Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
In July 1979, the pro-U.S. Somoza Government was overthrown by a revolution in Nicaragua. Within months, the broad coalition that had opposed Somoza had lost influence, and the best armed revolutionary group, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) led by Daniel Ortega, had consolidated power. Pres. Carter attempted to continue cordial U.S. relations with the Sandinistas, but his successor, Ronald Reagan came to office convinced that Sandinista Nicaragua represented a Soviet beachhead on the North American mainland.
Consistent with the broad aims of the Reagan Doctrine, the US gave support for guerrillas committed to the overthrow of the FSLN regime in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. It primarily was directed toward the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN) and its political front organization, the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). Commonly, these groups were known as "the Contras." This web page traces the main steps in the war between the Contras and the government of Nicaragua, 1981-90. Throughout the conflict, however, the US continued to maintain formal diplomatic relations with Managua.
1. In January 1981, the US suspended all aid to Nicaragua; these Carter-era financial commitments were fully terminated, and all US aid spending was ended by the Reagan administration in April 1981.
2. From August to October 1981, CIA officials and former Somoza National Guard leaders held a series of meetings in Guatemala City. There the CIA pressed for the formation of the Contras (Chamorro: pp. 18-23). About 500 anti-Sandinista fighters existed at this time.
3. In November 1981, Pres. Reagan approved secret aid to the Contras (WP 1985: 14).
4. In March 1982, US covert contra aid ($19 million) became public. By the Fall of that year, a force of from 2000 to 3500 former National Guardsmen and others was present in Honduras. They were led by "Commander" Enrique Bermudez, who formerly had served the Somoza regime as military attaché in Washington DC, 1978-9. These forces received military training and advice from Argentine military men who urged them to adopt a "dirty war" versus communism, saying: "We're the only people in Latin America who've beaten the communists in a war. The way to win is to fight a 'dirty war' like we did in the 1970s" (Chamorro, quoting Argentine trainers: 22). At the time, Bermudez' security chief was Ricardo "Chino" Lau. Salvadoran Military Intelligence Chief Roberto Santivanez since has stated that Sr. Lau, in 1980, received in Guatemala $120,000 for his part in the assassination of Salvadoran Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero (WP 1985b: 1, 29). According to Chamorro (p. 22), Lau formally was fired by the Contras in mid-1982, but as late as 1984 "Lau was still the last person to talk to [Contra Commander] Bermudez at night and the first to talk to him in the morning."
Former Contra leader E. Chamorro also has described the "democratic alternative" such men created: "...it was standard contra practice to kill Sandinista prisoners and collaborators. In talking with officers in the contra camps along the Honduran border, I frequently heard offhand remarks like, 'Oh, I cut his throat' It was like stomping on a cockroach to them. So I admitted to the press that there had been executions... The CIA and Bermudez didn't like my candor" (22). These were the forerunners of the main Contra force, the FDN; these were President Reagan's "Freedom Fighters...the Moral Equivalent of our Founding Fathers."
5. In December 1982, the US Congress first banned the use of US money for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. US Public Law (PL) 97-377 for fiscal 1983 was amended (at section 793) to state that "...none of the funds...may be used...for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua." This legislative enactment was known as the first of several "Boland Amendments." It, however, allowed aid to the Contras to continue if other purposes were pursued, e.g. intercepting Nicaraguan arms in transit to Communist guerrillas in El Salvador. That same month the CIA staged a Miami news conference where the newly (CIA) formed F.D.N. went public. Many of the men brought together at the conference had never met before the first public "meeting" of "their" organization. CIA officers coached the Nicaraguan exiles on how to express their goals in order to not violate the Boland Amendment or the US Neutrality Act. Yet, Contra leaders' goals then were to overthrow the Sandinistas, a prima facie violation of these Acts. Thus, the CIA may have engaged in a conspiracy to violate US law. One of the Contra "leaders", Adolfo Calero showed up late for the meeting, had not been briefed on how to behave by the CIA, and nearly let the cat out of the bag by implying that his real goal was to retake Managua.
6. In January 1983, the "Contadora" Peace Treaty effort was begun by Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. It sought de-militarization of all of Central America and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In April, Pres. Reagan, however, called the Sandinista state a "threat to US national security" implying that the US sought more than just the withdrawal of the Cubans and the East bloc military aides.
7. In July 1983, the first US war games were conducted in Honduras (Big Pines I). For the rest of the 1980s, almost continuous US presence and maneuvers in Honduras altered US relations with that nation. Some operations were joint US-Honduran maneuvers; some involved El Salvadoran troops, too. Guatemala, however, refused to participate as did Costa Rica, which has no army. The US House voted to kill all funds for Contras during this same month.
8. October 1983 was a crisis time for US policy. The Caribbean island of Grenada received a US invasion, shortly after the US Marines were bombed in Beirut, Lebanon. But Congress refused to be drawn into the frenzy of the moment, opting instead to continue to refuse US aid to Contras. Retired Gen. Singlaub and others then began to work with National Security Council (NSC) staffer Col. Oliver North to circumvent Congressional restrictions by schemes to use "private donations" (and other funds) rather than Congressionally appropriated US funds to aid the Contras. In Nicaragua, raiders blew up the main oil storage facilities at Corinto in October. While the Contras took credit for it, their official (Chamorro: 22) later stated that the CIA and "Latino operatives" in fact did this.
9. By November 1983, the Contras numbered 7000. Congress then approved $24 million for the Contras' use in intercepting arms for El Salvador. Contras in Central America, however, continued to state that a new government in Nicaragua was their actual goal. In February 1984, the Kissinger Commission report was issued. It called for a regional effort to address the causes of insurgency, and increased US military presence and aid.
10. The May 1984 CIA mining of Nicaraguan harbors angered Congress (which was not consulted). The mining caused the US to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the World Court for more than two years beginning in January 1985, a first for the US. Soviet ships were damaged by the mines, as were ships of US allies. France offerred to help Nicaragua clear its harbors -- even as a joint US-French effort in Lebanon was in place from September 1982 until the US withdrew in February 1984; France, however, kept its forces in Lebanon until April 1986. The US disinterest in the World Court was not complete, however: a US-Canadian fisheries dispute regarding the Gulf of Maine was resolved there in December 1983 (DOS 1984). The US also used its veto in the UN Security Council to avoid passage of resolution which would have condemned the US for violation of the UN Charter in this harbor-mining incident. At this time the Contras numbered 15,000 to 18,000 troops in arms.
11. In June 1984, US Secretary of State George Schulz and Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega began talks in an attempt to ease the building crisis, but these were suspended on January 17, 1985.
12. In September 1984, the other Central American nations plus the Contadora nations (Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Panama) agreed to a 21 point "Document of Objectives" for a peace treaty process. On September 21, 1984, Nicaragua agreed to sign this Contadora treaty which called for removal of all foreign forces from Central America. Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador then suddenly developed "objections" to the draft treaty to which they previously had agreed. They proposed a new "counter draft." Nicaragua and Guatemala objected to this "counter-draft" (CQWR 1985: 713)
13. In October 1984, a CIA-authored Manual on how to fight to overthrow the Nicaraguan government was discovered in Central America (see Omang, ed.). It created a new controversy by advising the Contras to assassinate martyrs for their own cause. Such actions since 1976 have been illegal under US laws. Other actions encouraged within the Manual appeared to solicit the Contras to commit violations of international human rights. Its connection to the tradition of the Argentine "dirty warriors" and the Guatemalan / Salvadoran death squads' values emerged from the text: Targeted assassinations: "It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, mesta judges, police and State security officials, CDS [i.e., Committees for the Defense of Sandinism] chiefs, etc."(57). Use of Criminals and Manipulation of Public Opinion via phony "Sandinista" violence: "Each [contra] guerrilla subunit will be assigned specific tasks and missions that they should carry out...[crowds] will be mobilized toward areas where hostile and criminal elements of the FSLN, CDS and others live, with an effort for them to be armed with clubs, iron rods, placards and if possible, small firearms, which they will carry hidden. If possible, professional criminals will be hired to carry out specific selected 'jobs'(84). ... Specific tasks will be assigned... in order to create a 'martyr' for the cause, taking demonstrators to a confrontation with the authorities, in order to bring about uprisings or shootings, which will cause the death of one or more persons, who would become martyrs, a situation that should be made use of immediately against the regime, in order to create greater conflicts"(85). One page later the "Manual" discusses situations in which "to incite violence" (86), going on to state how to arrange personnel "In the case the [contra] chief participates in a religious concentration, a funeral of any other type of activity in which they have to behave in an organized fashion" (87) for maximum effect.
14. Though hiring assassins to carry out US foreign policy clearly violated US law, such practices also ran counter to the Reagan administration's own guidelines. An Executive Order signed by President Reagan, on December 4, 1981, stated that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the US Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination (section 2.11)," stating further that: "no agency of the intelligence community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this order (section 2.12)."
15. Shortly before resigning his position of leadership in the Contras in protest over the attitudes revealed above, Edgar Chamorro described the CIA's liaison to the Contras, Dewey Maroni,: "I have never witnessed such arrogance while working with a foreigner" (Chamorro: 22).
16. Congress also reacted to the emerging evidence of Contras' CIA-backed terrorism by passing more restrictive "Boland Amendments." In late 1983, Congress had passed new guidelines for fiscal 1984. This second Boland Amendment required all U.S. funding for the Contras (military aid and otherwise) to be terminated after May 1984. The events of 1984 demonstrated to a Congressional majority that still more restrictive language was necessary in order to convey the extent of Congressional concern to the administration. Therefore, in Fall 1984, a third Boland Amendment was written into PL 98-473. Section 8066 of that bill was amended to state that "no funds available to the CIA, DOD or any other agency or entity of the US involved in intelligence activities may be obligated or expended for the purpose, or which would have the effect, of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual" (emphasis added). Included within a larger Continuing Resolution, President Reagan could either reject the whole package or sign the law. Whatever misgivings he may have had, in October 1984 President Reagan's choice was made: he signed the law.
17. Nevertheless, visible and covert intimidation of Nicaragua by the US diversified and escalated in 1984-5. The US Air Force conducted supersonic overflights of Nicaragua, 200 of them in 1983. These rose in number to over 475 in 1984, or three overflights in each two days (LARR). These overflights, which apparently gathered photographic intelligence for the CIA and the Contras, were reported to have continued throughout 1986 and 1987.
18. March-April 1985: In complete disregard for the provisions of PL 98-473, Section 8066, at a press conference, President Reagan boldly stated that "we seek [the] removal of [the] current leadership" of Nicaragua. He proposed that official US aid be given to the Contras, conditioned on a cease fire and peace talks. Assured by these conditions, $27 million in "humanitarian", not lethal, aid was approved by Congress. During this debate human rights groups (e.g., Americas Watch, and former New York State Deputy Attorney General Brody) presented substantial evidence of gross violation of human rights by the Contras; others (2 Mormon missionaries) claimed that it was the Sandinistas who had violated human rights in the course of the growing war. Administration spokesmen then attacked the human rights groups' reports, playing up their perception of the validity of the Mormon amateur's investigatory efforts. This foreshadowed an even more vicious redbaiting of the critics of the Contra policy, started by the Heritage Foundation in 1985, and furthered by New Republic writer Fred Barnes in 1986. Attacks on the patriotism of the President's opponents reached their nadir in March 1986, when White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan accused Republicans and Democrats in Congress who opposed the Contras of supporting Soviet expansionism.
19. Using authority expressly delegated to the presidency earlier, on May 1, 1985, President Reagan imposed an embargo on all U.S. trade with Nicaragua. Secretly, President Reagan and Vice President Bush directly encouraged foreign heads of state to use their governments' funds to aid the Contras. A 42 page document introduced as evidence in the 1989 criminal trial of NSC staffer Lt. Col. (ret.) Oliver North described Bush's direct contact with the Honduran president to these ends (Pichirallo:1). Publicly, however, Reagan and Bush continued to act as if the authority of Congress was still needed in order to conduct an anti-Nicaraguan foreign policy.
20. In the Spring of 1986, President Reagan's proposal for $100 million in military aid to the contras was defeated in House of Representatives (220 to 210) in March 1986, only to re-emerge and pass both houses later in the Summer. Thus, at the start of fiscal 1987 (i.e., in October 1986), military aid to the Contras by the US again became fully legal.
21. On November 25, 1986, however, US Attorney General Edwin Meese publicly confirmed that profits from secret arms sales deals to Iran may have been used to finance the military efforts of the Contras during the period in which Congress had made such aid illegal (i.e., 1984-6). President Reagan asked Meese to investigate; later three senior statesmen were also designated to look into the Iran-Contras scandal and to report to the president. This Tower Commission Report was issued in January 1987; it confirmed Meese's finding and discovered additional irregular sources of US support for the Contras (e.g., contributions by private Americans that were solicited by the NSC staff; contributions from foreign nations, such as Brunei and Saudi Arabia). Special prosecutors and Congressional Committees then began a thorough audit of the Reagan administration's network of support for the Contras in the 1980s. The final report of the Congressional investigation (see U.S. House..., below), highly critical of the control over US foreign policy exercised by responsible officials in the Reagan White House, was signed by all Democrat investigators and three Republican Senators. A less critical minority report, issued by House Republicans, was attached as an Appendix to the main report.
22. In March 1987, former Sandinista Central Bank president Arturo Cruz, who served in 1985-7 as the chief spokesman for the Contra's UNO front organization, resigned from the Contra movement. In his statement at the time of his resignation Cruz declared his belief that there no longer existed any realistic possibility that the Contras represented the cause of freedom with which he earlier had joined hands. Cruz announced that he favored a negotiated end to the conflict.
23. In August 1987, at Guatemala City, the five heads of state of the Central American nations signed the Guatemalan Accord, or "Esquipulas II treaty," a framework for peace in Central America. It called for cease fires, negotiations among combatants, full democratization, amnesty for political detainees and guerrillas, the complete discontinuation of the use of national territories for the purpose of sponsoring guerrillas mounting aggression onto neighboring nations, and the termination of external military involvement in the region. Nicaragua signed this agreement and took steps toward its implementation during the Fall of 1987, as did El Salvador and Guatemala. Negotiations between the Contras and the Nicaraguan government, conducted through the good offices of Cardinal Obando in the Dominican Republic, however, proved fruitless. On December 21, 1987, the US Congress approved an additional $ 8 million in US non-lethal aid to the Contras. In February 1988, attempts to further aid the Contras, with either humanitarian and/or military aid failed, as a bill to this effect was rejected by the House of Representatives.
24. On March 23, 1988, a fierce Sandinista battle against the Contras in the Honduran-Nicaraguan border region stimulated the US to send 3200 combat troops. Shortly thereafter, Contras and Sandinistas began the long postponed process of learning to negotiate with one another face-to-face. The first session was held at Sapoa, Nicaragua. The result of that meeting was a 60 day long ceasefire during which, in exchange for release of political prisoners by the Sandinistas, the Contras promised that they would lay down their arms. The Reagan Administration was not a party to this agreement, expressed strong misgivings to Contra negotiators by telephone during the important talks, and appears to have been the driving force behind the Contras' later decision to not surrender their arms.
25. Though violations of the ceasefire first occurred in late March, 1988, and continued sporadically over the course of the next two years, both the Nicaraguan government and the Contras continued to attempt to negotiate for a permanent end to the war. Obdurate to the end, the Reagan Administration sought unsuccessfully to convince Congress to appropriate new humanitarian aid for the Contras, including seeking a promise from House leader Jim Wright for an expedited vote on new military aid if the ceasefire had broken down. These efforts were rebuffed by House leaders: no new military aid to the Contras was appropriated during the final year of the Reagan Presidency.
26. The G. H. W. Bush Administration in its first year attempted to keep the Contras alive as an organization while supporting a process of winding down the war. In its relations with Congress, the Administration was more successful than its predecessor. In a carefully arranged bargain with Congress, Bush accepted continuation of the cutoff of military aid to the Contras in exchange for Congress' authorization of $49.75 million in resumed non-lethal aid. (When administrative costs and separate aid to the Nicaraguan Catholic Church is added to this sum, the total appropriated was $66.6 million). The bill passed 301-110 in the House and 89-9 in the Senate (LAWR 1989). Four Congressional Committees, however, were given the understanding that resumed Contra military operations would permit them to stop dispersal of funds to the Contras through action of their committees alone (rather than require action of the full Congress). This informal understanding permitted the President to overcome opposition to any aid to the Contras and to gain acceptance for his view that, if the February 1990 elections were fraudulent or unfair, then Congress would entertain his proposals for resumed military aid to the Contras --or other measures-- by which the US might oppose the Sandinistas in the 1990s.
27. At other levels, however, the G. H. W. Bush Administration's relations with Managua remained icy. In late May 1989, the two governments each expelled two of the others' diplomats and, after the December 1989 US invasion of Panama, further diplomatic dueling took place. US military forces there encircled and searched the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Panama's residence, a clear breach of international protocols governing the sanctity of diplomatic residences. In response, the Managua government expelled nearly 100 US diplomats from Nicaragua.
28. US sympathies clearly were with the candidacy of Violeta Chamorro as she opposed Sandinista Comandante Daniel Ortega in his attempt at re-election in February 1990. The extent of covert US support to her opposition campaign --widely charged as massive in Central America-- has yet to be independently verified. Whether swayed by her backers' propaganda, or simply fed up with Sandinism, Nicaraguan voters delivered a stunning landslide victory to the woman publisher; Chamorro out polled Ortega 55 to 41 percent. Inaugurated as Nicaraguan president in late April 1990, Chamorro made substantial gesture of national conciliation: (a) she demanded, and presided over, the disarming and disbanding of the Contras; and (b) she accepted the continuation of limited Sandinista influence by retaining Humberto Ortega (Daniel's brother) as head of the Armed Forces. Delicately proceeding further, great reductions were made in the size of police and military establishments. Though the Chamorro Administration and its elected anti-Sandinista successors, first led by Pres. Arnoldo Aleman, 1996-2000, periodically were menaced by strikes by Sandinista unions, and did not prove able to fully reactivate the stagnant Nicaraguan economy. (More generous foreign assistance from the US and other Western sources might have made the transition easier there.) Finally, in a reflection of the waning of the Cold War, the USSR discontinued all aid to Nicaragua and its Cuban ally withdrew all personnel by the end of 1990.
Edgar Chamorro, "Confessions of A Contra," The New Republic (August 5, 1985): 18-23.
CQWR 1985: Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 43, 16 [Apr 20, 85]: p. 713.
DOS 1984: Department of State Bulletin 84, 2083 (February 1984): 51.
LARR: Latin America Regional Report: Mexico/Central America 85, 1 [January 11, 1985).
LAWR 1989: Latin American Weekly Report 89, 16 (April 27, 1989): 5.
Joanne Omang and Aryeh Neier, editors, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla War, (NY: Vintage, 1985).
Joe Pichirallo, "Reagan, Bush Worked to Solicit Aid for Contras During Congressional Ban," Washington Post (April 7, 1989): 1, 6.
WP 1985: Washington Post, (April 15, 1985): 14.
WP 1985b: Washington Post [March 22, 1985]: 1, 28.
John Booth, The End and the Beginning: the Nicaraguan Revolution (Boulder CO: Westview, 1982).
Gordon L. Bowen, Nicaragua in Current World Conflicts and Confrontations Charles F. Bahmueller, editor (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 1999): 140-149.
U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and U.S. Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, Report of the U.S. Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, House Report 100-433 / Senate Report 100-216 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1987).
Thomas Walker, Nicaragua: The Land of Sandino third edition (Boulder CO: Westview,1991). Walker's many other works concerning the conflict of the 1980s include the edited volumes Reagan Versus the Sandinistas ((Boulder CO: Westview,1987) and Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua (1991). Most informative concerning the 1990s is Walker, ed., Nicaragua Without Illusions (Boulder CO: Westview,1997).
Lawrence Walsh, Independent Counsel, Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: v l: Investigations and Prosecutions (Washington DC: U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, August 4, 1993).
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