NicaNotes: Elliott Abrams and the People of Central America: Never Forget!

By James Phillips

(James Phillips is a cultural and political anthropologist who has lived in Nicaragua and Honduras and has studied Central America for many years. His latest book is: Extracting Honduras: Resource Exploitation, Displacement, and Forced Migration.) 

As Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams was largely responsible for policies and practices that created murder, mayhem, and misery in Central America. Photo: NDLON

Elliott Abrams is being considered for a position on the State Department’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. According to its website, the Commission’s work is “appraising U.S. government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of, and support for, these same activities.” What this neutral sounding language means in practice is whatever it takes to extend and maintain U.S. control of other countries. The activities of Elliott Abrams over the past forty years provide some of the worst examples of this mission, and of a blatant disregard for the sovereignty, rights, and lives of others.

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Abrams’ entire career in public office has been guided by his apparent belief that the killing, torture, and misery of any number of Latin Americans (and others) is justified in the name of protecting the “security’ of the United States. This is the essence of the so-called National Security Doctrine that was employed by all of the violent military dictatorships of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. It was and remains very much a central part of the thinking of many in the U.S. government, such as Mr. Abrams. The “security” justification in this context was and is a lie, an excuse for eliminating all dissent and extending control over a population.

As Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams was largely responsible for policies and practices that created murder, mayhem, and misery in Central America, and that still haunt the region today, largely because people like Abrams are still in positions of influence in Washington. “These same guys that caused so much misery in the 1980s are still walking the streets freely,” a Honduran woman told me after the 2009 coup in her country.

In the early 1980s, Abrams helped to oversee the Guatemalan Army’s genocide of four hundred Mayan villages where men, women, and children were systematically slaughtered. Because the authors of this genocide remained in power, it took decades to bring anyone to justice for this atrocity.  Abrams and the Reagan Administration continued to support the genocidal Guatemalan military in the face of international condemnation.

Abrams had a large hand in directing U.S. policy in El Salvador, in the 1980s, when the country’s military engaged in a long and brutal series of assassinations and massacres, with the excuse of guarding the nation against the “communist” insurgency of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The most infamous example occurred in the community of El Mozote, where the Salvadoran military massacred 1,000 innocent people for allegedly aiding the FMLN. The government and the military adopted the assassination tool that came to be known as the “death squad,” (esquadrón de la muerte), that was widely used also in Honduras and Guatemala.

The Salvador military also targeted progressive sectors of the Catholic Church, assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero, several priests, four U.S. church women, six Jesuit faculty of the University of Central America in San Salvador and their housekeeper and her daughter, and an unknown number of Delegates of the Word and other lay church leaders. It was said that the military trained to the chant of ”Be a patriot, kill a priest.” At this time, El Salvador was the third largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid (behind only Israel and Egypt). U.S. Representative Joe Moakley (D-MA) led a Congressional fact-finding delegation and issued a report that was a scathing denunciation of the use of U.S. aid for the Salvadoran military engaged in such human rights disasters. In response, Abrams applied his talents as a spin-master to excuse and whitewash these atrocities.

With Abrams, in the 1980s the Reagan Administration worked to make Honduras its most reliable colony and the platform for U.S. intervention and control of the region. The U.S. military expanded its presence in the country and its close working relationship with the Honduran military. Many Hondurans today recall that as one of the worst periods of political repression in the country’s history. Student activists, labor leaders, and others were disappeared and often found dead and mutilated. Military roadblocks were everywhere; soldiers checked everyone riding on public transportation. Young men were systematically rounded up and jailed, disappeared, or forced into the Honduran military. The Honduran Army’s Battalion 316 became notorious as a death squad used to assassinate leading critics of the U.S. or of the neoliberal economy the government was developing.

Under pressure from the Reagan Administration, the Honduran government and the army allowed the south of the country, along the Nicaraguan border, to be turned into a safe zone where U.S. trainers, supplies, and advisers were funneled to Contra camps, and where Contra officers recruited young men among the Nicaraguan refugees in the large refugee camp near Jacaleapa. The Honduran government was not always comfortable with the U.S. using the country as the staging point for war against Honduras’ neighbors, especially Nicaragua. When the Nicaraguan army chased some Contra forces out of northern Nicaragua and back into Honduras, the U.S. government spread the story that Nicaragua was invading Honduras. When asked about this, Honduran President Azcona denied that there was any Nicaraguan invasion.

Abrams was adept at peddling fear as a weapon. I could not find many people in Honduras who really believed Abrams and Reagan when they lied that Sandinista Nicaragua was preparing to invade Honduras and turn it into a communist dictatorship. In neighboring Nicaragua, however, everyone lived with the fear that the United States would invade Nicaragua at any moment.

Under the Reagan Administration, Abrams was one of the chief agents in organizing, funding, and sustaining the Contra War in which the United States used legal and illegal means to fund, arm, train, and advise the Nicaraguan Contra forces to destroy the Sandinista-led popular revolution. In 1979, that revolution had finally toppled the 45-year dictatorship of the Somoza family that had brutally ruled Nicaragua with the blessing of eight U.S. Administrations from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. By 1981, Reagan and his posse were determined to topple the revolution. Abrams lent his skills enthusiastically to this effort.

The Iran-Contra Affair shows how far-reaching and cynical were the efforts of Abrams and his associates. The Reagan Administration secretly brokered an illegal deal to sell weapons to the Islamic revolutionary government of Iran, the same government that Reagan was publicly denouncing as an evil and repressive regime seeking to destabilize the Middle East. The money from the sale of these arms was then used to illegally fund the equipping, training, and support of the emerging Contra forces on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. When questioned about this by the 1987 Iran-Contra Congressional investigative committee, Abrams lied, but he managed to avoid actual prosecution and returned to a position of influence in the Administration. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two offenses of lying to Congress. He was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.

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Abrams and his associates also found another (illegal and destructive) way to fund the Contra war. In August 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb stunned the world with a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News reporting the results of his year-long investigation into the roots of the crack cocaine epidemic in the United States, specifically in Los Angeles. The series, entitled “Dark Alliance,” revealed that for the better part of the 1980s a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras. This arrangement helped to destroy the lives of people in Los Angeles neighborhoods and the lives of Nicaraguan peasants thousands of miles away. A Justice Department investigation confirmed much of Webb’s findings.

The strategy of the Nicaraguan Contras was shaped and directed by Abrams and others who referred to it as “low-intensity conflict.” It was anything but low-intensity for the Nicaraguan people who lived through the nightmare. The strategy was to target not the Nicaraguan Sandinista army but rather the civilian population, especially the small farmers and peasants in hundreds of rural communities throughout the country; to make life unbearable so that the people would turn against the Sandinista government or be unable to support it.

The CIA wrote and distributed to Contra soldiers and others a how-to manual for performing acts of sabotage against daily life, especially anything that was related to the Nicaraguan government. It was a manual on how to conduct “psychological operations” to terrorize the Nicaraguan population. CIA Director William Casey defended the manual as an “educational” tool. When Nicaragua brought a case against the U.S. in the World Court in 1984, the manual was one piece of the evidence against the Reagan Administration. The World Court directed the U.S. to pay Nicaragua for damages caused by the war, but the Reagan Administration ignored the Court.

I was in Nicaragua during the Contra War, witnessing and documenting its effects in rural communities. Putting aside all of the bureaucratic and political rhetoric of the instigators in far-away Washington, this is what the Contra War was like for so many Nicaraguan communities. This description of one out of hundreds of such incidents is taken almost verbatim from my field notes written at the time. The names are real, not pseudonyms; I think these people should be remembered.

At 7 p.m. on the night of May 20, 1986, Contra forces attacked the small rural community of Teodosio Pravia (twelve families), east of the city of Estelí. A small group of Nicaraguan army soldiers and local men held off the full Contra attack until most of the women and children could flee up the hill on a path in the dark to the neighboring community of Sandino (fifteen families). The Contra forces swept into Pravia, capturing one woman and holding her as a human shield. They burned to ashes almost a dozen wooden houses, two storage sheds full of seed potatoes, and the schoolhouse.

Then they turned their attention to the Sandino community. They attacked with mortars and grenades, shooting and looting houses. Hermida Talavera, 12, and her brother Rafael, 10, were in the house of their cousin Jesus, 15, when a mortar shell struck the roof. It is uncertain whether the three children were killed by the bursting shell, the collapse of the roof, or the grenade that a Contra soldier threw into the house. When I visited the scene a few days later, I saw the blood of the three children splattered on the wall of the house.

Silivio Chavarria, a Ministry of Agrarian Reform worker with a wife and children in Estelí, happened to be in Sandino community that night after he and his work partner, Julio, had spent the day working with the people. A Contra soldier threw a grenade that injured Silvio’s leg so he could not move. After the attack, his badly mutilated body was found. Some people said they heard screams that night and thought he might have been tortured. When I visited Julio a few days later in Estelí, he recounted these details about Silvio. Julio himself was injured; his leg bandaged.

The Contras also killed Marta Tinoco, 21, a Nicaraguan Army soldier and daughter of peasant farmers, and they destroyed the communications radio she was using to call for help. They killed a Nicaraguan army lieutenant, Marco Cascante, and two Ministry of Housing workers who were in the community helping to build houses—Juan Francisco Lumbi and Concepción López Vargas. In all, eight were killed, including six civilians, three of whom were children. Sixteen others in the communities were injured, and more might have been killed if they had not managed to escape into the forest in the dark.

The Contra forces also destroyed or damaged at least fourteen houses, three storehouses, several thousand pounds of seed potatoes, a schoolhouse, and three trucks belonging to the Ministry of Housing. They slaughtered animals belonging to community members, looted personal belongings and small personal savings, and took an estimated ten thousand dollars (seven million Córdobas) the Sandino community had gotten from the sale of potatoes.

When I visited, it was a scene of bizarre devastation. Bullet holes, blood, dead animals. In the mud beside a path was a basket of eggs. A picture of the Virgin Mary was propped up against a wooden post outside the blood-stained wall of a destroyed house. People said a Contra soldier carefully removed the picture before he shot up and grenaded the house.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Managua had been searching for a way to rationalize this attack. They said in a statement that communities such as Sandino and Pravia are “militarized if not actually military targets.” Apparently seed potatoes are a threat to national security.

Why does all this matter now? Elliott Abrams’ appointment at this time to the State Department Advisory Commission on Public Policy is not a coincidence. Despite his past and recent efforts and the enormous damage they caused, his work is not complete; the U.S. empire is not “secure.” The revolution continues in Nicaragua, the Guatemalan and Honduran peoples have elected reformist democratic governments that pose a threat to the established network of resource extraction, corruption, and repression that the U.S. has supported in these countries. Abrams would be instrumental in efforts to assure “regime change,” ensuring the continued colonization of Honduras and Guatemala, and destroying the “threat of a good example” in Nicaragua, a country that, has experienced continual improvements in many basic services, infrastructure, and conditions of daily life, despite heavy economic sanctions imposed by the U.S.

We are witnessing an intense negative news and propaganda campaign in which Nicaragua is cast as a brutal dictatorship that represses human rights, religion, and all political expression. This media campaign makes ample use of distortions of fact, outright fabrications of “truth,” and erasure of any context that might allow us to evaluate events clearly. It has succeeded in dividing solidarity for Nicaragua and polarizing attitudes towards the Sandinista government in general and Daniel Ortega in particular. Any action by the Nicaraguan government to respond to provocation and threat is denounced as brutal or extreme.

The Nicaraguan government’s measured response to the uprising of April 2018 was denounced in Washington and the mainstream media as an extreme repression of an uprising that was painted as “peaceful.” despite ample evidence that it was anything but peaceful. An alternative narrative from eyewitnesses in Nicaragua paints a very different picture of events, a narrative that the U.S. has tried very hard to suppress and keep out of the media. Elliott Abrams’ special talents would lend themselves perfectly to this ongoing effort to undermine and remove Ortega and the Sandinistas from power, again as in the 1980s, to thwart the will of a people and substitute the will of the U.S. government in its place—regime change and forms of intervention by any means at any cost.

As for Honduras, the new government of Xiomara Castro is facing enormous dilemmas as it tries to repair the damage done to the country by its predecessor and to dismantle the entrenched web of corruption of the past decade. But the U.S. has issued veiled and more direct warnings to the Castro government. A campaign of increased violence and negative criticism is underway, and Castro is under enormous pressure to abandon most of her election promises of reform. Here also, Abrams would be in an excellent position to help ensure that the Honduran government answers to the demands of U.S. economic interests rather than the needs of the Honduran people.

The larger issue in all of this is not any single person, even Elliott Abrams. The same mindset that helped orchestrate the genocide in Guatemala, the murders of Church people in El Salvador, the death squads and militarized state in Honduras, and the Contra War in Nicaragua is still infecting Washington. Some of its purveyors are still in place, shaping and effecting policy and practice. A real step to security for the US and the hemisphere would be to bar people like Elliott Abrams from holding any office or responsibility in any level of government anywhere.

For more information and to send email messages to President Biden and your Senators opposing the Elliott Abrams nomination, click here!

By Nan McCurdy

Nicaragua and China Sign Free Trade Agreement
A Free Trade Agreement was signed on August 30 between China and Nicaragua that will enter into force on January 1, 2024. The two countries resumed diplomatic relations just 20 months ago, which has been enough time for delegations from both governments to negotiate the treaty which will allow Nicaragua to access the largest market on the planet with its agricultural and fishing production, coffee, dairy and meat products, among others. In turn, China will be able to export to Nicaragua high quality industrial, electronic and other products. Since China and Nicaragua began trade negotiations in July 2022, it has only taken one year to finalize the negotiations and reach a beneficial result. (Radio La Primerisima, 30 August 2023)

Nicaragua First Central American Country to Export Sugar to China
With the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with China, Nicaragua will be the first Central America nation to export sugar to China. Mario Amador, general manager of the National Committee of Sugar Producers pointed out that countries such as Costa Rica, which signed an agreement with China a long time ago, have not obtained access to the Chinese market to export sugar. He said that the negotiations went well for Nicaragua and the country was able to include all its main export products such as meat, sugar, coffee and other items that will help develop Nicaragua’s economy. For the sugar sector, the quota is 50,000 tons paying a 15% tariff, which is a good opportunity. The tariff paid by other nations that export to China is 50%; that is, Nicaragua has a 35% tariff benefit. (Radio La Primerisima, 1 Sept. 2023)

Honoring Memory of Poet Rubén Darío
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that the archive and collection of the Rubén Darío House Museum in León has been certified and incorporated into the Memory of the World Program. The press release states that “the archive and collection of the Rubén Darío House Museum has most of the personal objects and writings of the Nicaraguan poet known as the ‘Prince of Castilian Letters.’” The UNESCO Memory of the World Program is an initiative that seeks to preserve and raise public awareness of the importance of world documentary heritage. (Nicaragua News, 5 Sept. 2023)

Nicaragua Leader in Health Policies in Central America
Nicaragua leads the Central American countries with the most public hospitals and the second largest health budget, according to a study of the region’s health system carried out in Honduras. The study reports that Nicaragua has 77 public hospitals for a population of 6,850,540. Guatemala follows with 44 hospitals for 17.11 million people and Honduras in third position, with 31 hospitals, and a population of 9.5 million. El Salvador has 30 hospitals for 6.3 million people, and Costa Rica has 29 hospitals for 5.1 million people. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 Sept. 2023)

Electricity Coverage at 99.34%
The Minister of Energy and Mines Salvador Mansell reported that national electricity coverage was 99.341% at the end of July, with 70% generation based on renewable sources. Mansell said that “9,906 electrification projects have been carried out over the last 15 years, benefiting 3,666,959 people through coverage that has expanded from 54% in 2007 to 99.34%.” (Nicaragua News, 1 Sept. 2023)

Contribution of Solidarity to Renewable Energy
Representatives of the Climate Change Secretariat and the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) made a site visit to evaluate operations at the Benjamin Linder Small Hydroelectric Power Plant in San José de Bocay, Jinotega Department. The head of the MEM Environmental Unit, Luis Molina, stated that “Since 1994 the small hydroelectric plant has provided 190KW of energy, benefiting 11,000 inhabitants. This project represents the dream of murdered solidarity worker Benjamin Linder to provide clean energy to the population and is one of the models for the entry of Nicaragua into the development of renewable energy, which to date represents almost 70% of the electricity produced in the country.” The hydroelectric plant guarantees a stable supply of electricity to thousands of families and contributes to the reduction in use of oil in keeping with the climate change mitigation goals of the country.” (Radio La Primerisima, 30 August 2023)

Indigenous Community Leaders Approve Actions to Protect Environment
The leaders of 22 communities of the Wangki Maya Indigenous territory of the municipality of Waspam, North Caribbean, approved the continuation of the government’s Integrated Climate Action project. This project strives to reduce deforestation and strengthen resilience in the Bosawas and Río San Juan Biospheres. A total of 179 people participated in the meeting.  To facilitate the participation of women with children during the territorial assembly, a day care center was set up, attending 129 children. In addition, health personnel provided 156 consultations. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 1 Sept. 2023)

National Police with a Strong Revolutionary Ideology
Approaching its 44th anniversary on Sept. 5, the Nicaraguan National Police highlighted that one of the achievements of the institution is peace, the security of the population – manifested in a rate of seven homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest in Latin America and the world. Likewise, the reduction in robberies and dangerous crimes. These represent less than 4% of the crimes (out of every 100 crimes 96 are minor or misdemeanors). These achievements in security matters are the result of government policies, strategies, programs and plans to protect the lives of the population.

The National Police is a new police institution that broke with all the traditional schemas. It was formed with humble, revolutionary young people who were creating a different model from other police forces in the region. The Nicaraguan Police emerged from the people, to serve the people, with principles, values and ideals that are preserved 44 years later and that are transmitted to the new generations. New units and Women’s Police Stations continue to be built in the municipalities, improving police services to the citizens. The professional training programs implemented by the government continue to be strengthened, including: the Leonel Rugama University of Police Sciences; the Julio Briceño Dávila University of Medical Sciences; Georgino Andrade Online High School and the Angelita Morales Avilés Online Technical School. The National Police is planning to hold its main anniversary event on September 11 and the “Con la Paz no se Juega” (Peace is not a Game) Parade on September 12. Sports activities are also planned, including softball, athletics, volleyball and soccer tournaments. (Radio La Primerisima, 31 August 2023)

Guatemala Executes Fraudulent Maneuver against Nicaragua
On September 2 the Nicaraguan government denounced a maneuver by Guatemala to take away Nicaragua’s right to assume by rotation the Executive Secretariat of the Center for Disaster Prevention in Central America and the Dominican Republic. In the Central American Integration System (SICA), there are rules and procedures recognized by the participating countries. Nicaragua noted that it is not possible to alter the order of rotation or force the substitution of one government for another, when it is not a legitimate procedure of SICA. “The Government of Nicaragua formally denounces this maneuver that alters and eats away at the legal framework of SICA, and communicates that it rejects it as illegitimate and contrary to the principles, values and statutes that govern and legally order the Central American Integration System. We call upon the General Secretariat to conduct these processes in accordance with the SICA Rules, and ensure compliance with them. This maneuver is illegitimate, completely irregular, and Nicaragua condemns it, protests, and rejects it and does not join consensus.” (Radio La Primerisima, 2 Sept. 2023)