NicaNotes: Live From Nicaragua – Our Continued Serialization

By Chuck Kaufman

This week we continue our irregular serialization of Live From Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup?, the electronic coup reader Alliance for Global Justice posted in April with a lot of help from our friends including over 20 authors and several editors. You can download the book in pdf or two different e-book formats here

Previously we serialized my Introduction to the book and are currently working through Brian Willson and Nils McCune’s thumbnail history of US intervention in Nicaragua. This week we include Brian’s personal account of the period from January 1986 to the February 1990 electoral defeat. 

 

US Imperialism and Nicaragua…Continued

By Brian Willson and Nils McCune

 

Brian Willson tells his story: 

My first trip to Nicaragua occurred in January 1986 when I attempted to learn Spanish at a school in Estelí. During the first week, the Contras attacked three farming cooperatives near Estelí, killing eleven campesinos. I watched six of those victims lying in open caskets being carried on horse drawn wagons moving slowly to the Estelí cemetery. I was furious, and sickened. 

Soon after, I visited the US Embassy and spoke with official Garrett Sweeny. He informed me that the two factors determining the future of Nicaragua were: (1) the people’s reaction to internal economic shortages due to the economic embargo, including “food shortages”, and (2) the military “fortunes” of the contras. The goal of US policy, he said, was “peaceful but the manner in which we pursue it is not.” In effect, the US policy was dominated by military terrorism, supported primarily by Republicans in the Congress, while starvation was supported primarily by Democrats. 

On January 13, just over a week after I landed in Nicaragua, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) launched an all-out campaign to convince Congress and the American people that the Sandinistas were a growing threat to all of Central America. Elliott Abrams, President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, began this new propaganda campaign with a nationally distributed op-ed piece in which he declared that there was “no question the Sandinista regime is repressive and undemocratic . . . subverting neighboring democratic countries.” 

While studying in Estelí I arranged an interview with a group of Contra prisoners at the nearby penitentiary. I was quite disturbed to hear these impoverished campesinos describe their CIA recruiters enticing them to become Contras to stop Sandinistas from “eating their babies”. 

Abrams and the Reagan administration were asking Congress for an additional $100 million to fund the Contra “freedom fighters” to counter the “threat” the Sandinistas posed to neighboring “democratic” countries. In short, Reagan was asking for $100 million to fund terrorists, which meant many more civilians would be killed before this ugly “secret” war ended. Abrams’s op-ed was a part of a massive Orwellian campaign spearheaded by the White House starting in 1983 to manage “public perceptions,” that is, to “manufacture consent.” Obsessed with eliminating the dangerous “virus” posed by Nicaragua’s popular revolution, administration officials knew that the vast majority of Nicaraguans resisted the Contra “freedom fighters” and that the majority of U.S. Americans opposed Contra aid as well. 

The religious right was also involved in this campaign. Pat Robertson, chair of the Christian Broadcasting Network, one of Brian’s parents’ favorite TV evangelists, was quoted in Time magazine saying, “The U.S. has a moral obligation to support ‘freedom fighters’ who battle ‘satanic’ Communism.” Robertson was adamant that Contra fighters would be “saved” by Jesus as he led religious conversion services in their Honduran camps, publicly applauding their armed invasion of Nicaragua. 

On October 5, 1986, a dramatic event revealed the extent of the US supply network to the Contras, and additionally a strange, direct connection to arms sales to Iran. Two young Sandinista soldiers, 17 and 19 years old respectively, using a surface-to-air missile (SAM), shot down a clandestine US C-123 air freighter carrying 13,000 pounds of military supplies, including 60 AK-47s, 50,000 rounds of ammunition, grenades and their launchers, jungle boots, and water packets originating from Brooklyn, New York. One of the CIA-supported air crew, Eugene Hasenfus, from Wisconsin, parachuted to safety and was captured by the young Sandinistas. He was part of a four-man crew flying Contra supply missions at an altitude of 2,300 feet about twenty miles north of the Costa Rican border when it was hit by the missile near San Carlos, Nicaragua. Hasenfus survived because he was near the open door ready to kick out heavy boxes of military supplies attached to parachutes, and he had a parachute himself. The pilot and copilot, both of whom had served with Hasenfus in secret CIA air drop operations in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, were killed. The fourth crew member, a Nicaraguan, was also killed. Until this shoot down, the US had successfully dropped as many as 500 secret shipments of supplies to waiting Contras on the ground. 

“Franklin,” head of the “Jorge Salazar” Contra task force of 1,400 mercenary fighters stationed deep in central Zelaya Department, was waiting for the guns and ammunition to fall from the sky that day; despite not receiving the expected shipment, Franklin’s band of terrorists had sufficient weapons eight days later to ambush a passenger bus traveling from Rancho Alegre to La Gateada, about thirty-five miles north of the ill-fated drop site. The group opened fire indiscriminately with rifles and machine guns, leaving two passengers dead and fifteen wounded; two others were kidnapped. 

The CIA and Reagan of course denied any connection to Hasenfus, but the downing of the aircraft and Hasenfus’s confession exposed what would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Eventually, it would be revealed that the United States had engaged in a doubly illegal covert action—illegally trading arms to Iran for U.S. hostages in Lebanon, while using the cash gained from Iran to provide weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua in violation of congressional prohibitions. 

Hasenfus knew many details about the complex Iran-Contra funding scheme because he had made over 60 phone calls from his 1986 safe house residency in a fashionable San Salvador neighborhood to his boss, Max Gomez, who was in regular consultation with Vice President George H.W. Bush. But calls were also made to Southern Air Transport in Miami (an airline conducting covert activities for the CIA), to retired Major General Richard Secord, head of “The Enterprise” arms supplying operation, to his home in Virginia, and to Marine Lt. Col Oliver North’s number at Reagan’s National Security Council in Washington, D.C. 

Gomez, whose alias was Felix Rodriguez, was the son of a wealthy family of Cuban land owners. He had been a CIA operative during the 1961 failed Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, and served as a veteran of the US war against Viet Nam. In addition to his regular contact with Vice-President Bush, Gomez was in regular contact with Secord and North, who controlled the Swiss bank account used to purchase the weapons. Secord also provided weapons flown or trucked directly to Contra supply bases in Honduras, such as Palmerola, El Aguacate, San Lorenzo, and Jamastran, which last the General Accounting Office concluded had been illegally constructed or upgraded by U.S. engineers in 1984. Weapons from private U.S. donors along with Secord’s international arms suppliers were flown directly from warehouses at Ilopango in San Salvador to Contras deep within Nicaraguan territory, over either the Honduran or Costa Rican borders. All this disclosed El Salvador’s role in the Contra war. 

Brian continues: 

I and two other US veterans were eager to meet with Eugene Hasenfus since he was such a direct link between the United States and the Contras. The Nicaraguan government arranged for us to travel with Hasenfus by helicopter, along with a Nicaraguan judicial team and an ABC-TV crew, to the remote October 5 crash site for an inspection. At the crash site, debris was scattered over a wide area—twisted metal and parts of one of the plane’s engines, numerous pieces of AK-47s, boots, portions of wooden ammunition boxes, water packets, etc. We initiated a conversation with Hasenfus there. He seemed quite willing to talk to English-speaking people who cared about his story. Later we visited him at Tipitapa Prison, located ten miles from Managua. At that meeting, he told us that he was paid $3,000 a month, and $750 for each flight. He described his ten secret arms supply flights as originating from Ilopango, San Salvador, sometimes routed over northern Nicaragua from Honduras, other times routed south over the Pacific to Costa Rica before flying over southern Nicaragua. 

Many hearings were held when Iran-Contra became public after Hasenfus’s shoot down, but no one was really punished. North never served jail time, and his conviction was overturned on appeal; he actually ran for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1994. Secord pleaded guilty to lying and was given two years of probation. He then became a corporate CEO. Earlier in his career he had been involved in the secret air war in Laos from 1966 to 1968. 

From other sources we learned that weapons from Secord’s supply lines were sometimes mixed with privately donated weapons, as well as weapons from the Concord, California, Naval Weapons Station. These weapons were temporarily being stored in the International Harvester Company’s warehouse in El Salvador. 

A high-ranking Green Beret officer declared in a December 1986 Los Angeles Weekly article that a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua had likely been planned for April 1987, but was delayed by the Iran-Contra revelations that erupted after Hasenfus’s confession. Ongoing frenzied U.S. rhetoric and troop movements in Honduras suggested, however, that an invasion still seemed imminent. 

The Latin American countries of Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela, which had first met on Contadora Island (Panama) in 1983 to confront the militaristic stance of the US in the region, made continual efforts to end hostilities, especially in Nicaragua. Alfonso Chardy, writing in a May 10, 1987, article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, said that “U.S. officials sought to disrupt the efforts of the Contadora group of nations to negotiate an end to conflict in Central America because the peace talks complicated efforts to persuade Congress to approve Contra aid.” The US did not want any real peace that would interrupt their plans to destroy the Sandinista revolution. 

In May 1986, a National Security Planning Group was convened due to the fear that Nicaragua was prepared to sign a Central American Contadora peace plan. One official who attended the meeting was reported to have said the administration experienced a “peace scare.” But in 1986, Congress approved $100 million for the Contras, money for pure terrorism. 

Brian tells us more: 

In 1987, while on a six-week US veterans’ delegation observing in the war zones of Nicaragua, the ugliness of the Contra war – the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure – was viscerally painful. Schools, health clinics, government buildings, cooperative farms were regularly targeted for destruction as Sandinista leaders were regularly assassinated. Before returning to the US, I arranged to meet with a soft-spoken mechanical engineer from Portland, Oregon who had moved to Nicaragua in 1983 after graduating from the University of Washington. On April 7, I traveled to an ice cream shop in Matagalpa to meet Ben Linder. A unicyclist, clown, and juggler, he was especially popular with the campesinos’ children. In 1986 he moved to tiny El Cuá in the Department of Jinotega and assembled a team to construct a small hydroelectric plant in the neighboring village of San José de Bocay so that peasants could have a few light bulbs and refrigeration for medicines. He shared with me how dangerous things had become for him and his Nicaraguan co-workers. The agricultural cooperative of El Cedro, near the dam construction site, had been recently attacked by the Contras where two residents had been murdered; one of them was a close friend of Ben’s. During that attack, the health clinic, food supply center, and a home had been burned to the ground. 

Sadly, Ben Linder himself became famous for being murdered by the Contras exactly three weeks after our visit, April 28, as he worked on the hydro project with his Nicaraguan coworkers, Sergio Fernandez and Pablo Rosales. David Linder, Ben’s father, a retired hospital pathologist, traveled to Nicaragua and, after personally reviewing the autopsy and talking with the doctor who carried it out, concluded that “they blew his brains out at point-blank range as he lay wounded” after his legs had been seriously injured by grenade shrapnel. Americas Watch, in a November 1987 report, concluded that Linder “appeared to have been summarily executed at the site of a hydroelectric project . . . by the contras after an ambush.” 

And, more disgusting, at a formal hearing on Ben Linder’s murder conducted in May 1987 by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, Connie Mack (R-FL) admonished Linder’s parents: “I can’t understand how you can use the grief I know you feel to politicize this situation . . . I don’t want to be tough on you, but I really feel that you have asked for it.” Mrs. Linder responded, “That is the most cruel thing you could have said.” Mack: “I don’t consider it to be cruel, I consider it to be to the point.” Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state, testified that Linder’s death need not have occurred but for Nicaragua’s “practice of permitting and even encouraging Americans . . . to travel in combat zones.” 

In 1988, Congress began openly financing opposition political parties in Nicaragua. In September 1988, US House Speaker Jim Wright said he “had ‘clear testimony’ from the CIA of its involvement in instigating civil disturbances in Nicaragua,” as the Reagan administration “covertly sought to provoke the Sandinista government into cracking down on its political opposition.” Meanwhile, the Central American Presidents continued their several peace initiatives, and at Tela, Honduras, August 7, 1989, they agreed to a requirement that the US-created and sustained Contras be demobilized and repatriated by December 5, 1989 (they were not). When President Ortega arrived at a subsequent October follow-up high level meeting in San José, Costa Rica, there had been several serious ambushes by Contras of Nicaraguan people registering to vote for the planned February 1990 elections. As a result, Ortega threatened to call off the ceasefire that had been agreed to at Tela, since the Contras were in grotesque violation of its terms. An infuriated President George H.W. Bush publically belittled Ortega, calling him a “little man in a military uniform” like an “unwanted animal at a garden party,” concurring with a television reporter who described Ortega as “a skunk at a picnic.” Anthony Lewis wrote in an earlier November 19, 1987, New York Times column, that the Reagan Administration was fearful of any genuine Central American peace process because in fact: “They want war. That is the policy…As Mr. [House Speaker Jim] Wright said, they ‘are scared to death that peace will break out.’” 

Brian continues his story: 

From November 30 to December 14, 1989, I led a small delegation of US veterans to Nicaragua to determine if the US and its Contra terrorist fighters were indeed complying with the Tela Accords to demobilize by December 5. We discovered that a number of FSLN members, and others perceived as providing leadership in the communities, were continuing to be murdered on almost a daily basis. Many ex-Contras who chose to return under the agreed upon amnesty were being selected for assassination. On December 1, ex-contra Fermin Cardena Cardena was killed in an ambush just north of Wiwilí in Jinotega Department. He had received training in the U.S. several years ago in North Carolina. In an interview in late 1988 or early 1989, he stated that Contra commander Enrique Bermudez was directly involved in approving operations to destroy U.S. citizen Ben Linder’s hydroelectric project in the El Cua area, as well as to murder Linder himself. Cardena also indicated that Bermudez gave a reward to the Contra who executed Linder. 

On December 13, the Contras executed a man about 12:30 p.m. near the village of Susucayan in Nueva Segovia Department. The man executed had been named by the US-backed UNO coalition to be a local candidate in the upcoming elections. He chose not to be a UNO candidate, and he was identified as a traitor by the Contras and removed from his house, tortured and then murdered. We visited a cooperative near San Ramon, Matagalpa on December 7 and learned that a man had recently been assassinated in a neighboring cooperative. 

While in Matagalpa City on December 6, we learned of a Contra attack the evening before at a cooperative near the neighboring city of Jinotega. Several people were killed and wounded, and some facilities were destroyed. While in San Pedro De Lovago on December 9, a public transport vehicle was blown up by a mine on the public road, killing or wounding over 20 civilians. On December 13 we traveled from Estelí to Quilalí to visit the 1988 López ambush site where 18 compesinos had been murdered. Heavy Contra activity on and along the road from Palacagüina and San Juan Telpaneca in Madriz Department forced us to travel the longer, more northern route to Quilalí. 

U.S. Reconnaissance overflights were continuing at the rate of one every other day providing the Contras with regular photographic intelligence of positions of Nicaraguan army units and transportation patterns. Several flights occurred in December, tracked by Nicaraguan radar. 

We visited with 75 Mothers of the Heroes and Martyrs in La Dalia, Matagalpa. After hearing their stories over several hours we estimated that these 75 mothers experienced a collective loss of nearly 300 family members due to Contra terrorism during the war. One mother had lost 22 family members, having only her mother left. They expressed in powerful ways that they had suffered enough. “How can you help us,” they asked? “We want peace.” Who and in what manner will we be able to sufficiently represent the suffering, and vision, of those mothers? If we can feel the suffering within us, that it is our suffering as well, and feel the vision within us, that it is our vision as well, then we will be motivated to act in ways we are not even aware of yet. 

Another source of funding for the Contras derived from narcotics trafficking. In US Senator John Kerry’s first term, 1985-1990, he quickly conducted a gutsy investigation of Reagan’s covert efforts to fund the cash-starved, illegal Contra terrorists in Nicaragua through proceeds from drug trafficking under the cloak of national security. Kerry’s 1,166-page report issued in December 1988 concluded that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.” 

In 1996, investigative journalist Gary Webb revealed a sordid history of cocaine smuggling by the Nicaraguan Contras in a series of articles published in the San José Mercury News, later to be told in his exhaustive report, Dark Alliance. For more than a decade a San Francisco Bay area drug ring sold tons of crack cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs which funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra terrorists. US officials were aware of this network and did little or nothing to stop it, and Reagan’s National Security Council headed by Oliver North took extraordinary steps to protect the drug trafficking from public exposure. Webb examined thousands of pages of once secret documents of the CIA, FBI, DEA, and Los Angeles police Department, and from the Iran-Contra investigation. 

In a June 11, 1989, New York Times article, “Bush Pressing Congress to Permit CIA Role in Nicaragua Elections,” a State Department official was quoted as saying, “We want to keep the Sandinistas guessing.” This reflects the arrogance, interventionist attitude and sadistic nature of U.S. foreign policy directed to Nicaragua. 

By 1990, the Reagan administration had spent nearly one billion dollars in unsuccessful efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government through its three-pronged approach: (1) funding and directing the national Contra “Low Intensity” Conflict (LIC) terror campaign, (2) enforcing a harsh economic embargo while blocking international loans, and (3) sabotaging genuine democratic elections. Over 30,000 citizens had been murdered, with many more maimed, including thousands of amputees, and even more displaced. 

To Be Continued…

BRIEFS

By Nan McCurdy

Multidisciplinary Teams Visit Victims of 2018 Violence
Authorities from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office have attended to the needs of 275 families of dead and injured people with mental health consultsultations in their homes, Corina Centeno said Monday. Several institutions have developed a work plan to assist the victims of violence perpetrated by groups that promoted the frustrated coup d’état in Nicaragua. “We are visiting the victims of the acts of violence that occurred beginning April 18, 2018. We are doing this with mobile teams of workers from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Family and PDDH,” said Centeno. Centeno explained that as part of the Comprehensive Care Plan for Victims, the visits are focused on providing care to relatives of deceased persons, identifying situations of depression, post-traumatic stress and complicated mourning, referring patients identified with serious psychosocial pathologies to the health units; and with priority attention with orphaned children and adolescents.  (Radiolaprimerisima.com, 6/24/19)

Two New Bridges in Department of Managua
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MTI) on June 24 will be inaugurating the “Saratoga” and “Los Brasiles” bridges in the municipalities of Ciudad Sandino and Mateare, Department of Managua, built in areas that have been affected by flooding during recent rainy seasons. The total cost of the bridges is US$1,606,000 and will benefit more than 115,000 inhabitants. (Nicaragua News, 6/24/19)

Nicaragua Acquires Two Naval Ships
The head of the Nicaragua Army, General Julio Cesar Aviles, participated on June 21 in the deployment at El Bluff of two new corvette class naval ships named Sovereignty I and Sovereignty II. The vessels are equipped with state-of-the-art technology that will allow them to effectively protect Nicaragua’s sovereignty and perform antinarcotics operations and support fishing activities. In his speech, General Aviles said “Today is a historic day for Nicaragua because for the first time our country has adequate means to fulfill the mission of exercising sovereignty and enforcing Nicaraguan law in the territorial waters of our Caribbean Sea; that is why we have given them the names Sovereignty I and II.” The corvettes were acquired from the Netherlands at a cost of more than US$26 million financed through the General Budget of the Republic. (Nicaragua News, 6/24/19)

Government Grants House Arrest to 1,012 inmates for Father’s Day
The Government gave a Father’s Day gift to 1,012 inmates convicted of various crimes by releasing them from prison to house arrest. Inmates were released from prisons in Granada, Masaya, Carazo, Rivas, South Caribbean and Chinandega. The beneficiaries came out of prison full of joy and pledging to be better men and women in order to strengthen the family unit. (Radiolaprimerisima, 6/23/19) To see photos of families reunited: http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/264677/cambian-de-regimen-a-1012-reos-por-dia-del-padre/

People of Masaya Remember Carolina Collado, Killed in Attempted Coup
Municipal worker Carolina Collado was shot last June 23 in Masaya. On June 21, 2019, the people of Masaya came out to remember her. Collado was one of many people killed in Masaya by the right-wing violence that also tortured and killed police, other citizens, and destroyed dozens of private homes, businesses and government buildings, usually with arson as was the case of the Artisanry Market. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSNUskw3Sp8 (el19Digital, 6/23/19) 

Government Supporting Small Farm Families
The Ministry of Family Economy provided loans to 250 farm families, with an investment of US$75,829 for new enterprises in poultry and pig breeding in Managua to improve the family economy. They are also promoting new creative ventures, such as the production of amphibians including red eye frogs, arrow frogs, geckos and salamanders, all for export. (Informe Pastran, 6/21/19)

Remittances Continue to Grow
The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) reported that family remittances totaled US$383.8 million during the first trimester of 2019 – a growth of 8.6 percent with respect to the same period in 2018, maintaining the positive trend observed over the last 9 years. The remittances were from the United States 54.5%, followed by Costa Rica 19.4%, Spain 12.5% and Panama 5.3%, representing 91.7% of the total remittances received in the period.  (Nicaragua News, 6/21/19)

Potable Water Systems Inaugurated in Eight Municipalities
This week, the local Sandinista governments inaugurated eight new potable water systems in seven municipalities: Estelí, La Paz Centro, Chinandega, Teustepe, San Rafael del Norte, Ciudad Darío and San Isidro benefitting 20,000 people directly, with an investment of more than US$42,000. In the coming weeks, another 48 drinking water systems will be inaugurated in various communities and 14 new wells have been built in Nagarote, Chichigalpa and Teustepe. (Informe Pastran, 6/20/19)

Bishops Don’t Agree on the Use of Churches for Political Purposes
The Bishops of the Nicaraguan Bishop’s Conference could not agree yesterday on a uniform position on the use of churches for political rallies as has become common in recent weeks. Religious sources told INFORME PASTRAN that not all bishops are happy with priests lending churches for sectors of the opposition to hold rallies with hooded people, Some religious leaders presented a draft communiqué justifying the use of churches, but not all bishops supported it. (Informe Pastran, 6/18/19)