Twenty Years After Iran-Contra, Washington’s Role In Nicaragua Still a Scandal

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Imagine Osama bin Laden visiting the United States ten or 15 years from now, telling Americans who to vote for if they want to avoid getting hurt. It would never happen, but in Nicaragua something very similar is happening in the run-up to their election on November 5.

Former US Lt. Col. Oliver North, who helped organize and raise funds for a terrorist organization that decimated Nicaragua in the 1980s, returned to that country's ground zero in late October to warn the citizens there against re-electing Daniel Ortega.

Ortega first came to power in a 1979 revolution led by the Sandinistas, which overthrew the brutal Washington-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. The Somoza family had ruled the country since US Marines invaded and occupied Nicaragua from 1927-1933.

But the US Central Intelligence Agency soon brought guns and money to the enforcers of the toppled dictatorship, Somoza's hated National Guard. Before long these re-named "contras" were killing health care workers, teachers, and elected officials-- the CIA actually prepared a manual which advocated the assassination of the latter. The contras preferred attacking these "soft targets" rather than the national armed forces. In that sense they were very much a terrorist organization; they also used torture and rape as political weapons.

These atrocities brought the contras universal condemnation from humans rights groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch. The Sandinistas took the United States to the World Court for its terrorist actions--the same court where the US had won a judgment against Iran just a few years earlier, for the taking of American hostages. The court ruled in favor of Nicaragua, ordering reparations estimated at $17 billion.

The heinous nature of these crimes and the direct involvement of the Reagan Administration disgusted millions of Americans, even more so after Ortega was democratically elected in 1984. Led by activists in the religious community, some hundreds of thousands of US citizens organized against US funding for the contras and convinced Congress to cut it off. That's where Ollie North came in: on behalf of the Reagan Administration, he illegally sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contras. This became the infamous "Iran-Contra" scandal of twenty years ago.

North was convicted of various felonies for his Iran-Contra crimes, but never served time because his conviction was overturned due to a technicality on appeal. In 1990 the Sandinistas were voted out of office by a public weary of war, with President George H.W. Bush making it clear that the violence would continue if the Sandinistas were re-elected.

Nicaragua's economy never recovered from the war and the US embargo. Today it is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, with a per capita income less than it was in 1960.

Now Washington is trying to capitalize on its past terrorism, combined with present threats, to achieve the same result as in 1990. US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned that "relations with our country have been limited and damaged when the Sandinistas have been in power" and Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher warned of another economic embargo and the cutoff of vital remittances that Nicaraguans here send home to their families. The US Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli has also breached protocol by openly warning that the United States would "reevaluate relations" with Nicaragua if Ortega, who has first place in the polls with 35 percent, wins.

U.S. officials' intervention has gone so far as to prompt a public rebuke from the Organization of American States, who asked them to stay out of the election. Meanwhile, millions of US taxpayer dollars are funding "democracy promotion" activities in Nicaragua, which have previously been used to influence elections there. And TV commercials show footage of corpses from the 1980's war, a warning of what might happen if Nicaraguans vote the "wrong" way.

Ortega has since lost many of his former allies, who denounced him for making a "pact" with the corrupt former president Arnoldo Aleman and undermining democracy. A reform Sandinista group has entered the race and its presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin is polling at about 14 percent.

But whatever the electoral result in Nicaragua, Washington's intervention in this election remains, as it was in the 1980s, an international disgrace for the United States.