Stephen Kinzer and Clifford Krauss both covered Central America as news correspondents for thirteen years. This is a long time for an American correspondent to stay in one region, and it is especially long in Central America, where throughout the 1980s the pace of news and bloodletting was relentlessly exhausting. Also, Central America does not at first seem to offer the historical depth or cultural diversity to hold a journalist’s fascination for a decade or better. After the millions of words about the region that filled American newspapers during the Reagan years, I believe many journalists, and not a few readers, were left feeling that they knew more than they needed to know about a neck of small, shallow countries which probably never merited the fuss that was made over them.
But Kinzer and Krauss stayed, and so became rare witnesses to a cycle of revolution and restabilization. Inspite of the long years, both have closed out their work in Central America by writing books that are nothing less than tributes to the qualities that drew them to the region.
I am in no position to provide an impartial review of either book. On one hand, I owe the fact that I am a paid journalist to Stephen Kinzer, who helped me to land his job at The Boston Globe in 1983 when he went to a Manhattan daily of some repute. On the other hand, I had the nerve-fraying experience of competing against Kinzer during the three years after 1986, when I was a Washington Post correspondent in Central America. I have not forgotten one or two singularly unpleasant evenings in Managua when I received phone calls from the Post’s foreign night editor informing me that Kinzer had this or that story on the front page of the Times and asking me if, in the eighteen minutes remaining until our second edition deadline, I could “match” it. Can I resist the temptation to avenge myself by using a review of his book to expatiate on my own views of the events we covered?
As for Krauss, I have been an admirer of his since a day in the early 1980s when he missed by a millimeter having his head blown off while he and I and a third reporter were chewing dust on a Salvadoran highway, caught in the midst of a shootout between the army and the guerrillas. The bullet in question nicked a rock and lost its lethal velocity just before settling into Krauss’s scalp. As we scuttled for cover he quipped casually: “I don’t even shave that close.” In addition, not the least of my attachments to Central America comes through my husband, Sam Dillon of the Miami Herald, whose book Comandos, an Investigative History of the Nicaraguan Contras, will be published in July.
It appears that Kinzer’s method for his book was to lay his many newspaper clips out before him and to write a narrative of the events in Nicaragua to put the stories together. He hasn’t done much new research or reporting, but he was one of the few reporters covering Nicaragua who was in a position to take this approach. As early as 1983 his editors in New York made a prescient decision, to open a bureau in Managua and base a reporter there who would essentially cover only the Nicaraguan story. At a time when most other reporters were scampering from country to country in Central America as one crisis after another sprang up unpredictably, Kinzer was able to organize his reporting more methodically.
He sought to set his own pace, proceeding as if he were the only reporter in the country. He was not always first, but he was thorough. He had an opportunity to provide more comprehensive coverage than any other single reporter during his five years in Managua, and often he succeeded in doing so. He reported regularly, for example, on the anti-Sandinista rebellion by the Miskito and other Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, while other beat reporters could not afford the time and patient planning necessary to get out there. His chapter in this book about the Miskito war is one of the most useful because he gives eyewitness accounts of key episodes from each period of the insurrection.
Also, even as many other journalists were tending to favor the quick study and the fast draw, Kinzer aspired to being a resident correspondent of the old school, a connoisseur of the milieu of his assignment. The Sandinistas’ conspiratorial separateness, and their antipathy for so influential an American institution as The New York Times, compounded by the bitterness of the contra war, prevented Kinzer from transforming his Managua house into a regular gathering place for people representing the entire spectrum of political views, as he no doubt would have liked. “Being an outsider in Nicaragua meant that one was forever excluded from certain circles of knowledge,” he admits. Instead, rejecting the common impression that what little there was of a distinctive culture in Nicaragua had died in destitution sometime during the Somoza dictatorship, Kinzer decided to become a student of things Nicaraguan.
“I wanted to learn and write about Nicaraguans as a people, to immerse myself in their country….” Kinzer writes so simply that he would sound disingenuous if this wasn’t exactly what he did. His book ends with a sixteen page bibliography about Nicaraguan history and culture. He includes an homage to Rubén Darío, the great Nicaraguan poet, and an account of a visit to the remote ruins of the fort at El Castillo, where the last big news event had been a battle in 1762. He models his pursuit of Nicaragua on the work of E.G.Squier, an American diplomat whose Central American travelogue was published in 1860.
For the purposes of this book, in fact, Nicaragua was more of a passion for Kinzer than a source of news. His retelling of the Sandinista saga is competent but not particularly fresh. In spite of the intimacy of their small country, the Sandinistas managed to keep a lot of their secrets. The inside account of their years in power has yet to be written. What Kinzer offers is a loose string of telling anecdotes, as when in an interview he confronts the much-feared Sandinista interior minister, Tomás Borge, and asks him to account for the gratuitous beating by Borge’s deputy, Lenín Cerna, of the president of a Catholic parents’ association.
“I’ll just tell you one thing,” Borge snorts at Kinzer. “That man is lucky he was interrogated by Lenín Cerna and not by me.”
Kinzer could have gone into more detail about the worst days of the Sandinistas’ repression, in 1986, when they jailed more than six thousand peasants suspected of collaborating with the contras and murdered a still unknown number of them. But his report on the Sandinista police assault on an opposition demonstration in 1988 at Nandaime, where Kinzer himself was clubbed unconscious by a policeman, is revealing enough about the Sandinistas’ authoritarian streak. Besides, Kinzer is anxious to stress that “the Sandinistas never ruled with anything near the level of savagery that was accepted as routine in other parts of Central America.”
His assessments of the main leaders are generally fair. He points out that that most sacred of cows, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, though revered by many Nicaraguans, damaged his credibility as a peacemaker by refusing to speak out against grim abuses committed by the contras. Of former president Daniel Ortega he observes with acuity, “Almost alone among Sandinista leaders, he seemed to grow before our eyes.”
In one chapter Kinzer portrays the “sadness and decay” that Sandinista rule and the contra war brought upon Managua. He recalls the failing telephones, the elusive food supply, the incompetent bureaucrats. Whereas it took seventy years to demonstrate that socialism was unworkable as an economic system in the Soviet Union, the Sandinistas proved it in Nicaragua in less than a decade. As leaders they had talent for the art of ideology, formulating a distinctive revolutionary creed which had the worthy goal of giving Nicaraguans a sense of nationhood. But many Nicaraguans voted against the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections precisely because of the lowering experiences of daily life under their government that Kinzer describes.
Some readers will be as interested in what this book reveals about Kinzer as in what it says about Nicaragua. Not the least of his accomplishments is to have survived five years in the political cyclone of Managua without being cut off from information, or thrown out, by any side. He kept his reporting cool and opaque, like the dark glasses he always wore in the tropical sun; his expression was concealed. A number of observers passing through Managua toward the end of Kinzer’s tour told me they knew for a fact that he was secretly rooting for the contras.
But here we have an opinionated text which shows that Kinzer was moved by the same euphoria as most Nicaraguans when the Sandinistas ousted the last Somoza in 1979, and that he continued throughout his time in Nicaragua to admire what he regarded as the patriotic aspects of their program. He does not forgive the Sandinistas their self-important, repressive nastiness. But in the end Kinzer credits them with providing “a basis on which a genuine democracy could be built” in their country by driving out the Somozas, and by holding a real election in 1990 and stepping aside peaceably when they lost it. He writes warmly of Ben Linder, the pro-Sandinista American volunteer who was killed by contras in northern Nicaragua in 1987. Much of the American press lost its sympathy for Linder after it became clear he was carrying a rifle when he was ambushed. But because Linder helped the people of a godforsaken Nicaraguan village to build a dam, and delighted them as a clown in his spare time, Kinzer likes him anyway.
At times Kinzer can barely contain his rage at the ignorance he detects behind the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of a civil war among Nicaraguans. He sees the contras as representing a legitimate rebellion by conservative peasants against the Sandinistas’ collectivizing agrarian politics. His quarrel is with their Washington-picked leadership, dominated by former officers from Somoza’s National Guard. “American planners never seemed to grasp the simple fact that Nicaraguans hated the National Guard….” In one chapter he juxta-poses some overblown claims from Oliver North about the menace in Managua with a scene of pain in a Nicaraguan town after a contra attack, a device that might have sounded cheap if it had been used by a less trustworthy writer. He observes that North, with his single-minded zealotry, “would have made a fine Sandinista” had he been Nicaraguan.
The Kinzer who emerges does not feel he was born to the station of New York Times correspondent. “I can handle it,” he tells himself earnestly when he gets the job. “Bureau Chief” he names one chapter, impressed with his title. Finally, this Kinzer is a humane man, not cynical about suffering. He writes a front-page story about two kids maimed by mines; he goes to a hundred funerals. Toward the end he can’t bear any more Nicaraguan death.
He devotes much space to celebrating his Nicaraguan driver Guillermo Marcio, who learned how to keep the refrigerator stocked with scarce Cokes and to bully and feint his way past many of the devilish obstacles to news gathering that the Sandinistas erected. Kinzer has perhaps opened himself to charges that he lived the life of a latter-day colonialist amid the penury of war-ruined Managua. But I confess that one of these episodes—when his driver eases the correspondent past several Sandinista roadblocks by insisting to the soldiers that Kinzer is a representative of a political charity called “Rice for Peace”—is my favorite in the book. The New York Times editors may be surprised to learn that their man was less than candid at some moments about his occupation, and that their newspaper once donated two hundred pounds of rice to a Moravian pastor in the Miskito Indian outpost of Waspam, Nicaragua. But Kinzer is certainly not the only American journalist who feels a bond of affection with the Central Americans who worked with us, and who despite staggering political pressures from their peers accepted and ultimately became masters of the strange American way of “getting a story,” with its quirky requirements of political dispassion and competitive wits.
Apparently Kinzer had to write in haste. He jumps around. In one chapter the Sandinistas are universally adored by Nicaraguans; then, in the next, there is a swelling contra movement to get them out; but he doesn’t show how such changes took place. He has odd oversights and errors, of which I’ll mention only one. Kinzer recalls a press conference organized by the Sandinistas at the Nicaraguan border with Honduras, which came to an unsettling end when we journalists were bombarded by a Honduran fighter jet. He says that the United States at that juncture was wrongly accusing Nicaragua of an incursion into Honduras. In fact, the contras admitted freely at the time that the Sandinistas had pressed into Honduras for several days in an attempt to destroy the contras’ advanced command post. The Sandinistas hoped to strengthen their bargaining position in peace talks which were about to begin, and they only turned back into Nicaragua when it looked as if they might draw US troops into the fighting. I find it curious that Kinzer doesn’t record this because it was Kinzer himself who extracted the only admission from a Sandinista officer that day at the press conference that the foray across the border had taken place. Just before Lieutenant Colonel Javier Carrión launched into his thoughtfully prepared chalk-talk of misleading rubbish, Kinzer asked him offhandedly, “Was it the same operating in Honduras as the last time you went in?”
“Just the same,” Carrión replied before he could catch himself.
Like his daily reports, Kinzer’s book does not emphasize the military aspects of the war. Since the conflict was resolved politically, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter in the aftermath what happened on the battlefield. My feeling is that the contras and the Sandinista Popular Army, like all armed forces, were societies in themselves, especially when the rest of Nicaraguan society began to collapse. I found there were times during the war when Nicaragua was so full of despair that only by understanding the dynamics of the two armies was it possible to comprehend why Nicaraguans continued to kill each other.
The Reagan administration and the cold war have come and gone, taking with them Washington’s obsession with creeping communism in our hemisphere. The press corps is with the Kurds. This is the moment in which Clifford Krauss has delivered an introduction to Central America.
Krauss justifies his effort in the first and last pages of his book. He starts by quoting Sofía Montenegro, the sharptongued editorialist from the Sandinistas’ newspaper Barricada, who often challenged the consciences of American journalists about Washington’s war in Nicaragua. “How can you [Americans] kill us [Nicaraguans],” she asks Krauss, “when you don’t know who we are?” In his final paragraph Krauss notes that “the same ailments that fired Central America’s most recent cycle of revolutionary violence…exist today as virulently as ever.” His book is based on the proposition that although America’s attention span has lapsed, it is still early to assume that the United States’ role in Central America has come to an end.
Krauss composed a book of essays, one each for the five Central American countries plus Panama, interspersing general analysis with episodes from his own reporting. Krauss’s risk, of course, is the same one that he faced as a reporter: most newspaper readers could never quite recall whether it was El Salvador or Honduras that was the size of Massachusetts, or if Costa Rica was famous for having no army or no law enforcement. For each country Krauss provides an account of local history and just enough anecdotes to capture its character. How fitting, for example, that the main statue in Honduras of the national hero Francisco Morazán turns out to be a cut-rate likeness of a French marshal which the commission in charge purchased after pilfering most of the funds for a new monument. Krauss also has a good account of the re-education camps where Guatemala’s reactionary military has confined thousands of Mayan Indians to purge them of any independent ideas they might have.
Krauss’s book does a service in synthesizing the immense amount of information about the US involvement in Central America that came forth helter-skelter from the Iran-contra hearings and other related investigations by the US Congress, especially with respect to the less prominent countries like Honduras and Costa Rica. Krauss returned to Central America to talk with the politicians who were influential when the Reagan administration’s policy developed during the first half of the 1980s.
The picture that emerges with almost overwhelming effect is one of extensive and continuous American meddling in the region throughout its modern history. An American banana grower named Samuel Zemurray single-handedly made and broke several Honduran presidents early in the twentieth century. In 1969 the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, making a few comments at one meeting in a Panama City hotel room, persuaded Panamanian colonel Omar Torrijos, who had recently seized power in a coup, to take all the time he wanted in returning the government to civilian rule. It finally took a US invasion twenty years later to pry control of the government away from Panamanian Defense Forces.
I have a complaint, however, about Krauss’s uses of sources. His notes consist of one or two short paragraphs for each country. But some of his material came from other journalists and historians, and I would like to know what came from whom. He describes how Noriega once bribed some US soldiers to pass him sensitive intelligence collected by the US military. Then, without further explanation, he adds: “But CIA director George Bush reportedly concealed the scandal, apparently to protect Gerald Ford against Ronald Reagan’s challenge for the 1976 Republican nomination.” Whose report is he relying on? At another point he says flatly that Noriega “abused his power to create a criminal network employing Panamanian embassies around the world to traffic heroin.” I don’t doubt it, but if the evidence were readily available presumably US prosecutors would not have kept Noriega waiting for trial in a Florida jail for over a year.
In the months it took to print these books, the United States conducted a military blitz in Iraq and consolidated its position as the world’s only superpower. Democratic capitalism has evidently prevailed over socialism in the race to build strong economies. Yet the books under review are a reminder that the exercise of power by the US in Central America during the last decade was often benighted and, in Krauss’s phrase, only made a bad situation worse.
In Guatemala a genocidal military establishment remains the main power. A negotiated end to the war in El Salvador is stalled on one of the problems that started the conflict eleven years ago: the savagery and corruption of the US-supported Salvadoran military, which remains immune to punishment. Honduras, long dependent on the US, is entering a state of withdrawal shock as Washington loses interest in it; and in Panama the US-installed government is increasingly crippled by its lack of legitimacy. The Nicaraguans have barely maintained the prickly peace they won with the help of Costa Rica’s former president, Oscar Arias. Meanwhile, it remains far from clear whether the liberal free-market policies now in vogue can alleviate the deepening want of Central America’s poor.
Can there be a benign US intervention in Central America? The Reagan administration might have liked the US military to become much more directly involved in Central America but it lacked congressional and public support for its intervention. Therefore it designed what was called a low-intensity intervention in the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, using local armies—the contras and the Salvadoran armed forces—instead of committing US ground troops. In practice the political and economic impact of these policies was hardly of “low intensity.” In a decade, according to Krauss, the United States spent $5 billion on El Salvador’s five million people, and at times provided one third of the government’s annual operating expenditures in Costa Rica and more than half of the Honduran government’s revenue. The contra war brought Nicaragua’s economy to its knees. Throughout the region, US policies polarized local political forces and caused a nationalist backlash on both the left and the right.
What was sharply limited was the Reagan administration’s ability to reach its goals. It could not crush the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, or reform the Salvadoran government, or shoot the Sandinistas into submission on Reagan’s terms. As both books point out, the local forces—politicians, military commanders, right-wing businessmen—on which the administration’s policy depended were already obsolete in their own countries and did not share the democratic values that Washington claimed to be pursuing. No amount of dollars or badgering or public relations or time could transform such people; their limitations were rooted in their national histories. The result was an embarrassing loss of credibility for the United States in Latin America.
Journalists in Central America always seemed to be saying the same thing to Washington, and now Kinzer and Krauss have said it again. Even a United States whose world hegemony is increasingly unchallenged cannot treat this region as if it were a blank canvas. American policy makers need to know what and who they are dealing with. Their objectives must be conceived within the historical possibilities of a poor and perennially troubled isthmus; and they should be much more aware than they have been that the legitimate aspirations of many Central Americans for independent national identity and decent living standards remain unsatisfied. They must judge the character of local leaders on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds, avoiding slimy operators like Noriega and embracing proven democrats, such as Oscar Arias, even when they practice a strain of politics that differs somewhat from that of the White House. They should not pardon abuses by our self-proclaimed friends which they would consider shooting offenses in our chosen enemies.
After a century of intervention in Central America, the United States can’t tiptoe away, as the Bush administration appears to be doing. In the future, however, the purpose of American policy should be modest—to deny Central Americans the excuse for not working out their intractable conflicts for themselves.
July 18, 1991