The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it
here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then
I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.
The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to
the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of
a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of
this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond
Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father
Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My
parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived
in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed
everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped
nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They
behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support
from this shocking terrorist activity.'
Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and
highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He
listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me
tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen
silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.
Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent people" were the victims
of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If
Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take
place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of
supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign
Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support
your assertions,' he said.
As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I
did not reply.
I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following
statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'
The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for
over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this
regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance
and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But
they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a
stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds
of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over
100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A
quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less
than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service.
Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist
subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set.
If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic
justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education
and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would
ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time
fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.
I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President
Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken
generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and
fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the
Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of
systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in
Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a
Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El
Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically
elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000
people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at
the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the
Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man
Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that
75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed
a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately
qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the
status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression,
which had been their birthright.
The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took
some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and
30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were
exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the
country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a
vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.
But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was
conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing
military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I
refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the
Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the
United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did
they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy?
The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American
foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it
wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the
United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few
people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has
exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as
a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the
road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very
clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is
self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say
the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American
people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I
ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to
take on behalf of the American people.'
It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought
at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of
reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion
may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very
comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below
the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of
prisons, which extends across the US.
The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no
longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on
the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the
United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as
impotent and irrelevant.
The winners get to write the history books. I wonder what they'll say about this era in a hundred or a thousand years from now.