U.S. Foreign Policy
January 16, 2007
U.S. Foreign Policy and Nicaragua
Since its inception, the United States government has always practiced a foreign policy agenda which promotes the ideology of democracy and freedom for all people throughout the world. Whether is was supporting the French Revolutionaries, aiding the Chinese against a Japanese invasion or helping to defeat Nazi Germany, the notion that all people are inherently free has been the underlying theme for any U.S. involvement in international affairs. During the 1980’s, President Reagan expanded upon this agenda by openly supporting freedom fighters who were opposing Soviet Aggression in their own country. This foreign policy doctrine was different and far more expansive than any previous administration and was most evident in Nicaragua during the Sandinista regime. Rather than using U.S. Military, the Reagan Administration used the CIA to help train and support the Contras counter-revolution of the Sandinista Government. This new doctrine would place the U.S. Government in a precarious position both domestically and internationally and the ramifications of covertly expanding democracy are still being felt today. What other alternatives could the Reagan Administration have pursued against the Sandinista government? What motivated the U.S. response and its ultimate course of action? Did the U.S. achieve its objective in Nicaragua? By studying the chain of events which lead to the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, I will try to answer these questions and show whether or not the Reagan Doctrine in U.S. foreign policy was an effective means to promote democracy throughout the world.
Nicaragua is the largest republic in Central America being bordered on the north by Honduras and on the south by Costa Rica. It was colonized by Spain in 1524 and achieved independence in 1821 by joining the United Provinces of Central America. Nicaragua separated from the federation in 1838 and became a completely sovereign republic in 1854 (Wikipedia, 2004). Most of the nation’s history during the 20th century was heavily influenced by U.S. military interventions and tainted by extended periods of military dictatorship with the most notorious being the reign of the Somoza family from 1936 to 1979. The U.S. government supported the Somoza family’s rule and offered both military and financial aid when ever needed. This support was largely due to the increasing spread of Communist/Marxist ideology throughout Europe. The U.S. government did not want a communist run state in any part of the Americas, whether it is in the North, South or Central regions. But in 1959, the pro-Marxist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro ousted President Batista and thus, Cuba became the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to adopt communism as its Governments political framework (Wikipedia, 2004). This became the first in a series of events which lead to the revolution in Nicaragua and subsequent overthrow of the Somoza government by the Sandinistas.
Inspired and supported by the Cubans, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front) was formally organized on July 23, 1961 by Carlos Fonseca Amador, Tomais Borge Martinez and Silvio Mayorga (Wikipedia, 2004). The FSLN was ineffective at organizing guerilla warfare against the Somoza government during the 1960’s. Not until the 1970’s did the Sandinistas begin to obtain a significant amount of from the peasantry and other areas of the country’s population (Wikipedia, 2004). This was directly in response to the increasing brutality and corruption of the Somoza dictatorship which was overtly accented by the embezzlement of international aid that flowed into Nicaragua after the devastating earthquake which leveled the capital city of Managua on December 23, 1972. This blatant crookedness caused even the business leaders, who had previously supported his regime, to turn against Anastasio Somoza and call for his overthrow (Wikipedia, 2004). The assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who edited the anti-Somoza newspaper La Presna, on January 10, 1978, caused a wide range of uprising against the dictator with the Sandinistas leading a variety of strikes, attacks and skirmishes which steadily demoralized the National Guard of Nicaragua. After 18 months of turmoil and battles, Somoza’s army finally disbanded and Anastasio fled the country to Miami, Florida. He was eventually assassinated in the following year in Paraguay. On July 19, 1979, the Sandinistas entered the capital of Managua and were greeted by throngs of people as national liberators. The Sandinistas reflected a vast range of opinions from revolutionary Marxism to Christian liberation theology and in the eyes of the U.S. government this constituted the establishment of another communistic state in the Americas (Wikipedia, 2004).
Initially the Sandinista regime tried to be a establish a social democracy by creating a Junta of National Reconstruction comprised of five members – Sandinista militants Daniel Ortega and Moises Hassan, novelist Sergio Ramirez Mercado, businessman Alfonso Rebelo Callejas, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. The vast majority of the power still remained with the Sandinistas. By 1980 however, conflicts began to arise between the Sandinistas and the non-Sandinista members of the governing junta (Wikipedia, 2004). Allegations began to spread that the Ortega faction was planning to turn Nicaragua into a Communist state like Cuba. This split caused the insurgence of the Contras against the newly formed government to begin. The U.S. government seized this as its opportunity to support the Contras both financially and through CIA training camps to teach guerilla warfare tactics in a civil war or counter revolution against the Sandinistas.
The fear of the spread of communism the United States had was due in large part to the Soviet policy doctrine introduced by Leonid Brezhnev in a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish Workers’ Party on November 13, 1968, which stated:
“When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”
Brezhnev used this to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but it could be interpreted in a broader sense to mean the Soviet Union would also aid and support any country trying to adopt socialism as well. Soon after assuming office, President Reagan began to actively pursue a foreign policy aimed at undermining and stopping the aggression of the Soviets and he publicly explained this in his February 1985 State of the Union Address in which he stated:
“We must not break with those who are risking their lives…on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua… to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”
The Reagan Doctrine was in a sense a response to the Brezhnev Doctrine of the Soviet Union and also aimed to justify American support of the Contras in Nicaragua, who had been waging a civil war against the Sandinista government since forming in 1980 in Honduras (Wikipedia, 2004). The idea of communist doctrine spreading and being supported throughout the world has long been held by the leaders of the Soviet Union. Stalin was the first to officially promote this doctrine and it is actually one of the stages of Communism as described by Karl Marx in his work The Communist Manifesto. Communism was borne out of the corruption of capitalism and industrialization during the 1800’s, thus it was in response to the abusive governments and horrible working conditions of that century.
The Contras (Spanish contrarevolucionario, “counter-revolutionary”) were the armed opponents of the Sandinista government. Eventually they formed three fronts, in the north from Honduras, in the south from Costa Rica and from Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastline. Key to the development and strength of the Contras was the United States once Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981. President Reagan accused the Sandinistas of collusion with Cuba in support of socialism and also helping leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. On November 23, 1981, Reagan signed the National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), a top secret document giving the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) the authority to recruit and support the Contras with $19 million in military aid (Draper, 1991). CIA operatives began financing, arming and training the Contras to launch raids into Nicaragua in order to engage a campaign of economic sabotage to destabilize the Sandinista government. The Sandinistas condemned the Contras as terrorist and because of their attacks on civilians; many human rights organizations also condemned their activities (Draper, 1991). In 1982, the U.S. Congress pressured the State Department to declare the Contras as terrorists and in 1983, all federal funding of the Contras was prohibited. The Reagan Administration continued to back the Contras by covertly selling arms to Iran and funneling the proceeds to the Contras – The Iran-Contra Affair (Walsh, 1997). Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan remained opposed to the Sandinistas and continued to support the Contras, even refusing to aid Nicaragua after it was devastated by hurricane Joan in 1988. On February 26, 1990, Nicaragua held its second national election since the 1979 revolution, and this time the Sandinistas lost to the United Nicaraguan Opposition. The UNO’s candidate, Violeta Barrios De Chamorro, replaced Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua and the country became a constitutional republic with a unicameral legislative body called the National Assembly. So, ultimately Nicaragua became a democracy and was turned from socialism.
In reviewing the U.S. strategy of CIA involvement in Nicaragua, it is also necessary to explore other possible solutions the United States could have undertaken against the Sandinista government. The U.S. could have sent its military to invade Nicaragua and forcibly remove the Sandinistas, which the United States did launch a military attack on the island of Grenada after a its government was taken over by Cuban backed rebels in October 1983. But in 1981, Reagan was new to the presidency and the country itself was still recovering from a long, protracted and unsuccessful war in Vietnam. Invading Nicaragua was not something politically feasible for the Reagan Administration, neither Congress nor the U.S. population would have supported it. Diplomatically, the U.S. could and did cut off all aid and support to Nicaragua, but the Sandinista government turned to Cuba and the Soviet Union for help. Turning to the United Nations for support was another option not pursued by the United States because the Reagan Administration did not want to rely on the U.N. for any acceptance or support. This was due to the political climate at the time in the U.S., its ideology being opposed socialism and the U.S. Constitution not allowing for foreign sovereignty over its own military. One could argue that if the U.S. government had just left Nicaragua alone, the outcome of the country would have been the same. However this assumption may not be correct since most Nicaraguans voted out the Sandinistas in 1990 in hopes of ending the civil war, if the Contras would not have been able to sustain their opposition to the Sandinistas without the support of the U.S. government. Thus it seems that the U.S. government used the best option possible for the time. But what have been the ramifications of this doctrine of U.S. support for “freedom fighters”? Has this foreign policy contributed to the current international problems the United States is facing?
The use of the CIA to train the Contras in Nicaragua was expanded to the U.S. Government sending CIA operatives to Afghanistan to train and help the Mujahadeen and in Angola to support the Jonas Savinbi’s Unita movement (Wikipedia, 2004). In the wake of the CIA leaving Afghanistan and deserting the Mujahadeen, an obscure Arab named Osama Bin Laden began seeking reprisals against the U.S. for its “medaling” in other countries. One could conclude that if the U.S. had not supported the Afghan rebels and then surreptitiously abandoned them, maybe “911” would have never happened. Or if the U.S. mission in Somalia had not turned from being a peace keeping mission to one of aggression against a ruthless war lord, we would have never seen footage of dead U.S. marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. One could even argue that if the Reagan Administration had not continued supporting the Contras covertly through the sale of arms the Iran that the 1991 Gulf War would not have transpired. In essence, the political fall out the United States is experiencing internationally from the Reagan era foreign policy doctrine is still being felt today. The United States has gone from being one of the most admired nations, a distinction it held at the end of World War II, to being the most hated nation in the world. What happened domestically in the United States because of its foreign policy agendas throughout the world is also reverberating in its citizens. Less than 30 years ago, U.S. citizens could travel the globe and confidently state they were Americans, now they keep a low profile when traveling outside the United States or do not go beyond their countries borders.
The domestic climate in the United States at the beginning of the 1980’s was one where the public was not willing to tolerate any military action any where due to the horrific consequences for the Vietnam War. The citizens did not want so see any more “flag draped” coffins, nor fight any more wars for other countries. Unfortunately, the United States is a leader in the world stage and as such has a responsibility to the citizens of the globe. This placed the U.S. government in a constant “Catch 22” with its own citizens and with the citizens of other countries. On the one hand, the U.S. government was seeking to protect itself and citizens from global domination by the Soviets even though Americans were truly not aware or believed Communism to be a threat to their way of life. The citizens sympathetic to the plight of the insurgents wanted the U.S. to intervene just as much as he opposing citizens did not want the foreign support of their adversaries. But things began to change in the minds of the U.S. citizens after the military invasion of Grenada and the intervention as seemed necessary because of U.S. medical students were living in Grenada while studying there. The Reagan Administration showed the public that the U.S. government could win a war and do so quickly and with little loss of life. Then in 1991, the G. H. W. Bush Administration proved to the world that the U.S. could win a war on foreign soil and decisively so. Suddenly, the U.S. citizens were again for global military intervention when needed. The biggest ramification of the Reagan Doctrine was the emerging evidence of the Iran-Contra Affair and just how far the Executive branch was willing to go to protect National Security. The political implications of one of the branches of the U.S. government going around the two in order to sustain their own foreign policy agenda could have destroyed the country itself. This tore at the very fabric of the U.S. Constitution itself and placed the Executive branch of the government on the path to dictatorship. It was fortunate that one of the underlying reasons for the Reagan Administrations foreign policy agenda was to preserve the United States and support democracy every where. If it had been to launch a take over of the U.S. by one of its own branches, things would be very different in the United States today.
Ultimately, the goal of the U.S. in Nicaragua was achieved, the Sandinista regime was defeated and it even happened democratically. There were other political options the U.S. government could have taken, but given the time frame and the anti-war climate of its citizens, none of them were really feasible. In the end, involving the CIA in the Nicaraguan Contra war may not have been the best of all solutions but it worked and stopped socialism from through Central America. Certainly the international issues facing the United States, especially its perception of being a “big bully” flexing its muscle when ever and where ever can be attributed to the events of the 1980’s. Mistakes made in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and other countries are still being felt by the U.S., both internationally and domestically, to this day. There will always be two sides to every issue and more than a number of ways to resolve it and most people will not like the support or intervention by any foreign power, especially the United States. If hind site could be used to decide current policies and the solutions a government decides to respond with, it would be easy for any country to determine what course of action it should take when supporting one side of a civil war being waged in another country. But one can never go back and change the decision once it was made, whether the resolution was good or bad. A government can stop the course it has taken in its decision by changing direction or stopping its actions all together. This is exactly the course that the Reagan Administration chose when it ended its covert funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. And yet because of the power and presence the U.S. has across the globe, it can not just stop helping and supporting countries whose leaders or insurgents request their aid. Until people can stop feuding and try to live with one another, some one will always need to step in and help. Does that make it all right for the intervening country to do this? Maybe not, but goes to the heart of every human to try and help other humans when asked.