In the 1980s Nicaragua, a poor Central American country, became the focus of Cold War politics. Like Chile in 1973, a Marxist government was in our hemisphere, and our leaders wanted to overthrow it by supporting a group called the Contras who shared our ideology. Unfortunately they were among the worst human rights abusers on the planet. Can we ignore human rights abuses in the name of being on the right side of Cold War ideology?
Around 1985 I got really fired up for the first time about a political issue. The issue was whether Congress was going to appropriate money to this group of essentially terrorists who were trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
It all started with the revolution in 1979 when the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were, dare I say it, oh no --- socialists, or even worse communists. Our right wing government led by Reagan was intent on getting rid of the Sandinistas by any means necessary.- just as they had with Salvadore Alliende's Chili in 1973. Aiding the Contras became the way for the administration to accomplish their goals without sending American soldiers. So money was funneled covertly through the CIA to the Nicaraguan Contras. But when Congress found out, they banned the covert funding and Reagan had to go to Congress and overtly ask for funding.
A Human Rights Watch report found that
The Contras were guilty of targeting health care clinics and health care workers for assassination; kidnapping civilians; torturing and executing civilians, including children, who were captured in combat; raping women; indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian homes; seizing civilian property; and burning civilian houses in captured towns.
The Contras turned out to be a disorganized untrained band of losers who never succeeded in taking any territory inside Nicaragua. However, there were many documented cases of the Contras killing, maiming, or torturing innocent people. But it mattered not to the administration, whose anti-communist cold war ideology trumped all other considerations. They manipulated the public by referring to the Contras as "freedom fighters" and conjuring up images of the Soviet Union having a foothold in our own back yard. Pretty soon every country south of Texas would be Communist red if we don't send aid to the Contras.
This was the first time in my adult life I'd seen a government completely try to manipulate public opinion by using Communist fear mongering. To me, it was a case of right and wrong, good and evil. It's not our business to be overthrowing governments just because we don't like their politics. But especially not with a band of terrorists who are conveniently renamed "freedom fighters" but turn out to be most repugnant to our American values.
Aid to the contras in 1985 and 1986 had its twists and turns. I think the sequence went like this:
Congress says no the $14 million for the Contras
Ortega visits New York and gets expensive new glasses.
Ortega goes to Moscow to beg for aid from his friends, the evil empire
Congress approves $27 million for the Contras, because Ortega went to Moscow
Iran/Contra gets exposed. Oops, now the people know they traded arms for hostages to Iran, and diverted the proceeds of the arms sale to the Contras. You can't make this stuff up. More later -
Nicaragua did get rid of the Sandinistas - by having an opposition candidate win an election. What a concept! And the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later made the Nicaragua story seem so foolish - that we should fear a tiny little country of peasants who are desperately poor just because their political ideology is different from ours.