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Creek Running North

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January 19, 2006


It was his brutality that made people rise up against Somoza. Corruption? Corruption is a fact of life. You pay the bribes and move on. The profiteering in the wake of the 1972 Managua earthquake raised hackles, to be sure. With so many dead, who could be so evil as to let his subordinates gorge on money sent to rebuild a devastated city?

But it was the terrorist raids of Somoza's National Guard that pushed things over the edge. They assassinated Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa, in 1978, and the nation erupted. In 1979 Somoza was overthrown, to general rejoicing. The first act of the FSLN - the Sandinistas - was to raze Somoza's torture centers.

In January 1981 Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as President of the United States. The US cut off aid to Nicaragua. Facing 1.6 billion dollars in debt the new government turned to the only other source of development funds, the Soviet Union. The government, a coalition of FSLN members, other radicals, and a few moderate progressives, was fractious. Some of its members were anti-democratic. But they stopped the torture. They distributed food. 100,000 teachers flooded the countryside. Half a million people learned to read in six months.

Reagan claimed the Sandinistas were aiding guerrillas in El Salvador, the FMLN, now that country's most popular political party. His allegations may have been true. The FMLN was waging war against the infamous death squads, vicious murderers led by men trained at the Benning, Georgia "School of the Americas." El Salvador's Catholic Archbishop, Oscar Romero, an opponent of the death squads, was killed as he said mass in March 1980. In a few months, three American nuns and a lay worker were abducted, raped and killed by the selfsame death squads.

As soon as Reagan took office the death squads' reach was extended into Nicaragua. Former members of Somoza's National Guards were recruited and sent into the countryside to lay waste to farming communities, destroy coffee plantations (depriving the new government of export revenue), and terrorize the people.

These terrorists were called the Contras.

I don't mean to abuse you with verbal violence, but you have to understand what your Government and its agents are doing.
They go into villages. They haul out families. With the children forced to watch, they castrate the father. They peel the skin off his face. They put a grenade in his mouth, and pull the pin. With the children forced to watch, they gang-rape the mother, and slash her breasts off. And sometimes, for variety, they make the parents watch while they do these things to the children.
These are the activities done by the Contras. The Contras are the people President Reagan called "freedom fighters." He said: "They are the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."
– John Stockwell, retired CIA agent, late 1980s

There were a few moments, before Reagan took office, in which one could feel a sense of hope in the US's abstaining from immediate intervention in Nicaragua. Even after Reagan was installed, there were glimmers. When it was learned that the CIA committed acts of sabotage in Nicaragua, in the absence of declared hostilities and without notification of or consent by Congressional intelligence committees, an outraged Congress passed the Boland Amendment in 1982. The amendment forbade the US from funding any covert anti-government actions in Nicaragua.

I should repeat that: it may have been difficult for younger readers to believe. Congress was outraged that the Reagan administration had engaged in covert operations without its consent, and cut off funding for the secret war.

Shortly thereafter the administration began to sell missiles to the mullahs in Iran, some of which may well be aimed at US troops in the next few months. They sent the proceeds to the contras. In 1984 the world learned that the Contras had been trained using a US government interrogation guide that became known as the "CIA Torture Manual." The manual had been edited by hand, anticipating outcry over the techniques detailed therein, for example: "While we do not stress deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use so that you may avoid them."

From bases in neighboring Honduras – advised in part by the current US Director of National Intelligence and then-Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, the architect of Iran-Contra – the Contras waged a campaign of terror against the Nicaraguan people. To quote from just two of hundreds of verified eyewitness accounts of the actions of America's proxy army:

"They took out their knives and stuck them under his fingernails.
After they took his fingernails off, then they broke his elbows.
Afterwards they gouged out his eyes.
Then they took their bayonets and made all sorts of slices in his skin all around his chest, arms, and legs.
They then took his hair off and the skin of his scalp.
When they saw there was nothing left to do with him, they threw gasoline on him and burned him.
The next day they started the same thing with a 13 year old girl.
They did more or less the same, but they did other things to her too.
First, she was utilized, raped by all the officers.
They stripped her and threw her in a small room, they went in one by one.
Afterwards they took her out tied and blindfolded.
Then they began the same mutilating, pulling her fingernails out and cutting off her fingers, breaking her arms, gouging out her eyes and all they did to the other fellow.
They cut her legs and stuck an iron rod into her womb.
Rosa had her breasts cut off.
Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart.
The men had their arms broken and their testicles cut off and their eyes poked out.
They were then killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit."

Those who say torture never achieves the desired effect are wrong. Reagan got what he wanted, though his mind had likely dimmed too much to realize it by then. After years of terror, and of the deaths of thousands of soldiers conscripted to fight the Contras, Nicaraguans forced the Sandinista government to hold elections in 1990. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro's widow Violeta Chamorro won the presidency. The Sandinistas were autocratic and increasingly unpopular, and likely deserved to be ousted. But at what cost?

In the 1980s, torture was a dirty word. The US government was desperate to cover its tracks, certain that Americans would rise up in outrage at the thought of being associated with such atrocity. And we did. The civil wars throughout Central America, with the worst, most vile elements uniformly in the employ of the United States, brought hundreds of thousands of North Americans to the streets in demonstrations in New York, Washington, San Francisco.

And then came the great ratcheting to the right, as we cowered before the threat of those terrorists not on our payroll. Objecting to torture is now extreme fringe dissent. Confronted with secret, unilateral campaigns of terror by the administration, Congress and the press shrug and talk about Christmas trees. The Contra's head torturer now runs the United States' secret world police.

And the bloody-handed murderers, the rapists, the disembowelers, the wrenchers-out of eyeballs and fingernails, the betrayers of every human ethic and sympathy – the Contras – retire to the coffee plantations they once razed, to grow fat on the dollars of the American right. From time to time the right-wing bloggers shill for them.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 19, 2006 10:12 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I agree with all except for this: "The civil wars throughout Central America". As far as I know, Nicaragua and El Salvador were the only countries that fought civil wars. You are not referring to the Soccer War, I presume, or the largely peaceful overthrowing of the military dictatorship in Honduras, and the further strengthening of their democracy during the 1980s when the civilian leadership ousted the military leaders. (I could tell you a story about this...)

Belize, I think, has been peaceful and death squad-free, and thus would be my recommendation for a vacation.

Posted by: KathyF at January 20, 2006 08:54 AM
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There was Guatemala as well - the fighting and atrocities there were perhaps the worst in the region. And though Honduras did not go through a civil war per se, it was inextricably involved in the civil wars in both El Salvador and Nicaragua. There is evidence that the Honduran secret police - the DNI - tortured and executed refugees from El Salvador, including 30 or so nuns who fled to Honduras after the assassination of Oscar Romero. And of course the country allowed the contras to run their bases of operations from within its borders.

But yeah, Belize is a nice place, from what I hear, as is Costa Rica.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 20, 2006 09:12 AM
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Chris, this is so weird, I was only this morning thinking about Iran-Contra and how it hass passed so sweetly out of political memory.

NEVER. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Pica at January 20, 2006 09:34 AM
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There was also the CIA implicated killing of European journalists in Costa Rica and Panama during that period. Mention of that is in the Final Report produced by Walsh; a document well worth owning and reading through.

The synchronicity of your post is interesting, as it is the first thing i am reading after Robert Parry's piece today on the American Imperium:

"If there is a birth date for today’s American Imperium, it would be Jan. 20, 1981, exactly a quarter century ago, when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President and Iran released 52 American hostages under circumstances that remain a mystery to this day."

Posted by: spyder at January 20, 2006 11:50 AM
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it may have been difficult for younger readers to believe. Congress was outraged that the Reagan administration had engaged in covert operations without its consent, and cut off funding for the secret war.

Hell, it's difficult for me to believe it at this point, especially seeing as how a scant five years later that same Democratic-controlled Congress would be so terrified of a "popular" president and his "revolution" there'd be no stomach for a real investigation.

And yet a decade later a Democratic president with a reputation for sleeze would be even more popular, and twenty-five years after the revolution it would barely scrape up 51% of the vote for its wartime Idiot King. Last time I ever gave money to national Democrats or did any work for them, and I'm guessing it always will.

Posted by: doghouse riley at January 20, 2006 12:11 PM
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Belize is a nice place, from what I hear, as is Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has more teachers than soldiers! I learned that by watching the Olympics the year a Costa Rican athlete was popular. The next time I heard about Costa Rica was when Howard Dean made it popular in his litany of countries with universal health care. He always said "even Costa Rica," which I thought was mean. I will always love Costa Rica, no matter what else I find out about it, because it was the country that forced our Idiot King (thanks Doghouse) to hide his Coalition of the Willing list by insisting that they be officially removed from it.

Posted by: eRobin at January 20, 2006 02:07 PM
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All true. But we must remember that the peoples of these unhappy countries still struggle. As you say, the party of revolution in El Salvador is now the country's largest. Nicaragua remains sunk in kleptocracy, but neither Honduras nor Guatamala suffer as atrociously as during those years.

And in Chile, one of Pinochet's prisoners is the President while the old may loses his immunity.

It is these resurrections of movements that appeared crushed into the dust that we need to heed and study.

Posted by: janinsanfran at January 21, 2006 10:01 PM
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