NicaNotes: Learning the Lessons of Empire and Solidarity: No Contras in Venezuela!

By Josh Bergeron, February 8, 2019

[Josh Bergeron is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently writing a dissertation about the solidarity movements of the 70s-80s, entitled “The North American Front”: Direct Action Anti-Imperialism in the Latin America Solidarity Movement, 1969-1992. He says, “But my interest is not purely academic, I also consider myself a committed anti-imperialist and activist of the left.”]

Venezuela is now, and has long been, in the crosshairs of the United States’ “humanitarian” empire. Whenever the specter of intervention rears its grotesque head, many of us on the left are mobilized in remembrance of the long history of the West violating the self-determination of sovereign nations who dare to resist imperial hegemony. To that end, we often take it upon ourselves to inform and remind the public of this legacy, drawing attention to historical repetition. It bears repeating that these comparisons we make (such as the hyper relevant cases of 1973 Chile, or 2002 Venezuela) are not directly interchangeable with current realities, but they are analytically instructive and they help to contextualize and historicize broad themes and tactics of US imperialism and hegemony in Latin America and the Global South.

But one example that is both particularly enlightening and disappointingly ignored in this current moment is that of Nicaragua in the 1980s. There came to power a complicated, dynamic, flawed, exciting, revolutionary coalition government, the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). They took power in a popular revolution by overthrowing a US-backed dictatorial family in 1979, and they reaffirmed that power through an election in 1984. Though some opposition parties abstained, the election was free and fair. They wrote a new constitution, enshrined participatory democracy, expanded social programs, conducted land reform and literacy expansion, the parallels to the Bolivarian experiment are many. The Sandinista coalition was diverse, including moderate and radical wings, but they were largely united in defense of their revolutionary project, particularly in the face of imperial threats.

Meanwhile, the CIA coordinated with Nicaraguan expats, oligarchs, and former military officers to form, arm, fund, and advise a counterrevolutionary force, the Contras. This they did in conjunction with other “counterinsurgency” programs in US-aligned El Salvador, Guatemala, and beyond. The US media obliged in an imperialist narrative of Contra “freedom fighters” trying to overthrow a communist dictatorship run from Moscow and Havana. Ronald Reagan’s White House insisted that regime change in Nicaragua was a national security necessity because the communists were “at our doorstep.” Under the banner of “humanitarian aid,” the United States trucked arms and funding to Contra forces–a move that we’ve just discovered has been repeated in Venezuela. The Sandinista government appealed to the people of the US to oppose intervention, and called on its neighbors and allies to foster a negotiated peace. But these attempts were undermined at every step because the Contra opposition did not want peace, and neither did the US. So instead there was war, nearly 10 years of it. You can see where this is going.

This war was multifaceted. It involved death squads massacring Sandinista and non-aligned villagers alike, Contra forces taking leaders and journalists and international peace witnesses hostage, right wing terrorists shooting down planes with FSLN officials on board, US and its aligned nations blockading the Nicaraguan economy, and US secret operations to mine Nicaraguan harbors, among many other things. To assist in legitimizing this interventionism, corporate mouthpieces like the New York Times engaged in a concerted media war. Among the left there was a mounting fear that Reagan would give the green light to an outright military invasion in Central America (“the next Vietnam” as it was often called), particularly after the US invaded Grenada in 1983 to complete the overthrow of a revolutionary government there.

But Reagan was forced to draw down this criminal effort by the end of his second term, through a measurably successful anti-intervention solidarity campaign. This is key here. The solidarity movement certainly had internal differences, schisms, various ideological lines, but it was broad and it was powerful. They pressured Congress to make Reagan’s material support of the Contras illegal (hence the eventual Iran-Contra scandal after his cabal was found to have circumvented the Boland Amendment), the International Court of Justice (World Court) ruled that the US committed war crimes against Nicaragua in 1986 and ordered reparations be paid, several US officials were indicted or publicly shamed for their complicity. Notably this narrative is one of temporary progress followed by bald-faced subversion of accountability processes.

The Reagan administration asserted that it was not subject to the jurisdiction of the ICJ and would therefore not submit to the reparations judgement, despite multiple United Nations resolutions urging compliance—resolutions routinely rejected as non-binding by the US, Israel, and occasionally their allies in Central America, like El Salvador and Honduras. Likewise, today the US has not slowed its coup plot in Venezuela despite several international associations of nations refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó. The Nicaraguan reparations demand, which had eventually ballooned to billions of dollars in damages, was effectively dropped by the post-Sandinista neoliberal government of Violeta Chamorro in the early 1990s in return for US cancellation of a significantly smaller debt. Further, most of the indictments from Iran-Contra were pardoned by George HW Bush, including that of war criminal Elliott Abrams, who now serves as Donald Trump’s chief “democracy promoter” in Venezuela. Clearly, these gains were short-lived, but the international community, notably many European social democracies and almost the entirety of the Third World, were isolating the United States (and to other degrees US allies like Israel) on matters of Latin American intervention.

Finding traditional avenues for influencing the levers of governmental power too gradualist, incompetent, or outright resistant to an anti-interventionist platform, solidarity activists took to direct action instead. In cooperation with the Sandinista government, US civil society, and other solidarity movements, organizations and programs like Nicaragua Network, Harvest Brigades, and Witness for Peace were formed. Activists travelled to Nicaragua by the thousands to assist in harvesting coffee or building small hydroelectric dams, or even to put themselves in the line of fire between Nicaraguan villagers and Contra death squads to help deescalate the bloodshed. Churches in the US called for a commitment to religious values of building peace and opposing war, veterans of the Vietnam War and other conflicts took Pledges of Resistance, migrant and refugee communities hosted Nicaraguans and other Central Americans at town halls and college campuses to tell their stories and make appeals to US citizens to oppose the wars, mass demonstrations and direct actions took place in the streets and at federal buildings. Some folks laid down on railroad tracks to stop US arms shipments to Central America and lost limbs in the process. Others were martyred by death squads in Central America. Much of this was done in concert, through widespread organizing and coordination, often in conjunction with other solidarity causes such as the peace movements for El Salvador and Guatemala or the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition presidential campaigns made this peace movement a central policy of his platform for election. Unions and student groups demanded institutional divestment from the war effort.

The strategies were diverse, and individually not always successful. But with relentless simultaneity, persistent mobilization, and a diversity of tactics, the solidarity movement forced the public to contend with their complicity in the Nicaraguan conflict and their blind faith in US propaganda. Perhaps most importantly, however, particularly with regard to the imperialist violation of Venezuelan sovereignty today, we must remember that what united these disparate wings of the Central American solidarity movement was a commitment first and foremost to the policy of anti-intervention, for the United States to cease and desist all economic, military, and political manipulations in the region. They did not make central to their effort a demand that the FSLN leadership step down from power, they did not demand that the Sandinista “regime” concede to the violent reactionary opposition. The solidarity movement did not try to incorporate regime-change narratives about the necessity for “free and fair” elections and transitions of governance. Internally there was certainly debate about the nature and direction of the revolution, but the broad movement united around anti-intervention as its primary concern. This mass movement did not end the conflict itself, and neither can it take primary credit for defending the Sandinista revolution (that claim goes to the Nicaraguan people themselves), but by the late 1980s, the solidarity movement helped change the conversation within United States civil society, in the media, in Congress, in churches and beyond. It helped to shift the terms of discourse from a Cold War illogic of national security to a serious interrogation of morality and complicity with atrocity.

Unfortunately the story does not end there. Forced to withdraw from the attempt to militarily overthrow the Sandinista government, the Reagan-Bush administrations shifted to “soft coup” policies. This will sound frustratingly familiar. In 1989 and 1990, they poured tens of millions of dollars into Nicaraguan opposition electoral campaigns and media efforts, primarily through the National Endowment for Democracy, the very same “soft power” organization helping to fund the Venezuelan opposition today. The central premise of the Nicaraguan opposition campaign for election in 1990 was this: transfer power from the socialists to the neoliberals in order to end the conflict. Bush Sr. promised to lift the blockade and provide aid, but only if the opposition was victorious. It was a campaign of blackmail, much like the US promise of lifting economic sanctions on Venezuela should Juan Guaidó finally occupy Miraflores. It worked then.

After over a decade of struggle, much of the Nicaraguan population was exhausted, demoralized, disillusioned, and economically struggling. They knew that by voting for the ostensibly moderate and non-ideological UNO opposition (a coalition formed partly under US guidance), the conflict would come to a close. And in many ways, that’s what happened–the externally-supported civil war ended, the economy was opened back up. But the presidency of Violeta Chamorro and her conservative successors ushered in over a decade of social and economic decline, neoliberal policies, corruption, and cutbacks in the massive gains of the revolutionary period. The US ended its economic embargo that it had placed on the Sandinista government, but it also severely cut back the aid it sent to Nicaragua to paltry sums after spending hundreds of millions on ruining the economy and militarizing the Contras a decade before. International debts skyrocketed, austerity imposed, the Nicaraguan people suffered. Nicaragua, indeed the entire region, is still dealing with the devastating consequences of these circumstances to this day.

But the United States was finally satisfied, and it turned its attention instead toward the Middle East. The US government did not care about human rights, about widespread poverty, about economic development, about elections free from external manipulation, it cared only about reestablishing hegemonic control over its “backyard” by any means necessary. This is their goal in Venezuela, as it has been since 1999.

The parallels between US imperialist policy in Nicaragua in the 1980s and intervention in Venezuela in the 2000s are too many to count, whether in terms of economic, political, or military manipulation. Indeed, several state agents are one and the same then and now. For that reason alone it is an instructive comparison. But this isn’t a purely academic exercise. We cannot resign ourselves to simply knowing what to expect of our class enemies. We must also draw lessons from the successes of the 1980s solidarity movements that helped to stave off complete military invasion if we hope to prevent a similar atrocity from occurring today.

This solidarity movement had its various shortcomings—another long conversation worth having—but it was profoundly dynamic, radical, and internationalist. Its breadth, its alliances and coalitions with different sectors of civil society, its uniting of different circles of left and liberal demographics behind a radical platform, its commitment to a variety of actions and tactics, and above all, its unified message of anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism. “No More Contras Anywhere!” was the slogan. We cannot prevaricate on that, or subordinate that to any other demands placed upon the Venezuelan people or the Venezuelan government from without, such as “progressive” calls for transitions of power which too often parallel the interventionist program in Washington. We must remember that the regime change playbook of the Western imperial powers is deeper than arming rebels and propagandizing about humanitarian crises—it also plays on liberal fixations on form over content in demands for ostensibly “democratic transitions” and “free and fair elections.” All the while, the non-ideological, so-called moderate rebels are being funded, coached, organized, ferried, and advertised by the same imperial powers lying in wait to profit off of the restoration of hegemonic and economic domination.

As internationalists, we can of course engage in heated debates and discussions about the missteps or directions of the elected PSUV leadership, we can acknowledge divisions and ideological deviations about how best to read the causes of the crises, we can comment on our hopes for the future of the Bolivarian project. Ours is a global aspiration, after all. But we cannot dictate those terms to the actual participants in the existing Venezuelan revolutionary process, where these internal debates are also happening on the ground, in the barrios and the communal councils. The same was true in the 1980s regarding Nicaragua, El Salvador, and beyond. We are not agents of the Bolivarian Revolution, but we are actors on the periphery who can organize in one of two ways—either in the maintenance of or in resistance to imperialist mobilization.

Indeed, in order to be successful now in our solidarity efforts, the platform for our broad movement in the imperial core must be unified under a Prime Demand, subordinated or parallel to nothing else: Hands Off Venezuela!

 

BRIEFS

By Nan McCurdy

New Judicial Investigation Center and Prison Inaugurated

National Assembly Deputy Carlos Emilio López reported that in the next few days the National Police will begin transferring detainees who are in the Chipote Prison to new facilities of the Directorate of Judicial Assistance. This center has excellent conditions including a medical center and an ambulance. There are cells for ninety people. Lopez stressed that the new cells are a physical space that allows full respect for human rights and procedural guarantees contained in international agreements. López said that National Assembly deputies visited the premises and verified that it guarantees the prisoners’ health, privacy, intimacy and communication with their lawyers and families. During its recent inauguration, National Police First Commissioner Francisco Días reported that the building is 3,520 square meters. He added that the institution continues to improve its infrastructure to provide better service to the population. “We reaffirm our commitment to continue working for peace, security and the protection of life and property of individuals, families and communities,” Lopez said. (Radio La Primerisima, 2/12/19; Canal 8, 2/7/19)

New Investment in Ports

President of the National Port Authority Virgilio Silva announced the building of new infrastructure projects in Nicaragua this year. “More than US$163.2 million is being invested in the Puerto Corinto Modernization Project and US$275 million in the construction of a new port in Bluefields. This project is being funded by the Nicaragua government with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The feasibility studies for the construction of the new port on the Nicaragua Caribbean Coast is moving ahead,” Silva said. (Nicaragua News, 2/11/19)

 

Colombia insists on Impeding 200 Nautical Miles to Nicaragua

The Colombian government presented before the International Court of Justice (World Court) in The Hague its defense in the litigation with Nicaragua for the delimitation of the continental shelf, which extends more than 200 nautical miles from the coast. The action, a so-called rejoinder in diplomatic language, follows the policy adopted by Colombia to continue “firmly defending the rights of Colombia in the Caribbean Sea and the integrity of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina before the International Court of Justice,” according to a communiqué from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The presentation meets the deadlines established by the Court after the Court declared itself competent for the case and specified that the parties must submit two rounds of written briefs and rebuttal, in the case of Nicaragua; and counter-memory and rejoinder, in the case of Colombia. “Colombia presented today February 11 in The Hague (Netherlands), the rejoinder in the process initiated by Nicaragua in 2013 and called ‘Question of the delimitation of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the Nicaraguan coast.'” The Colombian Foreign Ministry explained that in this case “the Court is examining Nicaragua’s claim to establish the limits between an alleged extended continental shelf that the country claims to have beyond its 200 miles, and the continental shelf of Colombia” (Informe Pastran, 2/11/19)

 

Electricity Coverage in 153 municipalities, many with Renewable Energy

The Nicaragua Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) and the National Electrical Transmission Company (ENATREL) installed electricity service in the homes of 1,140 inhabitants in Rosita Municipality, Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). The US$140,000 investment is part of the National Sustainable Electrification and Renewable Energy Program (PNESER) being carried out by the Nicaragua government in the 153 municipalities of the country. (Nicaragua News, 2/11/19)

 

Truth Justice and Peace Commission Term Extended

The Nicaragua National Assembly approved a resolution to extend the term of the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission. Delegate Raquel Dixon, First Secretary of the National Assembly, said the resolution extends the term of the Commission by three additional months to complete its work and present a conclusive, impartial and comprehensive report to the National Assembly.  (Nicaragua News, 2/8/19)

 

New US Company Investment in Bluefields

The U.S company Coconut Corp announced the construction of a US$30 million agro-industrial project in Bluefields, Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS). The Mayor of Bluefields, Gustavo Castro said the project includes construction of a processing plant, cultivation of 52,000 coconut trees and the creation of more than 300 formal jobs. (Nicaragua News, 2/7/19)