On Columbus Day: Big Lies and U.S. Imperialism

Most people think of the U.S.-sponsored war against the Sandinistas (that came to be called, simply, the “Contra War”) as having taken place on the northern border of western Nicaragua and Honduras and on the southern border with Costa Rica. But there was a third front in that war, in the mostly indigenous region of northeastern Nicaragua.

In the same years the Reagan administration began sponsoring counterinsurgency against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the United States was busy buttressing the Spanish-speaking military oligarchy in nearby Guatemala against a rebellion by the majority of the population — the Maya indigenous peoples. The Mayans were slaughtered by the thousands, their fields and homes torched, half the population driven into the Mexican Mayan zone as refugees, and thousands more into internal relocation camps under a military general, Rios-Montt, who was a raving Christian Protestant evangelical.

While the U.S. had helped to suppress the Mayan resistance in Guatemala, the newly created Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean used the language of that same resistance movement in its propaganda machine for the Nicaraguan counterinsurgency, in an attempt to overthrow the leftist Sandinistas who had taken power in Nicaragua in 1979. This disinformation campaign effectively hooked not only the media, but also many leftists, anarchists and libertarians, anthropologists, Vietnam vets, missionaries, assorted anti-communists, and, most tragically, some indigenous leaders and organizations in North America — splitting the American Indian Movement, already weakened by the 1970s FBI counterinsurgency program COINTELPRO.

Arrayed against the Sandinistas in the northeast region was an indigenous (mostly Miskitu Indians) “war of liberation.” Reagan’s National Security Council backed the Contras — with the CIA flitting in and out depending on the whims of Congress — along with a swarm of United States mercenaries and Christian fundamentalist missionaries. The point man for the Contras’ war against the
Sandinistas was the Vietnam-era Marine vet, Colonel Oliver North. The United States ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte, an old hand from the Vietnam genocide and now George W. Bush’s head of intelligence, oversaw the project. Elliott Abrams, who would become the George W. Bush’s State Department envoy on the Middle East, was the project’s overall architect as Reagan’s State Department Undersecretary for Hemispheric Affairs. Otto Reich, an anti-Castro Cuban exile, was propaganda chief for the contras and the head of the Orwellian-titled Office of Public Diplomacy; later, he was also drafted into the George W. Bush administration. 

The first operation conceived by the architects of propaganda began on December 19, 1983. Instead of launching a new military initiative, the Miskitus who were allied with the Contras (and made up about half their total numbers) were able to convince the entire population of the Mískitu town of Francia Sirpe, over twelve hundred people, to flee to the Honduran side of the border. The Francia Sirpe “Christmas exodus” was a propaganda coup for the administration: Elie Wiesel, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986,  trumpeted the “exodus” as analogous to the Jewish flight from Egypt. A filmmaker, Lee Shapiro, had accompanied the well-staged event, and his footage was all over the television news programs. (Shapiro was an official of Causa International, a part of Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, which financed and distributed the film.) From the footage, Shapiro created a one-hour documentary, “Nicaragua Was Our Home,” which was later broadcast on PBS. 

In a short time, the State Department had produced a six-page internal draft paper to develop its official interpretation of the mass exodus. The classified document, dated February 1984, was titled “Nicaraguan Repression of Miskito Indians: The Christmas Exodus.” Much of the wording in the classified internal paper later appeared as opinion columns and in newspaper articles in the months following the event. The draft paper makes clear that manipulation of refugees was the central strategy of the Reagan administration’s attempts to discredit the Sandinistas: “Since the forced internal deportations began and other Sandinista violations of human rights intensified, thousands of Miskito Indians have sought a better way of life. They have ‘voted with their feet,’ with most of them going to Honduras.” Regarding the staged “Christmas exodus,” the draft paper tellingly states:

On December 19, 1983, the residents of the resettlement town of Francia Sirpe in northeastern Nicaragua attended Mass in a festive mood, knowing that plans had been made to depart to Honduras on the following day. According to the Indians, the Sandinistas were preparing to transplant the Indian population of Francia Sirpe to the mountainous region north of Managua.

The use of the term “resettlement town” to describe Francia Sirpe was telling, implying that it was one of the settlements created two years earlier by the Sandinistas to house the Miskitu refugees from the fighting on the border. But Francia Sirpe had not been created by the Sandinistas: It was built under the dictator Somoza, when he forcibly resettled Mískitus from north of the Rio Coco to the south of the new border in 1960. Before handing over the area to Honduras, Somoza had sent his National Guard into the disputed zone to force Mískitus south of the Río Coco — after all, they were cheap labor in the mines. Francia Sirpe was in fact distant from the border, and the Sandinistas had no plans to relocate its population.

I had spent a day at Francia Sirpe in 1981, and the Mískitus had told me the story of that brutal forced relocation. The elders still longed to return to their ancestral land. No wonder they listened eagerly to Contra tales of taking back their homeland in what is now Honduras. No wonder they left Nicaragua so quickly and so joyfully.

The film on the Francia Sirpe “exodus” was finished within two months, and premiered at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. A declassified State Department telegram from the U.S. Mission in Geneva stated: “To illustrate as vividly as possible actual living conditions for Miskitos, members of the Commission saw a film showing refugee camp conditions and whole Miskito communities fleeing for their lives with their few basic household effects on their backs.”

Lee Shapiro, the filmmaker, had contracted with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to make the film. Although USIA-produced materials, according to its own charter, may not be distributed domestically in the U.S., either directly or through another organization, the Reagan administration did so without prejudice. Amazingly, the film turned up in the 1985 Telluride Film Festival. Then it began to appear at Causa-organized meetings throughout the United States, often with speeches by Russell Means, a high-profile American Indian Movement leader who had hooked up with the Contra project. And then, illegally, it was shown on public television (PBS) all over the U.S..

A confidential State Department memorandum revealed to what lengths the Office of Public Diplomacy would go to infiltrate the media. Dated March 13, 1985, from Otto Reich’s assistant, Jonathan Miller, to White House Director of Communications Pat Buchanan, the memo presents “Five illustrative examples of the Reich ‘White Propaganda’ operation.” It reports that an attached Wall Street Journal editorial detailing the alleged Nicaraguan arms buildup had been written by a consultant in Reich’s office, which “officially . . . had no role in its preparation.” Another “illustrative example” was a favorable report on the Contras from correspondent Fred Francis on NBC News with Tom Brokaw on March 12, 1985: “This piece was prepared by Francis after he consulted two of our contractors who recently had made a clandestine trip to the freedom fighter camp along the Nicaragua/Honduras border. The purpose of this trip was to serve as a pre-advance for many selected journalists to visit the area and get a true flavor of what the freedom fighters are doing.” Reich’s assistant ended his memo by writing, “I will not attempt in the future to keep you posted on all activities since we have too many balls in the air at any one time and since the work of our operation is ensured by our office’s keeping a low profile.”

Obviously, the Office of Public Diplomacy was bent on reinventing truth by relating big lies. The office still exists, no longer limited to Latin America and the Caribbean.  Now it is headed by Karen Hughes and focuses on the Arab and Muslim world.  However, the target of its propaganda remains the same: the U.S. public. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (forthcoming October 2005 from South End Press) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas. This essay is an excerpt from Blood on the Border, slightly edited for this publication.