Commentary Magazine

Why Europeans Support the Sandinistas

In The preface to When the Going Was Good (1946), a selection from his travel books written in the 1920’s and 30’s, Evelyn Waugh wrote, without much regret, that his own traveling days were over:

Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with a letter of credit and passport . . . and feel the world wide open before us. . . . Others, not I, gifted with the art of pleasing public authorities may get themselves despatched abroad to promote “Cultural Relations.” . . . I shall not, by my own wish, be among them.

I suddenly recalled this passage when I was invited by the United States Information Agency (USIA) to visit six Western European countries this past May to explain our Central American policy. Apparently I had been gifted “with the art of pleasing public authorities,” and had to bear the consequences. I knew, of course, that Central America was a subject Europeans did not wish to dwell upon at any length; I knew, also, that most countries were critical of our policies, and some downright sympathetic to our enemies. I had heard of the vast “solidarity” movements which, particularly in West Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries, had sprung up to assist the Sandinistas in their task of Stalinizing Nicaraguan society; but I had heard, too, that the tide was beginning to turn, as the Ortega brothers and Tomas Borge revealed their true colors. Perhaps this was an opportune moment to restate our case?

The following reflections are taken from a journal of the trip.



Helsinki, April 27-30

This is the city often used to represent Leningrad in Western spy films—and no wonder: it is full of architecture evocative of the late Russian empire, and seems cold, bleak, and properly Baltic. (I realize for the first time that Tallin—formerly Reval—Estonia is just forty miles across the water, Leningrad a mere train ride away.)

Finns are known to be a reserved, introspective people, but the ones I meet—the very few who are interested in Central America—are voluble enough. Here the issue of Nicaragua is played in two different ways. Either the Sandinistas are confused with Nicaragua (“big country versus small country”), in which case Finland, as a small country, must side with any other small country threatened by a large imperialistic neighbor (in this case, the United States); or the Sandinistas represent one area where Finnish “neutrality” can show its tilt toward the Soviets at low cost and risk.

In any event, there is abundant activity here on behalf of the Sandinistas. As the Press and Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. embassy explained to me in a letter before my arrival, “Recently, there has been pressure on the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ Department of Development Cooperation to increase development assistance to Nicaragua. A group of 28 Finnish organizations, including student, union, and church groups, also requested that a group of Finnish peace-corps types be sent to help out.” Surprisingly, he added, “La Prensa has been represented in the journalists’ union house organ (controlled by leftists) as a U.S.-financed paper which stands for reaction, opposes the revolution, and, therefore, does not represent freedom of information but rather an obstacle in the way of progress in Nicaragua. No media voices were raised here against its closing.”1

During my four days here I have ample opportunity to learn that these observations are not exaggerated. The Finns are basically where the American liberals were about 1982, still hopeful that the Nicaraguan revolution could somehow justify their support, but with the anti-American cutting edge a bit sharper (or possibly merely more explicit). Perhaps the most appalling moment of the visit comes when a young labor leader looks me straight in the eye and says, “The Nicaraguan elections were quite convincing, don’t you think?” I manage to respond, “Well, what do your friends in the Nicaraguan labor movement think of them?” “Well,” he says a bit uncomfortably in answer to this unexpected riposte, “it is a rather confused situation.” When I suggest that the AFL-CIO thought otherwise, he just smirks.

Why a country which has lost so much territory to the Soviet Union should view Nicaraguan affairs in this light is rather difficult to say. Actually, Finland is not “Finlandized” at all; that is, though formally neutral, in most ways it is unambiguously pro-Western—which is not to be confused, however, with being pro-American. The Finns are also deeply anti-Soviet. (A member of parliament says to me, when I remark on the proximity of Leningrad, “Well, yes, that’s so. I’ve never been there, of course.” The “of course” is the operative part of the sentence.) What makes Nicaragua a cause worthy of Finnish support, then, is not its desire to be part of the Soviet bloc, or even the Sandinistas’ supposedly revolutionary achievements at home, but the regime’s opposition to the United States. This does not offer us much in the way of constructive suggestions for future policy, except perhaps that we should reduce our national territory by 90 percent and declare ourselves non-aligned vis-à-vis, say, Canada.



Rome-Vatican City-Trieste-Naples, May 1-9

The nice thing about Italy—apart from the food, the wine, the weather, the scenery, and the people—is the political diversity and forth-rightness of all parties. This is one of the few countries anywhere where you see wall slogans like soviets out of afghanistan. Also, when someone applies the slogan viva nicaragua sandinista he thoughtfully adds a hammer and sickle. Such candor is refreshing; at least we all know what we’re talking about.

Latin realism has its charms. The Italians are a cynical people—they have a right to be, given their history—and I find few ardent Sandinista sympathizers. Even the Socialists, who have their own problems with Communists, are beginning to ask hard questions about Nicaragua. At the Foreign Ministry the senior official in charge of political relations with Latin America is mainly interested in learning more about the mess in Washington; clearly, the baroque convolutions of Congress and the administration (the Iran-contra affair) make our country seem more exotic (and more difficult to understand) than any banana republic. (A mostly undressed Donna Rice is currently adorning the front pages of all the Italian papers; one has as its headline “Signorina Rice says Gary Hart is ‘too old.’”)

At the Vatican I meet with two groups—a class at the Pontifical Lateran University and a group of Jesuits at the Gregorian University across town. The former are a polyglot group from the four corners of the globe, including a disenchanted Salvadoran and two Africans, one of whom wants only to discuss South Africa, while the other is mainly interested in practicing, for what I imagine is at least the seventy-ninth time, his maiden speech (in French) for some future UN General Assembly.

The Jesuits are a mixed bag, representing all political points of view. The most leftward by far is an American who has just returned from twenty years of service in the Philippines. He doesn’t know much about Nicaragua, but he has little admiration for our foreign policy generally, extrapolating from what he believes to be our record in the Philippines. “There the last thing in the world we had in mind was the welfare of the Filipino people,” he repeatedly insists. “That’s why we supported Marcos to the end.”

Now, I too have read the newspapers, and I think this version somewhat at variance with the facts. Was Ambassador Stephen Bosworth’s evident preference for Mrs. Aquino not a matter of public knowledge? Who was it that finally got Marcos out, anyway, if not Senator Paul Laxalt? And so forth. Pressing the matter further, I force him into an undignified retreat. But the feelings are still there—my country, wrong or wrong—and nothing will ever make him part with them. He will not lack kindred spirits when he eventually returns home.



Trieste is a city which knows something of Communism; it is literally in sight of Yugoslavia, whose soldiers occupied the city in 1945 and killed some 40,000 people. Yugoslavs still come to Trieste nowadays to buy little necessities like soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, hangers, and so forth. I remark to the local USIA representative, a passionate Triestino intellectual, that for many people I know—leftist “community organizers” in the United States, Socialists in Spain, Christian Democrats in Chile—Yugoslavia is the ideal Communist country, a social experiment worthy of emulation everywhere. He is astounded. “That is no Communist country!” he insists. I say, “Really, then what would you call it?” “It is a country of corruption, nepotism, where everyone hates everyone. . . .” In other words, the Yugoslavs are a form of animal life too low to aspire to coherent political institutions. I permit myself to doubt this.

Trieste is also a city which reminds one, eloquently, of Europe’s troubled history, and the price which is still being paid for the folly of World War I. It mutely attests, as well, to the permanent damage done to Western civilization by the pernicious ideas of Woodrow Wilson. Once the port of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the home of its fleet, Trieste was ceded to Italy in 1919. In many ways it is closer to Vienna than Rome, and not just geographically, though the language is Italian. It seems a bit of alt-Mitteleuropa pinned in a remote corner of the Adriatic, separated by distance and culture from its nominal parent state, and by accidents of diplomacy and war from the country to which it has greatest affinity. Having seized Trieste from Austria-Hungary in the post-Versailles division of Europe, Italy in turn lost much of the city’s hinterland to the hated Yugoslavs after World War II. It is full of fascinating literary and cultural associations: James Joyce lived here during and after World War I, and the café on the quay where he used to hold forth looks as if he might walk in at any moment.



Naples reminds me of Lisbon—a fortified port city, shabby, picturesque, and full of life. Here our Central American problems—as indeed our views on SALT, nuclear testing, South Africa, etc.—lie with the local press, which is intermittently under the control of militants of the Italian Communist party. However, according to what one of our few friends in the media here tells me, the real damage is done by the Washington Post, whose articles are reprinted verbatim by the Neapolitan papers. When I suggest perhaps a bit too facetiously that no one in Washington takes the Post seriously as a newspaper (we all turn first to the “Style” section to read the gossip, and after that, to the ads, comics, and sports, relying for real news on the New York Times), he remarks, “That’s all very well in Washington; you have a context in which to place things, and an alternative source of information. Here things are different.”



Paris-Grenôble-Lyon-Lille, May 11-17

France is the only really serious country in Europe, if by serious one means having the capacity to address major political questions head-on; unlike the Germanic and Nordic countries, French political culture is concerned with outcomes, not just intentions. Further, it is the only country in Europe with what might be called a “libertarian Left”—a serious, anti-Communist socialism, which for a visitor from the intellectual provinces of the United States takes some getting used to. Finally, because of their own colonial past, the French have far fewer illusions about the Third World; also, of late they have become very unsentimental about terrorism.

My hotel in Paris is around the corner from an 18th-century building which houses both the Navy and Finance Ministries; the block is acrawl with policemen in flak jackets leading sniffing German shepherds around. When the French Interior Ministry decides you are a suspicious foreigner, out you go—no civil-liberties union, no bleeding hearts, no sanctuary movement, no nothing. Whether we would wish to copy such practices is beside the point. Taken together, they bespeak a state of mind which makes France a much less propitious breeding ground for Sandinista sympathizers than other European countries.

This is not to say that there is any active support for our policies toward Nicaragua, merely that they are accepted by large sectors of the French political community as an inevitable consequence of certain geopolitical realities. When I explain to some people at the French Socialist party that the real issue in the United States is not what kind of role we should play in Central America, but whether we have a role to play there at all, the response is frank disbelief. “What nonsense!” one of my hosts bursts out. “You can’t withdraw from there; it’s your sphere of influence. You have vital security interests there!” After I catch my breath I say, “Well, you have to come to Paris to hear that kind of talk nowadays, and then to make sure you hear it, you’d best head straight to the French Socialist party headquarters!”

I was last in France in 1968. It is a different country today: more stable, more prosperous, more self-confident, and therefore more tolerant of foreigners. The real key to the country’s current state of mind seems to me to be its emancipation from the bugaboo of Western culture—self-hatred. My description of the political-intellectual situation in the United States to a French friend who’s never been there draws the remarkable response, “My God, it sounds just like West Germany.” Have I overstated my case? I can only hope so.

Of course, the hard Left still exists here, albeit in diminished numbers and intellectual force. You can still see it in places like the Maison de l’Amérique Latine, where I have the dubious pleasure of participating in a two-day conference on Nicaragua (“une solution démocratique et pacifique”). Though the conference organizer, Jean Elleinstein, is supposed to be a repentant ex-Communist, no one else seems to be an ex-anything. The audience is the usual mixture of professional Latin American expatriates (some of whose countries have, unfortunately, recently reverted to democracy, in the act heartlessly depriving them of the consecrated status of “refugee”), UN bureaucrats, renegade Catholic priests in turtleneck sweaters, and intellectualoids of various sizes and shapes.

A panel on “Human Rights in Nicaragua” is allowed to run more than an hour overtime; thus my own contribution, which follows at the end of the day, is delivered to a largely empty hall. (Elleinstein has quit the place, and left one of his assistants to chair this final part of the meeting.) The previous panel has established that there is no human-rights problem in Nicaragua, though José Estéban González, the founder of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Commission, now living in European exile, rises to question the finding with a wealth of facts and figures. Both panel and audience are wholly unmoved; he might as well have been speaking in Bulgarian.

My most vociferous questioners are American expatriates, proving to their French and Latin American friends that in spite of their shameful place of birth, they have somehow managed to rise above it all. This is an invitation to return the compliment with no holds barred, and by the end of the session I am actually enjoying myself. But then, as I have been learning on this trip, compared with the loony grandmothers in the U.S. who have discovered Central America “down at our church,” the Sandinista supporters in Europe are a piece of cake.



Vienna, May 17-19

There is only one topic dominating U.S.-Austrian relations these days, and it isn’t Central America. The decision of the Justice Department to refuse entry to President Kurt Waldheim has infuriated everybody, and plunged our embassy people into a deep, dark funk. Of course, the irony of it all is that if the Austrians themselves hadn’t insisted on our giving Waldheim a clean bill of health, we could have slipped the whole matter under the rug and pretended the Holtzman amendment didn’t exist. As it is, by forcing us to confrontation, they got the worst of both worlds—and so have we.

Waldheim is, of course, a most unappetizing character and by lying about his wartime record, he laid himself open to an exquisite revenge by his enemies. However, one can take little comfort from his comeuppance, since his People’s party is much friendlier to the United States than the Socialists, or rather was, as one of its members of parliament emphasizes to me. So, we’ve punished our traditional allies and, in effect if not intent, rushed to embrace their opponents, whose notion of neutralism is more or less proximate to that of the Swedes. The People’s party only recently forced the Socialists to split their aid to Nicaragua into five pieces, apportioning it equally among the Central American countries. Now it’s unclear what will happen.



Zurich-Bern-Geneva, May 20-24

Until recently, Switzerland was known as a neutral country, in the value-free sense of that term. Now some Swiss have discovered the pleasures of having an enemy in the United States (which never hits back) rather than, say, in Germany or the Soviet Union (which just might). This makes it possible to luxuriate in new forms of political expression, such as solidarity with Nicaragua (whose dictatorial aspects can be described as a mere reaction to U.S. aggression) and indignation at El Salvador (whose human-rights violations are said to be glossed over, or even supported, by the Reagan administration). Such posturings have their uses, particularly to distract attention from new and embarrassing revelations of Swiss involvement in other parts of the world. (It was not, after all, Belgian banks which acted as intermediaries for the alleged activities of Colonel North in the Iran-contra affair.)

At the same time, support for Nicaragua allows an outlet for that current of Swiss political culture which seeks to be part of “Europe,” which is to say, the Europe of the Socialist International. Two Swiss development workers have recently been killed in Nicaragua, presumably by the contras, a traumatic event in a country which has not heard a shot fired in anger in many, many generations. It has provoked, naturally, prolonged and sometimes heated exchanges between our embassy, on the one hand, and the unions, churches, and the Foreign Ministry on the other. Switzerland gives economic aid to Nicaragua, almost to the exclusion of other Central American countries—a most unneutral thing to do, one would think, unless one regards these matters as totally outside the realm of East-West relations, or even of broader political values. A senior official of the Foreign Ministry who has just returned from Central America is pessimistic about the Sandinistas; he depicts the Ortega brothers as committed to the militarization of the country (“never mind whether or not the people starve”), but is quite vague as to what policy responses are appropriate. My guess is that aid to Nicaragua will probably be increased next year.

Switzerland is odd in that it is highly cosmopolitan and remarkably provincial, all at the same time. At a dinner for journalists at the embassy residence one hears notions positively quaint in their antiquity (the need for the U.S. to abandon le grand bâton in Central America; the need to be concerned about democracy in other Latin American countries, not just or even especially in Nicaragua; the need to emphasize economic as opposed to military aid, etc., etc.). These people are not stupid, and they are not ignorant. But at a certain point one begins to find it difficult to take some of them seriously. Here criticism of our Central American policy appears to be a shell game played for the sheer amusement of it, and if that bothers us, so much the better.



Stockholm, May 25-27

This stunningly beautiful city is the capital of bad news. Last year Sweden gave Nicaragua $25 million in aid, making that Central American country one of its most important welfare clients. This should neither surprise nor shock, since, after all, Sweden is still giving enormous amounts to Vietnam. The Swedes built a paper factory for Hanoi. In spite of the fact that it uses slave labor the enterprise still loses vast sums. The Swedes have poured literally millions, perhaps even billions, down this rat-hole. They recently expressed some vague unhappiness with the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, and as a sign of their displeasure announced they would give aid for only two years more. The Vietnamese appear unworried. Perhaps they know something the Swedes do not.

All of this has a simple explanation. Swedish politicians like to discover and “adopt” Third World revolutions—Olof Palme found Vietnam, and Pierre Schiori, the current Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office, has taken Nicaragua under his wing. When their protégés turn out badly, the Swedes continue to fund them anyway, out of arrogance and false pride, as well as a certain pathological hatred of the United States. The latter seems to occupy a disproportionate role as an organizing principle in the sorting out of priorities; why else would Vietnam and Nicaragua be so heavily favored, when there are so many other, presumably worthy, candidates for Swedish munificence? South Africa, however, is also a huge bugaboo. Much money goes to the so-called “front-line states,” corrupt Marxist dictatorships like Mozambique and Angola, or just plain corrupt dictatorships like Zimbabwe and Zambia. When I ask a member of parliament whether, in his view, such countries have good development projects which justify such preferential treatment, he replies without hesitation, “Oh no, not at all. We just do it for political reasons.”

Basically Sweden could be described as a First World country in most important respects, and certainly as far as Europe is concerned, Sweden operates on the assumption that its interests lie within the broad political community we call NATO. The Swedes even imagine that, neutral or not, if the Soviets try anything funny, the U.S. will come to their aid. This view, explained to me on my first night by members of our embassy staff, leaves me frankly breathless.

Meanwhile, in the Third World the Swedes are following a Soviet-bloc policy, in effect if not in specific intent. That is, they favor Communism in Central America, and they prove it by aiding not only the Sandinistas but the Salvadoran guerrillas. If they do not perceive our displeasure with this in sufficient degree, it is certainly our fault, not theirs; we haven’t yet made it expensive enough in Volvos and Electrolux vacuum cleaners. On the basis of a brief chat with our ambassador, I gather nothing of the sort is in prospect. Quite the contrary: for the first time in more than twenty-five years, a Swedish Prime Minister is set to visit Washington, and—another feather in the envoy’s cap—Mrs. Reagan is due here in a couple of weeks.

One might well ask, why are the Swedes so anti-American? After all, unlike the British, they haven’t been displaced in recent memory from great-power status and cultural hegemony within their language area; and unlike the Germans, they do not have to tolerate more than a quarter of a million American soldiers and their families in their midst, who thereby prevent them from reunifying with their brethren in the East and living peacefully ever after. The answer would seem to be this: Sweden and the United States comprise opposite poles of the continuum of Western utopias. Both have managed to combine a high standard of living with political democracy and pluralism, with the U.S. representing the individualist end of the continuum, Sweden its collectivist antipode. The problem is that in consumer preferences and styles of life, most younger Swedes are less and less drawn to their own traditions; the U.S. pole is a stronger one in many ways, and intellectuals and Social Democratic politicians feel the need to resist it in any way they can.

Put another way, the United States is a permanent temptation against which Swedish leaders must protect their people. In the 1940’s Gunnar Myrdal discovered our racial problem; in the 1960’s Olof Palme discovered Vietnam; now they have Nicaragua to play with. Presumably in a Biden administration there would be something else—one hopes so, for the Swedes’ sake.

Of course, there is nothing the Swedes could have done to prevent us from passing the Civil Rights Act, or, for that matter, from withdrawing from Vietnam, but in Central America they have a concrete opportunity to add fat to the fire, and within the boundaries of their deepest politico-cultural needs they would be rather silly not to do so.



Concluding Notes

Though the Europeans can pretend the Third World is far away, it is becoming less so every day. Of course, in France the African, North African, and Asian presence has always been great, but now societies which until yesterday were racially homogeneous have begun to harbor significant minorities. The woman who cleans my hotel room in Vienna is clearly Indochinese, and all the newspaper vendors are Indians or Pakistanis. There are 10,000 Tamils in Switzerland—causing no small amount of anxiety among the Swiss, since each one has many relatives at home who would also like to live there, and in fact plan to do so at the earliest opportunity. Even Sweden is now the home of thousands of Chileans, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, and others. Not all of these coexist in perfect cordiality; Stockholm has, in fact, become the site of some ugly confrontations along sectarian lines. Quite recently a street confrontation between pro-and anti-Khomeni Iranians has erupted into violence, with each side throwing paper bags of human excrement at the other. Unfortunately Gunnar Myrdal is no longer alive to provide us with the fullest possible documentation of this very interesting phenomenon.

It is not difficult to see what attracts these people to Western Europe—it is orderly and prosperous, with a style of life which has many refinements unavailable elsewhere, certainly not in the “developing” countries from which the immigrants have come. In the 19th century people like Henry James felt as drawn to Europe as Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans do today, but a hundred years later he might view matters from a slightly different perspective. The countries of Central and Northern Europe have become what might be called societies of predetermined outcome. That is, a concrete decision was made a generation or more ago to level economic differences and guarantee that there would be no poverty and little real wealth.

This has brought about a remarkable state of affairs, where the really important question facing most Europeans at this season of the year is where to spend their four weeks of paid vacation (six weeks in Sweden)—in Spain, Italy, Greece, or the United States, or even in the Seychelles, Cuba, or Tahiti. Such is the final destiny, then, of the peoples who produced Strindberg and Sibelius, Mozart and Haydn, Jacob Burkhardt and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Only the French are capable of looking up from their immediate environment and seeing the world as an interrelated whole.

I do not mean to be condescending or negative. There are good and ample reasons to celebrate this consummation; the entire modern history of many countries was one long class war. The walls of the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, one of the first public-housing projects in Europe, are still disfigured by mortar shells expended in the civil war-cum-coup of 1934, which brought to an end the first Social Democratic period of Austrian politics. The sight reminds me that this placid republic was once as unstable, or at least as politically problematic, as some Latin American countries are today. For all I know the decision to create static societies at a high level of relative egalitarian distribution was the right one, particularly since the United States seems so anxious to assume responsibility for their defense and security. (I leave aside the whole question of whether the juggling act of egalitarian distribution and high productivity can continue indefinitely; most economists now believe that it cannot, and that difficult choices lie not far ahead.)

But in such societies there is no place for two kinds of people—the idealist and the go-getter. Now, in the United States, when you feel in a guilty mood and want to have a good cry, you can start talking about the homeless, or the shamefully small number of Asian-American women who have been selected to be astronauts. But what do you do in Switzerland? One person sprayed onto the wall of the Cathedral in Bern, liberty for political prisoners in switzerland: a perfect example of what might be called Repression Envy. All of the great battles for social equality have been won here, and those who feel called upon to right the wrongs of society must either pretend they still exist, or go abroad to look for them—picking cotton and coffee in Nicaragua, or working in one of the “development” agencies busily undermining the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa. As for the go-getters, in Austria and German Switzerland they flee to West Germany, everywhere else to the United States.

Indeed, one senses that Europe needs the United States very badly—not merely for defense, and for someone to blame for the loss of cultural and international predominance, but also as a final escape hatch in case things turn out badly at home. If there is one thing Europeans fear more than U.S. hegemony it is the opposite—the lack of U.S. interest and involvement in European affairs. For too many people, the whole Nicaragua question—whether the Sandinistas are good or bad, or whether they are bad because they are bad or because we are making them bad—is merely symbolic, and lacks all substance. Central America is seen as an undesirable distraction, unworthy of our attention, which should, in their view, be focused exactly where theirs is—on themselves.




1 See “How La Prensa Was Silenced,” by Jaime Chamorro, in the January 1987 COMMENTARY—Ed.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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