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ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. The clock is ticking away what may be the last hours of calm for a long time in Nicaragua tonight. At midnight the deadline set by opponents of President Anastasio Somoza for his resignation expires. After that time, political opponents in the Sandinista guerrillas say they will pull out of mediation efforts led by the United States. The alternative is a renewal of the civil war in which 3,000 civilians died in September. Fearing that, hundreds of Nicaraguans have been fleeing the country. An investigating commission appointed by the Organization of American States has charged the Somoza forces with widespread atrocities in that fighting, including indiscriminate bombing of civilians and mass executions and torture. The Somoza government has countered with atrocity charges against the guerrillas. Somoza, whose family has ruled the Central American state for thirty years, vowed again on Sunday to stay in power until his elected term expires in 1981. He`s offered to hold a plebiscite to test the strength of the opposition; they have rejected any vote unless he resigns. Now, six weeks of mediation efforts by the U.S. and other interested countries appear to have failed. Tonight, what next for Nicaragua, and what next for Washington? Will President Carter let the Nicaraguans fight it out, or intervene more forcefully against Somoza? Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, first to that "what next for Nicaragua" question and to people on both sides who flew up to Washington especially to be on this program tonight. From the opposition, Ramiro Cardenal, a Nicaraguan businessman living in exile in Costa Rica since September, a member of what is known as the Broad Opposition Front, one of the main groups which set the midnight deadline tonight for General Somoza to get out of power and out of the country. Mr. Cardenal, assuming General Somoza is still the president of Nicaragua at midnight tonight, what happens next, and when does it happen?
RAMIRO CARDENAL: It`s terrible that all our hopes we had on the mediation process are going down the drain because of the stubbornness of one man; that frankly is a tremendous responsibility, and we make Somoza responsible for what can happen afterwards.
LEHRER: Okay. What can happen and what will happen?
CARDENAL: The phantom of war is growing every minute. We have (unintelligible) our civilian parties, political parties that we will keep fighting that way. On the other hand, there are the Sandinista army, which will keep fighting the way they fight in September.
LEHRER: So what is the connection between your political groups and the Sandinista guerrillas?
CARDENAL: This is, frankly, a unique thing that is happening in Nicaragua, and in Latin America also; it`s a symbiosis that is a natural symbiosis. We don`t have any written agreements, we don`t have any statements, we don`t have any compromises. Somoza is so hated in Nicaragua that...
LEHRER: He`s the unifying force.In a word, sitting here tonight, does war look inevitable to you, sir?
CARDENAL: Definitely, yes. Unfortunately.
LEHRER: All right. Here to speak for the Somoza government, Max Kelly, the personal assistant to General Somoza, and Major James Thomas of the Nicaraguan National Guard. Mr. Kelly, is General Somoza going to resign and leave the country by midnight?
MAX KELLY: I don`t think so. He has stated that time and time, that he is not going to resign because he is the constitutionally elected president of Nicaragua.
LEHRER: Do you agree with Mr. Cardenal that this could mean war?
KELLY: Well, I don`t agree with him a hundred percent. I mean, they have been making this threat about war, but if they`re going to put on a show like the one they put on in September, I don`t think anything`s going to change.
LEHRER: But do you think people are going to die as a result of the impasse over mediation?
KELLY:No. You have to remember that for eighteen years now we have had the guerrillas in Nicaragua, the Castro-inspired, Castro-trained and Castro- financed guerrillas in Nicaragua for eighteen years now. That`s going to go on, like it`s going on in several Latin American countries.
LEHRER: Major Thomas, let me ask you, is the Nicaraguan National Guard prepared for war?
Major JAMES THOMAS: According to the different attacks that the Nicaraguan Guard have had from the Marxist terrorists, Sandinists, we are prepared for everything, because one of the duties of the Nicaraguan Guard is to prepare and to guarantee the citizens and also for national security.
LEHRER: Mr. Cardenal, is this war, if it in fact comes, going to be a to- the-death-type civil war, or is it going to-be a sporadic guerrilla fighting here and there? How do you see it?
CARDENAL: I wouldn`t call it a civil war; civil war is when two civil opponents clash together militarily. Definitely Nicaragua is not a civil war, it`s an occupation army composed of about 15,000 people for a country of 2,400,000 inhabitants...
LEHRER: And Major Thomas and the National Guard are the occupation forces?
CARDENAL: Definitely, yes. That they are Nicaraguans doesn`t mean that they behave as an invasory force.
LEHRER: Major Thomas?
THOMAS: I would refute that. First he said there are 15,000 members. Well, the National Guard is composed of, at the most, 7,500 members which are engaged in national defense, air force, telecommunications, civic actions,- police duties.
LEHRER: How many troops do the Sandinistas have?
CARDENAL: I don`t know, but I wouldn`t say -- they don`t have very many. But they have the spirit....
LEHRER: Mr. Kelly, let me ask you, is General Somoza determined at this point -- you just left Managua today -- is he determined to fight a counteroffensive -- I`m trying to phrase this correctly -- a counteroffensive to the death? In other words, is he prepared for an all- out war at this stage of the game?
KELLY: A country and the armed forces of a country are always prepared for that, if the case presents itself. I don`t know what you mean by an "all- out war to the death".... Would you qualify that?
LEHRER: Well, let me put it this way: how many people would have to die before General Somoza might reassess his position on whether or not to stay in power?
KELLY: Well, you will have to ask him. But you have to remember that it`s not only up to him. Remember that what is at stake right now in Nicaragua is not whether Somoza leaves or not; it`s the whole Liberal Party, the existence of the National Guard. Everybody is fighting for what they`re going to lose if these Sandinistas do start a war.
LEHRER: Let me ask each one of you very quickly; you, Mr. Cardenal, then you, Mr. Kelly: the proposal that the United States- made to try to avert what may happen, which is war, was that there be a plebiscite that be supervised by the OAS and that General Somoza agree to resign if he gets less than fifty percent-of the vote. Both sides apparently have rejected that. Why has your side rejected that, Mr. Cardenal?
CARDENAL: Well, first of all, the proposal was never made officially. Second....
LEHRER: Would you agree to it had it been?
CARDENAL: No. And the only reason is-because Somoza, after killing his own people as he did in September, has no moral right to go to a plebiscite.
LEHRER: Mr. Kelly, why would General Somoza not agree to this compromise?
KELLY: Well, General Somoza made a proposal to go to a plebiscite. Now the opposition has rejected it. The Washington Post this morning even called that proposal phony.
LEHRER: I`m talking specifically about...
KELLY: I know, I know. But the point is this: the opposition has not accepted the plebiscite no matter what way it is phrased. What they are afraid of is they are afraid of facing a plebiscite.
LEHRER: Why would General Somoza not agree to this U.S. proposal?
KELLY:Basically because what they are discussing is not his personal position but the presidency of Nicaragua. He cannot put the presidebcy of Nicaragua on a plebiscite. That`s not constitutional.
LEHRER: All right; gentlemen, we`ll be back. Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: The question of whether there`s going to be more fighting raises fears of a renewal of the ferocity of the fighting that took place in September, and that raises the question of alleged atrocities. The State Department said today it stands behind the weekend report of the Inter- American Human Rights Commission, and added that the report required prompt action by the Organization of American States. Tom Farer, professor of law at Rutgers University, was vice president of the commission, which conducted a nine-day on-the-spot investigation in Nicaragua last month. Mr. Farer, what did your commission find had happened in September?
TOM FABER: We didn`t look only at the situation that occurred during the fighting, Robin. In fact, in our chapter on the right to life we divided it into deaths before the fighting, deaths during the fighting and deaths subsequent to the fighting.
MacNEIL: Let`s take them one at a time.
FABER: All right; well, we can take them all together, in fact, because what we found was that there were massive, gross violations of the right to life; that there were massacres of innocent persons, cold-blooded killing of unarmed men, women and children; that this occurred in the fall, particularly during the conflict, and after in the so-called cleanup operation; and that some killings occurred even while we were there. As far as the right to life is concerned, this was our conclusion.
MacNEIL: Do you have any estimate -- it`s said that 3,000 civilians died in September -- of how many of those died as a result of the kinds of actions you`re talking about and not as incidental victims of legitimate fighting?
FABER: It`s very hard to say with any precision, but I would say the overwhelming number. A great majority of the deaths, as far as we could tell -- however many there were, and there were a very large number -- the great majority occurred in one of two ways. One way was during the aerial assault on the towns, particularly Leon and Esteli; and we found as a fact that not only were the people not allowed to evacuate their homes before the assault in the different barrios of the towns, but in fact they were told by loudspeakers coming from the planes to remain in their houses. And they went into their houses, remained in their houses, and then the houses were strafed, rocketed and bombed. So that was one of the ways in which a very large number of casualties occurred; that`s clearly a violation of the laws of war as well as humanitarian law. The other way was the simple rounding up of people, particularly youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, who happened to have lived in any of the areas where fighting occurred, and they were simply shot down.
MacNEIL: Does President Somoza have effective control of the country, insofar as you can judge?
FABER: I`m not entirely sure what you mean by "effective control". If you mean military control, that it was relatively quiet while we were there, yes. I should add that several of the towns that we visited -- really cities by Nicaraguan standards -- seemed to be enormously depopulated. One did have the impression that very large numbers of people, at least in relationship to the number of houses, were not there, must have gone into the hills or across the border or moved to other cities, whenever it was.
MaCNEIL: What do you think of the way the United States has handled the Nicaragua situation up till now?
FARER: Well, this is a very difficult question for me to speak about. The commission has only one function: to go and find the facts. The United States is one of those countries which voted in favor of a request to the commission that we accelerate our plans to visit Nicaragua. We had plans to visit Nicaragua prior to the September conflict. We`ve gone, we`ve looked at the situation, we voted unanimously in support of this appreciation of the situation, and now it`s really up to the member states to decide what is appropriate. I could say this, however, that I`m speaking now only as a professor who has studied the difficulties of holding elections. Let me say first that one of the conclusions in the report relates to elections, to the electoral process in Nicaragua, and we found that there were very serious deficiencies in that process and that they were built in to the process. Now, one of the proposals that has been discussed is of course to have a plebiscite. Speaking from my own experience in studying plebiscites in other areas, not with reference to this particular case, which I can`t comment on, it seems to me that the kind of conditions for a plebiscite which seem to make sense, seem to work in other places are the conditions which were set for the plebiscite in South West Africa, which of course involved a peacekeeping force and the actual conduct of the plebiscite by outside...
MacNEIL: By outside...
FARER: (Unintelligible.)
MacNEIL: In a phrase, how would you personally characterize the behavior of the Somoza government, from your investigation, towards its citizens, in the September fighting and afterwards?
FARER: Well, I`d rather use the language of the report, which is a collective document, where we said that the government of Nicaragua is responsible for serious violations of the right to- life.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Kelly, do you agree with that finding?
KELLY:I don`t agree with it. In fact, I don`t know why Mr. Farer went as a member of that commission. Mr. Farer had prejudged Nicaragua before going down to Nicaragua. Back in March, in an article in the Los Angeles Times, he said that the Nicaraguan National Guard was one of the most vicious in Latin America. He had prejudged Nicaragua and its armed forces before going there. He should have had the moral integrity to disqualify himself from that commission.
LEHRER: Mr. Farer?
FARER:Well, I don`t know whether Mr. Kelly is ignorant or mendacious; I give him the benefit of the doubt in this case....
KELLY: (Laughing.) Thank you.
FARER: There are two things to be said on this: one, that if he had read the article carefully, he would have noted that I said while it had this reputation, I myself did not suggest that I knew the facts be cause of course I didn`t know the facts at that time. But perhaps a more conclusive answer is this:there are seven members of the commission, and they are from such diverse countries as Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, and this was a unanimous report, so I`m hardly expressing the views of a single individual.
LEHRER: All right, let`s go to the specifics. Major, you heard what Mr. Farer said, that there were massacres of innocent people, mass killings of innocent people, women and children included, by your organization, the National Guard. Did that in fact happen?
THOMAS: Mr. Farer talked of bombing, and I can say that bombing did not take place. To begin with, bombing is the dropping of ...
LEHRER: I saw pictures in the newspapers and on television of airplanes flying over and dropping bombs...
THOMAS: Yes, sir. No, they`re not bombs. They`re airplanes. We have light Cessnas, helicopters and old C-47s that are equipped with caliber fifty and caliber thirty machine guns. Now, these machine guns and anti-personnel rockets can be aimed accurately to specific location, especially when the troops going through the city ask for air support in order to dislodge snipers and to destroy barricades which were constructed by the people who were kept hostages in the cities and were forced to construct these barricades.
LEHRER: Major, the point that Mr. Farer was making, in a nutshell, was that 3,000 innocent civilians died in the September fighting, before and since, primarily not as a result of being involved in the combat but just because they happened to be there, as a result of indiscrimiate fire power used by your troops. Is that a fact or not?
THOMAS: That`s not a fact, because Mr. Farer is not right in saying that over 3,000 people have gotten killed. He talked of atrocities committed by the National Guard, and I`ve experienced and I know of cases in which the Marxist Sandinist terrorists have committed atrocities.
LEHRER: Let`s ask Mr. Farer about that, then we have to move on. Mr. Farer, did your commission investigate atrocities committed by the Sandinistas?
FARER: We didn`t have authority to investigate those atrocities, but naturally we did receive any information given to us by the government, by military officers from the guard, as well as private citizens. We received, I think, three specific reports of atrocities, and aside from that there were some generalized statements by members of the guard or of the administration. That was about it.
LEHRER: All right. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes. The events in Nicaragua, the attempts at mediation, and then the publication of this report alleging atrocities have put Washington under growing pressure to jettison President Somoza, once considered a valuable ally against Communism. One man who closely follows U.S. policy. is IIr. Richard Millett, professor of Central American history at Southern Illinois University, and he`s the author of many articles and books on Nicaragua and the Somoza regime. Dr. Millett, the New York Times says today that Washington is faced with the choice of a major political upheaval or forcing Somoza`s departure. Is that the choice you see facing Washington?
RICHARD MILLETT: Well, Washington, of course, may not really have the power to force Somoza`s departure. This is one of their basic dilemmas. The problem is that in some ways we`re a prisoner of our own historical past; that is, that the United States helped create the National Guard which maintains Somoza in power, helped select the father of the current president to command that guard, which began the family dynasty, and therefore we`re seen as responsible for the situation by many Nicaraguans and indeed by people throughout Latin America. But at the same time the era of, at least, direct military intervention has clearly passed in Latin America, at least as far as the current administration is concerned; they are not about to send in the Marines to throw out Somoza, and they have put pressure on him....
MacNEIL: How firmly is Mr.. Carter pushing President Somoza?
MILLETT: I think fairly firmly. They`re certainly trying very hard to get him to agree to a binding plebiscite, and I think there is a fairly genuine feeling that if it was carefully supervised -- which would include supervising the National Guard as well as the polling places; that is, having at least some sort of a military contingent from other countries in to accompany the National Guard, which is also the only police force in the country, to make sure that citizens are not intimidated -I think there`s a clear feeling that if this plebiscite was held Somoza would lose, that would be the end of the dynasty. So pressure this way is clearly pressure to get rid of him.
MacNEIL: You`ve been in touch with various parts of the government in Washington today. Has policy been changing in the last few hours as we approach this deadline?
MILLETT: I don`t think it`s changed in the last few hours; it`s clearly changed in the last few weeks. They had considerable hopes on the mediation effort, hopes which I think I always felt were somewhat unrealistic. I think there was a lack of understanding of how deep the feelings about Somoza were in Nicaragua and the appreciation of how almost irreconcilable the positions are.
MacNEIL: Has this decision been made in principle in Washington, by the President or the State Department or whoever: we`ve got to get rid of Somoza, and we just have to find the diplomatically convenient way to do it. Has that decision been made?
MILLETT: I don`t think so, because again I don`t think they really see themselves as being in a position to say that we are responsible for getting rid of the president of Nicaragua or installing anyone else as president of Nicaragua. I think they`re clearly backing off from supporting the regime, but how far they`re willing to go beyond this is still an open question.
MacNEIL: What do you see as Washington`s next move?
MILLETT: I think that depends very much on, first of all, what happens in the next few days; if violence breaks out, this would make -continued efforts of the plebiscite of course meaningless. If violence holds off for a while, I think they`ll continue to try to find some formula on which both sides can agree. Personally, I`m not very hopeful of this, and I think that violence probably will break out before any kind of mediation effort can have any chance to succeed.
MacNEIL: Mr. Kelly, what would President Somoza, if he were here right now, say he would want Mr. Carter to do right now?
KELLY: Well, you`re asking me a tough question, you know. I cannot put myself in General Somoza`s shoes.
MacNEIL: Well, you`re as close to him as anybody, as his personal secretary, and they sent you here to represent him.
KELLY: Well, but that`s quite a personal question, but let me take a shot at it. He has said several times that the solutions to the problems in Nicaragua are to be found in Nicaragua, among the Nicaraguans.
They are not going to be found in the editorial rooms of the big U.S. media, they are not going to be found in the presidential palaces of Venezuela, Panama or Costa Rica. Let us have self-determination. I mean, I don`t care whether it is President Carter, President Carlos Andres Perez, whether it`s Torrijos in Panama or Carazo in Costa Rica.
MacNEIL: To put that briefly, you mean, "President Carter, leave us alone," is that what you`re saying?
KELLY: Well, in a very polite way.
MacNEIL: I see. Mr. Cardenal, what would your opposition movement want Mr. Carter to do right now?
CARDENAL: What we would like, not of President Carter only but of all the people of the United States, is to join forces with other democratic people in Latin America to isolate the monster we have in Central America, the mass killing president, to isolate him and let him know very well and very clearly that the U.S.`s people do not want to be associated with him in any way. Specifically, we would like to, as I said, President Carter, but with all the Latin American governments, because we do not believe in intervention. We believe there is a democratic obligation of the democratic countries to export democracy.
MacNEIL: So, what do you want those countries to do, in a word?
CARDENAL: Well, first of all, state very clearly that they don`t want to be associated with this mass killer. Then we could bring out all the embassies of these countries and put pressure economically on the government; because let`s be realistic. Somoza -- it`s a (unintelligible). Somoza has to go.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Dr. Millett, let me quote again the New York Times. It said this morning, "Both sides" -- we see represente t ere are now maneuvering for a final U.S. commitment." Could you put it as bluntly as this, that the fate of Nicaragua and the fate perhaps of thousands of its people is now in Mr. Carter`s hands?
MILLETT: There`s certainly some truth to that, partly again because Nicaraguans historically have felt that whatever happens in their country will ultimately be because of a decision made not in Managua but decisions made in Washington, D.C. This is their heritage, this is firmly felt, I think, both by the National Guard, a belief that Somoza has encouraged in the past, and by much of the opposition. And I think in a sense the U.S. has got to show, if we want to see any kind of creative change in Nicaragua, an absolute determination here. Somoza has always felt that he could outwait the United States in the past, that if he simply stalled and kept raising the spectre of Marxism eventually we would lose interest or come back to his support. I think we have to show real determination here, a willingness to move to economic things, to work with other Latin American governments, and to put pressure on our allies, who`ve continued to supply aid to Somoza.
MacNEIL: Such as Israel, which is giving him arms. Mr. Farer, we have just a few seconds. Do you want to add anything to that?
FARER: No, I think the commission has done what it can, and we simply hope that we won`t have to go there again to count the dead.
MacNEIL: Thank you very much, gentlemen in Washington, for coming here this evening to help us. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Thank you here. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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The main topic of this episode is Nicaragua. The guests are Tom Farer, Richard Millett, Ramiro Cardenal, Max Kelly, James Thomas. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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War and Conflict
Politics and Government
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua,” 1978-11-21, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 24, 2024,
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APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Nicaragua. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from