The Crisis of the Nicaraguan Miskito Refugees – Seized In A Conflict of Politics, National Interest and US Hegemony

Meghna Bhaskar, Institution: Symbiosis Law School, Pune; Year: 1st Year

The Nicaraguan revolution that took place from 1960-1990, caused an unprecedented political, social and cultural change in the Republic of Nicaragua. It saw an onset of a refugee crisis, which still persists and still remains unresolved. The year 1982 saw 10,000 indigenous Miskitos leaving their aboriginal land of Rio Coco and fleeing north, in fear of persecution.[1] One aspect of the crisis that has received very little attention: that is, the illegal and covert involvement of the United States in funding the counter-revolutionaries and its subsequent repercussions on the indigenous peoples.

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The politics within Nicaragua commenced as a stable dynasty rule which culminated into a gruesome power struggle half a decade later. For 43 years, Nicaragua was ruled by the Somoza dynasty[2] however, the dynasty’s failure to resolve the problems of unequal distribution of income and the rebuilding of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, which was still a shambles five years after the 1972 earthquake, caused growing unrest among the common man. By 1977 guerrilla activity was pervasive and the National Guard[3] was accused of retaliating with wholesale torture, rape, and murder. The political upheaval that ensued claimed about 50,000 lives. Crumbling under political pressure and the threat of assassination, Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned on July 17, 1979. In the course of a quasi-oppressive regime, the Somoza dynasty had caused the eruption of many an opposition groups. One such group materialized to become the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSNL), which assumed a leadership role in the overthrowing of the Somoza regime and establishment of a revolutionary government in its place.[4]

The Somozas were anti-communist and this attribute of theirs particularly put them in the likes of the hegemon, the United States at a time when the latter was having a colossal ideological rift between socialism and capitalism with the Soviet Union[5]. They, thus, enjoyed unwavering support from the government of the United States. The United States decided to overlook the ongoing human rights violations in Nicaragua in the urge of protecting its interests and thus unconditionally gave military, logical and economical support to the right-wing rebels. The transition of government in Nicaragua was far from a peaceful transfer of power that the norms of international law command. In fact, it bore a wound so deep that a war of sorts ensued between the government and what came to be called as the ‘Contras’. The Contras were right-wing rebel groups that were active from 1979 up till the 1990s.[6] Backed by the United States, they stood in opposition to the left wing, socialist Sandinista Junta of the National Reconstruction Government in Nicaragua.

The Nicaraguan Revolution marked a significant period in Nicaraguan history and revealed the country as one of the major proxy war battlegrounds of the Cold War with the events in the country rising to international attention. During the 1980s both the Sandinista National Liberation Front (The left-wing Nicaraguan government) and the Contra forces (The right-wing collection of counter-revolutionary groups) received large amounts of aid from the Cold War super-powers, the  Soviet Union and the United States, respectively. The US government viewed the leftist Sandinistas as a threat to economic interests of American corporations in Nicaragua and to its national security. US President Ronald Reagan stated in 1983 that “The defense of USA’s southern frontier” was at stake[7] which was true since Nicaragua could be rightly termed as being located in US’s ‘backyard’.

Ronald Reagan assumed the office of American Presidency in January 1981. He played a key role in defining US’s policy towards the conflict ridden Nicaragua and also found himself amidst controversy with regard to illegal funding of the Contras by the United States. The United States interfered in the Nicaraguan Revolution in spite of a fair victory of the Sandinista National Liberation Front; primarily due to their ideological beliefs and the repercussions it would have on the scales of power which were to determine the outcome of the Cold War. The United States found its interests in alignment with the contra forces and thus, began to fund the contras and oppose the Sandinista government’s ties with Cuba[8] and the Soviet Union.[9]

Under the Reagan administration, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was marked by constant hostility. This hostility yielded, among other things, an inordinate amount of publicity about human rights issues. The US however played their cards diplomatically and cherry-picked evidences to show only the Sandinista government in the bad light, concealing the abuse of power by the Contra forces. Furthering the Reagan administration’s desire to protect U.S. interests in the region, which were threatened by the policies of the Sandinista government, the United States quickly suspended aid to Nicaragua and expanded the supply of arms and training to the Contra in neighboring Honduras, as well as allied groups based to the south in Costa Rica. By 1981, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, financed, trained, equipped, armed and organized largely by the U.S., emerged as the largest and most active contra group.

No soon had President Reagan commenced US funding of the Contras, did the situation of refugees begin. In February 1981, as many as 3,000 Nicaraguan Miskito migrated to Honduras, in response to the arrest of indigenous leaders in Nicaragua. Such arrests and aggressions couldn’t be directly attributed to the United States, however, since US was funding the Contras who committed such actions, the States were indirectly liable. The United States were well aware of the actions of the Contras and continued to fund them, regardless. Come 1982, and the resettlement of the Rio Coco communities along Nicaragua’s Northern border saw an estimated 10,000 Miskitos flee North. By 1983, the number of Miskito refugees in Honduras were approximately 15,000.[10]

On 4 January 1982, Reagan signed the top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (National Security Decision Directives-17)[11], giving the CIA the authority to recruit and support the contras with $19 million in military aid. The effort to support the contras was one component of the Reagan Doctrine, which called for providing military support to movements opposing Soviet-supported, communist governments. The Reagan administration continued to view the Sandinistas as undemocratic despite the 1984 Nicaraguan elections being generally declared fair by foreign observers. In the fiscal year 1984, the U.S. Congress approved $24 million in contra aid. However, since the Contras failed to score victories in proportion to the funding they were receiving from the States, the Congress cut off all funds by virtue of the Third Boland Agreement in 1985.[12] However, the Reagan administration continued to lobby for funding the Contras and argued that that support for the contras would counter Soviet influence in Nicaragua. On 1st May, 1985 it imposed a trade embargo against Nicaragua after deeming it an ‘extraordinary’ threat to US interests.[13] The administration then sought to raising funds from third countries and private entities, without any sanction and raised a total of $34 million from the former and $2.7 million from the latter. Using these funds, they created what they called ”The Enterprise,” a private organization designed to engage in covert activities on behalf of the United States.[14] The secret Contra assistance was run by the National Security Council and “The Enterprise” served as the secret arm of the NSC staff having its own airplanes, pilots, airfield, ship, operatives and secret Swiss bank accounts. The Enterprise’s efforts culminated in the Iran–Contra Affair of 1986–1987, which facilitated contra funding through the proceeds of arms sales to Iran.

The Reagan administration’s support for the Contras continued to stir controversy well into the 1990s. An August, 1996, series in the San Jose Mercury News by reporter Gary Webb established a credible connection between the origin of crack cocaine in California to the Contras functioning in Nicaragua. Webb’s series, “The Dark Alliance,” focused attention on a foreign policy drug scandal compiled from declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive, including the notebooks kept by NSC aide and Iran-contra figure Oliver North, electronic mail messages written by high-ranking Reagan administration officials, memos detailing the contra war effort, and FBI and DEA reports. The documentary evidence delivers official knowledge of drug operations, and collaboration with and protection of known drug traffickers, which goes on to say that the third party sources that the Reagan Administration relied on were none other than drug cartels.[15]

The Nicaraguan refugee crisis is a classic case of the United States unnecessarily asserting its position, power and hegemony. Thus, once again, the United States has put its interests before everyone else, regardless of the costs. The unauthorized funding that the Reagan administration funneled to the rebels in Nicaragua, not only worsened the plight of the Mosquitia refugees, but also facilitated drug cartels and fuelled the sale of arms in Iran and thereby created a ripple effect of unprecedented adversities and controversies and unanswered questions.


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[1] Resettlement and Coping: Nicaraguan Miskito Refugees in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras. Available at –

http://www.cdihh.ihah.hn/ae/sources/PDF/6397-MisquitosRefugiadosenLaBiosferadelRioPlatano

Last accessed on 20th December 2016at 2:12 pm

[2] Somoza Family, Available at – https://www.britannica.com/topic/Somoza-family

Last accessed at – 1:15 am, 20th September 2016

[3] The National Guard was a militia and a gendarmerie created during the occupation of that country by the United States from 1909 to 1933. It became notorious for human rights abuses and corruption under the regime of the Somoza family.

[4] Misargh Parsa, States, Ideologies, and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines by  (Cambridge University Press, Page 224)

[5] The Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union resulted in an ideological battle between the two and both tries to gain as many allies in order to win this battle.

[6] ‘Understanding the Iran-Contra Affairs’ Available at-

https://www.brown.edu/Research/Understanding_the_Iran_Contra_Affair/n-contras.php Last accessed at – 2:54 pm, 22nd December 2016

[7] John A. Thompson, “The Exaggeration of American Vulnerability: An Anatomy of Tradition” (1992) pg. 23

[8] The Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis, was a 13-day (October 16–28, 1962) confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning American ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey with consequent Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. Along with being televised worldwide, it was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

[9] R. W. APPLE Jr., ‘Mudslinging over contras’, New York Times, Published: March 12, 1986

[10] “Resettlement and Coping: Nicaraguan Miskito Refugees in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve” Available at –

http://www.cdihh.ihah.hn/ae/sources/PDF/6397-MisquitosRefugiadosenLaBiosferadelRioPlatano.PDF

Last accessed at – 11:54 pm, 20th December 2016

[11] “NSDD – National Security Decision Directives – Reagan Administration”, 30 May 2008. Retrieved 26th September 2016. https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-017.htm

[12] Robert Surbrug, “Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990” (2009)

[13] Bill Neikirk and Raymond Coffey, “Reagan Puts Embargo On Nicaragua To Mend Their Ways”, Chicago Times, 2nd May, 1985

[14] Congressional Committee Investigating Iran Contra, “The Iran-Contra Report”, November 18, 1987.

[15]The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations”, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 2