Remarks to Civic Leaders at a White House Briefing on Aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance

 

January 22, 1988

 

Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. I know that you're going to be briefed today on the situation in Central America, so I thought I'd use our time together not in giving you a great deal of background but, very simply, to tell you why I asked the Congress to provide aid to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance, the freedom fighters. Providing aid to the freedom fighters will do much to decide whether the people of Nicaragua ever possess the liberty that we Americans cherish so much. What I'd like to do is tell you four stories -- and they're four true stories. Among them, I believe, they express everything that needs to be said.

 

The setting for the first is Managua itself. The date was just 12 days ago, Sunday, January 10th. The event was a march by 10,000 people through the streets of the Nicaraguan capital to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of newspaper publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Chamorro was killed by gunmen -- gunmen believed to have been supporters of the former dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Yet instead of celebrating the Sandinista regime that overthrew Somoza, the marchers demonstrated against the Communist regime. There were chants of ``Communists, get out!'' One speaker told the crowd, ``The people aren't afraid anymore.'' Another said, ``This is the beginning of democracy, and it can't end today.''

 

By a week ago Sunday, when this march took place, it had been a full 8\1/2\ years since the Marxist Sandinistas had overthrown Somoza and established their own regime. We in the United States rightly ask whether the Sandinistas have the support of the Nicaraguan people, and 8\1/2\ years is certainly long enough for a people to get to know the true nature of their rulers. Those 10,000 marchers answered our question. Rejection of the Communist regime is not, as some would have it, limited to a few reactionary holdovers from the Somoza years. It runs deep -- very deep -- among the people themselves. When you hear the second story I'd like to share with you, I think you'll begin to understand why.

 

In 1984 Prudencio Baltodano was captured by Sandinista soldiers. His crime? He was an evangelical minister, a man of God. The soldiers bound him to a tree, beat him, then used a bayonet to cut off his ears and slit his throat. The soldiers' commander told them Baltodano wasn't ``worth wasting a bullet.'' ``Let him die suffering,'' the commander said. As they left him bleeding, the soldiers taunted him, ``Pray and see if God will save you.''

 

Well, God did save Prudencio Baltodano, and just last week he was reunited in Washington, here, with his wife and six children. You see, a church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has sponsored Reverend Baltodano and his family. The church and some other American friends worked to get his wife and children here to the United States from a refugee camp in Costa Rica, to provide them with clothing, and to help them find housing. To me, the help Mr. Baltodano and his family are being given here in the United States is just as important a part of the story as the suffering they endured in Central America. It reminds us that when we see someone in trouble, when we see someone suffering, we Americans reach out to help. And I'm delighted to see Reverend Baltodano here with us. Welcome!

 

Well, the people in Nicaragua need our help. That's the meaning of this coming congressional vote. For there can be no doubt that under the Sandinistas the people of Nicaragua are suffering -- suffering from the suppression of civil liberties, suffering materially from a national economy that has collapsed under Communist interference and control. It's my firm belief that these are grounds enough for helping the freedom fighters: that when our nation sees neighbors who need help and when it's within our power to extend that help, then it is our duty to do so. Yet as I tell you the third story, you'll see that there is still another reason for us to assist the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. Simply put, the security of Central America and our own nation is at stake.

 

On October 25th of last year, a high-level member of the Sandinista staff entered the American Embassy in Mexico City and requested political asylum. Major Roger Miranda had been a top aide to Humberto Ortega. Humberto Ortega is in charge of the Sandinista military and the brother of the President, Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Communist regime in Nicaragua. American officials spent weeks debriefing Major Miranda. And then, last December, he was interviewed by a number of news organizations. When the Sandinistas learned that Major Miranda's revelations would be made public, they apparently decided that they had nothing to lose by admitting to them. At a gathering in Managua, Humberto Ortega confirmed some of Major Miranda's most damaging disclosures.

 

Item: In Ortega's own words, Nicaragua has ``a few thousand officers in Cuba and the Soviet Union studying the use of sophisticated weapons.''

 

Item: The Sandinista Communists are training Salvadoran rebels in Managua to use surface-to-air missiles, missiles that could sharply escalate the violence in that country.

 

Item: The Communists in Nicaragua have made secret agreements with the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East-bloc nations. Major Miranda stated, and Humberto Ortega publicly confirmed, that these pacts call for the Soviet Union and its satellites to help the Sandinistas arm and train 600,000 army troops and civilian militia by the mid-1990's.

 

Permit me to put that figure into perspective. Six hundred thousand troops will represent one-fifth of the entire population of Nicaragua. It will be as if the United States had Armed Forces of nearly 49 million. But the comparisons with other nations in Central America are more significant. Nicaragua's neighbor to the north, El Salvador, has a population of 5 million, but a military of only some 43,000. Honduras has a population of over 4\1/2\ million, a military of only 14,600. Costa Rica, Nicaragua's neighbor to the south, has a population of 2.6 million and no armed forces. Even Mexico, with a population of over 80 million -- by far the largest nation in the region -- even Mexico has a military of only some 140,000, less than one-fourth the force of 600,000 that the Communists of Nicaragua plan to have in a matter of only a few years.

 

The meaning of what Major Miranda and Humberto Ortega have stated is clear. The Communist regime in Nicaragua represents a threat to the entire region of Central America. And if it represents a threat to the region that adjoins our southern borders, it represents a threat to us. Already, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees have left their country. It is by no means difficult to visualize a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Central Americans seek to escape violence and instability by streaming toward the American Southwest.

 

My fourth story occurred just last weekend, when the leaders of the five Central American nations met to examine compliance with the Guatemala accord. There's no doubt as to their conclusion: The Sandinistas are the biggest obstacle to fulfillment of the plan and to peace and democracy in the region. While the four Central American democracies are in substantial compliance, the Sandinistas are nowhere near. Even the Sandinistas had to admit as much, issuing a separate declaration that outlined additional steps they felt compelled to announce so as to put their behavior in a better light.

 

It is clear, as you can see, why we must keep the pressure on the Sandinistas so that they can't reverse course, so that they keep walking down that road to democracy, because each step they've taken, each reluctant reform, is still easily undone. The Sandinistas have said their revolution will spread. Our goal in Nicaragua must be to make sure it's democracy and freedom that spreads.

 

We welcome the Sandinistas' new promises to abide by the peace plan, but we must hold them to their word. We must make sure that each time the Sandinistas walk through a new door toward democracy we close it behind them -- and keep it closed. Only the freedom fighters can do that; only they can be our insurance policy for democracy in Central America.

 

And let me add something else: Once a cease-fire is in place in Nicaragua and significant progress is being made toward a real and lasting political settlement, the United States is prepared to join in regional security discussions. Our goal is the same as those democracies we've seen emerge in the other Central American countries, the same as those who've been fighting for the freedom they were promised 8\1/2\ years ago: an opportunity for all people in that region to have the right to peace, freedom, and democracy.

 

Some say that the freedom fighters are not necessary to keep the pressure on, that the spotlight of world opinion and the Sandinistas' sworn commitment to the Guatemala accord are enough. Well, perhaps it's worth reviewing the historical record to see just how much faith we can put in Sandinista promises. As I pointed out in my recent address to the Organization of American States, we already have a negotiated settlement with the Sandinistas -- the settlement of 1979 -- in which the United States, together with the other members of7E 7E the7E 7E OAS,7E 7E took7E 7E the7E 7E unprecedented7E 7E action7E 7E of7E 7E withdrawing7E 7E recognition7E 7E from a sitting government -- the Somoza government -- and helped bring the Sandinistas to power. As part of that settlement, the Sandinistas promised -- and I'm citing from documents issued by the Sandinistas -- ``free elections, a broad-based democratic government, full guarantee of human rights, fundamental liberties, freedom of religion, union rights, a mixed economy, an independent foreign policy of nonalignment, and a minimum permanent military corps.''

 

Well, it's simply stating the obvious to point out that the Sandinistas have not honored a single one of those promises that they made to all the other states of North and South America. What isn't as widely understood, however, is that we now have documented proof that they never intended to. Barely 2 months after assuming power, the Sandinista leadership met secretly to draft a report known as the 72-hour document, outlining their plans to establish a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and spread subversion throughout Central America.

 

The Sandinistas and their supporters say it was the belligerence of the United States that forced them to go back on their promises, just as they now put all the blame for their shortcomings on the freedom fighters. Well, again, let's examine the historical record -- our belligerence.

 

Only a day after the Sandinistas finished meeting secretly to draft the 72-hour document, President Carter received Daniel Ortega in the White House and offered his new government our friendship and help. But while we sent the Sandinistas over $100 million in aid -- more than they received from any other country at that time -- the Sandinistas were busy carrying out their plans to eliminate human rights and impose a Marxist totalitarian regime in Nicaragua.

 

Six months after the meeting in the White House, while U.S. aid was still flowing, several Sandinista comandantes took their first official trip to Moscow -- the first of many -- and signed a communique with the Soviet Communist Party expressing support for the foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union. But that, one might say, was merely the paperwork. Already, Soviet military planners were in Nicaragua. Over 30 new military bases were either built or in the process of construction by the time I came into office in 1981. The Sandinista army was becoming the largest, best supplied in all Central America, and the Sandinistas were already assisting the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador -- all while American aid flowed to Nicaragua, while our hand was extended in friendship.

 

Well, I could go on to detail the systematic crushing of all human rights, but my purpose here is to ask a simple question: How can we expect a regime that has compiled such a history of broken promises and corruption to abide by the terms of the Guatemala accord unless we keep up the pressure by continuing the aid to the freedom fighters?

 

Some in this country talk as if the Sandinistas would reform if we would just let them alone, but that's not what the Sandinistas themselves say. Just 5 weeks ago, Daniel Ortega made his true intentions clear: Even if there were elections in Nicaragua and the Sandinistas lost, he said, they would never give up power. The Soviets have made their choice. They and the allies have poured billions of dollars of military aid into Nicaragua -- at least 20 times more than the U.S. Congress has given to the forces of the democratic resistance.

 

In less than 2 weeks, the American Congress and the American people will have to make their choice, too. As I said, this is the moment of truth, the make-or-break vote on the freedom fighters. If we abandon them now, if Congress votes down aid, we will be abandoning the only real cause for peace and freedom and democracy in Nicaragua.

 

We have the testimony of brave men and women who are speaking to us of things they've seen and heard, the testimony of the 10,000 who marched in Nicaragua, of Prudencio Baltodano and Major Miranda. The freedom fighters are fighting for all of these and, yes, for us, for our own security.

 

Now let us move to help them. Thank you, and God bless you all.

 

Note: The President spoke at 2:03 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.