Dirty Little Wars (Nicaragua)

exerpted from the book

Toxic Sludge Is Good For You:
Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

"The Torturers' Lobby"

by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton


Central America's revolutionary movements were too strong to be dislodged with a weekend war like the ones in Grenada and Panama. A longer-term, more sophisticated strategy was needed-one that kept US troops out of the line of fire while enabling the Pentagon to confront "the enemy." The strategy that carried the day in Washington became known as the doctrine of "low-intensity conflict." As Sara Miles observed in her landmark 1986 analysis, Its name comes from its place on the intensity spectrum of warfare which ascends from civil disorders, through classical wars, to nuclear holocaust.... "This kind of conflict is more accurately described as revolutionary and counterrevolutionary warfare," explains Col. John Waghelstein, currently commander of the Army's Seventh Special Forces. He warns that the term "low-intensity" is misleading, as it describes the level of violence strictly from a military viewpoint In fact, Waghelstein argues, this type of conflict involves "political, economic, and psychological warfare, with the military being a distant fourth in many cases. In perhaps the most candid definition given by a US official, Waghelstein declares that low-intensity conflict is total war at the grassroots level."


The 1979 Sandinista revolution, which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, rang alarm bells in Washington. The Somoza family had ruled the country for 45 years after coming to power by murdering its enemies. It was notorious for corruption and violence, but it was also considered an unwavering ally of the United States.


Anastasio Somoza was also one of the first Latin American dictators to recognize the value of a good flack, hiring the Mackenzie and McCheyne PR firm in New York, along with lobbyist William Cramer, a former Republican congressman from Florida. In 1978, Somoza's last full year in power, Mackenzie and McCheyne received over $300,000 in fees from the Somoza government. As the revolution gained momentum, Mackenzie and McCheyne partner Ian Mackenzie was dispatched to counter negative reports characterizing the dictator as corrupt, authoritarian, crude, cruel and overweight. "The president is totally different from what people think," Mackenzie said. "He is intelligent, most capable, warm-hearted. He is loyal and strong with his friends, compassionate with his enemies.... By the sheer law of averages, Somoza has to have done some good. Even Mussolini did some good for Italy." As an example of the freedom that existed under the Somoza regime, Mackenzie pointed to Nicaragua's opposition newspaper, La Prensa.


Two months later, La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was gunned down in the street by Somoza's business partners, triggering a paralyzing nationwide strike demanding Somoza's resignation. Somoza hired a new flack, paying $7,000 per month for the services of Norman L. Wolfson of the New York PR firm of Norman, Lawrence, Patterson & Farrell. As Somoza's air force was decimating Nicaraguan cities with aerial bombings during its final campaign of terror, Wolfson-who didn't speak Spanish complained to who ever would listen that reporters were trying to "knock down" Somoza and had not "been entirely fair." (Wolfson's memoir of his experience, titled "Selling Somoza: The Lost Cause of a PR Man," appeared in the July 20, 1979, issue of William Buckley's conservative National Review, which was on sale at newsstands on July 19, the day Somoza fled the country. In it, Wolfson describes his client as "a spoiled brat who had evolved into middle age, a know-it-all who asked for advice and couldn't take it, a boor, a rude, overbearing bully" who fantasized about crushing the genitals of journalists.)


By the time Somoza fled Nicaragua, his family had accumulated wealth estimated at $400 to $500 million. Meanwhile, half the country's population was illiterate. One in three infants born to poor Nicaraguans died before the age of one. More than 20,000 Nicaraguans suffered from advanced tuberculosis. The victorious Sandinistas launched ambitious, popular vaccination and education programs. They also broke new ground in foreign policy, seeking alliances with Cuba and the Soviet Union. A line in the country's new national anthem-"We fight the Yankees, enemies of humanity"-showed just how far they intended to take Nicaragua from the Somoza days of dependence and fealty to the United States.


The "low-intensity" strategy aimed at undermining the Sandinistas was an ambitious concept, uniting Vietnam-era counterinsurgency with civic action initiatives, psychological warfare, public relations activities and civilian "development assistance" projects traditionally considered beyond the sphere of military responsibilities. On the economic level, the US pressured international financial institutions to cut off loans to Nicaragua and imposed a debilitating trade embargo. On the political front, the US promoted carefully stage-managed elections in El Salvador and Honduras. Psychological operations against Nicaragua ranged from sabotage attacks to radio propaganda broadcasts. On the military level, US strategy was designed to avoid the commitment of US ground troops, while doing everything possible to create the fear of a US invasion.


The US also brought together Somoza's dispersed National Guard and reorganized it into what became known as the contra army. At worst the contras had no political leadership, so the White House recruited a group of disaffected Nicaraguan businessmen and scripted speeches to help them pose as the contras' "civilian leadership." The civilian leaders included Edgar Chamorro, a Managua advertising executive who later became disaffected with the cause. Chamorro complained bitterly in his 1987 book, Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation, that the US had used him as a civilian figurehead for an army over which he had no real control.


The CIA paid Chamorro a salary of $2,000 per month plus expenses for his work, which included bribing Honduran journalists and broadcasters to write and speak favorably about the contras and to attack the Nicaraguan government and call for its overthrow. "Approximately 15 Honduran journalists and broadcasters were on the CIA's payroll, and our influence was thereby extended to every major Honduran newspaper and radio and television station," Chamorro said.


In 1983, the Reagan Administration began a series of major military maneuvers in Honduras, coordinated with contra units and the Salvadoran military. The maneuvers were carefully staged to create the impression that they were preludes to a US invasion of Nicaragua. In reality, as Miles observed, "The maneuvers were not a preparation or cover for the war: they were the embodiment of the war. . . Fears that the Administration may be threatening to invade have been an integral part of the plan at the psychological level. . . The first goal . . . was to squeeze the economy by forcing a massive diversion of resources into defense.... Next came psychological operations to feed on the conflict: leaflets distributed throughout the country urged Nicaraguan youths to escape the "totalitarian Marxist draft; radio stations of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) in Honduras urged revolt against 'the communists who spend our national treasure on bullets instead of food."


The Reagan administration faced a scandal in 1984 with the disclosure that the CIA had produced a training manual for the contras titled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. The strategy outlined in the text include recommendations for selective assassination of Nicaraguan government officials. Critics charged the CIA with encouraging indiscriminate assassination of civilians. Miles observed, however, that the actual intent of the document was more subtle: "There is a conscious effort to reduce the presence of the civilian government, to remove successful social programs and the ideological influence that comes with them.... In practice, this means the targeted torture and assassination of teachers, health workers, agricultural technicians and their collaborators in the community This is not, as many critics charge, "indiscriminate violence against civilians." . . . Rather, the violence is part of a logical and systematic policy, and reflects the changing pattern of the war.

from the book:

Toxic Sludge Is Good For You:
Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

Common Courage Press, Box 702, Monroe, MA 04951

Toxic Sludge