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In 1821 Central America abolished slavery and followed the example of Mexico's Agustin Iturbide and declared its independence from Spain, and the next year they became a part of his Mexican empire. When Iturbide was overthrown in 1823, the United Provinces of Central America declared their independence. That year United States president James Monroe proclaimed the paternalistic policy toward Latin America that became known as the Monroe Doctrine in order to warn Europeans not to intervene anymore in the western hemisphere. During the California gold rush in 1850 US businessmen began financing a railroad across the isthmus of Panama; it was completed after five years and was protected by US troops. Also in 1855 adventurer William Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua so that the United States could secure rights to a canal; he reestablished slavery in Nicaragua and was recognized by the US. Two years later shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt helped the US invade Nicaragua to overthrow Walker with assistance from Costa Ricans at Rivas.
The United States intervened in Nicaragua four times between 1894 and 1899. After another intervention in 1910, the US Marines occupied Nicaragua for the next quarter century. A rebellion led by the mystical Augusto Sandino, a theosophist, in 1927 was not quelled until 1934, when he was treacherously murdered by order of Anastasio Somoza Garcia after he had dinner with him. Somoza established the National Guard, and his family ruled Nicaragua until 1979.
El Salvador became an independent nation in 1838, and in 1886 the communal lands were privatized as an oligarchy of mostly coffee growers called "the fourteen families" dominated the country for the next 45 years. As the Depression devastated the coffee market, the Communist Party of El Salvador (CPS) won many municipal elections in 1931; but Minister of War General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez refused to accept the results. The Congress elected the reformer Arturo Araujo; but amid Communist agitation Farabundo Marti led a CPS revolt with Indian peasants; this was quickly defeated by the army, and in 1932 Marti and CPS leaders were publicly executed as about 30,000 peasants were massacred in the infamous la matanza. General Martinez took dictatorial power that delayed industrialization. Labor unions were illegal until Martinez was persuaded to resign by the United States in 1944 during a sit-down strike, though military rule continued. The Partido Revolutionario de Unificacion Democratica (PRUD) was founded in 1948 by Oscar Osorio, who became President in 1950, when El Salvador got a new constitution and began industrializing. The elections of 1956 were fixed by the government party (PRUD) of Lt. Col. Jose Maria Lemus.
In 1961 in response to the Cuban revolution the anti-communist Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN) was founded in El Salvador by General Jose Alberto Medrano. Vatican II of Pope John XXIII influenced Latin America when the bishops met at Medellin, Columbia in 1968 and were inspired to dedicate themselves to alleviating injustice and oppression. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez inspired many priests to become active in social and political reforms. In 1969 after Salvadorans in Honduras were mistreated, the "Soccer War" broke out and lasted four days; about 25,000 impoverished peasants were pushed back into El Salvador, and the border was closed. Throughout the 1970s in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala civil wars developed in reaction to government repression and right-wing death squads under General Medrano and others. San Salvador mayor Joseph Napoleon Duarte was apparently elected President in 1972, but Col. Arturo Molina of the PRUD, renamed as the Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN), was chosen by the Assembly instead. After an attempted revolt by reformist officers failed, Duarte was arrested, tortured, and exiled.
The United Fruit Company had been in Guatemala for a half century when Jacobo Arbenz was elected President in 1950 to succeed peacefully Juan Jose Arévalo, who had been democratically elected in 1944. Arbenz implemented agrarian reform, but the United Fruit Company complained that they were only compensated for their 234,000 acres according to the fraudulent value they had reported on their tax forms. In 1954 mercenaries trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at military bases in Honduras and Nicaragua, supported by four US fighter planes, overthrew Arbenz and put Col. Carlos Castillo Armas of the National Liberation Movement (MLN) in power. Thousands of people were killed as land was returned to previous owners, taxes on interest and dividends to foreign investors were abolished, and all unions were disbanded. After President Armas was assassinated in 1957, riots resulted in the military taking control; a conservative was elected the next year. United States Special Forces began intervening in Guatemala in 1966, and in the next seven years right-wing death squads killed about 30,000 people. In 1974 a right-wing candidate seems to have stolen the election from General Rios Montt.
When President Jimmy Carter attached human rights requirements to US aid in 1977, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, and Argentina refused to accept it; the next year the US banned arms sales to Guatemala. In 1982 General Rios Montt took power, and the World Council of Churches reported that the government had killed more than 9,000 people in five months. Under President Ronald Reagan in 1983 the US resumed shipping military supplies to Guatemala. Many changes of government occurred in the next few years, and the Church continued to complain of human rights abuses.
The United Fruit Company was also dominant in Honduras, which was invaded by US troops in 1923. The United States let the United Fruit Company take control and rule by a dictator from 1932 to 1948. An army coup in 1963 was led by Col. Oswaldo Lopez in 1963, who ruled until he was overthrown in 1975 when a scandal exposed that United Brands had paid an official $1.25 million and then saved $7.5 million in taxes. After Nicaragua's Somoza fell in 1979, President Carter strengthened relations with Honduras.
In February 1977 another fraudulent election made General Carlos Humberto Romero president of El Salvador as more than two hundred peaceful protesters were killed; the Catholic Church boycotted his inauguration. In June the White Warriors' Union accused Catholics in El Salvador of promoting Communism and threatened to kill all the Jesuits in the country, distributing leaflets inciting, "Be a Patriot! Kill a Priest!" Since several priests had already been assassinated by death squads, the US warned President Romero; the US Congress began holding hearings on religious persecution in El Salvador. Over the next few months the Romero government was condemned for human rights violations by reports from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the US State Department. The Legal Aid office of Archbishop Oscar Romero found that 727 people had been killed by death squads in 1978 and 1979. On October 15, 1979 General Humberto Romero's government was overthrown by a coup of young officers. They formed a ruling junta, and a few weeks later the Carter administration announced that it would send "nonlethal" military aid to El Salvador.
In January 1980 a struggle for power resulted in the civilians resigning as the right-wing General Jose Guillermo Garcia gained the upper hand, though Christian Democrats joined his junta. In February the banks of El Salvador were nationalized, and land reform was decreed; but death-squad killings escalated. On the 17th Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote a letter to President Carter warning him,
Your government's contribution,
instead of favoring the cause of justice and peace in El Salvador,
will surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression
that has been unleashed against the people's organizations
fighting to defend their most fundamental rights.1
The archbishop explained that neither the junta nor the Christian Democrats were governing the country, because the armed forces had the political power and used it unscrupulously to repress the people and defend the oligarchy. Therefore Romero asked Carter to prohibit all military aid to El Salvador and not let the US intervene in any way so that the people's organizations could resolve the crisis, and he cited the statement by the bishops of Latin America recognizing the right of self-determination of their peoples.
After Attorney General Mario Zamora sued Roberto D'Aubuisson for libel for having accused him of collaborating with guerrillas, Zamora was assassinated. D'Aubuisson was generally recognized as a leader of ORDEN death squads in the 1970s under General Medrano. After the October 1979 coup Major D'Aubuisson had been forced out of the army; but he began accusing "Communist traitors" on television so that troops would kill them. After Zamora's death, many Christian Democrats withdrew from the government in protest and formed a new party called the Popular Social Christian Movement; but on March 9 the Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte joined the ruling junta.
In his last sermon the day before he was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero made this dramatic plea,
I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army,
and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard,
the police and the military.
Brothers, you come from our own people.
You are killing your own brother peasants
when any human order to kill must be subordinate
to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill."
No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.
No one has to obey an immoral law.
It is high time you recovered your consciences
and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.
The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God,
of human dignity, of the person,
cannot remain silent before such an abomination.
We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless
if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood.
In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people
whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day,
I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God,
stop the repression.2
About 30,000 people attended Romero's funeral; gunshots and explosions caused panic, resulting in the death of thirty and injuries to hundreds. Three days after Romero's death USAID granted $13 million to El Salvador, and on April first the US House Appropriations Committee approved $5.7 million in military aid. That month the Frente Democratico Revolucionario (FDR) formed in El Salvador as the political party allied with the rebels.
On May 7, 1980 the progressive Col. Adolfo Majano discovered a plot by the extreme right led by D'Aubuisson, who was arrested with 23 others. One week later six hundred Salvadoran peasants fleeing into Honduras were massacred at the Rio Sumpul by troops from both El Salvador and Honduras. After right-wing supporters chanted "Communist" outside the home of US ambassador Robert White, D'Aubuisson was released. On June 26 soldiers stormed the National University and killed fifty as the government closed the university. In October the Salvadoran army killed 3,000 peasants in Morazan, and more US military advisors secretly arrived in El Salvador. Five rebel groups joined together to form the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN).
After Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, he assured Salvadoran business leaders that he would resume military aid. Six FDR leaders in San Salvador were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. On December 4 the bodies of Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and missionary Jean Donovan were found near the airport after they had been raped and murdered by soldiers of the National Guard. The next day President Carter suspended aid to El Salvador. After the third junta disbanded as Duarte became provisional President of El Salvador, Carter restored economic aid. On January 5, 1981 three agrarian reform advisors, two from the United States, were shot to death in San Salvador. Concerned that President-elect Reagan would intervene, the FMLN tried to launch a final offensive before he took office; but the popular organizations had been so devastated by the death squads that a general strike failed. On January 14 Carter's National Security Council approved $5.9 million in lethal aid to El Salvador.
The capable and outspoken US ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, was fired by the new Secretary of State Alexander Haig within a week after Reagan's inauguration. In February the Reagan administration issued a White Paper claiming that Salvadoran guerrillas were receiving arms and training from Cuba and Nicaragua; they proposed $25 million in additional military aid to El Salvador with 26 more advisors. By June the US press had refuted virtually every point of the White Paper. On March 9 Reagan signed a Presidential finding authorizing CIA covert operations to support the government of El Salvador with $19.5 million, ostensibly to interdict arms supplies coming from Nicaragua and Honduras.
In January 1982 the US began training Salvadoran troops at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. To keep aid going to El Salvador the Reagan administration had to certify that it was making progress on human rights. This finding was immediately refuted in the press by numerous human rights organizations. The Salvadoran Communal Union (UCS) complained that at least ninety officials of peasant organizations had been killed in 1981. Amnesty International reported human rights violations on a "massive scale." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americas Watch argued there were hundreds of politically motivated murders, torture, and mutilation by paramilitary forces. The Washington Post and the New York Times reported extensively on the El Mozote massacre. Relatives of the four murdered churchwomen complained that the Salvadoran government had covered up the case and had not tried anyone for their murders. Dozens of those in the US Congress were so appalled that they sponsored a resolution to declare the certification null and void. A Newsweek poll found that 89% of those familiar with US policy said that the United States should not send troops to El Salvador.
Roberto D'Aubuisson had founded the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) that drew policies from the 1980 platform of the US Republican Party. The US ambassador Deane Hinton warned that a victory by the right-wing ARENA party in the upcoming election could be a disaster; so the CIA spent two million dollars to help the Christian Democrats. In the March 1982 election about 85% of El Salvador's eligible voters cast ballots. The Christian Democrats won 24 of the sixty seats in the Assembly; but the rest were taken by five rightist parties with ARENA getting 19 seats and the PCN fourteen. Ambassador Hinton persuaded the parties not to challenge the election results nor block agrarian reform and warned them that if they elected D'Aubuisson president, US aid may stop. Despite opposition by ARENA, the Christian Democrat Alvaro Magaña was elected President, though D'Aubuisson became the leader of the Constituent Assembly, which in May suspended the agrarian reform.
In July 1982 the Reagan administration had to certify El Salvador's human rights record again and argued that the 1,573 political murders in the first half of the year were less than the year before, though the number was more than the previous six months. In October leaders of the FDR and FMLN offered to negotiate without preconditions by sending a letter that was delivered to President Magaña by Archbishop Rivera y Damas. That month Ambassador Hinton warned the US-Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce that the "Mafia" that was murdering innocent civilians and Americans must be stopped. After guerrilla commandos destroyed most of the Salvadoran air force at the Ilopango air base in late January 1983, President Reagan used his emergency powers to send $55 million in military aid to El Salvador without congressional approval.
In January 1983 President Reagan issued his third certification of human rights progress in El Salvador, and on April 27 he spoke to a joint session of Congress urging them to support his anti-Communist effort in Central America, arguing, "The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America."3 In late May assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs Thomas Ender and Ambassador Hinton were both replaced for trying to get the Salvadorans to stop human rights violations. In June a hundred US military advisers began training Salvadoran troops in Honduras. In July, Reagan certified El Salvador's human rights record again even though no one had been brought to trial for the deaths of the churchwomen or the agrarian workers, and in November the President vetoed a bill that would have continued the certification requirements. On October 25, 1983 US Marines and Army Rangers invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, where a military coup led by the Marxist deputy prime minister Bernard Coard had taken power on October 13; that government and resisting Cuban workers were removed as Reagan argued that US medical students had to be protected.
For the fiscal year of 1984 the US Congress gave the Reagan administration a third less military aid for El Salvador than they requested, but the $64.8 million was still more than twice that of the previous year. On December 11 Vice President George Bush visited President Magaña but in a toast warned him, "Your cause is being undermined by the murderous violence of reactionary minorities,"4 and he denounced the "cowardly death squads."
On March 25, 1984 Salvadorans voted for president, and a runoff was scheduled for May between Christian Democrat Duarte and D'Aubuisson of ARENA. During the congressional recess in April, President Reagan invoked his emergency powers to send $32 million in military aid to El Salvador. Meanwhile the CIA spent $2.1 million covertly to back Duarte, using the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a Venezuelan Institute, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). D'Aubuisson's friend Jesse Helms learned of it and complained on the Senate floor, and death threats were made against US ambassador Thomas Pickering. Duarte won the election and promised to end the death squads, implement reform, and negotiate peace with the guerrillas. This was enough to persuade the US House of Representatives to vote 212-208 to resume military aid. After a Salvadoran jury convicted five former National Guardsmen of killing the four church women, Congress was more willing to pass aid for El Salvador. The Reagan administration managed to compile $196.6 million for the war in El Salvador in 1984, and $123.25 million was authorized for 1985.
In March 1988 the ARENA party won control of El Salvador's National Assembly. Peace-loving senators Mark Hatfield and Tom Harkin tried to hold back half of El Salvador's military aid for six months so that they would negotiate an end to the war; but their amendment was stopped in committee after dying Duarte sent a message from Walter Reed Hospital. ARENA candidate Alfredo Christiani was elected president in March 1989. In November the guerrillas launched a major offensive but could not get the support they wanted in the capital San Salvador. The military reacted to this by sending out death-squads against journalists, clerics, relief workers, and intellectuals, murdering six Jesuit priests and two women at the Central American University on November 16. The US Congress responded to these developments by cutting the military aid for 1990 in half. In the 1980s the US had given El Salvador nearly $4 billion in overt aid. In April 1990 representatives of the FMLN and the El Salvador government met at Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. The next month the US House adopted the Moakly-Murtha amendment that cut military aid in half again unless the FMLN refused to negotiate or got weapons from abroad or murdered civilians. In July an important accord on human rights was reached by the FMLN and the El Salvador government.
After a US helicopter was shot down in January 1991, the Bush administration restored the extra military aid. In October the FMLN agreed to disarm when they were promised major reforms in the government and economic improvements such as land reform. Finally at the very end of UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar's term on the last day of 1991, a peace agreement was made. The United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) successfully monitored the peace accord and supervised elections in 1994. The UN also mediated an end to 36 years of civil war in Guatemala in 1996. Altogether the low-intensity wars of the 1980s had killed more than two hundred thousand people in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, resulting in more than two million refugees.
Anastasio Somoza was elected President of Nicaragua in 1967, succeeding his late brother Luis Somoza. Four years later Congress dissolved itself and transferred its constitutional authority to Somoza. After the 1972 earthquake Somoza declared martial law that lasted until 1977. That year the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN), which had been founded after the Cuban revolution in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, Tomas Borge, and Silvio Moraga, began a major offensive. The Somoza government was criticized by La Prenza editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, but he was assassinated on January 10, 1978. FSLN insurrections spread in Nicaraguan provinces and closed in on Managua. In November the United States blocked $65 million in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because Somoza refused mediation; but in May 1979 they released the money. On June 20 captured ABC reporter Bill Stewart was shot in the head by a National Guard soldier while his crew filmed from a van. The US called for a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance urged a peacekeeping force. The FSLN got most of its weapons from Venezuela and Panama, as Cuba restrained itself to keep the US from opposing the revolution. On July 17, 1979 President Somoza fled to Miami.
Two days later an unusual combination of Marxist guerrillas and conservative businessmen took power in Managua, declaring the Government of National Reconstruction and promising a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a non-aligned foreign policy. Although the National Directorate was led by the moderate brothers Daniel and Humberto Ortega, the private sector opposed the Sandinistas' emphasis on social welfare with free education and health care, taxes on the wealthy, and agrarian reform. The US contributed about $20 million in relief aid to feed and house those displaced by the civil war. In February 1980 the US Congress appropriated $75 million in humanitarian aid for Nicaragua along with $5 million in military aid for its neighbors. In September, President Carter certified that Nicaragua was not harboring terrorists nor supporting them in other countries. Carter's moderate policy was designed to avoid the past mistakes with Cuba that had pushed Castro toward the Communists.
In April 1981 the Reagan administration canceled the $118 million in US aid to Nicaragua that Carter had obtained, and the President approved CIA director Bill Casey's plan to back anti-Sandinista insurgents based in Honduras. On November 16 Reagan approved $19.95 million to support these contra rebels. Without US assistance the Nicaraguans turned to others for help. The Soviet Union provided 20,000 tons of wheat; Libya loaned them $100 million; and Cuba sent $64 million in technical aid. In February 1982 Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo gave a speech in Nicaragua and offered to mediate to help release the "three knots of tension" involving the United States and Nicaragua, the US and Cuba, and the El Salvador civil war. Many in the US Congress welcomed his assistance, and to mollify the public the Reagan administration reluctantly promised to cooperate. After anti-Sandinista Contras destroyed two major bridges on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras in March, the Sandinistas declared a state of emergency on March 15.
In December 1982 US Representative Tom Harkin proposed an amendment that would prohibit US assistance to any group "carrying out military activities in or against Nicaragua."5 Edward Boland then offered a substitute with language acceptable to the Republicans, prohibiting funds "for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua,"6 which passed the House 411-0. Yet the number of Contras the US was supporting increased from less than 2,000 in August 1982 to 7,000 by the following May. Thirty-seven members of the House wrote to President Reagan complaining that the Boland amendment was being violated, and on July 28, 1983 the House voted 228-195 to end covert operations against Nicaragua.
Throughout the second half of 1983 the US military conducted extensive exercises in the western Caribbean to intimidate Nicaragua, Salvadoran rebels, and Cuba. In September the Contras sabotaged Nicaragua's only coastal oil terminal, and the next month they attacked oil storage facilities. The House voted again 227-194 in the annual intelligence authorization to ban spending on covert operations against Nicaragua, and in November they passed a resolution in support of negotiations by the Contadora process mediated by Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama; but the conference committee added $24 million dollars for the Contras for the next fiscal year. Without telling the oversight committees, the National Security Council (NSC) increased the authorized strength of the Contras to 18,000.
Early in 1984 the CIA used a ship off Nicaragua's coast to help Latin American commandos lay mines in three Nicaraguan harbors; but the Senate Intelligence committee was not fully informed until March 27 after Dutch, Panamanian, and Soviet ships were damaged, and Nicaraguan fishermen were killed. Then a Liberian tanker and a Japanese ship were damaged, and speedboats with machine guns and explosives attacked the Corinto harbor. By overwhelming votes both houses of Congress voted to condemn the mining, 84-12 in the Senate. On May 24 the House voted 241-177 to prohibit aid to the Contras.
Since the Reagan administration could not get money from Congress for the Contras, they looked for other ways. On June 25 at a meeting with President Reagan, Vice President Bush, CIA Director Casey, National Security Advisor McFarlane, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Vessey, Secretary of State Schultz, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, they discussed getting military support for the Contras from other countries. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia had already offered a million dollars a month. Casey had got $10 million in arms that Israel had captured from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), though he had denied this when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee. Schultz and the White House chief of staff Jim Baker warned that such solicitations could be an "impeachable offense," and Reagan demanded secrecy, warning, "If such a story gets out, we'll all be hanging by our thumbs in front of the White House."7 Within days of Congress voting to end all funding for the Contras, more than $20 million was sent by Saudis into Contra bank accounts.
The Contadora nations were mediating peace talks at Manzanillo, and in September 1984 Nicaragua surprised many by agreeing to the proposed treaty that would ban foreign military bases, training, and exercises; it meant that US advisers would have to leave Honduras and El Salvador, and the Cuban advisers would have to leave Nicaragua. Reagan's diplomats found ways to delay the treaty, irritating Mexico. In October the Associated Press reported that a CIA murder manual called Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare had been sent to Contras, urging them to hire criminals to provoke violence at large urban demonstrations to cause deaths and make martyrs. They also advised them to "neutralize" (assassinate) judges, police, security officials, and Sandinista leaders. On November 2 Nicaragua held elections, and the Sandinistas won about two-thirds of the votes. Two days later Reagan won re-election with 59% of the popular vote.
After Reagan's large electoral victory in 1984, his administration imposed an economic embargo against Nicaragua on May 1, 1985. The next month Congress approved $27 million for the Contras but only in overt and nonlethal aid. However, a year later Congress authorized $100 million, including $70 million in military aid, for the Nicaraguan Contras to be administered by the CIA. Meanwhile during the restricted period from 1985 to 1986 Lt. Col. Oliver North, working for the National Security Council (NSC), had secretly raised $34 million dollars from other countries and $2.7 million from wealthy citizens as covert aid for the Contras, using an offshore enterprise managed by former general Richard Secord. By March 1985 the secret arms were flowing into Honduras. North thanked Guatemala for its help by promising military aid, and Salvadoran president Duarte let them use the Ilopango air base for logistics. Panama's General Noriega had been working for the CIA for two decades and allowed them to use Panama for training camps and his drug-smuggling planes for transporting the arms (and drugs to pay for them). China sent surface-to-air missiles through Guatemala, and Taiwan donated two million dollars. In 1986 the US secretly sold arms to Iran for a profit of $16.1 million, of which $3.8 million was spent for the Contras' war.
As early as 1985 the Central American Crisis Monitoring Team of the Institute for Policy Studies had published the pamphlet In Contempt of Congress, quoting official statements of Reagan officials with the counterevidence showing that they were lies, deceptions, and distortions. Former New York assistant attorney general Reed Brody documented with 145 sworn affidavits 28 cases of human rights violations by the Contras. Columnist Charles Krauthammer dubbed American support for anti-communist revolutions the Reagan Doctrine. Neither the United States nor El Salvador ever brought their allegations against Nicaragua to the Organization of American States or the United Nations. Yet Article 51 of the UN Charter requires any nation claiming the right of self-defense to lodge a formal complaint in the Security Council. The Reagan administration was apparently unwilling to have its actions scrutinized by international law. On June 25, 1986 the House passed Reagan's $100 million in aid for the Contras, and the next day the World Court announced that it had found the United States guilty of fifteen violations against international law for arming the Contras, attacking Nicaragua, mining their harbors, embargoing their trade, and violating their airspace. The US Government had withdrawn from the World Court and ignored its judgment.
On October 5, 1986 the Sandinista army shot down a plane carrying 10,000 pounds of ammunition and supplies for the Contras. The surviving crew member was the American Eugene Hasenfus, and evidence indicated it was a CIA operation. CIA Central America Task Force chief Alan Fiers lied to the House Intelligence Committee about it and was later convicted for that. His boss, CIA deputy director of operations Clair George, had instructed him to lie, and in 1992 George was also found guilty of making false statements to Congress. In November the press revealed that the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran in order to get US hostages in Lebanon released. The Justice Department found a memo by North planning to use $12 million from the arms sale to purchase supplies for the Nicaraguan resistance forces. Attorney General Edwin Meese warned President Reagan that he could be impeached if he tried to cover it up; over the objection of CIA director Casey, both held a news conference to admit the "Iran-Contra" scandal. They announced that National Security Advisor John Poindexter and his assistant Oliver North were both dismissed. After a congressional investigation involving extensive public hearings that were televised, on November 18, 1987 the Iran-Contra committees reported that they found "secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law."8
Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright and President Reagan announced a proposal for a cease-fire on August 5, 1987, but two days later the presidents of all five Central American nations signed the Arias peace accord in Guatemala. Wright liked this peace plan, but Reagan considered it "fatally flawed," because it would allow Soviet aid to the Sandinistas to continue. In January 1988 the Sandinistas ended their state of emergency, allowed exiles to return, released some political prisoners, and agreed to negotiate directly with the Contra rebels. In February the US House of Representatives rejected the entire Contra aid package. In March the Sandinistas met with the Contras at Sapoas on the Costa Rica border and signed a sixty-day cease-fire. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev suspended their military aid to Nicaragua at the end of 1988 and urged the Sandinistas to hold a fair election.
In February 1989 the five Central American presidents met in El Salvador and planned the voluntary demobilization, repatriation, and relocation of the Nicaraguan Contras and their families. In a meeting at Tela, Honduras in August the Central American leaders agreed not to allow insurgent forces in their territories, and an international commission to verify this was created, making it difficult for the Contras to operate out of Honduras and Costa Rica. During the 1980s the US had given the Contras $350 million to fight the Sandinistas. During the administration of George Bush the effort was shifted to influencing the next election in Nicaragua through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which contributed $11.6 million to the opposition. The CIA found $6 million to help the opposing coalition and even gave $600,000 to former Contra leaders for the election campaign. This paid off when Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega 55% to 41% on February 25, 1990. During the campaign Ortega complained that his country was facing an election with a gun pointed at its head, because the Bush administration threatened that a Sandinista victory would mean more war. Nonetheless the Sandinistas accepted the election results and became the opposition party. The Contra war, financed and supplied by the US, had caused $15 billion damage in Nicaragua and killed about 30,000 people, not counting those who died from hunger and disease.
In the summer of 1980 the US Border Patrol discovered that about half of 27 illegal Salvadoran immigrants had died of thirst and exposure; the survivors were taken in by churches in Tucson. The following May Quaker philosopher and goat rancher Jim Corbett tried to get a Salvadoran hitchhiker he had met released but learned that he had already been deported. Jim and his wife Pat borrowed $4,500 to bail out four Salvadoran women and a baby, and they learned about the violence in El Salvador that people were fleeing. Corbett went to Los Angeles and argued with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that Salvadoran refugees should not be deported. He wrote five hundred letters to Quaker meetings, asking for donations to pay bail for refugees. By June, Corbett and the Manzo Area Council had raised $150,000; but the INS raised the bails from $250 to $1,000 and then to $3,000. Normally refugees, who would likely be persecuted if they were returned to their countries, are allowed to stay in the United States; but under the Reagan administration policy even Salvadorans with marks of torture on their bodies were deported. Statistics later showed that from 1983 to 1986 only 2.6% of Salvadorans and only 0.9% of Guatemalans requesting asylum were approved.
When the INS demanded $9,000 bail for three Salvadoran refugees that Corbett had turned in on June 26, 1981, he protested they were forcing him to go outside the law. Corbett's father was a lawyer and had taught him about the Nuremberg trials. So Corbett organized a refugee support group and began a smuggling operation in the tradition of the Quaker underground railroad for fleeing slaves before the Civil War or of those who had helped Jews escape from the Nazis. By July another $175,000 was donated to free the remaining 115 Salvadorans from the detention center, and in August, Corbett was making one or two trips a day smuggling undocumented refugees. Corbett asked Presbyterian pastor John Fife for help in placing all these Central Americans. Fife suggested to his congregation that they provide a sanctuary in their church, and in January 1982 by secret ballot they approved 59-2. By the time of their public declaration on March 24 five churches in the San Francisco bay area and three others were declaring sanctuary also. The INS publicly scoffed at the idea, but secretly they sent a paid informant to infiltrate the movement.
In August 1982 national coordination was taken over by the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTF). They distributed 30,000 manuals on how to provide sanctuary, and the movement spread across the country; 150 churches and synagogues had become sanctuaries by the middle of 1984. In January 1985 Corbett, Fife, and fourteen others in Arizona were indicted, publicizing the movement. The number increased to 250, and even the city of Los Angeles and the state of New Mexico declared themselves sanctuaries. The Sanctuary movement reached its height in 1987 when four hundred faith-based communities were taking in political refugees from Central America.
Charles Clements, a former Air Force pilot who had been put in a psychiatric hospital for refusing to fly more bombing missions in Vietnam, became a physician and spent a year treating the campesinos and witnessing the horrendous war in El Salvador, starting in March 1982. He saw jets and helicopter gunships, supplied by the US, strafe defenseless peasants. Others he treated had been tortured or suffered from attacks using napalm, gasoline bombs, and white phosphorus rockets.
On March 23, 1984 two hundred people went to see Vermont Senator Robert Stafford at his office in Winooski to express their opposition to funding the Contra war and to ask him to hold a public meeting. When he refused, many stayed; three days later 44 protesters were arrested for trespassing. In the trial refugees told of their experience in the war zones of Central America, and experts testified. The judge charged the jurors that a significant State interest would have to be proved to override the defendants right to petition their government for redress of grievances, and he allowed the defense of necessity-that in an emergency a minor law may be violated in order to prevent a greater harm. The jury found all 26 defendants not guilty.
In April 1983 the ex-Maryknoll nun Gail Phares of the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA) organized a group of 33 people to travel to El Porvenir by Nicaragua's Honduran border that was under attack by the Contras. They observed that the Contras stopped shooting because of their presence. Jeff Boyer suggested that US citizens could hold vigils in the war zones. By July, Action for Peace in Nicaragua had 153 volunteers from forty states. The second delegation prayed to be forgiven for the killings their government was funding, and the Nicaraguans began to respond, "You are forgiven."9 More delegations traveled to Nicaragua, observed the villages that were assaulted by the Contras, and reported back to their churches and friends in the United States. Soon all the major religious peace groups and churches were supporting Witness for Peace by publicizing the issue, raising money, and sending delegations. Over the next few years about two hundred long-term delegates and four thousand short-term delegates traveled to Nicaragua as part of Witness for Peace in order to diminish the violence there.
The Reagan administration used various dirty tricks to try to destroy the Central American peace movement. In June 1983 the US State Department officially discouraged travel to Nicaragua and closed all six Nicaraguan consulates in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Customs began harassing citizens traveling to Nicaragua. The FBI also tried to intimidate activists by investigating them in their homes. When President Reagan declared a state of national emergency in May 1985, US landing rights for Nicaragua's airline were revoked. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audited many activists, and organizers found that their phones often made funny noises because of surveillance. An activist once made a call and heard a recording of a previous call. The government also tampered with and interfered with people's mail. As early as 1981 the FBI had begun to spy on the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and later Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed that it had become a major surveillance operation by 1985, spinning off into 178 separate investigations involving all 59 FBI field offices probing 1,330 organizations. These operations were supposed to have been closed down in 1985, but many believe information was still gathered. In 1987 the important testimony of FBI agent Frank Varelli was sabotaged by altering his previous lie detector results and reports to make it look like he was lying to a congressional committee.
A propaganda campaign by the government tried to associate
peace activists with Communism or terrorism, and critical journalists
and professors were intimidated. In August 1985 a Contra kidnapping
of a Witness for Peace delegation was falsely leaked as if it
were planned by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega to help his
cause. This disinformation caused reporters to doubt whether the
story was newsworthy. In the 1980s more than 140 break-ins into
the offices, churches, and homes of peace activists were documented.
Often money and valuable equipment was left while documents, records,
and photos were ransacked. In 1987 an American Friends Service
Committee (AFSC) coordinator in Pasadena had boxes of documents
stolen from her car; but expensive clothes and jewelry were left
behind. In all these 140 cases only one time was any suspect ever
identified or arrested. In Los Angeles death threats by death-squads
were often made against Salvadoran and Guatemalan activists. In
1984 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designed the
Rex 84 contingency plan to suspend the US Constitution, declare
martial law, and detain thousands of people as threats to national
security after the President declared a state of domestic national
emergency. During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings this plan was
not allowed to be discussed in open session.
During a gathering of peace and justice activists at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania in November 1983 Jim Wallis and Jim Rice of Sojourners magazine drafted a "Promise of Resistance" that was revised and signed by 33 activists, vowing that if the US invaded Nicaragua, they would go there unarmed as a loving barrier. They sent copies of the statement to members of Congress, President Reagan, the Defense Department, and the CIA. In the August 1984 issue of Sojourners the idea was altered to occupy congressional offices and was called a "Pledge of Resistance."
In Berkeley theology student Ken Butigan was working for Witness for Peace and was inspired by the original "Promise." He began circulating a document called "A Commitment to Stop the Killing in Central America." David Hartsough of the AFSC in San Francisco liked the idea and got Butigan $50 a week and an office to work on it. He revised slightly the Sojourners pledge and persuaded the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to gather signatures. On October 9, 1984 outside the Federal Building in San Francisco seven hundred people signed the pledge in the first hour as two hundred people spoke why they were willing to risk going to jail. A week later Butigan attended a Sojourners meeting in Washington and urged a decentralized campaign. The language was changed so that any major military escalation in Central America would lead to protests and civil disobedience. Butigan then compiled a Pledge of Resistance handbook called Basta! No Mandate for War, drawing upon the affinity group structure and consensus processes of the anti-nuclear movement and the handbooks used by the Livermore Action Group (LAG). By December 42,352 had signed, half of them pledging civil disobedience.
In May 1985 the US Congress voted against aid to the Contras, but the Reagan administration imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua. Activists were divided whether to act. The national organization chose to wait; but in Boston 2,600 protested, and 559 were arrested for occupying the Federal Building. In San Francisco 3,000 demonstrated, and six hundred were arrested. Nationwide more than 2,000 had been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience. A month later Congress passed $27 million for the Contras. This time the national organization acted with demonstrations in more than two hundred cities as more than 1,200 protesters were arrested. By September 70,000 had signed the Pledge of Resistance.
In 1986 during four votes over Contra aid, demonstrations took
place in a thousand places, and another two thousand people were
arrested. When National Guard troops were sent to Honduras the
next year, demonstrators protested at a hundred congressional
offices. A hundred thousand people marched for peace and justice
in Central America in Washington at the April Mobilization, and
567 were arrested for protesting at CIA headquarters. At the Pentagon
in 1988 five hundred protesters committed civil disobedience,
but only 240 of them were arrested. In the fall of 1989 there
were seven hundred protests around the country because of increases
in military aid to El Salvador. 2,440 protesters risked arrest,
and 1,452 of them were taken into custody. On March 24, 1990 during
a Washington snowstorm 580 people were arrested for demonstrating
in front of the White House, the largest number for any single
In 1966 S. Brian Willson went to Air Force officer training school; but while being trained for combat at Fort Benning, he refused to stab a dummy one hundred times, yelling, "Kill!" Nonetheless he was deployed in March 1969 to Vietnam, where he was asked to make reports on bombed villages. Later he was haunted by the faces of the dead women and children he had seen. After criticizing the bombings and civilian deaths, he was transferred to Louisiana. He completed law school and became the director of the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in his native Massachusetts. In January 1986 he traveled to Nicaragua to see if the Contras were "freedom fighters" as President Reagan claimed. When he saw the corpses of their civilian victims, he wept. He became sick of what he called the demonic American Way Of Life (AWOL), and he stopped paying federal income tax. On the steps of the Capitol in Washington, Brian and three other veterans fasted from September 1, 1986 to October 17. Senator Warren Rudman compared the fasting veterans to the terrorists holding hostages in Beirut. FBI agent John C. Ryan refused to investigate a group that was "totally nonviolent," and he was fired after more than twenty years of service.
Willson organized Veterans Peace Action Teams and returned to Nicaragua. His team of nine veterans walked 73 miles on a dangerous road, where in October 1986 eleven persons had been killed and twelve lost legs because of land mines. Willson learned that during the Vietnam War demonstrators had blocked trains carrying troops from the Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS) at Port Chicago east of Berkeley. Concerned that 230 Salvadoran villages had been bombed or strafed from the air in 1986, he organized a protest campaign on the tracks. He wrote a letter to the CNWS, and on June 10 demonstrators began blocking trains and trucks carrying munitions from CNWS across the public road to Port Chicago for shipment. Willson, Duncan Murphy, and Rev. David Duncombe decided to begin another forty-day water fast on September 1 and also planned to stay on the tracks to block every train unless they were arrested. On August 21 Willson sent a letter to the CNWS commander with copies to the Sheriff, the Police Department, the Highway Patrol, and to several politicians, stating their intention not to move for an approaching train.
On September 1 Brian took another note to CNWS and made a speech in which he said, "You can't move these munitions without moving my body or destroying my body."10 The speed limit for the train crossing the road there was five miles per hour; but the video of the event revealed that the train was traveling 17 miles per hour and did not slow down until after Willson had been run over. Duncombe was kneeling and was able to move at the last moment; Murphy was kneeling and leaped up and grabbed ahold of the train; but Willson was sitting and was not able to get out of the way. One leg was severed, and the other was so badly mangled that it had to be amputated; a large hole in his skull was opened, and part of his brain was damaged. His wife Holly Rauen, whom he had married nine days before, managed to stop the bleeding, and Brian eventually recovered. Later it was learned that the Navy had ordered the train not to stop, because they were afraid the protesters would try to board the train. The train engineers actually sued Willson for psychological stress they suffered; but he counter-sued and won the case. No jurisdiction was willing to bring criminal charges against the Navy for this atrocity.
After this horrendous incident the Nuremberg Actions protest continued as more people joined. For the next five years the vigil at the tracks was constant, and almost every train was blocked, resulting in 1,700 arrests. For a while the sheriffs tried to remove people by using pain holds; but after David Hartsough and David Wylie suffered broken arms, this tactic was abandoned. For more information on this Nuremberg Actions campaign see "My Efforts for World Peace" in the appendix.
Costa Rica has a long history of liberalism and education. General Tomas Guardia did take over the country in 1870 and ruled it as president for twelve years, but in 1877 he promulgated a liberal "Law of Individual Rights" that protected freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Public education was greatly expanded when he made primary education free and obligatory for both sexes. In 1889 President Bernard Soto allowed an honest election and was persuaded by demonstrators to let the opposition party take office after they won.
Rafael Angel Calderon came to power as a representative of the upper class in 1940, but he formed an alliance with Catholics and Communists to form the United Social Christian Party. In his four years he brought about major social and economic reforms, letting cultivators claim unused land, making taxes progressive, establishing a minimum wage, providing unemployment compensation, and codifying workers' rights. However, World War II caused economic hardship and inflation. In 1948 a disputed election erupted into civil war and brought Jose Figueres (known as Costa Rica's national hero "Don Pepe") to power. He ruled as the president of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic for eighteen months, disbanding the army and nationalizing the banks and insurance companies. The 1949 constitution promoted even more public education and made it compulsory to age 14. He was opposed by Nicaragua's Somoza, who became his bitter enemy. Figueres founded the National Liberation Party and was twice elected President, governing Costa Rica 1953-1957 and 1970-1974.
The welfare state of Costa Rica reached a crisis in 1980 when its debt became the largest per person in the world. Sandinistas had used Costa Rica as a base for attacking the Somoza regime, and in 1979 about 50,000 Nicaraguans took refuge in Costa Rica. Also tens of thousands of Salvadorans fled the civil war in their country by settling in Costa Rica. In the early 1980s Contras led by disgruntled Sandinista Eden Pastora operated from there. The Reagan administration's proxy war against the Sandinistas also secretly sent $9.6 million in military aid to Costa Rica, giving their Civil and Rural Guard 4,000 M-16 rifles, 200 M-79 grenade launchers, and 120 M-60 machine guns. Reagan propaganda was gladly accepted by Costa Rica's three daily newspapers, and US military advisors arrived in 1985. Roads in northern Costa Rica were paved, and helicopters and four small planes were purchased for the Civil Guard. Soldier of Fortune magazine recruited mercenaries to join the Contras.
Former Sandinista "Commander Zero" Eden Pastora led the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) in Costa Rica; but he refused to be dominated by the Somacista Contras in the northern Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) operating from Honduras, and he resisted CIA pressure to unite with them. On May 30, 1984 Pastora held a press conference at La Penca at which a powerful bomb killed three journalists and five Contras, wounding 26 others including journalist Tony Avirgan. Costa Rican security officers and US officials immediately blamed the Sandinistas for trying to assassinate Pastora, who eventually withdrew completely from the Contra effort in May 1986. However, an investigation by Avirgan and Martha Honey indicated that this was a cover-up for a CIA operation that was connected to John Hull, who owned a ranch in Costa Rica. They got information from a Carlos, who explained that Hull's ranch was used for trafficking in arms, cocaine, and marijuana. Avirgan and Honey published their findings and were sued for libel by John Hull; but they won the case in a Costa Rica court.
The most remarkable thing about Costa Rica is that it survived amid these Central American wars with little or no army, relying since 1947 on the Rio Mutual Defense Treaty. On February 2, 1986 Oscar Arias was the first peace candidate to be elected president of Costa Rica, and on the day of his inauguration he quietly ordered US ambassador Lewis Tambs to shut down the Santa Elena airstrip that had been used to supply the Contras in Costa Rica. Arias fired its administrator, Col. Jose Montero, and ordered Security Minister Hernan Garron to have a Civil Guard patrol the airstrip to prevent its being used. However, in June his orders were secretly countermanded as Garron and Vice Minister Rogelio Castro removed the guards and only ordered occasional patrols. In July the government of Nicaragua sued Honduras and Costa Rica in the World Court. Unlike the US and Honduras, the government of Costa Rica accepted the jurisdiction of the World Court. Tambs persuaded Arias not to publicize his stationing of the guards on the Santa Elena base on September 8, the day they impounded 77 drums of aviation fuel and put them on the runway to prevent use of the airstrip. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 President Arias expressed his concern about Nicaragua's "totalitarian regime of Marxist ideology," but the next day Minister Garron announced that the covert air strip used by the Contras had been closed.
In October 1986 CIA director Casey flew to San Jose, but Arias refused to meet with him in secret. When Arias went to Washington to meet with President Reagan in December, he made sure many people were present when he met with Casey. Arias urged peaceful solutions, especially in Nicaragua and was promised that $40 million in frozen USAID would be released for Costa Rica. At San Jose in February 1987 he presented his peace proposal to the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, calling for cease-fires, suspending outside military aid to guerrillas, amnesty for political prisoners, free elections, and negotiations between governments and unarmed opposition forces. The next month the US Senate voted 97-1 to support the Arias plan. In July, Arias announced that the Santa Elena property would become part of the Santa Rosa National Park to protect the largest dry tropical forest in Central America. In August 1987 at Esquipulas in Guatemala all five Central American presidents signed the peace accord that called for verification by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. They agreed to implement by November cease-fires, democratization, stopping aid to the Contras and other insurgents, and removal of the Contra bases from Honduras and Costa Rica. They planned to meet in January to certify this implementation. President Reagan denounced this Central American Peace Plan as "fatally flawed." The USAID funds for Costa Rica had been stopped since the peace process began in February 1987, but by threatening a scandal Democrats led by Senator John Kerry got the aid resumed. The government of Nicaragua withdrew its suit against Costa Rica and lifted its press restrictions.
On September 22 Arias addressed the US Congress, informing them that he would not let the US dehumanize the Costa Rican economy because of foreign creditors' demands and saying, "The new economic organization must be based on equity and security. No economy based on greed and intimidation can ever be established in Costa Rica in the name of efficiency."11 Arias announced that schoolchildren would compete to design a new uniform to replace the camouflage fatigues donated by the US. He commended the United States on the bicentennial of its Constitution, and he quoted John Kennedy's words during his visit to Costa Rica in 1963,
Today the principles of nonintervention
and the peaceful resolution of disputes
have been so firmly imbedded in our tradition
that the heroic democracy in which we meet today
can pursue its national goals
without an armed force to guard its frontiers.12
Arias concluded his speech by suggesting that they could overcome war and totalitarianism with peace and the power of democracy. In October 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When the five Central American presidents met again at San Jose on January 15, 1988, they found that most of the agreements had been implemented except that Honduras had not closed down the Contra camps in its territory. Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega announced not only the end of its six-year-old state of emergency but also cease-fire talks with the Contras, freeing the remaining 3,200 political prisoners, and the scheduling of municipal elections. In an article in the New York Times Ortega wrote that Nicaragua was ready to negotiate limiting armed forces, removing foreign military advisors, and banning foreign military bases. Arias also announced in January that all Contra leaders living in Costa Rica must renounce the armed struggle or leave. On March 23 OAS Secretary General Jolo Baena Soares presided at Sapoa on the Costa Rican border for the signing of the cease-fire agreement between Nicaragua and the Contras. In 1988 Arias complained that the United States was secretly funding private-sector organizations in order to subvert Costa Rica's government institutions. The Central Bank had to pay a market interest on loans that was currently 21 percent. Economic Support Funds (ESF) paid for by US and Costa Rican taxpayers were being used to finance private companies that threatened government agencies. Arias solved this problem by withdrawing from the Agency for International Development (AID) programs. Without even having an army or navy Costa Rica had survived the war years relatively unscathed and had led the region to a peaceful solution despite the hostile interference from the United States in its fear of Communism.
In the spring of 1984 Christic Institute attorney Daniel Sheehan became concerned about plans by the Reagan administration to lock up 400,000 Central American immigrants as part of a "State of Domestic National Emergency" if US troops invaded Central America. Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey asked Daniel Sheehan to bring a lawsuit under the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), and he publicized the elaborate story of how a secret team of ex-military and CIA operatives illegally arranged for the Contras to receive weapons, smuggled cocaine, and plotted to murder Pastora at the La Penca news conference. Sheehan carefully avoided including any current government employees so that the resources of the US Justice Department would not be used against him. The suit charged 29 people with criminal misconduct including John Hull, Tom Posey, Robert Owen, Theodore Shackley, Thomas Clines, Richard Secord, Edwin Wilson, Albert Hakim, Rafael Quintero, Adolfo Calero, and John Singlaub.
In June 1988, Judge James Lawrence King dismissed the suit before it even went to trial for lack of evidence on the alleged bomber Amac Galil; yet King had not allowed them to present that evidence. Then Judge King ordered Daniel Sheehan and plaintiffs Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey to pay a million dollars for frivolous litigation. When they appealed to the 11th Circuit Court, a liberal judge on that court, Robert S. Vance, was murdered by a pipe bomb in the mail. Another bomb was found in the 11th Circuit clerk's office and was defused, but a third bomb killed a civil rights attorney. 11th Circuit Judge J. L. Edmundson was being protected by US Marshals, because Vance's murder was unsolved, and a shot shattered a window in his limousine. The 11th Circuit Court denied the appeal, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
In 1996 reporter Gary Webb retold the whole story in his three-part series "Dark Alliance" in the San Jose Mercury News, emphasizing how this criminal conspiracy that was intent on supplying wars had also greatly contributed to the crack epidemic of the 1980s by importing so much cocaine. During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings in Congress a man had been arrested for unfurling a banner saying "Ask about cocaine;" for this effort to raise public awareness he was imprisoned for more than a year. Yet most of the criminals in the Iran-Contra conspiracy that subverted American foreign policy never spent any time in prison, because they were pardoned by President Bush or, as in the case of North and Poindexter, had their cases overturned because Congress had given them immunity.
US troops intervened in Panama three times between 1865 and 1873. The US Congress in 1902 authorized buying a strip of land in Panama from Columbia for a canal, and the next year US gunboats helped "secessionists" break away from Columbia. The United States then signed a treaty with these Panamanians and used troops while they built the canal that opened in 1914. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 proclaimed his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine-that the United States would be an "international police force" in Central America. US troops intervened in Panama in 1918 during elections, in 1921 because of a border conflict with Costa Rica, and in 1925 because of a rent strike in Panama City. From 1930 to 1945 the government of Panama prohibited labor organizing. During World War II the US built many more military bases in Panama. In 1953 the US established the Panamanian National Guard that was based on Anastasio Somoza's Nicaraguan National Guard. A controversy over whether Panamanian flags could be flown in the Canal Zone erupted into riots in 1964, and 21 people were killed. In 1968 the elected president was deposed when Col. Omar Torrijos took power as the commander-in-chief of the defense forces. A new constitution in 1972 gave Torrijos extraordinary power, which he used to bring about some social reforms.
In 1977 US President Jimmy Carter completed negotiation of a new Panama Canal treaty that would give Panama control of the canal on the last day of 1999. In 1981 Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash, which was called an accident; but because Ronald Reagan had vociferously opposed the new canal treaty, some suspected the CIA. In 1983 General Manuel Noriega became commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). Noriega had been working for the CIA for more than twenty years and claimed that he was paid $10 million for this. He had been trained at the School of the Americas and was head of military intelligence. The next year Nicolas Ardito-Barletta won a narrow victory in an election considered fraudulent; US Secretary of State George Schultz attended his inauguration. In 1985 the former health vice minister, Dr. Hugo Spadafora was assassinated after visiting Costa Rica; the military was accused, and Ardito-Barletta resigned. Noriega appointed the industrialist Eric Arturo Delvalle president. In 1986 many newspapers in the United States accused Noriega of drug trafficking. That year by seizing the ship and exposing the plot he foiled Oliver North's scheme to pretend to capture Communist arms on a ship in the canal bound for the Sandinistas.
Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera had been second-in-command of the PDF but was dismissed. At a press conference in June 1987 he accused Noriega of working with the CIA to murder Torrijos, claiming Reagan and Bush knew of this. He accused Noriega of ordering the assassination of Spadafora because he was trying to expose corruption in the Panama government. Diaz Herrera also claimed that Noriega had made millions in bribes by allowing drugs to pass through Panama and for providing false end-user certificates for shipped US arms. Panama's government announced that it was stopping all payments on its debts, and rumors it was printing money led to bank withdrawals. The US Senate suggested that Noriega resign and called for elections. A rally was held on June 30 protesting US interference in Panamanian affairs; a hundred demonstrators marched to the US embassy and did much damage to the building. The United States suspended its aid to Panama and demanded reparations. The Panama government apologized and paid the $106,000; but the US aid was not resumed.
On January 8, 1988 Jose Blandon, Panama's consul general in New York City, resigned and blamed Noriega for turning the Panamanian government into a "criminal empire" by selling passports, visas, airport landing rights, and allowing drug smugglers to use Panama's airports and banking system for payment of more than $300 million. In Miami and Tampa, Florida, US indictments against General Noriega were unsealed on February 4, charging him with smuggling huge amounts of marijuana into the United States in 1983 and 1984 and of selling ether and acetone for processing cocaine. In February President Delvalle met with the US assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams in Miami. Returning to Panama, he told Noriega to step down; but the General refused. Delvalle played a tape for the Panamanian people on February 25 saying he was "separating" Noriega for his trial; but that night Delvalle was removed by the Panamanian Assembly, and he went into hiding, still recognized as President by the US.
In May 1988 the Reagan administration was in the middle of complicated negotiations with Panama. At that time George Bush was facing a challenge by Democrat Michael Dukakis, and with political advice from James Baker he slighted the current Reagan approach by announcing that he would never bargain with drug dealers. In May 1989 Guillermo Endara was apparently elected president of Panama with about three-quarters of the votes, but Noriega declared the election fraudulent and nullified. The OAS and the Panamanian Assembly also declined to recognize Endara because the United States had contributed $10 million to his campaign. On October 4 some officers asked Noriega to resign, but he refused again.
Early in the morning on December 20, 1989 President George Bush sent a force of 26,000 from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force to attack Panama. The reasons given that American lives and the Canal needed to be protected have been dismissed, because no evidence has been shown that they were in any danger. The main reason was to remove Noriega so that he could be tried in the United States. Under international law this is hardly a valid reason for attacking an entire country. The United States claimed that they killed only 324 or 516 Panamanians; but others estimated the number of civilians killed at between one thousand and five thousand. The Panamanian Defense Forces were targeted, and their capability was destroyed. Although they had also served as police, the US troops did not take over law enforcement, resulting in looting and chaos. Endara and his two vice presidents were sworn in at the US Southern Command and moments later formally requested US help in removing Noriega. Many of Endara's political opponents and union leaders were arrested. The United States was in flagrant violation of Article 19 of the OAS Charter which reads,
No state may use or encourage the use of coercive measures
of an economic or political character
in order to force the sovereign will of another state
and obtain from it advantages of any kind.13
The US invasion of Panama was condemned both by the United Nations General Assembly and by the Organization of American States. Two weeks after the invasion, Noriega surrendered; he was later convicted of the drug crimes and was sentenced to forty years in prison.
The patriotic propaganda of the US news media offered a stark contrast to the Oscar-winning documentary film, The Panama Deception directed by Barbara Trent. After demonizing Noriega, the US media focused on the "Operation Just Cause" as a heroic victory, dwelling only on the few US deaths while ignoring how many Panamanians were killed. The film shows a greater context for the invasion and portrays the suffering of the Panamanian people as certain poor neighborhoods were devastated. The film also brought out the many political ramifications as the US punished Panama first economically and then military to make sure that it would control the Canal that was scheduled for a partial shift in control in January 1990 and complete control by Panama in 2000. By destroying the PDF and making sure there was a compliant regime, the US made sure that its business interests would prevail.
Roy Bourgeois had been a Navy officer in Vietnam, where he was wounded; but after spending time with Vietnamese orphans, he went to the seminary of the Maryknoll Missionary Order and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1972. He worked as a missionary in Bolivia for five years, and he reported to Washington that the government of Bolivia was torturing people. He became especially concerned about El Salvador because two of the nuns murdered in December 1980 were his friends. He went to El Salvador and after returning began to speak out. He learned that the United States was training 525 Salvadoran officers at its School of the Americas (SOA), which had been transferred from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia. In August 1983, dressed as military officers, Bourgeois and two others entered the base and from a pine tree played a tape of Archbishop Romero's sermon so that the Salvadorans could hear it. The three were arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
After six Jesuit priests and two women were murdered in 1989 at San Salvador, Bourgeois learned that they had been killed by men who had been trained at the School of the Americas, which he began calling the School of the Assassins. Roy and nine others fasted on water at the gate to Fort Benning for 35 days. On the first anniversary of the Jesuit murders, Bourgeois and the two Liteky brothers went on the base to pour blood and leave photos of the victims. Research showed that officers were being trained at SOA before and after they committed atrocities in El Salvador. In the spring of 1994 Bourgeois and others fasted for forty days on the steps of the Capitol in Washington to persuade Congress to defund the School of the Americas. Two years later a White House Intelligence Oversight board admitted that for ten years training manuals had instructed officers to use murder, torture, and false imprisonment; they were also taught to kidnap, blackmail, and spy on nonviolent opponents. That spring twelve protesters were arrested for trespassing and were sentenced from two to six months. Bringing signatures of a million people to close the school, 601 protesters were arrested for entering the base on November 16, 1997; only 31 repeat offenders were indicted, but 22, including Bourgeois, spent six months in prison.
A documentary of Roy Bourgeois was televised by Public Broadcasting (PBS) in 1998. The next year the US House of Representatives voted 230-197 to delete the funds of SOA; but the House-Senate conference committee restored the funding. In January 2001 the School of the Americas was closed for one month and then reopened under the name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Nearly a hundred people were arrested for protesting the school that year, and 26 were sentenced to six months in prison. Annual demonstrations in November 2002 and 2003 drew about 10,000 protesters to Fort Benning each time; 95 people were arrested in 2002, and 44 in 2003. In 2004 an estimated 16,000 attended the demonstration; at least twenty people were arrested, plus eleven people were arrested for the same cause at the federal building in Sacramento, California. As of 2005 the total time served in prison by 171 demonstrators protesting SOA is 85 years.
1. "Letter to President Carter, February 17, 1980"
in Revolution in Central America, p. 355.
2. Archbishop Oscar Romero: "The Last Sermon" in The Central American Crisis Reader, p. 377.
3. Quoted in Crossroads by Cynthia J. Arnson, p. 128.
4. Ibid., p. 143.
5. Quoted in Our Own Backyard by William M. LeoGrande, p. 303.
6. Ibid., p. 304.
7. Quoted in Crossroads by Cynthia J. Arnson, p. 174.
8. Ibid., p. 220.
9. Quoted in Resisting Reagan by Christian Smith, p. 74.
10. "The Tracks," by Brian Willson, in Nonviolence in America ed Staughton and Alice Lynd, p. 465.
11. "Let's Give Peace a Chance" in The Costa Rica Reader, p. 371.
12. Ibid., p. 374.
13. Quoted in The Panamanian Problem by Guillermo de St. Malo A and Godfrey Harris, p. 286.