The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Unrest in Nicaragua
JIM LEHRER: Nicaragua, the largest nation in Central America, a staunch ally of the United States, controlled by the same family for the past forty years, in recent weeks, beset by unrest and turmoil.
LEHRER: Good evening. The last thirty days have brought the Central American republic of Nicaragua to the brink of disaster. It began January 10th. The editor of the country`s leading opposition newspaper was assassinated. The killing triggered large-scale, anti-government riots. Then, a paralyzing two-week-long general strike of workers and business. There were municipal elections last Sunday. The government won, but two- thirds of the electorate boycotted the vote. Early this week, a new State Department report cited Nicaragua for its human rights violations, prompting the call for a full-scale OAS investigation. At issue, and in jeopardy in Nicaragua is the forty-year-old rule of the Somoza family, and most particularly the current president, Anastasio Somoza. At issue, and in jeopardy here, is the question of the United States continuing its long- standing support of the Somozas. Tonight, what`s going on in Nicaragua, and what should we be doing about it. Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne HunterGault is in New York. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, the largest nation in Central America, Nicaragua is about the size of New York and New Jersey combined. It borders both Costa Rica and Honduras, and stretches from the Carribbean to the Pacific. It lost out to Panama as the site for the canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since the mid-thirties, Nicaragua has been a staunch supporter of U.S. policies in Latin America and the Carribbean. Nicaragua was the staging area from which this country`s 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was launched. The United States has played a major role in Nicaraguan politics since the early 1900s, when a political dispute between liberals and conservatives forced the provisional president to ask for U.S. Marines to restore order. The Marines stayed until 1925, left for a year, and returned to police the turbulent nation until 1933.
LEHRER: When the Marines left, a general, named Anastasio Somoza, was put in charge of the Nicaraguan National Guard. In a few years, he was in charge of the whole government and the country, and the "Somoza Dynasty," as it`s called, was in place. When the General was assassinated in 1956, the oldest son, Luis, took over. The General`s second son, also named Anastasio, took over the presidency in 1967, after the brief reign of a family friend, and has ruled ever since. A reporter who has followed the Nicaragua story for many years, is Jeremiah O`Leary, Latin American correspondent for the Washington Star. Jerry, is the Somoza government in serious trouble?
JEREMIAH O`LEARY: Yes, indeed. It is, but I think it has survived the immediate problem. How many more crises General Somoza can survive is problematical. People are striking. General strikes would have been unknown five years ago. Now, they strike and they do it with impunity. There are raids on the streets that would have been unthinkable, even though homicide and shooting and guns are quite common in that country. I think he has survived this one. I do not know how many more he can survive. And I seriously wonder how much longer he really wants to remain in this hot seat. When I talked to him last October, he spoke of stepping down in 1981.
LEHRER: You say, most of this could not have happened five years ago. What`s happened in the last five years to make it possible for it to happen now?
O`LEARY: Two things. In 1972 there was a devastating earthquake, and people did things they had to do to survive, and found that they could get away with transgressions of the law that wouldn`t have been tolerated before. I remember, after the earthquake, there were two strikes: construction workers and hospitals; and nothing happened. The general strike that just ended was much more widespread and it`s complicated by the fact that General Somoza`s recovering from a heart attack that he had the middle of last year. He`s exceedingly conscience of his health. He has isolated himself down at Monte Limar, down on the Pacific coast, maybe forty-five minutes from the capitol, with his own air strip, his own guard battalion, his own finca, the ranch house, and there`s no question. He`s still in charge owe government, but he`s looking around rather seriously for who is going to take over after I`m gone; and nobody`s name pops up very much.
LEHRER: Well, what kind of political opposition is there to him? How would you characterize it?
O`LEARY: The traditional opposition is called the conservative party, and there`s not all that much difference between a conservative and a liberal. It`s usually personalismo, personality differences. Nicaragua has been assailed by wars, conflicts, disagreements between liberals and conservatives -- General Somoza is a member of the liberal party -- ever since there`s been a Nicaragua. But a relatively new group is on the scene now, and they are called the Sandinistas, named after a rebel from the 20s and 30s who fought the Marines, Augusto Sandino. And there are two groups. One group is Marxist and one group is not, but they have one thing in common: they`re all very young, there are not very many of them, and they come from good families. They have made a coalition with the conservative party of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, and the death of Pedro Joaquin was sort of a trigger for a number of things that couldn`t have happened before. I don`t think General Somoza ordered the death. I can`t prove it; I don`t think so. I think it was a little bit like in Becket. The King says, "who will rid me of this priest?" Something of that kind. I think somebody felt they were doing Somoza a favor. They weren`t.
LEHRER: By killing the newspaper editor, you mean?
LEHRER: All right. Thank you, Jerry. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Much of the millions of dollars in U.S. aid sent to Nicaragua have been used to train and supply the National Guard, a unit that performs both military and police functions. As Jim noted, the Somo-zas have been able to maintain their power, in part, by controlling the 7,500-member guard. Richard Millett is a historian who has spent time studying the Somozas` relationship to the National Guard. A professor of history at Southern Illinois University, Dr. Millett is author of the book, Guardians of the Dynasty, about the Somozas. Dr. Millett, do you feel that the Guard in Nicaragua is a creation of the United States?
Dr. RICHARD MILLETT: It most clearly is, historically. Nicaragua, before the 1920s, had no really professional army, and the State Department felt, during the second intervention, that this lack of professional army was a major cause of constant political turmoil. So, the Marines disbanded all previously existing armies, and organized a new one, initially only with Marines serving as officers, which is what we call a constabulary force ... that is, it combines police, treasury guard, and army functions ... and forced the Nicaraguans to sign an agreement that this would be the only armed force in the nation, even though this originally, apparently, violated the Nicaraguan constitution. Ultimately, we turned over control of this to the Nicaraguans, picking General Somoza to be the first Nicaraguan commander of the force.
HUNTER-GAULT: You mean, the United States picked General Somoza?
MILLETT: He had a superb command of English and he was an avid Philadelphia Phillies baseball fan. All this endeared him to the American officers, and he was clearly pro-American in his sentiments.
HUNTER-GAULT: What about now? What is our involvement in the National Guard now?
MILLETT: It`s continued since the Marines left. In fact, the Nicaraguan military academy, which trains most of the officers was reopened with an American army officer detailed as commander for several years. More Nicaraguans have graduated from American military schools than any other Latin American nation, even though Nicaragua is one of the hemisphere`s smaller nations. And, we`ve provided fair amounts of military aid -- over twenty-six million dollars since 1962 -- which has helped to equip the Guard in a very U.S. fashion. In fact, it probably looks more like a U.S. army, at least in terms of uniform and equipment, than any army outside the United States.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how do you think it looks to the people inside of Nicaragua? Is the United States identified very closely with the Somoza regime?
MILLETT: It has been. We`ve had a couple of ambassadors who`ve been bosom buddies of Somoza. One had a nickname of, "General Somoza`s Shadow." And the U.S. equipment ... the fact that the army is clearly set apart from the people, and is almost seen as an occupying force, I think perpetuates this image. I think there`s been a clear effort to change this under the Carter administration, but how successful we`ve been is open to debate.
HUNTER-GAULT: You`re talking about on the inside of Nicaragua, it`s open to debate.
MILLETT: Yes, certainly. And in terms of world image.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. O`Leary talked about the opposition. How strong do you think the opposition is, to the Somozas?
MILLETT: In popular terms, I think it`s overwhelming. During my last visit to Nicaragua, I was amazed by the openness with which virtually everyone I talked to, expressed their total disenchantment with the regime.
HUNTER-GAULT: That was how long ago?
MILLETT: That was about two years ago. Their anger over the corruption and the breakdown of the government which had followed the earthquake ...The problem has been that they lacked strong leadership, and with the murder of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the leadership problem is even greater.
HUNTER-GAULT. We`ll pursue that in just a minute. Jim?
LEHRER: All right. The close ties between the Somoza family and the U.S. government has netted Nicaragua millions of dollars in arms grants, credits, and sales from the U.S. over the past twenty-seven years; but now, there is a debate over whether aid of any kind should continue. The Carter administration has already put a hold on aid payments, citing human rights violations. Two Congressmen who have been involved in this debate, are Congressman Clarence Long, Democrat from Maryland, and Congressman Charles Wilson, Democrat from Texas. Both serve on the House Appropriations Committee. Congressman Wilson, should the United States continue its aid to Nicaragua?
CHARLES WILSON: Yes, I believe that it should, but not in any particular partiality as far as situation. I think Nicaragua should continue to receive economic aid; it should continue to receive aid that primarily benefits the poor people. It certainly should continue to receive aid at the same rates as countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Haiti, the Caribbean countries, all of whom are ruled by military dictators. I`m glad that you didn`t ask me is Nicaragua, Costa Rica, because certainly it`s not. Costa Rica is the only democracy in Central America, one of four in all of Latin America. But, generally speaking, Nicaragua is, on the human rights basis, generally above average, for Central and South America. And Nicaragua has a free press. And Nicaragua has habeas corpus. And Nicaraguan people have a right to trial. Very few Central and South American countries have this situation. Now, the problem which Nicaragua`s got, is the name Somoza, which has been there for thirty years.
LEHRER: What do you mean by that?
WILSON: In 1977 international politics, the idea of a family, 30year-old dynasty ruling one gountry is simply generally unacceptable to Western values. It hasn`t always been such, but it`s the case now. I think that General Somoza realizes this completely. By the Constitution, his term is up at the end of 1980; he cannot serve in 1981. Neither can any member of his family succeed him. I think that what he would like is for there to be an orderly transition of power, and for him to be able to feel secure when it`s over.
LEHRER: An orderly transition of power to whom?
WILSON: I would think, an orderly transition of power that he would hope would be someone in his party, just as I think most American presidents would like to transcend power to their own party, but certainly not to the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas are named after a very anti- American revolutionary in the 20s and 30s, Jerry said. Their announced goal is to overthrow the Somoza government and to remove American presence in Nicaragua, much as Castro`s announced goal in Cuba. They are Marxist; that`s the basic thrust. Che Guevara has participated in training. The last time they caught some and had to let them go because of hostages, they went to Cuba. Nicaragua is Castro`s primary target and hate in the Caribbean, partially, I assume, because they allowed John Kennedy to launch the Bay of Pigs from Nicaragua. We have to say, in relation to what, is Nicaragua bad? In relation to Costa Rica, Nicaragua`s bad. In relation to Venezuela, Nicaragua`s bad. In relation to Trinidad, close, but maybe still on the negative side. In relation to Mexico, still on the negative side. After that, you`re hard-pressed to find a country in Central or South America that has a better human rights situation today. The United States has selected Nicaragua because it`s a small country that can`t fight back. It`s the typical case of the big bully looking for somebody to pick on, that he knows is not going to hit him back. There are numerous examples, and I think most impartial observers of the scene realize that the State Department`s done this. And they`re not going to do it without challenge.
LEHRER: Congressman Long, do you agree with Congressman Wilson that this is a case of the big boys picking on the little guy `cause they can`t fight back?
CLARENCE LONG: I can`t see how on earth we`re picking on a country which we`ve given thirty-two million dollars worth of military aid over the last eight years. We were the major contributor of the hundred million dollars of aid that they got in 1976. We`ve given seventeen million in economic aid last year, and 6.6 million proposed for this coming year.
How on earth is that picking on anybody? What my feeling is...I`ve served on this committee now for fourteen years, finally got to be chairman, after considerable frustration seeing our money going to all kinds of unappetizing regimes over the world...I wouldn`t try to say how much worse Nicaragua is than other countries. Many people feel it`s in a class by itself. Maybe it isn`t. I happen to feel that we`ve been giving economic and military aid to too dog-gone many countries around the world that violate every aspect of the American tradition. I `d like to cut way back. Nicaragua happens to be one of them. When the Koch amendment, mayor of New York, was on my committee, I recognized him on this amendment and I supported him on it, but only because I felt we had a good chance of getting this one through. I would support cutting off all kinds of military and economic aid to dozens of countries around the world.
LEHRER: We`ve heard what Congressman Wilson`s said. What is your theory as to why Nicaragua has been singled out, if that`s the term, for this particular action?
LONG: I think it`s had a pretty bad record. Amnesty International... it points to little items like their National Guard, which we support with our military, shooting, in cold blood, campesinos, including, in one case, the entire population of a village. In -the village of Varilla, all kinds of imprisonment`s, stealing of hundreds of millions, I believe, by the president. I think it`s in a class by itself. Maybe I`m wrong; maybe there are other countries that are even worse. It`s like trying to decide if one Nazi`s worse than another Nazi.
LEHRER: Congressman Wilson didn`t mention this, but some folks have suggested that we have a moral obligation to Nicaragua, because we have supported them for so long, that to turn our back now on a long-standing ally is somehow immoral.
LONG: Well, that`s like saying that since you voted for a president for so many years, you ought to vote him in one more; you have an obligation. I don`t see it. It seems to me, we`ve supported them long enough. If they`re our ally, it`s only because we`re the one country they can cling to. They make a lot of money out of us ... the products they sell to us, the aid we give to them, and everything. It`s just a natural interest, and I don`t believe there`s any aspect of loyalty there that we need to be terribly grateful for.
LEHRER: The point that, also, Congressman Wilson raises, is about comparing Nicaragua. You mentioned that a moment ago. You don`t feel that`s a valid comparison, to say it`s worse than this, and not as bad as another country. It ought to be viewed individually.
LONG:I view it as a practical political matter. If we can get the support to cut off Nicaragua, I want to do it, because whether it`s worse than another country or not, I don`t know; but, it`s a bad country, I think a bad regime. I`d like to cut it out of dozens of other countries, but some we have to keep in because we have a top-rated security interest, like possibly Korea. We have to stay there. Maybe the Philippines, although I`m sometimes inclined to doubt that.
LEHRER: But that does not exist in Nicaragua?
LONG: That does not exist in Nicaragua, as I see it, no.
LEHRER: Charlayne? I think she`d like to pursue this. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, I`d like to pursue this with Dr. Millett. How do you feel about this aid question? Which one of these Congressmen do you agree with?
MILLETT: Well, I suppose I`d have to side more with Congressman Long. President Somoza has always claimed, as did his father before him, that he`s a great friend of the United States, that he supported us; and at times, he certainly has. At other times ... for instance, we shipped a good deal of arms in there during the Guatemalan crisis in the 50s, and he later used some of that in an effort to invade Costa Rica, which was hardly in line with U.S. policy objectives. They`ve given us a lot of lip service. We`ve paid a very high price for that lip service. Somoza is identified with us. He`s made the identification, and it`s identification throughout Latin America that hurts us. There`s a great symbolic value in Nicaragua. It`s true that in some ways, Fidel Castro sees the Somozas as, perhaps his number one target in Central America, but it`s partly because of the close identification with the United States. As long as we`re seen as in an embrace with this particular family, who`ve been characterized as the world`s greediest rulers, this makes us a very easy whipping boy.
HUNTER-GAULT: So, you`d be in favor of cutting off aid at this time?
MILLETT: At least military aid, certainly.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. O`Leary, how do you feel about that?
O`LEARY: Over a period of years, Nicaragua`s leaders, all of whom had the name of Somoza in one way or another, have made Nicaragua so closely identified with the United States, that in effect, they have transformed it into a colony. And having done that, the Nicaraguans feel that they should be treated a little better. But, I`d like to address myself to the so- called "Christopher Committee," over at the State Department, which meets once a week to decide, on a basis of human rights, which countries will receive this aid project or that one, and which ones will not. And what I don`t like about that arrangement is, that we always seem to select countries where World War III cannot start, like Ethiopia, Uruguay, and Argentina, but when it comes to South Korea and Thailand and South Vietnam, when there was one, and Indonesia, we don`t do any such thing. So, expediency seems to take a part in this equation, and I don`t know that expediency is very moral.
LEHRER: Yes, go ahead, Congressman.
WILSON:I don`t know how I could agree more with what Jerry said here. There are so many things to say, and you can`t say them all, but I`d just like to read from the Human Rights Report, concerning my chair man`s allegation that there had been a great deal of corruption involved in our various aid programs. And I think, perhaps, they ought to in New York. Now this is reading from the report: "However, numerous investigations of AID assisted projects, since 1973, by the GAO Congressional and the AID auditors and investigators, have not substantiated those charges." Now, I want to talk about the different standard that`s applied. The Christopher Committee is at the very crux of this. The Christopher Committee is a group of people... I don`t think there`s a one of them that`s a career Foreign Service person; they`re all Carter appointees, some of whom are extremely strident, and some of whom have indicated a very definite grudge against Nicaragua. Remember, that Nicaragua has the best record in the United Nations of support for the United States. They`re the only Third World country in the United Nations that has supported the United States in the Middle East, that has voted for Israel, when all of the other Third World countries didn`t. But Freedom House -- and Freedom House is, in my judgment, the most respected judger of human rights in the United States -- but Freedom House ... I`m going to list the countries that are listed as not free, whose aid is being increased. Bolivia, Haiti, Thailand, Afghanistan, Nepal, Yemen, Ghana, Sudan, Zaire, and Tanzania. Those countries are all listed as not free; their aid is being increased. Nicaragua, along with Brazil and Guatemala and El Salvador, is listed as partly free, and they`re being cut to the bone. It`s a double standard, and the double standard is simply because Nicaragua is small and vulnerable and can`t do much to us. It`s a typical big bully.
LONG: I`d like to get a little equal time here.
HUNTER-GAULT: Congressman, you may reply.
LONG: I would not argue that we weren`t discriminating among different countries. I sometimes think these differences are rather arbitrary. But, we were talking here, about Nicaragua, and I think Nicaragua`s a very bad candidate for our foreign aid. I think there are lots of others that are too, and, as I said, I`d like to cut them out, too.
WILSON: Partially free, by Freedom House. Partially free.
LONG: Mr. Wilson, you`ve had your time. Let me read from Reverend Descoto, who testified before my committee, about a year ago. "Nicaragua needs aid. Nicaragua should be aided; but no one who knows what is going on in Nicaragua, and what has been going on for over forty years, can honestly believe that to give development aid to the Somoza government will actually help the people. Nor can anyone seriously think that to give military aid will enable Somoza to continue using the National Guard as a praetorian army is in the best interest of our oppressed people." That`s from a Catholic clergyman and we had whole scads of bishops and so forth, testify to the same (unintelligible), including the conservative...
LEHRER: Obviously, we`re not going to resolve that one here. But, what about the point that`s been made? Let me ask you this first, Congressman Long, and then you, Jerry O`Leary- that the U.S. policy, which is at this point, to back off of aid to Nicaragua, has, in fact, encouraged the current uprising. Do you find any validity in that?
LONG:I doubt very much whether that`s it. I think it`s the contrary. I think we`re beginning to back off because we feel that the uprising indicates that our aid policy has been somewhat discredited. Incidentally, I`m going to do everything I can as chairman of the committee, to eliminate what aid they`re proposing to give in 1979, which is 6.6 million. I think it`s time we got out of there.
LEHRER: You mean, get out of there altogether.
LONG: I would like to. And I`d like to cut it out of a lot of countries if I can get the support. But, again, it`s a practical matter.
LEHRER: What`s your theory on this?
O`LEARY: I think that when you withdraw aid from a country arbitrarily, it`s bound to have an impact on the country and its leadership. And I call to mind, 1963, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, and the argument that went on in the State Department for weeks and years. Who are we really hurting by cutting off aid to Haiti? Are we hurting Papa Doc and his forty tom-tom macouts, or are we hurting five million Haitian people who have never harmed anyone? And I tend to come down on the side of Food for Peace, and that kind of thing, with minimal arms, because...
LONG:...got back from Haiti, incidentally -- I spent three or four days down there, and therefore I`m an expert on the country -- I can`t find very much evidence that what aid we did put in there ... we put twenty six million dollars I read in the paper, at the behest of one of my colleagues ...has done them any good at all.
O`LEARY: But you found some people alive.
LONG:I don`t think our aid had much to do with it.
LEHRER: Professor Millett, in New York, let me ask you: if, in fact, the Somoza government falls, either due to the turmoil that is now down there, or naturally, as a result of 1981 and he goes out of office, what would you see as the future government of Nicaragua?
MILLETT: That`s going to be very difficult to predict. And that, of course, has been one of the major questions in the State Department, and, I`m sure, in Congress. There is a lack of leadership, as I`ve previously stated, among the opposition. I think you`ll have a junta, some sort of coalition government drawn from business elements, from opposition political parties, probably including some military representation. It will be a difficult transition period, but I think, the longer this agony is prolonged, the longer the Somozas stay in power, the worse the transition will be.
LEHRER: We have got to go. Dr. Millett, thank you. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Gentlemen here, thank you very much. Have a nice weekend.
I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- The Unrest in Nicaragua
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- This episode features a discussion on The Unrest in Nicaragua. The guests are Jeremiah O'leary, Charles Wilson, Clarence Long, Charlayne Hunter- Gault, Richard Millett, Patricia Ellis. Byline: Jim Lehrer
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