Address to the Nation on Aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance

 

February 2, 1988

 

My fellow Americans:

 

I want to begin tonight by telling a story, a true story of courage and hope. It concerns a small nation to our south, El Salvador, and the struggle of its people to throw off years of violence and oppression and live in freedom.

 

Nearly 4 years ago, I addressed you as I do tonight and asked for your help in our efforts to support those brave people against a Communist insurgency. That was one of the hardest fought political battles of this administration. The people of El Salvador, we heard, weren't ready for democracy. The only choice was between the left-wing guerrillas and the violent right, and many insisted that it was the guerrillas that truly had the backing of the people. But with your support, we were able to send help in time. Our package of military aid for El Salvador passed Congress by only four votes, but it passed.

 

Some of you may remember those stirring scenes as the people of El Salvador braved Communist gunfire to turn out in record numbers at the polls and vote emphatically for democracy. Observers told of one woman, wounded in a Communist attack, who refused to leave the line at the polls to have her wounds treated until after she had voted. They told of another woman who defiantly answered Communist death threats saying, ``You can kill me. You can kill my family. You can kill my neighbors. But you can't kill us all.'' Well, that's the voice of the people determined to be free. That is the voice of the people of Central America.

 

In these last several years, there have been many such times when your support for assistance saved the day for democracy. The story of what has happened in that region is one of the most inspiring in the history of freedom. Today El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, as well as Costa Rica choose their governments in free and open democratic elections. Independent courts protect their human rights, and their people can hope for a better life for themselves and their children. It is a record of success that should make us proud, but the record is as yet incomplete.

 

Now, this is a map of Central America. As I said, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica are all friendly and democratic. In their midst, however, lies a threat that could reverse the democratic tide and plunge the region into a cycle of chaos and subversion. That is the Communist regime in Nicaragua called the Sandinistas, a regime whose allies range from Communist dictator Fidel Castro of Cuba to terrorist-supporter Qadhafi of Libya. But their most important ally is the Soviet Union.

 

With Cuban and Soviet-bloc aid, Nicaragua is being transformed into a beachhead for aggression against the United States. It is the first step in a strategy to dominate the entire region of Central America and threaten Mexico and the Panama Canal. That's why the cause of freedom in Central America is united with our national security. That is why the safety of democracy to our south so directly affects the safety of our own nation.

 

But the people of Nicaragua love freedom just as much as those in El Salvador. You see, when it became clear the direction the Sandinistas were taking, many who had fought against the old dictatorship literally took to the hills; and like the French resistance that fought the Nazis in World War II, they have been fighting the Communist Sandinistas ever since.

 

These are the forces of the democratic resistance. The Communist government named them contras, but the truth is they're freedom fighters. Their tenacious struggle has helped buy the surrounding democracies precious time, and with their heroic efforts, they are helping give freedom a chance in Nicaragua. A year-and-a-half ago, Congress first approved significant military aid for the freedom fighters. Since then they've been winning major victories in the field and doing what many at first thought impossible: bringing the Communist Sandinistas to the negotiating table and forcing them to negotiate seriously.

 

From the beginning, the United States has made every effort to negotiate a peace settlement -- bilaterally, multilaterally, in other diplomatic settings. My envoys have traveled to the region on at least 40 different occasions. But until this last year, these negotiations dragged on fruitlessly, because the Sandinistas had no incentive to change. Last August, however, with mounting pressure from the freedom fighters, the Sandinistas signed the Guatemala peace plan.

 

This time, the leaders of the four Central American democracies refused to let the peace negotiations become an empty exercise. When Nicaragua missed the second deadline for compliance, the democratic leaders courageously stood as one to insist that the Sandinistas live up to their signed commitments to democratic reform. Their failure to do so, said the democratic leaders, was the biggest obstacle to peace in the region. The Sandinistas are clearly feeling the pressure and are beginning to take limited steps. Yet at this crucial moment, there are those who want to cut off assistance to the freedom fighters and take the pressure off.

 

Tomorrow the House of Representatives will be voting on a $36 million bill, a support package to the freedom fighters. Ninety percent is for nonlethal support, such as food, clothing, and medicine, and the means to deliver it. Ten percent is for ammunition. That amount will be suspended until March 31st to determine whether the Sandinistas are taking irreversible steps toward democracy. I'm hopeful this will occur. However, if there is no progress toward a negotiated cease-fire, I'll make a decision to release these additional supplies, but only after weighing carefully and thoroughly the advice from Congress and the democratic Presidents of Central America.

 

Now, over the past several days, I've met with many Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, concerning my proposal. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I will, tomorrow, send a letter to the congressional leadership taking a further step. At the appropriate time, I will invite Congress to act by what is called a sense of Congress resolution on the question of whether the Government of Nicaragua is in compliance with the San Jose declaration. If Congress adopts such a resolution within 10 days containing this finding, then I will honor this action and withhold deliveries of ammunition in this package.

 

One thing is clear: Those brave freedom fighters cannot be left unarmed against Communist tyranny. Now, some say that military supplies aren't necessary, that humanitarian aid is enough. But there's nothing humanitarian about asking people to go up against Soviet helicopter gunships with nothing more than boots and bandages. There's no vote scheduled tomorrow in the Soviet Union on continued assistance to the Sandinistas. That assistance will continue, and it won't be just humanitarian.

 

Our policy of negotiations backed by the freedom fighters is working. Like the brave freedom fighters in Afghanistan who have faced down the Soviet Army and convinced the Soviet Union that it must negotiate its withdrawal from their country, the freedom fighters in Nicaragua can win the day for democracy in Central America. But our support is needed now; tomorrow will be too late. If we cut them off, the freedom fighters will soon begin to wither as an effective force. Then with the pressure lifted, the Sandinistas will be free to continue the consolidation of their totalitarian regime -- the military buildup --  inside Nicaragua, and Communist subversion of their neighbors.

 

Even today, with the spotlight of world opinion focused on the peace process, the Sandinistas openly boast that they are arming and training Salvadoran guerrillas. We know that the Sandinistas, who talk of a revolution without borders reaching to Mexico, have already infiltrated guerrillas into neighboring countries. Imagine what they'll do if the pressure is lifted. What will be our response as the ranks of the guerrillas in El Salvador, Guatemala, even Honduras and unarmed Costa Rica, begin to swell and those fragile democracies are ripped apart by the strain? By then the freedom fighters will be disbanded, refugees, or worse. They won't be able to come back.

 

Let me explain why this should be and would be such a tragedy, such a danger to our national security. If we return to the map for a moment, we can see the strategic location of Nicaragua -- close to our southern border, within striking distance of the Panama Canal. Domination of Central America would be an unprecedented strategic victory for the Soviet Union and its allies, and they're willing to pay for it. Cubans are now in Nicaragua constructing military facilities, flying combat missions, and helping run the secret police. The Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries have sent over $4 billion in arms and military aid and economic aid -- 20 times the amount that the United States has provided the democratic freedom fighters. If Congress votes tomorrow against aid, our assistance will very quickly come to an end, but Soviet deliveries won't.

 

We must ask ourselves why the Soviet Union, beset by an economic crisis at home, is spending billions of dollars to subsidize the military buildup in Nicaragua. Backed by some 2,000 Cuban and Soviet-bloc advisers, the Sandinista military is the largest Central America has ever seen. Warsaw Pact engineers are completing a deep-water port on the Caribbean coast similar to the naval base in Cuba for Soviet submarines. And the recently expanded airfields outside Managua can handle any aircraft in the Soviet arsenal, including the Bear bomber, whose 5,200-mile range covers most of the continental United States.

 

But this is only the beginning. Last October a high-ranking Sandinista officer, Roger Miranda, defected to this country, bringing with him a series of 5-year plans -- drawn up among the Sandinistas, Soviets, and Cubans -- for a massive military buildup in Nicaragua extending through 1995. These plans, which Major Miranda makes clear are to be put into effect whether the freedom fighters receive aid or not, call for quadrupling the Sandinista armed forces to 600,000 or one out of every five men, women, and children in the country.

 

As I speak to you tonight, several thousand Nicaraguans are taking courses in the Soviet Union and Cuba to learn to operate new high-tech missiles, artillery, and other advanced weapons systems. Of grave concern is the fact that the Soviets have scheduled delivery of Soviet MiG aircraft to Nicaragua. Now, if these were just the claims of one defector, no matter how highly placed and credible, some might still find reason to doubt. But even before Major Miranda's revolutions [revelations] were made public, his old boss, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, confirmed them in a public speech, adding that if Nicaragua chose to acquire MiG's it was none of our business. The introduction of MiG's into Nicaragua would be so serious an escalation that members of both parties in the Congress have said the United States simply cannot tolerate it.

 

The Miranda revelations can't help but make us skeptical of the recent Sandinista promises to abide by the Guatemala peace accord. The argument is made that the freedom fighters are unnecessary, that we can trust the Sandinistas to keep their word. Can we? It's important to remember that we already have a negotiated settlement with the Sandinistas: the settlement of 1979 that helped bring them to power, in which they promised, in writing, democracy, human rights, and a nonaligned foreign policy.

 

Of course, they haven't kept a single one of those promises, and we now know that they never intended to. Barely 2 months after assuming power, the Sandinista leadership drafted a secret report called the 72-hour document, outlining their plans to establish a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and spread subversion throughout Central America. This is the document in which they detailed their deception. It is now part of the public record, available for all to see.

 

One day after that 72-hour meeting, President Carter, unaware of their secret plans, received Daniel Ortega here in the White House and offered his new government our friendship and help, sending over $100 million in aid -- more than any other country at the time -- and arranging for millions more in loans. The Sandinistas say it was U.S. belligerence that drove them into the hands of the Soviets -- some belligerence. A short while later, the Sandinista comandantes made their first official trip to Moscow and signed a communique expressing support for the foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union. But that, one might say, was only the paperwork. Already, Soviet military planners were in Nicaragua, and the Sandinista subversion of El Salvador had begun -- all while our hand was extended in friendship.

 

This is not a record that gives one much faith in Sandinista promises. Recently, Daniel Ortega was up in Washington again, this time talking to Members of Congress, giving them assurances of his commitment to the Guatemala peace process. But we now know that at the same time, back in Managua, the Sandinistas were drawing up plans for a massive military escalation in Nicaragua and aggression against their neighbors. Now, as the Sandinistas see the vote on aid to the freedom fighters nearing, they are making more promises. Well, forgive my skepticism, but I kind of feel that every time they start making promises -- like that fellow in the Isuzu commercial -- there should be subtitles under them telling the real story.

 

One may hope they're sincere this time, but it hardly seems wise to stake the future of Central America and the national security of the United States on it. The freedom fighters are our insurance policy in case the Sandinistas once again go back on their word. The Sandinistas themselves admit that the limited steps they have taken to comply with the peace accords were promised in order to influence the vote in Congress. Was there ever a better argument for aid?

 

Even now, with the entire world watching, the Sandinistas have harassed and beaten human rights activists and arrested several leaders of the peaceful democratic opposition, including the editor of La Prensa. Before being interrogated, some were sealed for over an hour in metal lockers, 3 feet square on the floor and 7 feet high. Said one comandante of the opposition: ``They are scorpions. They should return to their holes, or we will crush them.''

 

Just a short while ago, the Sandinistas made their true intentions clear. Even if they were forced to hold elections and lost, they said they would never give up power. Responding to the estimate that the Sandinistas have no more than 15-percent popular support, another comandante responded by saying: ``That's all right. We can hold on to power with only 5 percent.'' Now, these are not the words, these are not the actions, of democratic reformers.

 

Those who want to cut off the freedom fighters must explain why we should believe the promises the Sandinista Communists make trying to influence Congress, but not the threats they make at home. They must explain why we should listen to them when they promise peace and not when they talk of turning all Central America into one ``revolutionary fire'' and boast of carrying their fight to Latin America and Mexico.

 

If we cut off aid to the freedom fighters, then the Sandinistas can go back to their old ways. Then the negotiations can become, once again, what they were before: high-blown words and promises and convenient cover, while the Sandinista Communists continue the consolidation of their dictatorial regime and the subversion of Central America. During the last vote in Congress, many who voted for aid to the freedom fighters set conditions on further assistance. They said the freedom fighters must broaden their leadership; they have. They said the freedom fighters must show that they are a viable fighting force and win support from the people. Well, the latest victory in the Las Minas area proved that.

 

For several weeks, nearly 7,000 freedom fighters maneuvered in secret throughout the country -- something they could only have done with support of the population. In one of the largest military operations in Nicaraguan history, they overran enemy headquarters, routed army barracks, blew up ammunition dumps, petroleum tanks, and other military targets. At one point, they captured a warehouse where grain was being hoarded for the army. The freedom fighters opened the doors and invited the hungry people of the area to take what they needed.

 

The freedom fighters are inside Nicaragua today because we made a commitment to them. They have done what Congress asked: They have proven their effectiveness. Can we, as a moral people, a moral nation, withdraw that commitment now and leave them at the mercy of the Sandinista regime or turn them forever into refugees -- refugees from the country for which they are making such a heroic sacrifice?

 

What message will that send to the world, to our allies and friends in freedom? What message will it send to our adversaries -- that America is a fair-weather friend, an unreliable ally? Don't count on us, because we may not be there to back you up when the going gets a little rough.

 

By fighting to win back their country, the freedom fighters are preventing the permanent consolidation of a Soviet military presence on the American mainland. By fighting for their freedom, they're helping to protect our national security. We owe them our thanks, not abandonment.

 

Some talk of containment, but we must not repeat the mistake we made in Cuba. If containment didn't work for that island nation, how much less effective will it be for an expansionist Soviet ally on the American mainland. I will tell you truthfully tonight: There will be no second chances tomorrow. If Congress votes down aid, the freedom fighters may soon be gone, and with them all effective pressure on the Sandinistas.

 

Our goal in Nicaragua is simple: peace and democracy. Our policy has consistently supported the efforts of those who seek democracy throughout Central America and who recognize that the freedom fighters are essential to that process. So, my fellow Americans, there can be no mistake about this vote: It is up or down for Central America. It is win or lose for peace and freedom. It is yes or no to America's national security.

 

My friends, I've often expressed my belief that the Almighty had a reason for placing this great and good land, the New World, here between two vast oceans. Protected by the seas, we have enjoyed the blessings of peace -- free for almost two centuries now from the tragedy of foreign aggression on our mainland. Help us to keep that precious gift secure. Help us to win support for those who struggle for the same freedoms we hold dear. In doing so, we will not just be helping them, we will be helping ourselves, our children, and all the peoples of the world. We'll be demonstrating that America is still a beacon of hope, still a light unto the nations.

 

Yes, a great opportunity awaits us, an opportunity to show that hope still burns bright in this land and over our continent, casting a glow across the centuries, still guiding millions to a future of peace and freedom. Thank you, and God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 8 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live by Cable Network News and CONUS Communications. The three major television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, declined to broadcast the address.