In the early 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan launched a covert war to destroy the fledgling Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. It was brutal: Paramilitary war, CIA attacks, economic blockade, and more.

It would wreak havoc on the country, killing tens of thousands and ravaging the economy. But an international solidarity movement stood up in response. And the Reagan government’s hubris, and drive to fuel its war on Nicaragua, would break U.S. laws and lead to a shocking scandal in Washington: Iran Contra.

In this episode, host Michael Fox walks back into the 1980s, to the U.S. response to revolution in Nicaragua and to the international solidarity that pushed back.

This is Part 2 of Episode 10.

Under the Shadow is an investigative narrative podcast series that walks back in time, telling the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present.

In each episode, host Michael Fox takes us to a location where something historic happened — a landmark of revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument, or a museum. But every place he takes us was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world.

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.

This podcast is produced in partnership between The Real News Network and NACLA.

Guests:

Edited by Heather Gies.
Sound design by Gustavo Türck.
Theme music by Monte Perdido and Michael Fox.

Permanent links

  • Follow and support journalist Michael Fox or Under the Shadow at https://www.patreon.com/mfox. You can also see pictures and listen to full clips of Michael Fox’s music for this episode.

Additional links/info

  • Monte Perdido’s new album Ofrenda is now out. You can listen to the full album on SpotifyDeezerApple MusicYouTube or wherever you listen to music.
  • Other music from Blue Dot Sessions.
  • For declassified documents on the U.S. Contra war on Nicaragua and the Iran Contra affair, you can visit Peter Kornbluh’s National Security Archives here and here.
  • Brian Wilson’s memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson, is available here. His interview on Democracy Now! is here.
  • Eline van Ommen’s book, Nicaragua Must Survive: Sandinista Revolutionary Diplomacy in the Global Cold War (University of California Press, 2023), is available here.
  • William Robinson’s book, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention In The Nicaraguan Elections And American Foreign Policy In The Post-cold War Era about the U.S. role in Nicaragua’s 1990 election is available here.
  • For the 2007 documentary American Sandinista, you can visit the website of director Jason Blalockjasonblalock.com
  • Here are links to the 1980 documentaries about Nicaragua’s literacy campaign that I mentioned in part 1: La Salida and La Llegada.
  • For a deeper analysis of opposing views on role of the U.S. government today in Nicaragua I recommend the following resources:
  • This pair of NACLA articles from professor William Robinson, offers an opposing view, underscoring that “Washington’s principal concern in Nicaragua is not getting rid of Ortega but preserving the interests of transnational capital.”

Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Hi, I’m your host, Michael Fox. First, before we get started, let me say that today is the continuation of episode 10 about the Nicaragua Revolution. If you haven’t heard the first part, I recommend you go back and listen to that Now. Also, many portions of today’s episode deal with harsh themes from the US War on Nicaragua in the 1980s, including killings, war and terror attacks. If you’re sensitive to these things or you’re in the room with small children, you might want to consider another time to listen. Okay, here’s the show.

I’m standing on the shore of this old Fisherman’s Village, Pacific Ocean, Northwestern Nicaragua. In the evening time, in the early morning, these guys roll the boats in and out using these big long wooden rods that they helped to get them on shore. It’s dark sand in a volcanic. The waves are breaking. There’s about a dozen surfers out in the water. Many of them are from Brazil and the US actually folks that came here years ago fell in love with the surf here, bought homes on the side of the stay. There’s a little surf hostile on the beach, kind of right behind me. Also behind me is this little kind of palapa where woman sells fish and beers and food on the beach. But other than that, it’s not developed. It’s dirt roads, but really nice, really nice. It’s called here and it’s just a couple miles from Pu Sandino. Of course, Sandino Sandino. He was the Freedom Fighter who led the fight against the US Marines when Nicarag was occupied in the 1910s and twenties. And the reason I’m here is not for the nice break or the ocean, which is beautiful, but because this spot, this Port Guer Sandino was the scene of major, major pushback by the United States during the 1980s.

Remember just a few years before the sand and East insurgency had overthrown a brutal US backed dictator, but amid the Cold War crusade against the supposed threat of communism in central America, the United States set out to do all it could to destabilize the new government. The US government trained counter-revolutionaries launched economic sanctions, imposed an embargo, and the CIA and the US government was openly attacking ports up and down the Pacific and the Caribbean side of Nicaragua. And this one got mined, attacked several times, including the refinery, which is just a couple miles down the road from here.

That was in the fall of 1983. The CIA trained commandos and then supervised raids from speedboats targeting major Adavan ports. As part of the strategy to undermine the Sand Anisa government, they damaged port facilities in Puerto Sandino. They also attacked oil and pipeline operations. A White House official confirmed that CIA agents supervise the attack. Let’s make the bastards sweat. CIA director William Casey reportedly told his chief of operations for Latin America about the sabotage campaign. Early the next year, 1984, the CIA began laying underwater mines at Nicaraguan ports. In the following months, at least eight ships from numerous countries were damaged by the mines, including a Soviet freighter and a Dutch dredger. The actions caused an uproar both in Nicaragua and abroad.

While the mining of Nicaragua Harbors has caused a huge political furor in the United States, antisa gorilla sources here in Costa Rica feel vindicated because of the tactical effectiveness of the mining.

This wasn’t a new strategy. So if we think about what the United States government did to Chile under ae and that infamous quote from Nixon where he talks about make the economy scream, I think that was one of the strategies that the Reagan administration used against Nicaragua.

That is Alex Venia.

I am an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

We heard from him in the first part of this episode. He’s an expert on this period of US intervention in Central America and in particular Nicaragua in the 1980s.

So by mining the port, by controlling and preventing economic activity from flowing in or flowing out of the country, I mean Nicarag says knew pretty early on that there was some sort of covert actual, well, a covert economic war and an actual overt war at the borders happening against him, and they knew who was waging it.

The attacks on Nicaragua ports were just the tip of the iceberg.

The Reagan administration has spent over $80 million funding the Contra’s gorilla attacks inside Nicaragua. The question center on who the Contras are targeting, it has become some, say, a dirty war.

The tactics are what we call terrorist tactics. They are not military tactics

That ands so much more in a minute.

This is under the shadow, an investigative narrative podcast series that walks back in time to tell the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present. This podcast is a co-production in partnership with The Real News, Anne Nala. I’m your host, Michael Fox, longtime radio reporter, editor, journalist, the producer and host of the podcast Brazil On Fire. I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years in Latin America. I’ve seen firsthand the role of the US government abroad and most often sadly, it is not for the better invasions, coups, sanctions, support for authoritarian regimes politically and economically. The United States has cast a long shadow over Latin America for the past 200 years. In each episode in this series, I’ll take you to a location where something historic happened, a landmark of revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument, or a museum. But every place I’m going to bring you was once the site of history making events that shook countries impacted lives and left deep marks on the world will try to discover what lingers of that history today. So in the first part of this episode, we looked at the Sand Anisa Revolution against dictator Anastasio samosa and the rollout of US plans to destabilize the new government. In this part two, we dive deep into the CIA’s contra war on Nicaragua, the economic embargo and the Iran Contra scandal, but also the international Solidarity movement that stood up in response.

This is under the shadow season one Central America, episode 10, part two 1980s, Nicaragua Contra War. So while the CIA is mining ports, the contras are wreaking havoc on the countryside. Those were the counter-revolutionaries armed and trained in Honduras and sent to destabilize the scent in the government.

We talked about the Contra’s war on Nicaragua and their terror campaign on the civilian population in the first part of this episode. It had a tremendous toll in the country. They killed thousands of innocent people. They destroyed crops and industrial production. They forced the sand Anisa government to divert as much as 50% of its national budget to fighting the war that meant less money for social programs, health and education, food production, and the promises of the revolution. William Robinson is a professor of sociology and Latin American studies at uc, Santa Barbara. He lived in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. We heard from him often in the first part of this episode. There’s a rapid

Militarization of the whole country. You now see the army and the young kids in their military uniforms. Everyone had their AK 47 and their militia training. But you now see this incredible militarization and it undermines the ability of the revolution to transform things. The strategy was to grind down the economy, to make it impossible for the revolution to improve people’s lives and to eventually force the population to turn its back on the revolution just in the name of survival. So that was a war of attrition. The term that was thrown around by us strategists, military and political strategists back then was low intensity warfare. It’s been called quite a number of things in recent decades, but that was what they called it then and what we called it. It was the war of attrition and it was very successful.

The San Anta government instituted a draft to more effectively combat the US backed Contras. It was not popular,

And what that meant is that a significant portion of the population, which wasn’t totally Gungho San Anisa, but wasn’t counter-revolutionary either through their baggin, not necessarily with the counter-revolution, but against the Sandinistas or sent their kids abroad. And that really also helped to undermined the social base of the revolution.

Meanwhile, the United States was also unleashing a campaign of psychological warfare on the Nicaraguan people spreading fear, tension and terror.

There’s this spy plane, it actually doesn’t drop bombs. It goes way too high in the sky. You can’t see it and it breaks the sound barrier. So for about a month straight, they would fly overhead every day and maybe they were taking photographs, but we analyzed at the time those of us trying to, they were analysts of us strategy analyzed that they wanted the whole population to have this to be a permanent state of tension and anxiety. I am going to tell you, my son was born in September 2nd, 1984, and these overhead flights started shortly afterwards and we were about to send him to be raised by his grandmother who was living in Mexico because we thought any day there would be an invasion.

Keep in mind that this was about a year after the US invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Granada in 1983, as that country’s revolution imploded.

But the point here is we lived round the clock with this tension, right, this fear and this tension, and that was part of the psychological warfare.

But if the Reagan government was doing all it could to undermine the Sanda Revolution,

Nicaragua,

There was also an international grassroots movement standing up for Nicaragua and pushing back on the United States. Nicaragua was an inspiration around the world. Like I mentioned in the last episode in 1979, the Sandinistas rid the country of a four decade long dictatorship. They rolled out literacy, vaccination and health campaigns. They built roads in sugar mills and created a ministry of culture with the goal of democratizing art. Poet priest, Ernesto led the effort. Solidarity activists from the United States supported the revolution at home and abroad. Thousands visited the country on tours of solidarity with the revolution were brigades that helped harvest crops on state run and cooperative farms. Nala itself, which co-produces this podcast series led several delegations throughout the 1980s. Alex Cox was among those who visited the country on a solidarity tour, a film by Alex Cox. He’s the British film director who would later go on to make the movie Walker about the US filibuster who invaded and took over Nicaragua in the mid 18 hundreds

Walker. It is the God-given right of the American people to dominate the Western Hemisphere.

We looked at that in depth in episode eight. You

Go and travel around and you see the farm cooperative and you meet the representatives of the political parties, et cetera. So we went on one of those trips and it was very interesting. I really enjoyed it.

He was there during the November, 1984 general election, which saw Sand Anisa leader Daniel Ortega win a landslide victory with more than two thirds of the vote. Turnout was over 75%. The Sandinistas hoped a clear electoral victory with the participation of hundreds of international observers would encourage the United States to set aside its war on the country.

It was tremendously positive and very enthusiastic. The vast majority of the people whom I met supported the revolution and supported the sand ANDAs. And then over the four years that I was there going back and forth, it did change because the Contra war enacted such a heavy toll that everybody had a family member who had been killed or impacted or forced to leave their farm because of the American financed terrorism of the Contras

Historian Alex Venia.

There’s a huge anti Reagan Sunday Mista march in Managua. I think it must be from 83 or 84, and I remember seeing a documentary about this, and there’s a banner at the forefront of this march where it says Reagan son of a bitch. And I think that’s how we can think about Ronald Reagan and what he did, not just in Nicaragua but Central America. This is one of the darkest, if not the darkest period of Latin American history when it comes to genocide, political violence and just mass death. And Ronald Reagan was behind a lot of

It. People in United States knew it and responded, but

Then the grassroots side is you had the emergence of the sanctuary movement that emerges not too far from me here in Phoenix in Tucson with the Presbyterian minister in church that start to create an underground railroad for central American refugees who are fleeing the violence that the US is generating in their home country. And you have hundreds of thousands of Americans who are marching on the streets and become part of the Central American solidarity movie.

As many as 80,000 people across the United States signed a pledge of resistance promising to commit civil disobedience. If the United States invaded Nicaragua and people were already putting their bodies on the line against the US support for the Contras, there were hunger strikes, others blocked weapons shipments. Many went to jail. Vietnam veteran Brian Wilson lost both legs while participating in a nonviolent protest on the railroad tracks outside of a US weapons depot in California. The train ran him over.

We found out later that the train crew that day had been ordered not to stop the train, which was an unprecedented, basically an illegal order.

That’s him speaking to Amy Goodman’s democracy now in 2011 after the release of his memoir, blood on the Tracks.

This is what happens to people of course all over the world who obstruct the Yankee Mad train that’s trying to repress people who want to have self-determination or what have you. So it was just another part of the US policy coming home very personally to me, viscerally. The day I woke up, 9,000 people showed up at the tracks and ripped up 300 feet of the tracks and stacked up the railroad ties in a very interesting sculpture. And from that day on for 28 consecutive months, there was a permanent occupation in the tracks of sometimes 200 people with tents blocking every train and every truck, 2100 people arrested. Three people had their arms broken by the police.

We must have peace in Central America. That’s

Alina Van Oman is a historian at the University of Leeds. She says it’s hard to underscore just how big the solidarity movement grew to be in the United States, how important it was for Nicaragua and vice versa.

It’s easy to forget because you haven’t lifted, but I think it was very, very present in local council meetings. There were debates about the Minister revolution and United States foreign policy. This was something that student unions talked about. This was posters everywhere. It’s more left-leaning. City councils established relationships with Nicaragua towns was kind of an alternative foreign policy route.

Some of the people who traveled to Nicaragua also put their lives on the line.

Often other Americans would go down there and serve as human shields to protect. They thought that if you have foreigners on the border areas that the contrasts wouldn’t attack the population, DEA population there because foreigners were around,

But the contras did not hold back.

The electricity is coming out of here, out of the powerhouse, up to the transformers on the pole and going into the 10 kilometers of distribution line.

That’s the voice of 27-year-old US engineer Ben Linder. He was in Nicaragua as a volunteer, helping to build a small hydroelectric dam to provide electricity for a poor community in the countryside. But on April 28th, 1987, Ben Linder was killed alongside two Nicaraguans in a contra ambush. The 2007 documentary, American Sanda looks back at the US citizens who came to Nicaragua in the 1980s to support the revolution, including Ben. Ben was seated with his notebook says one eyewitness in the documentary, and it was at that moment that a hand grenade took his life. It was something that we never understood why they killed him, says SA friend of Linder’s who worked with him on the hydroelectric project. Of course, it was people from our country, but they were sent and supported by the United States and they never understood what he was trying to do here for us. For the Nicaraguans. The following year, the Contra shot and wounded New York, Reverend Lucius Walker during a terror attack on civilians, Reverend Walker was in Nicaragua leading a religious study delegation. I knew Reverend Walker. He was an incredible man. He passed away in 2010, but he spoke about the attack on his life in Nicaragua in the late 1990s on a local New York TV network.

Two people in that boat attack were killed. 29 were wounded, and I was able to see firsthand an example of terrorism, promoted, organized, paid for, directed by my own government, and as I lay on the boat wounded from that gunshot wound, I realized that the bullet which came within four inches of shattering my spine was paid for by my own tax money. And it shaped in me a resolve to not simply acquiesce and go away quietly, but to renew our efforts to fight against the foreign policy of our own government that would kill innocent civilians around the

Corner.

Reverend Walker responded to that moment by founding pastors for peace. Over the last 35 years, the group has carried thousands of tons of aid to countries like Nicaragua, Cuba, and elsewhere that face punishing US policies and crippling economic sanctions. Meanwhile, as the United States was attacking Nicaragua, other countries were standing up, including Cuba and the Soviet Union, which strengthened their ties with the sista government in the face of us. Aggression. Throughout the 1980s, the San Anisa government was clear that all these ties of solidarity were an important lifeline, particularly as the war dragged on and the financial crisis deepened. This is the essence of Alina Van Oman’s 2023 book. Nicaragua must Survive Sand Anisa Revolutionary Diplomacy in the Global Cold War.

I’ll argue that the Sandinista has used revolutionary diplomacy and transnational connections as a means to keep the revolution alive and making sure it survived in the phase of this kind of international aggression, but also obviously the kind of domestic discontent that was growing.

She says the Sanda government not only built international connections at the grassroots level, but also cultivated ties with leaders around the world and in particular in Europe. There she says political leaders were concerned about the spread of communism, but they feared that Reagan’s war on central America could have disastrous consequences, not just for Central America but across the planet. The name of Alina’s book Nicaragua Must Survive is actually a nod to a creative international response from the Sandinistas to US aggression.

In 1985, there was this rag campaign called Rag Must Survive as well or Nicarag, and that was one of the biggest transnational fundraising campaigns of the FSLM that they organized basically to keep their economy going in the aftermath of the US embargo and basically to prevent the country from collapsing

The US embargo. If the contra war and the CIA actions weren’t bad enough on the heels of the ESA 1984 electoral victory, the US government decides to turn up the heat even more.

Our objectives will not be attained by goodwill and noble aspirations alone.

On May 1st, 1985, Reagan declares Nicaragua a threat to national security and imposes a trade embargo or blockade on the country. The measure bans all imports and exports to and from Nicaragua and prohibits Nicaragua planes and boats from entering US ports. The United States had long been a top trading partner of Nicaragua. Despite sand Anisa efforts to increase trade with other countries, the embargo still hit hard, costing an estimated $50 million a year. Some parts for US manufactured goods became virtually impossible to acquire. In other words, when something broke down, it was hard to fix it. Factories stood idle while waiting for replacement parts similar US trade embargoes have long caused suffering. Most famously in Cuba and more recently in Venezuela, where I’ve reported on the impacts firsthand, the tactics have not changed nor have the goals in Nicaragua in the years after the start of the embargo, the economy shutters, inflation soars the blockade coupled with the war wreaks havoc on the economy. We’re waiting in line. There are no products. One middle-aged woman tells the camera in a documentary from the late 1980s, we’re dying of hunger and our money is worthless. It’s all worthless. She says,

Our land is so fertile here. We should not be going hungry, says a man. But in the United States, they send dollars, so we kill each other, responds an elderly woman and then they take everything we have. William Robinson,

You have to understand how difficult it was just to get eggs. There was shortages of everything. There’s shortages of toilet paper. There was shortages of all the basic food stuffs. Half of your day was struggling in the streets to figure out how you’re going to get food that night. How are you going if you ran out of gas, propane gas, there wasn’t necessarily, you can’t just run down to the store and get your gas tank filled up. You had to spend a day or two days negotiating and figuring out how you’re going to even get some more propane gas.

Meanwhile, in the United States, this was happening.

We hold these hearings because in the course of the conduct of the nation’s business, something went wrong. Seriously wrong

That in a minute.

Hey everyone, Maximilian Alvarez here, editor in chief of the Real News Network. We’re going to get you right back to the program in a sec, I promise. But really quick, I just wanted to remind y’all that the Real News is an independent viewer and listener supported grassroots media network. We don’t take corporate cash, we don’t have ads, and we never ever put our reporting behind paywalls, but we cannot continue to do this work without your support. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to produce powerful, unique, and journalistically rigorous shows like Under the Shadow. So if you want more vital storytelling and reporting like this, we need you to become a supporter of The Real News now. Just head over to the real news.com/donate and donate today. It really makes a difference. Also, if you’re enjoying under the shadow, then you will definitely want to follow Nala. The North American Congress on Latin America, nala’s reporting and analysis goes beyond the headlines to help you understand what’s happening in Latin America and the Caribbean from a progressive perspective. Visit nla.org to learn more. That’s NA c.org. Alright, thanks for listening back to the show.

I ran contra at the time. It was the biggest scandal to hit the US presidency since Richard Nixon’s Watergate the decade before, and I want to walk through it all because it’s complicated, but it’s also so important. Peter Koble is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, but

I really do think of us as forensic historians exhuming the Buried Secrets of State.

The archive has done tremendous work on Iran Contra since the late 1980s. It has a treasure trove of declassified documents. Many are shocking. They paint a clear uncensored picture of the scandal and the US terror campaign in the region. National Security Archive staff have produced a number of books on the topic one, which Peter co-edited. I’ll include the links to them in the show notes.

And you had an obsession with overthrowing the sun and government rolling back the Nicaragua Revolution that led directly to the Iran Contra scandal, which was at the time, and people have forgotten this, the most significant constitutional crisis for the US government. The Reagan administration had violated the basic sacrosanct foundation of the separation of powers, the power of the purse and Congress constitutionally controlled the power of the person. The Reagan administration basically circumvented that, lied about it and decided to fund its own foreign policy operations without Congress’s authority. Indeed going around Congress’s denial of authority for that covert paramilitary war to continue

Be in order. Joint meeting will come, joint meeting will come to water.

Remember that in 1983 and 1985, the US Congress explicitly prohibited the Reagan administration from providing financial support to the Contras. They did it anyway. Here’s how it went. In 1985, top officials in the Reagan administration began secretly selling weapons to Iran routed through Israel. It was illegal. The US government had imposed an arms embargo against Iran and designated the country a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran was desperate for weapons because it was at war with Iraq. The White House justified the armed shipments as part of an operation to free seven US hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a militant group with ties to Iran. Alex Venia,

What are they doing with the money that they’re making off these arm sales? Well, they’re funneling that money to pay for the contrast because officially the US government and the Reagan administration and his National Security Council White House could not give money to the contrasts. So they’re using these illicit economic gains from having sold weapons and missiles to the Iranians and transferring that to the contrasts. They’re also hitting up the SUL Brune. They’re hitting up this worldwide anti-communist network to also give them money so they can continue financing the contrasts to continue financing the atrocities that they’re committing in Ian fashion. In Nicaragua,

October 5th, 1986, the San Anisa government shoots down a US cargo plane carrying weapons to the Contras former US Marine. Eugene SFUs is the sole survivor. He’s captured an interviewed by a US reporter.

I feel I’m a prisoner of politics right now. Our government doing so many things and this government fighting back and I’m a boat in between stuck in the waves.

Hassan Fuss has admitted the plane. He parachuted from carried military supplies to rebels trying to overthrow the government here. He said Pilot William Cooper who died in the crash, talked of high level sponsors.

When an individual comes across and says, this is coming right out the main room that was said, that was said, what did that mean to you? I was coming right out of the White House.

Hassan Fuss was tried and sentenced to prison in Nicaragua for terrorism, though he was pardoned and released a month later. Meanwhile, a Lebanese magazine fully breaks the Iran Contra story following a leak by a senior official of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary guard.

And that blows up by 85 86 in the form of what now we remember as the Iran conscious scandal, which then leads to this infamous TV appearance by Ronald Reagan, which he says, I mean he lies to the American people. And to this day, I tell my students the fact that he wasn’t impeached for this. It is quite amazing that it did not happen.

The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false.

That was November 13th, 1986. Reagan’s approval rating tanks 20 points five months later he backpedals saying he still believes nothing was done wrong, but that the facts show differently. In May, 1987, the Iran Contra hearings begin on Capitol Hill.

These hearings this morning and for the days to follow will examine what happens when the trust, which is the lubricant of our system, is breached by high officials of our government.

The hearings last until August all summer long and they were a big thing. I was 10 at the time living on the outskirts of Washington dc but I remember them. I had a family member who studied law and he came into attend the trial. CNN covered it around the clock and it was the top story many nights in the evening News,

Colonel North please rise

Much of the congressional proceedings focused on one man, Colonel Oliver or Ollie North. That’s him being sworn in at the hearings. He wears a green military uniform with medals on his left chest. He’s clean shaven, short hair parted on the side. He’s a Vietnam vet and a US National Security Council staff member. He was the guy who basically ran the Iran Contra operation out of the White House. And as I mentioned in the first episode of this podcast, he was also the guy that my civics teacher wanted to bring into our class In the early 1990s, north was found to have shredded or hid important documents, but

When he has to testify before Congress, he was kind of like the star of the show. He was great at deflecting, at lying, at presenting himself as a true believer, as a guy who without saying that he engaged in criminal activity, he pretty much said that we are right and we are using this for a noble cause, which is an amorphously defined freedom or democracy.

Journalist Bill Moyers would later interview Senator John Kerry, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for an expose on the scandal.

They were willing to literally put the constitution at risk because they believed somehow there was a higher order of things that the ends do in fact justify are justified by the means.

Criminal trials dragged on against Oliver North and roughly a dozen other top officials in the Reagan administration, including national security advisors and members of the CIA and military. As we’ll see a little later, their outcomes be a sign of as independent counsel Lawrence Walsh put it, how powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office without consequences. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the war, the inflation and the economic misery continued.

The

War was brutal. Says Marvin Ortega Rodriguez, a member of the Sandinistas who would go on to serve as Nicaragua ambassador to Brazil and Panama between 1961 and 1979, it’s estimated that approximately 60,000 people may have died in combat fighting to overthrow samosa and between 1980 and 1990, another 60,000 fell. He says every day you had more deaths, a daily violent bloodletting. He says when you go to cemeteries, their whole areas with graves painted red and black sand, Anisa colors, so many kids fell fighting and many people began to migrate to the United States. It’s estimated that 240,000 people arrived to the US at that time. We have traditionally low migration to the US at that time. It grew. He says, meanwhile, the United States rolled out a new form of foreign intervention. William Robinson did some of the first reporting on this in the early nineties.

The 1990 elections are approaching the US massively begins internal political intervention in a new way spends millions of dollars. I think the figure I put in my 1992 book, a Faustian Bargain is a total of $25 million for a small country is incredible of funding all of this opposition, political opposition, which is going to organize and unite around a single slate, single candidate for the 1990 elections. So this new form of political intervention where you finance and organize a trade union, student groups, peasant groups, civic groups, political parties, and then unite, unite them all in a united front that was inaugurated that strategy in Nicaragua and then of course throughout the 1990s, and again, right up till date, that’s a strategy used around the world. Now

Much of that funding came through the National Endowment for Democracy or NED, which was founded in 1983 to essentially do openly what the CIA used to do covertly,

But it’s not just limited to the NED, there was all kinds of political funding. The NED was the spearhead and then of course there was the covert CIA political funding also continued.

William Robinson says the 1990 election was technically free and fair, but in reality the vote was held under a gun.

The United States placed a gun to the head of the Nicaragua and said, well now you see what we have done throughout the 1980s. We’ve destroyed your lives, we’ve shattered your hopes. We’ve made it impossible for any meaningful transformation in favor of you poor majority. And now if you want any respite, you are going to vote for this opposition that we’ve cobbled together for

Alex Nia. There was no mistaking the message from Washington in the lead up to the elections

By the time we get to was the elections in 1990. The US and the people that kept sending out Nicaragua were very clear either, do you guys want more war, vote for this Anas, do you want the end of war vote for Violeta Chamorro? And people were like tens of thousands of people had died in the country war. People were tired of war. And the surprising thing is the FSLM lost the election, but they accepted the loss, right? So that’s also, it went against this 10 years of propaganda that the Reagan administration and then George HW Bush had launched against the

Opposition candidate Viol defeats President Daniel Ortega with almost 55% of the vote. It was a crushing defeat for SMO, but also a victory for Nicaragua democracy. It was the first time the government passed from one president to another peacefully through elections. The Sandinistas were also clear that the United States was not the only one to blame for their electoral laws. Marvin Ortega Rodriguez says at a conference at the University of Caras, Thomas Bo, one of the historic leaders of the FSLN was asked what led to San Anis mo’s electoral defeat? He said, we lost humility, we lost our modesty, we got cocky, we felt powerful, and we isolated ourselves from the people. William Robinson,

The FSLM. The Sandinistas also made a lot of mistakes. We cannot glorify everything real human beings in struggle. Real mistakes made real abuses of power. The thing about the US Counter-revolutionary strategy, it was very intelligent in the sense that it knew how to exploit the mistakes made by the Sandinistas and how to coax them to make more and more mistakes. I just didn’t want to leave that out of the story here. One, because it has to be told, but secondly, because then those mistakes become part of the US strategy.

One of those mistakes happened early on in mesquite indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast in December, 1981, the Sanda government resettled thousands of community members far from their homes. It was one example of a national revolutionary project that did not factor in indigenous autonomy and it fueled an ongoing latent historical conflict in Nicaragua that would broil between the government and these communities and more specifically the region’s two main indigenous resistance organizations. The United States took advantage. A 1986 report from us solidarity groups wrote that quote from time to time both received support from the US government’s covert war on Nicaragua. Some members of the communities joined the ranks of the Contras. The Sanda government tried to make things right in the end, it began peace negotiations. In 1987, the Nicaragua legislature approved autonomy for the mosquito people and their region, including the right to their traditional lands. Communities that had been resettled were allowed to return home.

Given the clear mandate for peace and democracy, there is no reason at all for further military activity from any quarter

Following the San ANDA’s defeat from the 1990 presidential election, president George HW Bush announced that the US was happy with the results and that he would lift the embargo and provide $300 million in new economic aid for the country. Nico’s new president Violeta Chamorro rolled out a pro US economic package.

So what that represented was that the new government would definitively do away with the San Eastern Revolution, but would also inaugurate the neoliberal structural adjustment. The restoration not just of full capitalism but neoliberal capitalism in Nicaragua. With that political triumph, it will privatize everything that had been public. It will not just politically restore the old oli gargy back to power, but economically restore the strength of the Nicaragua bourgeoisie at a time when Nicaragua was going to integrate into these new circuits of global capitalism. And so that’s what this opposition and its triumph represented,

But there was resistance, protests and strikes against the privatizations and austerity. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Iran conscious scandal trials languished,

Did you or did you not shred documents that reflected presidential approval of the diversion

In the trial against Oliver North. For instance, defense lawyers raised legal challenges over the release of classified information to hold up the trial and block the release of key information. The 14 charges against him were dropped down to a handful. He was eventually convicted of three counts, including aiding and ab embedding in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry and ordering the destruction of documents. But those convictions were vacated by a DC court in 1990 and then dismissed the following year.

10 more people were also convicted, including national security advisors, John Poindexter and Robert McFarland and Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, who we heard about in the Honduras episode. Other top White House officials and members of the CIA and military were also convicted, but almost all were pardoned by outgoing President George HW Bush in 1992. He also pardoned former defense secretary Casper Weinberger before the case against him went to trial. You might remember that Bush ran the CIA in the 1970s before becoming Reagan’s vice president and eventually winning the presidency himself in 1988 during the Iran Contra scandal. Bush said he had no knowledge of the dealings.

Weinberger’s notes contain evidence of a conspiracy among the highest ranking. Reagan administration officials,

Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who led the investigation into the criminal conduct of the Reagan administration. Officials responded to Bush’s pardon before the press.

President Bush’s pardon of Casper Weinberger and other Iran Contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. The Iran Contra coverup has continued for more than six years. It has now been completed with the pardon of Casper Weinberg,

Alex Ignia.

There’s a lot of controversial findings that should have resulted in more people being sent away and the fact that it wasn’t allows it to continue, right? So a lot of these things have never gone away. A failure to actually prosecute this and find out what totally happened, led to the reign of impunity and for it to become an even more systemic feature of us and empire, particularly in the global south.

There was another lawsuit the United States ignored. Remember the CIA mining of the ports that I talked about in the start of today’s episode? Well, in the mid eighties, Nicaragua brought the United States to the International Court of Justice for violating international law by supporting the Contras and Mining Nicaragua’s Harbors. The ICJ is a branch of the United Nations and it’s the only international court that adjudicates disputes between countries, so it’s a big thing.

Thank you, your Honor. Your honors have asked us to address

This was the court that later heard the high profile genocide case against former Yugoslavian leader Slovic and

The case before the court is an opportunity to break this vicious cycle.

More recently, it’s the court that heard the case of Nicaragua against Germany for failing to prevent genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. But back in 1986, the court ruled in favor of Nicaragua. It ruled that the US had violated international law, violated the sovereignty of Nicaragua and used force against the country. It ordered the United States to make reparations to Nicaragua for all injury caused to the country. The United States just ignored it. Alex Ignia,

They actually win the case. And what does the United States do? Well, they just say whatever the ICC or whatever the international court was, they don’t have an army. They can’t do anything to

Us. This is not the first time nor the last that the United States would ignore international law. There’s someone I met during my most recent trip to Nicaragua in early 2024 that really brought the full impact of the US Contra war home for me. His name is Jose Francisco Artola.

So I was near the border with Honduras, stopped for the night at a community recreation area. Jose was working as a janitor in the overnight guard. He was cleaning out the pool with one of those long nets. He wore a plaid shirt, boots, unlaced, a warm smile. What most struck me were his legs. He walked by kind of shuffling, limping from one to the other. His feet were turned inward. It’s called S or Club Foot. It’s a fairly common birth defect. About one in a thousand babies in the United States have it, and although almost no one in my life knows this, I was one of those babies. I was born with Club Foot two, Jose could have been me. The difference was I was born at a hospital in the United States, Northern Virginia, outskirts of dc. The doctors recognized the problem and took action. The solution isn’t really that hard. If you act quick, my legs were put into little casts for a few months. Apparently in more severe cases, patients may need additional casts, braces, or even surgery, but the birth defect is totally curable. Growing up, I played almost every sport there was. I run several days a week when I have time. You would never guess I was born with Clubfoot.

Jose did not have this opportunity because he was born in the late 1980s in a Nicaragua that was under the weight of a US imposed economic and military war says when he was born, he was sent home with his family and that was that his father never took much of an interest in trying to find help for his legs. He says when he turned 18, he went to see a doctor, but at that point the doctor said there was nothing they could do. I was born in the most powerful country in the world, and he was born in the country that the United States was taking aim at. And this is just one small example of the US policies on Nicaragua in the 1980s that continue to take a toll. Ironically, Jose told me his dream today was to get to the United States. As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, that is the end result of US actions in Latin America, be it Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, or Venezuela today driving generation after generation of migrants in refugees toward the very place that caused the bulk of the hardships in their countries, the United States. I’ll be honest, I walked away from my conversation with Jose and had a really hard time composing myself. Who gets to live, who gets to die, who gets medical treatment, and who gets to go in search of the so-called American Dream? None of it should depend on a roll of the dice for where you’re born or the swipe of a pen in Washington.

Interestingly, if Jose were born in Nicaragua today, he would probably be able to get treatment. In 2012, the country rolled out a national program to provide care similar to what I got for kids born with Clubfoot. And in fact, there’ve been many improvements in Nicaragua over the years.

Before I arrived in Nicaragua last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. News reports painted the image of a country in shambles when I visited. It was my first time there in 20 years, and I’ll be honest, I was surprised. The highways are better paved and more developed than almost anywhere else in Mexico and Central America. Healthcare and education are still free. Two decades ago when I was there, parts of the capital Managua were still rubble and dirt roads. Today the whole waterfront and downtown has been completely revamped with parks, museums, and a little waterpark that costs only a buck and a half to get in. Energy runs around the clock. That is not the way it was a couple of decades ago. Colleen Littlejohn is an economist and a solidarity activist who’s lived and worked in NUA since the 1980s.

In 2006, there were 12 hour cuts in the energy every single day. I mean, it was really desperate.

Not anymore. In the late two thousands, Colleen worked with the World Bank to bring in development projects like renewable energy.

I remember bringing the vice president of the World Bank once. It must’ve been about 2007 or eight to see the first wind tower and it was on the ground. It hadn’t even been. I said, it is hard to show you a lot of things, but it’s happening. I said, you come back and now there’s hundreds if not thousands. It’s like 15% of the total electricity in the country, and we always talked in the eighties. In so movement, the threat of a good example

More than three quarters of Nicaraguan energy today is from renewable sources.

See, the FSLN won again in 2006. Daniel Ortega has been in power since. That is the elephant in the room here, and I want to touch on this for a second because depending on who you speak with, Ortega’s government is either an authoritarian dictatorship or carrying on the revolutionary legacy of the Sandinistas, and the reality is complicated. On the one hand, a substantial portion of the population is still as committed to the FSLN and CMO as it’s ever been. That’s clear. At concerts in Managua like this or on the streets, red and black send Anisa flags waving people selling Chera Hugo Chavez or Carlos Fonseca t-shirts. There’s this deep visceral connection with the past and pride in the revolution. They point to those tremendous steps forward in terms of development that I’ve mentioned as accomplishments of the present. But on the other hand, there have been government abuses, political prisoners, opposition candidates. In civil society organizations silenced hundreds of anti-government activists, academics and journalists have been forced into exile citizenship stripped for many. There’s an underlying sense of fear that they may be accused of being counter-revolutionaries,

Viola’s protest.

Much of this stems from the violence of 2018. Some people call that a dictatorship cracked down on democracy. Others say it was an attempted us back coup. And the truth is, there were huge peaceful protests. The government used excessive force. Protesters were killed, and violent opposition groups held the country hostage. They used terror tactics and killed innocent people. The fight over Nicaragua is vicious and it is complicated and generally onlookers abroad have lined up on one side or the other.

It is so thick on so many levels.

That’s Graham Russell. You’ve heard from him before in this series. He’s been involved in Central America work since the 1980s. He’s the founder and director of the Canadian Group Rights Action, which supports local communities in Guatemala and Honduras, often facing mining and resource extraction on their lands. And I think he has a really good analysis about why progressive solidarity activists and academics are so divided over Nicaragua.

And I think it is actually been a very successful story of propaganda and demonization, and none of this is a defense of every single thing Ortega has ever done or his wife or even the government itself, but it’s sort of like a repetitive playbook.

Graham says, there are many cases where we’ve seen divisions over countries in Latin America that are trying to step out from under the shadow of the United States, Cuba under Fidel, Venezuela under Chavez, and now Maduro Morales in Bolivia, risid in Haiti, and of course Ortega in Nicaragua.

These are the cases that create sort of real fissures in the So-called more progressive sectors, and I think the fault line is imperialism alive and well today. And does imperialism colonialism and settler colonialism, does it characterize everything that’s going from the past? Does it characterize everything that’s going on today?

This is important. This entire podcast looks at the history and legacy of US imperialism and intervention in the region. Graham’s point is this. Can you see and criticize policies and actions of the Nicaraguan government today as disconnected from the 200 years of US intervention and the ongoing role of the United States, or do you take into account all of that? This for Graham is the guiding question, and I think that’s a helpful analysis.

This is not reducing all of Nicaragua’s ills to the US or Canada or the OAS or whatever, not at all. It’s always a local to national to global issue. But in the measure that any North American government, official, mainstream media, alternative media, donor, funder, whoever in the measure that we do not fundamentally address at all times, what is the role of our government’s past and present? What is the role of our company’s past and present? What is the role of the OAS dominated by the US past and present? What is the role of the World Bank in the Inter-American Development Bank, past and present, dominated by the US in the measure that we do not address all of these at the same time that we’re throwing stones at Ortega individually or particular policies of his government, then we are participating in censorship. We are absolutely covering up our contribution to the role, to the issues, and it becomes morally and ethically really complicated because that’s our responsibility.

Now, look, Graham’s not trying to say that everything that happens in Nicaragua today is because of the United States, but he’s saying that we forget the United States. We can’t leave it out of the equation. Its role historically and its role today. As I’ve mentioned so often in this podcast, the past is never far behind, particularly when that past caused so much harm, so much bloodshed across the region in Nicaragua, the legacy of the Contra War and the brutal US sanctions that destroyed the nation. Well, they left wounds, deep wounds, and they have an impact on the present and on current policies.

They do not want to be under the boot of the us. That in my view, is their great crime. And it is absolutely independent of whether Ortega has committed this crime or not. Whether he and his wife have scored extra money or not, or stolen extra money or not. Because what’s going on in Nicaragua, as in Guatemala, as in Honduras, as in Salvador, they should be assessed and judged on their government programs for the wellbeing of the majority of their populations. And they’re all living under the shadow of the us. They’ve all been under the boot of the us, and that is a heavy boot

In the lead up to the 2018 violence. The US funneled millions of dollars into opposition groups through USAID and NED US officials have consistently condemned Nicaragua and they even blocked it from attending the Summit of the Americas in 2022.

Now, none of this compares to the US onslaught of the 1980s, but it shows that the United States hasn’t taken its finger off the trigger. And here’s the thing, the US frames all of this as denouncing Nicaragua in the name of democracy and human rights, but the United States doesn’t really care about those things as we have seen throughout this podcast. Remember Honduras Post 2009, we talked about it at length in episode seven, the US openly embraced fraudulent elections and a violent narco dictatorship and said nothing. Why? Because the leaders of the coup government were open for business Washington allies. Meanwhile, the United States has levied sanctions on Nicaragua

And welcome our top story of this hour. The United States has imposed an entry ban on Nicaragua and President Daniel Ortega, his vice president wife and his government.

Now, this is not the crippling economic embargo of the 1980s. In fact, the US remains Nicaragua’s top trading partner. The sanctions are focused on top officials of the Ortega government as well as gold companies, Nicaragua’s top export. But even the most minor sanctions are illegal in international law and they have an impact. And some of this stuff has been rolled out just in the last couple of weeks. Bills are even moving through Congress in Washington to try and remove the country from the Central American Free trade agreement. Block loans prohibit US investment in Nicaragua and ban us imports of Nicaragua beef and coffee. Solidarity activists visited Capitol Hill in mid-May to ask their congressional representatives not to proceed with the bills.

As people in the United States, we have a responsibility to stop our government from these retaliatory and illegal actions that it’s taking to try to harm the people, particularly the most vulnerable of Nicaragua. It’s atrocious and we don’t support

It. The timing of these steps in Washington is not by accident. They come in the wake of Nicaragua taking Germany to the International Court of Justice for aiding in genocide by continuing to supply weapons to Israel for its onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza.

Don’t punish the countries in the world that support Gaza.

And speaking of Gaza, you may have noticed there is this tremendous Palestine solidarity movement rippling over the United States and the world

Have all the

Power across college campuses nationwide. Another tense day, as more universities crack down on pro-Palestinian protests ahead of graduations.

The pro-Palestine protests on college campuses in the United States have been compared to the anti-war movement of the 1960s. But there’s another forebearer as well. Nicaragua Solidarity, 1980s. I asked Professor William Robinson about this when we spoke recently. He almost had to cancel our interview because of the actions taking place at his university, uc, Santa Barbara, and literally right now, there are occupations on your campus. Is Palestine, is this like the Nicaragua of

2020? You hit the nail the head. Yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Thank you so much for bringing us there, because right now, worldwide, the eyes are on Palestine. It’s the first genocide of the 21st century, and so much is at stake and the people of the world and us, both revolutionaries, but simply humanity, people that just love humanity and want to protect it are saying this is the frontline of the defense of humanity. Worldwide Palestine right now is what Nicaragua was in the 1980s is what Vietnam was in the 1960s. So much is at stake in the defense of Palestinian lives right now.

So much that is all for this episode of Under the Shadow. Next time we head to Costa Rica because it was at this very site that the then President symbolically knocked off a chip of the barracks and he declared the end of the Costa Rican army in the military to a country without a standing army, to the attempts for peace in the region and the US attempts to undermine the movement for change in Central America, even there. That is next on Under The Shadow.

Just a few things to say before I go. First, I’ve added links to the National Security Archives, the documentary American Sanda, Elena Van Oman’s book, Nicaragua Must Survive, and other sources I’ve mentioned in this episode. You can find all that in the show notes. Second, the new album for my band, Monte Perdido is finally out on Spotify or wherever you stream music. It was just released a week ago. It’s called Renda Offering. We wrote it for our former guitarist, Pedro Benet, who died in a free diving accident in Mexico 10 years ago. It includes the theme songs to both Under The Shadow and My 2022 Podcast, Brazil on Fire. The song you’re hearing right now is the third song on the album A. The link is also in the show notes. Please check it out, like it, follow it, and share it with a friend. Finally, if you like what you hear, please check out my Patreon page, patreon.com/m OX. I’m constantly updating it with exclusive music, photos, interviews, and background of all these episodes. You can also support my work there. Become a monthly sustainer or sign up to stay abreast of all. The latest on this podcast and my other reporting across Latin America. Under the Shadow is a co-production in partnership with The Real News and Nala. The theme music is by my band Monte Perdido. This is Michael Fox. Many thanks. See you next time.

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