Letter from the Editors on Nicaragua

Against the Current No 7, January-February 1987

The Editors

CALL IT IRANGATE or Contragate, lranscam or Contraskim, the Reagan administration’s winning streak in foreign policy has come to an end. The arms-for-Khomeini/profits-for-contras and other spinoff revelations have stripped the Teflon-coated Reagan presidency, wrecked its credibility and turned the Great Communicator’s own genial know-nothing mannerisms from a political asset to a liability.

What remains unclear is whether all this is permanent. For now, the contra aid dracula is dead and in the coffin. For now, the U.S. global “anti-terrorism” crusade is a shambles. For now, American capital may be seriously wondering whether the management of worrisome budget and trade deficits can be entrusted to a mortally wounded political regime. Some major political reorganization may be in the offing, even if Reagan himself remains on stage to read the lines. Whether this reversal of the administration’s fortunes is permanent or at least partially reversible will be a matter of intense political struggle in coming months. For the left, it is important to understand what this struggle will be about, an understanding that begins with some of the basic realities of Contragate.

The first observation to be made parallels Watergate: the spectacular elevation of form over content. Just as Nixon was impaled not on his real crimes but on a cover-up of dirty tricks by the White House “plumbers,” so Ronald Reagan has been discredited not by his deeds but by the illegal form of their implementation in the hands of Lt. Col. Ollie North.

In 1983 Reagan lost over 250 Marines in a piece of ghastly military incompetence, in the course of a “peacekeeping” mission which consisted of lobbing Volkswagen-size shells into defenseless Lebanese mountain villages. There was no domestic political crisis then, much less later that same year when the U.S. invaded a prostrate island nation with the population of Peoria. Indeed, that exercise was called “standing tall.”

There was no domestic political crisis when the administration embarked on an open terrorist war against Nicaragua. By the summer of 1986 the U.S. Congress had voted for full partnership in that crime. Nor did it seem to damage Reagan’s standing when the White House pressed NASA to launch the space shuttle in metal-brittling cold, in order that the President’s speechwriters might weave the event into his State of the Union address that evening. The abandonment of strategic arms agreement, the wreckage of a superpower summit for the sake of the “Star Wars” fantasy — none of this was allowed to wound the image of Reagan’s statesman-like leadership.

The crisis exploded instead as a debate on when, if ever, the President knew about the illegal diversion of profits from massive arms sales by his government to a “terrorist nation” (Iran) with which all private and public commerce was expressly forbidden by his own decree. Yet despite its farcical qualities, the political crisis is by no means a sham. The reality of the crisis is the second facet of the new situation.

Secret arms to Iran may have been reasonable imperial realpolitik, but for many ordinary Americans unversed in the elite discourse of policy debate, it meant spitting on the graves of the U.S. Marines killed in Lebanon. At the same time, extra-legal funding of the -contras was a logical corollary of the Reagan Doctrine. But for an American ruling class which takes seriously the job of running the world, and expects its government to do so in a professional fashion, the spectacle of a President, his inner circle, and his entire Cabinet claiming (or confessing) ignorance is unacceptable. Murdering Nicaraguan peasants is a perfectly fine thing; a massive transfer of funds for which the President and his whole team must disavow any responsibility or knowledge is a heinous act.

The roots of Contragate, then — the third and most profound fact of the crisis — lie in the unpopularity of U,S. intervention in Central America. It was because of the quite sizeable, though not actively organized, majority domestic opposition to contra funding, that the funding was illegal. Reagan’s personal popularity gave the dirty war against Nicaragua an aura and certain legitimacy despite its very narrow base of domestic support.

From 1984-86, despite well-publicized private fund appeals for the contras, it is now evident that the bulk of funding came not from dedicated “patriots” but from the government-through the Iran arms slush fund, aid laundered through proxy states such as Israel and Taiwan, etc. The role of the U.S. far right was not primarily to raise funds-a convenient cover story-but to supply some of the conduits for arms and money which could not flow through normal CIA or State Department channels.

Such private sector far right operations as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Soldier of Fortune magazine, and the near- and neo-Nazi types around John Singlaub’s World Anti-Communist League seem to have played their part. At the same time, of course, the U.S. embassies in Honduras and Costa Rica, along with professional operatives with CIA connections, were deeply involved, with Ollie North acting as logistical coordinator and political liaison to the White House through the National Security Council.

This, perhaps, was the closest that the extreme right has come to “the action,” actually carrying out U.S. foreign policy’s real business of ruling the world. They had a piece of the contra supply franchise, using diverted arms money from Iran-and from what other sources? And where else, besides the contras, was money flowing? Was the domestic far right also skimming to finance its own political operations at home? Such has been alleged, though not definitely proven.

These elements, however, while serving as a partial surrogate for more “normal” covert channels, were carrying out no independent project of their own. The contras were Reagan’s darlings, basking in his personal standing. The illegal funding represented his will if not his explicit bidding, and this is why the lran/Contragate revelations are shattering to his own and his administration’s credibility.

Indeed, the contra war was the program of the entire administration and of a sizeable chunk of the Democratic Party, without whose votes contra aid could not pass Congress. Both parties, despite the dispute over the tactic of the contra war, supported the effort to destroy Nicaragua’s revolution. And while the Democrats acquiesced in the Reagan-initiated contra war, the Democrats occupied the White House in the late 1970s when the death squads began to operate in El Salvador, and their nearly-forgotten 1984 presidential candidate campaigned on a program to “quarantine” Nicaragua.

This observation is not merely historical. The crippling of the Reagan presidency certainly enhances the Democratic prospects to recapture the White House in 1988. Additionally, if Contragate makes it impossible for the present administration to effectively govern, an informal but effective lion’s share of political authority-in foreign policy and in the management of the economy-will lie in the hands of the Congressional Democratic Party.

Both parties have welcomed the appointment of the “professional” Frank Carlucci to weed out the zealots and free-lancers at the National Security Council. No Oliver North he, Carlucci’s professional accomplishments include orchestrating the murder of Patrice Lumumba and the extremely skillful subversion of the Portuguese workers’ movement of 1974-75 (especially through CIA-coordinated channeling of funds to the Portuguese Socialist Party). Such an appointment may therefore be a setback for the particular factional politics of the far right, but only so that a counterrevolutionary business-as-usual policy can be carried out with bi-partisan support

Contragate, then, will in no sense end U.S. intervention in Central America, although the political struggle over the forms and tactics of that intervention creates openings for the anti-intervention movement. It is equally critical that the left not indulge in delusions that Democratic ascendancy means a reversal of Reaganomics or any revived progressive social policy. Quite the contrary, the conservative Democrats were the biggest beneficiaries of the November elections. The lynchpin of Democratic strategy will be a more effective austerity that includes budget-cutting, “more-bang-for-the-buck” militarism and an open door for continued union-bashing.

While the destruction of Reagan’s authority and the disarray of the right opens up a possible new period in U.S. politics, any positive changes that result will come through battles waged and won by the movements and by working people, not through Democratic policy changes. Even the moribund contra war could revive if the anti-intervention movement counts on a Democratic Congress to bury it.

At this moment, clearly, support for contra aid has been reduced to the hard core who envision the military overthrow of the Sandinista revolution. That small minority cannot expand to anywhere near a majority so long as contra aid is a highly visible and divisive issue. But there will certainly be a vicious campaign from the right to label those who vote against contra aid as “opening a Communist beachhead in our hemisphere;” and there is at least the possibility of some major U.S. provocation to create the pretext for massive U.S. bombing of Nicaragua. A broad activist anti-intervention movement, including massive turnouts for the anti-intervention, anti-apartheid marches in Washington, D. C. and the West Coast this April 25, can ensure the continued visibility of the opposition and maximize the risks which a weakened administration would confront at home in a major military adventure.

THIS ISSUE OF Against the Current, devoted almost exclusively to the Nicaraguan revolution, has been in preparation for several months. We cannot honestly say that its appearance was timed to coincide with Contragate. Marxism may lay some legitimate claim to be scientific, but not that much.

Largely by lucky coincidence, then, we offer this diverse collection of essays and observations at a time when Nicaragua is very much in the spotlight. They seek to explore some of the realities of daily life and politics of this revolution, as well as some of the more difficult issues of its direction, from a variety of standpoints that are pro-revolutionary, anti-imperialist, democratic and critical.

John Joslin, a solidarity activist from Detroit, chronicles a wildcat strike on a state cotton farm. Joslin’s account is of interest from several angles, one of which is that the ability of workers to carry out such an act in a crucial industry in wartime, without threats of repression or reprisal, clearly gives the lie to Reagan’s myth of “totalitarian” Nicaragua.

Alan Wald describes recent discussions with Sandinista officials and rank and filers, and offers suggestions about what they may indicate regarding the politics of the FSLN. Gary Ruchwarger, who lives and works in Nicaragua, surveys the progress and contradictions of the revolution in forging a “modern nation-state” based on a combination of national unity and popular power. Dianne Feeley reviews Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, a book which offers advice on how the U.S. should conduct its imperialist foreign policy.

We are also printing two economic articles on the current situation in Nicaragua. The first, written by Carlos Vilas, discusses “War Sandinism,” the second offers a description of life in a crisis economy from the Nicaraguan journal Envio, and emphasizes the necessity of creative initiatives from below for day-to-day survival.

Dan La Botz, a labor journalist who has travelled extensively in Central America, points to the dangers of bureaucratic degeneration that apply with special force to revolutionary processes in weak and isolated states. La Botz lays particular emphasis on the tendencies toward fusion of party and state, and the resulting subordination of all working-class organization to the dictates of a ruling elite.

Ralph Schoenman, a long-time U.S. political activist and author, offers a different approach. For Schoenman, bureaucratic tendencies are the by-product of a fundamentally mistaken strategy, the attempt to preserve the economic space of the bourgeoisie in a mixed economy.

In his critical evaluation of the Sandinista revolution, any meaningful progress toward socialist democracy is inseparable from the imperative of a complete break with the internal bourgeoisie and a radical rupture with international capital, particularly the banks holding Nicaragua’s foreign debt.

Readers may ask: of the varying perspectives presented here, which represent the official or unofficial editorial “line” of the magazine on the Nicaraguan revolution?

The answer is simple: none is the magazine’s official view, although individual editors certainly feel closer to some articles and highly critical of others. Nor do we feel that the questions posed in these contributions: problems of the mixed economy, of the “transition to socialism” in the nations of the capitalist periphery, of revolutionary pluralism and democracy, have been resolved in this issue of ATC, or in any other publication of which we are aware.

We are publishing this collection not in order to promote one specific interpretation of the Nicaraguan revolution, but for a quite different purpose. First, approaching this revolutionary process from varying angles of vision, these articles taken together offer a rather rich array of factual material about Nicaragua-which readers may re-interpret for themselves. Second, embedded in these articles are assumptions and methodologies, by no means unified, on what are the decisive tasks confronting the Nicaraguan revolution or other revolutions in small, underdeveloped nations. It is thus possible to some degree for our readers to test the usefulness of varying methodologies in analyzing the concrete reality of a revolution. These are exercises for critical-minded readers and activists, not conclusions to be drawn by editors.

We do wish to emphasize, once again , the centrality of the anti-intervention movement in the months ahead. Theoretical debate, however important, must never take priority over the practical tasks of ending the dirty terrorist war against the people of Nicaragua, the criminal bombing of the countryside of El Salvador, and the cover-up of continuing repression in Guatemala. Contragate is an opening and a test, a chance for the left to build a movement that makes a difference. We must not abdicate our responsibility to respond.

January-February 1987, ATC 7

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