Comment: The Lies of Adolfo Calero | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Comment: The Lies of Adolfo Calero

The contras' leader spoke recently at a University Club breakfast. Here are a few of the things he neglected to mention.

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Chicago's University Club must be unaccustomed to hosting terrorists for breakfast. Otherwise why choose only a second-floor dining room for Adolfo Calero's breakfast briefing to 150 guests?

One floor below, along the club's Monroe Street sidewalk, a roughly equal number of protesters picketed the presence of the Nicaraguan contra leader. Neither the club's Gothic stone facade nor the dining hall's heavy wood panels sufficed to defend Calero from their audible assaults. Over the polite clatter of waiters removing plates of muffins and marmalade, the chants of the Pledge of Resistance infiltrated Calero's breakfast.

The club was very pleased to host its distinguished guest, announced the gentleman tasked with introducing Calero. Our speaker's impressive career embraced Notre Dame and Syracuse . . . W.R. Grace and Company . . . general manager, Coca-Cola of Nicaragua . . . leader since 1976 of the business opposition to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza . . . and now, president of the FDN, the Fuerzas Democraticas Nicaraguenses.

From below, the protesters offered an alternate introduction:

Adolfo Calero,

What do you say?

How many kids

Did you kill today?

"We look forward to an informative presentation from Doctor Calero," concluded the club's introducer.

The distinguished terrorist rose to speak. Professorial in manner, conservatively attired, white-haired and pushing 60, he looked more like the man the club had introduced than the one the protesters had greeted.

Across the table from me a well-dressed young woman whispered to the man seated next to her, "Where exactly is Nicaragua?"

Doctor Calero's briefing lasted 10 minutes. Then followed 25 minutes of Q and A. So little time in which to educate potential donors and supporters, but Calero's practical presentation was ready to meet the challenge.

The club's format did not allow for commentary on Calero's chief claims: that the contras had opposed former Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, that they are supporters of human rights, that they enjoy popular support in Nicaragua, and that the Sandinistas are totalitarian whereas the contras are fighting for freedom and democracy. In fairness, then, the following account supplements Calero's major points with comments on some of the things he didn't say.

On the Contras and Somoza:

Calero: We Nicaraguans fought against the dictator Somoza to achieve democracy. Now the Sandinistas are trying to deprive us of the fruits of our revolution. We freedom fighters are striving to keep the Sandinistas from stealing our victory over Somoza.

What Calero didn't say: On April 23, 1985, a staff report of the Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus was placed in the Congressional Record by Representative Bill Richardson (D., New Mexico). It found that of 48 positions in the FDN's military command structure, 46 were held by former Somoza national guardsmen.

Calero's top military commander, Enrique Bermudez, was a colonel in Somoza's guard. He was also Somoza's military attache in Washington for the last three years of the dictator's rule (1976-79).

Since that damaging report, the U.S. State Department has labored to cover the contras' origins with anti-Somoza fig leaves. But little has changed. Earlier this year, the leading fig leaf, Arturo Cruz, resigned in protest from the contra directorate, because Calero and his FDN military commanders refused to submit to the directorate's civilian control.

As recently as August 5, 1987--one week after Calero's University Club performance--he was pictured in the New York Times. The photo was captioned: "Nicaraguan contra leaders outside Capitol after meetings with Congressional leaders about peace plan." Standing beside Calero was fellow contra Aristides Sanchez. According to the report cited above, Sanchez was "formerly a wealthy landowner and close associate of the late General Somoza."

On Human Rights:

By coincidence, on July 29, 1987, the morning of Calero's University Club breakfast, the New York Times covered the release of a report on contra human rights violations by the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. This group of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans had been chosen by the Reagan Administration to fulfill a Congressional mandate to monitor contra human rights practices. According to the Times, the report found that the contras "have executed prisoners, forcibly recruited soldiers, burned a church-sponsored health clinic and killed civilians."

A questioner at the Club breakfast asked about the report.

Calero: The democratic resistance supports human rights. We have had a code of conduct since 1983. We have trained over 6,000 of our men in seminars on human rights and the Geneva Convention. This new report found only 22 isolated cases, spread over our seven-year history. They were definitely violations, but they resulted from individual excesses, not from our policy. We have prosecuted and will prosecute such violations by our men.

What Calero didn't say: The report covered only violations during August 1985 through April 1987. More important, Calero understandably neglected to mention numerous other reports on contra human rights violations published by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and other prestigious international human rights organizations.

The 1986 Amnesty International report stated, "Amnesty International continued to be concerned about a pattern of torture and extrajudicial killings" by the contras. Calero's men "continued to routinely torture and summarily execute their captives."

The February 1987 Americas Watch report, "Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986," detailed contra human rights violations at length. It concluded, "Violations of the laws of armed conflict by the contras cause great suffering to the Nicaraguan people . . . the patterns of their actions have not changed. They still engage in selective but systematic killing of persons they perceive as representing the government, in indiscriminate attacks against civilians or in disregard for their safety, and in outrages against the personal dignity of prisoners. The contras also engage in widespread kidnapping of civilians, apparently for purposes of recruitment as well as intimidation; a significant number of the kidnap victims are children."

Lest there be any doubt as to contra policy, Americas Watch found that they engage in "a deliberate pattern of violating fundamental standards of laws of war." Furthermore, "disregard for the rights of civilians has become a de facto policy of the contra forces."

To read the Americas Watch report is to confront a nauseating narration of men tortured and castrated, women raped and shot, and babies with their throats slit. Not a few isolated incidents here and there, but attacks "frequent and widespread enough to constitute a clear contra practice and, by implication, policy."

Familiar with reports like these, the chanting protesters outside the University Club needed no rhetorical overkill.

Hey, hey

What do you say?

How many kids

Did you kill today?

"None," Calero would have answered, if he had deigned to reply.

But Calero and other contra leaders are indeed complicit, according to Americas Watch: "The leadership of the contra organizations has taken no meaningful steps to investigate and punish these abuses . . ."

Under U.S. pressure and with U.S. funds, in 1985 the contras did open a human rights office. But by August 1986, FDN commander Bermudez closed the office (refusing to pay its staff money owed for back salaries). Of 19 convictions resulting from this gesture toward self-policing, 8 involved abuses by contras against other contras, 5 involved insubordination, one involved growing marijuana, and 4 involved property crimes. As Americas Watch summarized, only one (a multiple rape) "involved physical abuse of Nicaraguan civilians. As of March 1986, therefore, [contra] investigations had led to the prosecution and conviction of only one contra for violent crimes against Nicaraguan civilians."

According to the White House, there were no further prosecutions before the contra human rights office closed down in August 1986.

With a track record of high-level tolerance like this, no wonder the February 1987 Americas Watch report found an "escalating brutality of contra practices."

An apparently typical case was reported to an Illinois fact-finding delegation, of which I was a member, when we visited Nicaragua and Honduras in February and March of this year to look into Illinois National Guard deployments to Honduras.

On March 3, in the city of Esteli in northern Nicaragua, we visited a training institute for "Delegates of the Word"--lay ministers of the Catholic popular church (as opposed to the hierarchical church). There we talked with Oscar Gonzalez, a Mexican-born theologian who has lived in Nicaragua since 1980, giving religious training to Delegates of the Word.

The contras don't limit themselves to attacking only government or military facilities, Mr. Gonzalez explained. They feel free to attack anyone involved in contributing to economic production in Nicaragua. The week before our arrival, near San Juan del Rio Coco not far from Esteli, a group of 20 peasant volunteers from Esteli and La Trinidad had been helping to harvest coffee on a private farm. According to Gonzalez, a band of armed contras descended on the farm and kidnapped the 20 peasants, marching them at gunpoint across the border to Honduras. The farm owners' two daughters, aged 16 and 17, were both gang-raped. The day afterward, Gonzalez had visited them in the hospital in Esteli.

We were not staying in Nicaragua long enough to investigate Gonzalez's charges, and a hearsay account by a single witness would not stand up by itself in court. But the basic facts alleged by Gonzalez are similar to numerous other instances thoroughly investigated by international human rights groups, and repeatedly confirmed by eyewitness affidavits.

On Whether the Contras Can Win:

Calero: With another $200 to $250 million to fund a good resupply system, weapons, and ammunition, the democratic resistance forces can bring about a climate of collapse in Nicaragua within 18 months. Even within a year the Sandinistas could be in a deep crisis. Already the economic situation in the country has become very difficult, and passive resistance to the Sandinistas is increasing. A guerrilla movement can't survive without popular support; we have survived.

What Calero didn't say: The economic plight of Nicaragua is indeed very difficult, due largely to the U.S.-funded war; the Sandinistas now have to spend nearly half their national budget on defense. Shortly before we arrived in Esteli this March, the city was forced to go without electricity for eight days, because the contras had knocked out a high-voltage transmission tower in the mountains.

Still, no outside observers (with the possible exception of the Reagan administration) contend that dissatisfaction with the economy and the Sandinistas has translated into widespread support for the contras. If it had, then why in six years of guerrilla war have the contras failed to hold a single town in Nicaragua for even one day?

And if the population is indeed ready to revolt against the Sandinistas, why have the Sandinistas nonetheless distributed firearms widely to the civilian population, to defend themselves from the contras?

Not that the contras have never had any popular support anywhere in Nicaragua. On the Atlantic coast, Sandinista mistreatment of the Miskito Indians in the early 1980s led many Miskitos to side with the contras. But the Sandinistas have since made up for most of these early misdeeds. Meanwhile, according to Americas Watch, "Contra violence against civilians has indeed been so systematic as to alter public feeling toward the rebel forces in some areas formerly sympathetic to them. Americas Watch investigators who travelled to the Rio Coco in November 1986 discovered that the area's Miskito Indians now fear and distrust the Miskito contra force KISAN due to its practices of forced recruitment (kidnapping) and other forms of coercion."

On the Sandinista "Dictatorship":

Calero: Nicaragua is a communist dictatorship. The Sandinistas have "cut off all freedoms." Party and state have been merged, and the Sandinista state security apparatus is modeled on the Soviet Union.

What Calero didn't say: This January Nicaragua adopted a new constitution with a full panoply of democratic rights and freedoms, some of which are now suspended during a state of emergency declared because of the contra war.

Both Amnesty International and Americas Watch have criticized many Sandinista practices. Amnesty International in 1986 cited a pattern of short-term imprisonment of prisoners of conscience (Amnesty identified 30 prisoners of conscience or "probable prisoners of conscience" in 1985), incommunicado detention of political prisoners during pretrial investigation, restrictions on the right to a fair trial, and poor prison conditions for political prisoners. According to Amnesty, during 1985 the number of persons at any one time detained for security offenses, but not yet charged, was up to about 500.

Americas Watch has issued similar findings. In addition, its February 1987 report criticizes a Sandinista policy of abusive interrogation techniques, including the use of psychological pressure and threats to secure confessions; the closing of La Prensa and other opposition media; and the expulsion of a Catholic bishop and priest for alleged pro-contra activities, "in each case without a prior hearing."

However, Americas Watch tempers these findings in two respects: Sandinista restrictions on freedoms are to some extent justified by the wartime conditions, and they are in any event not in the same league with contra abuses.

On the first point, Americas Watch notes, "The fact that the government of Nicaragua faces a serious, violent challenge to its stability complicates the effort to make a balanced assessment of its performance in the realm of human rights, because, like any government, this government has the right, under international law, to suspend certain rights as a means to counter that challenge."

The rights limited by Sandinista policy, Americas Watch adds, are among those considered "derogable" by international law (i.e., they may be restricted in wartime). However, "in our view the restrictions go beyond what is reasonably required and hence legitimate in times of emergency."

One example is the much publicized case of the Sandinistas' closing, in June 1986, of the opposition newspaper La Prensa. Noting that the Reagan administration (and, since June 1986, the Congress as well) have been publicly involved in an effort to overthrow the Nicaraguan government by force, Americas Watch observed that La Prensa had recently identified itself with this objective, and had accepted some U.S. government funding. Americas Watch concluded, "In these circumstances, it may be legitimate, under international law standards, for a government under armed attack to impose limited sanctions against a press organ that represents the interests of its enemies. Though the issue is difficult, we feel that the indefinite suspension of La Prensa is excessive."

I agree. More important, when I visited Nicaragua on a lawyers' fact-finding delegation in August of 1986, I found that opinion even among Sandinista supporters was divided on the issue. Several pro-Sandinista attorneys told me they opposed the closing of La Prensa.

Still, the Americas Watch finding is expressed, understandably, in measured tones. It is difficult at this remove to put ourselves in the Sandinistas' shoes. By way of hypothetical analogy, suppose Nicaragua somehow began to fund widespread urban guerrilla uprisings all across the United States. Tens of thousands of deaths resulted. Suppose the Reader then began accepting subsidies from Nicaragua, while publishing stories and editorials supporting Nicaragua's effort to overthrow the U.S. government by force. How confident are you that the Reader would be allowed to continue publishing?

Whatever criticisms one may level against such Sandinista human rights violations, they pale beside those of the contras. Sandinista delays in filing formal charges against suspected contra saboteurs, for example, can hardly be equated with commonplace contra atrocities, such as their alleged execution at point-blank range of U.S. engineer Ben Linder. Linder's "crime": attempting to bring hydroelectric power from mountain streams to rural villages in Nicaragua.

As Americas Watch noted in more legalistic terms, "The government of Nicaragua does not engage in a pattern of violations of the laws of war. Nor does it engage in systematic violations of the rights to life or to physical integrity of detainees, which are the clearest cases of non-derogable rights. Nor does it engage in a deliberate pattern of forced disappearances of persons. . . ."

Moreover, the Sandinistas have repeatedly announced that their restrictions on freedoms--such as the closing of La Prensa--will end as soon as the U.S. ceases its aggression against Nicaragua. Only last week, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega signed the Central American presidents' peace plan, which calls for full restoration of democratic rights throughout Central America. Whether such commitments will be carried out, of course, remains to be seen.

In any event, whatever their due process deficiencies, the Sandinistas are not terrorists. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Dr. Calero and his hit men. By their actions, Calero's contras clearly fit the following definition of terrorism, published by the U.S. State Department: "Terrorism is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents."

On What the Contras Are Fighting For:

Calero: We are fighting for freedom and democracy in Nicaragua. If we win, we would allow democracy even for people like those demonstrators outside on the sidewalk.

What Calero didn't say: Although cloaked in the ideological garb of freedom and democracy, the contras' more basic aim is to restore Nicaragua's upper classes to the privileged position they occupied before the Sandinista revolution. The Sandinistas' principal program has been to improve the lot of Nicaragua's impoverished peasants, through health programs, literacy campaigns, housing construction, and--most pointedly--redistribution of ownership from the wealthy to the peasants. Scratch many contra leaders, and underneath you'll find someone whose land holdings, or whose family's land holdings, have been reduced by redistribution to peasants. Other contra backers include, for example, frustrated business owners and managers, no longer permitted to fire workers at will or to keep most of the profits for themselves and their cronies.

At the University Club, Calero discreetly avoided any direct mention of issues like these, even though they are at the heart of the contra war. But ducking an issue doesn't make it go away. Asked who might be Nicaragua's new president if the contras prevailed, Calero modestly nominated, not himself, but Victor Bolanos--president of the Superior Council on Free Enterprise, the voice of Nicaraguan business.

As Dr. Calero concluded his remarks, the University Club members warmly applauded their distinguished guest. Who better to fend off communism in Central America?

"As a memento of your trip to Chicago," the Club's representative told Calero, "we would like to present you with this mug and University Club tie."

More applause followed. As we descended to the ground floor, where by now the protesters had departed, a portly matron just below me turned to her companion, a well-dressed woman of mature years. "That was quite informative. He must be on some sort of speaking tour," she ventured.

"Yes," agreed her companion, "Very informative."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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