by Max Barry

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Region: The Free Nations Region

23rd November 1981 (40 years ago): President Reagan gives CIA authority to recruit and support Contra rebels in Nicaragua

From 1979 to 1990, the United States provided financial, logistical and military support to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, who used terrorist tactics in their war against the Nicaraguan government and carried out more than 1300 terrorist attacks. This support persisted despite widespread knowledge of the human rights violations committed by the Contras.

In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and established a revolutionary government in Nicaragua. The Somoza dynasty had been receiving military and financial assistance from the United States since 1936. Following their seizure of power, the Sandinistas ruled the country first as part of a Junta of National Reconstruction, and later as a democratic government following free and fair elections in 1984.

The Sandinistas did not attempt to create a communist society or communist economic system; instead, their policy advocated a social democracy and a mixed economy. The government sought the aid of Western Europe, who were opposed to the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua, to escape dependency on the Soviet Union. However, the U.S. administration viewed the leftist Sandinista government as undemocratic and totalitarian under the ties of the Soviet-Cuban model and tried to paint the Contras as freedom fighters.

The Sandinista government headed by Daniel Ortega won decisively in the 1984 Nicaraguan elections. The U.S. government explicitly planned to back the Contras, various rebel groups collectively that were formed in response to the rise of the Sandinistas, as a means to damage the Nicaraguan economy and force the Sandinista government to divert its scarce resources toward the army and away from social and economic programs.

The United States began to support Contra activities against the Sandinista government by December 1981, with the CIA at the forefront of operations. The CIA provided the Contras with planning and operational direction and assistance, weapons, food, and training, in what was described as the "most ambitious" covert operation in more than a decade. The Contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south.

One of the purposes the CIA hoped to achieve by these operations was an aggressive and violent response from the Sandinista government which in turn could be used as a pretext for further military actions.

In March 1982 the Sandinistas declared an official State of Emergency. They argued that this was a response to attacks by counter-revolutionary forces. The State of Emergency lasted six years, until January 1988, when it was lifted. Many civil liberties were curtailed or canceled such as the freedom to organize demonstrations, the inviolability of the home, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the freedom to strike.

The Contra campaign against the government included frequent and widespread acts of terror. The economic and social reforms enacted by the government enjoyed some popularity; as a result, the Contras attempted to disrupt these programs. This campaign included the destruction of health centers and hospitals that the Sandinista government had established, in order to disrupt their control over the populace. Schools were also destroyed, as the literacy campaign conducted by the government was an important part of its policy. The Contras also committed widespread kidnappings, murder, and rape. The kidnappings and murder were a product of the "low-intensity warfare" that the Reagan Doctrine prescribed as a way to disrupt social structures and gain control over the population. Also known as "unconventional warfare", advocated for and defined by the World Anti-Communist League's (WACL) retired U.S. Army Major General John Singlaub as, "low intensity actions, such as sabotage, terrorism, assassination and guerrilla warfare". In some cases, more indiscriminate killing and destruction also took place. The Contras also carried out a campaign of economic sabotage, and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua's Port of Corinto. The Reagan administration supported this by imposing a full trade embargo.

In fiscal year 1984, the U.S. Congress approved $24 million in aid to the Contras. However, the Reagan administration lost a lot of support for its Contra policy after CIA involvement in the mining of Nicaraguan ports became public knowledge, and a report of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research commissioned by the State Department found that Reagan had exaggerated claims about Soviet interference in Nicaragua. Congress cut off all funds for the contras in 1985 with the third Boland Amendment.

The Reagan administration nonetheless illegally continued to back them by covertly selling arms to Iran and channeling the proceeds to the contras (the Iran–Contra affair), for which several members of the Reagan administration were convicted of felonies. Money was also raised for the Contras through drug trafficking, which the United States was aware of.

Throughout the Nicaraguan Civil War, the Reagan government conducted a campaign to shift public opinion to favor support for the Contras, and to change the vote in Congress to favor of that support. For this purpose, the National Security Council authorized the production and distribution of publications that looked favorably at the Contras, also known as "white propaganda," written by paid consultants who did not disclose their connection to the administration. It also arranged for speeches and press conferences conveying the same message. The U.S. government continually discussed the Contras in highly favorable terms; Reagan called them the "moral equivalent of the founding fathers." Another common theme the administration played on was the idea of returning Nicaragua to democracy, which analysts characterized as "curious," because Nicaragua had been a U.S.-supported dictatorship prior to the Sandinista revolution, and had never had a democratic government before the Sandinistas.

Commentators stated that this was all a part of an attempt to return Nicaragua to the state of its Central American neighbors; that is, where traditional social structures remained and American imperialist ideas were not threatened.

The International Court of Justice, in regard to the case of Nicaragua v. United States in 1984, found, "the United States of America was under an obligation to make reparation to the Republic of Nicaragua for all injury caused to Nicaragua by certain breaches of obligations under customary international law and treaty-law committed by the United States of America". The ICJ found that the U.S. had encouraged violations of international humanitarian law by assisting paramilitary actions in Nicaragua. The court also criticized the production of a manual on psychological warfare by the U.S. and its dissemination of the Contras. The manual, amongst other things, provided advice on rationalizing the killing of civilians, and on targeted murder. The manual also included an explicit description of the use of "implicit terror." The U.S. used its veto on the United Nations Security Council to block the enforcement of the ICJ judgement, and thereby prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation. During the war between the Contras and the Sandinistas, 30,000 people were killed.

In the Nicaraguan general election, 1990, a coalition of anti-Sandinista parties (from the left and right of the political spectrum) led by Violeta Chamorro defeated the Sandinistas. The FSLN is now Nicaragua's sole leading party. In the 2006 Nicaraguan general election, former FSLN President Daniel Ortega was reelected President of Nicaragua, bringing in the country's second Sandinista government after 17 years of other parties winning elections. Ortega and the FSLN were reelected in the presidential elections of 2011, 2016, and 2021.

United States–supported anti-Sandinista "Contra" rebels (ARDE Frente Sur) in 1987.

Daniel Ortega in 2014.

Official portrait of Ronald Reagan, 1981.