La Prensa: Post-Mortem on a Suicide
US Congressional debate on the $100 million contra war appropriation was in full swing last April when Jaime Chamorro, editor of the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, publicly announced his backing for the US war drive.
In an opinion article published on April 3 in The Washington Post, Chamorro declared that "those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy have the right to ask for help wherever they can get it." Urging support for them, he continued, "Those who argue that to give aid to the Nicaraguan rebels would be a violation of the principle of a people's right to self-determination are mistaken [since] self-determination applies to peoples, not oppressive governments that do not legitimately represent the will of the people." [See box at the end of this article for Chamorro’s full statement.]
The article stunned many observers, for La Prensa's editors have usually avoided openly treasonous remarks, at least in public.* Foreign delegations have long tried to pin down La Prensa's editors, but they evaded direct questions about their allegiances with carefully phrased replies, subject to multiple interpretations. The article was thus a watershed in the long-running saga of La Prensa. The editors knew the article amounted to an acknowledgement by Chamorro that he was collaborating with an enemy power in time of war. Worse, the article was aimed at influencing the US Congress during a crucial period to vote the funds to attempt to overthrow his own country's government.
*After the US House of Representatives approved the $100 million, some officials at La Prensa contended that the newspaper had been opposed to the appropriation. La Prensa never made any effort to repudiate Jaime Chamorro's article, however, and The Washington Post made clear in its introduction that he was speaking as the newspaper's editor.
To no one's particular astonishment, the day after the House of Representatives voted the $100 million war appropriation, voiding such earlier pretenses as "humanitarian aid" to the contras, the Nicaraguan government called the Congressional vote an effective declaration of war, and announced La Prensa’s "suspension for an indefinite period." The move was a direct response to the vote in Washington: the government said the step was in accordance with contingency plans previously decided. It stated that if official Washington wanted La Prensa reopened, it could stop the war and reiterated that the state of emergency would be lifted the instant the foreign aggression ceased.
President Daniel Ortega remarked that his government was doing no more than any government would do in a major war, indeed far less, and cited US restrictions during World War II.
Why the suicide? La Prensa's owners have rejected a government offer, made by Ortega in Chicago on ust 2, to lift the suspension if they "adjust their behavior within the legal institutional framework and break their links with those who run and finance the war of aggression against the Nicaraguan nation."* Other right-opposition elements have welcomed the Chicago Proposal, and ordinarily it would not seem much to ask the political opposition to oppose foreign aggression. The question of what will ultimately become of La Prensa, however, begs another question: what made La Prensa commit suicide in the first place? Jaime Chamorro's decision to put his paper out of business by openly lobbying in Washington for funds for the contras may have been the inevitable conclusion of six years of rigid and increasingly implausible efforts to bring down the Sandinista government, but the paper did not knowingly start on a suicide course.
*Emphasizing its view of the suspension as temporary, the government has made no effort to seize or occupy any of the paper's facilities.
The problem was that La Prensa, from the time it was taken over by the far Right in 1980, never had a political project. One would expect an opposition newspaper in Nicaragua to oppose the Sandinistas. One would not expect it to devote so much of its energy to attacking right-opposition elements that showed any independence from the US Embassy. That was what La Prensa did, as we shall see. The only effect was to shatter the already divided opposition still further. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, they and their far-right allies in the Coordinadora group of parties never produced a program that could appeal to any significant part of the population; most of their allies among landowning and business sectors were only interested in recovering the social position they had had in the past.
"What these people don't understand is that the Middle Ages political system that the Spanish brought to Latin America is dead in Nicaragua, killed by the Sandinistas," says one center-right opposition leader who favors working within the system created by the Sandinista revolution. "This revolution was fought and won by a politically ambitious working class, peasantry and student population, and there’s no going back to the paternalism of the old days. The oligarchy hasn't figured out what to do about that, and La Prensa doesn't know either."
Waiting for the invasionThe lack of a realistic political project forced the far-Right to rely, for lack of anything better, on an early American intervention. As a result, La Prensa and its allies had no reason to accept a role as the opposition to a government that was likely to be around for a while. Instead, the paper devoted itself to preparing the terrain for the invasion.
The problem, all too obvious in retrospect, was that La Prensa and the rest of the Washington-linked opposition underestimated both the Sandinista Front and the grassroots commitment to the Sandinista revolution. They failed to understand the staying power of that commitment, having assumed that it would decline once the initial euphoria receded. They never dreamed it would grow. An article August 4 in The Washington Post uneasily informed its readers that this is exactly what is happening among Nicaragua's youth. The article quoted one US official in Central America as saying, "We waited too long" in trying to oust the Sandinistas from power.
When US authorities began to see that the ouster of the Sandinistas would not be as easy as was thought and advocates of long-term "low-intensity warfare" began to gain the upper hand in Pentagon thinking, the US-tied opposition in Managua was left hanging. Finally last April, when Washington officials were admitting that they were financing the defeated contra war because they didn’t know what else to do, La Prensa's editor published the suicidal piece in The Washington Post.
Three events, three campaignsThere have been three key events in La Prensa’s post-revolutionary history. The first came in early 1980, nine months after the revolutionary triumph over Somoza, when the majority of the paper’s owners forced out the editor and 80% of the staff and shifted the paper from an independent but pro-revolutionary line to a position on the far right of Nicaraguan politics. Then, in early 1982, "The Year of Unity in the Face of the Aggression," the government proclaimed a wartime state of emergency, including prior censorship of the press, to confront the rapidly expanding attacks by US-hired counterrevolutionaries.* Four years later came the third development, with The Washington Post article by Jaime Chamorro and the newspaper ‘s indefinite suspension the day after the $100 million appropriation by the US House of Representatives.
*The emergency declaration followed the brutal torture, mutilation and killing of Sandinista soldiers and activists during "Red Christmas," revelations of the Reagan’s undisclosed appropriation of $19 million to overthrow the Sandinistas, and the blowing up of two important bridges.
At the same time, three key campaigns by La Prensa revealed how absolute was the paper's determination to destroy any opposition party not run from the Embassy. First was the ouster by the paper's owners of its editor and staff and the icing of opposition politicians who favored working within the political system. Second was the support for the splitting off of grouplets from the Democratic Conservative Party when it refused to boycott the elections. And, finally, there was the effort to prove that the elections were a fraud and that only those who refused to participate in them could be considered the "real opposition."
The ouster of Xavier ChamorroIn the late 1970s, as the Sandinistas were building the forces that ultimately toppled the Somoza dictatorship in a mass insurrection, La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a member of one of Nicaragua's wealthiest and most powerful families, made his newspaper a key player in the struggle to overturn the dictatorship. Somoza had Chamorro assassinated in January 1978 but his brother Xavier, the new editor, continued and enhanced the paper's revolutionary stance.
Throughout the struggle, the paper maintained close relations with the FSLN. Although by no means ideal in terms of journalistic excellence (even at the height of its prestige under Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the paper was sensationalist and overloaded with stories of rapes, murders, automobile accidents, and, inevitably, pictures of the cadavers of murdered young Sandinista activists), there was at one point even talk of making La Prensa the official Sandinista newspaper after the overthrow of Somoza.
By early 1980, however, much of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, originally hopeful that they could outmaneuver the young and politically inexperienced Sandinistas, began to drift into the opposition or move abroad. Three of La Prensa's four owners voted to take the paper sharply to the right. Xavier Chamorro, the editor and fourth owner, opposed the move, as did the overwhelming majority of the staff.
The fight demonstrated where the Sandinistas stood on the question of an independent press. They could have easily encouraged the staff to take over the paper and run it themselves, there being nothing "free" about control of the press by the rich. Instead, Xavier Chamorro and 80% of the staff quit, leaving La Prensa's owners with little but the name, and moved two doors down the street to found a new paper, El Nuevo Diario. The move had the inevitable effect of accelerating La Prensa's lurch to the right, but confirmed the Sandinista commitment to an independent, indeed opposition, press. Vice President Sergio Ramírez was later to remark that opposition parties and an opposition press are essential to keep a government honest and competent.
Had Pedro Joaquín Chamorro lived, it is a matter of some speculation what position he would have taken in the fight over La Prensa. Many believe he would have been the one person in the bourgeoisie with the foresight and the prestige to maintain the paper as an independent daily in revolutionary Nicaragua.
"Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was one of the few members of the old Conservative bourgeoisie who really understood what was happening in this country with the working class, the peasantry and the students," says one left-leaning member of the Independent Liberal Party. "The people who came after him can only talk of their old club, their vacations in London and Paris, their shopping trips to Miami. None of them has any workable political perspective at all."
Chamorro's close friend and sometime prison companion, Reynaldo Tefel, reports that Pedro Joaquín was preparing in January 1978 to join the Group of Twelve (by then expanded to fifteen), a gathering of prominent academic, business, professional and religious leaders whose open support for the FSLN from late 1977 onward was a key factor in shifting middle class and bourgeois opinion to support for the Sandinista revolution. Chamorro had arranged to meet with members of the Group of Twelve in Mexico City, but was murdered before the meeting could take place. Virtually all members of the group, including Sergio Ramírez, Miguel D'Escoto, Fernando Cardenal, Carlos Tünnerman, Casimiro Sotelo, Roberto Argüello Hurtado, Ricardo Coronel and Tefel himself today hold high government posts in Nicaragua. (Arturo Cruz, who admitted to The Wall Street Journal in May 1985 that he was receiving CIA funds even before he publicly joined the contras, is the only one of the group who now opposes the Sandinista government.)
All sides can claim Pedro Joaquín Chamorro today, however, and his family is hopelessly split. His brother Xavier is editor of El Nuevo Diario and his brother Jaime was the editor of La Prensa when it was suspended. One son, Carlos, edits the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, while another, Pedro Joaquín, Jr., lives in Costa Rica and maintains close ties with the contras; his daughter Claudia is the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Costa Rica.
Understanding RealityPedro Joaquín might have had the prestige to pull the right opposition away from US policymakers and make them understand what they have refused or been unable to see: that Nicaraguan reality, not ideology or foreign pressures, dictated that there would be room for the opposition in revolutionary Nicaragua. The Sandinista government hasn’t kept space open for the opposition because of pressure from Western European social democrats. If this pressure disappeared tomorrow, the government would still have to maintain its commitment to a mixed economy because the Nicaraguan economy’s low level of development demands it; to political pluralism because those with economic power in a mixed economy will inevitably have political power; and non-alignment because as a small independent nation Nicaragua must keep its options open.*
*Indeed, it is the United States that has tried to force the country into exclusive dependence on the Soviet Union, by pressuring France and other countries to cease arms sales to Nicaragua, by pressuring Mexico to cease oil shipments in the hope that if Nicaragua had only one patron, the Soviet Union, it would eventually be possible to make a deal, swapping, as former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has proposed, a solution in Afghanistan favorable to the Soviets for one in Nicaragua favorable to the US.
This reality, that revolutions are not built on ideology alone, but on necessity, is something the Sandinistas have understood from the beginning. This was why they gave the opposition parties more in the 1984 elections than they deserved, by granting all their presidential candidates seats in the National Assembly, thereby swelling opposition ranks, and by using a Western European-style proportional representation system that gave the small parties many more seats than they could have won in an American-style system. Indeed, it is doubtful that the opposition could have won any seats in a US-style election.
Some European parties tried to get their fellow thinkers in Nicaragua to understand this, although to little avail. Members of Franz-Josef Strauss' ultra-conservative Christian Social Union from West Germany reportedly pleaded with the Nicaraguan Social Christian Party not to abstain from the 1984 elections. "Of course you will lose this time," they are reported to have said. "You haven't enough support. You have to go out and fight in elections like we did. We were in the opposition for years, but we fought and fought, and eventually we won." The Nicaraguan Social Christians were listening more to US Embassy talk of getting rid of the Sandinistas, however, and they boycotted the elections.
The legacy of party politics in the Somoza era and the meddling by the US government soon caused the opposition parties to splinter further, often into what were called "sofa parties" because it was said a party congress could be held on someone's living room sofa. La Prensa, now reorganized with a new rightwing staff, played a major role in causing the splits.
Abandoning any idea of working as a legitimate opposition within the Sandinista political system, La Prensa soon began carrying articles aimed at bringing down the government by any means possible. Scare stories were published claiming shortages of basic goods, stories that the government argued caused panic buying and created shortages that otherwise might not have existed. (Such reports were a major consideration in the 1982 decision to institute wartime censorship.) Reports of visitations by the Virgin Mary, horrible natural disasters and mothers giving birth to monsters were carried with more than the hint that these ominous events were the result of the Sandinista revolution.
In 1982, La Prensa reported that a stone statue of the Virgin Mary was sweating like a live human being. For days, it carried breathless details of the extraordinary event, until it was revealed to be a hoax. (Recently, the original promoter of the story, who had used La Prensa's publicity campaign to sell off damp cotton swabs he said had been used to wipe the Virgin's brow, was jailed as a con artist after having been caught stealing from the homes of well-to-do Managua residents.)
In 1984, the paper carried a story about a woman who had purportedly given birth to a chicken. The paper carried a photo of the chicken, which it said weighed two pounds and had black and white feathers; the woman was presumably too distraught to be photographed.
Some right-opposition politicians, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from La Prensa, denounced stories like these as attempts to create maximum hysteria among Nicaragua’s uneducated poor. In their view, La Prensa was not a real opposition newspaper, since it was failing to provide a forum for serious political debate featuring the views of parties not tied to the US Embassy. La Prensa's owners' view, constantly expressed, was that there was no space in the Nicaraguan political process for any opposition to the Sandinistas. To make their point they simply denied space to any opposition politician who thought there was.
Fight in Democratic Conservative PartyIn February 1984 Miriam Argüello, prominent member of the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) and former Ambassador to the UN in the Somoza years, forcibly took over her party's headquarters, locked the doors and declared all her opponents in the party leadership expelled. La Prensa made no secret of its sympathy for her efforts, which were transparently aimed at securing a US-solicited boycott of the Nicaraguan elections by the Democratic Conservatives. The newspaper denied her opponents, visibly a majority of the party leadership, any hearing at all.
When her party opponents obtained a court decision ruling her occupation illegal, La Prensa furiously charged that "for the first time in Nicaraguan history, a judge has intervened in the internal affairs of a political party." The following day the bulk of the party leadership, now back in control of their headquarters, called a press conference to present their side of the story and read from the party bylaws to support their position. La Prensa's reporter turned up, but he stomped out of the press conference when a PCD leader noted that La Prensa had never called them to get their side of the story and remarked that "La Prensa is no longer the great paper it was under its martyred editor, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro." The next day, La Prensa carried nothing about the press conference or the Democratic Conservative leaders' assertions, although it seemed to have enough space, since that was the day it carried the story about the woman and the chicken.
La Prensa's "election fraud" storyLa Prensa often had to go to ludicrous lengths to do this. In the 1984 elections, it not only failed to give any serious coverage to the right-opposition parties that participated in the elections but refused to accept paid political advertisements from any of them, even from the main bodies of the classic parties of the old oligarchy, the Liberals and Conservatives. It also refused to accept public service advertisements on where to register and vote. Any news coverage La Prensa devoted to the election was aimed at smearing the parties taking part. For example, it published a particularly vicious piece on Virgilio Godoy, presidential candidate of the Independent Liberal Party, only to have to shift its line a few weeks later to make Godoy the hero of the hour when the Liberal leader announced his last-minute intention to pull the party out of the elections.
La Prensa's headline the day after the November 4, 1984, elections read "Great Apathy in the Voting," about a 75.4% turnout of registered voters. The headline provoked Jonathan Steele, foreign editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, to write that La Prensa's "petty partisanship surpasses belief." Western European countries, he remarked, would be honored by such a turnout.
Months later, on April 22, 1985, La Prensa carried a lengthy front-page article by its editor claiming that the election was a fraud. It would have been impossible for 1,551,597 people to have voted in the elections, as the government had claimed, the paper declared, since there weren't that many adults in Nicaragua. In fact, La Prensa declared, the figure was inflated by at least 400,000.
If it were true that over a quarter of the votes were fake, La Prensa should have had no trouble making its case. Such colossal vote fraud is easy to demonstrate, at least in a few illustrative cases. La Prensa need only have consulted the election voter lists, freely available and posted on the walls outside voting stations, and found the names of a few alleged voters who did not exist or didn’t live where they were said to reside. This technique has been used throughout the world to discredit elections. In the United States, persons attempting to prove vote fraud have photographed tombstones in Texas with the names of "voters" who have been dead for years, or have gone to abandoned slums in New York City, photographed the piles of rubble that were once apartment buildings, and printed, along with the photographs, the names of the citizens alleged to be living in the rubble who were said to have cast ballots.
Had La Prensa been able to do anything similar, its photographs would have been on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Its inability to find any testifies to the honesty of the Nicaraguan electoral process.
Lacking any evidence of vote fraud, the paper was forced to resort to statistical sleights of hand to determine that "at least 400,000 votes did not really exist." I started with its own "estimate" of how many people living in Nicaragua were 16 years of age or older (based on its own "projections" from a 1971 census, which differed wildly from estimates by the highly professional Latin American Demographic Center of the United Nations, CELADE).* It added a "calculation" (again, its own) of how long it took for each voter to cast the ballots, and another "estimate" (contradicted by its own earlier reporting) of how many people registered to vote earlier in the year. (La Prensa asserted in its April 1985 article that only 80% of the eligible population registered to vote, although it had earlier accepted, and even taken credit for, the figure of 93.7% confirmed by the Swedish advisors to the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Commission.) ___________________________
*A new census was begun after the Sandinista triumph but had to be abandoned when the war began to cause massive movement of refugees.
Subtracting these 400,000 alleged "phantoms" from the total valid vote count and all of them from the FSLN’s totals left the Sandinista Front with only 29.17% of the vote. Then, lumping together the 33.12% of its own calculation of registered voters who did not vote—including soldiers fighting in the mountains, the sick, those without transportation, etc.—as "abstentionists" who refused to vote because the Coordinadora coalition of three far-right parties was not running, it proclaimed the abstaining Coordinadora as the real winner.
The study, obviously aimed at depicting the US-backed Coordinadora as the real voice of the people, was scorned even by correspondents for major US media who are usually eager to believe Coordinadora assertions. Others, noting that all parties were able to have poll-watchers at all polling booths, and taking account of the presence of foreign observers and the role of the Swedish government in helping to organize the elections, found the report even less credible. Nonetheless, La Prensa continued to peddle its "findings" to visiting foreign delegations. One group of US Congressional representatives, on a five-hour visit to Nicaragua, declared themselves convinced, and two of the representatives announced that because of the La Prensa study they were planning to vote in favor of aid to the contras.
What La Prensa coveredFor years La Prensa depicted itself to foreigners as an "independent" journal and attempted to convey the impression of being moderate, or, depending on the audience, perhaps even liberal. Internationally, the paper was an image, not a newspaper to be read. Since most visitors couldn’t read Spanish or weren’t in Nicaragua long enough to follow the paper seriously, the vague sense of a responsible centrist journal was maintained.
In fact, La Prensa wasn’t "independent" at all. It was funded by the US government* and the Reagan Administration sent Embassy representatives to its editorial meetings. Its preferred image as a defender of civil liberties was made laughable by such extraordinary articles as an August 16, 1985, piece recalling the military overthrow of the constitutional government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Accusing Allende of betraying a commitment to "maintain the apolitical character of the armed forces" (by allowing friends of the President to carry arms) and of basing his government on organizations dedicated to "invading land, harassing private enterprise, occupying factories and workshops, and setting up disciplined mobs," the newspaper concluded:
"What defeated Allende’s plans was not the CIA, or the extreme Right, or transnational interests, but the great Chilean middle class upset with being displaced by a bureaucratic machine and an extremist ideology that tried to hold back its aspirations for social and economic promotion, snatching from it what has always been most precious to Chileans, the right to dissent.”
*The Washington Post has revealed that La Prensa has been receiving funds from the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy, a pseudo-private foundation directly and entirely financed by the US Congress, the aim of which is to support "anti-communist" operations around the world. It has also, according to The Post, received $150,000 from PRODEMCA, an extreme rightist US organization that directly supports the contras and has close ties to the Reagan Administration.
The effect of La Prensa's dependency and lack of moderation created a situation virtually unheard of in a country at war: a national newspaper whose daily foreign news coverage is entirely opposed to the international policies of its country's government. In other countries in major wars, or often even in minor ones, newspapers accept the idea that "politics stops at the water's edge," and that there must be support for their government's foreign policy. During the Second World War, for example, the US press covered the Soviet Union favorably, and during the Korean War articles reporting on South Korean government corruption were censored by US authorities. In contrast, La Prensa's international coverage supported the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, most glaringly in its treatment of such key issues as Contadora. [See appendix.]
Circulation stagnatesLa Prensa, in any event, had long enjoyed more influence abroad than it enjoyed at home. In early 1982 it and Barricada, at least according to their own claims, were running more or less neck and neck in circulation. By 1983 it was clear that Barricada had moved well ahead. Figures provided by the newspapers themselves at the time claimed 75,000 circulation for Barricada, 55,000 for La Prensa, and 30,000 for El Nuevo Diario. La Prensa quibbled somewhat over the figures but admitted it had been surpassed; it claimed that this was because the delay imposed by censorship was causing the paper to come out too late in the day to sell well in Managua. Barricada ascribed its growth to the fact that many of its readers had only recently come out of the literacy campaign. The paper was adjusting its coverage accordingly, carrying short articles on the front page and its more in-depth pieces inside. Barricada continued to climb and La Prensa continued to stagnate until by late 1984-early 1985 Barricada enjoyed an estimated circulation of 90,000, to La Prensa's 55-60,000 and El Nuevo Diario's 40,000.
By early 1986, Barricada was still far out in front, with 105,000, but El Nuevo Diario was claiming to be the second newspaper in the country in circulation. By that time La Prensa had stopped giving figures, claiming that the censorship was slowly killing it as a paper because people no longer found it interesting to read. The circulation figures are impossible to verify, but a shipment of newsprint in the early months of 1986 reportedly went 800 tons to Barricada, 700 tons to El Nuevo Diario and 500 tons to La Prensa. As all papers were allowed the same number of pages each week under wartime paper rationing, the figures appeared to indicate relative circulations. Boys selling newspapers at two major Managua sales points, the Plaza Espana and the Plaza 19 de Julio, reported in April 1986 that they were each selling about 40 copies of Barricada a day, 40 copies of El Nuevo Diario and 20 copies of La Prensa.
Influence in WashingtonIn contrast, La Prensa's influence abroad, and particularly in Washington, continued to grow. A visit to La Prensa was a required stop for any US Congressional delegation, even if it was in the country only for four or five hours. The members of Congress would invariably hold a Managua press conference where they would pronounce themselves shocked by whatever they were told by La Prensa's editors, even when reporters from major US newspapers told them (as in the case of La Prensa's "election fraud" story) that its allegations were nonsense. Although many of the members of Congress have a frankly colonialist mentality regarding Nicaragua and are eager to be convinced of the evils of the Sandinista government, it would be difficult to exaggerate the role that La Prensa has had in shifting opinion in some circles in Washington over the past six years.
Messages sentIn suspending La Prensa immediately after the $100 million appropriation, the Nicaraguan government was sending messages to different audiences. The message sent to the United States was that if the US Congress was to declare de facto war against Nicaragua it could not expect to hold onto its political assets inside the country. Nicaragua would not be blackmailed.
The message sent to Western Europe was that a country that is the victim of a war should be expected to act like one.* The Sandinista National Directorate declared that wartime emergency laws had up until now been applied with excessive flexibility, but would henceforward be strictly enforced. Its position was that it has had the legal and the moral basis to be firm, but had not done so, and now the United States had upped the ante. European reaction to La Prensa's suspension was mild. The Swedish government called the move regrettable but understandable, and said that it was more concerned by the World Court findings against the United States.
*This should not be taken to mean that Nicaragua intends to emulate US or European wartime performances, however, all of which have been far more restrictive than anything contemplated by Nicaragua. Britain, like the United States, closed the fascist press and imprisoned suspected fascists at the start of World War II, and detained whole ethnic groups of suspected fifth-columnists. France went further, banning the Communist press and imprisoning the editors at the start of the war, with the justification that the Communists weren’t supporting the war effort. US suppression of the left press in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s included the blowing up of at least one newspaper printing press by government agents (at the time the bombing was blamed on "unknown elements;" years later it was revealed that the FBI had carried out the attack) and an assault on subscribers to leftwing newspapers, including the orchestration of wholesale job dismissals, humiliation of their children at school and worse—all this at a time when the country was generally at peace.
The Nicaraguan government also has a domestic constituency, needless to say, which appears to have been the key element in the decision to suspend La Prensa. Not to move against it would have been to ask the Nicaraguan population to watch helplessly while the government of a superpower blithely votes ever greater funds (quadrupling last year's appropriation) to slaughter the country's population in a seemingly endless war. For the same reason—domestic morale—no newspaper directly funded by Berlin and printing Nazi press dispatches was, or could have been permitted in the US or Britain during World War II. The argument has been made that La Prensa had lost much of its readership in recent years, and as a propaganda outlet did not represent a real threat to popular support for the Sandinista government or the defense effort. That is true, but is not the point; pro-Nazi newspapers in wartime Britain or the US would not have enjoyed much support either. The point is simply that it’s painfully hard to ask soldiers and civilians to put up with wartime shortages and difficulties and even sacrifice their lives while traitors openly funded by the enemy power attempt to undermine the war effort from within.
What the future holdsThe decision by La Prensa's owners to abandon any pretense of taking the civic road ends one chapter in the Nicaraguan press story and starts another. If the paper's owners don’t agree to the Chicago Proposal, the suspension leaves open the question of what the Sandinista government and opposition parties not controlled by the US Embassy may agree to regarding new opposition press organs or greater access to existing radio, television and print media.
In the wake of the House vote for the $100 million and the realization that there is nothing, save US public opinion, that is holding back a US invasion, some opposition parties have spoken of a new "Anti-Intervention Front" of political forces that agree on maintaining the country's independence if they agree on nothing else. Negotiations, already begun, are expected to continue in earnest in the coming months. Government leaders, for their part, have adopted an extremely conciliatory tone towards the "patriotic opposition," and some opposition leaders are talking hopefully of the possibility that Cabinet portfolios may be handed out to them. Unlike the earlier Patriotic Front of the Revolution, however, which joined together four parties (the Sandinista Front, the Popular Social Christian Party, the Independent Liberals and the Socialists) committed to the "democratic transformation of Nicaraguan society," the "Anti-Intervention Front" envisages a broader coalition. Parties further to the left and to the right would be invited to join as well, in the name of defending Nicaraguan national sovereignty.
In the meantime, as if to emphasize Sergio Ramírez' point about the need for an opposition newspaper, El Nuevo Diario in recent weeks has been giving heavy coverage to the activities of opposition parties. For its part, Barricada has attempted to fill some of the gap created by the absence of La Prensa by publishing wire service dispatches that are quite unfriendly to Nicaragua, apparently to give readers an idea of what is being said abroad.
La Prensa's unwillingness to serve as a serious opposition newspaper increased the audience for other outlets. The daily radio program Contacto 6-20, which takes calls from listeners with complaints and suggestions, has become so popular that in its first two years of operation it has logged 33,000 calls. The four-hour morning show has a daily audience of 400,000, much more than all three newspapers combined. (Radio is in any event the main communications medium in Nicaragua, a country in which many of its citizens are only newly literate.) The gap that La Prensa was not filling is revealed in the subject matter of the calls: complaints about hospital shortcomings and supplies of basic goods, or suggestions on how to solve urban transport problems.
There are opposition newspapers in Nicaragua that do serve a useful function. The Communist newspaper Avance, for example, has uncovered cases of government malfeasance or corruption. In contrast, the Independent Liberal Party newspaper Paso a Paso, which was published in 1984 and 1985, came and went because it never developed a real sense of identity, or an audience.
For a serious opposition newspaper to emerge in the coming months, whether La Prensa or something else, the Nicaraguan Right will have to settle on a political agenda that takes account of the obvious reality that the Sandinista government will be around for some time to come and that the Sandinista movement is growing and consolidating, not shrinking. It will also have to take account of the reality that pluralism, mixed economy and non-alignment will be around for some time as well, because they must be. Finally, it must come to terms with the fact that, in seven years, not one of the right opposition parties has shown any real sense of purpose. Ultimately, that was what caused the suicide of La Prensa. It had no political project, nor did the parties it represented, other than awaiting the arrival of the US Marines.
APPENDIXLa Prensa presented itself to foreign audiences as independent and moderate. Its foreign news coverage, however, was virtually identical to that in such ultra-rightist newspapers as the Cuban émigré newspaper Diario Las Americas in Miami and the Moon sect's Washington Times. For the benefit of those who did not follow it regularly, here’s a survey of the last month's foreign news coverage in La Prensa, from May 25, 1986 to June 25, 1986.
Latin AmericaThe depiction of La Prensa as "an American newspaper published in Nicaragua" is best justified by the paper's treatment of Latin America. A US perspective prevails, rather than a Latin American one, which is not surprising given that most articles are from US or pro-US Western European wire services (the two other Managua newspapers, which obviously have their own political slants, nevertheless print dispatches from a wide variety of news agencies, including the US ones).
Cuba, of course, is far out in front of all other Latin American countries in coverage in La Prensa in the month surveyed, with 39 stories (Peru and Argentina follow with 17 each), and the coverage is predictable. What is interesting is that the same US line is used in treating other, more politically conservative Latin American countries.
La Prensa handles Peru in two ways: army repression on the one hand, terrorism by armed groups inside the country on the other. La Prensa avoids Peru's foreign policy and its active role within the Contadora Support Group.
Mexico, another country that has displeased the United States for its role in Contadora, is treated with extreme lack of balance. The country is presented as needing aid generously provided by the United States; the government is treated as fraudulently elected. ["And Continue Paying Debt: US Prepares Economic Package to Aid Mexico," UPI, June 16, 1986; "Mexicans Keep Double Account Books, Says Helms: De La Madrid Was Fraudulently Elected," AP, June 20, 1986.]
ContadoraThe lack of any Latin American perspective also comes through clearly in the treatment of the Contadora group of countries seeking a settlement in Central America. At the beginning of the period surveyed, before the famous "June 6 deadline" for signing a non-existent Contadora treaty, Nicaragua was isolated for noting, truthfully enough, that there were two points of enormous importance still outstanding. La Prensa nonetheless depicted an "act" ready to be signed.
After a first discussion meeting on the outstanding points, Nicaragua recovered the initiative within Contadora with a bold proposal on military maneuvers and regional disarmament. At that point, Central American allies of the United States announced that they would not sign, and in the United States, the Pentagon released a report claiming that signing a Contadora agreement would be tantamount to a "new Yalta," leaving the United States with its hands tied in Central America.
La Prensa promptly shifted its line. Articles began to appear questioning the role of Contadora, suggesting it was favoring communism, and proposing that things might be better if it didn’t exist. ["Foreign Ministers Prepare for the Meeting: Will Peace Group Survive?" AFP, June 5, 1986; "Deadline for Signing Act: Contadora in the 'Operating Room'," AFP, June 6, 1986; "Panamanian Political Leader Accuses Contadora of Favoring Communism," EFE, June 7, 1986; "Contadora Has No Reason to Exist, Says Foreign Minister: Honduras Rejects Act," EFE, June 16, 1986; "Honduran Ambassador Says Contadora Document Does Not Guarantee Security," EFE, June 23, 1986.] Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto's letter to Contadora was printed (June 23, 1986), but buried on the sports page.
La Prensa closely follows the Reagan Administration line on El Salvador, as one might expect. The Administration has long attempted to equate the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, ignoring the fact that El Salvador, unlike Nicaragua, is not the victim of foreign aggression. Coverage of El Salvador during the period examined depicted the country's government as flexible, ready to resolve the war going on in the country through negotiations. In the meantime, the Salvadoran army is presented as winning on the battlefield, knocking out FMLN camps, causing high casualties to the rebel forces and capturing large amounts of military supplies. The role of the Catholic Church hierarchy as mediator in the war is highlighted, with the obvious implication that the Nicaraguan hierarchy should have the same role. ["Call to Dialogue with Guerrillas: Duarte Wants to End the War," UPI, June 2, 1986; "Salvadoran Church: Must Have Dialogue for Peace," EFE, June 16, 1986; "Attack in El Salvador Repulsed," UPI, June 19, 1986.]
Panama, regarded by the US government as "not a team player" inside Contadora, has recently been the target of a press campaign in the United States openly initiated by the CIA. La Prensa's coverage of Panama and Panamanian Defense Forces chief General Manuel Antonio Noriega echoes these charges. The US government is depicted as honestly concerned about press reports that it itself created. ["Reports to Cuba and to the US: Noriega Denounced As Double Agent," EFE, June 12, 1986; "Washington Worried Over Charges Against Noriega," UPI, June 13, 1986; "Panama: Christian Democrats Ask Noriega's Removal," EFE, June 16, 1986.]
Other ForeignNot surprisingly, La Prensa's general foreign coverage did not enhance its reputation as a balanced newspaper either. Coverage of foreign news during the month before it was suspended gave pride of place to the United States with 47 stories and the Soviet Union with 38. Eighty percent of all stories about the US concerned its foreign policy, while 80 percent of all Soviet stories concerned domestic Soviet matters.
Reports on US foreign policy were heavily oriented toward purported US work for human rights and against terrorism, and US capacity to detect and break up Soviet spy networks. The implication of the articles was that a country leading such fights internationally was a model of correct behavior itself. ["Larry Speakes comments: 'The Democratic System Works,'" EFE, June 23, 1986; "Weinberger Defends US Military Presence Overseas," EFE, June 11, 1986; "A Strong Attack Against Terrorism: Weinberger Urges Change in Diplomatic Immunity," AP, June 6, 1986; Soviet Diplomat Captured by FBI," EFE, June 20, 1986.]
Stories on domestic conditions in the US continued this rosy picture: a country where people can find treasures, where people live enviable life styles, a civilized country where, apparently, poverty and exploitation do not exist, much less repression. The US is a country, according to La Prensa, whose officials are leading the struggle against drugs and presumably have therefore earned the moral authority to attack officials of third world countries like Mexico and Panama for corruption in such matters. ["Fifteen thousand persons obtain US citizenship," AP, June 20, 1986; "Fabulous treasure found off coast of Florida," AFP, May 29, 1986; "US Armed Forces expand role in fight against drugs," AFP, June 9, 1986; "John Kennedy Most Eligible Bachelor," EFE, June 18, 1986.]
In contrast to the good image of the United States, the Soviet Union is presented as a closed society lacking even the most minimal liberties, where dissidents and political prisoners abound and discontent is generalized. It is a society that drifts between insecurity, fear and disillusion with the Soviet system. ["Psychiatry and Torture," by Losyf Mikhailovich, May 26, 1986; "A New Stalinism?" June 25, 1986; "Reform Impossible in the USSR: Lack of Respect for Human Rights Does Not Change with Gorbachev," by Julio Odishrovski, June 3, 1986; "Cardinals' Summit Analyzes Church Situation in USSR," AFP May 28, 1986.]
Coverage of Soviet foreign policy depicts the USSR as a supporter of terrorism, a source of spies masked as diplomats, and a society devoted to the arms race. ["New Soviet Missile More Powerful Than Predecessors," AFP, June 6, 1986; "Soviet Ships Protect Libya," UPI, May 30, 1986; "Portugal Expels Two Soviet Diplomats," EFE, June 23, 1986.] Even in the Reagan era, many US publications manage to provide a more balanced treatment of their own and Soviet society than this.
At times, La Prensa finds even these dispatches inadequate. In 1982, for example, the paper gave splashy coverage to President Reagan's "Let Poland Be Poland" television extravaganza, but excised from the Associated Press dispatch the only real news angle to the whole story: the boycott of the program by several Western European countries and television networks, which denounced it as bombastic propaganda.
Strict adherence to the Reagan agenda continues in La Prensa's coverage of other countries. Libya, whose obsessive treatment by the Reagan Administration has bewildered journalists and other observers for years, was a major recipient of coverage during the month surveyed. La Prensa kept up a drumbeat of US government-inspired stories, claiming that Libyan leader Muhammar Khadaffi is "losing power," that he;s suffering from various diseases and that his government is recruiting mercenaries abroad. ["Libya Recruits Mercenaries in West Germany," EFE, June 17, 1986; "Rumor in Libya: Khadaffi Is Ill," AP, June 12, 1986.]
Chamorro in The Washington Post
Chamorro's Washington Post article was a franker than usual rendering of US neoconservative themes. "The danger [that Nicaragua represents to the United States] is not military," he acknowledged. "Nicaragua with its army of 60,000 men... cannot be a military threat, nor can Cuba, whose army and militia consist of more than a million men. This absurd idea of a direct military threat from the Sandinistas is an attempt to obscure the real danger of the Sandinistas." That danger, he said, is that the Sandinistas could "inspire, aid and arm, from Managua, insurgencies throughout Latin America, 'movements of national liberation' that will convert the entire continent into an immense base of insurrection."
"Perhaps now the idea of Nicaragua's becoming a serious military threat to the United States seems absurd, but in the future it could take on a far more serious air," Chamorro continued. "Sooner or later, in 20 or 30 years, Latin America is going to succumb to one form or another of communist domination."
"Mexico is not necessarily an exception," he added. "It might one day be the country most likely to fall." If something like that happens, "NATO will no longer be in Europe: it will be in San Antonio, Texas."
Negotiations would be fine, Chamorro said, provided they brought about "the negation of the [Sandinista] system." It would not be enough to take care of US security concerns, for only with the "negation of the system that has been established" could there be "the end of their [the Sandinistas'] internationalist and expansionist aims."
As it is, he asserted, "The Sandinistas have no reason or motivation to negotiate because the counterrevolution is in a ruinous state. This is because Reagan has not and will not be able to, as a result of congressional opposition, give effective aid so that the resistance can accomplish its objective." The objective of the "resistance," of course, is the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government.
"Daniel Ortega hopes to achieve the total elimination of the counterrevolution," he warned in conclusion, "in exchange for the promise not to be a military threat to the United States or to Nicaragua's neighbors; not to allow the Soviets to install military bases, and to remove all Cuban advisers. With this, the Sandinistas could achieve their consolidation and a free way to continue their expansionist aims through nonmilitary, but not less dangerous or effective, means."