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C H A P T E R N I N E
Throughout the U.S. war against Nicaragua, there were periodic White House-Congress-media campaigns organized to demonstrate the perfidy of the victim: arms to the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador; MiGs to threaten the hemisphere; unprovoked invasions of innocent Honduras; internal repression too horrifying for us to bear; and so on. Each exercise served its temporary purpose. When each tale unravelled, it was shelved as new candidates were found. These episodes tell us little about Central America, but a good deal about the United States and its intriguing political and intellectual culture. One remarkable and revealing example was the propaganda triumph orchestrated at the October 1989 summit of Presidents in Costa Rica, at the early stages of the February 1990 election campaign, to which we turn in the final section and the next chapter.
On November 1, 1989 President Daniel Ortega announced the suspension of the Nicaraguan government's unilateral cease-fire. The official Nicaraguan communiqué condemned the infiltration of armed contra forces from their Honduran bases and the "dramatic escalation over the last few weeks of attacks against civilian economic and military targets with the ensuing loss of civilian life among the Nicaraguan population," intended to "put obstacles in the path of the electoral process." The communiqué reaffirmed the government's commitment to the scheduled February 25, 1990 elections and called for a meeting of the parties concerned at U.N. headquarters in New York "to approve the logistical and technical matters that can promote repatriation and the integration into the political process of all those persons linked to counterrevolutionary activities or their resettlement in third countries, as stipulated in the Tela accords" of the Central American Presidents on August 7, 1989.1
Nicaragua alleged that during its 19-month cease-fire, over 730 soldiers and civilians had been killed in contra attacks, with the pace increasing through October 1989. The essence of these allegations was confirmed in the occasional remarks in the U.S. media. It was casually reported in mid-October that "since August, the contras are believed to have deployed nearly 2,000 more troops inside Nicaragua, and reports of clashes between contra and Sandinista forces have risen sharply in recent weeks"; and two weeks later, that contra soldiers who had been ordered back to Nicaragua "were being told by their commanders to prepare for combat." On October 21, 19 reservists were reported killed in a contra attack on trucks bringing them to register to vote. "As Ortega deliberated his next move" about the cease-fire on October 30, Brook Larmer observed in the Christian Science Monitor, "the contras raided a cooperative 60 miles southeast of Managua, killing five civilians."2
Witness for Peace (WFP), which issued regular reports based on eyewitness testimony, gave figures of 49 civilians killed, wounded, or kidnapped in 14 contra attacks in October. This partial record registered an increase over previous months, though the character of the contra attacks persisted unchanged. Thus the WFP Hotline of October 3 (ignored by the media, as was generally the case) reported a contra ambush of a political brigade on their way to inform villagers of the location of voter registration tables and the dates for registration, leaving one dead (the body mutilated), one in critical condition, and two wounded. In the same region northeast of Matagalpa, five men were reported kidnapped by contra marauders, another near Wiwili. Near Rio Blanco, a Catholic lay worker was killed in an ambush on November 1 driving a truckload of pigs for a Church project assisting campesinos resettled because of the war and a frequent target of contra attacks. A delegation of Hemisphere Initiatives, which was monitoring the election, reported that contras "are engaging in intensified offensive military actions" according to witnesses and townspeople in Rio Blanco, including a former contra who accepted amnesty in October and seven top local leaders of the U.S.-backed opposition alliance UNO. An eighty-year-old peasant woman described to the press how contra attackers dragged her three adult sons out of their isolated home on October 28, slashing their throats and killing them. The Sandinista press published a photocopy of an alleged contra communiqué, signed by Commander Enrique Berm£dez, ordering his forces to remain armed and mobilized "to guarantee the triumph of the UNO." Contras who had recently accepted amnesty said that they "had orders to coerce Nicaraguans to vote for the opposition in elections next February," wire services reported.3
Little of this found its way to print -- not a word to the Newspaper of Record. The occasional references elsewhere are themselves instructive. Thus a Reuters report on the contra orders to disrupt the elections by violence made it to the bottom of a column on another topic on page 83 of the Boston Globe, where the source is identified as "deserters" -- meaning, men who "deserted" the U.S.-run forces, accepting amnesty as required by the Tela Accords that the U.S. is committed to disrupt. In contrast, real or fabricated threats by FMLN guerrillas to disrupt elections in El Salvador are major news stories, constantly reiterated as the media extol our yearning for democracy and the barriers we must overcome to satisfy it.4
After the October 21 ambush, Nicaragua announced that such "criminal actions" might compel it to resort to force in self-defense. Ortega's announcement that the government would indeed pursue this course provoked a "universal storm of outrage," the New York Times commented approvingly. President Bush denounced this "little man" as "an unwanted animal at a garden party," concurring with a television reporter who described Ortega as "a skunk at a picnic." The "picnic" was the presidential summit meeting at which Ortega announced that the cease-fire might be rescinded. The summit was reduced to the level of a garden party by Washington's flat refusal to permit any substantive issue to be discussed. The infantile excuse was that President Bush's name could not be permitted to appear on any statement signed by Ortega; the probable reason was fear of U.S. isolation if serious questions were permitted to arise, a regular embarrassment in international forums.5
The U.S. sabotage of the summit merited little comment. The approved focus was that Ortega's announcement "ran head-on against the themes of peace and democracy," as Mark Uhlig put it in the New York Times. The escalating attacks by the U.S.-run proxy forces, in contrast, do not run "head-on" against these noble themes, nor does the vastly greater terror conducted with utter impunity by the military forces that effectively rule the "democracies" of El Salvador and Guatemala (or the more subdued terror of the Honduran military), all with firm U.S. support. U.S. officials and others offered grim speculations that the Sandinistas had fabricated the alleged contra attacks or even carried them out themselves, dressed as contras, seeking an excuse to cancel the elections. Profound concern was expressed that Nicaragua's resort to force to defend the country from contra violence would seriously undermine the possibility of conducting the elections fairly.6
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1 AP, Nov. 1, 1989.
2 Washington Post, October 14; Philip Bennett, Boston Globe, Oct. 30. Ambush, Lindsey Gruson, Oct. 28, NYT; also briefly noted in an AP report, NYT, Oct. 23. Larmer, CSM, Nov. 3, 1989.
3 WFP, "All Things Considered," NPR, Nov. 2; HOTLINE, Washington DC, Oct. 3; wire services, Nov. 5; Ralph Fine, Op-Ed, BG, Nov. 6; Barricada, Nov. 3; Reuters, BG, Nov. 7, 1989.
4 See references of chapter 5, note 5.
5 AP, Oct. 23; editorial, NYT, Oct. 31; Lindsey Gruson, NYT, Oct. 29, 1989.
6 Uhlig, NYT, Oct. 30; Adam Pertman, BG, Oct. 30, Nov. 2; Dan Rather, CBS evening news, Oct. 27, 1989.