Nicaragua: Temperature Hot

Lecturing recently in Toledo and in San Diego, I saw at first hand the hot and contradictory passions stirred among Americans by Nicaragua. Arguments fly back and forth. The moral judgments of some directly oppose the moral judgments of others.

Worse still, the moral issue cannot be settled simply by agreement on the facts. Even when everyone agrees upon the facts (a procedure difficult enough), profound differences of judgment remain. Judgment must be made about the nature of any Marxist-Leninist regime such as the Sandinistas. Judgment must also be made about the appropriate U.S. strategy.

Clarifying two sets of facts, meanwhile, barely sets the stage for judgment; but it is a necessary task.

(1)Who are the rebels in Nicaragua? The Ambassador of Nicaragua says they are Somozistas, seeking to reinstate an authoritarian regime. Secretary Shultz in a brilliant speech gave the best reply: There are far more “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua today than there were soldiers in Somoza’s National Guard.

Moreover, the five chief leaders of the rebels have impeccable anti-Somoza credentials. Eden Pastor, as Comandante Zero, led the most effective army against Somoza. Adolfo Calero was imprisoned by Somoza for acts of opposition. Alfonso Robelo Callejas and Arturo Cruz served in the early Sandinista government. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, former editor of La Prensa, shared the early joy of the Revolution against Somoza, until he saw the Revolution betrayed and fled the country.

There are already twice as many guerrillas fighting against the Sandinistas as there are in El Salvador. The numbers in Nicaragua would be far larger were food and guns and support available; many recruits have been turned away for want of supplies.

Wisely, Eden Pastor has barred anyone associated with Somoza’s National Guard from his guerilla force. The larger Northern force accepts any Nicaraguans both willing to die, as guerillas must be, and committed to democracy. They are still fighting for the same ideals they fought for against Somoza.

(2)What is the nature of Sandinismo? Democratic Nicaraguans have steadily abandoned the Sandinistas; their flight continues. Nearly one Nicaraguan in five has fled the country, including many highly placed officials.

The regime tells one story in the USSR, Libya, North Vietnam, Cuba, and Bulgaria, and another story in Europe and the U.S. This is standard Marxist practice.

Here is where judgment comes in. Many devout Christians believe that Sandinismo is a test-case of liberation theology. They interpret the Sandinistas as leaders of a Christian revolution, which they deeply admire. In short, the Sandinistas are what Reinhold Niebuhr called “soft utopians.”

Others judge that the Sandinistas are deceivers, quite serious about building a Marxist-Leninist society, under the cover of lies. Like the Potemkin villages of the USSR during the 1930s, Nicaragua is today a propaganda showcase, designed to deceive. In short, the Sandinistas are what Niebuhr called “hard utopians.”

The first interpretation holds that leaders like the Ortega brothers, Arce, D’Escoto, Wheeler, and the others are reformers, building their own version of a New Deal, in pursuit of Christian ideals. Given time, peace, and assistance, their “moderation” will show through.

The second interpretation holds that these are serious men, who know exactly what they are doing, and who have designed their deceptions with professional care. Cuba is their model, their power center, and their closest ideological kin. They pay the Soviet bloc for their military build-up with ideological subservience.

These are deadly serious competing judgments. Why? Because Marxist states are necessarily expansionist. Their own moral conviction forces them to make Marxists of their neighbors, by every means available, as circumstances permit. At home, total thought control through neighborhood organizations is slowly but steadily installed to ensure a disciplined populace. The Pope himself got a taste of this during his visit to Managua.

Remember Vietnam. Those of us in the anti-war movement once said that North Vietnam was no invader, was more nationalist than Communist, and was interested solely in a united Vietnam. We erred, seriously erred. Today North Vietnamese troops are still acquiring new territories in Laos and Cambodia, are expansionist, and are thoroughly subservient to Soviet power.

Judgments about the nature of Sandinismo cut to the quick. A mistake today will cause immense suffering, danger, and fighting — for decades to come.

So the people of the U.S. must examine the evidence — hear the competing arguments — decide — and act.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.