Moral Low Ground


Remembering U.S. State Terrorism Against Nicaragua

The Contras: Reagan's favorite terrorists.

The Contras: Reagan’s favorite terrorists.

Today marks the anniversary of the overthrow of the brutal, U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty by the progressive Sandinista Revolution. The Somozas relied upon their vicious National Guard to keep the impoverished masses subservient while a small ruling class with deep U.S. business and political connections lived in the lap of luxury. The Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, attempted to redress these inequities, drawing the ire of Wall Street and the Carter administration which allowed the CIA to begin assisting opponents of the new regime.

This wasn’t nearly enough for Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Carter in 1981 and soon launched an all-out (yet underreported) reign of terror against the people of Nicaragua. In order to gain approval for what was to come, the Reagan administration painted the Sandinistas as puppets of the Soviet Union and Cuba and greatly exaggerated the tiny country’s feeble military capabilities. “I think the most critical special operations mission we have today is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us,” deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force Michael Kelly frankly admitted.

But President Reagan ominously warned that the Sandinista army was only “two days’ drive” from Texas, evoking hysteria– of the comic variety– along our southern border. “I guess we’ll fight ‘em with tree limbs,” quipped R.C. Williams, deputy police chief in Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville police tried to parlay the supposed invasion threat into federal aid for new equipment, while cops in nearby Harlingen were totally nonplussed. “We’re not worried about those whatever you call ‘em,” yawned police chief Guy Anderson, unable to even identify the Sandinista menace by name. The local chamber of commerce seemed more concerned with showing the invaders a good time: “If we can handle 700,000 tourists and 90,000 college kids [on South Padre Island], we’re ready for anything,” deadpanned Harlingen Chamber of Commerce director David Allex, “If the Sandinistas come, we just hope they have a good time and come back to see us.”

In reality, the Sandinistas were no match for the United States. If it came to war, they wouldn’t have even been able to defend their own country let alone launch an invasion of the United States– which would have required them to somehow transport their “invasion force” through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. They had no Navy to speak of and no modern fighter jets in their air force. Their army, comprised largely of conscripts, numbered about 80,000 troops and these were very busy fighting off both an internal rebellion and outside attacks from the United States, as you’re about to see.

President Reagan began delivering massive amounts of financial and military assistance to the Contras, a rebel group composed largely of former members of Somoza’s National Guard. The Contras were an unbelievably barbaric bunch, fond of committing unimaginably sadistic acts of violence. The Sandinistas had been working hard to improve life for the impoverished people of Nicaragua; land reform, health care, education and nutrition were all improving under their rule. The Contras, with Reagan’s blessing and assistance, aimed to destroy all of that. They engaged in widespread and often indiscriminate terrorism the likes of which shocked the conscience of the world. A 1987 report by Human Rights Watch said:

[The Contras]… engage in selective but systematic killing… in indiscriminate attacks against civilians… and in outrages against the personal dignity of prisoners. The Contras also engage in widespread kidnapping of civilians, apparently for purposes of recruitment as well as intimidation.

Here are two documented eyewitness accounts of typical Contra cruelty. Be warned, it’s beyond awful:

“They took out their knives and stuck them under his fingernails. After they took his fingernails off, then they broke his elbows. Afterwards they gouged out his eyes. Then they took their bayonets and made all sorts of slices in his skin all around his chest, arms, and legs. They then took his hair off and the skin of his scalp. When they saw there was nothing left to do with him, they threw gasoline on him and burned him. The next day they started the same thing with a 13 year old girl. They did more or less the same, but they did other things to her too. First, she was utilized, raped by all the officers. They stripped her and threw her in a small room, they went in one by one. Afterwards they took her out tied and blindfolded. Then they began the same mutilating, pulling her fingernails out and cutting off her fingers, breaking her arms, gouging out her eyes and all they did to the other fellow. They cut her legs and stuck an iron rod into her womb.”


“Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.”

The Contras, for maximum terror, would often force family members to watch as they committed heinous atrocities against their relatives.

President Reagan called these detestable savages “freedom fighters” and “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers” as he channelled more and more aid to them. It’s funny that Reagan considered the Contras freedom fighters, but the rebels fighting against the U.S.-backed right-wing military junta in nearby El Salvador were “murderers and terrorists.”

The CIA attacked Nicaraguan oil pipelines, fuel depots and ports. The U.S. also laid mines along Nicaragua’s coast which devastated the country’s fishing industry and international trade.

Contra fighters were brought to the United States to train. Armed with a CIA manual titled “Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare” that encouraged kidnapping, terrorism and assassination, the Contras returned to Nicaragua to wreak havoc. When the press got wind of the manual, Reagan dismissed the ensuing controversy as “much ado about nothing.”

Congress and the American people didn’t think so. A Congressional intelligence committee concluded that the Contras “raped, tortured and killed unarmed civilians, including children” and that “groups of civilians, including pregnant women and children were burned, dismembered, blinded and beheaded.”

Recognition of Contra atrocities along with pressure from ordinary citizens led to the passage of the Boland Amendment, which outlawed most American aid to the Contras. But that didn’t stop Reagan, who defiantly declared “I am a Contra too!” Other leading Republicans gave money to the Contras out of their own pockets: Senator John McCain donated $400 and declared that “historians will look back and view the vote that cut off military and humanitarian aid to the Contras as a low point in United States history.”

Top Reagan officials found a way to circumvent Boland restrictions by illegally selling weapons to our archenemies in Iran (while also arming Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its bitter war against Tehran) and channelling the profits to the Contras. This was the biggest scandal of the Reagan presidency but President George H.W. Bush pardoned everyone involved shortly before leaving office in 1992.

U.S.-supported Contra terror cost over 30,000 Nicaraguan lives.

Nicaragua sued the United States in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and won. The court handed down a 291- point judgment against the United States and ordered Washington to stop attacking Nicaragua, both directly and through its Contra proxies. The ICJ also ordered the United States to pay $2,000,000,000 in compensation to Nicaragua. President Reagan ignored the court’s ruling and the United States withdrew from the ICJ; American terrorism against Nicaragua continued unabated for years.

It’s no surprise that Reagan would ignore the ICJ. After all, could anyone reasonably expect the United States to face the fact that it was supporting terrorists and committing acts of terror itself? The United States likes to believe that it could never possibly be guilty of terrorism. A big part of the reason why is because the very word ‘terrorism’ delegitimizes  whoever we’re calling a terrorist and whatever legitimate gripes they may have. That’s why U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua– as brutal as they may be– were “freedom fighters” while rebels fighting brutal U.S.-backed regimes in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador were “terrorists.”  To the British, who lined up in neat rows in bright red coats, the American revolutionaries who ambushed them with guerrilla tactics (learned largely from committing genocide against the Native Americans) were terrorists. One man’s terrorist really is another man’s freedom fighter and in the case of the United States, today’s freedom fighter is sometimes tomorrow’s terrorist, and vice versa.

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