Bernie, the Sandinistas, and America's long crisis of impunity

Or, the pros and Contras of relying on political reporters

Welcome back to The Long Version by Jonathan M. Katz. An adaptation of this edition was published by Mother Jones. To get this newsletter in your inbox every week, click here:

On Dec. 4, 1984, a dump truck carrying volunteer government coffee pickers was ambushed in northern Nicaragua. The attackers, rebel soldiers known as Contras, ripped through the truck with machine-gun fire and grenades and fired a rocket launcher into its tires. When the truck rattled to a stop, the Contras climbed aboard. They opened fire into what was now a mangle of the living and dead, and stabbed those still moving with their bayonets—setting aside a 19-year-old woman to kidnap and take with them. Then they set the truck on fire. Roger Briones, a coffee picker who had fallen out and survived by playing dead, later testified: “I could hear the cries and laments of those who were burning alive.”

Twenty-one people were killed. Among them were a five-year-old girl and her mother, whom the volunteers had picked up hitchhiking on the road.

I’m opening this week’s newsletter with this grisly story because, somehow, it has become part of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Or better said, because it hasn’t. Last Friday, Alexander Burns and Sydney Ember, political reporters for the New York Times, published an article about Bernie Sanders’ activism in Central America during his time as mayor of Burlington, Vt. The story focused on Sanders’ visit to Nicaragua in July 1985, in which he made “a truncated tour of the violence-stricken country,” and met with the country’s leftist president, Daniel Ortega.

The point of the article was to illustrate the candidate’s “combative ideological persona.” “Now, as he competes for the Democratic presidential nomination,” Burns and Ember wrote, “Mr. Sanders’s profound skepticism of American power appears to set him apart from other major candidates who have pledged to restore the country’s traditionally assertive global role.”

The piece’s “smoking gun” seems to be an anti-American chant (“Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die!”) heard at the Ortega rally Sanders attended.

I don’t know Burns or Ember, but according to their bios neither have much experience covering foreign affairs in general or Latin America in particular. It shows. To make a case that Sanders was an extremist in the 1980s, they offer a brief and fundamentally ahistorical summary of Nicaragua’s decade-long Contra War, then use that as a basis for a foreign-policy analysis that only makes sense if everything you know about global politics comes from a handful of ex-officials in Washington.

So, to fix that, let’s start with a brief rundown of what was actually going on in Nicaragua in the 1980s. (If you already know all this, skip to the next section below.)

The Long Version

In 1979, leftist revolutionaries overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the West Point-educated scion of a repressive family dynasty that had been in power since 1936. Some of the new leaders called themselves “Sandinistas,” in honor of Augusto Sandino, an early-20th-century revolutionary who’d fought against the 1912-33 U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua and was assassinated on Somoza’s grandfather’s orders.

When the Sandinistas took full control of the government in 1981, supporters of the ex-dictator, businessmen, and some former allies tried to destroy their base of support with a new civil war. These “counter-revolutionaries”—contrarrevoluciónarios in Spanish—became known as the “Contras,” for short.

Initially, the Sandinistas tried to establish a good relationship with the United States. But Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 in part on the basis of his promise to reject Jimmy Carter’s human-rights-centered approach to foreign policy, and instead be more (to use the Times’ word) “assertive,” especially when it came to Communism.

Nicaragua was not Communist. But some Sandinistas (though not Ortega) were Marxist-Leninists, and the government had accepted Cuban military assistance. That was all Reagan needed to know. Because it had only been six years since America’s defeat in Vietnam, Reagan’s advisors knew they needed to be covert in their support of the Contras—or at least, covert enough not to arouse too much attention at home. Reagan directed the CIA to arm the Contras with money, weapons, and training.

One of the first Contra groups to receive this support was the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN. The massacre of the coffee pickers was just one of the thousands of similar atrocities they would carry out, with the full financing and support of the U.S. government.

By mid-decade, it was abundantly clear that U.S. policy was drowning Nicaragua in blood. When the Democratic-controlled Congress learned the CIA was putting explosive mines in Nicaraguan harbors in early 1984, it voted to outlaw military aid to the Contras.

Defying Congress, Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council, flew down to reassure the FDN in person that “President Reagan remained committed to removing the Sandinistas from power.” North then helped oversee a scheme to illegally funnel money and weapons to the rebels, in part by using profits from jacked-up weapons sales to Iran.

Since it involved Republicans arguing with Democrats, that illegal slice of the enterprise got Americans’ attention. It became known as the Iran-Contra affair and resulted in a string of hearings, and a few indictments and convictions.

But Americans were not nearly as interested in the more than 30,000 Nicaraguans killed in a war financed by their tax dollars. So even as the administration scrambled to cover up its crimes against Congress, the president kept publicly boasting about his support for the Contras. In March 1985, four months after the coffee-pickers were slaughtered, Reagan went to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington and called for millions more in military aid to Nicaragua. He said the Contras were “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.”

Sanders’ visit to Nicaragua came that summer.

‘Harboring Unease’

Burns and Ember were very concerned with Sanders’ lack of “unease” at the anti-American chant. As for the Contras’ U.S.-sponsored war crimes, they briefly summarized them in a dependent clause in the 45th paragraph of their article, saying only that “the Contras faced mounting allegations of brutal killings and other atrocities,” followed by an implied reference to Iran-Contra.

Then they both-sidesed the Nicaraguan civil war:

Contra atrocities appalled the American left, but Mr. Ortega’s forces were also implicated in grave human rights abuses, including the killing and forced relocation of civilians.

That’s just bad reporting. Human-rights observers were clear at the time on whether the Sandinistas were “just as bad” as the Contras in terms of human-rights abuses. This was an especially important question during the Cold War because, by mid-decade, the Soviets and their allies were also belatedly contributing significant amounts of weapons, money, and training to the Sandinistas—in response to Reagan’s policy of building up arms for the Contras and right-wing regimes in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as the historian Marc Edelman has written.

The answer was an unequivocal no. Human Rights Watch found the Contras had:

“systematically violated the applicable laws of war throughout the conflict. They have attacked civilians indiscriminately; they have tortured and mutilated prisoners; they have murdered those placed hors de combat by their wounds; they have taken hostages; and they have committed outrages against personal dignity.”

The observers found the Sandinista government, on the other hand, had committed far fewer abuses, particularly after its first year in power. Despite attempts by the Reagan administration to convince people otherwise, there was “no systematic practice of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings or torture” on their part, as there was with, for instance, U.S.-backed right-wing regimes in nearby El Salvador. A State Department official told the watchdog group: “What we see is that the Sandinista casualties are usually legitimate battle victims,” whereas, “the Contras have a tendency to kidnap young girls.”

(If Burns or Ember doubted that analysis, they could have turned to a journalistic source which corroborated the reports of Contra atrocities, including the coffee-picker massacre, at the time Sanders was planning his trip. It ran on the front page of the New York Times. )

So where did the political reporters get the idea that attending a Sandinista rally in 1985 was more worthy of scrutiny and condemnation than, say, the Reaganite policies of funding death squads and terror that Sanders was protesting?

Perhaps some of the answer lies with the expert source they asked to evaluate the reasonableness of Sanders’ trip: Otto J. Reich, whom Burns and Ember identified as a “a former special envoy for Latin America who helped oversee Nicaragua policy for the Reagan administration.”

That’s a very weird way of describing it. Reich’s explicit job in the Reagan administration was to run a pro-Contra propaganda outfit—an effort, as the New Yorker reported in 2002, which involved “leak[ing] false stories to the press.”

Here, There, Everywhere

I was actually in Nicaragua a few weeks ago, researching my upcoming book. Ortega is in power again there now. And I can definitely report that, this time, the Sandinista government is the entity responsible for repressing the population. During my trip, police attacked anti-government demonstrators. They are torturing political prisoners and constantly violating press freedom.

However, as I can also tell you from being there, support for the Sandinistas of the 1980s against the Reagan-backed Contras in no way necessarily translates into support for Ortega today. Lifelong Sandinistas are being thrown into prison for defying the regime. Protesters’ signature chant equates the Sandinista leader with the former U.S.-backed dictator: “Daniel and Somoza are the same thing!” (It sounds better in Spanish.)

Again, this is obvious in Managua. It is less so if you’re a political reporter based 2,000 miles away.

(In a testy post-article interview with Ember, Sanders said he was “very concerned about the anti-Democratic (sic) policies of the Ortega government, yes.”)

When Sanders ran for president three years ago, he didn’t seem to have much of a foreign-policy platform. It appears he’s taking steps to rectify that. But whatever mistakes I think Sanders has made over the years, strongly condemning Reagan’s policy of mass civilian murder in Nicaragua—and going to the war zone himself to see what was going on—ain’t one of them.

What’s most galling is there are people in Washington whose careers should be defined by their roles in the Contra War on the front page of the Times. One of the few Reagan officials who faced any kind of accountability for their role in the war crimes was Elliott Abrams, who in addition to being convicted for withholding evidence from Congress during Iran-Contra, funneled money to Guatemala’s murderous dictator and lied to Congress about a massacre by a U.S.-trained death squad in El Salvador.

Abrams was pardoned by a lame-duck George H.W. Bush, who himself had been involved in supporting death squads as CIA director and was tangled up in Iran-Contra itself. Those pardons were underwritten by Bush’s attorney general, William Barr. Abrams is now Trump’s point man on the Venezuela crisis. Barr, of course, is now Trump’s attorney general—apparently hired to help to cover up the president’s many crimes, just as he did for Bush decades ago.

(Oliver North got a show on Fox News and became the National Rifle Association’s president; he was forced to resign last month amid an alleged extortion scheme. House Republicans called Otto Reich as an expert witness in 2018 to praise Trump’s Cuba policy. Ronald Reagan is now an airport.)

Seeing a major article about a decades-old overseas war entrusted to a pair of political campaign reporters, it isn’t hard to see how people who built their career on funding murder not only stay out of prison but keep reacquiring power. The burned bodies and dead children are hidden behind expert comment from fellow supporters of war criminals, and gauzy talk about a “traditionally assertive global role.” Trump can keep posing as an isolationist, because the public doesn’t know to immediately associate names like “Bill Barr” with “cover-up of the illegal funding of brazen war crimes”—even as Trump openly prosecutes a proxy war in Yemen, demands regime change in Venezuela and Nicaragua, pardons a new generation of war criminals, and threatens nuclear annihilation from North Korea to Iran.

I will give one word of warning to Sanders, though: If observation and experience are a guide, ignoring all of that seems like the better career move.

Note/disclosure: I’m a frequent freelance contributor to the New York Times, not on staff. As you can see from the links throughout this piece, that paper has been and remains an indispensable institution. One of my hopes for this newsletter is that it will give me an opportunity to keep contributing to places like that on a national scale while maintaining the independence I need to look at everything with a critical eye.

That’s it for this week’s edition of The Long Version. This was a long post, so I’ll save links on other stuff to read for next time. Hit the purple button above to subscribe. And if you’re already signed up, spread the word!

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(Photo of Bernie Sanders from pxhere. All photos in public domain.)