Ollie North Returns to Nicaragua
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The electoral wave that battered Republicans last week rolled well beyond Ohio and Arizona, traveling as far south as Nicaragua, where voters rejected intense U.S. pressure and elected Daniel Ortega president. This was Ortega's third attempt to regain the office since stepping down in 1990, after a decade in power as the head of the revolutionary Sandinista government. And even as George W. Bush was stumping for his candidates in the heartland, Oliver North was traveling down to Managua to urge Nicaraguans to vote for anyone but Ortega.
The ex-Marine colonel told Nicaraguans that they had "suffered enough from the influence of outsiders" -- a remark meant to criticize Hugo ChÃ¡vez's support for Ortega but that some, considering North's role in running the covert operation that illegally funded the anti-Sandinista Contras in the 1980s, must have mistaken for a confession. In addition to North, Bush's Ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, threatened that the United States could cut off aid, while congressional Republicans warned that they would pass legislation prohibiting Nicaraguans living in the United States from sending remittances home if Nicaraguans voted the wrong way.
Over the last couple of weeks, with polls predicting that an Ortega win seemed likely, conservative blogs, think tanks, and policy intellectuals whipped themselves up into a near-frenzy at the thought of a Sandinista comeback. The National Review breathlessly warned that a triumphant Ortega would bring the threat of nuclear or biological terrorism to "within walking distance of our undefended border." Over at the Washington Post , the American Enterprise Institute's Roger Noriega predicted that an Ortega victory would push Nicaragua "toward the abyss."
But Ortega is a changed man from the revolutionary who for more than a decade withstood a Washington-backed assault of intense ferocity. He has declared himself a free-trade Christian, and just before the vote joined forces with the Catholic Church to back an anti-abortion law that is more punitive than anything James Dobson's Focus on the Family hopes to pass here in the United States.
The reason for such hysteria cannot be explained by what Ortega may or may not do once in office, but rather by the dissonance his victory creates deep in the recesses of the neocon psyche.
Central America, particularly Nicaragua, played a key role in the formation of the world view of our foreign-policy hawks. As diplomatic historian Andrew Bacevich points out, in "neoconservative lore, 1980 stands out not only as a year of crisis but as the year when the nation decisively turned things around." When considering this turnaround, most casual observers usually point to the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe. Neocons, though, have a complicated relationship to those two events, coming about as they did not through confrontational militarism but negotiation and patience. Just a few years ago, when pressed by the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee to admit that Bush's Iraq policy was similar to Ronald Reagan's in Europe, Wesley Clark had to remind his interrogator that "Reagan never invaded Eastern Europe." In fact, Reagan, in sharp contrast to his rhetorical escalation of the Cold War and his increase in defense spending, followed a course of restraint in most foreign policy arenas, so much so that by 1986 his conservative base had taken to calling him the Soviet Union's "useful idiot" for negotiating arms reductions with Mikhail Gorbachev.
There was, however, one area where the administration's rhetoric did match its actions, and that was Central America. The United States spent billions of dollars, and trained and inflamed anti-communist allies that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
But the United States did win. Leftist insurgencies were defeated in El Salvador and Guatemala, and Ortega and the Sandinistas, after sacrificing the idealist goals of their revolution in order to defend themselves against a war of aggression launched by the most powerful nation in world history, were voted out of office in 1990.
For neocons, that this victory took place simultaneously with America's victory in the Cold War led to a dangerous conflation: extrapolating from the defeat of the Central American left, they gave credit for America's triumph over the Soviet Union to the kind of hardline Reagan pursued in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
This is why, over the last couple of years, as the situation in Iraq deteriorated, Central America has made its way into the pronouncements of Bush officials and allies with a frequency that Freud would find familiar. With dissent against the occupation building, William Kristol went on TV to hail Reagan's Central American policy -- which directly led to the deaths of 300,000 civilians, tens of thousands of whom were simply "disappeared," the torture of over a hundred thousand more, and the exile of more than a million -- as an "amazing success story, over the bitter opposition of the Left." In the 2004 vice presidential debates, Dick Cheney held up not post-WWII Japan or Germany, but El Salvador, with 50 percent of its population below the poverty level and violent crime at record highs, as a model for what his administration hoped to achieve in Iraq. Responding to accusations that John Negroponte's involvement in the coverup of hundreds of executions while he was ambassador to Honduras made him unfit to serve as America's intelligence czar, the National Review praised Reagan's policy in Central America as a "spectacularly successful fight to introduce and sustain Western political norms in the region."
It turns out that that "Salvador option" -- the Pentagon's phrase to refer to its reliance on ex-Baathist paramilitaries in Iraq -- is not just the use of death squads to maintain order in neocolonial provinces. It is also a tool of imperial self-denial, a refusal to acknowledge the failure, not to mention the cost in human lives, of U.S. militarism. Noriega's Washington Post essay is a classic piece of displacement, blaming the Sandinistas for the wretchedness of today's Nicaragua that is, in fact, Reagan's legacy.
"It is very painful in a very personal way," Ollie North said. "I spent a good deal of my career on trying to achieve a democratic outcome down there." The election of Ortega is the Cold War's return of the repressed, an irrepressible confirmation that U.S. policy has not brought humane development to the region but deepening misery.
That the Sandinistas remain the single most popular party in Nicaragua is also evidence of the limits of U.S. power, especially when it is exercised purely in military terms, which is, after all, the favorite exercise of the neocons. A country as poor as Nicaragua, in a region long locked into the United States' sphere of influence, bucking Washington's diktats is an intolerable embarrassment. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans killed, tens of thousands of them disappeared, another hundred thousand tortured, and millions more driven into exile, and Nicaragua still refuses to genuflect to Washington's commands.
Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including the just published " Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism ."