Former President Jimmy Carter’s recent trip to Cuba prompted much talk among pundits over his role as an ex-president. From building houses for the poor to monitoring elections in the third world, today, more people associate Carter with Habitat for Humanity than with long gas lines and American hostages in Iran.
In fact, Carter has so successfully reinvented his persona since his 1980 defeat to Ronald Reagan that few people seem to remember that there was a time when he wasn’t an ex-president. So, before Jimmy “malaise” Carter lectures us any more on American foreign policy, let us look back at his own record when he actually ran it — specifically on a country I know a thing or two about: Nicaragua.
My family and I left Nicaragua in 1979, at the height of the civil war that brought the Marxist Sandinistas to power. Jimmy Carter did not start this conflict — but his handling of it turned a bad situation into an unmitigated disaster.
Carter named Lawrence Pezzullo (at the time U.S. ambassador to Uruguay) as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua in June 1979 with the sole mission of pressuring President Anastasio Somoza to step down.
The Carter administration was critical of Somoza’s human rights record, but it should have been under no illusions as to the Sandinistas’ true nature. In August 1978, Sandinistas disguised as Nicaraguan military stormed the National Palace, Nicaragua’s capitol, and held the entire legislature hostage. In a communiqué read over television and radio as one of their demands, the Sandinistas denounced the “financial bourgeoisie” as an “ally of somocismo” that “the people and other anti-somocista sectors should unmask and crush.”
The document also called for violent revolt and acknowledged Cuban assistance. Its language was clearly Marxist. It proudly proclaimed: “The violent process initiated by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in October 1977 brought out into the open the latent political and economic contradictions among the different sectors and classes of production.”
Between December 1978 and July 1979, the Sandinistas received at least 60 planeloads of weapons and supplies in neighboring Costa Rica, most from Cuba. Yet, while this was going on, the Carter administration cut off military aid to Nicaragua and pressured Israel to do the same.
Somoza had promised to step down at the end of his official term, in 1981, but Carter would have none of that. Under intense pressure from the Carter administration and left-leaning Latin American governments in Mexico and Venezuela, Somoza resigned on July 17, 1979. Francisco Urcuyo Maliaños, a member of the legislature, took over as interim president.
Urcuyo, according to Pezzullo, was supposed to negotiate a handing over of power to a Sandinista-dominated five-member junta, but he refused to do so. The Carter administration accused Urcuyo of breaking his word, but Urcuyo was probably worried about Carter and Pezzullo keeping theirs.
Through Pezzullo, Carter gave Somoza assurances that the National Guard would remain in existence. Though often derided as Somoza’s praetorian guard, the Guard, as Nicaragua’s official military, was in fact a professional force and the only effective counterweight to the avowedly Marxist Sandinista Front — known by its Spanish initials, FSLN.
The Carter administration was aware of the Guard’s importance. Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Viron Vaky said at the time he believed it “necessary to preserve the integrity of the National Guard as an important element of moderation in future arrangements,” because “a full military victory by the FSLN could reduce the future strength of moderate forces substantially.”
A Marxist takeover of Nicaragua was not inevitable. The Guard, though weakened, still controlled the capital and had even made some advances in the southern part of the country. Urcuyo’s provisional government and the Guard were all that stood in the way of an outright Sandinista victory.
But, rather than try to strengthen Urcuyo’s and the Guard’s hands as moderating, pro-American influences, Carter recalled Pezzullo to Washington in protest when Urcuyo refused to unconditionally hand over power to the junta. Urcuyo, isolated, left two days later.
This may have been Carter’s intention all along. On July 15, two days before Somoza’s departure, Sandinista junta member Sergio Ramirez Mercado told reporters that special U.S. Ambassador William Bowdler told him the day before that the U.S. was ready to unilaterally recognize the junta as Nicaragua’s government. He quoted Bowdler as saying: “You are the new government of Nicaragua and our conversations have been cordial because the government of the United States is the only one that has sent an ambassador to talk to you.”
On July 19, FSLN guerrillas entered Nicaragua’s capital Managua and the junta took power as the country’s new government. Five days later, the United States formally recognized it.
On July 29, Pezzullo, who had been under orders to not present credentials to Somoza, returned to Nicaragua and presented credentials to the Sandinista-led junta. The night before, junta members Alfonso Robelo and Moises Hassan returned from Havana, where they had been guests of dictator Fidel Castro for the July 26 anniversary celebration of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack that commenced the guerrilla war that brought Castro to power in 1959. Humberto Ortega, who later headed the Sandinista army, and Sandinista culture minister Ernesto Cardenal (who was later berated by the Pope on the Managua airport tarmac) were also in Havana for the festivities.
A year later it was Castro’s turn to celebrate the Sandinistas’ victory. On July 17, 1980, the Sandinistas celebrated their first anniversary as Nicaragua’s government with a rally at the Plaza of the Republic-renamed the “Plaza of the Revolution”-in Managua. Guests included Castro, PLO head Yasir Arafat, Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Gotzbadegh-this at a time when Iran was holding Americans hostage-and delegations from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Poland. The FSLN comandantes had plenty to celebrate. Their project to build a socialist paradise had come a long way-over that one year, they had:
Established their own political military — a force named not the Nicaraguan Army, but the Sandinista Popular Army.
Provided a safe base of operations for Marxist insurgencies from around Latin America, including Argentina’s notoriously brutal Montoneros.
Began efforts, assisted by Fidel Castro, to subvert neighboring governments in El Salvador and Guatemala. Specifically, the Sandinistas began providing assistance to the Marxist Farabundo Martí Front in El Salvador.
Set up Cuban-style revolutionary defense committees.
Repeatedly shut down opposition newspaper La Prensa, which previously had also opposed Somoza. Sandinista comandante Bayardo Arce later summed up his party’s attitude towards press freedom: “We support freedom of the press, but, of course, the freedom of the press we support will be a freedom of the press that supports the revolution.”
Seized all of the country’s radio and television stations.
Intimidated non-Sandinista trade unions.
Seized tribal lands from the Miskito Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.
Seized 240 private companies
Seized over 55 percent of the country’s arable land.
Nationalized private banks, insurance companies, the fishing industry, and foreign-owned mines.
Refused to criticize the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Refused to criticize the communist Polish government’s crackdown on Solidarity.
The Carter Administration rewarded the Sandinistas’ behavior with a $75 million aid package.
And Pezzullo, who was at the 1980 anniversary rally, said that, “the most dreadful theses about this country have not come to pass. Nicaragua is an acceptable model of a country after a revolution.” In March 1981, the Washington Post reported that Pezzullo declined to respond when asked about reports that tons of weapons destined for Salvadoran guerrillas were stored in warehouses in Managua, and that Pezzullo “knows it and knows where they are.”
President Reagan dismissed Pezzullo in August 1981 and took a hard-nosed approach towards the thuggish Sandinistas, who he believed were intent on destabilizing all of Central America and could not be dealt with through normal diplomacy. His administration began providing aid to both Nicaraguan anticommunist rebels (the word contra is a Sandinista-coined pejorative for “counterrevolutionaries”) and to the Salvadoran government, under siege from Cuban- and Nicaraguan-supported Marxist guerrillas.
Sandinista leaders had kind words for Pezzullo on the eve of his departure from Managua. Foreign minister Miguel d’Escoto, an U.S.-educated Maryknoll priest, called him “the best U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua in this century. He tried to help his Government understand the irreversibility of the process.” [Emphasis added]
Pezzullo took a teaching position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and continued apologizing for the Sandinistas. In a great moment in obfuscation, he told the New York Times shortly after leaving his post in Managua:
“[W]hen you throw yourself into a revolution, there are no quick answers…One of the problems is that if you get too specific in your answers, you lose the capacity to understand the movement…My basic feeling about a revolutionary movement is that you’d better move with it and live with it.”
But the anti-Sandinista rebels weren’t about to “live with it.” Though portrayed in the international media as sore-loser National Guardsmen, their ranks included peasants whose land had been confiscated by the Sandinistas and former Sandinistas disgusted with the regime’s radical pro-Soviet turn. The Sandinistas dubbed them contras, but they shot back with their own term of derision for the Sandinistas: piricuacos (piris for short), which means “rabid dogs.”
Throughout the 1980s, the Sandinistas proved Reagan’s assessment of them right time and again. Their harassment of opponents made a mockery of any democratic façade — however weak — they tried to put before the world. Nicaragua had elections in 1984, but press censorship and harassment of opposition candidates by the infamous “divine mobs” made the campaign anything but fair. In one instance, a Sandinista mob pelted opposition presidential candidate Arturo Cruz Sr.’s vehicle with bags of urine. The piris managed to bully Cruz-a member of the original Sandinista junta who later turned against the FSLN-into dropping out of the race.
Whatever Somoza’s faults, life under the Sandinistas was infinitely worse than anything Nicaragua had seen. In a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview, Cruz’s son and aide, Arturo Cruz, Jr., summed up the change in the country: “in Somoza’s time, if you were not actively against him, you were with him. Today, if you are not with the Sandinistas, you are against them.” Under the Sandinistas, repression reached unprecedented levels.
“Today the security and ideological apparatuses are more efficient. Block committees have been established throughout the country. They have many eyes and ears. People who used to talk to their neighbors are now afraid of them.”
An independent observer, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Shirley Christian, agrees. In her book, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, she notes that, “as authoritarian regimes go,” the Somoza regime “ceded to its political enemies and critics a relatively large amount of space to act in public life.” The Sandinistas, by contrast, were interested in no such accommodations:
“The leaders of the Sandinista Front intended to establish a Leninist system from the day they marched into Managua, whether they called it that or not. Their goal was to assure themselves the means to control nearly every aspect of Nicaraguan life, from beans and rice to religion.”
Thanks to the armed insurgency, the piris were not able to consolidate their Leninist project. And thanks to U.S. assistance, El Salvador never fell to the communists. After a decade of military pressure at home and frustration in El Salvador, the Sandinistas allowed free elections to proceed. International observers flooded the country, and on February 26, 1990, Nicaragua held one of the most closely observed elections in history.
The world had changed a lot by then. The four months leading up to the Nicaraguan elections had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Bloc. Polls predicted a strong victory by ruling comandante Daniel Ortega. But the polls were wrong. Nicaraguans, afraid of Sandinista reprisals, lied to pollsters, and waited for the privacy of the voting booth to join the people of Eastern Europe in their march to freedom.
Opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro-like Cruz, a former Sandinista junta member who turned against the FSLN-won a resounding victory over Ortega. Almost immediately, exiles began talk of return. “When I was in school, the government made me work for free, one day a week, picking cotton,” Jairo Sequerira, a 20-year-old Nicaraguan who fled the country to avoid military conscription, told the Orange County Register the day after Chamorro’s victory. “If I didn’t cooperate and work 10 hours per day, I would be kicked out of school.”
Jimmy Carter was on hand to monitor the 1990 Nicaraguan election. Maybe it’s the least he could do after what his administration brought upon that country 23 years ago. But no amount of international do-goodism will ever make up for it.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire