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Deterring Democracy

By Noam Chomsky

IX. The Mortal Sin of Self-Defense

1. The Skunk at the Garden Party

2. The Guests so Sorely Troubled

3. From Illusion to Reality

4. The 1990 Elections


From Z Magazine, December 1989.

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.

  1. The Skunk at the Garden Party

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

Congress and media responded in the expected manner. Ortega "united Congress and the Administration against him," the Times accurately reported. Both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn Ortega in bitter terms (the Senate, 95-0). The Sandinistas must "end their aggression in the region" and "their tyranny over their own people," the resolution read. Congressional doves trembled with indignation. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts described Ortega as without a doubt "Nicaragua's worst enemy," whatever Nicaraguans may think. Representative David Obey said "Daniel Ortega is a damned fool and he's always been a damned fool." Senator Patrick Leahy added that he has again demonstrated his "remarkable ability of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." TV news, again displaying the objectivity and professionalism for which the media are renowned, referred to Ortega and General Noriega as "the bad boys in the backyard." The respected liberal commentator Daniel Schorr asked sarcastically whether Ortega is a double agent working for the CIA. The Times editors denounced him as "foolish and thuggish"; his "stunning misstep" has "confounded hopes for free elections and an end to his nation's interminable war," thrown "a grenade into a promising, arduously wrought regional peace plan," and "undermines Secretary of State Baker" and his carefully crafted efforts for peace and democracy. The theme that Ortega had again struck a blow at the liberals who have sacrificed so much for his cause was sounded with much dismay and anger. With the notable exception of Anthony Lewis, who asked whether we would "suffer in silence" in the face of unremitting military and economic warfare by some unimaginable superpower, the chorus of denunciation was marred by scarcely a discordant note. 7

Commentators aghast at Sandinista perfidy trotted out the familiar litany of complaints. Daniel Schorr informed his readers that "Mr. Ortega kept the pot boiling with such things as joining Fidel Castro in endorsing the massacre of pro-democracy students in Beijing in 1989." This was one of the fables concocted by the propaganda system as it sought to exploit the tragedy in Tiananmen Square to defame its various foreign and domestic enemies, immediately exposed as a lie in the mainstream press by Randolph Ryan and Alexander Cockburn, and long ago conceded to have been a pure invention. Another "outrageous" act, Schorr continues, took place in 1985, when "virtually singlehandedly, Mr. Ortega made Congress reverse itself and vote for more aid for the contras." Ortega forced a reluctant Congress to abandon its efforts on his behalf by following Russian orders to show up in Moscow and embrace Gorbachev, Schorr explains. He is referring to what historian Thomas Walker describes as Ortega's "carefully balanced trip to Europe in May 1985" in an effort to obtain aid, with "stops in both Eastern Bloc and Western European countries," which "the Reagan administration, the media, and a surprisingly large number of liberals in the U.S. Congress characterized simply as `Ortega's trip to Moscow'." For Schorr, as for an unsurprisingly large number of other liberals, Nicaragua's attempt to obtain aid when the U.S. is trying to destroy its economy is a shameful act. 8

The Times news columns presented the same picture of Ortega's skill at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, offering as proof two examples: Ortega's "trip to Moscow," "outraging American opponents and supporters alike"; and the "crackdown on internal dissent" which provoked "sharp, astonished international condemnation" in July 1988, when the Sandinistas again confounded their friends and "shot themselves in the temple," a "foreign expert" noted. The latter charge refers to another great triumph of the U.S. propaganda system. It is indeed true that there was sharp, astonished condemnation after the police broke up a rally at Nandaime, using tear gas for the first time ever (after having been "pelted...with sticks and rocks," the Times reported in paragraph 13, a fact that quickly disappeared), leading to an impassioned condemnation of this "brutal suppression of human rights" by Congress (91 to 4 in the Senate, 358 to 18 in the House) and indignant front-page stories and commentary on Sandinista barbarity that persisted for months. At the very same time, security forces used tear gas and force to break up rallies and protests in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, eliciting no indignation -- and virtually no news coverage. A reasonable judgment in the case of the U.S. terror states, where actions comparable to Nandaime are hardly noteworthy in the context of the regular atrocities continuing right through that period -- also with little notice and virtually no public condemnation. 9

Just as the Times was recalling the famous case when the Sandinistas approached the regular lesser abuses of the U.S. clients, Israeli paratroopers used force to disperse a prayer service and sit-in by 100 Americans and local inhabitants at Beit Sahour who were protesting the brutal Israeli reaction to nonviolent disobedience in this West Bank town (Israeli peace activists and journalists were kept away by the army); and Cory Aquino's forces used water cannons and tear gas to drive off thousands of demonstrators protesting her refusal to allow Ferdinand Marcos's body to be brought home for burial. These are just two of the regular occurrences in U.S. client states that the Times considered unworthy of mention; again, with reason, since they pale into insignificance in the face of far more severe abuses by these and other U.S. clients that pass with little or no report or comment and no show of annoyance. 10

The Times editors were particularly incensed that Ortega should respond with force to "the pinpricks of contras," thus revealing that his "new spirit of conciliation" is a fraud. Surely the U.S. would not resort to force if thousands of Cuban-run marauders were killing and kidnapping in the hills of Kentucky (hundreds of thousands, to make the analogy more accurate). Imagine how the editors would thunder in righteous anger if Israel were to call upon its army in response to the pinpricks of PLO infiltrators murdering and kidnapping Kibbutz members or reserve soldiers on their way to register.

At the presidential summit, "the pinpricks of the contras" were regarded somewhat more seriously than in the Times Manhattan offices. Brook Larmer reported that the Latin American presidents said "they sympathized with the ruling Sandinistas' frustration over the stalled plan to dismantle the contra camps in Honduras," "understood [Ortega's] anger at the escalating contra attacks within Nicaragua," and recognized that he "has legitimate gripes," while questioning whether suspension of the cease-fire was the right move. Larmer quoted a foreign diplomat in Managua who added that "There are so many Latin countries with insurgencies that a lot of countries would be hypocritical to criticize the Sandinistas for doing exactly what they are doing themselves -- carrying out an aggressive counterinsurgency effort." 11

But hypocrisy is the name of the game, and anyone who knows the rules will understand the "universal storm of outrage" in Congress and the media.

Perhaps the kindest comment was that Ortega had again shown himself to be a bad politician. 12 The conclusion has merit. In the same sense, a therapist who tries to persuade psychotics by rational argument that the world is not as they see it might be criticized as a "bad psychologist." Like many others in the Third World, Ortega probably does not comprehend the psychotic streak in the dominant intellectual culture, in particular, the doctrine that no one has a right to defend themselves from U.S. attack. The doctrine has deep roots in American history. It explains why the U.S. can regularly be depicted as the victim of the evil deeds of Vietnam. And why for 200 years few shuddered, or even noticed, when reading with due reverence the words of the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence condemning King George III for having unleashed "the merciless Indian savages" against the innocent colonists. There is no shortage of illustrations.

This fundamental doctrine was operative throughout the war against Nicaragua. In August 1988, with passionate supporting speeches by leading doves the Senate passed the Byrd amendment calling for military aid to the contras if the Sandinistas carry out any "hostile action" against them. Three days before, contras had attacked the crowded passenger vessel Mission of Peace, killing two and wounding 27, including a Baptist minister from New Jersey heading a U.S. religious delegation. Senators Byrd, Dodd, and others made no mention of the event, but their logic is clear: if the treacherous Sandinistas resort to "hostile action" to prevent such "pinpricks," plainly we have the right to punish them for the crime by sending arms to our proxy forces terrorizing Nicaragua. Since this position is considered righteous and principled, it evoked no comment whatsoever. 13

The same reasoning was displayed during the periodic MiG scares concocted by Reaganite Agitprop. When the Reagan administration floated the story in 1984 as part of its successful campaign to eliminate the Nicaraguan elections from history, the doves responded that if the charge were accurate, the U.S. would have to bomb Nicaragua because these vintage 1950s jets are "also capable against the United States," hence a threat to our security (Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, with the support of other leading doves). 14 When the disinformation was exposed after having served its purpose, there was was some criticism of the media for uncritically swallowing government propaganda, but the really significant fact was ignored: the general agreement that such behavior on the part of Nicaragua would be entirely unacceptable. The reason for this oversight is simple: by the norms of the political culture, it would be an unspeakable scandal for Nicaragua to attempt to defend itself from U.S.-run terrorist operations.

Nicaragua, of course, had no special interest in MiGs. The Sandinista leadership was happy to tell anyone who asked that they would have been pleased to be able to obtain jet planes from France. But their efforts to obtain arms from France were blocked by pressure from Washington, which insisted that Nicaragua be armed solely by the Russians, so that commentators could refer in suitably ominous tones to "the Soviet-supplied Sandinistas" as the farce was replayed week after week; "French-supplied" just doesn't have the same ring. All of this was well known, but, running counter to doctrinal requirements, it remained unreported and undiscussed.

It was also understood throughout that the aging MiGs that Nicaragua was accused of trying to sneak into its territory could have only one purpose: to protect Nicaraguan airspace from the CIA supply flights that were required to keep the U.S. proxy forces in the field and the regular surveillance flights that provide them with up-to-the-minute information on the disposition of Nicaraguan troops, so that they can safely attack civilian targets in accordance with their instructions and training. Understood, but scarcely mentioned. A search of the liberal Boston Globe, perhaps the least antagonistic to the Sandinistas among major U.S. journals, revealed one editorial reference to the fact that Nicaragua needs air power "to repel attacks by the CIA-run contras, and to stop or deter supply flights" (Nov. 9, 1986). Again, the conclusion is clear and unmistakeable: no one has the right of self-defense against U.S. attack.

Failure to comprehend these facets of U.S. political culture is common. In late December 1987, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto privately expressed great hopes for the scheduled presidential meeting in January at which the International Verification and Control Commission was to present its report on the compliance of the Central American countries with the August 1987 Central American accords. He was convinced that the report would be favorable to Nicaragua, and that the impact would advance the process of achieving the goals of the accords. His expectations with regard to the report were confirmed; on the impact, he was quite wrong. He failed to understand some elementary facts about Western democracy. The U.S. government was committed to demolition of the accords; the Free Press would therefore loyally perform its duty, and the distribution of power would render the facts null and void. These are, again, the rules of the game.

The rules apply quite generally; the present case is no aberration. Thus in March 1964, when Times Executive Editor Max Frankel was learning his trade as a war correspondent in Indochina, Saigon army forces accompanied by U.S. advisers attacked a Cambodian village, leaving many villagers killed and wounded. Since a U.S. army pilot was captured, the incident could not be ignored or denied in the usual manner. Frankel reported it with great indignation -- against Prince Sihanouk, who was "stomping on U.S. toes," "leading the pack in big-power baiting," and borrowing "a page from Fidel Castro's book" by daring to request reparations for this U.S. atrocity. We were the injured innocents. 15

As in this case, our clients regularly inherit the same rights. Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman writes that in 1982 the Israeli army "arrived in Beirut like innocents abroad and they left three years later like angry tourists who had been mugged, cheated, and had all their luggage stolen with their traveler's checks inside." As he knows well, the invading innocents murdered, destroyed, brutally mistreated prisoners and civilians, and generally laid waste whatever stood in their path; and they left Lebanon, apart from the 10 percent they virtually annexed, because unanticipated resistance caused them more casualties than they were willing to accept. This statement is selected as the prime example of Friedman's "sharp perceptions" by Roger Rosenblatt in a laudatory front-page review in the Times Book Review.16

  2. The Guests so Sorely Troubled

Bush was not the only guest at the garden party to be appalled by the unwanted animal's misbehavior. The Times account of Ortega's crimes quotes President Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador, who lamented that Ortega's decision to abrogate the government's unilateral cease-fire "has destroyed everything that has been accomplished so far" and "will complicate the situation a great deal." 17

El Salvador, of course, declared no cease-fire. On the contrary, when the FMLN declared a unilateral cease-fire as a gesture of good faith during the peace talks they had initiated a few weeks earlier, the Salvadoran military responded by launching military operations into most of the guerrilla base areas and stepping up arrests of union activists and other repression. During the period before the March 1989 election the armed forces had also escalated their operations, actions widely hailed in the U.S. as demonstrating their dedication to the electoral process. To judge by the reaction here, we must assume that another contribution was the presence of troops at the polling booths, where they could observe the transparent receptacles in which voters place their numbered ballots made of paper so thin that the voter's "X" is visible even through the back -- all of this clearly shown in photographs by independent U.S. observers, if not the media. 18

While Cristiani was bemoaning Ortega's vulgar disruption of the picnic, a bomb exploded at the headquarters of a leading anti-government union (FENASTRAS), killing 10 people including union leader and outspoken government critic Febe Elizabeth Velasquez. Amnesty International appealed to the government to investigate the bombing, noting that after an FMLN attack on the Defense Ministry compound the day before, Defense Minister General Larios had issued a statement that the labor movement would suffer the consequences. A few hours earlier, another bomb badly damaged the headquarters of the Committee of the Mothers of the Disappeared, injuring four persons, including a 3-month-old baby. Neighbors reported seeing uniformed soldiers running from the offices just before the explosion. "The attacks came as monitoring groups and Western diplomats noted a sharp surge in human rights violations and repression," Lindsey Gruson reported in the Times, including "a steep increase in the use of physical and psychological torture by the armed forces and in the number of peasants, union members and students arrested." Mar¡a Julia Hernández, the Director of the Church Human Rights Office Tutela Legal, observed that "arrests, disappearances and torture have all increased recently," adding that: "The problem is structural. The military have more power than the president" in this celebrated "democracy." Archbishop Rivera y Damas, in his Sunday homily, said that Tutela Legal believed the "ominous death squads" were responsible for the bombing and called for an "in depth-investigation to put an end once and for all to these massacres." 19

In accord with the usual convention, the escalating violence was attributed to "extremists of the left and right," with the reform-minded government standing by in helpless impotence. This is the standard technique by which editors, commentators, and congressional doves mask their tacit support for death squads and other methods "used to shield the government from accountability for the torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions committed in their name" (Amnesty International, corroborating other independent analyses). The source of the terror is adequately demonstrated by the impunity with which it is conducted, not to speak of ample direct evidence implicating the security forces -- truisms that human rights monitors have regularly emphasized, to no avail. During the funeral for six of the victims of the bombing, soldiers lobbed tear gas canisters into "the demonstration," Gruson reports, referring to the funeral march. 20

While the guests at the garden party were compelled to suffer Ortega's presence in San José, Salvadoran army deserter César Vielman Joya Mart¡nez was informing reporters and congressional aides in Washington about his participation in torture and murder operations conducted by the special forces group GC-2 of the Salvadoran army's First Brigade, with the certain knowledge of its U.S. advisers, who "had control of the department" -- unless, for tactical reasons, they chose not to know. Joya Mart¡nez claimed that his orders were issued by the Salvadoran Joint Chiefs of Staff and sent to the commanders of the Brigade, that he had seen orders for 72 executions from April through July, and that he had taken part in 8 of these death squad murders. The victims were first almost beaten to death during interrogation, then their throats were usually slit and their bodies were thrown over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean or buried in secret cemeteries, he said, giving a detailed account, many parts of which were independently confirmed. Among the First Brigade officers he implicated were its former commander, who is now the Vice-Minister of Defense, and the current commander of the elite Belloso battalion. They and others cited are "leaders and operators of the so-called death squadrons...," he charged. The Bush administration denied the charges, while recognizing that they were "very serious" and claiming that an investigation was in process. 21

In the days immediately before the meeting of the Presidents, Cristiani's ARENA government denounced the FMLN peace proposal because it called for the removal of military officers involved in the massive atrocities of the 1980s. The entire military command met with journalists and termed this demand "absurd, ridiculous and impossible," as did the notorious killer Roberto D'Aubuisson, Honorary ARENA President-for-Life. Cristiani also publicly denounced this proposal as "ridiculous"; doubtless it is ridiculous to expect the country's effective rulers to purge themselves. The New York Times evidently agreed. Lindsey Gruson reported that neither the government nor the FMLN was attempting to "advance the nascent peace process." Both intended only to score debating points. The proof is that the government demanded complete surrender by the FMLN but "offered almost no concessions to the rebels and did not address the underlying social and economic issues that led the guerrillas to take up arms," while the rebels called for the dismissal of senior commanders who were linked to human rights abuses -- two equally outlandish proposals. 22

The coordinator of the Permanent Committee of the Church-initiated National Debate for Peace did not agree, however. Rather, he said, the "self-cleansing and transformation" of the Armed Forces is necessary to put an end to abuses and to contribute to the achievement of peace. 23 The problem of controlling the military is the familiar one that arises in all the Latin American terror states that the U.S. has established or supported for many years. It is irresoluble as long as their institutional structures remain unchanged, as Washington demands, with the general concurrence of domestic elites.

On October 26, as Cristiani was on his way to San José, a fragmentation grenade was hurled into a crowd of students at the public University of El Salvador (UES) preparing for a march to commemorate the assassination of human rights activist Herbert Anaya. It wounded 15 students, 5 seriously. The perpetrators departed through a university gate guarded by First Infantry Brigade troops. The same day, 3 UES students were abducted by security forces. The UES rector stated that the government, which had attacked and partially destroyed the university in 1980 with many killed and kept it closed for 4 years, now intends "to eliminate the university...through terror tactics." Other atrocities were reported in the following days. The director of the human rights office of the Jesuit university UCA attributed the continuing atrocities against civilians to "an entire strategy of war and repression." In the weeks before, there had been a rash of abductions, rapes, torture, and other abuses aimed at the unions and other popular organizations. Human rights activists described the wave of repression as "an Army campaign to instill terror in the populace." 24

UES was under the control of the First Brigade, which conducted regular atrocities there with the usual impunity. Thus on July 17, troops guarding the university entrances fired on students, leaving ten wounded. They were protesting the military presence and pressing for the release of 14 students and professors who had been detained by the security forces in recent weeks. President Cristiani claimed that the soldiers opened fire only after they were attacked by students, but the university chancellor denied this charge, calling the army attack an "act of aggression" against the university and pointing out that soldiers suffered no injuries. Five days later, the print shop at the Jesuit university UCA, which publishes several journals that analyze and criticize government policies, was dynamited. UCA authorities blamed the military, observing that the attackers had broken through the university walls when the city was under "strict military vigil" and movement was difficult, and that the bombing was "part of a series of attacks and accusations against the Jesuits." There was no interest here. 25

In late September, Senator Christopher Dodd, the leader of the congressional doves, lauded the ARENA government's new respect for human rights as he co-sponsored a resolution with Jesse Helms to increase military aid to El Salvador. Two days before, the army had attacked a church to which protestors had fled from riot police, flushing them out with tear gas and beating and arresting 61 labor activists, 39 of whom appeared in court bruised and beaten, some barely able to walk, several charging rape. Congress approved the Dodd-Helms military aid increase, rejecting any human rights conditions. Archbishop Rivera y Damas condemned the decision, urging that aid "go toward rehabilitating the thousands of Salvadorans maimed in the war and not for weapons." 26 The Newspaper of Record again ignored all of this, choosing instead to remind its readers of the events at Nandaime in July 1988, with appropriate dismay and horror over the atrocious acts of the animal who was now disturbing the garden party.

One will search in vain for a suggestion that El Salvador -- or Guatemala, where the situation is even worse -- should rein in its military to enhance the prospects for democracy and the peace process. Their leadership are not skunks at picnics, but estimable (if somewhat ineffectual) democrats, and the military rulers are "reforming" and overcoming past harsh practices under benign U.S. influence -- a permanent process, untroubled by annoying fact.

  3. From Illusion to Reality

Let us depart now from the world of ideological constructions and turn to the events that were unfolding. As noted, Nicaragua called for a meeting at U.N. headquarters to implement the August 1989 Tela accords of the Central American presidents, now restricted to Nicaragua in accordance with U.S. dictates. The participants were to be the Nicaraguan and Honduran governments, representatives of the contras, and the International Verification and Support Commission.

Honduras immediately rejected the invitation to participate, stating that it had no responsibility for the U.S.-run forces based in its territory and no intention of carrying out its commitment under the Tela accords to implement the demobilization of the contras by December. If the contras maintain armed camps in sectors of Honduras that they have taken over after having expelled local residents, and launch attacks into Nicaragua from their Honduran bases, that is not the affair of sovereign Honduras. The purpose of these maneuvers was to ensure that the U.N. meeting, rather than providing a mechanism to implement the peace process (which the White House and Congress had long been committed to disrupt), could be portrayed as a victory for U.S. force; that is, as a reluctant Sandinista recognition of the legitimacy of the contras in a face-to-face meeting of the sort that "we have called for for a long time" (White House Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater). 27 By removing Honduras from the discussions, the U.S. could also protect its policy of sustaining the contras in violation of the Tela accords.

Washington's tactics were perfectly understandable and in accord with long-term strategic goals. Preference for force over diplomacy is traditional, reflecting comparative advantage. But by 1986, U.S. elite opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to reliance on the contras (80% of "leaders," according to polls). Rational observers understood that economic and ideological warfare provide more cost-effective means to strangle and destroy a weak impoverished country dependent on its relations with the United States, and do not have the negative side effect of arousing domestic and international opinion. At the same time, the elite consensus is that the U.S. terror states must be maintained, and their leadership -- defined as "democrats" -- protected from any challenge as they fulfill their function of serving privilege and wealth, while murdering and torturing anyone who gets in the way. The Reaganites, with their insistence on violence for its own sake, were increasingly isolated.

By 1988, it had become clear that contra forces could no longer be sustained as a major military force within Nicaragua. But it was also clear that a mercenary army in Honduras and a low level of regular terrorism would prevent demobilization in Nicaragua, guarantee further suffering among its people, and in general advance the primary goal of strangling the country and bringing its recalcitrant population to comprehend that survival requires submission to the will of the master of the hemisphere. In May 1988, a Defense Department official explained that "Those 2000 hard-core guys [maintained by the U.S. within Nicaragua] could keep some pressure on the Nicaraguan government, force them to use their economic resources for the military, and prevent them from solving their economic problems -- and that's a plus... Anything that puts pressure on the Sandinista regime, calls attention to the lack of democracy, and prevents the Sandinistas from solving their economic problems is a plus." Contra commander Israel Galeano, in an August 1989 interview, said that "we're sure we'll be able to make sure the Sandinistas can't live in peace." By then the contras were recognized to be solely a military force, all pretenses about their democratic credentials having been abandoned. An American official frankly remarks that "we knew all along that [the military] were in charge," exactly as in "the fledgling democracies"; the "political apparatus" was "grafted on" by the U.S. In reality, the primary purpose of the failed graft was to offer grist for the mill of the propagandists, now no longer necessary. 28

These U.S. policies merely recapitulate the basic terms of the program that the Administration adopted in 1981, outlined by ex-CIA analyst David MacMichael in his World Court testimony: to use the proxy army (as its backers termed it in internal documents) to "provoke cross-border attacks by Nicaraguan forces and thus serve to demonstrate Nicaragua's aggressive nature," to pressure the government to "clamp down on civil liberties within Nicaragua itself, arresting its opposition, demonstrating its allegedly inherent totalitarian nature," and to undermine its shattered economy. 29

As already discussed, the U.S. from the first moment dismissed with contempt the August 1987 (Esquipulas II) agreement of the Central American Presidents. The U.S. at once rapidly escalated the illegal supply flights to the contras that the accords expressly prohibited while the press cooperated by virtually suppressing these crucial facts, diverting attention from the client states and their massive violation of the accords, and feigning vast indignation over far lesser abuses in Nicaragua. By January 1988 the U.S. and its ideological system had completed the demolition of the unwanted accords. In March 1988, Nicaragua and the contras reached a temporary cease-fire, agreeing that further U.S. aid to the contras should be delivered only by "neutral organizations" and restricted to repatriation and resettlement. OAS Secretary General Soares was assigned the responsibility of monitoring compliance with the agreement. Congressional doves at once joined the White House in support of legislation to violate these conditions. Contra aid, Congress decreed, was to be administered by the State Department through USAID for the purpose of maintaining the contras as a military force in Honduras. Secretary General Soares wrote to Secretary of State George Shultz to protest this flagrant violation of the agreement, eliciting the usual silence. A year later, the story repeated. On February 14, 1989, the Central American presidents reiterated their agreement that U.S. aid to the contras should be restricted to "the voluntary demobilization, repatriation or relocation in Nicaragua and in third countries" of contras and their families. Congress proceeded at once to violate this request by providing direct aid to maintain the contras in Honduras, in a "historic agreement" with the White House that was hailed by the press as "consistent with the regional pact" that it flagrantly violated. 30

The official media tale then and since is that the U.S. was faithfully complying with the agreements. When President Ortega wrote in the New York Times that U.S. aid was being sent to the contras in violation of the Central American agreements, few could understand what he meant. 31 His remarks could therefore be dismissed as more thuggish Commie twaddle. To the rules of the game we must add yet another: truth is an utter irrelevance when it does not serve power.

  4. The 1990 Elections

The elections of 1990 in Nicaragua were an event of considerable significance. For understanding U.S. policy, and the operative concept of democracy in the dominant political culture, it is important to pay close attention to what was known about them in the preceding months, and the way they were later interpreted. The first of these questions is addressed in this section, published before the elections; the second in the next chapter, written afterwards. To distinguish clearly between these two topics -- what was evident before and hindsight -- I leave this section in its original form. 32

In 1984, Nicaragua ran elections that were superior by any rational standards to those conducted in the U.S. terror states. They were observed as closely as any in history by the professional association of Latin American scholars, Western governments and parliaments, and others. The general conclusion was that they were fair and equitable, surely by the standards of the region, more so than the elections in El Salvador celebrated by the U.S. government and media as a triumph of democracy. The U.S. labored effectively to disrupt the elections, as is now quietly conceded. By the rules of the game, these facts are irrelevant. The elections did not take place. Alone in the region, Nicaragua had no elected president, but only a dictator. 33

The next election was scheduled for 1990. The official fable here is that the totalitarian Sandinistas agreed to a 1990 election only because of the steadfastness of the U.S. and the contras. In the real world, the only detectable effect of U.S. pressure was to advance the scheduled elections by a few months. The U.S. intervened massively in an effort to disrupt the elections. The embargo and other economic warfare were a clear message to Nicaraguan voters: If you want your children to eat, vote the way we order you to.

By its rejection of the Tela accords and insistence on blocking contra demobilization, Globe editor Randolph Ryan observed, Washington is sending "an implicit the Nicaraguan electorate: If you want a secure peace, vote for the opposition." In a backhanded way, even the New York Times conceded this subversion of the electoral process. Reporting with much pleasure how the collapse of the economy has "alienated" the working class and turned them against the Sandinistas, the Times observed that Managua workers understand that restoration of relations with the U.S. is the key to overcoming the economic crisis and that "the opposition is better suited to the job" than the Sandinistas: "well-publicized foreign donations to the opposition parties here have been interpreted by many Nicaraguans as proof that the opposition, not the Sandinistas, has better access to the foreign money necessary to relieve Nicaragua's crisis." 34

In early November 1989, the Bush administration brought the U.S. candidate Violeta Chamorro to Washington for some publicity. President Bush issued a promise "to lift the trade embargo and assist in Nicaragua's reconstruction" if Chamorro wins the election, the White House announced. 35

It took no great genius to perceive that the U.S. would continue to torture Nicaragua, with elite support across the spectrum, until it restores U.S. clients to power. This renewed display of the traditional fear and contempt for democracy among U.S. elites, which reached new peaks in the 1980s, could hardly be understood in respectable circles here, however. There was much discussion over proposals to send aid to the opposition or to involve the CIA in covert operations. In comparison with the actual and virtually unchallenged U.S. actions designed to subvert free elections in Nicaragua, these questions are trivialities.

In relative terms, that is; in absolute scale, U.S. financial intervention in support of its clients amounted to over half the monthly wage per person in Nicaragua. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs observes that the equivalent here would be a flow of $2 billion into a U.S. election campaign by a foreign power (a vastly greater sum if we consider comparative wage scales) -- though as distinct from totalitarian Nicaragua, the U.S. does not permit a penny to flow from abroad for such purposes. 36

There is nothing subtle about any of this. A Canadian observer mission sponsored by unions and development agencies, along with church, human rights, and academic groups, completed a four-week investigation of the election preparations in Nicaragua just as the garden party celebrating "democracy" opened with much fanfare in Costa Rica. Its conclusion, as reported by wire services (but apparently unpublished here), was that the U.S. "is doing everything it can to disrupt the elections set for next year": "American intervention is the main obstacle to the attainment of free and fair elections in Nicaragua," the report of the mission stated. It added further that the contras were attempting to sabotage the elections. They are "waging a campaign of intimidation with the clear message, `if you support the [Sandinista government], we will be back to kill you'." The Canadian mission estimates that the contras killed 42 people in "election violence" in October. 37

One may debate whether it was right or wrong for Nicaragua to rescind its unilateral cease-fire. But it requires considerable naiveté for liberal doves to criticize this action on the grounds that it would undermine the prospect for "a full restoration of US-Nicaraguan relations," which "will not come until Bush can point to an election that he considers fair" (Boston Globe).38 Bush will "consider an election fair" when his candidates win, even if their victory is based on wholesale terror and intimidation, as in El Salvador; otherwise, it is illegitimate. Furthermore, "Bush" can stand as a metaphor for elite opinion generally. The record of the past decade makes this a fairly safe conclusion, and it is only buttressed by a broader inquiry into historical practice.

It would be unrealistic to expect the United States to tolerate a political system that is not dominated by business, oligarchy, and military elements that subordinate themselves to U.S. elite interests. Still less will the U.S. willingly tolerate a government that diverts resources to the poor majority, thus demonstrating its utter failure to recognize the right priorities, and embarking on a course that may have dangerous demonstration effects if the experiment is permitted to succeed. Accordingly, U.S. policy has not veered from the principle that the client terror states must be maintained and the Sandinistas eliminated in favor of elements with a proper understanding of the needs of the privileged in Nicaragua and, crucially, the United States.


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.  

7 Robert Pear, NYT, Nov. 2; BG, Nov. 3. Kerry, CBS radio, 8:30 AM, Nov. 3; Adam Pertman, BG, Nov. 2. Brit Hume, ABC TV Evening News, Nov. 7. Editorials, NYT, Oct. 31, Nov. 1; Uhlig, NYT, Oct. 30; Schorr, Lewis, NYT, Nov. 5, 1989. See also Mary McGrory, WP Weekly, Nov. 13, 1989, dismissing Ortega as "obnoxious" but not without justification in announcing that "he intended to defend his people and fire when fired upon."

8 Ryan, BG, June 9; Cockburn, Wall St. Journal, June 15, Nation, July 10; Walker, Nicaragua (Westview press, 1986), 133; his emphasis.

9 See chapter 8, p. 276, and for many details, Necessary Illusions, 247ff.

10 AP, Nov. 5; AP, Nov. 3; UPI, BG, Nov. 4, 1989.

11 Editorial, NYT, Oct. 31; Larmer, CSM, Nov. 3, 1989.  

12 Pertman, BG, Nov. 2, quoting peace activist Jim Morrell.

13 See Necessary Illusions, 57f., 251.

14 BG, Nov. 9, 1984, citing also similar comments by Democratic dove Christopher Dodd.

15 For more details, see Manufacturing Consent, 269-70.

16 Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1989), 128; Rosenblatt, NYT Book Review, July 9, 1989.  

17 Lindsey Gruson, NYT, Oct. 29, 1989.

18 Chris Norton, CSM, Sept. 22, 1989. See photographs and reports by free-lance journalist Terry Allen, Richmond Vermont, transmitted to Congress (with no reaction).

19 Douglas Farah, BG, Nov. 1; Lindsey Gruson, NYT, Nov. 1. AI, AP, Nov. 6; Chris Norton, CSM, Nov. 6, on the report of soldiers fleeing. Tutela Legal, quoted by National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, Oct. 31. Rivera y Damas, BG, Nov. 6, brief notice on p. 35; editorial, Nov. 7, 1989.

20 NYT, Nov. 3, 1989.

21 AP, Oct. 26, 27, 28; WP, Oct. 27; BG, Oct. 29, p. 26; El Salvador On Line (ESOL), Oct. 30, 1989. The actual story, as it predictably unfolded, was that the Bush administration sought in every way to silence Joya Mart¡nez and ship him to El Salvador before his information could do too much damage. See chapter 12, p. 389.  

22 AP, Oct. 20; ESOL, Oct. 30; Gruson, NYT, Oct. 18, 1989.

23 ESOL, Oct. 30, 1989. On the National Dialogue, see p. 268 f., above.

24 ESOL, Oct. 30; Frank Smyth, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 28, 1989.

25 Central American Report, Guatemala, July 28, 1989. The press and Congress remained uninterested until six leading Jesuit intellectuals had their brains blown out a few weeks later, after this article went to press.

26 COHA's Washington Report on the Hemisphere, Oct. 10; BG, Sept. 20; El Rescate Human Rights Chronology, September 1989.  

27 Mark Uhlig, NYT, Nov. 3; Adam Pertman, BG, Nov. 4, 1989. Honduras later agreed to observe the talks, though not to take part; BG, Nov. 7.

28 Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1988. Galeano, AP, Oct. 28; Mark Uhlig, NYT, Nov. 5, 1989.

29 See Culture of Terrorism, 121.

30 For details, see Necessary Illusions, and chapter 2, above. On the subversion of the accords generally and the crucial media role in facilitating the process, and the earlier record of barring diplomatic settlement, see Culture of Terrorism, chapter 7; Necessary Illusions, particularly chapter 4, Appendix IV, sec. 5. This record is almost completely suppressed in the media and is destined to be eliminated from history, along with earlier similar successes in undermining diplomacy. For examples from Indochina, see Towards a New Cold War, chapters 3, 4; Manufacturing Consent, chapter 5, sec. 5.3.

31 Ortega, Op-Ed, NYT, Nov. 2, 1989.  

32 Z magazine, December 1990; there are slight and irrelevant editing changes, particularly, changes of tense to avoid confusion. See also chapter 5.

33 See references of chapter 5, note 5.

34 BG, Oct. 26; Mark Uhlig, NYT, Nov. 7, 1989.

35 AP, Nov. 8, 1989.

36 COHA's Washington Report on the Hemisphere, Nov. 8, 1989, reporting estimates by Hemisphere Initiatives.

37 AP, Oct. 26, 1989; Miami Herald, Oct. 27, 1989, brief notice.

38 Editorial, BG, Nov. 2, 1989.  

Table of Contents ] Introduction ] I. Cold War: Fact and Fancy ] II. The Home Front ] III. The Global System ] IV. Problems of Population Control ] V. The Post-Cold War Era ] VI. Nefarious Aggression ] VII. The Victors ] VIII. The Agenda of the Doves: 1988 ] [ IX. The Mortal Sin of Self-Defense ] X. The Decline of the Democratic Ideal ] XI. Democracy in the Industrial Societies ] XII. Force and Opinion ] Afterword ]

 ] Deterring Democracy ] Necessary Illusions ] The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many ] Keeping the Rabble in Line ] Rethinking Camelot ] Powers and Prospects ] Year 501 ] Secrets, Lies and Democracy ] What Uncle Sam Really Wants ] Interviews, Debates and Talks ] About Noam Chomsky ]


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