Back to the Cold War: Did the U.S. Push Castro and Ortega into the arms of the Soviet Union by Gregory Hilton–A myth continues to circulate in leftist circles that the United States pushed both Cuba and Nicaragua into the arms of the Soviet Union. Sandinista supporters claim this happened because of embargoes and the cut off of medical, humanitarian and food aid.
The problem with the myth is that it conflicts with public statements of Castro and the Sandinista leaders. The FSLN was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, who always described himself as a Communist. In discussing the origins of the FSLN, Fonseca said it was “a successor to the Bolshevik Revolution. . . the ideals of Lenin are the guiding star in the struggle in which the revolutionaries in Nicaragua are waging.”
Human rights was the focal point of President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, and he made no secret of his opposition to the Somoza government. He clearly wanted the Nicaraguan opposition to be successful, and Carter imposed a ban on arms sales to Nicaragua during his first week in office. This was later over turned by the U.S. Congress, but President Carter was able to accomplish it through an executive order. In the FY 1979 budget submitted by the Carter Administration, Nicaragua would be listed as the only nation denied the right to purchase military equipment.
The U.S. government also vetoed funding for Nicaragua from the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank. Nicaragua was entitled to a $20 million line of credit at the IMF, but American opposition stopped it. The biggest blow was denying Somoza money from coffee and beef exports. The United States was able to work with the OAS to stop all cargo ships from entering Nicaraguan waters.
If the promises made by the FSLN during the civil war had been implemented it would have been a clear victory for Carter’s human rights campaign. Carter needed a success for his 1980 re-election where he was vulnerable on foreign policy issues after the seizure of hostages in Iran, the failure of SALT II and the setbacks to detente because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The U.S. embargo on Cuba is still in effect, but few nations have adhered to our action, and today America is the only country to maintain the embargo. Cuba can trade with everyone else. Fidel Castro has never said we pushed him away. He maintains that he was a communist going back to 1954. The USSR and Chairman Mao are gone, eastern Europe is no longer behind the Iron Curtain, Vietnam has adopted a free market, but Castro has not changed his ideology.
The situation in Nicaragua is equally clear and the FSLN was supported by the USSR well before they achieved power. The United States provided funding during the Somoza era to opposition labor unions and newspapers. America was also an active participant in the Nicaraguan power transfer process, including negotiations with the FSLN government in exile when they were based in neighboring Costa Rica.
America did stop arms shipments to Somoza, but the U.S. did not stop arms shipments to the FSLN from Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama or Venezuela. Venezuela was providing the funding, Soviet bloc equipment was sent through Cuba and transshipped on flights to Panama and later to the FSLN bases in Costa Rica.
The civil war began in September of 1978 but by the summer of 1979 the Somoza ammunition stockpile was almost depleted. The major reason Somoza’s National Guard stopped fighting was because they ran out of ammunition. An Israeli ship filled with 50 caliber ammunition and mortars was close to the coast of Nicaragua in June when the Carter Administration was able to cancel the order and the ship turned around. Somoza later wrote “This one ship could have easily turned the tide of the war.”
Nicaragua had not made a significant purchase of modern military equipment since 1957, and the arms used by the FSLN were far superior to Somoza’s National Guard. The Somoza government had a very small air force and navy, and their army lacked anti-tank and anti-personnnel grenades.
The four Somoza tanks were out dated and knocked out immediately by Chinese made RPG rockets. The same rockets caused havoc at National Guard installations. The sentries stationed at check points throughout Managua held automatic weapons but they were without ammunition. The FSLN also made effective use of French bazookas, Belgian mortars and hand grenades.
The Organization of American States passed a resolution on June 23, 1979 which demanded Somoza’s resignation. After that, any arms sale was impossible, and it would not have mattered because the government no longer had significant dollar reserves. No one would accept the Nicaraguan currency and payment had to be made in dollars.
With the advance approval of the FSLN, the US allowed General Somoza and members of his government to seek exile in Miami. On the afternoon of his arrival in Miami, Somoza was told by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he would have to leave the U.S. because his supporters in Managua were not cooperating. Somoza left after two days and was assassinated in Paraguay the next year.
The Carter Administration immediately recognized the new FSLN government and provided them with $10.5 million in aid which originally had been intended for Somoza before it was frozen. This was followed by emergency assistance of $8.8 million, $75 million in foreign aid and 100,000 tons of food in the first two years. Daniel Ortega was invited to the White House, and America had the power to block World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank assistance to the FSLN, but this did not happen.
These actions were taken despite the fact that the FSLN repeatedly lied to American negotiators. The only condition requested by the Carter Administration was a pledge from the FSLN to stop arms transfers to the FMLN in El Salvador. This did not happen and when the arms shipments increased many Democrats in the U.S. Congress urged a cut off in further aid to the Sandinista government.
President Carter took this step 12 days before he left office, and President Ronald Reagan froze all aid to Nicaragua two days after his Inauguration. Reagan’s action was reported in the news media as a continuation of Carter’s policy.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), the current Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said “True to its revolutionary beliefs, the Sandinista leadership was more interested in promoting revolution in Central America than in cultivating better relations with the United States. . . With close ties to Fidel Castro, the Sandinista leaders went about the task of setting up a regime modeled on that of their mentor. They invoked press censorship, established a powerful secret police, mounted systematic attacks on the church, and built up a large military force.
“In a little over a year in power the Sandinista popular army was the largest in Central America, having grown from 5,000 to at least 24,000 men. All this, it should be noted, came about prior to the Contra insurgency. In fact it was these policies that contributed to the rise of an armed resistance movement, soon to be known as the Contras. ”
In May 1983, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed this point. It noted that: “A major portion of the arms and other material sent by Cuba and other Communist countries to the Salvadoran insurgents transits Nicaragua with the permission and assistance of the Sandinistas. . . . The Salvadoran insurgents rely on the use of sites in Nicaragua, some of which are located in Managua itself, for communications, command-and-control, and for the logistics to conduct their financial, material, and propaganda activities.”
In August of 1981, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders went to Managua to meet with the Junta. He promised a very generous aid package and no support for any opposition groups in return for one promise — a complete halt in arms shipments to the FMLN which was actively making progress in its effort to overthrow El Salvador’s government.
The American offer was rejected. Sergio Ramirez of the Junta told Enders: “Today we have revolutionary Nicaragua and revolutionary Cuba. Tomorrow we will have revolutionary Salvador.” Four months later the first $20 million in funding was approved for the Contras. Their first assignment was to stop arms shipments into El Salvador, and this was not a covert program.
In announcing it Reagan said: “Our purpose is to prevent the flow of arms [from Nicaragua] to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica.”
The U.S. Congress passed the Boland Amendment in May of 1985 which barred funding to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The legislation was overturned in July of 1986 when Congress approved. $100 million in lethal and nonlethal assistance for the Nicaraguan resistance. Military success on the ground for the Contras was undermined by political scandal in Washington. In November 1986 the Iran-Contra affair broke. All efforts by the administration to build public support for its policy toward Nicaragua came to a halt. The momentum for continued military assistance to the resistance fighters was lost. This was confirmed in early February 1988 when by a vote of 219-211 the House of Representatives voted against further military assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance.
If the military pressure of the Nicaraguan resistance helped force the ruling Sandinista regime to agree to hold elections, equally significant was the economic embargo the United States placed upon Nicaragua in May 1985. Those sanctions on top of earlier Sandinista mismanagement of the economy took a heavy toll. By 1989, Nicaragua had been brought to economic disaster with widespread poverty, widespread shortages of consumer goods, an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent, and an inflation rate of 36,000 percent, a world record.
It was obvious the Sandinista revolution had never benefited the poor. In fact, the opposite is true–the revolution benefited the ruling elite at the expense of everyone else in the country. The experience of Nicaraguans replicated the experience of the peoples of Eastern Europe who suffered under 40 years of Communist misrule. The people of Nicaragua knew who had made them poor by wasting resources on unproductive state enterprises in addition to the mansions and luxury automobiles for the commandantes.