Central American became a preoccupation for the Reagan administration and press coverage followed. Inside Story went to Central America first in August of 1983. The Reagan Administration was supporting a group of terrorists called “the Contras,” who were trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
At the time, Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua. They were a revolutionary party that in 1979 had overthrown a brutal regime headed by Anastasio Somosa. The Carter Administration initially supported the new Sandinista government with an aid package worth $125 million. Republicans accused Carter of helping Moscow establish another Communist beachhead in the Americas. The charge was made more potent by Sandinista support for a left wing revolutionary movement trying to overthrow neighboring El Salvador’s right wing oligarchy.
A former colonel in Somosa’s National Guard named Enrique Bermúdez founded the Contras with soldiers that fled to Honduras after their 1979 defeat. Bermúdez secured aid from Argentina’s military dictatorship and recruited anti-Sandinistas and American mercenaries to join him. The Reagan Administration provided financial support, eventually $433 million. As Noam Chomsky commented, “You could probably start a guerrilla insurgency in mountain regions of the US with comparable funding.”
Despite the Contras unsavory reputation, the administration called them freedom fighters, “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers” Reagan said. “The Sandinista rule is a Communist reign of Terror,” he added. The American press largely went along with the administration’s comments.
In fact, according to a World Bank report, Nicaragua’s development projects were “extraordinarily successful … in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world.” In 1983, The Inter-American Development Bank concluded “Nicaragua has made noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying the basis for long-term socio-economic development.” José Figueres, the father of Costa Rican democracy, wrote, “for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that cares for its people.” None of these positive statements was reported in the American mainstream media.
It was not American coverage that took us to Nicaragua, however. It was Nicaragua’s own press. The Chamorro family, one of Nicaragua’s oldest, had been involved in the newspaper business for decades and in the Sandinista revolution since the beginning. It was editor Pedro Chamorro’s assassination by Somosa in 1978 that turned the vast majority of the country against him and brought the Sandinistas to power.
In 1983, four years later, the family was bitterly divided. They now ran three different newspapers. Pedro’s oldest son, also named Pedro, edited La Prensa with an anti-Sandinista policy; Pedro’s other son Carlos edited La Baricada, the official Sandinista newspaper; and Pedro’s brother, Xavier, edited El Nuevo Diaro, with an independent but pro government bent.
Carlos told us, if you want to understand the revolution, talk to the peasants and workers where land distribution, universal education and health care were wildly popular. Pedro sent us to members of the elite, where land confiscation, high taxes, rationing, and neighborhood watch committees were an anathema. Businessman Enrique Bolanes, jailed twice by the regime, told us that the Sandinistas were going “beyond Somosa’s way of doing things” with this “monster of evil.”
Two of the most vivid scenes were 1) Commander Tomas Borges, the only surviving original founder of the Sandinistas who routinely refused to talk to the press, walking with Hodding among people in the barrio like a rock star. 2) Watching the absurd censorship of La Prensa by a 27-year-old Sandinista functionary.
We didn’t know it at the time, but another member of the family, Edgar Chamorro, had fled to Miami when the Sandinista entered Managua in 1979 and joined the Contras. He eventually quit the Contras and testified against them when Nicaragua brought a case against the United States in the World Court. “Many civilians were killed in cold blood. Many others were tortured, mutilated, raped, robbed or otherwise abused. … When I agreed to join … I had hoped that it would be an organization of Nicaraguans … [It] turned out to be an instrument of the U.S. Government.”
Nicaragua: A House Divided was well reviewed, including a long article in the New York Times and it won the 1983 National Emmy for Outstanding Background Analysis of a Single Current Story.