Perversely, New York's media is again debating the Sandinista Revolution and the tumultuous Contra War in Nicaragua. Just why has the media suddenly taken such a keen interest in Central America, a region it has for the most part ignored over the past 30 years? For local media to break away from its normally parochial coverage and actually run stories about foreign policy, let alone Nicaragua, is unusual. What makes the recent flurry over the Sandinistas surprising is that debate has centered upon the political activism of Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate in New York's mayoral race.
If it were not for the New York Times, which ran a long investigative piece on de Blasio's political organizing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is perhaps unlikely that the media establishment would have latched onto Nicaragua, and few would have revisited the Sandinista Revolution at all. Yet the Times piece, which treats de Blasio's activism in a rather unflattering and condescending light, has led to a media firestorm and added an unusual foreign policy dimension to the New York City mayoral race.
Tired, Age-Old Cold War Equivalencies
Like other mainstream media outlets, the Times holds political activism in low regard, particularly activism of leftist stripes, and the de Blasio article is peppered with patronizing language. In 1988, the Times writes, a "scruffy" and "goofy" young de Blasio traveled to Nicaragua to help distribute food and medicine. Apparently taking some pleasure in disparaging de Blasio, the Times adds that the "fresh-faced," "gawky" future candidate and his "ragtag team" of "wistful" peace activists "dabbled" in rallies against U.S. foreign policy in Central America.
To be sure, the Times concedes that the activists had some basis for opposing the Reagan administration's policy in Nicaragua. The U.S. decision to intervene in the small Central American nation, the paper admits, "was unpopular, especially after it was revealed that the Reagan administration had covertly financed the contra rebellion, even after Congress had voted to cut off assistance to the fighters."
On the other hand, the Times seeks to create a sense of false political and moral equivalency by repeating tired, age-old Cold War propaganda points. American leaders, the Times argues, may have had some basis for conducting a terrorist war on Nicaragua, since they "feared that the Sandinistas, who received weapons from the Soviet Union and supplies from Cuba, would set off a socialist movement across Latin America." Moreover, the Times adds, unnamed "critics" claimed that Central America activists "were gullible and had romanticized their mission -- more interested in undermining the efforts of the Reagan administration than helping the poor."
In a letter to the Times, NYU professor of Latin American history Barbara Weinstein writes that the paper leaves the false impression that de Blasio had somehow been duped or "taken in" by the allegedly "tyrannical" Sandinistas. Yet, Weinstein adds, "we now have a mountain of evidence to show that the abuses of the Sandinista government in the 1980s were minor and sporadic compared with the extensive killings, largely of unarmed peasants, carried out by the armed forces in Guatemala and El Salvador, whose regimes had the staunch support of the Reagan administration."
Bogus Framing of de Blasio Activism
Salon columnist Alex Pareene is critical of the Times' coverage, noting that the de Blasio piece lacks key and necessary context about U.S. government intervention in Latin America. Pareene points out, however, that at one point in its article the paper of record does concede that Reagan's secret support for the right-wing Contras was illegal. By the Times' own logic, therefore, de Blasio's activism cannot be considered terribly radical at the time.
At another point in the article, the Times mentions that de Blasio supported so-called liberation theology, a progressive political current within the Catholic Church, and defined himself as a democratic socialist. The Times presents these facts as if they were somehow exotic or novel, yet as Pareene points out, support for democratic socialism is not particularly unusual or controversial in much of Latin America. What is more, de Blasio's sympathy for liberation theology is shared by none other than the pope himself.
The Times' depiction of de Blasio employs other bogus political framing. The young activist, the paper reports, wasn't simply involved in "typical" non-partisan humanitarian relief, which presumably would have been more to the political liking of the Times. No, de Blasio was associated with the far more radical Quixote Center, a Maryland-based outfit which had the gall to actually pursue "intensely political work" and send aid to families sympathetic to the Sandinista regime.
Why the Times would view the Quixote Center as somehow unusual or outside the mainstream is rather mystifying. As Pareene points out, de Blasio's group practiced Catholic social justice while fighting poverty and economic inequality. "This is actually very typical humanitarian work," Pareene writes, "and Catholic groups in particular have been doing it for years. But the Times seems determined to make working for a Catholic social justice organization sound much more radical than it really was, or is."
History of the Times' Sandinista Bashing
Though certainly disappointing, the Times' de Blasio piece should not come as any great surprise in light of the American media's shoddy reporting on Central America. According to noted MIT professor Noam Chomsky, U.S. television networks devoted a grand total of one hour to Nicaragua in the ten years prior to the overthrow of Nicaraguan dictator in 1979, and that was entirely focused on the Managua earthquake of 1972. The New York Times was little better, with a grand total of three editorials on Nicaragua from 1960 to 1978. "It's not that nothing was happening there," writes Chomsky, "it's just that whatever was happening was unremarkable. Nicaragua was of no concern at all, as long as Somoza's tyrannical rule wasn't challenged."
Later, after the Sandinistas took power and overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Somoza, the Times finally took note of tiny Nicaragua. Yet Chomsky writes that during this period, the paper was unrelentingly hostile to the Sandinistas. In the midst of Reagan's Contra War, the Times ignored U.S. torpedoing of regional peace accords which might have brought an end to hostilities. What is more, even as the press went into a tizzy over Sandinista plans to defend Nicaragua against the U.S., the Times failed to mention U.S. shipments of F-5 jets to hostile neighboring Honduras, a country which served as a military base for the Contras at the time.
As the war in Nicaragua raged, the Times ignored the Contras' human rights abuses and atrocities. Meanwhile, Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer lambasted the Sandinistas for numerous political sins while failing to cite government supporters. "The intended effect," notes Chomsky, was "to create the image of a conflict between an embattled population and a tyrannical government." In addition, Kinzer largely ignored U.S. moves to supply the Contras and provide supply and surveillance flights. Under regional peace accords, the flights had been banned.
McCain Roughing up Sandinista
In recent years, the Times has continued to reflect U.S. foreign policy priorities in its Central America reporting. Take, for example, the paper's coverage of John McCain's record on Nicaragua. In 2008, when the Republican senator was running for president, allegations surfaced that the Arizona senator had physically roughed up a Sandinista official years before during diplomatic talks held in Managua.
The allegations were put forth by Thad Cochran, a GOP senator from Mississippi, who had accompanied McCain on a diplomatic mission to Nicaragua in 1987. The notion that McCain was somehow psychologically unbalanced could have affected the outcome of the presidential race, yet the Times refrained from making much hay out of the issue. In July, 2008 reporter Elisabeth Bumiller cited Cochran's allegations in an article, noting that the McCain camp flatly denied the accusations. The Times never followed up with further stories, however and the mainstream media, save for reporting here and there, took its cue from the paper of record and dropped the matter.
McCain's Contra Connections
Even if, however, the allegations against McCain were untrue there was plenty else about McCain's record on the Contra War which merited press attention. Throughout the 1980s, McCain was one of the most stalwart supporters of the Contras. Indeed, McCain even went to Honduras and visited a Contra camp on the Nicaraguan border in an effort to boost morale.
McCain's Contra boosterism went even farther than that, however. According to the Associated Press, McCain served on the advisory board of an international group which aided the Contras and was linked to right wing Central American death squads. When Congress cut off funding to the Contras, McCain's group sought to raise private support for the Nicaraguan rebels, thus distracting attention from Reagan's secret funding of the Sandinista opposition through covert arms sales to Iran.
At the height of the 2008 campaign, the Guardian newspaper noted that some Democrats were thinking about raising McCain's questionable ties to the Contras. However, the Times and other media ignored the topic and needless to say the Democrats never followed up on the Contra issue.
Double Standards: McCain and de Blasio
Given the Times' failure to follow up on the McCain-Contra connection in 2008, it is ironic that the paper has now chosen to dredge up the Sandinista issue again in 2013. If anything, Nicaragua is more of a foreign policy matter than a local municipal concern, yet perversely the Contra War has become more of a theme in the New York mayoral race than it ever was in the last presidential election.
In the wake of the Times piece, the New York Post has impugned de Blasio for supporting the Sandinistas, a party which confiscated private property. The Times article, moreover, spurred an outbreak of innuendo, including charges that de Blasio supported Sandinistas' alleged anti-Semitism. De Blasio challenger Joe Lhota, meanwhile, has seized on the charges by red-baiting his Democratic opponent.
Facing a barrage of negative criticism, de Blasio has been forced on the defensive in a way that McCain never had to answer for. "Politicians' involvement in left-wing causes stimulates media hormones more than the right-wing ones do," notes The Nation magazine. In hindsight, notes Pareene of Salon, the Times piece has the whiff of "opposition research, or at least like an attempt to 'shake up' the race and force the candidate to answer questions about his Commie past." Perhaps, the Times editorial board was unhappy that its own candidate, the pro-establishment Christine Quinn, was vanquished by de Blasio in the Democratic primary.
For Pareene, the de Blasio affair raises the question of political double standards. "America has a lot of still-respected public figures and statesmen in this country who loudly supported the Contras," he notes, "and apartheid, and Pinochet, and worse, and none of that is ever dredged up as controversy-bait except by cranky lefties."
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.
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