“Burning with a Deadly Heat”: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War
Nicaraguan Revolution (1978-1990)
Background and Context
The history of the relations between Nicaragua and the United States is long and fraught with political turmoil. Nicaragua’s geographical position as a possible canal route through Central America and its wealth of natural resources captured U.S. interest soon after the country gained independence from Spain in 1821.36 In the early 20th century, the United States, as it was becoming a major economic power, implemented a policy of “Dollar Diplomacy” in Nicaragua and other seemingly “unstable” nations to create a New York-centered gold-backed dollar bloc that would “rival the [London-based] gold-backed pound sterling that dominated international trade.”37 Through dollar diplomacy, U.S. banks supplied loans in order to induce nations to accept financial advisers, with the expressed goal to impart to them reliable financial habits that would lead to economic progress, while also protecting U.S. interests. In Nicaragua, the United States effectively chose the president in exchange for loans to the government.38 Although the policy was designed to replace explicitly coercive “gunboat” diplomacy, the U.S. invaded Nicaragua in 1912 to further protect its economic interests—mainly banana plantations and possible canal routes—during a period of increased discontent, and the military occupation remained in effect for the most part until 1933. In 1927, to try to end a civil war in Nicaragua and establish stability so that its forces eventually could leave, the U.S. had formed a pact with Nicaragua to supervise elections and establish a National Guard as the sole military force. They installed as commander of the National Guard Anastasio Somoza, who became president in 1937 in a fraudulent election, and ties between the two governments remained strong.39
For forty-three years thereafter, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist, with the U.S.-supported government brutally crushing rebellions and imprisoning dissidents. The successful Cuban revolution of 1959, however, changed the political landscape of the state. Castro’s revolution in Cuba and his subsequent government was based on the popular ideas of land reform for the poor, universal education, and anti-American sentiment, or anti-yanquismo. Many people in Latin America had long felt exploited by American policies, and Castro’s revolution was initially painted as a symbol of Latin Americans of all classes taking their country back from dictators backed by U.S. imperialists. It was a political and moral victory for the Cubans, but to many other Latin American peoples, it was inspiration and hope for a similar revolution in their own countries.40
The success of the Cuban revolution inspired a movement of farmers, students, and the middle class to unite and protest against the Somoza dictatorship; it was from this group of rebels that the Sandinista movement was born, its name derived from the Nicaraguan hero Augusto Sandino, who fought against American occupation in the early 20th century.41
The Sandinista movement, also known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), grew significantly in the early 1970s, and the nation became engulfed in a civil war. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza attempted to subdue the revolution quickly, as his predecessors had done in past uprisings, but this time the revolution persisted. High profile assassinations of popular Sandinista sympathizers, such as the opposition newspaper editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, drove more Nicaraguans to take up arms and join the movement against Somoza. The Carter administration had supported the Somoza government, but as news spread of human rights abuses committed in Somoza’s name, the U.S. began to distance itself and left Somoza increasingly on his own to face the Sandinistas.42
Although the U.S. decreased its support for the Nicaraguan government, the Carter administration also emphatically labeled the Sandinistas as dangerous Marxists. This characterization was inaccurate, since the FSLN at the time encompassed multiple political groups, with Marxists being only a small faction within the party. Based on the Soviet Union’s previous interference in Guatemala in the 1950s, the United States was wary of a joint Soviet-Cuban effort to infiltrate nationalist movements in Latin America. Relatively little was done to stop the rebel movement, however, seemingly because the American government did not foresee a Sandinista victory.43 Yet in 1979, after receiving aid and support from both Cuba and the Soviet Union, the Sandinista guerrilla soldiers surrounded the capital of Managua, and Somoza resigned and subsequently fled the country.
The Sandinistas installed their own government and immediately implemented land reform policies. These policies of redistribution were unpopular with the upper middle class, the wealthy, and many working professionals who immigrated en masse to the United States after the Sandinista victory. Of those who stayed in Nicaragua, not all were happy with the Sandinista rule. The new government quickly proved itself to be intolerant of dissent and brutal to those who dared speak out against it. Quickly, a new rebel movement opposing the Sandinista government was born: the Contras, a minority political group that included Somoza sympathizers and reactionary counterrevolutionaries.44
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he made it a priority of his administration to assist the Contras fighting the leftist Sandinista government. He faced an uphill battle in Congress, however, where many saw his requests for Contra aid as an attempt to intervene unjustifiably against a legitimate government. In 1982, Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which forbade the federal government from providing aid to the Contras for the purposes of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, effectively tying President Reagan’s hands in the matter. Yet, suspicion grew throughout the 1980s that the Reagan administration and the CIA were covertly aiding the Contras. These suspicions were realized in 1986 when news broke that the U.S. had sold weapons to Iran, subject to a U.S. embargo, in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a group with ties to Iran, and had funneled a portion of the profits of the sale to the Contras. This scandal became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Several dozen Reagan officials, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, and National Security Council staff member Oliver North, were indicted on charges ranging from obstruction of justice to perjury and withholding evidence, and eleven officials were convicted.45
In Nicaragua, the Contras never gained the momentum of the Sandinista movement before it. The Sandinista party remained in power and began holding elections, although the fairness of those elections was sometimes disputed. In the elections of 1984, Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista, won the presidential election, and the Sandinista party remained in power until 1990, when an opposing party won an electoral victory.46 The Sandinistas, however, remained powerful in Nicaragua politics, and in 2006, Ortega was re-elected to the presidency. Ortega remains in power today, leading a controversial administration that has both built on the history of the Sandinista movement and led to a steady stream of Nicaraguans fleeing his regime and immigrating to the United States.47
The Nicaraguan Revolution can be broken down into two main phases: the Sandinista uprising against the dictator Anastasio Somoza (1978-1979) and the subsequent Contra war against the Sandinista government (1979-1990). The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour coverage of the conflict can be similarly divided. For the first two years of the war, the Sandinista revolt was covered by the Report primarily through the introduction of guests involved in the war. The Report often invited members of the Somoza government and Sandinista leaders to give their sides of the conflict and debate one another, as in this segment where Luis Pallais, the Vice President of the Nicaraguan Chamber of deputies (and cousin of President Somoza), debated Casimiro Sotelo, a member of the anti-Somoza coalition, the Group of Twelve. This format often resulted in guests directly contradicting each other about the facts of the war, and rather than confront the guests themselves, the anchors of the Report preferred to let disagreements play out via debate between the guests. The Report anchors and correspondents, however, were not afraid to ask tough questions. In this clip from 1978, anchor Jim Lehrer pushes a major in the Nicaraguan National Guard to confront allegations of human rights abuses on the part of the Nicaraguan military. This exchange exemplifies how the Report approached broaching hard questions with stubborn guests while maintaining an atmosphere of respect.
In the first period of the war, the Report brought on many notable guests from Nicaragua, the most significant of whom was Somoza himself, who gave an interview from his presidential palace as the war to overthrow him raged in the streets of Managua. In this interview, given only a year before the Sandinistas would successfully oust him, Somoza downplayed the strength of the rebel forces and insisted that he would not submit to calls for his resignation. The conflict in Nicaragua often was viewed through the lens of United States foreign policy decisions, an angle that is present in nearly all the coverage, including the interview with Somoza. In this segment, Robert MacNeil asks Somoza what role, if any, the United States played in the war and how his government is responding to President Carter’s decision to stop aid to the Nicaraguan military.
The U.S. policy perspective became even more prominent in the coverage of the war after the Sandinista government took control in 1979. In this second period of the war, the debate focus shifted from Nicaraguans discussing their positions to American political figures debating whether the United States should give aid to the Contra rebels in order to counteract the new Soviet-supported Sandinista government. This shift in the main focus of the coverage is exemplified in this 1981 clip of the Report featuring Representatives Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-California) and Gerry Studds (D-Massachusetts). Conversations like the one between Lagomarsino and Studds became common in the early to mid-1980s, as the Report and later the NewsHour highlighted the struggle between Congress, which was reluctant to give aid to the Contras, and the Reagan administration, which consistently pushed for increased aid to the Contras.
In November 1986, when coverage of the war in Nicaragua was eclipsed by the breaking Iran-Contra Affair, the focus of the NewsHour’s reports on Nicaragua once again shifted. Instead of asking if America should give aid to the Contras, guests and hosts alike questioned the extent of President Reagan’s knowledge of the illegal funneling of money to the Contra forces. The NewsHour extensively covered the Iran-Contra scandal, congressional hearings, the Tower Commission investigation, and subsequent trials on a nearly daily basis. To find more footage from the NewsHour’s Iran-Contra coverage, click here.
While a large percentage of the coverage of the Nicaraguan Civil War in the mid-to-late 1980s was U.S. policy-oriented, with the shift to a one-hour show in 1983, the NewsHour was able to report on the war in new ways and start sending correspondents to Nicaragua to get footage and interviews on the ground. And while the issue of American aid was often hotly debated by American politicians on the NewsHour, once in Nicaragua, correspondents were able to interview a variety of Sandinista government members and supporters to get their perspectives on both the Contras and American intervention in their country. The NewsHour was also able to report on how city dwellers and farmers of Nicaragua viewed the conflict. In the rural countryside, correspondent Charles Krause interviewed Nicaraguan farmers about life during the war; it is a rare glimpse of war, not told from the perspective of politicians, but by the villagers forced to live with the conflict every day.
Krause was also on the ground in Nicaragua during watershed moments during the war, such as the election of President Daniel Ortega, the peace talks in 1988, and Violeta Chamorro’s presidential victory in 1990. While the NewsHour primarily relied on its Central American correspondent, they also occasionally brought in outside journalists, such as in this documentary segment from Bruce Garvey of CBC.