The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
41. The Contras

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Reagan demonstrates his support for the Nicaraguan Contras
In the 1970s the Soviet Union aggressively pursued an expansionist policy that resulted in the fall of a number of nations to Communism. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan promised to take bold action to stem this rising tide of Marxism. Upon assuming the White House, he spearheaded a strategy to support anti-Communist insurgencies bent on overthrowing Marxist regimes. The president gave assurances that the United States would not "break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent to defy Soviet-supported aggression." Thus was born the Reagan Doctrine. Of particular concern to the administration was the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which Reagan portrayed as a serious threat to the region, since the Sandinistas had vowed to export revolution to neighboring countries. To that end, Reagan was firm in his support for the Contras -- the Nicaraguan opposition to Sandinista rule.
American involvement in Nicaragua began in earnest in 1911, when a treaty gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Nicaragua affairs, with the result that Marines arrived the following year to protect American interests -- and remained for two decades. Opposition to the American presence coalesced under the leadership of Augusto Cesar Sandino, an insurgency that gathered steam when Anastasio Somoza Garcia seized power following the departure of the Marines in 1933. Two events in the 1970s rallied the Nicaraguan people behind the opposition -- the Somoza government's shameless profiteering from relief efforts in the wake of a 1972 earthquake that shook the capital of Managua, and the 1978 assassination of Pedro Chamorro, editor of the newspaper La Prensa, which was highly critical of the Somoza dictatorship. When the U.S. stopped providing the Nicaraguan government with economic and military aid in 1979, Somoza was ousted and the Sandinistas came to power.
Initially the new government represented a coalition of the Sandinistas and non-Marxist business owners, but the latter were soon forced out of office or resigned in disgust. When the Sandinistas failed to deliver on promises of free enterprise, free elections and  free speech, opposition to their rule intensified. And when it became apparent that the Sandinistas were funneling Cuban military aid to Marxist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador, President Jimmy Carter suspended aid to Managua in January 1981. The incoming Reaganites went further; after a half-hearted diplomatic initiative that failed to induce the Sandinistas to cut ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration took more aggressive steps. The president signed National Security Decision Directive 17 in November 1981, authorizing $20 million in aid to the anti-Sandinista opposition, the Contras.
The Central Intelligence Agency was charged with the responsibility of organizing a 500-member "interdiction force" to support, train and advise the Contra revels, initially with the help of Argentina and Honduras. The agency established a base of operations for its Central American Task Force (CATF) in Honduras, and by 1983 was spending $45 million to sustain 7,000 insurgents. In addition to supporting various Contra groups, chief among them the Nicaraguan Democratic Force led by Adolfo Calero and Enrique Bermudez, the CATF also aided the Indian and Creole resistance in eastern Nicaragua, as well as Eden Pastora's ex-Sandinista guerrillas operating out of Costa Rica. CIA activities included the publication of a guerrilla training manual which critics claimed encouraged assassination. And CIA contract agents even mined Nicaraguan harbors.
Initially the White House denied that its efforts on behalf of the Contras were designed with the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in mind. "Our purpose," said Reagan, "is to prevent the flow of arms [from Nicaragua] to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatamala and Costa Rica." Furthermore, the administration paid lip service to the Contadora peace negotiations sponsored by Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama in hopes of ending the bloodshed in Nicaragua. But hardline Reaganites scoffed at the notion that diplomacy with the Sandinistas would amount to anything substantive. And with many Americans leery of escalating American involvement in Nicaragua, Congress moved to rein in the administration.
In December 1982, an amendment prohibiting funding of operations against the Nicaraguan government was proposed by Rep.Edward Boland (D-Mass), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and was attached to a defense appropriations bill and passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 411-0; Reagan had little choice but to sign the bill. Despite strong lobbying by the White House in support of the Contras, whom Reagan would liken to America's freedom-loving Founding Fathers, the House voted 228-195 in July 1983 to pass the Boland-Zablocki amendment to an intelligence authorization bill which further restricted American support for the Nicaraguan resistance. The amendment, however, was blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, when news broke that the CIA had mined Nicaraguan waters, the Senate joined the House in condemning the act as a violation of international law. In May 1985 both houses of Congress passed Boland II, which banned funding for the support of any military or paramilitary activity against Nicaragua for a period of two years, the life of the appropriations bill to which the amendment was attached.
The Contras responded to this setback by seeking aid for other entities. Determined not to fail the rebels, Reagan urged National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane to do everything possible to keep the Contras together heart and soul until Congress could be persuaded to reverse its course. Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to the National Security Council, was given the task of creating a support network, an effort that included establishing front companies with Swiss bank accounts through which private funding could be channeled to the Nicaraguan resistance. In the State Department, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America was established to implement a program to build popular support and raise private funds for the Contra cause. Saudi Arabia agreed to provide $32 million in aid while the Sultan of Brunei -- the richest man in the world -- pitched in another $10 million. Meanwhile, Arturo Cruz and other respected anti-Sandinista figures participated in the creation of a shadow government based in Miami, lending legitimacy to the Contras. The White House labored long and hard to convince Congress that only continued pressure by the Contras would force the Sandinistas to accept the Contadora peace proposal. Reagan waged rhetorical war for public support by accusing Congress of actions that ultimately aided "a totalitarian Marxist-Leninist government here in the Americas." At the same time, the Sandinistas, aided by left-wing American groups, pursued a sophisticated lobbying campaign in Washington, D.C. But when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega visited Moscow, conservative Democrats in Congress backed a White House-endorsed $27 million nonlethal aid proposal that passed both houses in late 1985.
The following year, the administration pressed for $100 million in military and other aid for the Contras, to be administered by the CIA. The House of Representatives voted against this proposal, only to reverse itself when the Nicaraguan military invaded Honduras to strike Contra camps located in that country. On 25 June 1986, Congress approved the aid package. By 1987 there were 50,000 Contras in the field, and while they won no major victories, Robert McFarlane pointed out that their activities were "absording more Sandinista effort to deal with them, which was diminishing the amount of resources [the Sandinistas] could put into other things." As economic conditions worsened in Nicaragua, the Contras garnered more popular support. Though revelations of the Iran-Contra scheme (the funneling of funds from the sale of missiles and spare parts to Iran through North's support network for the Contras) threatened to once again strangle American aid for the rebels, the beleaguered Sandinistas signed off on a plan proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The plan called for a ceasefire, signed by both sides in the Nicaraguan conflict on 23 March 1988, and free elections that occurred in February 1990. The Sandinista regime ended when Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega for the Nicaraguan presidency. Their goals attained, the Contras laid down theirarms, and a decade-long conflict waged not only on the ground in Central America but also in the halls of the U.S. government came to an end.

The Contras and Cocaine
A series of articles by reporter Gary Webb that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News (August 1996) accused the Contras of participating in the smuggling of cocaine into the U.S. to finance their guerrilla activities against the Sandinistas. Further, the CIA was alleged to have facilitated these criminal operations. The allegationsc aused a public furor, but they were not in fact new. In 1986, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations had investigated the possibility of Contra engagement in drug trafficking. The subcommittee's final report, published in December 1988, concluded that drug smugglers had used Contra connections and that some U.S. officials had been aware of this. However, other investigations -- including those conducted by the Joint Congressional Committees investigating the Iran-Contra Affair and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department -- found no substantive evidence linking the Contras to drug trafficking.

Reagan meeting Contra leaders Alfonso Rebelo, Arturo Cruz and Adolfo Calero


The Economist, 8 August 1983, 19 December 1983, 26 September 1987

Newsweek, 8 August 1983, 29 April 1985, 27 October 1986, 29 December 1986, 17 August 1987, 14 March 1988, 4 April 1988, 26 July 1988

Time, 16 May 1983, 6 June 1983, 4 July 1983, 8 August 1983, 17 October 1983, 23 April 1984, 30 April 1984, 7 May 1984, 12 November 1984, 10 December 1984, 8 April 1985, 6 May 1985, 12 August 1985, 14 October 1985, 17 March 1986, 6 July 1986, 13 October 1986, 23 November 1987, 1 February 1988, 28 March 1988, 4 April 1988, 11 April 1988, 6 February 1989

"Interbranch Rivalry and the Reagan Doctrine in Nicaragua," James M. Scott, Political Science Quarterly, Summer 1997

"Origin and Development of the Contra Conflict,"

The Real Secret War, L. Francis Bouchey (ed.)
(Washington, DC: Council for Inter-American Security, 1987)

With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua, Christopher Dickey
(New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1991)

A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990, Robert Kagan
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Washington's War on Nicaragua, Holly Sklar
(Boston: South End Press, 1988)

Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, Gary Webb
(New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998)