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Who Lost Nicaragua? : BANANA DIPLOMACY: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua 1981-1987 by Roy Gutman (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 404 pp.; 0-671-60626-3)

July 24, 1988|Peter Davis | Davis' most recent book is "Where Is Nicaragua?" which has recently been issued in paper by Touchstone Books.

When Ronald Reagan moved from Pacific Palisades to Washington in 1981, 18 months after the Sandinistas won their insurrection against the Somoza dynasty in Managua, Nicaragua's principal foreign relationship was still with the United States. We were, as we had always been, Nicaragua's major trading partner. Nicaraguans who could afford it sent their children here to be educated. Most of Nicaragua's foreign aid came from the United States, yielding crucial, if peaceful, influence to us in Nicaraguan affairs. Despite American support for the oppressive Somozas stretching over four decades, our two countries remained commercially, diplomatically and culturally interwoven 1 1/2 years after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution.

President Reagan, who had proclaimed his opposition to the Sandinistas even before he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in 1980, immediately set out to change all this.

In "Banana Diplomacy," Roy Gutman shows how the President did it. Gutman, the national security correspondent for Newsday, has amassed a volume of data and detail unapproached by anyone writing about current U.S. policy in Central America. "The story of the Reagan Administration decision to back the anti-Sandinista rebels is a case study of the perils of fighting strategic battles in secret, on the cheap, and by proxy."

Gutman's text is fascinating and complex, resembling more closely the court intrigues around Louis XIV than the conventional policy development of an American presidency.

Presidential enmity to the Sandinistas was, from the start, absolute. Surprisingly, however, there was never a single policy toward Nicaragua that would have enabled the President's subordinates to formulate a coherent strategy. Instead, Gutman describes a host of policies, each pursued for a time, then discarded, then resurrected, then pushed simultaneously with other, often contradictory, policies.

The Administration that Gutman shows us looks like a team of skywriters assigned to inscribe an advertisement for a tanning oil above a beach filled with idle Sunday bathers. Each of the planes has been given a different letter to make, and its vapor trail manages to draw that letter fairly legibly. But the letters all come from different words, and when they are placed side by side, turn out not to spell anything at all. Reagan's "system invited indiscipline and competition," Gutman writes, while the President himself "stayed aloof from the policy process and laid out only general guidelines but no clear lines of authority."

U.S. policy toward Nicaragua becomes as indecipherable as the scrambled letters above the beach. The Sunday bathers look up at the sky and scratch their heads, while the skywriters look at what they have wrought and realize they have confused not only the bathers but one another: "The making of U.S. policy in Nicaragua was characterized throughout by duplicity, secrecy, and pretense." Eventually, when the Iran-Contra scandal breaks like a typhoon over the Reagan skywriters and beachgoers alike, everyone scatters for cover. When we look up again, the letters that never spelled anything have all been blown back into air anyway.

You'll find your old favorites here--the CIA's William Casey and Casey's faithful pooch Ollie North; presidential fall guys Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter; Secretary of State George ("Who, me?") Shultz; Nicaraguan policies dragon lady Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and the amazing unthinkable Elliott Abrams. But Gutman also adds materially to our knowledge of the roles of less well-known key players such as the State Department's Thomas Enders, Tony Motley and Craig Johnstone; the National Security Council's William Clark and Constantine Menges (known as Constant Menace to those who disagreed with his war hawk advice); the Honduran General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez; Contra military chief Enrique Bermudez Varela; and American free-lance Contra manipulators John Carbaugh and Nat Hamrick.

Among them, they try all the policies, tell lies to Congress and the public, mount Contra operations sometimes with military aims and sometimes as photo opportunities. They wage war while talking peace, promote "democracy" when what they mean is restoration of somocismo , and occasionally even talk war while secretly negotiating peace.

Most damaging from their own point of view, and no doubt most entertaining from the Sandinista side, they work against one another. At one point a State Department official flies to Managua and tells the Sandinistas not to listen to anything one of his rivals says. At another point, Casey deceives Congress while McFarlane deceives Shultz while North deceives McFarlane. Where are you, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when we need you most? What a pity this book appears during the writers' strike, since it may be months before anyone can start on the miniseries.

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