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021).

[184] Andrew Battista, “Unions and Cold War Foreign Policy in the 1980s: The National Labor Committee, the AFL-CIO, and Central America,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2002), 39, 410-11, 442; and Neil Henry, “Inside the Revolution,” Washington Post, Sept. 29, 1985, 6.

[185] Envío team, “International Solidarity on the Upswing,” Envío, No. 80 (Feb. 1988).

[186] Susan Gzesh, “Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era,” Migration Information Source, April 2006, http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?id=384.

[187] Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and James Loucky, “The Sanctuary Movement and Central American Activism in Los Angeles,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 36, Issue 6, December 18, 2009, 106-107. At least sixteen books and dissertations have been written on the Sanctuary Movement alone. See books by Ignatius Bau, Ann Crittenden, Hilary Cunningham, Miriam Davidson, Renny Golden and Michael McConnell, Robin Lorentzen, Gary MacEoin (editor), Judith McDaniel, Elma L. Otter and Dorothy F. Pine, Dick Simpson and Clinton Stockwell, and Robert Tomsho; and dissertations by Jeanne Clark, Susan Coutin, Anne Marie Hildreth, Rachel Ovryn-Rivera, and Angela Stout.

[188] Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Convictions of the Soul:  Religion, Culture, and Agency in the Central American Solidarity Movement (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), 132-33.

[189] Doug Liman, “American Made,” 20th Century Fox, 2017.  See also, Robert Parry, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ (Arlington, Virginia: The Media Consortium, 1999).  For a detailed review of different aspects of the Iran-Contra affair, intended as a resource for teachers and students, see “Understanding the Iran-Contra Affairs,” Brown University, https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/about.php.

[190] Abraham Riesman, “Doug Liman on Crash Allegations, American Made and Living with Tom Cruise,” Vulture, September 22, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/09/liman-speaks-about-tom-cruise-and-american-made-crash.html.

[191] For details on Seal’s escapades and government connections, see Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (London: Verso, 1998); Michael Hopsicker, Barry and the Boyz: The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History (Mad Cow Press, 2001); Roger Morris, Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1996), 389-427; and for a skeptical view see Del Hahn, Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, ed. Tom Ashwell (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 2016).

[192] See Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987).

[193] See Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003).

[194] Marshall, Scott and Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection, 11.

[195] See Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 201-412; Bob Woodward, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 (New York: Pocket Books, 1987).

[196] Caspar Weinberger, Handwritten Notes of Meeting in White House Family Quarters, December 7, 1985, Lawrence Walsh investigation, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB483/.

[197] National Security Planning Group (NSPG) Meeting, “Subject: Review of US Policy in Central America, January 10, 1986, Secret,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB483; Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 326.

[198] Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua, 326; Malcolm Byrne, Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2014). See also more document revelations at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB483/

[199] Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State also knew more than they testified publicly though both opposed aspects of the arms-for-hostages scheme.

[200] Marshall, Scott and Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection, 16.

[201] Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua, 236-241.

[202] Jane Hunter, Israel’s Foreign Policy (Boston: South End Press, 1987); Marshall, Scott and Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection.

[203] Alfred W. McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[204] “Handwritten Notebooks of Oliver North,” National Security Archive, The Contras, Cocaine and Covert Operations, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB2/index.html; Hahn, The Life and Death of Barry Seal, 286; Jon Roberts, American Desperado: My Life – From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset (New York: Crown Publishers, 2011), 2, 493. FBI agent Del Hahn mentions the U.S. governments’ ties with smugglers Gerardo Duran, Gary Wayne Betzner who flew weapons missions and returned with loads of cocaine and Frank Moss, while mafia trafficker Jon Roberts specified in his memoirs that he smuggled guns and in turn received special radio codes that allowed he and his associates to fly back to the U.S. with impunity while smuggling in cocaine.

[205] Douglas Valentine, The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues That Shaped the DEA (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2009), 379, 394.

[206] William LaJeunesse, “U.S. intelligence assets in Mexico reportedly tied to murdered DEA agent,” www.foxnews.com, October 10, 2013; Russell H. Bartley and Sylvia E. Bartley, Eclipse of the Assassins: The CIA, Imperial Politics, and the Slaying of Mexican Journalist Manuel Buendía. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). The latter book provides new evidence which shows that U.S. intelligence assets collaborated with Mexican intelligence in the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena after Camarena arrested onetime CIA asset Rafael Caro Quintero, who was likely part of the Contra supply network, and had overseen the training of Guatemalan death squads on his ranch. A CIA contract pilot initially helped Quintero to flee to Costa Rica after the murder, though this escape was short-lived. Phil Jordan, former Director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center said that “the CIA was involved in the movement of drugs from South America to Mexico and to the U.S.”

[207] Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998). The original series appeared with the San José Mercury News in 1996.

[208] Cockburn and St. Clair, Whiteout; Nick Schou, Kill the Messenger: How the CIAs Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (New York: The Nation Books, 2006).

[209] “Handwritten Notebooks of Oliver North,” National Security Archive, The Contras, Cocaine and Covert Operations, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB2/index.html. See also, Jonathan Marshall and Peter Dale Scott, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America, rev ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); The Contras, Cocaine and Covert Operations, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB2/index.html.

[210] Lawrence E. Walsh, Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, vol. 1, Investigations and Prosecutions, Aug. 4, 1993, Washington, D.C., Executive Summary, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/walsh. See also Kornbluh and Byrne, The Iran-Contra Scandal, 338.

[211] Hyde, Iran-Contra.

[212] The Iran-Contra scandal may be compared to the Watergate scandal fourteen years earlier.  President Richard Nixon was held accountable for a burglary but not for his secret, unauthorized bombing of Cambodia that caused massive death and destruction.

[213] Human Rights Watch, “El Salvador: Events of 2020,” World Report 2021, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/el-salvador#.

[214] Charles Babington, “Clinton:  Support for Guatemala Was Wrong,” Washington Post, March 11, 1999, A1; and Guatemala, Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (82 pages), 1999, https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/mos_en.pdf.

[215] Rabe, The Killing Zone, 194.

[216] D’Haeseleer, The Salvadoran Crucible, 6, 10.


Dr. Williams specializes in U.S.-Latin American history and 20th-century social movements in the United States and Latin America.  She directs the Peace, Justice, & Conflict Resolution Studies program at Winthrop University and has served as president of the Peace History Society. 

Dr. Peace is the website coordinator, former community college instructor, and author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (2012) and A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (1991). 

Dr. Kuzmarov is the author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (2009); Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (2012); and Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (2019).  He currently the managing editor of CovertAction Magazine.

This essay is the collective work of Virginia S. Williams, Roger Peace, and Jeremy Kuzmarov, with contributions from readers Brian D’Haeseleer, Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Lyon College, Richard Grossman, Latin American History Instructor at Northeastern Illinois University, and Michael Schmidli, Professor of U.S. Foreign Relations at Bucknell University. 

Updated January 2022

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