Politics of Terror:
Nicaragua’s Fight Against Delegitimization

The Sandinistas even betrayed the memory of the Nicaraguan rebel leader Sandino, whose legacy they falsely claim.  For the real Sandino, because he was a genuine nationalist, was opposed to Communism.

— Ronald Reagan, 24 June, 1986.

The postmodern paradigm of the fragmented narrative would emphasize that nationalism and Communism can neither interact nor exist in any synthesized form within any space.  Though most scholars would claim that Ronald Reagan is barely a postmodernist, Reagan would obviously see eye-to-eye with such reductionist “scientists” of postmodernity, and his espousal of the reigning clichés to delegitimate “Moscow’s and Havana’s exportation of Revoltion” could be parallelled to certain postmodernists’ evidence of the delegitimated consensus.  For Reagan, the political practice of Socialism or Marxism in conjunction with other beliefs and theoretical orientations is therefore in direct conflict with the United States’ model of the kinds of political ideologies that “should” be taking root in Latin America.  Thus, a political movement in Latin America — or even worse, in Central America, since it is “only a two day drive from Arlington, Texas” (Reagan, 1985) — “may be nationalist, or it may be Marxist, but it cannot be both” (Black, p. 162).

The Nicaraguan presidential elections of 1990, served as the heated political battleground for F.S.L.N. (Frente Sandinista de Liberación National) candidate, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, and the U.N.O. (Unión Nacional Opositora) candidate, Violeta Chamorro.  From different perspectives, this election could be said to engender a political struggle between: Communism and Democracy; freedom and tyranny, self- determinacy and imperialism, barbarism and civilization, and Sandinismo and Somocismo (since approximately twenty U.N.O. candidates on the regional level had, in fact, been members of Somoza’s National Guard and represented many of the bourgeois interests of Somoza’s oligarchy).  In fact, for many Nicaraguans (including staunch F.S.L.N. supporters), this election represented a choice between:  Ortega — the continuation of both the Contra war and the U.S. economic boycott which had been crippling Nicaragua for over ten years, or Chamorro — the termination of the embargo and the withdrawal of the Contra forces and its contingent U.S. support.  On February 25, 1990, Ortega lost the election, and at 6:00 a.m. the next morning in the Olof Palme Convention Center he stated:

Desde el momento en que nosotros hemos defendido este proyecto pluralista, hemos aceptado el reto de poner a prueba la voluntad popular, el voto pueblo en elecciones periódicas que están debidamente ratificadas en la Constitución de la República.  Y fuimos a estas elecciones del 25 febrero de 1990, con el convencimiento que esta batalla en el campo electoral, debía decidir de una vez por todas el fin de la guerra, y traer un poco de paz, estabilidad y tranquilidad al pueblo nicaragüense.

The Sandinistas, the group Reagan called the “Stalinistas,” “Marxists,” and “Communists,” turned out to be the political party which won Nicaraguans their liberation from the oppressive Somoza tyranny and ultimately, demonstrated to the world, through this election and their subsequent defeat, to be a true “democratic,” “nationalist” —  and yet still “Marxist” — forum.

Since 1979, the United States has been wagng an ideological, economc, and politcal war aganst the Sandinistas (the Party and the State). We must ask ourselves why the United States government, in asserting its hegemonic imperative of “universal democratization,” did not stop with the financial support (“humanitarian aid”) of the Contra forces; why it was then necessary to promote the economic embargo against Nicaragua; and furthermore, after these two drastic measures, why the U.S. governement defied its own 1974 law (which made foreign financing of U.S. elections illegal) in order to support financially the U.N.O., the oppositon party of the F.S.L.N (Nichols, p. 266).

Since 1959 when Castro came to power in Cuba, the United States has been attempting to delegitimate the “Cuban model” of Communism,  which Nicaragua did not engender until twenty years later.  The years prior to the Sandinista victory revealed a somewhat ambiguous relationship between the Somozan oligarchy and the U.S. — during the initial years of the Somozan regime, the U.S. goverment, although not completely satisfied with Somoza’s takeover of power, still seemed determined to maintain Roosevelt’s non-interventionist policies towards Nicaragua, and then, in the early 1950’s, the United States established military missions with Nicaragua.  Thereafter, the Nicaraguan government began receiving military assistance from the U.S.  From 1953 through 1975, U.S. military aid to the Somozan regime rose from an average of approximately $200,000 to $1.8 million dollars per year.  The years following Castro’s takeover of power were perhaps the best diplomatic years between the U.S. and Nicaragua, for in 1961 Somoza allowed the U.S. to launch the Bay of Pigs from Nicaraguan soil.  In 1965, Nicaragua again assisted the United States by sending troops to occupy the Dominican Republic, and in 1972 along with Guatemalan forces, Nicaragua also helped the U.S. defeat a coup in El Salvador (Booth, pp. 49-76).

Yet, after 19 July, 1979, Nicaragua no longer fit into the United State’s scheme of “democracy,” but rather it represented an even more dangerous threat than Cuba, since Nicaragua embodied a Communist nation which achieved a fairly strong constituency with not only Cuba, the Soviet Union,  and many other Latin American nations, but also with many “First World” powers such as Italy, Sweden, France, Japan, and Canada.  Moreover, Nicaragua’s economy, unlike Cuba’s, did not completely shift towards the Soviet market, but rather maintained a diversification of international commerce, sustaining (between 1979 and 1981): 49% of its financial links with the third world, 32% with Western capitalist nations, and 19% with Socialist nations (Vilas, p. 260).  Yet, Nicaragua’s ties with the U.S. economy were very strong until late 1982 when the Reagan administration eliminated Nicaragua’s sugar quota in the U.S. market and soonafter began slowly eliminating Nicaraguan consular offices within the U.S. and suspending loans to the Sandinista government (e.g. in 1981, $15 million of a $75 million loan was stopped, as was a $10 million dollar loan for wheat purchases suspended the next month). The United States also convinced the World Bank not to lend any more money to Nicaragua until the government accepted a proposal of economic stabilization, which the Sandinista’s ultimately rejected (Vilas, pp. 260-261).

Yet, in opposition to the U.S. economic policies, many other countries attempted to counter the “damage” sowed by the U.S. economic activities:  there was an extensive campaign in Western Europe to increase the consumption of Nicaraguan products; Algeria and Iran purchased Nicaraguan exports; U.S.-based solidarity groups began buying and selling Nicaraguan exports; Cuba donated medical supplies and the services of hundreds of doctors; and Sweden donated the hospital in Rivas (Conroy, pp. 183-196).  The absobent measures taken by other countries/organizations, eased the burden of the U.S. economic measures, ultimately yielding only a 20% decrease in export diversification between 1982 and 1984, yet the Nicaraguan economy seemed to indicate that an economic battle would be the best type of “warfare” for the U.S. to wage againt the “Communist” regime.  The U.S. share of Nicaraguan industrial imports still accounted for one-third of Nicaragua’s exports, and so on 1 May, 1985, the U.S. launched a full economic attack, implementing a full-scale embargo which severely crippled the Nicaraguan economy.

In attempting to undermine further the Sandinistas, the U.S. maintained its economic embargo, but continued other delegitimating efforts through its generous support of the Contra forces, resulting in yet another monetary strain on the Nicaraguan economy.   In 1981, during the Reagan adminstraton, the U.S. supported the Contra forces (the Fuerzas Democráticas Nicaragüenses and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Nicaragüenses) through funding, arms, and training and intelligence support by the C.I.A.   Approximately $100 million of U.S. aid went into sponsoring this destabilizing project between 1981 and 1984 (Booth, pp. 208-209) and it is estimated approximately one-third of Nicaragua’s national budget between 1983 and 1984 ($550 million) went into its national defense against the U.S.-backed Contras (Booth, pp. 250-264).

Despite the U.S. efforts to support financially the Contras, there was  considerable retaliation  from both the Nicaraguan government and many Democrats in the United States House of Representatives.  Between 1982 and 1984, Nicaragua sued the United States for treaty violations involving the Contra attacks on Nicaraguan citizens and factories and the C.I.A.’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors.  After the judgement in these cases went against the United States, the Department of State, in 1985, issued its decision to withdraw from the International Court of Justice regarding issues of  Central America (Booth, p. 266).  Furthermore, in 1985, Congress voted on a $14 million package of “nonmilitary aid” for the Contras, but this was rejected by the House, as were a series of similar ammendments made in the following weeks (Black, p. 162).   Yet, after Bush took office in the Spring of 1989, many Deomocrats were persuaded to support the $49.7 million “humanitarian aid” package for the Contras.  (MacMichael asserts that the Democrats were tying to “phase out” the Contra forces without “embarrassing” President Bush (p. 164)).

However, when the C.I.A. could not legally relinquish funding for the Contras, it illegally sold arms to Iran and redirected the profits to the Contras.  Ironically, Reagan accused the Sandinista government of being heavily involved with drug trafficking, alluding to a photograph where he claimed that an aide to Borge was shown loading cocaine onto a plane outside of Managua.  The next day, however, the Drug Enforcement Administration confessed that there was really no evidence to back this story (Black, p. 165).  The Reagan Administration continually attempted to delegitimate Sandinista rule through propoganda like this, ultimately attempting to consolidate the international economic and political alienation of Nicaragua.

One of the United States’ most powerful political attacks on the Sandinistas, however, was its involvement in the 1984 elections whereby the Sandinistas and six other parties took part in the electoral process.  The candidate from the opposition group Coordinadora Democrática, Arturo Cruz, was strongly recommended by the U.S. Congress.  Twelve weeks before the elections,  some U.S. diplomats visited the leaders of the other conservative parties, urging them to withdraw from the race so Cruz would stand a good chance of winning.  However, when the other leaders refused to comply with the U.S., four weeks away from the election, Cruz pulled out of the race (Godoy, 1984).  According to Philip Taubman’s article in the New York Times : “The Administration never contemplated letting Cruz stay in the race, because then the Sandinistas could justifiably claim that the elections were legitimate, making it much harder for the United States to oppose the Nicaraguan government.”  The elections proved to be a success with a 75% turnout and the F.S.L.N. winning 67% of the vote (New York Times, 15 November, 1984).  Moreover, according to many international observers and the press was “fairly conducted” (New York Times, 5 November, 1984).

Despite the fact that the U.S. government claimed this election was a fraud, the results were, in fact, fairly represented through the distribution of the National Assembly seats which were divided as such: 64% Sandinista; 15% Democratic Conservative Party; 9% Independent Liberal Party; 6% People’s Social Christian Party; 2% Communist Party of Nicaragua; 2% Nicaraguan Socialist Party; and 2% Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement (New York Times, 15 November, 1984). Cruz’ pulling out of the race before the actual election gave the United States six more years to contest the legitimacy of the 1984 elections — moreover, it enabled the U.S. government to call the Sandinista State a “totalitarian regime” and a “Marxist threat to the United States” until the 1990 elections.

As the National Endowment for Democracy (a foundation created by the Reagan administration) had been pouring over $5.6 million to various Nicaraguan opposition groups and another million to anti-Sandinista programs throughout the rest of Central America since 1984 (Nichols, p. 267), the United States was much more prepared for the 1990 elections.  According to MacMichael’s article, “The U.S. Plays the Contra Card,” the U.S. government defied its 1989 agreement to dismiss the Contra forces and concentrate on purely political intervention, by increasing Contra activity in Nicaragua around the 1990 election-period, in order to remind the people of what they would be risking by voting for Ortega, and to hint at what they could stop by voting for Chamorro.  Besides increased Contra activity, the U.S. Congress authorized the N.E.D. to spend $9 million on the Nicaraguan elections — $1.8 million which went directly to the U.N.O. (fifty-percent of international funding to political parties by law must go to the national electoral process), $2.2 million went to the private sector which was allied with the U.N.O., and $1 million went to Carter’s election monitoring groups, and the rest went to grants and administrative costs (Nichols, p. 267). (I would emphasize that the $9 million was direct aid, and that if you counted donations and loans to private corporations who in turn supported the U.N.O. electoral drive, the figure is uncountable, but probably more than double the direct accountability.)

The N.E.D.’s funding of the U.N.O. was, in fact, a tool for manipulating public opinion and political processes in other countries, and Nichols calls it one of the “most popular programs in Washington today” (p. 268).  While the economic boycott and the Contra funding failed to destabilize the Sandinista hold, the N.E.D.’s funding of Chamorro and Godoy consolidated the remaining pieces ultimately building the foundation for the U.N.O.’s/the United States’ victory.  The political warfare that the United States’ government undertook was, I believe, much more powerful and effective than the previous methods since it antagonized fewer Nicaraguans by passifying the people with promises to do x, y , and z if Chamorro won the election.  This allowed the Nicaraguan people to believe that there could be a “peaceful” and “democratic” way of changing the government which would yield ultimately more “peace” and “economic stability.”

Through my interviews with some of the citizens in Matagalpa, a staunch U.N.O. region, I learned that members of the U.N.O. were giving away money and bicycles to those who promised to vote for Chamorro.  Others complained that the F.S.L.N. was using government property and funds for campaign purposes.  On the North Coast, many campesino’s complained that the Sandinista’s had forgotten about them in the last few years, and that the Contra war was simply destroying their land and killing off the skilled workers.  Many of the Miskito villages also complained of human rights abuses by the F.S.L.N. (e.g. being forced into fighting with the Frente army and being thrown off their land in order to accommodate the government’s military needs).  While many of the campesino’s were fervent F.S.L.N. supporters, many claimed they voted for Chamorro to end the embargo and the war in order to realize “una nueva vida.”

Representative Hank Brown, a strongly anti-Sandinista Republican from Colorado, stated in 1984: “Liberals — and prudent conservatives — believe that it is a contradiction to try to promote free elections by interfering in them.  But this is exactly what the N.E.D. has done” (Hank Brown).  Today, the ontological status of any narrative presupposes a threat to its own demise, extinction, or metamorphosis.  Any narrative can only be legitimated by its delegitimation-in-process, and any delegitimation, in turn, is legitimated by its very deformation.  The Sandinistas, in forming their insurgency against the Somozan regime, had to realign their agenda in order to incorporate a greater constituency, and in forming their government in 1979, also had to readjust their  political and economic ideology in order to accomodate those further to the “right.”  Yet, there still remained the threat that an even greater change would have to be made — that one day, another party would take power.   Perhaps Ortega said it best:

Considero que ese es, en este momento histórico, el principal aporte que los sandinistas, que los revolucionarios nicargüenses le estamos haciendo al pueblo de Nicaragua, es decir, garantizar un proceso electoral limpio, puro, que aliente aún más nuestras conciencias y alumbre, como este sol que nos alumbra hoy, hacia la consolidación de la democrácia, hacia la consolidación de la economía mixta, de una Nicaragua libre, independiente y democrática en paz, no intervenida por potencia extranjera alguna y en donde todos los nicaragüenses seamos capaces de demostrarle al mundo que podemos convertir en realidad esos sueños, esas esperanzas.

In this way, the Sandinista government was formed with the interest of consolidating different narratives within the hegemonic polity and ensuring their dialogue — even at the expense of the narrative propounded by the Sandinista State shifting or dissolving.  The United States’ foreign policy evolves on a level of ideological consensus, where what is “free” and “democratic” is policy interpreted according to the grand master model.  Any deviation from the accepted rhetoric of politics, any criticism, transformation or experimentation which seriously puts into question the U.S. vision of a pure, universal political system and its legitimacy, threatens the hegemonic control which fuels the U.S., the control of the markets, the control of the dependent-satellite systems, and ultimately the control of the innocent, Christian ideal on which North American politics grew, its “Manifest Destiny:”

To the extent that science is differential, its pragmatics provdes the antimodel of a stable system.  A statement is deemed worth retaining the moment it marks a difference from what is already known, and after an argument and proof in support of it has been found.  Science is a model of an “open system,” in which a statement becomes relevant if it “generates ideas,” that is, if it generates the statements and other game rules.  Science possesses no general metalanguage in which all other languages can be transcribed and evaluated.  This is what prevents its identification with the system and, all things considered, with terror (Lyotard, p. 64).  The absolute authority of the U.S. hegemonic potency and the contingent self-image of its world, necessarily its creation, does not allow for a counter-statement, a metalanguage, which legitimates the system by staging its disruption.  U.S. Power then can only be substantiated carried through and maintained by a politics of terror in the press, and in the very democratic institutions seeking to arise.


Works Cited

Black, George.  The Good Neighbor: How the United States Wrote the History of Central America and the Caribbean.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Booth, John A.  The End and the Beginning:  The Nicaraguan Revolution.  Boulder:  Westview Press, 1982.

Brown, Hank.  Editorial.  The New York Times.  June 1984.

Conroy, Michael E.  “Patterns of Changing External Trade in Revolutionary Nicaragua:  Voluntary and Involuntary Trade Diversification.”  The Political Economy of Revolutionary Nicaragua.  Ed. Rose J. Spalding.  Boston:  Allen and Unwin, Inc., 1987.

Godoy, Virigiol Reyes.  Interview.  The Electoral Process in Nicaragua — Domestic and International Influences:  The Report of the Latin American Studies Association Delegation to Observe the Nicaraguan Election of November 4, 1984.  Austin: Latin American Studies Association, 19 November, 1984 (29-31).

Lyotard, Jean François.  The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.  Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

MacMichael, David.  “The U.S. Plays the Contra Card.”  The Nation .  5 February, 1990: 266-268.

New York Times, 5 November, 1984, p. 4.

New York Times, 15 November, 1984, p. 8.

Nichols, John Spicer. “Get the N.E.D. out of Nicaragua.”  The Nation .  25 February, 1990: 162-167.

Ortega, Daniel Saavedra.   Address.  Centro de Convenciones Olof Palme.  Managua, 26 Feb. 1990.

Vilas, Carlos M.  The Sandinista Revolution:  National Liberation and Social Transformation in Central America.  Trans. Judy Butler.  New York:  Monthly Review Press, Center for the Studies of the Americas, 1986.