Self Determination: A Right or a Convenience?
(American Intervention in Chile and Nicaragua)

by Mark Casey
copyright January 9, 2004

 United States intervention in both Nicaragua and Chile, both covert and overt, provides an example of deliberate American interference with the intent to craft foreign political landscapes to suit American interests and goals. They also serve as “models” which will be compared and contrasted with the recent invasion of Iraq. Intervention in foreign nations has been justified in different ways, but there are legitimate questions about these actions in light of both the means in which the United States intervenes and the end result of these interventions. After examining these examples, the question will be asked: how do American administrations justify the denial of a peoples’ right to self determination?

 Self determination is defined by the Charter of the United Nations as the right of all peoples to “determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development" and goes on to state that “States must refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other States and thereby adversely affecting the exercise of the right to self-determination.” There is an immensity of information in the public domain, including rulings by the United Nations’ International Court of Justice that shows, without ideological bias, that consecutive American administrations have ignored this principle.

 To engage in the broader discussion of why the United States chooses to intervene in the affairs of other nations, some background on the intervention in Nicaragua, and then Chile, will be discussed.

U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan affairs has been evident throughout 20th century. Such intervention helped preserve the oppressive and corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza, his son, and finally brother, for more than 43 years. Founded in 1936 with the help of U.S. funds, the Somoza regime returned the favour by sending troops to Guatemala to help the Americans oust its socialist leader and offering Nicaragua as a launch pad for an American invasion of Cuba. This is testimony to Somoza’s strong anti-socialist credentials.

 After Anastasio Somoza’s assassination in 1956, his son Luis Somoza Debayle took control of the regime. While maintaining control of the military, he stepped down from government in 1971 and named a president. This new arrangement didn’t last, however, because after a devastating earthquake in 1972 Somoza declared martial law and retook control of the government. Despite the 6,000 dead and 20,000 injured, Somoza’s corrupt regime embezzled much of the international relief funds. Fearing a revolt, American marines were sent to ensure that the friendly regime wasn’t overthrown.

 By 1978, the Nicaraguan economy had slowed and opposition to the ruling Somozas was growing. A leading voice of criticism was silenced when Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of a prominent anti-Somoza newspaper, was assassinated. Not surprisingly, there was a public perception that Somoza himself ordered the assassination in an attempt to quell the rising tide. If that was the case, the plan didn’t work. The well-organized opposition group Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) launched a violent uprising within the military. In 1979 the Sandinistas were set to assume government, so Somoza had no choice but to resign in and flee to Miami “with what was left of the national treasury.”

 Without the U.S.-friendly Somoza in power, the American administration, under Jimmy Carter, was faced with a choice. After intervening time and time again to preserve the corrupt regime, what would the United States do in a post-Somoza situation? Obviously there were specific goals being met by U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, and these exercises were not cheap. Maintenance of the pro-U.S. regime required a significant investment of money, military, and political support. It was not likely that Carter was willing to lose that entire investment.

 So what was so threatening about the Sandinistas? According to a report issued by the U.S. State Department in 1998, the Sandinista regime nationalized dozens of companies and confiscated American assets in the process. It is also pertinent to mention that the same report states that the United States is “encouraging Nicaraguans to resolve their problems through dialogue and compromise.”  This policy differs from the one practiced by American administrations throughout the 20th century.

 The new Sandinista government pursued social reforms that advanced programs like education and health care for Nicaraguans. The fears of American officials were that as one state underwent a socialist revolution, the “cancer” might spread to other impoverished Central American states. The results, they lamented, would be the seizure of American interests and a rising tide of socialism on the continent – an unwelcome specter during the cold war.

Wanting the socialists out of Nicaragua was a given for the American administration in 1979, but there was an obvious practical problem. Who would replace the revolutionaries? Somoza’s regime was finished and its leader hated by the population. President Carter favoured the "Somozism without Somoza" approach. In other words, the installation of a new regime that represented the same things as Somoza did – capitalist, to ensure there were no ties to Cuba or the Soviets on the continent; and friendly to American interests. The conditions were right for a subsidized counterrevolution because socialist reforms in a country with such limited resources meant that there was less money for military spending, and hence, for defense of the regime.

 Knowing time was of the essence, the Carter administration arranged to fly former military commanders of Somoza’s National Guard out of Nicaragua in Red Cross aircraft (This is a war crime under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention). The plan was to reconstitute the Guard on the borders of the country and thereby create a counterrevolutionary forced called the contras. Sending millions of dollars in funding to the contra force, as well as arranging training for the rebels, provided a perfect diversion for the Sandinista government.

 President Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 and his fierce anti-communism doctrine intensified the U.S. efforts in Nicaragua. Pentagon papers released in the mid-nineties confirmed that from 1982-91 the CIA was publishing and distributing how-to manuals, in Spanish, to the contra forces. These manuals advocated the use of torture, execution and the kidnapping of family members as effective forms of coercion.

For the administration, this wasn’t like any normal war, where it is either win or lose. Even if the contras didn’t succeed in overthrowing the socialists, they would force them to choose between building hospitals or schools and funding their armies to maintain their regime. This would have the desired effect of discrediting socialism and thus prevent it from enticing other Central American countries from following the same path.

 Combined with the military support for the contras, the American government also used its global influence to impose economic strangulation on the country. The U.S. government arranged to lay mines in Nicaraguan harbours to disrupt trade and persuaded other countries to cut off aid to Nicaragua, which happened to be the second poorest nation on the hemisphere. This made it far more difficult for the Sandinistas to maintain stability – thereby advancing the cause of making socialism seem all the more unviable to other states. This economic warfare resulted in widespread hardship. Senator Alan Cranston, a prominent liberal in the U.S. Senate at the time, said that “if it turned out not to be possible to destroy the Sandinistas, then we'd just have to let them fester in [their] own juices."

 The contras, using CIA know-how and with American support, conducted terrorist attacks against what are known as “soft targets”. Soft targets are those which are undefended civilian farms, hospitals, etc. While inflicting massive suffering, this sort of attack was instrumental in destabilizing the socialist regime because the selling-feature of socialism is the state’s ability to care for its citizens. Since the contras were able to take that away, then socialism in general was dealt yet another blow.

 By 1990, the country was forced to hold a presidential election in which the Sandinista government fell. UNO Party candidate Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua and began to improve diplomatic relations with the U.S. There was an election held in 1994, but there is dispute over its legitimacy between conservative and liberal observers. The 1990 election was endorsed as legal and legitimate by international experts.

 Though the legality of the 1990 election is not being challenged, it is clear that American interference altered the outcome. There was a clear choice for the Nicaraguan electorate. Their choices: continued U.S.-funded terrorism and economic strangulation or the possibility of a brighter future by electing the U.S.-backed candidate with the understanding that the White House would then call off its dogs. When the second poorest nation in the hemisphere is up against the United States of America, most would argue that there really was no choice.  "The UNO triumph was legal, but not just."

For those who agree with the American exercise in Nicaragua, the end justifies the means. That is to say that destroying socialism in Nicaragua was worth defying international agreements on several occasions, investing $300 million in a terrorist organization, and training the terrorists of that organization to kill 30,000 Nicaraguans. There is no exact figure for the number of deaths that resulted from starvation and disease that could be attributed to the economic isolation imposed by the American administration.

 For those who agree with the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ), the end does not justify the means, and probably the end is no more justifiable than the means. The ICJ examined the case of “Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America)” and made a ruling on June 27, 1986. The ruling stated that the United States was "in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to use force against another state". It went on to rule that the United States is obligated to pay potentially enormous damages to Nicaragua to the tune of $17 billion. American officials quickly withdrew its support for the International Court of Justice and refused to recognize its jurisdiction. No damages were ever paid. When the government of Nicaragua attempted to pursue the court’s decision, U.S. President George Bush made future American aid contingent upon Nicaragua’s dismissal of the case. In 1991, the Nicaraguan government formally withdrew its ICJ case and thereby abandoned any chance of receiving compensation.

 Many of the details surrounding the Nicaragua affair were made public because of the manner in which the United States funded the contra forces. The “Iran-Contra Scandal” was so serious that it jeopardized Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In November of 1986 President Reagan admitted, after swirling rumours, that the United States had illegal dealings with terrorists in Iran. The administration was illegally selling weapons to Iran in hopes that the terrorists would release some American hostages, while simultaneously funneling the profits from the arms deal to the contras in Nicaragua.
 While the Iran-Contra scandal merits a comprehensive study as well, it is merely being mentioned here to illustrate the political priority the Reagan administration placed on destabilizing Nicaragua. Though most observers believe that the deal was conceived mainly because of President Reagan’s obsession with the American hostages in Iran, the fact that the administration went to such lengths to covertly obtain and transfer funds to the contras shows a great degree of political determination.

 The American administration hailed the Sandinista defeat as a triumph for “freedom and democracy”. That is a very common justification for intervention in other nations’ affairs, but it is also very easy to see the contradictions. Freedom and democracy were the prominent themes in the information disseminated to the public and media by the American government during the contra affair and after the Sandinistas were defeated in 1990. If Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and numerous presidents before them wanted to defend freedom or democracy, they would not have gone to such great lengths to maintain the corrupt and brutal Somoza regime. It is interesting that defending freedom and democracy required that the American government send marines to the capital of Nicaragua to defend a president who stole millions of dollars in foreign aid after his country was devastated by an earthquake. It is difficult to make a connection between democracy or freedom and what American administrations did to support 43 years of rule by the Somoza family.

 Another interesting justification for intervention in Nicaragua (which has also been seen in more recent examples), is what some American officials call their right to self defense. That position presupposes two conditions: that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had the intent of harming the United States and that the government of Nicaragua was strong enough to actually inflict any damage on the United States. As mentioned before, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, behind Haiti. What could they have done to harm the United States? The obvious question is, “defending yourself from what?” When the International Court of Justice examined the case of Nicaragua v. United States in 1986, the Reagan administration used the basic argument that:

… the United States relied on self-defense against the allegedly secret penetration of international Communism or acts of international terrorism. Thus the U.S. counter memorial asserted that "the United States, pursuant to the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense . . . has responded to requests from El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, for assistance in their self-defense against aggression by Nicaragua.

 The Court rejected this argument, dismissing the validity of collective self-defense against Nicaragua for reasons that included “secret penetration of international Communism.” By 12 votes to 3, the Court decided that U.S. training, arming, and financing of the contra terrorist group, as well as laying mines in Nicaraguan harbours to disrupt trade, violated the United States obligation "not to intervene in the affairs of another state" and "not to use force against another state."

 It is interesting to note that after the Court decision, Nicaragua’s recourse was a UN Security Council resolution calling upon “all countries to abide by international law,” which was vetoed by the United States.

 Revisiting the argument that the American foreign policy is guided by the goal to spread freedom and democracy, there is little evidence that this is in fact the motive for many instances of American intervention around the world. In fact, there are many examples of American interference abroad that resulted in what could be characterized as anything but free and democratic.

 In Chile, the next example, the American administration under Kennedy established an electoral committee to choose and fund a candidate who could stop the socialists from taking power. According to William Blum’s book Killing Hope, the Americans funded at least half of the Christian Democratic Party’s campaign costs in the 1964 and 67 elections, in hopes of electing Eduardo Frei instead of the socialist candidate Salvadore Allende as president of Chile. After funneling an estimated $20 million into Frei’s campaign, the expected result came about: Frei beat Allende by 17% of popular vote.

 Despite U.S. government support, Allende went on to defeat Frei in Chilean presidential elections held in 1970. The American administration immediately became suspect of the socialist reforms being undertaken by the new Chilean government, much like it did in the Nicaraguan example. The administration, under the guidance of President Richard Nixon and his advisor, Henry Kissinger, arranged to have the CIA supply elements of the Chilean military with weapons to be used in a coup against Allende. The problem for the Americans was that Chilean military Commander-in-Chief Rene Schneider was very loyal to the constitution, and therefore the president. On October 22 of 1970 Schneider was shot by the same weapons that were supplied by the CIA. He died four days later of cardiac arrest.

 The assassination did not have the desired effect of paving the way to a coup in Chile. Instead, the nation rallied around its president and went on to reelect him in 1973 with a drastically increased level of popular support. The United States then cut economic aid to Chile, but simultaneously continued to fund American-friendly elements of the military. Members of the Chilean military were also being trained in the United States in preparation for a coup. Allende was reluctant to refuse the military support from the U.S. because he knew it would make him all the more isolated from the military.
 On September 11, 1973, President Allende’s government was overthrown and he was assassinated. The U.S.-backed military took power in Chile and led to the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. He has since been accused of committing war crimes against the Chilean people. In October of 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London after a medical procedure at the request of the Spanish government. Despite former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s support for Pinochet, the extradition order was upheld. Pinochet fought extradition to Spain for several years, where he had been charged with 32 counts of torture and conspiracy to torture his political enemies. That number continued to increase with the gathering of evidence. After several years of appeals, charges were dropped in light of his failing health. He is believed to be responsible for the murder or “disappearance” of at least 3000 people.

 This Chilean example doesn’t bode well for the justification of spreading freedom and democracy. Unlike the Nicaraguan model, Allende was twice elected as a socialist president, which in many ways makes the U.S. intervention to destroy him more offensive to those who advocate a state’s right to self determination. (There was a Nicaraguan election held in 1984, but the validity was challenged by many and rejected by the United States) While the Nixon administration was trying to stop another ally of the Soviet Union from being formed, there is evidence that the administration believed that it was doing a good deed by protecting Chileans from themselves. As Henry Kissinger stated, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people."

After elected President Allende was overthrown and replaced by General Pinochet, it would be logical to assume that if the United States was interested in democracy and freedom than it would have applied pressure on the dictator to clean up his act in light of the human rights issues. However, recently declassified State Department documents outline a conversation that took place in Chile on June 8, 1976 between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Pinochet. With full knowledge of the human rights infractions being committed by the regime, instead of condemning Pinochet's actions, Kissinger stated, “I think that the previous government was headed toward Communism. We wish your government well.”

 While many believe that Pinochet’s regime was an unfortunate side effect of the fight against Communism, the declassified documents mentioned above give one the impression that perhaps Pinochet was not a “side effect” at all, but rather a deliberate creation of the American administration. The script of the 1976 conversation also has Secretary Kissinger expressing his desire to do more to help the Pinochet regime, but he cited domestic pressures in the United States as well as the impending presidential election as reasons why he must distance the administration from Pinochet’s regime.

 Though there is an awesome amount of information showing that many, if not all, American administrations make these interventions, there was an interesting development at the very end of the Clinton administration when it condemned the actions of previous administrations in Chile. An excerpt of the press release issued at the time of the release of declassified documents admitted that “actions approved by the U.S. government during this period aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for the constitutional order and the rule of law.” It is a rare instance when one administration condemns the foreign policy of a previous one in such a manner (even when their mistakes are self-evident). This is also a blow to those in the previous administration who continue to believe that U.S. actions in Chile were what brought “freedom and democracy” to that country.

There are several differences between the Nicaraguan example and the Chilean example, both in the methods and in the results. In Nicaragua, the United States responded when leftists overthrew the establishment regime by harassing and terrorizing the Nicaraguan people to discredit socialism and force the Sandinistas into a virtually un-winnable election. The end result was a democratically elected alternative to the Sandinistas in the moderate UNO Party candidate Violeta Chamorro. Since then, democratic elections have continued to be the norm in Nicaragua.

 In Chile, the U.S. tried and failed to defeat the Allende socialists at the polls by using huge amounts of money and political influence in the 1970 election. Their recourse was then to orchestrate the assassination of the military’s Commander-in-Chief, who was loyal to the constitution. Since that only solidified the nation’s support for their new president, a full scale military coup was staged with the help of the CIA – this time they succeeded. Unlike in Nicaragua, there were no more elections. Once the U.S.-backed military took down the elected government, General Pinochet was there to stay until 1990.

 There are some institutional problems in foreign intervention. It is impossible to collect enough intelligence about another country to be able to make perfect political and social forecasts. For example, the United States knows less about Nicaragua than Nicaraguans know about Nicaragua. There are always eventualities that cannot be predicted when an agency like the CIA is dealing with shaping the political landscape of a foreign nation. While short-term political goals may be well served by such intervention, the long term effects, such as in the case of Pinochet’s 17 year regime, may be disastrous. That fact is common sense, and can be applied to any example of American foreign intervention.

 As mentioned before, there are always those supporters of these interventions who believe that the end justifies the means (and that the end is justifiable). Whether or not these interventions were right is not what is being examined – rather, the fact that the interventions are taking place at all. Unless these interventions are justified not in an ideological sense, but in an objective examination of the evidence, these interventions are in violation of international law. Take the 1986 International Court of Justice case of Nicaragua v. United States for example. Despite attempts to prove that the U.S. administration was acting in self defense against the “secret penetration of international Communism”, the Court ruled that U.S. involvement was in contravention of international law.

 Now let’s dismiss international law and multilateralism in general for a moment. They don’t mean anything unless the established multilateral institutions are respected, which is only case if it is convenient. One can’t help but find similarities between the United States rejected “self defense against the secret penetration of international Communism” justification for interference in Nicaragua and the justification for the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq. The only difference is the Cold War is over, and America’s right to defend itself against Communism switched to its right to defend itself against weapons of mass destruction.

 From an objective sense, most would agree that the self defense justification of an invasion against Iraq is about as valid as it was against Nicaragua in 1986. What, exactly, was it defending itself against? There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction found before or after the invasion. The Iraqi army had been decimated in the first Gulf War, as demonstrated by the rapid capitulation of their defenses during the 2003 invasion. Just like in 1986, the United Nations disagreed with the United States’ justification of self defense. Just like in 1986, the United States ignored the United Nations and did it anyway.

 The self defense argument didn’t hold up in the recent Iraq affair any better than it did in Nicaragua. Since no weapons of mass destruction were found, and many of the U.S. “intelligence” claims about Iraq’s nuclear program and launch capability proved to be patently false, the justification and overall theme of the invasion has been expertly switched from self defense to the second theme discussed in this paper, “freedom and democracy”. The U.S. was now in Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. What happened to the dire need to defend oneself? Just like Nicaragua. Use the self defense claims first, and when they are ridiculed, fall back on defense of freedom and democracy. The parallels in method are striking, but what of the result? The result of the Iraqi intervention is not yet known, but using precedent established in the interventions discussed here, there is very little new evidence to suggest that this intervention is anything more than the same model applied in a different theatre.

 The debate is not whether socialism is good or bad, or whether or not Saddam Hussein was a genuine threat to the West. It is possible that the United Nations would have compromised on the Iraq issue if given more time (and evidence), and maybe there would have been a multilateral effort to remove a tyrant. That is very different than the unilateral and preemptive approach taken by the United States, and undoubtedly explains the difficulty in finding international support for rebuilding Iraq today.

 How should these issues be addressed? The logical step is to actually respect the multilateral institutions that already exist. If the United Nations and International Court of Justice are really worth their real estate in New York and the Hague, then institutional reform has to come about to make them relevant. Court decisions have to be binding for big countries, not just little countries; a definition as to what qualifies as terrorism must be established (it may have to encompass terrorist acts sponsored by states); and a states’ right to self determination must be absolute unless a credible “self defense” (or “collective self defense”) justification can be produced. Self defense should not be a concept that lends itself to intangible threats or preemption.

 Foreign intervention has to be inextricably tied to multilateralism. If not, the international system does not function in the way in which it was intended. In my view, no country, including the United States, should have the authority to deny other peoples’ right to self determination unless its own security is truly in jeopardy. Anything less than that diminishes overall global stability, weakens multilateral institutions like the United Nations, and certainly calls the credibility (and motives) of the United States into question.


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