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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?

  1. 1

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

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