Making Lemonade

Making Lemonade

Mini Teaser: The Bush administration assumed that the Sandinistas would win in Nicaragua, writes Robert Kagan in his massive study of the Nicaraguan drama.

by Author(s): Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 903 pp., $37.50.

Fidel Castro warned the Sandinistas not to hold real elections. "The people can make mistakes", he told them, acidly. But the "comandantes" thought they knew better. They convinced themselves that the mass organizations of the Sandinista party would deliver a crushing victory in February 1990, in spite of all that had happened since the Revolution.

The Bush administration assumed that the Sandinistas would win too, writes Robert Kagan in his massive study A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-90. President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker had pushed for the elections as a graceful way to disengage from a nasty dispute that had consumed far too much time and passion in Washington. They hardly expected the motley and chaotic opposition to mount a real challenge. Practically speaking, they had written off Nicaragua.

It was the first election ever held in which a Marxist regime was voted out of power. The whole world was watching, and the whole world got it wrong, especially the pollsters. A month before the vote in February 1990, the American firm of Greenberg-Lake released a poll showing President Daniel Ortega ahead of the benevolent matriarch, Violeta Chamorro, by a margin of 51 to 24 percent. It was surely the biggest fiasco in the history of the polling business, proof alone that Nicaragua had become such a closed society that a large chunk of the population was too frightened to tell strangers the truth. I was in the press room in Managua when the results came through, and I have to admit enjoying the ash-white faces of my colleagues as they began to realize that the Nicaraguan Revolution they so loved had been rejected by a landslide.

By then the Sandinistas had crossed the Rubicon. If they tried to annul the election, the prospects were clear: war, poverty, and isolation. Their defeat changed the world's perceptions of U.S. policy in Nicaragua at a stroke. To their own surprise the Republicans could now make a fair case that they had been right all along about Nicaragua. Bernie Aronson, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, called reporters into his office to tell them that the Bush administration had "turned lemons into lemonade."

Kagan was a key player in the long Nicaraguan drama. He was a member of the State Department's policy planning staff in the Reagan administration. As a speechwriter for Secretary of State George Shultz he was the first to articulate the "Reagan Doctrine" of communist roll-back in vulnerable outposts of the Soviet client empire. He then served as a lieutenant to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, helping to turn the Contras into a serious resistance movement--and living through the nightmare of the Iran-Contra scandal when the crusade came perilously close to toppling President Reagan. But he remains scrupulously detached. The name Kagan does not appear in the index. This is history, not apologia.

He has spent five years of his life writing the definitive book, battling all the myths and half truths remaining from the propaganda wars. It is hard to imagine that A Twilight Struggle will ever be surpassed for its scholarship, depth, and good sense. Opening the pages of this colossal study you know at once that this is going to be the book on the subject, and all else is cut-and-paste, or polemics, or mere journalism by comparison.

For Kagan the election was a great moment. The establishment of democracy in Nicaragua was a vindication of U.S. policy, he argues, even if it was a messy business getting there. He credits Reagan for pushing the Contra cause, and he credits Bush for giving the Sandinstas a way out at the end--"an alternative to the grim choice between perpetual war and disastrous surrender."

The meta-theme of his nine-hundred page work is that subtle shifts of policy in Washington have dramatic effects in a country like Nicaragua. Whether it wants to or not, the United States is doomed to play the role of a great power with imperial responsibilities. The Carter administration was slow to understand this. In 1977 the State Department decided to make Nicaragua the first test case of the "new foreign policy", a down-payment on Jimmy Carter's pledge to push for human rights around the world, "particularly in those countries that depend on the United States for their very survival." The choice of Nicaragua for this démarche came easily. Columnist Jack Anderson had been calling President Anastasio Somoza "the world's greediest dictator." Liberal Democrats were exercised about it. So Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher agreed to a de facto suspension of all aid to Nicaragua.

Few people in Washington saw it as anything more than a symbolic statement. "Not only was Nicaragua deemed strategically insignificant, but the possibility of dramatic change in this insignificant country was remote", writes Kagan. "Somoza's opponents were weak. The Sandinista guerrilla forces had been all but wiped out by the National Guard since 1974. The CIA estimated the number of guerrilla fighters at fifty."

It was a serious misjudgment. "These small and rather haphazard decisions in Washington blew down across Nicaragua like a hurricane." The abrupt change of signals from the State Department led to a ferment of activity among the opposition groups. Nicaraguans waited for the Carter administration to indicate what kind of government it wished to put into office. Nothing happened. Somoza calculated that he could hang on to power after all.

The new assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, Viron Vaky, argued that the United States should promote a viable non-communist alternative to Somoza. But he was opposed by Anthony Lake, then the State Department's director of policy planning, one of the stalwarts of the "non-intervention" moralists. As the drift went on through the turbulent year of 1978, the Sandinista Front seized the initiative with a stunning commando raid on the Nicaraguan National Palace. It catapulted the guerrillas into the forefront of Nicaraguan politics. Analysts at the Pentagon and CIA were always behind the curve as the FSLN prepared for insurrection. They discounted the "hit-and-run type" strikes because the Sandinistas were unable to capture and hold towns. General Dennis McAuliffe, commander of U.S. forces in Latin America, told Congress just weeks before the revolution that Somoza's forces were "entirely capable of dealing with the threat." Lulled into a false sense of security, President Carter continued to refuse Somoza's requests for arms. When the White House made a last half-baked effort to stop the creation of a "Castroite" regime in Nicaragua, it was already too late.
It is an article of faith on the Left that the Sandinistas were forced into the arms of the Soviet Union, against their wishes, in order to save the revolution from the implacable aggression of the United States. This view dominates the literature on Central America, and it is more or less embedded in the universities of the United States and Europe. Kagan has performed an invaluable service by correcting the record once and for all, before an important chunk of history is permanently disfigured.

"The Sandinistas were eager suitors of Soviet patronage--more eager, in fact, than the Soviets were to act as patrons", he writes. By March of 1980 they had signed a party-to-party agreement with the Soviet Communist Party, as well as secret military protocols to begin receiving arms from the Soviet bloc. "Remember, this was the strong Soviet Union. We thought it would last", Humberto Ortega confided to Kagan. "We thought the Soviet Union was as rich as the United States. We truly believed that the utopia existed."

There was a good deal of naivete in Washington about the character of Sandinismo. Kagan takes the New York Times to task for propagating the myth that "committed Marxists" had been forced to break away from the movement, and that the FSLN was planning to call free elections. It was all eye-wash. The Sandinistas saw themselves as a Leninist vanguard party, and Kagan describes how they moved with impressive dispatch to eliminate anybody in their way. Within three months of the revolution on July 19, 1979, the new police and army had launched "Operation Sandinista Fist", arresting hundreds and perhaps thousands throughout the country. Left-wing groups that were not under Sandinista control were crushed. The leader of the Socialist Party was arrested. The offices of the "ultra-left" newspaper El Pueblo were raided, and several of its staff were imprisoned. "Journalism has a right to be free", declared Joaqu'n Cuadra, the army chief of staff, "but it does not have the right to attack this process, even indirectly." The non-Sandinista elements in the Junta were kept as window-dressing, but exercised no real power. Within a year the most popular leader of the conservative opposition, Jorge Salazar, had been assassinated by Tom‡s Borge's security police.

"We radicalized our model to look more like Cuba", Humberto Ortega told Kagan later in a surprisingly frank exchange. "We wanted to copy in a mechanical way the model that we knew, which was Cuba, and we identified with it . . . we didn't want to follow other models." It was a standard hard-left operation: neighborhood block committees, party-controlled trade unions, collectivization of the peasants, the lot.

Contrary to modern mythology, the first serious stirrings of guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua had nothing to do with the ex-Guardia in Honduras. Groups of ex-Sandinista "kulaks" started attacking police outposts in a battle against the seizure of properties. One unit was led by "Dimas", a Sandinista hero who had "liberated" parts of the Nueva Segovia during the revolution. Kagan calls it the "invisible rebellion of the summer of 1980."

The establishment of a Leninist state had to be disguised. A Sandinista party paper, known as the 72-Hour Document, spelled out the methods employed to keep "imperialism" at bay and use the private sector as "bait for getting foreign capital." Washington had an incentive for pretending not to see the strategic deception. "Denying that the Sandinistas were Communists put off the day when President Carter could be accused of having 'lost' Nicaragua", writes Kagan. Hoping that the Sandinistas could still be bought off, the Carter administration poured aid into the country. When hard evidence started coming in that the Sandinistas had turned Managua into the quartermaster's office of the Salvadoran guerrillas, the Carter administration helped cover up for them.

The Republicans had no illusions, of course, but, contrary to general belief, President Reagan had little appetite for a show-down with the Sandinistas when he took office in 1981. Nicaragua was already lost, and that humiliation was hanging nicely around the neck of the Democratic Party. He sent Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders to tell the Ortegas that they could keep their revolution, so long as they did not try to incite revolutions in the rest of Central America. White House aides James Baker and Michael Deaver pressed Reagan to focus on his domestic agenda. The administration had more important things to do than squabble with liberal Democrats over a bankrupt coffee republic with a population of three million. The country was not worth the candle.

But the Sandinistas pushed their luck too far. Convinced that history would soon sweep Marxist allies into power across the isthmus of Central America, they increased their clandestine support for the FMLN in El Salvador. It was a disastrous mistake. Everybody in the Reagan administration was agreed about one thing: the need to stop another country falling into the Soviet orbit, especially in Central America. El Salvador had to be defended, and that meant taking the fight to Nicaragua itself. Years later General Humberto Ortega admitted that the Sandinistas had made a disastrous mistake. "We paid a heavy price for our international romanticism."

There was no real plan to create the Contra resistance. "In the end", Alexander Haig recalled, "the decision to go covert was a decision almost by default." He regarded it as a failure of the foreign policy-making apparatus. The Nicaraguans were plotting and scheming in exile, and the Argentines were already training some ex-Guardia in Honduras. The United States was offered a chance to buy into an existing operation. Interestingly, President Reagan "was profoundly averse to violence" and doubted that a covert operation would do much to influence the course of Nicaragua's revolution. One official told Kagan that "Reagan has the reputation of being a gunslinger, but he was the most cautious, conservative guy in those meetings."

Once the die was cast, however, there was no turning back. The Contra forces mushroomed into the biggest guerrilla insurgency in Latin America, much to the astonishment of their handlers at Langley. In hindsight it has to be asked whether the whole endeavor was worth it. On the one hand, the Contra war scared the wits out of the Sandinista leadership. The comandantes felt compelled to curtail the supply of arms to their Salvadoran comrades in order to appease swing voters (mostly Democrats) in the U.S. Congress. El Salvador and Guatemala did not fall to Marxist revolutions--though they came very close to doing so--and that fact alone was of critical importance in the psychology of the late stages of the Cold War. On the other hand, the imperatives of the Contra policy ultimately led to Iran-Contra, crippling President Reagan so badly that his domestic policy was all but paralyzed for the last two years of his second term. The fevered efforts to keep the Contras alive after Congress cut off aid had serious collateral effects. The supply efforts were subcontracted to drug smugglers, creating an impression that the U.S. government was mixed up with cocaine trafficking. It may be false, or it may be closer to the truth than officials from the Reagan administration care to admit to themselves, but whatever happened there are now large numbers of people in the United States who believe that CIA and the Pentagon are suspect. Trust has been lost.

On balance, Kagan seems to argue that it was worth it. The redeeming achievement is the establishment of democracy in Nicaragua. I do not want to quibble with this, because the country is obviously a much freer place today. But was democracy really established? The Sandinistas may have lost the presidency but they did not lose control of the military, the police, or the apparatus of state security (even though the latter was abolished in theory). General Humberto Ortega continued as head of the armed forces. Many of the same enforcers from the Sandinista Interior Ministry accused of death squad abuses were still holding sway in the small towns of central and northern Nicaragua years later. After the Contras laid down their arms and returned to civilian life a large number were killed. Some were picked off in the middle of the night; some, like Contra commander Enrique Bermúdez, were assassinated in the open. The Contras were betrayed. Not perhaps the well-heeled Contra politicians that Kagan dealt with at the State Department; they landed on their feet, of course. But the campesinos who fought the hard battle: they were hunted down by a Sandinista military now being funded indirectly by the United States. Doubtless, it was naive to expect anything else.

Essay Types: Book Review