Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba – a “Troika of Tyranny”?

By Gil Callaway

President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton recently applied this label to these three countries, while asserting that “it’s our hemisphere”.

As a U.S. diplomat for more than 30 years, I had the opportunity to serve in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and to closely follow events in Cuba.

The following observations on these countries are strictly my own and, despite not having been in any of the three since the mid-1980s, they reflect my continuing interest in Latin America.

Fifty years ago I was in Venezuela on my first diplomatic assignment as a young Foreign Service Officer; thirty five years ago I was a senior diplomat in our embassy in Managua; and during my tour in Nicaragua I made my only visit to Cuba.

Venezuela in the late 1960s was thriving economically and politically. Creole Petroleum (now Exxon-Mobil) was pumping petro-dollars into the country and the presidency passed peacefully from one political party to a rival in a free and fair election. A small, largely ignored, group of Cuban-backed rebels posed little threat to the emerging democracy.

My job in Venezuela was called “Youth Affairs Officer” and I established contacts with politically active students ranging from right to left. Some of the conclusions drawn in my 1963 Master’s thesis about young political activists in Latin America were brought to mind during my Foreign Service assignments in both Venezuela and Nicaragua. Venezuela, which in 2019 appears to approaching Nicaragua in economic straits, was a completely different country when I visited as a student in 1962 and was assigned to our embassy in 1966. As noted above, while relatively prosperous, there were still wide gaps between the “haves and have nots.” As I think about those days, I’m reminded of a motorcycle trip by an affluent Argentine youth throughout the continent who, observing such sites as the ramshackle “ranchitos” in Caracas, evolved into the revolutionary “Che” Guevara, still a god for many leftists everywhere. Perhaps such observations motivated many of activist students in Venezuela to lean left, to call themselves socialists or Marxists. They didn’t necessarily see the Soviet Union (USSR) as an ideal model (especially after the Soviet suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968), but some waxed enthusiastic about their studies in Moscow or Budapest.  They saw the United States as dominating the Venezuela economy and working against, or indifferent to, the interests of the “masses”. My interactions with the anti-U.S. leftists led me to request a posting to a Communist country to provide me first-hand experience in rebutting claims of the superiority of Marxist socialist regimes over Western capitalism.

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The poster of “Honor al Che” was plastered on the walls of the Central University by one of the more radical youth groups, MIR (Revolutionary Leftist Movement).

Despite these attitudes, I was proud to have established relations (I hesitate to say friendships) across the political spectrum and even managed to convince a group of rival youth leaders to accept a U.S. government-sponsored three-week tour of the United States.

The question of how and why Venezuela finds itself today linked to Nicaragua (and Cuba), despite the very different histories of these countries, prompts many responses but more questions. One key is democratic leaders lapsing into self-indulgent corruption, failing to apply the benefits of natural resources (after a peaceful nationalization of petroleum companies) to the needs of the people, and setting the stage for a charismatic populist promising fundamental reforms and repeating Bolivar’s quote that the United States is “destined to plague America with misery on behalf of freedom.”

Anticipating a next assignment in Moscow, I was instead sent to Zagreb, Croatia, then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. As I was to learn a few years later in Moscow, and Stalin had learned after World War II, Tito’s Communism was not what the Soviets had in mind for their “satellites”.  After my tour in Yugoslavia (where I saw Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks generally working together – an illusion destroyed in the 1990s as the country disintegrated into civil war), I was first assigned to Washington as Yugoslav desk officer, and then to Moscow as our embassy’s Press Attache/Information Officer. Two years in Brezhnev’s USSR only enhanced my respect for Tito’s brand of Communism in Yugoslavia.  Tito’s concept (only partially successful economically and politically) was to allow limited private ownership of small farms and businesses, alongside large agricultural collectives and inefficient state-run enterprises in such industries as steel. We were also able to travel relatively freely in Yugoslavia, unlike the strict travel restrictions imposed on foreign diplomats in the USSR. (When the Sandinistas confiscated some Somoza and other properties, and restricted travel in certain areas, their opponents were free to label them “Communists.”

As a reward for the “hardship” of the USSR, my next assignment was a year of graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Center in Bologna, Italy, where I wrote a study analyzing the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to influence the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). My argument was that U.S. policy toward the PCI was fundamentally influenced by our relations with the USSR. When Cold War tensions eased a bit, the U.S. government became less critical of the PCI (much like our current accusations of Russian/Cuban involvement in Venezuela and Nicaragua now that US-Russian relations are turning sour). After Bologna I was assigned to Rome as Press Attache/Information Officer, with the same title but little resemblance to the job I held in Moscow.

After four years in Rome came the unwelcome news of my next title: Counselor for Public Affairs at our embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. Vainly arguing that I was not in agreement with the Reagan Administration’s policy toward that country, I was told that the combination of my Latin American and Soviet experiences made me the ideal candidate – so “suck it up.”

Nicaragua in the mid 1980s was engaged in a violent struggle between the newly triumphant Cuban-backed Sandinistas and the US-backed “Contras” seeking a counter revolution. Although I had been in Managua as a student in 1962, and knew there had been a disastrous earthquake in 1972, I was not prepared for the sight I witnessed upon arriving in 1982. Block after block of devastation reminding me of walking the streets of ancient Pompeii.  

My two years in Nicaragua were an eye-opener on how countries and their leaders can create their own distorted images of “others.” President Reagan was convinced that the Sandinistas posed a military threat to the US and he eventually authorized military support for groups of “Contras” dedicated to overthrowing the Sandinista regime. Hard-line Sandinistas were convinced that the United States was implacable in opposing their regime and they turned to Cuba for military and economic support.

Like Bolton’s recent reference to “our hemisphere,” the Monroe Doctrine was certainly alive during the Reagan Administration, as were the President’s views on the “evil empire” of the USSR. A few examples of the paranoia on both sides would have to include the refusal of former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to come to Nicaragua because she feared she would be assassinated, the President’s statement that the Sandinistas were “just two days’ driving time from Texas,” or Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams (currently a special envoy for Venezuela) calling the Sandinista regime “a Soviet government armed to the teeth.”  

The Sandinistas could also be irrational in their fears and actions, such as their harassment of the Nicaraguan employees of our embassy, their belief that after the U.S. intervention in Grenada in 1983 they would be the next victim, and the orchestrated interruption of the mass during the Pope’s 1983 visit. Their assumption was that Nicaraguans working for the U.S. government meant betraying the revolution; that after years (1910s – 1930s) of a U.S. military presence in the country the United States might well return to overthrow a regime which was named after a rebel leader (Sandino) who fought against U.S. Marines; and that asking the Pope to intervene against the U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary “Contras” was a justifiable tactic. The arguments against their assumptions included the fact that no Nicaraguans in our embassy had access to any sensitive information; our ambassador was able to persuade one of the Comandantes that calling off a potentially violent demonstration at the embassy after Grenada would lessen prospects of direct U.S. intervention; and that challenging the Pope in a deeply Catholic country was a grave mistake. While true that “liberation theology” was much in evidence in the country, most of the populace followed the conservative Archbishop (later Cardinal) Miguel Obando y Bravo.

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“No to Intervention in Central America” showing USA helicopters dropping bombs on Nicaraguan villages.

Many in the US Embassy in Managua attempted to convince both sides that the situation was more grey than black or white. We advocated moderation on both sides. The Sandinistas were divided, as any nine-member group trying to run a country would be. For example, there was censorship of the opposition media, but it was allowed to exist, and I was even able to convince the Sandinista media to interview US officials (without redactions).  The Sandinistas were indeed propagandizing the educational system, but we also managed to convince some lower level officials in the Ministry of Education (as well as a close confidant of President Daniel Ortega with whom I met regularly) to support the reestablishment of a Fulbright exchange program. Regrettably, higher levels in both the United States and Nicaragua refused to see the mutual advantages in such exchanges.

The inability to see shades of grey in Sandinista Nicaragua was evident among many in the constant flow of visitors. We briefed presidential study commissions, cabinet officials, congressional delegations, religious groups, journalists, etc. Some were serious in trying to assess a controversial regime but many, in my cynical view, fell into two categories: the “IWTs” or “I Was There” and now know the truth; and the “ITTs” or “I Told Them” how they should behave. Probably the most difficult were the pro-Sandinista religious groups who routinely told embassy officers that we were going to hell. Our attempt at a measured response was to suggest that they go home and exercise their right to vote, something the Sandinistas were still debating.

Cuba in the mid-1980s, whose revolution against Batista preceded Nicaragua’s revolution against the Somoza dictatorship by some 20 years, was interested in fostering another anti-American Marxist regime in the area. Citing my previous Foreign Service assignments, I was able to convince US and Nicaraguan (and Cuban) officials to allow me to visit Cuba in 1983.  I think the US wanted confirmation that Nicaragua was well along the road to Castroism if not Leninism, while the Sandinistas hoped I would confirm the uniqueness of their regime. The report I produced was, as indicated above, a shade of grey and probably not satisfactory to either government. The Cuba I visited more than 20 years after the overthrow of Batista did not approach the repression I witnessed in the USSR, and the Sandinistas were far behind the Cubans in imposing their ideology.

Subsequent events over the years have deepened my conviction that Cuba also deserves a measure of grey. Shortly after my visit, which to my knowledge was without problems, I was alerted to a Cuban government TV program with a video clip of my arrival in Havana with the caption “Another CIA spy arrives!” Then after my retirement from the Foreign Service I was asked to work on a State Department study on the future of US-Cuban relations during the George W. Bush administration. After submitting my initial draft stating that in my opinion the US would probably have to reconcile ourselves to dealing with the Castros, my services were no longer needed. Even more recently in U.S.-Cuban relations is the issue of intensive sound waves supposedly aimed at American (and other) diplomats in Havana. I am reminded of the issue in Moscow in the 1970s of Soviet microwaves aimed at our embassy building. My immediate suspicion (with no proof) was that some Russians were not interested in seeing improved US-Cuban relations and persuaded some hard-line anti-US Cubans to harass the US mission. Who knows?

The fact that in the 1980s Nicaragua was seeking advice and arms from Cuba was disturbing, but I felt there were still opportunities for the United States to influence the evolution of the Sandinistas, aside from the pressure of the “Contras.” As the military situation worsened, the Sandinistas finally agreed to hold freely observed elections. Both Americans and Nicaraguans believed the Sandinistas would win, but expectations were upset when a united opposition won in 1990. The new president, the widow of a journalist assassinated under Somoza, was clearly opposed to the Sandinistas but also against the violence of the “Contras”. Unfortunately, after winning the election the opposition splintered and failed to deliver on many promises of a better future for the country. After steadily working, both overtly and covertly, to gain control of the legislature, former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega was reelected in 2006.

Again unfortunately, in my estimation Ortega has morphed from a revolutionary guerrilla to a corrupt authoritarian who connived to have his wife elected Vice President. The unfortunate citizens of Nicaragua are once again seeking change while the current US Administration is once again linking Nicaragua to Cuba, and now to Venezuela as well. The leaders of the countries are labeled the “three stooges of socialism”. Clearly, neither Ortega, Maduro or the successor to the Castro brothers, Diaz-Canel, are serving the best interests of their citizens. All three are employing anti-American rhetoric to rally their supporters, just as Trump, Pompeo and Bolton are trying to frighten the American public and win support for regime change in this so-called “triangle of tyrrany.”

Under the previous U.S. Administration efforts were made to fashion a more nuanced policy toward Latin America, as I had argued in my rejected draft on the future of U.S.-Cuban relations. Now U.S. governmentefforts again seem to be focused on erasing the grey, lumping all three countries in the darkest tones. Soft power and diplomacy seem subordinated to increasingly hostile pronouncements and simplistic slogans from all sides.

 

Gil Callaway is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who does occasional contract work with USAID, volunteers with an international educational exchange organization, and is a Research Guidance Volunteer at the Library of Congress.