Politics & Policy

Back in Sandinista Days . . .

John Kerry now talks a moderate game; but what does the record say?

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.

Here’s what you’re not supposed to say about John Kerry: that he is a man of the Left; that he is a “Massachusetts liberal”; that he is the anti-Reagan (well, you can say that in some circles). No, now that he’s the Democratic nominee, he is a man of the sensible center, in contrast to those Texas-fried radicals in the White House. Kerry the Nominee even enjoys getting to President Bush’s right. Why, just the other day — appealing to Cuban-American voters in Florida — Kerry chided Bush for being a little soft on Hugo Chávez, the (democratically elected) strongman of Venezuela and one of Fidel Castro’s best friends. The Bush people sputtered with indignation: The gall! But Kerry is acting cannily.

Canny or not, Kerry has a record on Latin America — a substantial one. You will recall the 1980s, and that decade’s fierce debates over Central America policy. At the heart of these debates was Nicaragua: the Sandinistas, Castro, and the Soviet Union versus the Contras and the United States (or rather, not all of the United States: the Reagan administration, in particular). Kerry was an important player in all this. He was part of a group derided by Republicans as “‘Dear Comandante’ Democrats,” for they would address letters to Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista No. 1, “Dear Comandante.” (“But that’s his title,” they would plead, not unreasonably.) This group included such House members as Mike Barnes and Pete Kostmayer, and such senators as Chris Dodd and Tom Harkin — and John Kerry.

Only months after he was sworn in, Kerry joined Harkin on an infamous trip to Managua, to meet with Comandante Ortega. This was April 1985. The trip, according to an article in Policy Review magazine, was arranged by the Institute for Policy Studies, a hard-Left group. IPS was one of several such groups around Kerry back then. The trip, moreover, occurred a few days before a key vote in Congress on Contra aid — the bill proposed to send $14 million in humanitarian assistance to those anti-Communist rebels.

Said Kerry, “Senator Harkin and I are going to Nicaragua as Vietnam-era veterans who are alarmed that the Reagan administration is repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam. Our foreign policy should represent the democratic values that have made our country great, not subvert those values by funding terrorism to overthrow governments of other countries.” Note that, certainly by implication, the senator characterized the Contra resistance as “terrorism.” In addition, “President Reagan has probably come closer to trying to interpret Vietnam in a positive way than either Presidents Ford or Carter. But this also lends itself to a revisionism about Vietnam that makes it easier for us to repeat our mistakes unwittingly.”

As his plane touched down in Nicaragua, Kerry said, “Look at it. It reminds me so much of Vietnam. The same lushness, the tree lines.” (This reporting comes from the Washington Post.) Vietnam was uppermost in his mind: “If you look back at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, if you look back at the troops that were in Cambodia, the history of the body count and the misinterpretation of Vietnam itself, and look at how we are interpreting the struggle in Central America and examine the CIA involvement, the mining of the harbors, the effort to fund the Contras, there is a direct and unavoidable parallel between these two periods of our history.” Said Kerry, “I see an enormous haughtiness in the United States trying to tell them [the Nicaraguans] what to do.”

Finally, “These are just poor people, no money, no food, just like Vietnam, and they are just trying to stay alive. They just want peace. They don’t want their daughter getting blown away on the way to teach! Or their sons disappearing. It’s just terrible. I see the same sense of great victimization. The little kids staring wide-eyed and scared. It really hits home the same way as Vietnam. . . . If we haven’t learned something by now about talking rather than fighting . . .”

Senators Kerry and Harkin returned to Washington with a kind of peace plan — Ortega was saying, Cut off all aid to the Contras, engage in bilateral talks with us, and we’ll call a cease-fire and restore civil liberties. Kerry hailed this as “a wonderful opening.” The Reagan administration was not impressed — in fact, it fumed. The State Department made clear that the Sandinistas had to talk to the Contras themselves, not to Washington: “Without such a dialogue, a cease-fire is meaningless — essentially a call for the opposition to surrender. The opposition is asked to accept Sandinista consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist order in Nicaragua.” Secretary Shultz decried “self-appointed emissaries to the Communist regime” in Managua, and said, “We cannot conduct a successful policy when [such people] take trips or write ‘Dear Comandante’ letters with the aim of negotiating.” Henry Kissinger added, “If the Nicaraguans want to make an offer, they ought to make it through diplomatic channels. We can’t be negotiating with our own congressmen and Nicaragua simultaneously.” Senator Goldwater called the Kerry-Harkin trip just “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

In the end, the trip backfired. Not long after the senators left him, Ortega flew off to Moscow, to affirm his alliance with the Soviets. Democratic leaders — Tip O’Neill in particular — were embarrassed.

But Kerry stayed unabashed in his position. He remarked to the Christian Science Monitor, “We negotiated with North Vietnam. Why can we not negotiate with a country smaller than North Carolina and with half the population of Massachusetts? It’s beyond me.” Kerry apparently never recognized the Nicaragua struggle as geopolitical. Referring to his onetime group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he said, “We were criticized when we stood up on Vietnam. . . . But we’ve been borne out. We were correct. Sometimes you just have to stand and hold your ground.” Plus, “my desire to see us negotiate is as patriotic as anyone else’s to see us fight.” (Here he sounds much like the Kerry of 2004.)

Kerry’s thinking on Nicaragua was in perfect consonance with the leftist thinking of the day (and of this day, for that matter); it would have been at home in the Latin American Studies department at Berkeley or Santa Cruz, for instance. Listen to his emotional speech on the Senate floor, delivered upon his return from Managua. Virtually every bromide, every tic, is there.

It is not just the fact that American youth may be called on once again to fight and to die in the jungles and mountains of another Third World country. It is not just that that weighs on my conscience today. . . . It is the fact that the grinding poverty in that area is so real and apparent, the legacy of a brutal dictatorship installed by American force some 50 years ago and which in concert with a tiny economic elite plundered the natural resources of the countryside while more than 80 percent of the population were forced to eke out a meager subsistence for themselves and their families. . . . If there is one guarantee of increasing the Soviet presence in Nicaragua, it will be to force that government into no other choice but that of turning to the Soviet Union. . . . [T]his administration seems to protect American interests by wanting to continue the process of escalating killing . . . Here, Mr. President, in writing, is a guarantee of the security interest of the United States.

In this last sentence, he was referring to the aide-memoire pressed into his hand by Ortega: a guarantee. At the end of his speech, Kerry said, “My generation, and a lot of us, grew up with the phrase ‘Give peace a chance,’ as part of a song that captured a lot of people’s imagination. I hope that the president of the United States will give peace a chance.”

Ultimately, the outcome in Nicaragua was democratic, as throughout Central America. In fact, this is one of the great achievements of our times, unheralded as it may be. (For one thing, few on the left are willing to do any heralding.) When Violeta Chamorro won election in Nicaragua — February 1990 — an interviewer asked Kerry, “Does this mean the United States did the right thing all those years by funding the Contras?” Replied Kerry, “Well, I think that’s almost an irrelevant debate right now. I don’t happen to believe that, because many of us believe it could have been a different form of pressure. But the important thing now is that the election has taken place. I really think it’s more of a triumph of multi-nation diplomacy.” Sure.

Kerry gained further fame — or infamy, depending on your point of view — as head of “the Kerry Committee,” more formally the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations. In this period — the late 1980s — Kerry devoted himself to trying to prove that the Contras were drug-runners; he was particularly interested in linking Vice President Bush to this criminality (as Bush was running for president). The Kerry Committee never accomplished its objective, but it attracted a lot of media attention and damaged individual reputations. On this committee, all the hopes, energies, and notions of IPS, the Christic Institute, CISPES, and the rest of that now-forgotten crowd came together.

Leading the charge were Kerry’s staff men, such as Jonathan Winer (still a Kerry foreign-policy adviser) and the notorious Jack Blum. This latter is considered by some Republicans a sort of Roy Cohn of the Left. One GOP aide from the period describes Kerry’s people as “drooling fanatics”: “Kennedy’s people were liberal, to be sure, and so were Dodd’s. But Kerry’s people were much more rabid. They promoted the most bizarre conspiracy theories around.” You have to remember, says this aide: “There was a real fruity network of goofball and semi-subversive people, and Kerry ran with those people. He was always a bit aloof himself, but you can tell a lot about politicians by the people they let in. These weren’t liberals. They had a shockingly hostile attitude toward the United States — our military, our intelligence community, our policies.”

A second Latin America expert on the Republican side was Mark Falcoff, long since with the American Enterprise Institute. Though the Kerry Committee “never proved anything,” he says, “they used an enormous amount of time. I mean, you can’t imagine the wild-goose chases.” As for Kerry himself, “I found him a bully. If I could use one word, it would be that: He was a bully.”

One man who was subjected to this bullying was Felix Rodriguez, the legendary CIA operative. He was present in Che Guevara’s last hours; he also grew close to the first Bush. According to Rodriguez’s memoirs, Shadow Warrior, the Kerry Committee let it be known to the press that a convicted money launderer for the Colombian drug cartel had accused him of soliciting $10 million for the Contras. The committee was also “fueling speculation” that Rodriguez, “and, by extension, Vice President Bush,” were “somehow” involved in drug trafficking.

The committee subpoenaed Rodriguez, but, to his chagrin, insisted on a closed hearing. Of his encounter with Kerry, Rodriguez writes, “Obviously, what he wanted was to connect the Vice President and the top Contra leadership to drugs.” But at one point, Kerry’s questioning sharply veered off: “He wanted to know all the details of Che’s capture [in 1967]. He even asked me somewhat sarcastically why I did not fight harder to save Che’s life.” There followed an extraordinary exchange — again, according to Rodriguez.

I said, “Senator, this has been the hardest testimony I ever gave in my life.”

He looked up, glasses perched on his nose. “Why?”

“Because, sir, it is extremely difficult to have to answer questions from someone you do not respect.” . . .

I told him outright, “Senator, my name was leaked by your committee as being involved with drugs. I take that very seriously because it affects my family, my reputation, and my friends.”

Kerry looked at me sternly and said, “You’re making a very serious accusation, because this committee doesn’t leak.”

“Senator, leaked or not it was in every goddamned newspaper that, at one of your closed committee hearings, Ramón Milian Rodríguez said I solicited money. That is a damned lie.”

Felix Rodriguez wanted his testimony made available to the public, but “Kerry and Blum” refused. So he called a press conference, to give his side. Eleven months later — after considerable pressure (Republican pressure) — Rodriguez got a chance to testify in open hearing. Kerry now said that he believed the witness. “I was gratified by [the senator’s] statement.”

When it came to Latin America policy at large, Kerry almost always ran with the Left crowd, but at least once he stood alone. In December 1985, he was the only senator to vote against money for police training in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Even Senator Dodd voted for it. Yet another Republican Latin America specialist reflects, “Kerry aligned himself with all the leftist-chic causes, and he was virulently anti-Reagan. And he never apologized for it, never showed any regret, in light of how things have turned out in Central America. I mean, really: In El Salvador, they just had an election in which a tired old leftist guerrilla lost to a conservative candidate. Instead of meeting on the battlefield, they met at the ballot box. Everything was peaceful. The other countries are doing the same thing.” And will Kerry give no credit to the policies he tried to stop?

A disdain for American power has been part and parcel of the senator’s attitude. He was quite sniffy about the invasion of Grenada, for example. He compared it to “Boston College playing football against the Sisters of Mercy.” (It’s funny how the Democrats were in harmony. Madeleine Albright — the future secretary of state — said, “It was the [Washington] Redskins versus the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the score was 101 to nothing.”) Kerry added, “The invasion of Grenada represents the Reagan policy of substituting public relations for diplomatic relations . . . The invasion represented a bully’s show of force against a weak Third World nation. The invasion only served to heighten world tensions and further strain brittle U.S.–Soviet and North–South relations.” Ponder that: The possible next president interpreted Grenada as “a bully’s show of force against a weak Third World nation.”

Needless to say, Kerry talks a little differently now. But has he changed his mind, or is he merely the Democratic nominee? For the benefit of South Florida, he’s claiming to be a big anti-Castroite: “I don’t like Fidel Castro. Some people have cottoned to him in our party [now there’s an admission!] and go down and visit. I went to Cuba once and I purposely said I don’t want to.” That statement was a little mysterious. Kerry has also said, “I’m pretty tough on Castro, because I think he’s running one of the last vestiges of a Stalinist, secret-police government in the world. And I voted for the Helms-Burton legislation to be tough on companies that deal with him.” That was a little mysterious too, for Kerry was one of only 22 senators to vote against Helms-Burton. His campaign later explained that he had voted for an early version of the bill, objecting to the final one because of Title III: which allows Americans whose property was stolen to sue foreign companies acquiring that property.

Kerry has — or had — long been a critic of U.S. policy on Cuba. In 2000, he said that “the only reason we don’t re-­evaluate the policy is the politics of Florida.” Speaking of the politics of Florida: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a congressman from Miami, says, “I have had to fight consistently against John Kerry for years. Every time there has been an effort to unilaterally provide the Cuban dictatorship with trade financing or tourism dollars, John Kerry has stood” with the unilateralists. Just recently, Kerry had this to say about the return of Elián González to Cuba (Elián was the boy plucked from the ocean): “I didn’t agree with that.” But he had supported the Clinton administration. Kerry, forced to elaborate, said, “I didn’t like the way they did it. I thought the process was butchered.” At the time of the Elián drama, Kerry said, “There’s obviously, now, a fair amount of sort of Cold War rhetoric. I would hope both countries would view this as an opportunity to reach beyond that, to find a new opening of opportunity for how we resolve this kind of issue.” Both countries: the Castro regime and the United States. That’s how John Kerry, pre-nomination, used to talk.

You will recall that, in March, Kerry stated that most foreign leaders were rooting for him. Then Kerry started receiving the wrong kind of endorsements. Mahathir Mohamad, the flamingly anti-Semitic Malaysian, came out for him, and so did Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The campaign had to react. Kerry decided to assert that the Bush administration wasn’t doing enough to aid Chávez’s opponents. Moreover, this belonged to a pattern of “sending mixed signals by supporting undemocratic processes in our own hemisphere.” Huh? Come again? Kerry was pandering to South Florida (which, in addition to Cubans, has a growing population of Venezuelans). Latin Americanists in the Bush administration were beside themselves. When a coup attempt against Chávez occurred in April 2002, many Democrats accused them (without proof) of abetting the plotters, and thereby betraying Venezuelan democracy. And now Kerry was saying that Bush was soft on Chávez!

To add insult to injury, Kerry had just gotten through denouncing the administration for failing to prop up the “democratic” leader of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forced to flee (with U.S. help). Kerry said that Bush should have sent troops to save Haitian “democracy.” And yet, both Chávez and Aristide were technically elected. Some Republicans want to know, What is the Kerry Doctrine, exactly? Try to overthrow democratically elected leftist tyrants in Venezuela while sending troops to save democratically elected leftist tyrants in Haiti? One former senior intelligence official dealt with Kerry in the mid-1990s, when the issue of Aristide was hot: “We knew that Aristide was a pretty bad guy, and not the most stable individual, either.” But “Kerry was a cheerleader for Aristide, regardless of the evidence, despite what we knew. It was one of those sacred, progressive positions you were supposed to take — to be for Aristide. He was a cheerleader for Aristide, just as he had been a cheerleader for the Sandinistas.”

If Kerry has “evolved,” as we say, more power to him. Everyone appreciates a politician who grows, in the right direction (to use Hugo Chávez’s language). But Kerry has given no trustworthy indication of such growth. He seems merely to be engaged in some rhetorical adjustments, necessary to an American general election. When it comes to Latin America — and to the Western Hemisphere more broadly, and to other things — the record shows that he has not exactly been a moderate. No, not exactly.

– From the May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.


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