Commentary Magazine

Nicaragua: A Speech to My Former Comrades on the Left

Twenty-five years ago I was one of the founders of the New Left. I was one of the organizers of the first political demonstrations on the Berkeley campus—and indeed on any campus—to protest our government's anti-Communist policies in Cuba and Vietnam. Tonight I come before you as the kind of man I used to tell myself I would never be: a supporter of President Reagan, a committed opponent of Communist rule in Nicaragua.

I offer no apologies for my present position. It was what I thought was the humanity of the Marxist idea that made me what I was then; it is the inhumanity of what I have seen to be the Marxist reality that has made me what I am now. If my former comrades who support the Sandinistas were to pause for a moment and then plunge their busy political minds into the human legacies of their activist pasts, they would instantly drown in an ocean of blood.

The issue before us is not whether it is morally right for the United States to arm the contras, or whether there are unpleasant men among them. Nor is it whether the United States should defer to the wisdom of the Contadora powers—more than thirty years ago the United States tried to overthrow Somoza, and it was the Contadora powers of the time who bailed him out.

The issue before us and before all people who cherish freedom is how to oppose a Soviet imperialism so vicious and so vast as to dwarf any previously known. An “ocean of blood” is no metaphor. As we speak here tonight, this empire—whose axis runs through Havana and now Managua—is killing hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to consolidate a dictatorship whose policies against its black citizens make the South African government look civilized and humane.

A second issue, especially important to me, is the credibility and commitment of the American Left.

In his speech on Nicaragua, President Reagan invoked the Truman Doctrine, the first attempt to oppose Soviet expansion through revolutionary surrogates. I marched against the Truman Doctrine in 1948, and defended, with the Left, the revolutions in Russia and China, in Eastern Europe and Cuba, in Cambodia and Vietnam—just as the Left defends the Sandinistas today.

And I remember the arguments and “facts” with which we made our case and what the other side said, too—the Presidents who came and went, and the anti-Communists on the Right, the William Buckleys and the Ronald Reagans. And in every case, without exception, time has proved the Left wrong. Wrong in its views of the revolutionaries' intentions, and wrong about the facts of their revolutionary rule. And just as consistently the anti-Communists were proved right.

Today the Left dismisses Reagan's warnings about Soviet expansion as anti-Communist paranoia, a threat to the peace, and a mask for American imperialism. We said the same things about Truman when he warned us then. Russia's control of Eastern Europe, we said, was only a defensive buffer, a temporary response to American power—first, because Russia had no nuclear weapons; and then, because it lacked the missiles to deliver them.

Today, the Soviet Union is a nuclear superpower, missiles and all, but it has not given up an inch of the empire which it gained during World War II—not Eastern Europe, not the Baltic states which Hitler delivered to Stalin and whose nationhood Stalin erased and which are now all but forgotten, not even the Kurile Islands which were once part of Japan.

Not only have the Soviets failed to relinquish their conquests in all these years—years of dramatic, total decolonization in the West—but their growing strength and the wounds of Vietnam have encouraged them to reach for more. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Yemen, Mozambique, and Angola are among the dominoes which have recently fallen into the Soviet orbit.

To expand its territorial core—which apologists still refer to as a “defensive perimeter”—Moscow has already slaughtered a million peasants in Afghanistan, an atrocity warmly endorsed by the Sandinista government.

Minister of Defense Humberto Ortega describes the army of the conquerors—whose scorched-earth policy has driven half the Afghan population from its homes—as the “pillar of peace” in the world today. To any self-respecting socialist, praise for such barbarism would be an inconceivable outrage—as it was to the former Sandinista, now contra, Edén Pastora. But praise for the barbarians is sincere tribute coming from the Sandinista rulers, because they see themselves as an integral part of the Soviet empire itself.


“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” So writes the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose name and work no longer exist in his homeland.

In all the Americas, Fidel Castro was the only head of state to cheer the Soviet tanks as they rolled over the brave people of Prague. And cheering right along with Fidel were Carlos Fonseca, Tomas Borge, Humberto Ortega, and the other creators of the present Nicaraguan regime.

One way to assess what has happened in Nicaragua is to realize that wherever Soviet tanks crush freedom from now on, there will be two governments in the Americas supporting them all the way.

About its own crimes and for its own criminals, the Left has no memory at all.

To the Left I grew up in, along with the Sandinista founders, Stalin's Russia was a socialist paradise, the model of the liberated future. Literacy to the uneducated, power to the weak, justice to the forgotten—we praised the Soviet Union then, just as the Left praises the Sandinistas now.

And just as they ignore warnings like the one that has come from Violetta Chamorro, the publisher of La Prensa, the paper which led the fight against Somoza, and a member of the original Sandinista junta—“With all my heart, I tell you it is worse here now than it was in the times of the Somoza dictatorship”—so we dismissed the anti-Soviet “lies” about Stalinist repression.

In the society we hailed as a new human dawn, 100 million people were put in slave-labor camps, in conditions rivaling Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Between 30 and 40 million people were killed—in peacetime, in the daily routine of socialist rule. While leftists applauded their progressive policies and guarded their frontiers, Soviet Marxists killed more peasants, more workers, and even more Communists than all the capitalist governments together since the beginning of time.

And for the entire duration of this nightmare, the William Buckleys and Ronald Reagans and the other anti-Communists went on telling the world exactly what was happening. And all that time the pro-Soviet Left and its fellow-travelers went on denouncing them as reactionaries and liars, using the same contemptuous terms with which the Left attacks the President and his supporters today.

The Left would still be denying the Soviet atrocities if the perpetrators themselves had not finally acknowledged their crimes. In 1956, in a secret speech to the party elite, Khrushchev made the crimes a Communist fact; but it was only the CIA that actually made the fact public, allowing radicals to come to terms with what they had done.

Khrushchev and his cohorts could not have cared less about the misplaced faith and misspent lives of their naive supporters on the Left. The Soviet rulers were concerned about themselves: Stalin's mania had spread the slaughter into his henchmen's ranks; they wanted to make totalitarianism safe for its rulers. In place of a dictator whose paranoia could not be controlled, they instituted a dictatorship by directorate—which (not coincidentally) is the form of rule in Nicaragua today. Repression would work one way only: from the privileged top of society to the powerless bottom.

The year of Khrushchev's speech—which is also the year Soviet tanks flattened the freedom fighters of Budapest—is the year that tells us who the Sandinistas really are.

Because the truth had to be admitted at last, the Left all over the world was forced to redefine itself in relation to the Soviet facts. China's Communist leader Mao liked Stalin's way better. Twenty-five million people died in the “great leaps” and “cultural revolutions” he then launched. In Europe and America, however, a new anti-Stalinist Left was born. This New Left, of which I was one of the founders, was repelled by the evils it was now forced to see, and embarrassed by the tarnish the Soviet totalitarians had brought to the socialist cause. It turned its back on the Soviet model of Stalin and his heirs.

But the Sandinista vanguard was neither embarrassed nor repelled. In 1957, Carlos Fonseca, the founding father of the Sandinista Front, visited the Soviet Union with its newly efficient totalitarian state. To Fonseca, as to Borge and his other comrades, the Soviet monstrosity was their revolutionary dream come true. In his pamphlet, A Nicaraguan in Moscow, Fonseca proclaimed Soviet Communism his model for Latin America's revolutionary future.

This vision of a Soviet America is now being realized in Nicaragua. The comandante directorate, the army, and the secret police are already mirrors of the Soviet state—not only structurally but in their personnel, trained and often manned by agents of the Soviet axis.


But the most important figure in this transformation is not a Nicaraguan at all. For twenty years, from the time the Sandinistas first arrived in Havana, they were disciples of Fidel Castro. With his blessings they went on to Moscow, where Stalin's henchman completed their revolutionary course. Fidel is the image in which the Sandinista leadership has created itself and the author of its strategy. Its politburo, the comandante directorate, was personally created by Fidel in Havana on the eve of the final struggle, sealed with a pledge of millions in military aid. It was Fidel who supplied the arms with which the Sandinistas waged their battles, just as he supplied the Cuban general—Zenen Casals—who directed their victorious campaign (just as the Soviets supplied the general who directed Fidel's own victory at the Bay of Pigs). Without Castro's intervention, Arturo Cruz and the other anti-Somoza and pro-democratic contras would be the government of Nicaragua today.

And it was Fidel who showed the Sandinistas how to steal the revolution after the victory, and how to secure their theft by manipulating their most important allies: the American Left and its liberal sympathizers.

Twenty-five years ago Fidel was also a revolutionary hero to us on the New Left. Like today's campus radicals, we became “coffee-pickers” and passengers on the revolutionary tour, and we hailed the literacy campaigns, health clinics, and other wonders of the people's state.

When Fidel spoke, his words were revolutionary music to our ears: “Freedom with bread. Bread without terror.” “A revolution neither red nor black, but Cuban olive-green.” And so in Managua today: “Not [Soviet] Communism but Nicaraguan Sandinismo” is the formula Fidel's imitators proclaim.

Fidel's political poems put radicals all over the world under his spell. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote one of the first and most influential books of praise: “If this man asked me for the moon,” he said, “I would give it to him. Because he would have a need for it.”

When I listen to the enthusiasts for the Sandinista redeemers, the fate of a hero of the Cuban revolution comes to my mind. For in the year that Jean-Paul Sartre came to Havana and fell in love with the humanitarian Fidel, Huber Matos embarked on a long windowless night of the soul.

The fate of Huber Matos begins with the second revolution that Fidel launched.

All the fine gestures and words with which Fidel seduced us and won our support—the open Marxism, the socialist humanism, the independent path—turned out to be calculated lies. Even as he proclaimed his color to be olive-green, he was planning to make his revolution Moscow red.

So cynical was Fidel's strategy that at the time it was difficult for many to comprehend. One by one Fidel began removing his own comrades from the revolutionary regime and replacing them with Cuban Communists.

Cuba's Communists were then a party in disgrace. They had opposed the revolution; they had even served in the cabinet of the tyrant Batista while the revolution was taking place!

But this was all incidental to Fidel. Fidel knew how to use people. And Fidel was planning a new revolution he could trust the Communists to support: he had decided to turn Cuba into a Soviet state. And Fidel also knew that he could no longer trust his own comrades, because they had made a revolution they thought was going to be Cuban olive-green.

Although Fidel removed socialists and the Sandinistas removed democrats, the pattern of betrayal has been the same.

To gain power the Sandinistas concealed their true intention (a Soviet state) behind a revolutionary lie (a pluralist democracy). To consolidate power they fashioned a second lie (democracy, but only within the revolution), and those who believed in the first lie were removed. At the end of the process there will be no democracy in Nicaragua at all, which is exactly what Fonseca and the Sandinistas intended when they began.

When Huber Matos saw Fidel's strategy unfolding in Cuba, he got on the telephone with other Fidelistas to discuss what they should do. This was a mistake. In the first year of Cuba's liberation, the phones of revolutionary legends like Huber Matos were already tapped by Fidel's secret police. Huber Matos was arrested.

In the bad old days of Batista oppression, Fidel had been arrested himself. His crime was not words on a telephone, but leading an attack on a military barracks to overthrow the Batista regime. Twelve people were killed. For this Fidel spent a total of eighteen months in the tyrant's jail before being released.

Huber Matos was not so lucky. Fidel was no Batista, and the revolution that had overthrown Batista was no two-bit dictatorship. For his phone call, Huber Matos was tried in such secrecy that not even members of the government were privy to the proceeding. When it was over, he was sentenced to solitary confinement, in a cell without sunlight, for twenty-two years. And even as Fidel buried his former friend and comrade alive, he went on singing his songs of revolutionary humanism and justice.


Milan Kundera reveals the meaning of this revolutionary parable of Huber Matos and Fidel. Recalling a French Communist who wrote poems for brotherhood while his friend was being murdered by the poet's comrades in Prague, Kundera says: “The hangman killed while the poet sang.”

Kundera explains: “People like to say revolution is beautiful; it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful; hell is already contained in the dream of paradise. . . . To condemn Gulags is easy, but to reject the poetry which leads to the Gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever.” Words to bear in mind today as we consider Nicaragua and its revolution of poets.

To believe in the revolutionary dream is the tragedy of its supporters; to exploit the dream is the talent of its dictators. Revolutionary cynicism, the source of this talent, is Fidel's most important teaching to his Sandinista disciples. This is the faculty that allows the comandantes to emulate Fidel himself: to be poets and hangmen at the same time. To promise democracy and organize repression, to attack imperialism and join an empire, to talk peace and plan war, to champion justice and deliver Nicaragua to a fraternity of inhumane, repressive, militarized, and economically crippled states.

“We used to have one main prison, now we have many,” begins the lament of Carlos Franqui, a former Fidelista, for the paradise that Nicaragua has now gained. “We used to have a few barracks; now we have many. We used to have many plantations; now we have only one, and it belongs to Fidel. Who enjoys the fruits of the revolution, the houses of the rich, the luxuries of the rich? The comandante and his court.”

To this grim accounting must be added the economic ruin that Fidel's Marxism has wrought. Among the proven failures of the Marxist promise, this is the most fateful of all. The failure of Marxist economies to satisfy basic needs, let alone compete with the productive capitalisms of the West, has produced the military-industrial police states which call themselves socialist today. Nicaragua, with its Sandinista-created economic crisis and its massive military build-up, is but the latest example of this pattern.

Twenty-five years ago we on the Left applauded when Fidel denounced Cuba's one-crop economy and claimed that U.S. imperialism was the cause of the nation's economic plight. It seemed so self-evident. Cuba was a fertile island with a favorable climate, but U.S. sugar plantations had monopolized its arable land, and the sugar produced was a product for export, not a food for Cubans. The poor of Cuba had been sacrificed on the altar of imperialist profit. Whenever we were confronted by the political costs Castro's revolution might entail, we were confident that this gain alone—Cuba's freedom to grow food for Cubans—would make any sacrifice worthwhile. The same illusion—that the revolution will mean better lives for Nicaragua's poor—underlies every defense of the Sandinistas today.

It is nearly three decades since Cuba's liberation, and Cuba is still a one-crop economy. But the primary market for its sugar is now the Soviet Union instead of the United States. Along with this have come other economic differences as well. Cuba's external debt is now 200 times what it was when Fidel took power. And it would be far greater if the Communist caudillo had not mortgaged his country to his Soviet patron. So bankrupt is the economy Castro has created that it requires a Soviet subsidy of over $4 billion a year, one-quarter of the entire national income, to keep it afloat. Before the revolution, Cubans enjoyed the highest per-capita income in Latin America. Now they are economic prisoners of permanent rationing and chronic shortages in even the most basic necessities. The allotted rations tell a story in themselves: two pounds of meat per citizen per month; 20 percent less clothing than the allotment a decade earlier; and in rice, a basic staple of Cuba's poor, half the yearly consumption under the old Batista regime.

The idea that Marxist revolution will mean economic benefit for the poor has proved to be the most deadly illusion of all. It is because Marxist economies cannot satisfy economic needs—not even at the levels of the miserably corrupt capitalisms of Batista and Somoza—that Marxist states require permanent repression to stifle unrest and permanent enemies to saddle with the blame.


This is also why Castro has found a new national product to supply to the Soviet market (a product his Sandinista disciples are in the process of developing in their turn). The product is the Cuban nation itself, as a military base for Soviet expansion.

The event that sealed the contract for this development was the moment of America's defeat in Vietnam in April 1975. This defeat resulted in America's effective withdrawal from the crucial role it had played since 1945, as the guardian of the international status quo and the keeper of its peace.

To the Soviet imperialists, America's loss was an opportunity gained. In 1975 the Kremlin began what would soon be a tenfold increase in the aid it had been providing to Cuba. Most of the aid was of military intent. Toward the end of the year, 36,000 Cuban troops surfaced in Africa, as an interventionary force in Angola's civil war. Soviet aid to Cuba tripled and then quintupled as Castro sent another 12,000 Cuban troops to provide a palace guard for Ethiopia's new dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had thrown himself into the Soviet embrace with a campaign which he officially called his “Red Terror.” A year after his henchmen had murdered virtually the entire graduating class of the high schools of Addis Ababa—just the most poignant of Mengistu's 100,000 victims—Fidel presented him with a Bay of Pigs medal, Cuban socialism's highest award.

Ethiopia's dictator is only one of the international heroes who regularly pass through the Cuban base to be celebrated, trained, and integrated into a network of subversion and terror that has come to span every continent of the globe. And in the Sandinista revolution Fidel's colonial plantation has produced its most profitable return: an opportunity for Moscow to expand its investment to the American land mass itself.

Nicaragua is now in the grip of utterly cynical and utterly ruthless men, exceeding even their sponsors in aggressive hostility to the United States. The Soviets may be the covert patrons of the world's terrorist plague, but not even they have had the temerity to embrace publicly the assassin Qaddafi as a “brother” the way the Sandinistas have. The aim of the Sandinista revolution is to crush its society from top to bottom, to institute totalitarian rule, and to use the country as a base to spread Communist terror and Communist regimes throughout the hemisphere.

The Sandinista anthem which proclaims the Yankee to be the “enemy of mankind” expresses precisely the revolutionaries' sentiment and goal. That goal is hardly to create a more just society—the sordid record would dissuade any reformer from choosing the Communist path—but to destroy the societies still outside the totalitarian perimeter, and their chief protector, the United States.

Support for the contras is a first line of defense. For Nicaraguans, a contra victory would mean the restoration of the democratic leadership from whom the Sandinistas stole the revolution in the first place, the government that Nicaragua would have had if Cuba had not intervened. For the countries of the Americas, it would mean a halt in the Communist march that threatens their freedoms and their peace.


In conclusion, I would like to say this to my former comrades and successors on the Left: you are self-righteous and blind in your belief that you are part of a movement to advance human progress and liberate mankind. You are in fact in league with the darkest and most reactionary forces of the modern world, whose legacies—as the record attests—are atrocities and oppressions on a scale unknown in the human past. It is no accident that radicals in power have slaughtered so many of their own people. Hatred of self, and by extension one's country, is the root of the radical cause.

As American radicals, the most egregious sin you commit is to betray the privileges and freedoms ordinary people from all over the world have created in this country—privileges and freedoms that ordinary people all over the world would feel blessed to have themselves. But the worst of it is this: you betray all this tangible good that you can see around you for a socialist pie-in-the-sky that has meant horrible deaths and miserable lives for the hundreds of millions who have so far fallen under its sway.

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