The signing of the Central America peace accord in Guatemala City set off a U.S. media reaction that showed once again the extent to which White House assumptions are shared by the national press corps. While some reporters have questioned whether President Reagan sincerely supports the Arias plan, virtually all mainstream media accept the administration's contention that its goal is to bring about "a democratic outcome in Nicaragua."
Over the years journalists have at times challenged the tactics of the contra policy (mining harbors, assassination manuals, lying to Congress), but they never doubt its objective: to promote "democracy." It is taboo in the media to question the motives of American Foreign policy. But when it comes to Nicaragua, U.S. motives warrant security. After all, the U.S. maintained the 40-year Somoza dictatorship--a friend of U.S. business interests--without fretting over "free elections" and "democratic reforms." Even as the Sandinista revolution was on the verge of triumph, presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan still pooh-poohed Somoza's brutal crimes (radio commentary, March 4, 1997).
Who are our allies in bringing "democracy" to Nicaragua? South Korea, Brunei and other countries that have never had free elections. And who funds the contras so that we can restore "religious freedom" in Nicaragua? Saudi Arabia, a financier of vicious anti-semitic literature. (The Saudis gave millions, proclaimed White House spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater, "because they share our interest in securing democracy in Central America.") And from what country do we enlist aid to ensure that Nicaragua releases political detainees and loosens press restrictions? That beacon of democratic pluralism, South Africa.
Reagan's obsession with Nicaragua has turned into a media obsession. This was evident in the way reporters transformed the momentous achievement of Guatemala City, a regional peace plan, into nothing more than an effort to settle "the Nicaragua problem." Nicaragua was frequently singled out as the country most likely to stand in the way of the plan's fulfillment.
Far less attention has been paid to Honduras and El Salvador, two U.S. client states that have continually obstructed a regional peace. Honduran officials, who still refuse to admit that the contras operate freely from their soil, downplayed the signing of the Arias plan and disrupted progress at the follow-up foreign ministers meeting on August 19th. Salvadoran leader Jose Napoleon Duarte's abrupt about-face last June delayed the Guatemala City meeting until August. Duarte violated the spirit of the Arias accord by meeting for five hours with contra leaders. Imagine the reaction in the U.S. press had Daniel Ortega wined and dined with Salvadoran guerrillas.
U.S. rightists have gotten big media play attacking the plan because it does not contain specific limitations on military aid to Nicaragua; reporters have overlooked President Arias' remarks that Duarte—long accustomed to US guns—is the main reason there are no limitations on outside aid to Central American governments.
"The media never fully explained the plan's specifics," said Jim Morrell of the Center for International Policy. "They seemed more intent on following the administration's line that it's only a vague framework with no details." Morrell, who was present in Guatemala City during the negotiations, told Extra! that the "five Central American presidents spoke definitively on the main points. First and foremost is the cessation of all aid— military, financial, even propaganda—to the contras and other irregular forces by November 7th. Furthermore, there's no requirement that these forces be included in any dialogue."
Although the plan clearly prohibits aid to the contras, most reporting has been fuzzy, enabling the administration to obscure the fact that its insistence on maintaining the contras directly undermines the agreement. Typical was this lead in The New York Times (August 19): "The Reagan Administration has decided that a regional peace plan for Central America cannot work unless the United States provides long-term support for the rebels in Nicaragua, perhaps even months after a ceasefire, a senior official said today." Two paragraphs later the article by Neil Lewis states: "The official disputed the notion that the US wanted to sabotage the pact."
For years journalists have given credence to the absurd notion that an impoverished country of three million people, with no air force or navy to speak of, is a threat to our security. The Arias plan provided yet another opportunity for the White House to rehash the old myths about Nicaragua. In the process, official lies have become media truths:
The Sandinistas are afraid of free elections. U.S. reporters often ignore the fact that Nicaragua had elections in 1984 judged by many international observers to be the fairest in that country's history. According to the U.S. Latin American Studies Association, the election was "by Latin American standards a model of probity and fairness." The general counsel of the New York City Commission on Human Rights described it as "free, fair and hotly contested," citing the access of all parties to free TV and radio time. In fact, it's the US which fears free elections in the region—having funneled Duarte's party millions of dollars to ensure his 1984 victory, and having secretly backed a conservative, pro-contra candidate against Arias in Costa Rica's 1986 election (Miami Herald, May 10, 1987).
There is no religious freedom in Marxist-Leninist Nicaragua. On the contrary, a recent fact-finding mission by the Presbyterian Church (USA) found "very little evidence, if any, of religious persecution" in Nicaragua. Indeed, there are more priests in the Nicaraguan government than any state other than the Vatican. And while the US media have focused on tensions between the Sandinistas and Managua's archbishop, there has been far less coverage of the dozens of clergy murdered by state-supported death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Only one priest has been killed in Nicaragua—and he reportedly died as a result of a contra mine (Washington Post, August 1).
The Sandinistas won't tolerate a free press. In the years before the U.S. launched the contra war, there was a strong opposition press. La Prensa was closed in 1986, after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the US government as part of its effort to destabilize Nicaragua. (What would have been the lifespan of an American newspaper during World War II which sought to undermine our defense against the Nazis while receiving German government funds?) U.S. journalists are not asking whether the Salvadoran government will reopen El lndependiente and La Cronica del Pueblo, two independent newspapers that were violently destroyed in the early 1980s. During the last decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 70 Salvadoran and Guatemalan reporters have been murdered by death squads.
A recurrent theme in recent weeks has been whether the Nicaraguan government will allow its opposition access to the media. We might ask a similar question of our own media: When will forthright opponents of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua be given airtime on American television?
By forthright critics we do not mean those who merely quibble over whether the contras can win, or if overthrowing the Sandinistas will cost too much money, or if the "Nicaraguan threat" can best be fought by economic means, etc. Americans need to hear from straight-talking critics like professors E. Bradford Burns and Noam Chomsky, former CIA agent John Stockwell, hunger and development expert Frances Moore Lappe, or leaders of the broad-based coalition against contra aid.
Right-wing crusaders like Brent Bozell and Patrick Buchanan have been TV fixtures since the Arias plan was signed; progressive voices have been censored. If hardline hawks succeed in sabotaging the fragile peace initiative, the US media will have helped them.