This article was last modified on March 15, 2010.

Empire Strikes First: Nicaragua, 1980-2010

Countless books and articles have catalogued the violence of Latin America in the 1980s, and most of us are old enough to recall the Iran-Contra scandal, where it was discovered that America was not only indirectly waging war on Nicaragua, but also assisting our enemies in Iran at a time where we were publicly supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq conflict. But what would have happened had America not intervened, and what remains of the situation today? To find out, I spoke with Professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Nelson-Pallmeyer is a scholar of Latin America, foreign policy, and is no armchair historian — he has lived through some of the most turbulent years in the region.

He has called attention to one of our ongoing influences; the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia was a primary training ground for Latin American thugs and dictators in the 1980s. One graduate, Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, set up death squads that targeted Catholic churches that practiced “liberation theology”, widely — and falsely — equated with Marxism. Liberation theology preaches on behalf of the poor, and may appear to incite class warfare from the position of the elites. Throughout the decade, literally hundreds of priests were murdered, and at least one archbishop. The worst atrocities were carried out in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

What would have happened in Nicaragua without our support of the contras? They “might have succeeded in finding a third pathway — between capitalism and socialism — to address education, healthcare, land reform and other key social needs,” posits Nelson-Pallmeyer. As for El Salvador, they “would have ended a bloody civil war much earlier with much less bloodshed.” So our involvement extended a civil war and eliminated the chance for social progress; what good did it achieve for their people or ours?

The traditional viewpoint is that we had to prevent the Soviet sphere from spreading Communism into our backyard. Reagan famously said that the Nicaraguan forces could reach American soil in a mere four day drive. Yet, anyone paying attention then knew full well the threat of Communism was bunkum. At the time, our leaders would “equate nationalistic aspirations with communism”, says Nelson-Pallmeyer. What business of ours is it how people of another country choose to govern their own lives? If “communism” really meant self-reliance, that is not such a terrible thing and may be a good example worth following. Less reliance on foreign oil, for example, would have both short and long-term benefits for the economy and national security.

Few of the people involved in Iran-Contra were even held accountable, and those that were, such as Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, became subjected to little more than what Nelson-Pallmeyer calls “political theater”. He says this was “disgusting but unfortunately predictable” and served as “a launching pad for North’s subsequent career”, a respected correspondent for Fox News. John Negroponte, also involved, would later become the Ambassador to Iraq — a nation he screwed over two decades prior. Six men were convicted and all pardoned under the first President Bush, who as Vice President under Reagan clearly had a role to play in the scandal. Political allegiance trumps justice.

The 1990s saw something of an improvement in foreign policy towards Latin America, with military repression no longer being complemented, but merely supplemented. Obviously, any support of repression is unjustifiable, so the change during the Clinton administration should be seen as too little, too late. In many ways, it was simply the methods that had changed — Nelson-Pallmeyer says that “death squads” were replaced by “IMF bankers”. As we discussed in recent columns, the influence of the IMF and World Bank is largely destructive to poor countries such as those south of the border. Why kill the poor with bullets when denying them food and water is more cost-effective?

In order for America to maintain its dominance, the threat had to be switched from military pressure to economic. Overseas ventures had “overstretched the US military and undermined the US economy.” Yet, the question is hardly ever asked: why must America be the dominant nation, particularly if it is at the cost of so many lives in Third World countries? No other nation feels the pressure to be on top.

American policies and influence have waned in Central and South America, as evidenced by a variety of countries electing so-called left-wing leaders. Interestingly, Nicaragua has even elected Daniel Ortega, the very man the American regime opposed in the 1980s. Nelson-Pallmeyer says this is “another thorn in the side” of US leaders, and part of a “deep trend” towards rejecting American influence. Nicaragua’s friendship with Venezuela, Iran and Russia is clear evidence of this. However, he says that Ortega today “has almost no resemblance to the Ortega of the revolutionary period”, allowing party allegiance to overshadow the interests of his people.

While American influence has shrunk overall, the threat has not been removed. Mexico and Colombia are still primary recipients of military aid, on the grounds for the need to stop drug production — despite the fact that the decrease in drug supply has the effect of raising costs and making the drug lords even more powerful in local politics. Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, has ties to the very drug cartels he is supposed to be vanquishing. And the recent coup in Honduras was carried out by graduates of the School of the Americas, proving they can still churn out malignant pupils. Even if only indirectly, our training is responsible for the elimination of democracy in yet another country.

If America wanted to start a new, peaceful relationship with Central and South America, says Nelson-Pallmeyer, the least we could do is close the School of the Americas and end our economic sanctions with Cuba. Obviously, neither of these has happened, and our oppressive policies will continue on largely unchanged.

For more information, I recommend the books of Nelson-Pallmeyer, particularly War Against the Poor and School of the Assassins, available from Orbis Books.

Gavin Schmitt ( believes the world is getting better, but there is always more work to be done.

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