Mar 1 2007

Back to the Future in Nicaragua

Can U.S. media forgive Ortega for Washington’s attacks on him?

Imagine that the United States government was under attack from a foreign power that organized a guerrilla army to attack ordinary civilians, killing tens of thousands. And suppose that opposition politicians and media outlets in the U.S. were obviously and in some cases openly receiving support from that same foreign power.

Now imagine, difficult as it may be, that during the attacks the U.S. government allowed those media outlets to remain open. And the politicians who were cooperating with the foreign enemy weren’t jailed—instead, the administration allowed them to continue to run for office and serve as opposition legislators.

The president who carried out such policies would undoubtedly be considered an incredible defender of civil liberties—by those who didn’t think such a policy was completely insane.

If, however, the leader in question was not the president of the United States, but instead the president of a small country that had been declared an official U.S. enemy, then such policies would be seen as a mere smokescreen concealing a dictatorial, even totalitarian agenda.

Such is the verdict on Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, whom the New York Times (11/7/06) recently described, along with his Sandinista movement, as having “swept to power in 1979, toppling the Somoza dynasty of right-wing dictators friendly to the United States and setting up an authoritarian left-wing government.”

In 1984, that “authoritarian” got 67 percent of the vote in an election that was characterized by international observers as “free, fair and hotly contested” (Extra!, 10-11/87). But that election, being inconvenient for the U.S.’s anti-Sandinista propaganda, was flushed down the memory hole almost immediately after it occurred, allowing the Washington Post (11/12/06) to write summaries of history like this one:

Through a controversial, decade-long campaign of ambushes and sabotage, the Contras, estimated to number as high as 12,000 at their peak, helped pressure Ortega into holding elections in 1990 in which voters swept him from office.

Aside from the overly polite description of the Contras’ murderous campaign of terror as “ambushes and sabotage,” the fact is that the 1990 presidential election was held six years after the last one—precisely as scheduled by the Sandinista-written constitution.

Now that Ortega has been elected to the Nicaraguan presidency again (albeit with about half the support he got in 1984), U.S. media are almost willing to forgive him for resisting Washington’s attempts to overthrow him. “It’s been all about peace and reconciliation—is this a new Ortega?” asked NPR (11/5/06). “He says he’s changed from those days as a U.S.-hating Marxist revolutionary,” CNN’s Miles O’Brien reported (11/7/06).

Since the unprovoked war against Nicaragua is apparently so much water under the bridge, maybe you can’t fault reporters for getting that ancient history wrong. But surely they can remember things that happened, say, a month earlier? Not really—not if it puts the United States in an unfavorable light, anyway.

For example, an article in the November 11 Newsweek about Iran-Contra figure Oliver North’s involvement in the Nicaraguan election ended by noting that while Bush administration officials were concerned about an Ortega victory, “officials are wary of saying too much—or backing one of several rival candidates—lest they too be accused of meddling.”

As a matter of fact, the United States had already been criticized for interfering in the Nicaraguan election—officially, by the Organization of American States. As Robert Naiman pointed out in the Huffington Post (10/25/06), election monitors from the OAS explicitly singled out the U.S. government and specific U.S. officials for criticism. But even though the news of the OAS statement was carried by Reuters (10/22/06), neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post could find room for it.

Please see the sidebar to this article: Inexplicable Tongue-Lashing