If someone interested in the priorities of the US media, government, and foreign policy establishment had gone to sleep, say, 35 years ago and woke up today, they would be surprised to learn that former Sandinista comandante Daniel Ortega was, once again, running things in Nicaragua. According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s November 7 election campaign has already been tarnished by “high-profile arrests and other serious human rights violations against critics appear to be part of a broader strategy to eliminate political competition, stifle dissent, and pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term.” This time, in contrast to the heavily covered elections that sent Ortega and the Sandinistas packing in 1990, hardly anyone in the US mainstream media appears to care.
The site of countless US military interventions, often undertaken below the radar of high politics, that tiny Central American nation (population 6.5 million) dominated the punditocracy’s discussion of the US role in the world for a brief period in the 1980s. Nicaragua’s Marxist government was the Critical Race Theory of its day—a wholly imaginary threat to the well-being of America’s citizens that, thanks to a sustained and sophisticated propaganda campaign, became the subject of thousands of op-ed articles, countless panel discussions, millions dispersed in lobbying fees, and, not incidentally, a secret, illegally funded and supported war that led to an arms-for-hostage scheme that almost (and should have) brought down the Reagan administration.
Today, almost no mainstream media discussion even considers Nicaragua—or any Central American nation, for that matter—outside of the context of the immigration “crisis.” This is one area where the Biden administration has not only failed to change Trump’s racist and deliberately inhumane policies; it has not even attempted to change the narrative that helped sustain those policies. It has left the Border Patrol, which even Politico deemed “America’s most out-of-control law enforcement agency,” free to do as it pleased to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The Biden administration, like the Obama administration, sees its job—as Vice President Kamala Harris announced in Texas—as telling people, “Do not come.” What it doesn’t wish to discuss, and therefore has been almost absent from all the coverage, has been what the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador accurately described as the “intersecting crises that millions in Central America face…the result of decades of brutal state repression of democratic movements by right-wing regimes and the implementation of economic models designed to benefit local oligarchs and transnational corporations,” all done with the support of centuries of US administrations.
In El Salvador in the 1980s, for instance, the United States armed death squads that murdered thousands with impunity and were hailed by President Ronald Reagan and his minions as defenders against a Marxist insurgency. In Guatemala, US officials, led by then–State Department official Elliott Abrams, lied for and otherwise praised leaders who have since been judged by an official UN panel to have been committing genocide against its Indigenous population.
But the case that most interests me is Nicaragua, as that was where the obsession of our political elite was most evident. Back in 1986, a rather typical editorial in the then-neoconservative New Republic argued that a vote in Congress on whether to arm the US-backed Contras seeking to overthrow Ortega and company was “one of the most important foreign policy votes of the decade.” This was because “the liberation of Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia would not have one-tenth the geopolitical importance—and psychological importance for other oppressed democrats—that the replacement of the Sandinista regime with a democratic government in Managua would.” To those who noted the fact that Nicaragua’s neighbors preferred a peaceful solution, its editors intuited that seeing “an isolationist Congress and a rising military power in Managua,” these nations’ leaders had fallen into the grip of public appeasement and private duplicity. The editors promised—apparently on the basis of mass mental telepathy—that Nicaraguans were secretly “desperate to see the United States get rid of the Sandinistas for them.”
These editorials painted a patina of intellectual respectability on the outrageous claims and criminal actions of the Reagan administration. Reagan actually suspended parts of the Constitution on the basis of a “State of Emergency” that he declared over the alleged threat that the United States faced from Nicaragua, which he described as “a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.” (It is actually over 2,000 miles and a three-to-four-day drive at best.) More significantly, his CIA mined Nicaragua’s harbors—legally, an act of war—and circulated an instructional assassination manual to people who might be interested in murdering its leaders. The US also demanded that neighboring Honduras pretend that Nicaragua had invaded its territory. “This is absurd,” US Ambassador John Ferch told Honduran President José Azcona at the time, “but you’ve got to do it.”
Well before the revelations of the Iran/Contra scandal, lying about Nicaragua was so important to the Reagan administration that it set up a special office almost exclusively for this purpose. Called the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), its mandate, according to the CIA propaganda specialist Walter Raymond, who had been transferred to the National Security Council to oversee its operations, was to “concentrate on gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats on the UNO,” meaning turning the US-funded-and-supported Contras into the good guys in the eyes of the American public. Reagan once went as far as to compare the Contras to “our founding fathers.”
The OPD undertook this task on several fronts, including offering privileges to favored journalists, placing ghostwritten articles over the signatures of Contra leaders in the nation’s leading opinion magazines and op-ed pages, and generally publicizing negative stories about the Sandinistas, whether true or not. The office enjoyed a $935,000 annual budget (nearly $2.4 million in today’s dollars) plus eight professional staffers on loan from the State Department, Pentagon, the US Information Agency, and the Agency for International Development. In the first year of its operation alone, according to its own records, it sent anti-Sandinista propaganda attacks in the form of pamphlets, letters, sample op-eds, and talking points to 1,600 college libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers, 107 religious organizations, and countless reporters, right-wing lobbyists, and members of Congress. It booked advocates for 1,570 lecture and talk-show engagements. In a single week during March 1985, OPD officers bragged in a memo of having fooled the editors of The Wall Street Journal into publishing an op-ed allegedly penned by an unknown professor, guided an NBC news story on the Contras, written and edited op-ed articles to be signed by Contra spokesmen, and planted lies about the experiences of a congressman who visited Nicaragua.
Among the lies peddled by OPD agents and employees were stories that portrayed the Sandinistas as virulent anti-Semites, that reported a Soviet shipment of MIG jets to Managua, and that revealed that US reporters in Nicaragua were receiving sexual favors—both heterosexual and homosexual—from Sandinista agents in exchange for favorable coverage. The latter accusation, published in the July 29, 1985, issue of New York magazine, came directly from Otto J. Reich, the Cuban émigré who ran the office in conjunction with advisers, Raymond, Abrams, Oliver North, and CIA Task Force chief Alan Fiers. (Reich denied responsibility for this.) The right-wing media critics at the profoundly misnamed “Accuracy in Media” were secretly under contract to the OPD when they began naming these journalists, even though the charges were entirely fictional. Following the Iran/Contra revelations, a 1987 report by the US comptroller general would later find that Reich’s office had “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” and the office was soon shut down.
Ortega’s return to power in 2007 offers us a kind of controlled experiment in how priorities can be made and dropped depending on elite fixations. Back in the 1980s, Ortega may not have been the Sanders-style democratic socialist that that some on the left sought to portray, but his government was a relatively open one, especially when judged by the standards of America’s autocratic allies in the region. Nicaraguans under the Sandinistas enjoyed freedom of expression: Newspapers criticized the government, and opposition parties could campaign openly against the government. When the Marxist/Sandinista version of Ortega lost an election to the US-backed opposition in 1990, he left quietly.
As the former New York Times Managua correspondent during this period, Stephen Kinzer, now reports in a lengthy article in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Ortega 2.0 rules as a vicious autocrat. Having made peace with the Catholic Church by banning abortion and with the support of the nation’s oligarchs and a few former Contra leaders and military leaders with whom he has cut financially advantageous deals, he and his wife (and vice president), Rosario Murillo, rule the nation as dictators. They use the military to fire on protesters with live ammunition and encourage vigilante gangs to beat up their opposition. They jail potential opponents and shut down critical media, including the very same newspaper, La Prensa, that fought a complicated (and sometimes compromised) battle for press freedom during the Sandinista era. He has already ensured that voters will not have anything approaching an honest choice in November’s upcoming election and is widely expected to coast to a corrupt victory
Where are the op-eds, the panels, the bipartisan congressional reports, and the fury of American conservatives that we saw last time around? Well, thing is, “Nicaragua” was never really about Nicaragua. It was about beating up commies. Now, as the novelist and former vice president under Ortega, Sergio Ramírez, recently observed, “Nothing remains of the revolution, just a rhetorical pretext to justify repression and the consolidation of the Ortega family dictatorship.”
More than 500 former pro-Sandinista activists in the United States, Kinzer reports, signed a letter that said that the Ortega-Murillo regime “betrays the memory of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who died for a democratic Nicaragua.” But unlike the Contras’ pleas in the 1980s, which were mostly written by the likes of Reich, Abrams, and North, the entire issue has flown under the radar of the mainstream media. This lack of reckoning has allowed ex–Reagan administration officials to stick around. Abrams—the genocide-supporting State Department point man who was convicted of misleading Congress regarding the Iran/Contra scandal—was pardoned by George H.W. Bush and then given top jobs in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations as well as a comfortable sinecure as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today, if you need to contact anyone in the US foreign policy establishment, they shouldn’t be hard to reach. Just call and say you want to discuss the “refugee crisis” or Joe Biden’s “betrayal” in Afghanistan or the need for a new Cold War, with China. But whatever you do, don’t mention Nicaragua.