Commentary Magazine

Sandinistas & Contras

To the Editor:

Penn Kemble, in his exchange with Ronald Radosh [Letters from Readers, August, in a discussion of Mr. Kemble’s review of With the Contras by Christopher Dickey, Books in Review, May], shows formidable skill in dispatching an argument, but the argument is not mine—and neither, I would warrant, is it Mr. Radosh’s. I cannot help thinking that Mr. Kemble’s promise of a “considered answer” would have been better served by more faithful attention to the question.

Mr. Kemble is at pains to demonstrate that “Marxist-Leninist movements . . . establish repressive and anti-American governments for their own purposes—not because, as we are so often told, we have ‘pushed them into the arms of the Soviet Union.’ ” So often told, perhaps, that Mr. Kemble cannot stop hearing it. Neither Mr. Radosh nor I assert anything of the kind.

Mr. Radosh (rightly citing me as an ally) wrote that American support for the anti-Sandinista insurgents results in increasing repression because it “gives the hardline Marxists who govern Nicaragua an excuse to consolidate their power and to move as quickly as possible toward the Cuban-Soviet model state they desire.” This language—note the words “excuse” and “desire”—expressly rejects the notion that American policy motivates the Sandinistas to repression. Neither is it remotely compatible with Mr. Kemble’s imputation of a “faith that . . . when socialist revolutionaries go wrong, someone else must be to blame.”

No one else is to blame. The Sandinistas are to blame. They are a blight on their people. Much though Mr. Kemble may enjoy reinforcing this view, we simply do not differ about it.

We do differ about the effects of the contras. Their supporters generally portray them as the only substantial impediment to a consolidated Leninist state. I believe they are more nearly the reverse.

Under conditions of war, the forces of nationalism dwarf domestic discontent as a determinant of loyalty to the state. Nicaraguan nationalism, for good historic reason, is particularly attuned to any combination that includes the United States and loyalists of the Somoza regime. The contras were founded and remain dominated by exactly this combination. However many campesinos they include (and it is worth pointing out that they have nothing near majority support even in the countryside), the contras are commanded by a military structure 92 percent of whose senior officers were officers of Somoza’s National Guard. No serious student of the contras is willing to claim that these Guardsmen are meaningfully subordinate to civilian leaders like Arturo Cruz or Alfonso Robelo—and, more importantly, few Nicaraguans would be likely to care if they were.

These facts speak not only to the allegedly democratic character of the contras (although they speak eloquently to that) but also to the contras’ effect on Sandinista consolidation. To understand this we must ask why the Sandinista comandantes have not managed in six years to achieve the monopoly of power that Castro had within six months. It is surely not because they do not want to. But neither is it because the contras have physically prevented them from doing so. Although diverting some resources and damaging others, the contras have never come close to challenging the preeminence of Sandinista power anywhere in Nicaragua.

The real barrier to consolidation is the disaffection of ordinary Nicaraguans. And what is clear is that the contras have diminished the importance of this disaffection. However unhappy they are with their government, Nicaraguans will never embrace the CIA and Enrique Bermúdez by way of alternative. For the duration of the contra war, the Sandinista government will exploit the population’s nationalism, wartime passivity, and loathing for the old regime.

What is notable about Nicaraguans is their loyalty to the Church. No one has matched the reception accorded Cardinal Obando y Bravo on his return to Managua from Rome. In this an analogy to Poland, however imperfect, has some bearing. Of course it is said to be an iron law of Communist regimes that the loyalties of the people are a matter of indifference, that the state gives up nothing without a fight. But imagine what would become of General Jaruzelski in Poland were it not for his border with the Soviet Union. So long as America keeps Nicaragua free of “fraternal socialist assistance”—and there is surely consensus for that—the best hope for Nicaragua is Nicaraguans.

Not that these are the only grounds for opposing aid to the contras. They are not even the most important. Our obsession with changing the Nicaraguan government—when we have already disarmed it as a geostrategic threat—is a triumph of the trivial over the profound. For there are questions of true historical moment in Central and South America today. They are questions of democracy, of development, and of a start on social justice. If we had set out to destabilize our friends at their moment of greatest fragility, we could have thought up nothing better than an indefinite insurgent war. Sooner or later, we must begin to take them seriously.

[Governor] Bruce Babbitt
Phoenix, Arizona



Penn Kemble writes:

A classic formula of those Arthur Koestler once referred to as “anti-anti-Communists” was this: X is not really a Communist, but our policies are helping make him into one. Governor Babbitt has developed a more refined version: the Sandinistas are Communists, but Nicaragua is not yet a “consolidated” Communist state. Our policies, however, are helping turn it into one. Perhaps readers will forgive me for finding some kinship between these two propositions, especially when it comes to their practical consequences.

Does Governor Babbitt believe that the U.S. deserves some blame for the grim nature of Sandinista rule? If I keep hearing this, it is merely because the Governor keeps saying it. On March 12 of this year he wrote in the New York Times that U.S. support for the contras allows “a repressive, unpopular regime to wrap itself in the flag and justify ‘emergency measures’ to a people who might otherwise resist them.” In his letter he rejects the notion that the contras are “the only substantial impediment to a consolidated Leninist state.” He concludes that “They are more nearly the reverse.” (The reverse of an “impediment” sounds to me like an incentive.)

In a rejoinder to Jeane Kirkpatrick and Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, March 30, 1986), Governor Babbitt went even farther: “If we had set about plotting to keep Daniel Ortega in Managua, could we have done any better than a CIA-financed rebellion with scarce support from the populace and no prospect of success?”

How can the Governor say that U.S. policy justifies (or even, in Ronald Radosh’s more cautious term, provides “an excuse” for) Sandinista totalitarianism? That government’s actions surely cannot be justified by any moral standard a democrat would accept. The justifications the Sandinistas offer for their actions do not seem to carry much weight with the Nicaraguan people, who are being brought under increasing micro-management by a regime which clearly he Hate That Dare Not Spea are rejected by Nicaraguan democratic leaders who remain inside the country. Many of these figures have been under great pressure from the regime to denounce U.S. aid to the resistance, yet are bravely refusing to do so.

The Sandinistas’ justifications have been rejected (with harsh consequences) by the Nicaraguan Catholic Church—whose cause Governor Babbitt seeks to embrace. Cardinal Obando y Bravo argued (Washington Post, May 12, 1986) that “the insurgent dissidents are now in the same position that the Sandinistas themselves once occupied, and, consequently, they have the same right that the Sandinistas had to seek aid from other nations, which they in fact did request and obtain in order to fight a terrible dictatorship.” At the convention of the Inter-American Press Association held in Vancouver, British Columbia this past September, Violeta Chamorro, publisher of the banned La Prensa, rejected the Sandinistas’ justifications for closing the paper as “. . . only a pretext to institute in Nicaragua a totalitarian political state which goes against the principles of the Nicaraguan people themselves.”

Governor Babbitt would have us believe that disaffection with the regime has “diminished” and that the Nicaraguan people have yielded to repression because of the unwelcome support the U.S. has given to the armed resistance. The evidence does not support him—to the contrary.

There is more in Governor Babbitt’s letter that deserves debate: I can touch here on only a few points.

Nicaragua may be too remote for the kind of “fraternal socialist assistance” that the Soviet Union has on occasion visited upon Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. But Governor Babbitt should not belittle the effectiveness of the thousands—by some estimates 8,000—Soviets, Cubans, East Germans, Bulgarians, and other so-called “advisers” who actually help supervise the Sandinista army, its internal security services, its economy, and its communications. Nor should he underestimate the usefulness of the 350 T-55 tanks, the dozen or more helicopter gun-ships, and the vast quantities of howitzers, rocket-launchers, mortars, and assault rifles that the Soviet Union has been pouring into Nicaragua. The Soviet Union was not, after all, obliged to intervene directly to suppress the nonviolent Solidarity movement in Poland—the Polish army did the job itself. Given the extent of Soviet-bloc aid and operational control in Nicaragua, the massive military and police apparatus in that country could surely do the same to an unarmed opposition.

Governor Babbitt seems to believe the Sandinistas can be disarmed as a threat to their neighbors and to us without a change in their form of government. The United States sought just such a deal with the Sandinistas early in the Reagan administration—before there was an organized resistance. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders asked the Sandinistas to leave their neighbors alone, and offered in return that the U.S. would leave them alone. The Sandinistas scorned him. Since then, both the U.S. and Nicaragua’s four Central American neighbors have insisted that security guarantees from the Sandinistas are worthless unless there is democracy in Nicaragua. Governor Babbitt should listen more closely to the Central American democracies whose interests he means to uphold.

It is Governor Babbitt’s harsh caricature of the resistance forces I find especially disturbing. It is one thing to believe that this movement is futile or even counterproductive; it is something else to jeer at it. How can anyone assert—in a country where elections and opinion polls are forbidden—that the resistance has “nothing near majority support even in the countryside”? The contention that 92 percent of the resistance commanders are former National Guardsmen comes from the same people who gave us the vastly exaggerated charge of “contra corruption” on the eve of last June’s congressional vote. According to the State Department, the actual figure is 27 percent. But the truth is that none of these figures is precise, and that in any event such figures say nothing about the real character of a resistance movement.

There are criticisms that can fairly be made of the Nicaraguan resistance movement—and I have made some. But this movement is the largest volunteer people’s army in Latin America since the Mexican revolution. It has gained support and leadership from some of Nicaragua’s most distinguished democrats. Surely no one who values freedom has any right to treat it with contempt.



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