The US and the Contras

With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua

by Christopher Dickey
Simon and Schuster, 327 pp., $18.95

As far back as a quarter of a century ago, some American policy analysts and military strategists were discussing, in broad outline, plans for a war like the one the United States is sponsoring in Nicaragua. We should undertake “counter-revolutionary offensives in countries subverted to communism,” according to a March 1961 article in Military Review, to give them a dose of the “political warfare” they wage against us.Military Review, a US Army journal, defined political warfare as

a sustained effort by a government or political group to seize, preserve or extend power, against a defined ideological enemy…. It embraces diverse forms of coercion and violence including strikes and riots, economic sanctions, subsidies for guerrilla or proxy warfare and, where necessary, kidnappings or assassination of enemy elites.

Counterrevolutionary offensives” were much on the minds of some US officials when that article was published. Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba just two years previously. And John F. Kennedy, who was committed to developing America’s capacity to fight unconventional wars to stop communism, had just become president.

Today, a quarter of a century later, the United States is mired in the most drawnout “counterrevolutionary offensive” we have yet undertaken. The political warfare we launched to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua has dragged on for more than four years—longer than our participation in any war in US history for which we have had primary responsibility except the war in Vietnam. The end of our war in Nicaragua is nowhere in sight. Though the wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador, in which we are also engaged in varying degrees, have lasted longer, they differ in that the forces we are aiding would have engaged in combat, or did engage in combat, without us. As Christopher Dickey makes clear in With the Contras, there would be no war in Nicaragua except for the United States. We organized, recruited, trained, guided, financed, and supplied the contras, and we speak to the world in their behalf. That does not mean that they would now disappear if we withdrew our support. Nor does it mean that we exercise control even though we provide essential support. Regardless of the limits on our ability to exercise control, however, the contras are our creature, much as Frankenstein’s “miserable monster” was his creature after getting out of control. We are responsible for the contras.

That the contras murder civilians, and rape, torture, and execute prisoners, has been reported previously by others. Amnesty International discusses several cases of abuses by the contras in its new report, Nicaragua: The Human Rights Record, and concludes that “the number of captives tortured and put to death by FDN forces [the largest of the contra armies] since 1981 is impossible to determine, but is believed to total several hundred.” Dickey’s approach is different, however. Other accounts have focused on the victims. As Dickey’s title suggests, he focuses on the killers. Reading Dickey makes it all the more plain that it is grotesque to refer to them, as President Reagan does, as “the democratic resistance,” “freedom fighters,” or, most extravagantly, as “the moral equal of the Founding Fathers.”

Dickey discusses a number of the reasons why we launched this war. What most of these reasons, and others that could be mentioned, come down to is that we were intent, and remain intent, on showing that “we” can do to “them” whatever “they” do to “us.” If they launch a war against us in El Salvador, we can launch a war against them in Nicaragua. If they assert control over their part of the world by invading Afghanistan or by crushing Solidarity in Poland, we will show that no one messes with us in our part of the world. If they practice a “Brezhnev doctrine”—what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is up for grabs—we’ll show them that what they may think is theirs is also up for grabs. As President Reagan said recently, the way to prove America’s resolve to Mikhail Gorbachev is to fund the contras.1

Christopher Dickey reported on Central America for nearly four years for The Washington Post. As he tells the story, the US began organizing the contra war in July 1979, at the moment that the Sandinistas were triumphing over the forces of President Anastasio Somoza, by rescuing key members of Somoza’s National Guard so that they could resume the fight another day. At the outset it was a haphazard operation, undertaken by an informal network of active and retired CIA operatives. It is unclear from Dickey’s account whether policy-making officials of the Carter administration knew what was going on; probably they were only dimly aware. To get around political constraints that might have been imposed by Carter, or by the Congress after Reagan took office, the military government in Argentina was enlisted to transform the remnants of Somoza’s guardias into a fighting force. In the process, the Argentine military acquired the belief that the United States would repay the favor by siding with them, or by staying neutral, when they invaded the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982.

In December 1981, CIA director William Casey reported to the House and Senate Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence (known as “oversight committees,” which Dickey calls “a curious locution that meant they oversaw intelligence activities but seemed to imply they overlooked them”) that President Reagan had decided to undertake a covert war against Nicaragua. The Reagan administration, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders, had been working on that war since it took office the previous January. “By the time it told Congress what was happening,” Dickey writes, “all the actors were in place and it was just a matter of pulling the curtain aside for a glimpse of the set.”

In the early days of the war, much of the action revolved around a daring contra commander, a former guardia sergeant known as Suicida. Dickey, along with James LeMoyne (then of Newsweek, now of The New York Times), accompanied Suicida’s forces from their base in Honduras on a raid into Nicaragua. Suicida is Dickey’s central character: an effective leader who accounted for much of the contra military punch during 1982 and 1983. Along with some of his exguardia associates, Suicida also helped to build the contra reputation for savagery. Initially directed against the Sandinistas, but then also against each other, that savagery eventually brought down Suicida. He was executed by the contra leadership in the fall of 1983.

To regulate savagery, but not to stop it, the CIA produced its now infamous manual, “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare.” Though the current political leadership of the contras, the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), and their sponsors in the Reagan administration proclaim their democratic intentions, democracy was not on the CIA’s agenda in 1983 when it published the manual. Instead, the manual speaks of the time when “a comandante of ours will literally be able to shake up the Sandinista structure, and replace it.” The manual goes on to tell how to wage political warfare, including the “kidnappings and assassinations of enemy elites” specified by Military Review in 1961. It explicitly recommends kidnappings, advising the contras to “kidnap all officials of the Sandinista government and replace them”; in discussing assassinations, however, the manual uses CIA-speak, advising the contras to “neutralize carefully selected and planned targets” such as judges. This advice appears directly under the heading “Selective Use of Violence for Propagandistic Effects.”

Public disclosure of the manual and of the CIA’s role in mining the harbors of Nicaragua, combined with reports of the terror tactics employed by the contras to ruin the 1984–1985 coffee harvest (Dickey’s narrative leaves off before this point), led to a vote by Congress in April 1985 denying continuing US financial support to the contras. In short order, however, the Reagan administration turned around the Congress, getting it to appropriate $27 million in “humanitarian” aid to them in June 1985. The quick change was made possible by the Sandinistas themselves (Daniel Ortega visited Moscow immediately following the April vote denying funding to the contras), by a rhetorical campaign of denunciations of the Sandinistas by President Reagan, and by an attempt to transform the image of the contras.

UNO was formed during this period and the most widely respected Nicaraguan opponent of the Sandinistas, Arturo Cruz, was persuaded to identify himself with it. Cruz, while exercising little influence, had provided the Sandinistas with an attractive public face during their first two years in power, including a stint as their ambassador to Washington. So far, at least, the contras appear to be using him in the same way. He has pursued an effort to get them to stop murdering civilians and prisoners, and to investigate and punish those engaged in past abuses. This effort has not yet had a discernible impact. Even so, his association with UNO has been all-important to the Reagan administration in persuading Congress to resume funding to the contras.

The association of Arturo Cruz with the effort to overthrow the Sandinistas raises the question of what kind of government might emerge if the contras triumph. If Cruz cannot succeed in curbing the way they conduct the war, what influence would he exert over the men with the guns after they prevail? The conventional wisdom about the war that “they” are waging against “us” in nearby El Salvador is that, if the left wins, the political leaders Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamóra would have little to say in its revolutionary government. Those who have been doing the fighting in the hills, it is said, would not share real power with social democrats in suits and ties who spent the war years on the lecture circuit. Would it be any different in Nicaragua after the contras have engaged in four, five, six, or seven years of combat? As to the United States, though it showed itself, like Frankenstein, “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” controlling what it created is another matter. A government formed by the contras would be economically and militarily dependent on the United States, but our experience previously in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America should teach us that this is no assurance that it would be a decent government. The best clue we have about how the contras would govern is how they fight the war. On Christopher Dickey’s evidence, and on the evidence of their more recent conduct, it is difficult to be sanguine.

Even if we thought that we could go beyond “bestowing animation” on the contras and that we could control the way they fight and the way they would govern; and even if we trusted Ronald Reagan, William Casey, and the others who might exercise control, the larger question remains: Should we be doing this? In answering this question, assume the worst. Let’s say that Nicaragua, in the words of Military Review, has been “subverted to communism,” that it is another Cuba. Should we launch a war to overthrow its government?

In answering that question, it is worth thinking for a moment about the Soviet Union’s war against Afghanistan. Suppose that Afghanistan had a terrible, oppressive government before the Soviet Union invaded (which it did). And suppose that the Soviet Union were intent on imposing a much better government (an unlikely supposition, but perhaps no more unlikely than that the ex-guardias among the contras would reveal themselves as democrats once they take power in Nicaragua). Would that justify the Soviet Union in launching a war against Afghanistan?

If the answer is no, then the only justification we have for launching a war against Nicaragua is that they do it to us. But are we like them, and should we behave like them?

In effect, the Reagan administration’s response is that we may not be like them, but we should behave like them. If we don’t behave like them and demonstrate the determination to carry the fight to them, they will take advantage of us everywhere. “The Soviet Union’s perception of United States strength and resolve in the next year depends largely on Congressional moves involving aid to Nicaraguan rebels,” President Reagan told a group of Republican senators on January 21, according to White House spokesman Larry Speakes.2

An alternate response could be that because we are not like them, we don’t have to behave like them. We don’t have to bully small countries that we consider obnoxious. Our side has more options. We dominate the world, not by flexing our muscles, but economically, technologically, ideologically, linguistically, and culturally. The only idea around for which they can rally support is anti-Americanism. What we do in Nicaragua may succeed in ridding us of the Sandinistas. The costs, however, will include a considerable enhancement of the power of that idea—in the United States itself, in Latin America, and everywhere else except, ironically, within the Soviet empire, where pro-Americanism is too powerful an idea to be challenged.

It does not follow, of course, from an argument against US sponsorship of the contras that we must never aid guerrilla forces struggling against oppressive governments. Support for the Afghan rebels, for example, could be readily endorsed by many antagonists of aid to the contras. President Reagan occasionally lumps the two groups together under the label “freedom fighters,” and pairs the forces against which they are struggling as “totalitarian.” Probably the President does this to advance the cause of the contras. Its actual effect, however, may be to stigmatize, or at least to trivialize, the cause of the mujahedin.

The differences between the two struggles should be obvious. The Soviet Union claims it sent troops in to aid an ally combating a rebellion sponsored by foreign powers. This is transparent nonsense. It invaded; it governs with the aid of a puppet government; it practices unspeakable cruelties; it has driven close to a third of the Afghans out of their homeland into the misery of refugee existence; and, whatever support the mujahedin get from the United States and other countries, they are a home-grown product fighting for their freedom against a foreign oppressor. Much of the Afghan population has rallied to their cause.

In contrast, in Nicaragua, whatever numbers of Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, or Cuban technicians and military advisers may be present, it is wholly unconvincing to label the Sandinistas as anyone’s puppets. Theirs was a home-grown revolution. They have aligned themselves with the Soviet Union; they are not democrats; they have shown no respect for freedom of expression; but as Amnesty International’s report demonstrates, they have largely—though not entirely—avoided the worst cruelties practiced by the government that preceded them and by the governments in nearby El Salvador and Guatemala. The number of refugees who have fled Nicaragua since 1979 is between 3 and 4 percent of the population, roughly equivalent to the number who returned after the Sandinistas seized power. Few Nicaraguans are fleeing now, and as many are returning. The contra war would never have got started without the intervention of the United States. It would continue for a while if we abandoned it, but unless we enlist another sponsor in the way that we brought in the Argentines at the outset, most likely it would eventually fade away. Many Nicaraguans are antagonistic to the Sandinistas, but no sizable segment of the population has rallied to the contra cause.

Demonstrating to the Soviet Union our resolve and our determination to control our part of the world is, in my view, the dominant reason that we launched the contras. As time passes, this acquires greater urgency to the Reagan administration because, having sponsored a war to overthrow the Sandinistas for so long, it finds it increasingly humiliating not to succeed. This sense of urgency may propel us to go further and do the job ourselves if it becomes apparent that the contras have failed. Though I believe that such geopolitical considerations are primary, the Reagan administration has also advanced two important subsidiary rationales that warrant consideration: we aim to stop the Sandinistas from arming the Salvadoran guerrillas; and we aim to pressure them to transform their system to make it democratic. President Reagan concentrated on those arguments in this year’s State of the Union address, telling the Congress that:

This is a great moral challenge for the entire free world. Surely, no issue is more important for peace in our own hemisphere, for the security of our frontiers, for the protection of our vital interests—than to achieve democracy in Nicaragua and to protect Nicaragua’s democratic neighbors.

As to protecting “Nicaragua’s democratic neighbors,” it is probably best to examine this proposition by accepting the premise that they are democratic. Protecting them could mean stopping the flow of arms and/or stopping the flow of ideas. We have a legitimate interest in the first, but not in the second. (After all, what is a democracy if not a place where ideas may flow?) It is a matter of considerable dispute whether Nicaragua has made significant shipments of arms to El Salvador or elsewhere in recent years. Christopher Dickey contends that Nicaragua was shipping arms at the beginning of 1981, but stopped. He reports:

By January 14, US intelligence had picked up an avalanche of incriminating evidence, including a truck with a roof full of M-16s rolling through Honduras.3 The game was over and the chits were being called in. “You people are just irresponsible,” Ambassador Pezzullo told Borge and Daniel Ortega when he saw them at a cocktail party. “We’ve got you red-handed.” And the Sandinistas knew it. They began taking measures to recoup. By March they had shut down the airfield at Pamplona that had been used to supply the Salvadorans. The airplanes were decommissioned, the pilots dispersed.

The Reagan administration claims that arms shipments have continued; others, such as former CIA analyst David Mac-Michael, whose assignment was to monitor such shipments, claim that they have been negligible since 1981. Whichever side is right, this hardly seems a good argument for sponsoring the contra war. Unquestionably, the Sandinistas would agree to forego shipping arms (indeed, it is an agreement they have already made) in exchange for an end to the war and, since Nicaragua does not share a border with El Salvador, policing such an agreement would not be difficult. Neither Costa Rica nor Honduras has so far been threatened by Sandinistas forces; and the president-elect of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez, recently said he opposes military aid to the contras. “If I were Mr. Reagan,” he said, “I would give that money to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica for economic aid and not military aid to the contras.” 4 The principal Latin American democracies, moreover, strongly oppose aid to the contras. In an interview published on March 10, President Belisario Betancur of Colombia told The Washington Post, “All of Latin America doesn’t like the Reagan proposal…. I think an initiative such as the request for $100 million is wrong. I know we can get more through negotiation.”

If we are sponsoring a war to promote democracy, the obvious question is: why go after Nicaragua? The world is full of undemocratic countries. In the Western hemisphere, we could have sponsored wars against Chile, Cuba, Paraguay, Suriname, and Haiti before the ouster of Duvalier—each of them even less democratic than Nicaragua. If we define our interest in democracy as going beyond installing elected civilian governments and determine that we want those governments to abide by the rule of law and to respect human rights, we could also launch wars against our allies in El Salvador and Guatemala. Indeed, if our concern is human rights, we might also make war on Colombia and Peru. Though these are democracies, like the Nicaraguan government they are challenged by guerrilla movements. Their armed forces have committed terrible abuses of human rights against suspected civilian sympathizers of the guerrillas.

Amnesty International’s new report fairly assesses the human rights situation in Nicaragua. It begins:

Amnesty International’s concerns in Nicaragua include a pattern of frequent, although generally short-term, imprisonment of prisoners of conscience; prolonged pretrial incommunicado detention of political prisoners, and restrictions on their right to a fair trial; and poor prison conditions for political prisoners. Amnesty International has received some reports of torture, arbitrary killings and unacknowledged detention carried out by military personnel in remote areas undergoing armed conflict. However, the organization has also received information on the public trial and imprisonment of military personnel found responsible for such abuses.

There is little new information here. The abuses discussed by Amnesty have been reported previously by others (including by the organization with which I am associated, Americas Watch). Even so, the publication of Amnesty’s report is an important event as it puts the imprimatur of the world’s most prestigious group concerned with human rights on findings that are hotly disputed.

Denunciation of the Sandinistas for their abuses of human rights, Amnesty makes clear, is well warranted. The organization does this evenhandedly, measuring Nicaragua’s performance according to the same standards that it applies elsewhere. It is neither an apologist for the abuses committed by the Sandinistas, nor does it exaggerate their abuses in order to further an ideological crusade.

Amnesty’s findings will not please the sponsors of the military campaign to overthrow the Sandinistas. Its report shows that, subsequent to 1982, the contras committed most of the violent abuses of human rights in Nicaragua. Nineteen-eighty-two was the year in which the worst Sandinista abuses against the Miskito Indians took place. Including a massacre at Leimus in late December 1981, close to a hundred Miskitos were murdered or “disappeared” after detention by Nicaraguan government forces. Thereafter, Nicaragua’s treatment of the Miskitos improved and thousands of Indians have now returned to the places from which they were forcibly relocated or fled, and they are now rebuilding their communities. Today the major form of human rights abuse in Nicaragua is severe harassment of dissenters, particularly those protesting the draft and those suspected of sympathizing with the contras.

Amnesty’s findings on Nicaragua contrast with what the organization reported on Guatemala at about the same time:

Under successive administrations the regular police and military forces, as well as paramilitary groups acting under government order or with official complicity, have been responsible for massive instances of human rights violations, including torture, “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions directed at people from all sectors of Guatemalan society. Some victims have been seized or shot down in broad daylight in the presence of witnesses by uniformed military or security agents. Others have been abducted or murdered by heavily armed men in civilian clothes using weaponry and vehicles normally issued only to government agencies, while uniformed military or police force units stood by, making no effort to apprehend the assailants. The bodies of other victims have been thrown into ravines, dumped at roadsides or buried in unmarked mass graves.

Guatemala’s is an extreme case. Almost any country’s human rights record would not look so bad if it were evaluated according to that standard. Accordingly, it is probably more instructive to read Amnesty’s report on Nicaragua alongside its most recent report on some other Latin American country, such as Peru. That democratic though troubled country, like Nicaragua, is beset by economic disaster as well as by warfare against especially brutal guerrilla forces (though those forces have less chance of overthrowing the government than the guerrillas combating the Sandinistas and they do not enjoy the advantage of backing from a major foreign power). Amnesty cited the names of more than a thousand persons who had disappeared, following detention by the Peruvian security forces, between January 1983 and the end of 1984. Also, Amnesty reported that Peru’s security forces extrajudicially executed some 420 persons during that two-year period.

That other countries have dreadful human rights records does not excuse the abuses committed by the Sandinistas. On the other hand, it does suggest that it is difficult to justify on human rights grounds President Reagan’s choice of Nicaragua as the country to improve by sponsoring a war against it.

Is it nevertheless true that the contra war promotes democracy and human rights in Nicaragua? This question seems to me to be unanswerable. We have no way of knowing whether the Sandinistas would be more repressive or less repressive if there were no war. Too many factors enter into the equation to make any calculation that can be defended. Ordinarily, of course, governments behave worse when their security is threatened. On the other hand, perhaps the Reagan administration is right in contending that Nicaragua is sui generis and that the war forces the Sandinistas to liberalize to try to maintain European and Latin American support. Maybe the Sandinistas will “cry uncle,” in President Reagan’s words, and permit the development of a more democratic system. This isn’t usually the way to promote democracy, however, and the guess that it will work in this instance is hardly a basis on which to launch a war.

The most destructive aspect of the administration’s claim that the US is sponsoring a war to promote human rights is that it debases the human rights cause. Amnesty International’s method of carefully documenting a country’s human rights record is to measure it against recognized international standards, to denounce abuses, and to enlist citizens worldwide to intercede on behalf of individual victims. This is not only a better way to promote human rights in particular circumstances; it also promotes respect for the human rights cause.

In the Reagan administration’s efforts to justify its sponsorship of the contra war, it frequently shifts ground: sometimes it argues for demonstrating toughness to the Russians; sometimes for stopping the subversion of Nicaragua’s neighbors; sometimes for promoting democracy in Nicaragua. If each argument is faulty by itself, do these rationales achieve a collective strength by reinforcing one another? In short-run domestic political terms, the answer is probably yes. The administration’s strategy has worked in getting the Congress and a large segment of the American public to go along with our proxy war. It may even succeed in creating the political climate that would permit the administration to send in American troops or, perhaps, only American planes. In any other terms, the administration has failed. Its three poor rationales do not substitute for one intellectually and morally persuasive argument for sponsoring the contra war.

March 13, 1986

  1. 1

    See Bernard Weinraub, “Reagan Will Seek $100 Million in Aid for the Contras,” The New York Times (January 22, 1986).

  2. 2

    Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times (January 22, 1986).

  3. 3

    When I visited Central America in 1981, US officials showed me such a truck—possibly the same one mentioned by Dickey. For some years thereafter, that truck was exhibited to visitors to the region.

  4. 4

    The Washington Post (February 20, 1985), p. A5.