Nicaragua’s Foreign Policy: Ten Years of Principles and Practice
An interview with Alejandro Bendaña, a member of Nicaragua's diplomatic team since the revolutionary triumph, serving first as interim representative to the United Nations and currently as political secretary of Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry.
envío: What has been the driving force of Nicaragua's foreign policy during these ten years?
Alejandro Bendaña: I don't think you can separate a nation's foreign policy from its domestic policy. In part that's because in this century people themselves are part of politics more than ever before, and because the communications revolution has made diplomacy more public and less private. But it's also because as democratization advances, the people's aspirations have to be reflected in foreign policy. Nicaragua struggled for genuine self-determination, an independence that was indispensable to achieving the structural changes demanded by the people. There can be no democracy without self-determination, independence, sovereignty; there are no democratic colonies.
Certain domestic sectors didn’t understand that we were waging a war not just against Somoza, but against the system of dependence he promoted. Of course, independence is not an end in itself; it's a means to achieve a social goal in a free and sovereign way. From the beginning, we knew that getting rid of Somoza and Somocismo would bring us into conflict with the United States and its Monroe Doctrine, which doesn't allow independence, especially in Central America.
How can a small country defend its independence against a superpower? We had to present our case in the international arena in the broadest terms—the principle of self-determination, the inherent rights of peoples recognized in the United Nations Charter and in international law. Obviously, we weren't going to be so provincial as to think that, having fought for these ideals, we would not then have to defend them at the international level. We would have to look to the nonaligned countries and other Latin American countries, joining the chorus of those who, for many years, have called for respect for people's rights and were at our side during the war of liberation. As the constituted government, we were able to use the mechanisms and international organizations that in most cases are committed to the defense of state sovereignty. Our foreign policy makes use of these resources to build the broadest possible anti-interventionist and international front, encouraging people to appeal to their governments, but also appealing to governments themselves to respect Nicaraguans' right to freely choose their social, economic and political system. We build on and organize the great international sympathy that exists for the Nicaraguan people.
Reagan Was Our Best Allyenvío: In these ten years, have there been defined stages in foreign policy?
Bendaña: The stages were imposed on us. We had to find new ways to struggle, new nonviolent instruments to defend Nicaragua's sovereignty. The stages are marked by the changes in the degree and kind of US actions to subvert, destabilize and put an end to the Nicaraguan revolution. The revolution continually had to develop new, more powerful strategies. I think one decisive stage was in mid-1982, when we could no longer doubt the Reagan Administration's objectives. We were seeing on the ground the results of the November 1981 decision to give the CIA millions of dollars to develop a mercenary army. The mercenaries were already carrying out criminal attacks against our people and economic resources from Honduran territory.
Then with the invasion of Grenada in October 1983, we realized that the administration neither feared nor hesitated to carry out a direct invasion. In this sense, our best diplomatic ally was always Ronald Reagan, because his obsessive attacks on Nicaragua flagrantly violated international law as well as domestic laws in the United States. He tried to convince an incredulous US public that mercenary violence, terrorism, mining of harbors, publishing manuals on terrorist tactics, involvement in drug trade to sustain the counterrevolutionary war and trade and credit embargos were all justifiable. In the face of these extremes our response was simple: we appealed to peoples and governments, to common sense, to the law, to decency and morality, and asked if this violence used by the strongest power in this hemisphere against such a tiny country could be justified. We asked if this abuse of international law could be acceptable to the community of civilized nations, if the use of terrorism as a political instrument could be tolerated.
We discovered that when asked if the US policy toward Nicaragua was legal, usually conservative bodies such as the International Court of Justice had to admit that it was not. When we went before the US public and asked if the differences between Nicaragua and the United States should be resolved with the deaths of Nicaraguan children, they said no. The North American people, the peoples of the world, have a conscience. And eventually this conscience influences governments, even the US government.
This stage of the war was tremendously difficult and costly, but finally other governments realized that the Reagan Administration was the extremist and we Nicaraguans were the moderates. We, the revolutionaries, were making the call to respect law and order, and the conservative Ronald Reagan was the one trying to violate established norms to achieve his extremist goals. This international consciousness—we mustn't fool ourselves—was inspired by the Nicaraguan people's willingness to take up arms and endure bloodshed and sacrifice. If we hadn't been able to demonstrate our decision to defend our independence to the bitter end on the battlefield, it would have been very difficult to build the massive organized movements in support of Nicaragua, difficult for people to go out in the streets to defend us. Every time Mr. Reagan went to Western Europe, someone reminded him of Nicaragua. And if it wasn't in the streets with FSLN flags, it was in government offices. That's why, now that Reagan's gone, we're entering a new diplomatic era.
It is now universally recognized that Reagan's militaristic policy fell apart. The methods Reagan employed will never be successful against Nicaragua. We hope that with the Nicaraguan experience or the Vietnamese experience, the new US administration will decide that these terrorist methods are counterproductive, even to its own interests. But it doesn't see that yet. The Bush Administration is looking for new methods, but with the same old goal of getting rid of the Sandinista government. The methods may even be more dangerous because they are more intelligent than Reagan's. The first thing they've done is precisely to lower the intensity, in public terms, of their interventionist policy. Our diplomatic strategy with Reagan consisted of taking advantage of the war's high profile to publicize the facts of the war. But Americans also learn from their experiences and in this stage they'll limit public discussion both in Congress and internationally. There's a correlation between the CIA's ability to carry out indiscriminate operations and the level of knowledge that the US public and the international community have about these operations. The more they know, the less the CIA can do.
In the current context, it might be more difficult to publicize the war. Many believe that with Bush in power and with the bipartisan accord [on contra aid signed March 24 between the Bush Administration and Congress], the war has ended and the normalization of relations is inevitable. It would be wonderful if that were true, but it isn't. The goals don't change. It’s better at least that Bush has to carry Reagan's legacy, and nobody now believes that the United States is simply an impartial observer of events in Nicaragua and Central America. It never has been and never will be.
The nonaligned: Our natural allies envío: What does it mean for Nicaragua that the principle of nonalignment is now part of the Constitution of the Republic?
Bendaña: Forty days after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua joined the nonaligned countries in the September 1979 Congress held in Havana, Cuba. It was the first time in Latin American history that the movement met in Cuba. We find our natural allies in the Nonaligned Movement—a coalition of almost 90 countries that can join with the Nicaraguan proposition of defending small countries against large ones. We saw that the movement held the same principles we had fought for: peoples' self-determination and the defense of independence and sovereignty. We had to put forward these demands, derived from our being revolutionaries, not only in the national order but also in the international order.
And in the international arena, these principles are not radical. We saw the overall economic and political limitations that exist for any small independent country seeking liberation and respect for human rights in all their dimensions. So we stressed the need for a new international economic order, a new international political order, so that when the people come to power, even if they're from small nations, they can carry out their social transformations free from foreign intervention.
The Nonaligned Movement embraces these aspirations and demands change collectively, primarily through law, through UN resolutions. Bit by bit this collective force can play a role in the formation of a new international political and economic order, which at the same time permits small countries to be independent and promotes social change.
Our revolution was never isolated. This independent nation joined a concert of independent nations, and to the degree that there was aggression, interference or intervention against
Nicaragua, it was also an attack against the movement.
The movement's warm welcome to the new Nicaraguan nation was the first greeting the international community gave us and this recognition has helped keep us going. And I'm not talking about lip service given every few years when heads of state meet, but rather a promise to generate a moral force, a diplomatic force in defense of the Nicaraguan project, continually asserted in the UN and other multilateral organizations. Through the Nonaligned Movement, we were able to begin isolating the United States in multilateral organizations, assured that we were not alone. We were able to win a seat on the Security Council, as well as in other organizations. We did this in organizations where democracy rules, not at the IMF, the Inter-american Bank and the World Bank. In those organizations, where we had some room to maneuver, we made sure that Nicaragua's rights were respected and that the political cost of any interventionist adventure would be very high.
In other words, the Nonaligned Movement was an important part of our defense and our image as a country. With time, we earned moral stature that allowed us in 1988 to propose Nicaragua as the next president of the movement.
envío: Is Nicaragua's vote in the UN an example of nonalignment? Are there times when Nicaragua votes differently from the Soviet Union? How did Nicaragua vote on the Afghanistan conflict?
Bendaña: One has to remember that in the last 15 years the Nonaligned Movement has managed to put together a large coalition of nations that defend certain perspectives on all ecological, social, economic and political issues in the world. They are progressive perspectives that slowly but surely have acquired a semi-legal status, primarily in the United Nations. It is in the UN that we, the nonaligned countries, put forward resolutions before the other groups of countries, before the socialist and the Western countries, and invite them to accept our positions.
The socialist bloc, in general, doesn't have problems accepting the nonaligned positions. But the Western bloc, especially the United States and its closest allies, has an almost perfect record of opposing any nonaligned initiative: North-South dialogue, arms reduction, dialogue about the debt, South Africa, the Middle East, Central America... In other words, in the United Nations there is a North-South division and the socialists tend to side with the South. So it isn't that Nicaragua agrees to socialist bloc initiatives. Nicaragua sides with and is part of the nonaligned perspective, which the socialist countries share, although not totally.
In the case of Afghanistan, which has been one of the most difficult for the Nonaligned Movement, the movement divided, because it is also heterogeneous and can have common positions but also contradictory interests. Within the Third World, there are regimes that represent the exploiters and others that represent the exploited.
For Nicaragua's part, Afghanistan meant we were faced very early on with one of our most important decisions. It was between Christmas 1979 and New Years and we only had six months' experience in foreign policy. There was furious debate within the movement about the legality or illegality of the Soviet intervention—the famous battle over whether the Afghan government had invited the Soviet contingent using its sovereign rights, or the Soviet contingent had invited itself and displaced the government. Our own decision took a series of factors into account, but one thing happened that I think strongly influenced us. At that same time, a delegation of US congresspeople came to Nicaragua. Congress was then debating a $75 million loan package to Nicaragua. One congressperson, in the name of the administration, told our young revolutionary government that approval of the package depended on our condemning the Soviet Union. What more did we need? Right there, Father Miguel D'Escoto, [Nicaragua's Foreign Minister], told them in barely diplomatic terms what they could do with their $75 million, that the era of subordination was over in this country and if we had fought for anything it was to not to sell our decisions for a plate of beans.
I think that contributed to Nicaragua's decision to abstain on the resolution condemning the Soviet Union more than anything. Some voted against it, but our position was to abstain. We explained that we condemned all forms of intervention and that in Afghanistan there had been intervention, not just from one side or in one form. It was no secret that the CIA, using Pakistan, had been forming an armed movement in Afghanistan itself. This movement of US military units near the region and the threats to other countries in this area of the world should also have been condemned. So we proposed—although few listened to us—that there be a resolution calling for respect for Afghanistan’s nonaligned position and condemning all forms of intervention. Along with India and Zimbabwe, we rejected pressure to base our stance on an East-West framework, and insisted on defending nonaligned principles.
envío: Has the Nicaraguan conflict managed to escape the East-West framework by taking the nonaligned stance?
Bendaña: The ultimate goal of nonalignment is to move beyond the East-West framework. A fundamental aim of the movement is to keep the East-West conflict from transferring to the Third World. We try to ensure that a conflict between a movement country and a developed nation, which is usually the United States, be interpreted as a North-South confrontation rather than an East-West conflict. We try to show that demands for independence and sovereignty, an end to colonialism and dependence are not directed from Moscow, Peking or Havana, that this struggle stems from the common desires of the people, especially the peoples exploited by the great colonizing nations. In Latin America, the exploiting nation is the United States. In the UN and other forums, the Nonaligned Movement has consistently maintained that the Central American conflict is not part of the East-West struggle. It must be seen as a consequence, first of the profound injustices in the regional economic and social order and second of US intervention. The convulsions in Central America are not explained by some Soviet desire to establish beachheads, swallow up Central America, move on to Mexico and swallow Texas whole.
To what degree have we been successful? I think the nonaligned countries paved the way for Contadora.* Even Esquipulas accepted our idea that the conflict not be looked at in East-West terms, that there be an end to all foreign military presence in the Central American region and that each country in the region be allowed to solve its own problems without foreign intervention.
*The attempt by Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, known as the Contadora countries, and later supported by Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay, to negotiate a peace treaty acceptable to all the Central American countries and the United States.
Bit by bit the Latin American countries have adopted these nonaligned positions, and even the Central Americans now support them, if only nominally. All of this is reflected in the United Nations in resolution after resolution over the last ten years. The process is culminating, we could say, with perestroika. There has been a change of view about the Soviet Union even in the United States; even the most recalcitrant sectors there are now asking if the Soviets really have imperialist ambitions in Central America. With this change in vision, even the Right in the US is jumping on the bandwagon of the process that began ten years ago in Havana. Today we can even call the Soviets nonaligned.
envío: How do you judge the revolutionary government's early anti-imperialist rhetoric in retrospect? Do you chalk it up as an error? Did it provide an excuse for the US anti-Sandinista policy?
Bendaña: We have to look at it. But to ask the Sandinista revolution not to express its achievements, its joys, its triumph, would be like telling a newborn child not to cry. We repeated it until the US couldn't take it anymore: we had the international right to be as loud and strident as we wanted because we had been repressed for 140 years. We defended our own perspective and that of the Nonaligned Movement in the United Nations in the clearest, most categorical terms. We were proud of our independence and didn't hide it.
The Sandinistas have always spoken frankly and our foreign policy has no reason to be obscure or ambiguous. Sometimes we're asked why the rhetoric, why the dissonant notes. We respond that raising the tone of our presentation and our diplomatic image was an essential part of our defense. To cry out becomes the logical mode of defense when a country with a long history of aggressions looks threateningly at a recently triumphant country. If in the end no direct invasion took place, the fact that we raised our tone had something to do with it. It would have been worse to keep quiet and wait unprepared until the threat passed. History has proven that this type of defense—going to the United Nations, to international forms, to the International Court of Justice—was absolutely correct, because we now know that the US took this into account when deciding whether to invade Nicaragua, particularly in 1983, in the months following the Grenada invasion.
The last thing we wanted to do was talk like Honduras in the international forums. The discourse of a country under attack can't be the same as one whose only objective is not to offend anyone. We have no other option. And let's not confuse the issue: what most worried and offended the United States was not the tone but the content, because our positions were always based in law and the ideas were very reasonable, even conservative. What we put forward at the international level is that there be law and order, that the laws established in the UN Charter and international law be respected. All of Reagan's talents as "the great communicator" were to no avail before the arguments of tiny Nicaragua.
Contadora and Esquipulas A triumph for Nicaraguaenvío: Moderate allies of the FSLN and of the revolution say that Nicaragua paid a heavy price for its initial support of the Salvadoran revolution, when it seemed that the triumph in El Salvador was imminent. On the other hand, some Sandinistas think Nicaragua hasn't given enough revolutionary support for the Salvadoran and Guatemalan movements, and that it has hurt Nicaragua's efforts to defend the revolution...
Bendaña: My opinion is that the most important contribution Nicaragua can make to the triumph of democratic, progressive and popular causes in our region is to assure the survival of the Sandinista revolution.
A Nicaragua destroyed, a Nicaragua with military intervention, would be a 20-year setback in the history of people's liberation. The democratic forces of the world are interested in Nicaragua's survival not only on principle, but now also to strengthen their own international cause. No one today can deny that the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution signaled a strategic advance for the progressive forces of our region, and the fact that the revolution is now ten years old is enormously significant for those who are fighting for liberation. If the United States couldn't overcome a small, poor, semi-destroyed country, then who can they beat? If a small country could put up a fight with dignity, could assure its independence, then other peoples can do it as well. They may even be in a better position than we were to do it. Our own principles led us to express our diplomatic, political and moral support for the Salvadoran people's cause. We did this in the Nonaligned Movement and in the United Nations.
envío: Does this mean then that Nicaragua has not played the traditional international game of national interest and balances of power, but rather that Nicaragua's revolutionary character has profoundly influenced its foreign policy? Does the appeal to international law provide a new alternative for poor countries?
Bendaña: Nicaragua's contribution to the field of international relations is to have shown that international law can be used by revolutionary countries. It isn't that other revolutions ignore the law, but as democracy advances, that is, as independence grows, it's easier to appeal successfully to international organizations. That would have been very difficult 20 to 25 years ago; if the Sandinista revolution had taken place 25 years ago, I think we would have been as isolated in the region as Cuba was.
But in the eighties this couldn’t be done to Nicaragua, in part because of our appeals to international law but also because the United States is less able to manipulate those organizations. The UN of the eighties is not the UN of the fifties, and the OAS, which had a majority of pro-US countries in the 1960s, is very different today. Under these new conditions, we appealed to the International Court of Justice, an eminently conservative institution viewed with distrust by many third world and socialist countries. Many of them told us it was dangerous to appeal to the Court, that the war against us could even be "legitimized" if it didn't agree to try the case. Even so, we took our chances with international law, on the principle of people's self-determination and non-intervention. We weren't talking about some theory, but rather about legal obligations freely agreed to by the United States. These laws favor people in struggle and, although the United States doesn't always respect them, the least we can do is demand that respect. During the Reagan years, there was a dangerous tendency to be resigned to the violation of international law by the powerful.
We tried to rally as many forces as possible around the cause of non-intervention, taking as our banner the laws that the US and other governments are obliged to respect. We didn't say: "Come here and defend the Sandinista cause." What we argued was: "Help us make sure that the UN Charter is respected in Nicaragua and Central America and that the UN and OAS mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution are used." Today it's Nicaragua, but tomorrow another nation could need protection and solidarity.
envío: What did Contadora signify in this context? Can we call it a partial realization of Bolivar's dream for a unified Latin America? Or has it been destroyed by the current crisis in Latin America? Is anything permanent left of Contadora?
Bendaña: Contadora represented the first collective Latin American attempt to prevent direct US intervention and the specter of a regional war. It has its precedents in Torrijos’ defense of the Panama Canal and in the Latin American reaction to US actions in the Malvinas crisis.* The eight Contadora and Support Group nations reached their finest moment when their foreign ministers traveled to Washington to ask Schultz to respect their position on non-intervention and not supporting the contras. On more than one occasion, Contadora would present a proposed regional accord and Nicaragua would support it, but the United States' friends in Central America would not.
*Panamanian head of state General Omar Torrijos took a strong nationalist stand in renegotiating the Panama Canal treaties with the Carter Administration in 1977. The US backed Britain in its 1982 war with Argentina over control of the Malvinas (Falkland) islands.
Some people interpreted this as a defeat for Contadora. I think it was the opposite. The presentation of its draft treaty and its proposals to Washington were the actions of a new Latin America defending regional interests, with a new definition of regional security. As they said themselves, US policy in the region, and Nicaragua in particular, affected the security of each country. No Contadora ministers were oblivious to the fact that direct US intervention would immediately produce social unrest in their own countries.
There is now a new understanding of security, which became defined in economic as well as political terms with the Cartagena Consensus [in which 13 Latin American countries discussed the foreign debt for the first time in the mid-1980s]. Collective action to defend this regional security has become indispensable. We believe that Contadora helped prevent massive military intervention against Nicaragua between 1983 and 1987. It didn't stop the contra war, it didn't stop US interference, but it did prevent a general Central American war that almost broke out on more than one occasion because of contra operations from Honduran territory.
The second great achievement of Contadora is to have given rise to Esquipulas. Esquipulas would not have emerged, no Arias Plan would have been listened to, had there not first been Contadora. Esquipulas is the culmination, because Contadora was designed to allow Central Americans to dialogue and negotiate among themselves. Once this happened, Contadora could step aside. But neither Contadora nor Esquipulas were able to defuse the tension between the United States and Nicaragua. The reality is that Washington has rarely listened to even Latin American opinion.
envío: With Esquipulas, didn't Nicaragua fall into a trap by signing accords that in the end would be applied only to Nicaragua? Hasn't Esquipulas been a setback from the emphases Nicaragua insisted upon in Contadora?
Bendaña: Not necessarily. In the first place, there is no contradiction, despite what the Nicaraguan and international Right say, between the Sandinista program and the concept of democratization outlined in Esquipulas. Maybe at first we were too influenced by the US rhetoric that had permeated the international political vocabulary. The United States says it fights for democracy, free elections, human rights. We reacted against these words, used hypocritically by the Reagan Administration and repeated by the right wing in our region, knowing perfectly well that they don't have the least interest in realizing these concepts in their own countries. Historically these terms have been used to justify intervention in our countries. They are a warning: when the United States says it’s coming to defend democracy in Central America, let the true democrats take cover!
But little by little, we seized the banner from the United States and the Right. In 1979 and 1980, Nicaragua signed all the treaties that Somoza had refused to sign regarding human rights protection. We also incorporated all these agreements into our own Constitution, just as they had been incorporated into our government program. We have now "flipped the tortilla," and today Nicaragua is the country calling for democracy, calling on all Central American countries to open their doors to human rights organizations. We defended this at the last Central American summit, in the foreign ministers' meetings, but it was defeated precisely by the "freedom fighters for democracy" in Central America. So one can't speak of Nicaragua making concessions in this context. We try to take the floor, and sometimes it's difficult. We try to confront the Reagan administration's allegations and neutralize them with a better explanation of our position and flexibility in the ways we achieve our goals. We're not afraid to define democracy in the Central American context; we're not afraid of international observers. No country in Latin America has allowed more visits from human rights organizations in the last ten years than Nicaragua.
In this country, you can't hide from anybody. Although we'd like to hide some things, we can't, because we live under an international magnifying glass and under US spy satellites, and journalists go wherever they want. That's how it should be. We welcome human rights groups because we can prove that this project is democratic—not only in terms of civil and political rights but also cultural, social and economic rights. We plan not only to demonstrate this in Nicaragua but also to insist that these rights be guaranteed throughout Central America, with international verification. That this is included in Esquipulas is essentially a Nicaraguan achievement. It wasn't an imposition on Nicaragua by the four "democracies," but rather an imposition by Nicaragua on the other four. Because when governments sign political agreements like Esquipulas, the people, the popular organizations, have a new instrument, what is called "Esquipulas of the People." They need to demand compliance not only of Nicaragua, since we're already complying. The people and the international organizations are obliged to carefully and impartially monitor the fulfillment of all signatory countries.
envío: What does President Ortega's absence at Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani's inauguration signify? Is it a sign that the peace process is foundering?
Bendaña: We think the peace process is irreversible. And though it may have been delayed, the road is still open. We can wait and demand that the Salvadoran government fulfill the commitments outlined in the Esquipulas framework. We can demand that it not allow itself to be used by the United States to block or try to kill the peace process. The Salvadoran problem is complex and we believe the Salvadoran people must solve it themselves. The revolutionaries' maturity and sense of responsibility evidenced in the last few years, not only in El Salvador but throughout Central America, has been impressive. The struggle continues but progressive forces know they have to try to advance with the least violence, the least loss of life possible. And this means, more than anything, exploring the possibilities of a negotiated solution. Of course, they can't be too optimistic with ARENA, a government made up of death-squad sponsors and nun-killers.
I think this has been another idea introduced by the Sandinista revolution to the other Central American countries. Without Esquipulas, it’s difficult to conceive of a Rubén Zamora or a Guillermo Ungo on the streets of San Salvador. Without Esquipulas, it's difficult to conceive even of intentions to dialogue with revolutionary forces. It also shows that we must internally and internationally isolate the reactionary and fascist forces that exist in all of our countries. We have to maintain the conviction that the justice and morality of progressive causes will win and will isolate the reactionary forces, now matter how hard the road is.
David prevails envío: What have been the most difficult obstacles for Nicaragua's foreign policy, and how have they been dealt with?
Bendaña: It's not been easy for a small country with increasingly limited resources to confront on the information, diplomatic and political plane the machinery of a country with hundreds of people placed throughout the world who, under direct orders of the President of the United States, are obeying his obsession to destroy our revolution. They waged a war against Nicaragua that was felt in capitals around the world through pressure, intimidation and blackmail.
Every time we went to any country, the US kept up its pressure, even in the Socialist countries. This is what we had to fight. Reagan himself, in his last days as President, said he couldn’t explain how the Sandinistas and their worldwide networks had deceived so many US people, congressional members, people around the world. If he only knew that only a handful of us was working in that type of informational outreach! I think there were 500 of them for every one of us, and they had at their disposal the most sophisticated technology available.
Despite all this, they couldn’t achieve their goals. We saw this in President Ortega's last trip to Europe. US allies in Europe didn't forget that the United States had always put Nicaragua high on its list of priorities in bilateral relations. Even so, Daniel spoke with Kohl, with Thatcher, with Martens, whose governments no one could accuse of being revolutionary. Yet the conversations were conducted with mutual respect and these US allies received Daniel Ortega as the legitimate President of Nicaragua.
We've been able to show the world that with few resources, few people, a limited number of embassies, we could do something. Clearly, diplomacy and image don't depend on embassies, a large foreign service or large budgets to influence the media. We've done it by opening our doors. People came here and returned to their countries to tell what they'd seen. We were sure that if they were honest, the positive would outweigh the negative. Our open-door policy was more successful and powerful than the whole US diplomatic effort.
We'd love to know how much the US government spent in the eight years of its obsessive propaganda campaign, which included breaking its own domestic laws. Although it tried to trigger a political crisis in Nicaragua, it ended up with a political crisis in Washington—the Iran-Contra scandal—which almost paralyzed the administration. The greatest limitation we had and will continue to have is lack of resources, but this didn't prevent us from publicizing Nicaragua's perspective. We've struggled and so have the Americans. We've waged the information battle within the United States itself. We've had to fight despite our limitations.
Certain domestic sectors and other Central American governments have imposed other limitations on us. Their positions were more understandable at first, because they thought it would be impossible for the Sandinista government to survive the US onslaught. They were sure the US would defeat us.
If the US was going to win, why should they bother to be flexible, to respect domestic or international laws? Why not lend out their territory to the contras? There were going to be 30,000 contras, and in six months they'd be marching in the streets of Managua. This was their hope, the administration promised it. Given their history and politics, they assumed that the Nicaraguan government would be defeated, because no government could confront the United States on our terms and survive. But they were wrong; these men backed a loser. Now we have to fight against another misunderstanding: US policy has been weakened in these ten years, but it is far from defeated. The US continues to try to demand this type of submission from our country, in our region.
Unfortunately there are sectors in Central America and in our country as well that don't realize that 1979 meant not just a change in government but the start of a new period in Nicaragua's history, in which all independent, nationalist and reasonable sectors, whatever their ideology, will have a place. Although the Central America of 1979 will never be reconstructed, a framework of coexistence and mutual respect can and should prevail among the Central American governments. We want them not to be afraid of us, because our goal is in the realm of ideas.
envío Although it wasn't Reagan's strategy, doesn't the intention to destroy us economically stem from the very structures of US foreign policy? In this sense, have we perhaps lost the battle?
Bendaña: The Reagan Administration proposed, among other things, to create an economic crisis in order to set off a political crisis. That was its big mistake. Where is the political collapse or the social unrest, such as happened in Venezuela or Argentina with conditions much less severe than in Nicaragua? They've imposed an economic crisis on us, they've forced us to sacrifice, but they continue committing the great historical error, which is to underestimate the Nicaraguan people's capacity. They said the people wouldn't be able to put up with the political, economic and military situation and they still don't understand why it failed. Instead of analyzing the failure, they say it was because there was no bipartisan consensus in the US. But the policy failed because it ran up against the iron will of Nicaraguans and their commitment to defend their own project, even though it has been and continues to be attacked militarily, and is now suffering the worst effects of the economic attack. They underestimate both the people's ability to put up with the measures necessary to their survival and the will of the international community to recognize Nicaragua's legitimacy and lend support.
envío: Is Nicaragua, as a government and a people, more respected and more influential among other nations than at the beginning, from 1979 to 1982?
Bendaña: Before 1979, when I gave talks about Nicaragua in the United States, I had to begin by explaining that Nicaragua isn't in Africa and is different from Nigeria. And there are still US high-school students who point to Kansas when asked to locate Central America on a map. But today there are no capitals where Nicaragua is not referred to, and no foreign ministries where the topic of Latin America does not include Nicaragua, from political as well as other perspectives.
So many times at foreign ministries around the world we've been told: "We have a Latin American section here, but the truth is that we spend 80% of the time dealing with you in Central America." For better or for worse, we've captured the world's attention. Nicaragua is a symbol around the world that continues to arouse envy and jealousy. So often people, especially Latin Americans, come up to Father D'Escoto after a talk and tell him: "We'd like to be able to say what you say, and with the same clarity, because everything you say is true. But we can't speak because of pressures."
This is universally recognized. We've been able to break certain democratic conventions precisely because of the strength, the capacity and the creativity inherent in this project and inspired in our diplomats by the people. And when we speak of Nicaragua's representatives, of our embassies, we're talking about two or three people in each one, the majority of them supported by solidarity and by their family.
Before Perestroika and Afterenvío: What was Nicaragua's foreign policy toward the socialist bloc before perestroika?
Bendaña: It was the fulfillment of our long-held desire to have relations with the socialist countries. The fact that Somoza had stamped in all our passports that travel to any country behind the so-called "iron curtain" was forbidden made us all the more eager to open diplomatic relations with them and establish friendly relationships. It was an expression of our sovereignty. Since July 19, 1979, Washington can no longer dictate which leaders can come to Nicaragua and who we can have diplomatic, political and even athletic exchanges with. For the majority of Nicaraguans this was their world—nations that weren't friends with the United States were unknown to them. But Nicaraguans are curious about international policy and they want to know all about the world. In addition, when we asked for aid, the socialist countries gave us unconditional cooperation.
Later, when the US created its mercenary army, the war began: the contras destroyed health centers and the socialists built them, the mercenary army killed teachers and the Cubans sent teachers. Nicaraguans didn't have to read Marx or Lenin to feel sympathy for these people who lent a hand. In the rural areas, the peasants knew perfectly well where the socialist countries stood. And it was the socialists who offered us arms to defend ourselves when the time came to use our force to repel the US assault, although France and Greece also helped us in the first stage.
Since then, the most important thing for Nicaragua was to have on hand the indispensable methods for defense and security. Our established political and diplomatic relations were broadened to military assistance and supply. With the embargo and lowered exports, we've had to strengthen our cooperative relations with the socialist countries. In many ways, Reagan himself was responsible for the qualitative leap in our relations with the socialists.
It was also a question of setting an example for Central America. We could demonstrate the benefits to the region of technological and commercial cooperation with the socialist countries.
Our economic imperative was to diversify our dependence, just as politically we wanted to diversify our international relations. We knew we couldn't be fully independent because we are a developing country, but we could diminish the degree of dependence on one power center. Insofar as we diversified our trade, our sources of financing and technology and our markets, there'd be less chance of any country demanding that Nicaragua take certain political stances or conditioning their assistance.
We've often been asked if the Soviets demand conditions in exchange for their support. The Western world finds it very hard to believe that a country giving economic aid would not demand political or ideological concessions. It's very difficult for them to believe that the socialist countries, out of self-respect and respect for the Nicaraguan revolution, don't make political demands. Maybe they don't make them because they were never colonizing countries, while the Western countries were.
envío: It's interesting that relations between Nicaragua and China have apparently been weak and poorly developed...
Bendaña: There was a problem at first with those relations. One point we insisted on was the right to have relations with any government we wanted to. In 1979, Nicaragua inherited relations with Nationalist China, with Taiwan. So, although we were interested in establishing full relations with the People's Republic of China, we realized we would have to break off relations with Taiwan as a prerequisite. Because we weren't listening to anyone's demands, the process was held up, although there were contacts, conversations and even some trade. Little by little the suspicions died down, contacts were strengthened and, after reflections and sovereign decisions, Nicaragua diplomatically recognized the People's Republic of China and had the first high-level exchange. Embassies were set up and since then we’ve had cordial relations. These relations could pass to very good if relations between China and Vietnam normalize. We also think it's very important that countries that identify with Nicaragua, that are proud of their revolutionary origins and conceptions, not be reluctant to condemn aggression against small revolutionary countries. They should call the aggressor by its name.
envío: How has perestroika, Gorbachev's new international thinking, affected third world countries ideologically and diplomatically?
Bendaña: Perestroika opens a new chapter in contemporary history. The supporters of the Cold War, those who led the West to a violently anti-communist policy, who maintained an anti-Soviet policy over the last 40 years, are being seriously questioned. This doesn't mean that perestroika will neutralize the inherently anti-revolutionary impulse of the world's center of capitalist power. The Cold War cannot disappear just through the willingness and initiative of one side. But new spaces are created to the degree that perestroika has encouraged a trend towards negotiated solution to regional conflicts and countered the image of "aggressive communism."
In the United States today you hear much less often the claim that the Soviets hope to create a beachhead in Nicaragua and from there subvert the rest of Central America. It's amazing—if you look at the polls in the United States, there's been a significant change in the popular perception of the Soviet Union and of Gorbachev in particular. If the US government can't convince its own people that the Soviet Union continues to be an ogre or the Evil Empire, it will have an even harder time convincing other governments or the Central American people. It's difficult to justify a US policy toward Nicaragua or any other third world country based on visceral anticommunism.
But we have to be careful. I don't think that perestroika necessarily leads, as some speculate, to all regional problems being negotiated between Washington and Moscow. Rather it should mean that both powers respect the solutions of a given region’s people and governments. In some cases they could act as guarantors of regional accords.
It would be premature to judge the impact of perestroika, what it will signify for the Central American conflicts, because the answer to that question lies in Washington. What should be asked is if perestroika will be able to significantly modify US policy in the region. We can judge whether it's been successful or not in having contributed to peace, to resolving conflicts and fostering social justice in the region. Whether the United States will accept the new rules of the game so rationally and brilliantly outlined by Gorbachev, we don't know. As long as it doesn't, we will unfortunately have to keep up the struggle.
The European Community and Japan:envío: What has been Western Europe's role in Nicaragua's foreign policy?
Counterweight to the United States
Bendaña: We've always considered Western Europe's role to be a counterweight to US pressure and influence in Central America. The Central American countries are small, weak, in need of foreign resources to overcome underdevelopment. Throughout our history, the United States has perpetuated and exploited this weakness to achieve its hegemonic interests in the region. That's why we believe Western Europe can contribute to Central America's independence and development by having a greater political and economic presence. We're not unaware that the European Community today offers a tremendous potential for Europe to contribute to this objective. And that is surely not ignored by the 12 European governments themselves when their foreign ministers meet with those of Central America. There have already been five meetings of this sort since 1984.
There are various reasons for Western Europe's more active relations with Central America—which, I must stress, have not yet reached the levels they could and should reach. In some cases, the countries and governments assumed stronger stances to save NATO's reputation, to be able to convince the United States that coexistence with the Nicaraguan model is possible, to make it see that, even strongly anti-Soviet governments could have respectful relations with the Nicaraguan government and collaborate economically with it.
This position was taken not only by the Scandinavian countries, which have been extraordinarily and consistently generous in their contribution to our independence and development, particularly Sweden, but also by other countries that saw no threat in Nicaragua's independence. Governments like that of France, the new Spanish government of Felipe González and others, tried to bolster the independence of Nicaragua and the other Central American countries to block the supposed penetration of the socialist world. In Europe they saw Central America as a social laboratory where Western interests should side with social change and not oppose it head on, militarily, like the United States was doing. They saw that nonalignment was for real and that the preservation of good relations between Western Europe and countries like Nicaragua, or revolutionary movements like the FMLN-FDR, was in the interests of the Central Americans and the Europeans themselves, as a way of undermining dictatorial and fascist regimes, the violators of human rights. It was a question of the imperatives, now not only moral but political as well, demanded by the Central American people themselves.
envío: Japan has not figured strongly in Nicaragua's foreign policy, or even in that of the rest of Central America, but its commercial presence in the area is very strong. How do you explain this?
Bendaña: Well, they explained to us that their relations with the United States are their priority and that their policy toward Latin America comes by way of Washington. I think gradually they'll become aware that political opportunities exist for nations that, like Japan, have acquired new economic power and have the opportunity to translate that into taking their own political stances and contributing to peace.
In this post-Reagan era, when the enormous and publicly visible pressures on US allies in Western Europe and Japan that largely conditioned their relations with Nicaragua, are apparently diminishing, we are hopeful that policies will change accordingly. We hope these governments take on a stronger role because, as we and other Latin Americans have said for many years, the Contadora and Esquipulas processes don't need more rhetorical support, they need material support. We need to ensure not just that the voices of Central Americans, of Latin Americans, are listened to in the capitals of US allies, but also that its allies make those voices heard in Washington itself, because the cry for peace and development exists, and peace and development are hardly unimportant to these countries' own political interests. What is at stake is building a world where differences can be settled peacefully. It is very serious that these principles are violated, but it’s more serious still when the international community doesn't lift its voice against these violations. Not doing so is to become an accomplice.
A Latin American stanceenvío: How would you characterize Nicaragua's pre-revolutionary foreign policy? What did Somocismo mean for the "backyard"? And looking towards the future, what will Nicaraguan diplomacy be in the midst of the current Latin American crisis?
Bendaña: We can never forget that we are a Central American country and that our desire is integration, not only because integration is the antithesis of the isolation the United States has tried to impose on us but also because we are part of a historical and cultural regional reality.
Nicaragua's foreign policy before 1979 was the foreign policy of the United States, a colonial policy—and without the United States having to tell Somoza what to do, since he was already doing it by instinct. He was the most faithful ally imaginable. Once the United States voted in the UN, all Nicaragua had to do was follow suit.
In the Central American context, Somoza aspired to be the US proconsul. He was a pawn; what the Shah was in Iran, Somoza was here. In my view, he represented a black period in Latin American history. Even when the Latin American countries were becoming slowly more independent, Central America remained the same, and even within Central America Nicaragua stood out.
The future of our foreign policy is to affirm our identity as Central and Latin Americans once again. The great challenge is to encourage an increasingly autonomous, independent Latin America, taking into account that independence doesn't mean being an enemy of the United States. There may be contradictions, as is inevitable between a rich and a poor country, since they do not understand each other. But we acknowledge that we're part of a community of American nations, and live in a region in which understanding must prevail. It's important to seek understanding with the United States, but not an understanding based on submission as Somoza did, because those are not relations of mutual respect. We insist on US respect for Latin American positions. An independent foreign policy is part of the democratization process taking place from one end of Latin America to the other. The common denominator is the defense of Self-determination, with ever greater emphasis on the economic factors that impede social rights and aspirations. Our strategic rearguard is Latin America because we didn't lose our Latin American identity with the revolution; we strengthened it. The US-Nicaragua contradictions are also US-Latin America contradictions. Nicaragua is simply one more voice in the chorus of developing nations demanding greater justice in their political and economic relations with the powerful.
Our debt to the people of Vietnam, the US and Nicaraguaenvío: What impact have people dedicated to Nicaragua's foreign policy had on forging this strategy, on directing it? The policy's human and moral aspect must also have had an influence...
Bendaña: Many times in these ten years people have commented on the extraordinary audacity, determination and creativity of Nicaragua's foreign policy. How can this be explained? I think it has a lot to do with the "mystique" factor, of being convinced that one is historically correct defending legal and, above all, moral principles. Our diplomats aren't professionals, they're expressing personal and collective convictions.
Ours is not simply one more discourse but rather often an appeal to the conscience of individuals and nations regarding the savage death and destruction unjustly imposed on us. There's a strong moral component to our diplomacy, and not only because our foreign minister is a priest. In large measure, all of us are religious. The emphasis we've put on morality in foreign policy is essentially Christianity and comes from the Christian component in the revolution itself. We aren't reticent to admit that we want peace.
Law and morality are the two themes we continually put forward. Some international observers say we've developed a sui generis combination of canon law and international law. In any case, all we've tried to do is logically follow a series of principles that can act as a guide, those that inspired the UN Charter and were summarized last century by Mexican reformer Benito Juárez: respect for another's rights is peace. Thus, we're not speaking of a radical postulate. It could only be radical in the context of a world that has stepped outside of legality and morality and needs a real shaking up. And I don't mean by that that we're trying to be the conscience of the international world, but we do have to reflect on what our own people tell to us with all the fervor and conviction, all the indignation and insistence they feel. The hardest thing has been to explain to our people that we have to turn to international instruments, international bodies, instead of direct reprisals.
envío: What has been your own path? What brought you to serve the revolution as political secretary of the Foreign Ministry?
Bendaña: In my case, I had the good fortune to have been born in Nicaragua in 1950, but it was also instructive to have been able to live in the United States in the 1960s and 70s and to identify with my generation there in the movement against the Vietnam War, to participate in the massive demonstrations in Washington that made Johnson and Nixon tremble and in the basic struggles that helped stop that dirty war. It was a generation that also learned what bullets and repression were, because they killed students in the universities and jailed thousands. All this awoke an anti-imperialist consciousness. We also saw that it was possible to force some shifts in the government's interventionist policies.
We're can't lose that faith in the North American people. We're convinced that it's imperative for North Americans to continue coming to Nicaragua, to continue feeling our reality from their own experience. It's important, too, for our people to know that North Americans don't want the war and feel no enmity toward the Nicaraguan people.
Some of us made an error in 1981 when we underestimated the Reagan Administration's aggressive capacity. If in that year we'd been told that our ports would be mined, a counterrevolutionary army would be formed, terrorist manuals would be published or an embargo would be declared, we wouldn't have believed it. We knew there'd be problems, contradictions, and that they would use a policy of destabilization against us, but the level of violence and savagery is almost unbelievable. Nonetheless, we were not wrong about the North American people, because throughout the eight years of this nightmare called Ronald Reagan not one single poll showed majority support for his interventionist policy. Occasionally people's firmness in the United States even had an impact on a somewhat vacillating Congress. And by 1987 it was clear that the Reagan Administration could not guarantee military assistance for his contras through Congress.
We owe a lot to the people of Vietnam, whose heroism affected the consciousness of the North American people; it helped awaken their understanding of what US military involvement in Central America could mean. And above all we owe much to the struggle of the Nicaraguan people themselves, because they managed to plant a question in people's minds in the United States: "Is Reagan lying to us?" And then later: "If Reagan is lying, it could be that the Sandinistas are telling the truth..." We've learned that what Lincoln said is true, that you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
We had friends everywhereenvío: Coming to understand the difference between the North American people and their government with respect to many foreign policy problems has been a long learning experience for Nicaraguans in these ten years of revolution. Was it for you as well?
Bendaña: Yes, and those years of the 1960s were an ideal time for my apprenticeship. I had Nicaraguan friends who died from Somoza's bullets and North American friends who got blown to bits in some swamp in Vietnam. I had to ask myself why they had died and who'd killed them. I remember a letter from a North American friend who said he realized he'd been fooled and that the war against the Vietnamese people was unjust and immoral.
The experience of Chile, Allende's election, also marked us. We believed it was possible for socialism to come to power without violence. Pinochet's brutality, and later, in particular, revelations about the decisive role the United States played in destroying that hope of Latin America, also helped forge our awareness. Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua... They all had common denominators and had to be the object not only of study but of practice.
In 1975 I decided to study the phenomenon of colonialism. When I explained to a professor that I wanted to study imperialism in Nicaragua he said to me: "Don't study it in your own country, because you can't be objective." Following his advice, I decided to research Argentina, which, with all its tremendous human and natural resources, was being rent apart by injustice, violence and instability. That's how I began to research the particularity of colonialism—in this case British and not American—in that country. A few months after I went to Argentina [in 1976] General Videla's coup occurred. Many of us Latin Americans were detained in that wave of violence. We quickly realized that not even those military roundups were unrelated to US policy. Nor was the warning I received not to return to Nicaragua.
The taking of Chema Castillo's house [by the FSLN in December 1974] shook up all the Nicaraguans abroad, because some of us had become pessimistic after the coup against Allende. We began to work in the United States, to speak with congresspeople, to denounce Somoza's corruption and villainy. After October 1977 [the first major attacks of the war and the introduction into the international scene of the group known as Los Doce] the solidarity movement grew, the first congressional hearings took place and we began to see that Somoza was on the defensive. The high point was in June 1979, on the eve of the triumph, when Carter sent his Secretary of State to the OAS to request intervention. Anti-intervention demonstrations were called in every city of any importance in the United States. To some degree, those demonstrations and sit-ins in offices contributed to stopping the military intervention that the Carter Administration was considering.
We were already packing our bags to return to Nicaragua. But we were naive to think that those of us who knew the United States and its language wouldn't be called on to represent the revolution abroad. And so it was, despite all our protests. They transferred me temporarily to New York to form part of the first Nicaraguan team in the United Nations. But that temporary transfer lasted nearly three years, until Victor Hugo Tinoco, our first ambassador to the United Nations, arrived.
I had to make Nicaragua's first official speech in the United Nations. It was on August 23, 1979, on Namibia day. We didn't even know how to make a speech. Of course we knew about Namibia, but we had to learn what the UN Council for Namibia was and all about protocol introductions. When I got through speaking the silence was deafening. First because what had been heard coming from Nicaragua's mouth up to that moment had evidently been very different. Also because in that speech we identified ourselves militantly with SWAPO and spoke of our commitment to struggle against all forms of the colonialism we had only recently escaped. Some diplomats from other countries said we had to be more "diplomatic" but that would have meant changing from being revolutionaries. All to the good that we haven't changed in these ten years, because we continue identifying with all the causes of oppressed peoples.
Getting into the United Nations was a rich experience for everyone. It was a labyrinth of commissions, of working groups, of writing, of learning how to put together resolutions, of traps that could be set for you, and we were all novices. Despite it all we managed to be one of the strongest and most active delegations. And why? Because we had support from all over. We discovered brothers in Africa, Asia and especially Latin America, all representing their countries in the United Nations.
Our friends were everywhere. A Latin American compañero who cleaned the building approached one of us and congratulated us: "Thanks for having represented us." We asked if he was Nicaraguan and he said: "No, I'm Bolivian, but it's the same thing; we feel represented by Nicaragua." These compañeros were incredibly brave because they heard information, knew what was happening in the salons even better than the delegates themselves, and they came and told us everything. At times we knew what the Americans were going to do even before the members of their own delegation did. We were just a handful, with no experience, no training, but we quickly picked up what we had to do. Similar experiences have occurred everywhere we were represented, in all the meetings we were supposed to attend. We could never have been prouder of being Nicaraguans, of the task of representing our people that had been entrusted to us.
Year after year, we were one of the best-informed delegations. Why? Because Nicaragua has friends all over the world. And that is a secret that permits small countries like ours to have an effective foreign policy. That solidarity permits David to prevail over Goliath.