Thirty years ago I wrote this essay. I solicit your feedback on how the same patterns used then — Secretary of State Alexander Haig‘s holding-up for the cameras of falsified photographs (which was itself a repeat of Sen. Joe McCarthy‘s use of cropped photos in the Army-McCarthy televised hearings in 1954, as shown in the great documentary, “Point of Order”), were repeated by Colin Powell in his televised testimony to the United Nations about alleged (but false) Iraqi mobile biowarfare labs, as one of the bases for sending U.S. troops into Iraq, along with the lies orchestrated by the U.S. government of infants tossed out of Kuwait’s incubators by Iraqi forces — continue to this very day.

by Mitchel Cohen

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
‑ Voltaire

We take for granted that our government lies to us. The Left agrees with that, the Right does as well, and so do those attempting to straddle the ever‑narrowing fence in the middle. In fact, one of the great, unifying themes of American democracy is the belief by an overwhelming majority of our population that the government
regularly and consistently lies to us.

Depending upon whom you listen to, the reasons behind the lies vary. Sometimes it’s “for your own good”. Sometimes it’s for the sake of “National Security”. Sometimes it’s to “protect corporate investments and private interests from public scrutiny”. But whatever the reason, we all agree that the government lies to us. That’s part of what unites us as a country. It’s a cherished American tradition. We are a nation of “the lied‑to’s”.

Of course rarely will anyone admit to actually believing the lies. Oh, no, we’re much too sophisticated for that! I have yet to meet a single person who believes, for example, that President Reagan is actually trying to support an end to Apartheid in South Africa with his “constructive engagement” ruse. It’s clear that’s just a phrase to make palatable the U.S. government’s continued funding of the apartheid regime. Still, Americans have a collective appreciation for a well-constructed euphemism. My current favorite is the President’s dubbing of the MX nuclear missile “The Peacekeeper”! We chortle gleefully at the glib turns of phrase while all the while knowing, of course, that a ruse is a ruse is a ruse. We are a nation of bedtime story-lovers, and no one is better than President Reagan than spinning tall tales, often right on the spur of the moment, to tuck us in at night.

I admit that it did take me a while to imagine our so-called “founding fathers” — Tom Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams ‑‑ let alone Benjamin Franklin, to whom President Reagan compared the contra death squads in Nicaragua ‑‑ carrying M-16s and slogging through the muck of Honduras, along its border with Nicaragua. Even more preposterous, their distribution of “how‑to‑murder” manuals, which were in fact prepared in secret by the CIA! I much prefer the bed-time story of the founding fathers’ distribution of the declaration of independence celebrating freedom from foreign domination.

When one hears first hand accounts by peasants living in Nicaragua of how the contras, funded by the U.S. government, raped their mothers while they (as kids) were forced to watch, and how the contras jabbed knives into their mothers’ vaginas and jagged upwards, flaying them open while still alive, one wonders which of our “founding fathers” President Reagan was dreaming of.

Was it true that “the contras really cut off the heads of doctors and teachers just north of Jinotega,” as the newpapers reported, and rolled them down the dirt streets like soccer balls as a lesson to the poor peasants for housing such “communist” medics who treated the sick for free and taught the illiterate to read and write? I had to find out for myself. And so in 1983 I visited that beautiful mountain town, very poor, and heard the stories. To my horror, I found that the worst things said about the contras in the U.S. barely scratched the surface! The U.S. government’s lies to the contrary, the Nicaraguan people despised the contras, even those who voted for oppositional candidates to the Sandinistas in the recent elections.


When I returned to the U.S., I wondered: “Am I losing my sense of appreciation for the well‑wrought lie?” Everything I saw in Nicaragua testified to a beautiful, peaceful and free country. After the 1979 Sandinista revolution, people were free to travel anywhere they wanted, and mass‑transit, although over‑crowded, was very cheap — much cheaper (relative to the standard of living) than in the U.S. Perhaps that’s why the contras attacked and murdered a busload of civilians, and mined the main (and only) paved road in the countryside north ol Esteli. Health care was free. Education was free. People were learning to write for the first time.

Well then, what of all this bruhaha about the supposed lack of religious freedom in Nicaragua? Does it have any basis at all? In a recent interview with Archbishop Obando y Bravo’s second‑in‑command, Msgr. Bismark Carvallo, Carvallo was asked (by a reporter for the British paper The Guardian) for examples of his denunciation of the Sandinistas’ totalitarian persecution of the church. The monsignor pondered a moment before replying: “They’ve made education compulsory, and won’t let people charge for it, which is anti‑clerical, and they teach Darwinian evolution in the schools, which is atheist indoctrination.” Free education and science — that is all the good monsignor could came up with — his example of religious persecution in Nicaragua!

Indeed, there is no religious persecution whatsoever in Nicaragua, which Carvallo should know better than most churchmen. Carvallo is famous throughout Nicaragua for having been photographed fleeing, with no clothes on, from the house of a woman with whom (in Alexander Cockburn’s delicate phrasings) he had been “conducting rites of an intimate nature,” pursued by the irate husband! And Carvallo nevertheless is still allowed to hold his position in the Church.

My friend Kathy and I worked for a short time in the town of Ciudad Sandino, 10 kilometers northwest of Managua. There we helped construct a mental health day clinic, dig the pits for plumbing, scrub the floors, and talk with the patients. What was novel about this? For one, the patients were building their own clinic as part of their therapy! It was totally voluntary, no coercion. They worked with an architect and planned it themselves, and their children received food, clothing, rent money, and basic expenses while the mother or father was unable to work and was seeking therapy. The project was headed by one of the most dynamic, beautiful people I’ve ever met — Maria Izaguierra ‑‑ who had attended Occupational Therapy classes in Mexico, which was paid for in part by the church and in part by the Sandinistas. She returned to Nicaragua counseling peasant women about birth control and, after a few months training, as an “expert” in psychology. What an experience, to take part in and to watch this clinic being built by the patients themselves, unfolding right before our eyes! Is that the face of the enemy? Is that an example of the horrible crimes the Sandinistas are said, by our government, to have committed?

On another occasion, we had the opportunity to work on one of the collective farms. Far from being the forced labor collectives denounced by the U.S. government as though they were imposed in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, in Nicaragua these farms were totally voluntary, and some of them are doing exceptionally well in competing on the market with the private “fincas” and plantations. Seventy percent of Nicaragua’s agriculture is still privately owned. On this farm, the campesinos would meet regularly and decide how to run it, along with elected managers as well as those appointed by the government. While Kathy and I were there experimenting with natural pest controls ‑‑ planting beans of a certain sort between rows of tomatoes under the auspices of North American agricultural expert Peter Rosset ‑‑ one of the campesinos had an epileptic seizure. It was very bad. For over 20 minutes in the hot sun, he lay on the ground as others gathered around him and tried to give him shade. A man jumped on his horse and rode for help. It took over 15 minutes, but a jeep finally arrived, and drove the poor man to the newly built hospital near Matagalpa ‑‑ a hospital that didn’t exist until the revolution built it!

Suddenly, what this revolution means for people in everyday terms, in their daily lives, became very clear. I understood why people so strongly and fervently support their revolution. It also became clear why the contras continue to attack hospitals and schools, for it is in those areas that the Sandinistas have achieved successes that mean so much to the everyday lives of the population.

Imagine, a government so unafraid of its own people, so self‑assured, that it arms everyone so that they could protect themselves and their revolution, putting human life and dignity ahead of private profits.

I think back to the comparison President Reagan made between the contras and our own forefathers. Perhaps in some ways it is not so far‑fetched. Washington and Jefferson did own slaves. John Adams, of all people, was the lawyer for the British soldiers who murdered four American patriots in the Boston massacre. In his famous sum­mation demanding acquittal, Adams defended the soldiers by racially slurring the patriots killed: “[They are] a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars,” Adams said, spitting in the face of the 10,000 people marching in a funeral procession for those murdered.

The lies! Alexander Haig testified before the U.S. Senate and held up photographs of the purported “secret evidence” against the Sandinistas: pictures of the alleged massacre of hundreds of Miskito Indians. How ironic, for the U.S. government to suddenly pretend to care about the rights of Indians! They have no shame.

What wasn’t reported was the Truth. The photos Haig held up were actually of a mass burning of dead plague victims in Africa that had taken place several years before! The U.S. left‑wing and the European press released the un‑cropped photos, which clearly showed Red Cross trucks and personnel burning the bodies of already-dead plague victims to prevent wider catastrophe and to stop The Plague from spreading. The photos weren’t even from Nicaragua. Reagan knew all that, as did Haig. Yet they went ahead anyway and presented such lies about the Sandinistas as justification for the U.S. “morality” of giving aid to the contras! Nothing else! Not a shrivel of evidence of the alleged Sandinista crimes has ever emerged ‑‑ because there is none!

I repeat the quote from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The Sandinistas are not committing atrocities. It is the contras that are committing the most heinous anti‑human crimes. The Sandinistas are launching one of the most ambitious and good health care, education, and artistic campaigns ‑‑ in a totally open, free and democratic way ‑‑ that has taken place, ever, in this hemisphere (including the U.S.!); the contras are trying to destroy it by murdering anyone, however insignificant, who has anything to do with it. The U.S. government has chosen its side, and fills our minds with absurdities and lies about what’s actually going on; the question is, are we going to let them get away with it once again?


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