NICARAGUA: THE LONG, HARD MARCH TO FREEDOM (House of Representatives - March 19, 1990)

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The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from Missouri [Mr. Skelton] is recognized for 60 minutes.

Mr. SKELTON. Mr. Speaker, on Sunday, February 25, the Nicaraguan people finally had the chance to express themselves at the ballot box in a fair and honest fashion. By a landslide margin--55 to 40 percent--they elected Violeta Chamorro, the candidate of the 14-party National Opposition Union, over the incumbent President, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

In my talk today, I will review some of the key events of the past 10 years that culminated in the victory of Mrs. Chamorro on the last Sunday in February. I will examine those events as they unfolded in Central America and in Washington. I will critique the policies toward Nicaragua followed by three American administrations and also discuss the important role that the Congress played in this drama. I will touch upon both the intelligent decisions made and also the mistakes committed both by the executive branch and by the Congress. In doing so my purpose is not to apportion credit or blame--thought that cannot be avoided--but to extract some of the lessons that we as a nation should take from this 11-year effort. Finally, I will discuss the various difficulties that the new government of Mrs. Chamorro will face as it attempts to secure the political and economic foundations of a democratic Nicaragua.


Eden Pastora, `Commander Zero' was the most charismatic leader of the Sandinista guerrilla army that defeated the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. His daring seizure of the national palace in August 1978 to secure the released of 59 compatriots held by Somoza captured the imagination of the Nicaraguan people and the world. Yet by April 1982 he had become disillusioned with the revolutionary government that he had helped to install and issued a public statement from Costa Rica breaking with the Sandinistas.

Yet `Commander Zero' was not the only prominent individual who had become disenchanted with Sandinista rule. Others who had supported the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, had worked with the Sandinistas, and had also become disillusioned included Violeta Chamorro, Alfonso Robelo, Arturo Cruz, Adolfo Calero, and Alfredo Cesar. Each of these individuals had become disillusioned because the promises made by the Sandinistas to form a government based on political pluralism, a mixed economy, and international nonalignment had all been broken.

It's important to understand that upon coming into office in 1977 the Carter administration facilitated the downfall of the Somoza dictatorship through its effort to promote human rights. In my opinion the Carter administration policy was the correct one to pursue. The Somoza regime was repressive, corrupt, and undemocratic. If we were to promote the ideals of the United States in the world, we had to hold friends to the same standards as we did foes.

However, the Carter administration committed one crucial mistake prior to the downfall of the Somoza regime--it failed to intervene early enough in the Nicaraguan turmoil to ensure a democratic succession. Not wanting to make the mistake of imposing a `Yankee' solution, it found itself unable to influence the ultimate outcome. In the post-Vietnam era, President Carter did not want the United States going it alone. However, in Central America, a region of the world where a strong American voice was expected, the unsure pronouncements from Washington simply confused the situation.

The Carter State Department was divided between those who wanted to intervene in the fall of 1978 to remove Somoza and those who

felt it was wrong for the United States to overthrow a foreign government. The former included those whose principal responsibility was Latin America; the latter included everyone else at State including Secretary Cyrus Vance. The opportunity to form a moderate government made up of the civic opposition to Somoza was lost. Those forces--the political parties, labor groups, the church leadership, and private enterprise associations--found themselves caught between Somoza on one side and the Sandinista front on the other. When the United States proved unwilling to exert its influence to remove Somoza the civic opposition decided to throw in its lot with the FSLN. Unfortunately, in July 1979 after the defeat of Somoza's national guard, it was the FSLN, not the civic opposition, that had the guns.

The Carter administration tried to establish good relations with the new regime. President Carter invited Daniel Ortega to the White House to discuss matters of mutual interest between the new government and the United States. This country showed its good faith by providing Nicaragua $118 million in economic assistance, including more than 100,000 tons of food in the first 2 years.

Yet true to its revolutionary beliefs, the Sandinista leadership was more interested in promoting revolution in Central America than in cultivating better relations with the United States. A few years later, in May 1983, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed this point. It noted that:

A major portion of the arms and other material sent by Cuba and other Communist countries to the Salvadoran insurgents transits Nicaragua with the permission and assistance of the Sandinistas. . . . The Salvadoran insurgents rely on the use of sites in Nicaragua, some of which are located in Managua itself, for communications, command-and-control, and for the logistics to conduct their financial, material, and propaganda activities.

With close ties to Fidel Castro, the Sandinista leaders went about the task of setting up a regime modeled on that of their mentor. They invoked press censorship, established a powerful secret police, mounted systematic attacks on the church, and built up a large military force. In a little over a year in power the Sandinista popular army was the largest in Central America, having grown from 5,000 to at least 24,000 men. All this, it should be noted, came about prior to the Contra insurgency. In fact it was these policies that contributed to the rise of an armed resistance movement, soon to be known as the Contras.


Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1981 with a mandate to restore U.S. strength in a dangerous world. The humiliation of Iran holding American diplomats hostage for 444 days, along with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had convinced the American public that a change was required.

In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration decided to take a tougher approach. From 1981 until 1984, the Reagan administration put together a military assistance program through various intelligence authorization acts. Assistance went to a variety of groups who had taken up arms against the Sandinistas: former National Guard members who has formed the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces [FDN], Miskito Indians of Misura, and former Sandinista fighters under the leadership of Eden Pastora and the Nicaraguan Democratic Revolutionary Alliance [ARDE].

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that the problems the Reagan administration encountered in developing a policy toward Nicaragua included the following: Too strong an emphasis on covert action, tardiness in trying to build public support, and the fiasco that came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.

The first problem resulted from a fundamental misreading of how to proceed in Central America. The Reagan administration sought to promote an important change in policy through covert means. Whether it lacked the courage of its convictions or thought such a course was the quickest way to achieve its goals, the administration decided not to inform the American public about the important stakes in Nicaragua. This was a serious mistake.

Covert assistance gave the effort in Nicaragua the aura of illegitimacy. Such assistance can work only when one of two conditions is met: If the program is a relatively small one or if there is genuine bipartisan support for such a policy. Covert

assistance to Nicaraguan resistance fighters met neither of those two conditions.

One need only contrast partisan differences over Nicaragua with bipartisan support for covert assistance to the Afghan guerrillas. Support for the Afghan resistance received consistent support from 1980 on because the issue was very easy to understand. Evening news broadcasts showing Soviet invasion forces operating in Afghanistan was a clear case that the American public could understand. The outright Soviet invasion of a Third World country merited U.S. support for those willing to oppose this flagrant violation of international law. Public support for the Afghan cause made it easy to fashion bipartisan congressional support for the Afghan guerrillas.

In Nicaragua, however, the American public had no comparable dramatic event with television footage showing an invasion force landing in the country. The case for aiding the Contras was not an open and shut one for those in the general public who had not paid close attention to developments since the late 1970's. In fact, events in Nicaragua reminded many of Vietnam. It seemed like a civil war, with the United States once again backing a sordid group, this time a bunch of rebels who had been part of Gen. Anastasio Somosa's national guard.

Even worse, however, was having the issue of covert military support for the Contras introduced to the American public and Members of Congress through the pages of the Washington Post in early 1982. This was no way to broach the issue to a public nor to a Congress leery of repeating our tragic experience in Vietnam. Reports in the press of anti-Sandinista exile groups fighting the Nicaraguan Government mounted. A November 1982 Newsweek cover story with the sensational title `America's Secret War,' simply increased the aura of illegitimacy to the U.S. effort.

Realizing its covert effort was not working--it was too big to be covert and it was encountering substantial opposition in Congress--the administration decided to make the effort to build public support for its muscular policy towards Nicaragua. Enlisted in the effort were Henry Kissinger, who chaired a 12-member commission to formulate a long-range policy toward the region as a whole; the office for public diplomacy at the State Department; and Ronald Reagan himself, `the great communicator.'

Though neither consistent nor sustained, the administration's efforts succeeded in winning $100 million in lethal and nonlethal assistance for the Nicaraguan resistance in July of 1986. Part of its success in its 221-209 victory in the House of Representatives that summer was that the package included more than just military aid to the Contras. Three million dollars of the $100 million went to establish a human rights program for the Contras. I believe it was the first time in history that such a program was established for any guerrilla group. Equally important, another part of the aid package reappropriated $300 million from the Defense Department for economic support of the other four Central American democracies.

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The aid package of 1986 provided a substantial infusion of resources for the various resistance groups. The United States established intensive training courses for low-level resistance combat leaders and specialists at selected military bases in the United States and Honduras. Approximately 1,400 Contras received training in small unit operations, field medical care, and tactical communications. Another 500 were trained as paratroopers and 200 more in demolition warfare. Weapons supplied included crew-served machine guns, light mortars, sophisticated communications equipment, and about 350 `Redeye' shoulderfired antiaircraft missiles. This last critical weapon helped

turn the tide of battle in Nicaragua by denying the significant aerial advantage the Nicaraguan military had previously possessed with its Soviet-supplied armored helicopters.

Within 3 months of the mid-October final passage of the continuing appropriations act, results could be seen. Newspaper accounts the following January and February described resistance fighters engaging Sandinista army units in northern Nicaragua. Throughout 1987 the war increased in intensity. In classic guerrilla warfare fashion the resistance fighters spread out throughout the entire country except into the urban areas on the west coast. Picking their fights and maintaining the initiative, the rebels became a very capable fighting force.

By the latter part of 1987, resistance forces were mounting larger and bolder operations than had ever taken place during the war. In one engagement along the vital Rama road, the strategic link between the Atlantic port of El Bluff and the capital of Managua, a rebel force of some 3,000 men engaged several Sandinista counterinsurgency battalions in a battle that lasted more than 2 days. One Washington Post account put the Sandinista losses at more than 300 compared to less than 50 for the resistance.

An even larger rebel force of about 7,000 attacked the gold-mining towns of Siuna, Rosita, and Bonanza in northern Nicaragua in late December 1987. This operation displayed the kind of complex military operations the rebels were capable of mounting. The Sandinista army found itself stretched thin by the reinvigorated resistance forces.

Yet military success on the ground in Nicaragua was undermined by political scandal in Washington. In November 1986 the Iran-Contra affair broke. All efforts by the administration to build public support for its policy toward Nicaragua came to a halt. It seemed that everyone in the administration was running for cover and that the primary effort in the White House had become one of saving the Reagan Presidency. Building public support for the President's Nicaragua policy would have to wait. The momentum for continued military assistance to the resistance fighters was lost. This was confirmed in early February 1988 when by a vote of 219-211 the House of Representatives voted against further military assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance.

While the tempo of fighting increased in Nicaragua and scandal took its toll in Washington, Oscar Arias, the President of Costa Rica, was putting together a plan to end the Nicaraguan conflict. The Central American peace agreement of August 7, 1987, called for an end to all outside support for guerrilla groups in Central America, in exchange for steps by each government toward the establishment or perfection of democratic institutions and practices. The Central American leaders stated that the continued United States military assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels violated the spirit of the accord as did Nicaraguan support for the Salvadoran guerrillas.

The Arias plan offered the Sandinistas the face-saving formula of a Central American plan for ending the conflict in Nicaragua in exchange for democratic elections. The Reagan administration resisted the Arias plan, despite professions to the contrary, because it believed that the Sandinistas would never permit fair elections to be held. This view was shared by many in Congress who had supported the Contras.

Yet while some supported the Arias plan because they thought it might lead to the peaceful turning out of the Sandinistas, many others did so because they wanted to kill off the Contras for good. They were more interested in delivering a political defeat to Ronald Reagan than in helping the Nicaraguan people secure their freedom. In Congress this was reflected last fall by those who claimed to support the peace process but voted against providing financial support to ensure a fair election in Nicaragua.


Upon taking office the Bush administration took a different approach than the Reagan administration in its policy toward Nicaragua. It sought to craft a bipartisan accord with Congress expressing American support for peace, security, and the process of continued democratization in Central America. In March 1989 the administration succeeded in its effort.

The essence of that accord was to continue providing the Contras only humanitarian assistance in exchange for pursuing a resolution to the problems of Nicaragua through the Central American Peace plan. The administration offered four key congressional committees the option of vetoing the assistance in November if any one of them judged the administration insincere in its support of the diplomatic process. But late last October, Daniel Ortega announced that the Sandinista government was ending the cease-fire that has been in effect since June 1988. That surprising announcement eliminated any possibility that the Congress would end its support of humanitarian assistance to the Nicaraguan fighters and their families holed up in their camps along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border.

The Bush administration's willingness to work with Congress on the issue of Nicaragua did two things. First, it eliminated the issue as a contentious one between the Republican administration on one side and the Democratic Congress on the other. Second, it shifted international attention from congressional battles over Contra aid in Washington to the effort to ensure a fair election in Nicaragua.

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In between the date of the signing of the bipartisan accord on Central America in March 1989 and the election that took place in Nicaragua this past February the cold war came to an end. The political and economic changes set into motion by Mikhail Gorbachev upon coming into power in early 1985 resulted in a total transformation of the Communist order in Eastern Europe in the last half of 1989. The upheaval was total. Communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania were overthrown as the people in each of those countries called for the establishment of genuine democratic governments based on free market economic principles.

Events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not go unnoticed in Nicaragua; nor was that country left unaffected by those events. For the people of Nicaragua and the UNO Coalition, those tumultuous events were an important morale booster. The dramatic changes in which yesterdays dissidents had become today's leaders offered the prospect that a similar transformation could take place in Nicaragua.

If the opposition in Nicaragua viewed the events in Eastern Europe with great joy and

hope, the government viewed those same events with a mixture of disbelief and horror. Democratic regimes in Eastern Europe would ultimately cut off the economic and security ties that had proved vitally important to the Sandinistas since their assumption to power 10 years earlier. But the first order of business for the Sandinistas was to win the elections to which they had committed themselves in February 1989, at the summit of the five Central American Presidents in El Salvador.


Two factors prompted the Nicaraguan Government to move up elections scheduled for November 1990 to February 1990: the first, the desire to disband the Nicaraguan resistance as a force that could once again be committed to battle; the second, the need to attract foreign aid to improve an economy going badly downhill.

Despite the contention of the critics that the Nicaraguan rebels did not contribute to the democratic outcome in Nicaragua simple logic refutes that notion. One of the key goals of the Nicaraguan Government throughout years of negotiation was the disbanding of the Contras. While on various occasions declaring the Contras ineffective or insignificant, the ruling Sandinista Government in Managua disclosed its true evaluation of that tough fighting force by consistently calling for their demobilization.

Those of my colleagues who argued that our money to support the Contras was money wasted credit Oscar Arias with the outcome of February 25. Yet without the pressure provided by up to 20,000 peasant Contra fighters, a force more than twice the size of the Salvadoran guerrillas in a country with half the population, President Arias would have had nothing to offer up in his negotiations sessions.

If the military pressure of the Nicaraguan resistance helped force the ruling Sandinista regime to agree to hold elections, equally significant was the economic embargo the United States placed upon Nicaragua in May 1985. Those sanctions on top of earlier Sandinista mismanagement of the economy took a heavy toll. By 1989, Nicaragua had been brought to economic disaster with widespread poverty, widespread shortages of consumer goods, an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent, and an inflation rate of 36,000 percent, a world record.

Both the military and economic pressure the United States exerted on the hard-line government in Managua provided Oscar Arias the negotiating leverage he used to good purpose. In effect, the Central American Presidents through their peace plan gave Daniel Ortega a face-saving way out of his predicament. In a very disjointed, unplanned fashion both supporters of the military track and supporters of the diplomatic track contributed to the happy outcome of February 25.


In examining the `upset' victory of Violeta Chamorro, it is important to note how

completely wrong were many of the long held beliefs of those who claimed to understand Nicaragua under Sandinista rule. Those individuals--professors, church leaders, journalists, and politicians--were wrong in believing the line that the Sandinista revolution had benefited the poor. In fact, the opposite is true--the revolution benefited the ruling elite at the expense of everyone else in the country. The experience of Nicaraguans replicated the experience of the peoples of Eastern Europe who suffered under 40 years of Communist misrule. The people of Nicaragua knew who had made them poor by wasting resources on unproductive state enterprises in addition to the mansions and luxury automobiles for the commandantes. The expensive campaign waged by the Sandinistas probably did as much as anything else to alienate the poor. The people could have put to better use the money spent by the ruling party on baseball caps, T-shirts, and expensive rallies during the electoral campaign.

Those experts on Nicaragua were also wrong in believing the FSLN had broad support in the country. By U.S. standards the 55- to 40-percent victory of the UNO coalition was a landslide victory. Had the ruling government permitted the 10 to 20 percent of the populace who chose exile rather than life under Sandinista rule to vote, the tally would have been even more lopsided.

The experts were equally wrong in believing the Sandinistas had broad support among the young. After all it was the young who suffered the most under an unpopular draft that sent them off to fight a war for a regime they did not support.

The experts also struck out in thinking the people of Nicaragua would blame the United States rather than the ruling party for the war and the economic fiasco in which Nicaragua found itself. The vote showed clearly for the entire world to see that the people of Nicaragua held the government of Daniel Ortega responsible for the mess at home.

As for the American military action in Panama, I would argue that far from angering the people of Nicaragua, as many experts contended, it gave the Nicaraguans hope. After Noriega stole the Panamanian elections last May and the international community did nothing about it, Nicaraguans must have wondered if they were to be condemned to the same fate should the Nicaraguan regime act in the same high-handed manner. The American military intervention last December showed them that the United States would not sit by if Daniel Ortega stole the elections or voided them as had his ally, Manuel Antonio Noriega. Someday a poll should be conducted in Nicaragua on this issue but I would counsel hiring some firm other than those who predicted a solid Ortega victory.

But possibly the biggest error that the self-appointed experts on Nicaragua made concerned the notion that the Nicaraguan resistance, the Contras, were widely unpopular at home and that they would drag down the UNO coalition because too many of its leaders were identified with them. In fact, precisely the

opposite was true. In those areas of greatest Contra activity, in the central Provinces of Chontales and Boaco, and in the northern Provinces of Jinotega and Matagalpa, the UNO coalition won by a wide margin. In the central Provinces they won 67.9 percent of the vote compared to 27.7 percent for the Sandinistas. And in the northern Provinces, UNO won 57.7 percent to the Sandinistas' 37 percent.

On the other hand, those of us who considered ourselves opponents of the Sandinista regime must admit making some miscalculations. Many of us simply didn't believe the Arias plan would work. But then again, who in 1987 could have foreseen the turn of events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that would so dramatically influence the situation in Nicaragua. But we should have seen the Arias effort as a face-saving way for the Sandinistas to go along with new elections.

We also did not believe the Sandinistas would permit fair elections. Credit here goes to a variety of groups--the United Nations, the Organization Of American States, the Center for Democracy, the Archbishop of Managua, and former President Jimmy Carter--who monitored the elections. And credit must also be given to the existing government which permitted these various groups to monitor the elections.

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If the policies of the Carter administration were marked by a reluctance to become involved, to use American power and influence, those of the Reagan administration suffered from the opposite tendency, to rely too heavily on American power. Ironically, both administrations pursued policies in Central America in which each claimed it was applying the lessons of Vietnam. Scarred by a failed war in which more than 58,000 Americans died, the bitter lesson for the generation that came of age in the 1960's and 1970's became `never again,' `no more Vietnams.' To oversimplify the two positions--for liberals the hard lesson of Vietnam meant no American involvement in regional wars, for conservatives it meant no long dragged out involvement in regional wars.

Six years of contentious partisan struggle over the issue of Contra aid convinced the incoming Bush administration that only a genuine two-track policy towards Nicaragua could work. President Bush, Secretary of State Baker, Assistant Secretary of State Aronson should be commended for their efforts to forge a bipartisan accord with the Congress. The democratic leadership of the House and Senate deserve credit for their willingness to give the new Bush administration the benefit of the doubt.

Three elements contributed to the ultimate electoral victory of Violeta Chamorro and the UNO coalition. The first element was the steadfast support for democracy in Nicaragua on the part of this country for over a decade, from earlier support for the Nicaraguan resistance, to the recent support for the electoral process. The second element was the determined effort on the part of the

Central American leaders to find a peaceful solution themselves for the region. The third element was the crucial role played by international observers to ensure the fairness of the elections. I suspect the turning point in the campaign took place when the Nicaraguan people lost their fear, when they became convinced that their vote would indeed be cast in secret.

In the last analysis, however, credit for victory has to go to the Nicaraguan people. They voted for Violeta Chamorro and a platform that called for an end to the war, an end to the draft, and an end to dictatorial rule. They also voted for reconciliation at home and a new relationship with the United States.

Now the real work in Nicaragua begins. The problems are formidable. The President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Haval described some of the same problems his country must confront after years of corrupt Communist rule. In a speech to the Congress a few days before Mrs. Chamorro won her victory this is what he said:

The Communist type of totalitarian system has left * * * Czechs and Slovaks--as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union and the other countries the Soviet Union has subjugated in its time--a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline, and above all enormous human humiliation. It is the same sad legacy that the Sandinistas have bequeathed their fellow Nicaraguans.

On the economic front, 11 years of Sandinista mismanagement and 5 years of the U.S. trade embargo will not be overcome in a matter of weeks or months but more likely will take years. On the military side, there are the twin problems of demobilizing the Contras on the one hand and the Sandinista Peoples Army and Interior Ministry Security Forces on the other.

Equally challenging will be the establishment of a solid democratic political foundation. There are questions about the 14-party alliance holding together. It is almost always easier to unite such coalitions against a common enemy than to maintain them when the time comes to govern. And yet I believe that there is cause for hope. The leaders of the 14 parties have worked closely together and under difficult and dangerous circumstances for many many months. They probably realize better than anyone else that the Sandinistas will remain

a bitter foe, even in opposition. The only way they can hope to secure a prosperous and democratic future for their country is to continue working together as they have in the past.

On the other side, what role will the Sandinistas play in a Nicaragua trying to set up a democratic form of government? Will they play a constructive role, that of the loyal opposition and try to reform themselves as many of the Communist parties of Eastern Europe are attempting to do? Will they split up into the three factions that existed prior to 1979 and decline in importance? Or, more likely and more ominously, will they become like the Nazi Brownshirts of another era, dedicated to undermining the capacity of the embryonic democratic order to function?

Nicaraguans and Americans would be naive to think that the struggle is over. There is a vast Sandinista bureaucracy to overcome. The transition to a civil society, difficult whenever a dictator falls, will be even more difficult in Nicaragua because though the Sandinistas lost at the ballot box, they maintain their power, encrusted over a decade of rule. But one thing will be far different. The government of Violeta Chamorro will have the ability to call upon the help of the international community in case the Sandinistas prove recalcitrant. In extremis President Chamorro could call upon U.S. military assistance. Like his friend Manuel Antonio Noriega, Daniel Ortega would not want to find himself being pursued by American forces and ultimately landing in a U.S. jail.

I hope this will not be necessary. Maybe the United States can start to devote more attention to the rest of Latin America than has been the case for the past decade. There certainly is no shortage of problems in the region. Almost every Latin American country in the Western Hemisphere confronts two and sometimes three or more of the following difficulties--guerrilla war, economic chaos, environmental destruction, pollution, population growth, and an increasing drug culture.

Benign neglect concerning the problems of our southern neighbors will only cost us more in the future.