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I was flying home (because I could) from Nicaragua after an assignment reporting on the Contra counter-revolution. The US-backed Contra army (please take a moment and Google Iran-Contra affair, something that should—but won’t—be called Reagan’s Folly) comprised mercenarios, many of them former members of the brutal Guardia Nacional run by Nicaragua’s pre-revolution dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family, backed by the US, ruled Nicaragua between 1937 and 1979, but Anastasio was something special, a terrorism creative who refined many torture techniques. Anastasio’s masterpiece was scaling what had been an isolated tactic, occasionally desapareciendo an annoying individual, into a mass activity that not only leveraged terror by intimidating and frightening more people per incident, but also cost way less than imprisoning them: You didn’t have to feed and house dead people.

Often citing the “godlessness” of Marxism, the right is willing to countenance, with God’s approval, the spread of violence, murder, and terror through our hemisphere, but it is unwilling to countenance the spread of sharing.

My flight home from Managua stopped in Honduras. A White man carrying a briefcase boarded at Tegucigalpa and sat next to me. We began chatting. He was an American returning home (because he could) from Honduras, where he’d been selling office equipment and supplies. I told him I’d been reporting on the Contra war. He grimaced and shook his head.

“I think we’re making a mistake there,” he said. “Wars are expensive and counter-productive. What we should do is build them a McDonald’s. Once those people see what capitalism can accomplish, they’ll embrace it.”

I nodded. “I don’t know a lot about running a fast-food franchise,“ I said, “but wouldn’t a McDonald’s require a stable supply of electricity?”

“Sure, of course,” he said.

“They don’t have that,” I said. “The Contras keep blowing up the power grid. And wouldn’t a McDonald’s need a stable supply of clean water?”

“Well, yes, sure.”

“They don’t have that. And wouldn’t they need a cold chain to store food that needed to be refrigerated, and paved roads, and trucks to bring the food to the restaurant?”

“Of course.”

“They don’t have those. And wouldn’t they need a source of petroleum? And refineries to turn petroleum into gasoline and diesel? And road-grading equipment to build roads for the trucks that they don’t have to bring supplies to the restaurant? And an economy to provide jobs to pay people so they can buy the Big Macs, fries, and shakes? And buses to get the workers—none of whom can afford cars or gasoline that they don’t have—to work?”

Yes, I was on a roll: All of that would take capital that Nicaragua didn’t have because of US embargoes and because Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was draining its meager wealth fighting a war of survival against a US-funded, -trained, and -supplied rebel army. (Sandinista derives from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan national hero who between 1927 and 1933 led a rebellion against the US occupation of Nicaragua; US media at the time called him a bandito.) To protect themselves, to survive, the only available sources of funds, weapons, and training for the Sandinista army were the Soviets, Cubans and other socialist states that combined didn’t have resources even remotely comparable to ours. But when the Sandinistas, facing an existential threat, accepted help from the only sources offering it, Americans were told Nicaragua was a Soviet client state and an enemy of everything we hold dear. (The US media never once referred to the Contra army as an incursion of American Capitalism.)

It is obvious that operating a McDonald’s requires infrastructure that Nicaragua didn’t have and couldn’t build without capital and resources it didn’t have that the US was doing everything it could to see that it wouldn’t have. What Nicaraguans did have was a long history of misery and serfdom imposed and maintained by a landowning, US-backed ruling class and exploitive, multi-national corporations of whose antics the Nicaraguan people had grown very tired.

Like Stalin’s (although hardly at the same murderous level), the turn taken toward authoritarianism by Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, a founding member of the Sandinista movement, comes after decades of US interference with and harassment of the Sandinista government. All nations, all governments, all people, when being, or feeling, attacked will take extreme measures to protect themselves, including, temporarily we are assured, suspending cherished civil liberties. (Please take a moment to Google USA PATRIOT Act.) Part of the anti-socialist strategy was/is to drive those countries to behaviors that can then be framed as hostile, thus justifying further US intervention, and if the US can drive them to authoritarianism, so much the better (See, it's who we told you they were.) That constant pounding inevitably takes a long-term toll on even the best governments and leaders. Stalin was probably always a jackass, but Ortega was not always the jackass he's become.

Many of the original Sandinistas—desirers of algo más, algo mejor (something more, something better)—were children of the Nicaraguan elite who were educated here. They admired us and wanted something like what we have. As with Cuba, a friendly hand would have resulted in an ally—albeit a socialist ally—in our backyards, but America’s capitalists found that unacceptable, and as a result American taxpayers have paid incalculable sums so that those capitalists could continue to profit from the labor of the Latin American poor.

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Nicaraguan socialism was unacceptable also to Nicaragua’s pre-revolutionary landowners. For centuries, they had enjoyed wealth and influence, using bribery, violence, and illiteracy to maintain el status quo and to keep their serfs in poverty and ignorance. (As did the Cuban government, among the first policies the Sandinistas implemented was a literacy program.) The Nicaraguan rich—as do rich people everywhere—used their wealth and influence to stifle cultural evolution; in Nicaragua, as happens everywhere, misery created revolutionary pressure that built and exploded.

Once they’d succeeded in overthrowing their oppressors, Latin America’s revolutionary governments expropriated huge tracts of private lands to distribute to citizens who for centuries had paid rent with their lives. How else but by expropriation? They had no money to buy the land (the landowners had it all), and the landowners, despite the fact that their serfs had long ago paid their mortgages in full with misery-based currency, wouldn’t willingly share. Outraged Latin American landowners, despite their accents and skin color, found sympático ears among los capitalistas americanos.

After the American Revolution, expropriating land was not an issue. We had an entire continent, a vast frontier where land was plentiful. The only landowners whose objections we had to overcome were red-skinned savages who didn’t count because they weren’t us. We simply mounted an early version of the Red Scare and disappeared them by moving them onto reservations—out of sight, out of mind—just as the War on Drugs would later disappeared people of color by putting them in prisons. Then we parceled natives’ lands to White Americans in much the same way victorious Latin American revolutionary governments did for their citizens. (As Native Americans had moved to reservations so their lands could be divided among the beneficiaries of the American Revolution, so too, after the Cuban Revolution, did wealthy Cuban landowners make reservations in Miami.)

As with Stalin’s, Ortega’s (and also Fidel Castro’s) turn toward authoritarianism might have happened anyway—it seems a human trait that increasing age brings increasing inflexibility—but US-sponsored terror, unremitting hostility, embargoes, and constant harassment both petty and serious nudged it along. In a virtuous (to the capitalistas) cycle, those turns toward authoritarianism further fed the anti-socialist narrative, justifying further US incursions against socialist governments.

Among the rhetorical weapons American propagandists use to attack governments of which they disapprove is to contrast them with ideal governments—against which all governments, including our own, must reflect poorly—while failing to mention what the lives of their people had been like before their revolutions. Nor do they ever mention the US’s contribution to making those lives difficult day to day. 

But in our own versions of US-Latin American history, we rationalize and forgive our own trespasses, especially those our dictadores and juntas committed at our behest. We tell ourselves we were doing only what was necessary to protect ourselves from Marxist incursions into our backyards.

It’s bullshit.

Disappearing America Series:

Disappearing America: Feeling the Bern—Part 1
Monday, 28 November 2022

Disappearing America: The Red Menace—Part 2
Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Disappearing America: I Was Objective When I Started—Part 3
Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Disappearing America: It’s Only Faire—Part 4
Thursday, 1 December 2022

Disappearing America: More For Me—Part 5
Friday, 2 December 2022

Disappearing America: Indoctrination Nation—Part 6
Saturday, 3 December 2022

America Disappeared: What We Could Have Been Doing in the Shadows—Part 7
Friday, 4 December 2022