Documentation: Debating Contra Aid

American bishops have often clashed with members of the Reagan administration, and Nicaragua has often been the focus of those disputes. But rarely has the conflict been as sharp — and as shocking —as the recent exchange that took place between Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, and Auxiliary

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. What follows is an unabridged, verbatim transcript of the exchange, on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, broadcast on March 4, 1986. Reprinted with permission of the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour; a co-production of MacNeil-Lehrer-Gannett Productions, WNET and WETA.

Jim Lehrer: Nicaragua. Here it is again, front and center as the foreign policy issue of heat and emotion. The new round of debate centers around Reagan’s request to Congress for $100 million in new aid for the anti­government contra guerrillas. Mr. Reagan, Secretary of State Shultz, and other officials were out in force yesterday and again today making the arguments for the aid, saying, among other things, that it’s the Philippines all over again. A group of 200 prominent religious leaders joined members of Congress in the counter-effort to defeat the aid proposal when it goes to a congressional vote later this month. They say, among other things, supporting the contras is a grievous error and there is no similarity at all to the Philippines. A principal debater from each side of this new argument is with us. First, from the administration, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams.

Mr. Secretary, what is the similarity between peaceful revolution in the Philippines and the military, or the attempt­ed military, revolution in Nicaragua?

Elliott Abrams: The side we’re on. We’re on the side of democracy. We’re trying to get rid of a dictatorship and help people who want-to live in a democracy to do so. But, as Secretary Shultz said, you can’t push it too far, for one reason. There was no communist government in the Philippines. Had those people stood in front of tanks in the Philippines as they did, what happened? Marcos couldn’t

give the order to roll over them. But the order from the com­munist government of Hungary in ’56 was “roll over them,” And in ’68 it was Czechoslovakia. And it is today in Nicaragua. You cannot pressure a communist government in the same way. They don’t have the same — you can’t ap­peal to Western, democratic traditions because they don’t believe in them. They hate them. They say they’re Leninists. So that’s the main difference. But the similarity is we’re on the right side in both cases, democracy.

Lehrer: The religious leaders said today that the ad­ministration is deceiving the American people by covering up the abuses committed by the contras that the United States is supporting.

Sec. Abrams: Well, it would be a little bit funny if it weren’t a little bit sad. We don’t cover anything up. There is so much information around I think the average con­gressman and the average citizen has trouble trying to find out how to put it together into some decent composite por­trait of Nicaragua. But the notion that we’re covering anything up is — it’s incredible to me when you consider the number of reports that come out from human rights groups and so forth. I just want to mention one that came out today —

Lehrer: The Americas Watch group one?

Abrams: No, not the Americas Watch report.

Lehrer: Not the Americas Watch report. Okay. I’ll ask you about that one in a minute.

Sec. Abrams: Someone from the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace testified today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about repression in Nicaragua, especially about repression of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, the expulsion of priests — if I can just read a paragraph. “The Sandinistas have banned national televis­ing of the Catholic mass, shut down the Catholic radio sta­tion, suppressed the Catholic Church newspaper, con­fiscated its printing press, seized the church social welfare. Illegally drafted seminarians, imprisoned and deported priests, prevented the establishment of a church human-rights office, prohibited open air-masses, and hampered the church’s capacity to teach, minister, and proselytize. Two Social Christian Party activists were brutally murdered in November, one after being tortured.” They go on to talk about clandestine state security prisons, outright torture, solitary confinement – totally dark, no food, no water, an air war involving bombing and strafing of villages in the Indian areas. That’s from somebody at the Carnegie Endowment who is just back from Nicaragua as an observer internationally for a human rights mission there. That’s the reality of what’s going on under the Sandinistas. It’s pretty grim.

Lehrer: And you’re suggesting that the contras are not committing abuses?

Sec.  Abrams: No. I’m suggesting that there is no guerrilla war without abuses. I think we should recognize that right out. There may be no war without abuses; there is certainly no guerrilla war without abuses. How do you stop these abuses? We learned a lesson in El Salvador. We gave military aid to the army. There was a fight in Congress. The President went to Congress. He won: we gave the military aid. We gave them a lot of training. And everybody acknowledges, even Americas Watch that human rights abuses in El Salvador are way, way down. It is unfortunate that Bishop Gumbleton voted against military aid for El Salvador as well as Honduras and other countries because it’s this kind of aid where we can try to train and profes­sionalize a force that ends the human rights abuses and turns into a real good professional army.

Lehrer: You mentioned Bishop Gumbleton, and we’re going to hear from him now. Robin?

MacNeil: Yes, also with us tonight is the man who read the religious leaders’ statement at the Capitol today accusing the administration of exaggeration, misinformation and outright falsehood. He is Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, and he joins us from that city’s public television station, WTVS.

Bishop, what are the outright falsehoods your statement says form the heart of the administration’s case against the Sandinistas?

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton: There are many of them. One of the first ones that we insist upon is that it’s a lie to call the contras freedom fighters. The contras are, many of them, from the former Somoza regime. They are terrorists; they are committing atrocities. Mr. Abrams sug­gested that we claim they’re covering this up. No, they’re not covering it up. It’s impossible to cover up the atrocities of the contras. They are trying to blur the situation, though, by calling these people freedom fighters, and that is an outright lie. And I don’t say that based on so-called mis- or disinformation from the Sandinista government. This is bas­ed on witnesses. Witness for Peace has had thousands of people from this country go down there to see what is hap­pening. We have religious communities throughout the whole country of Nicaragua who report to us the atrocities that are being done by the contras, the killing of women, children, elderly men and mutilating their bodies after­wards. These are the kinds of things that the administration denies, and that is an outright lie. The contras are not freedom fighters.

MacNeil: What about the bulletin of particulars that Mr. Abrams just read from the Carnegie Endowment witness, all of which concerned the Catholic Church in Nicaragua? Committed by the Sandinistas.

Bishop Gumbleton: Again, we don’t have to go to outside groups to tell us what is happening. . . . We’re not on the side of the people in Nicaragua. We’re on the side of the terrorists in Nicaragua.

MacNeil: Abrams says the similarity is that the U.S. is on the right side in both cases, the side of democracy against dictatorship.

Bishop Gumbleton: I think there is a parallel to the Philippines, if you go back into history a little bit, and I think it’ll indicate how we are on the wrong side. In 1934, February 21st, one of the leaders of the Nicaraguan people was assassinated in a very cruel way, Sandino. And it was done by the Somoza head of the government there that was put into power by the United States. At that point we chose which side we were going to be on, and it was the side of the tyrant. And we have continued to be on the side of the tyrant ever since. In the Philippines we finally made a different choice. It was only in 1984, of course, President Reagan was saying that it was either Marcos or communism. Sud­denly he’s found out that there is an alternative when the people speak for themselves.

MacNeil: Let’s —

Bishop Gumbleton: In Nicaragua the people are speaking. They are saying they want their government. They voted for it in 60 percent. And they are not out in the street protesting that government. You cannot find tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

MacNeil: Okay, let’s come to the point of this debate, and that is the President’s request for aid. You’re against it. He says if he doesn’t get it that rejecting it will deliver Nicaragua permanently to the communist bloc and put Soviet bases on the U.S. doorstep. Do you see such a risk?

Bishop Gumbleton: Well, first of all, you see, that merely proves the point, that we’re on the wrong side. If there were such a protest of the people in Nicaragua as there was in the Philippines, we wouldn’t have to be sending military aid. They themselves could do what they did in the Philippines. And so, again, the fact that he demands that we have to send aid in there simply proves that we’re on the wrong side. And the government in Nicaragua is not a Marxist-Leninist government. They are trying to do something that hasn’t happened before. If we would listen to people like the foreign minister, Miguel d’Escoto, who has described the philosophy of that government very, very carefully and very accurately. They are trying to bring about a change so that the poor people for the first time in the history of that country, at least in the 20th century, will be able to share the resources and the goods of that nation. And they have brought about a revolution. There is no question about it. Land is being redistributed, peasants are being able to grow their own food. They are gradually becoming a free nation where they have a chance to share in the wealth and the resources of the nation. That is not going to continue if aid is given to the contras and that government is over­thrown.

MacNeil: Okay, Jim?

Lehrer: Gentlemen, we have about 30 points to cover. First of all, the Bishop’s point, Secretary Abrams, that it’s not a Marxist-Leninist government down there in the first place.

Sec. Abrams: Well, it’s incredible. It’s just plain in­credible. Mr. Borge, Mr. Ortega, all of the nine comandantes, all of them, have said that —

Lehrer: Those are the nine rulers in the government.

Sec. Abrams: The nine rulers in the junta. They are Marxist-Leninists. This is a government closely allied to the Soviets and the Cubans, and I’m sorry to borrow from this Carnegie text, but I want to read one sentence. “After the events of October, 1985” — that’s the state of emergency which eliminated civil liberties — “there are now few peo­ple still innocent or foolish enough to believe Sandinista promises.” I’m afraid the bishop is one of them.

Lehrer: Bishop Gumbleton?

Bishop Gumbleton: Well, there you have it. Miguel d’Escoto is a Roman Catholic priest, a personal friend of mine. He is not a Marxist-Leninist. He is the foreign minister, he’s one of the nine. Why would Mr. Abrams claim he’s a Marxist-Leninist? There is no founda­tion for that.

Sec. Abrams: No, I’m at a slight disadvantage in this discussion of your role and the church in Nicaragua. But just a second. I cannot —

Bishop Gumbleton: But I want to finish.

Sec. Abrams: Excuse me. Excuse me. I cannot permit you to pose as if you were speaking for the church of Nicaragua. You do not speak for Cardinal Obando, nor does he share your view of the situation.

Bishop Gumbleton: But, Mr. Abrams, you don’t have to tell me who is the church of Nicaragua. It’s not Car­dinal Obando. The church is the people. That’s who the church is.

Sec. Abrams: No, excuse me, sir, but I find you’re not —

Bishop Gumbleton: The religious leaders in Nicaragua, the —

Sec. Abrams: I always thought the church had a hierarchy and that the cardinal and the bishops deserve some respect in it.

Bishop Gumbleton: I’m not saying that they don’t.

Sec. Abrams: You do not represent the —

Bishop Gumbleton: I’m a member of the hierar­chy of the Roman Catholic Church —

Sec. Abrams: Not in Nicaragua.

Bishop Gumbleton:and we do deserve respect. I hope.

Sec. Abrams: And you are not taking the position that they take. They are opposed to this crackdown, and they have protested it.

Bishop Gumbleton: You see, if you could —

Sec. Abrams: And you are not supporting them.

Bishop Gumbleton: No, but if you could only understand that the church is represented by those three million people, 80 percent of whom are Roman Catholic. That’s the church. And the people who minister in the parishes and in the villages and in the hospitals and in the dispensaries, they are the ones that are telling us that they’re free to practice their religion. They are not being persecuted.

Sec. Abrams: Bishop, you are — this is not the posi­tion of the Vatican or of the Holy Father or the archbishop of Nicaragua.

Lehrer: What about — excuse me, Gentlemen. What about the bishop’s point that the majority of the people sup­port the government of Nicaragua because if they didn’t they would be out doing what the people of the Philippines did?

Sec. Abrams: Well, when Cardinal Obando, who is the most popular figure, came back after a visit which in­cluded Rome and the United States, hundreds of thousands of people came out in a form of protest, the only form per-. mitted to them — remember, when you protested in the Philippines, not much happened to you. When you protest in any communist country, including Nicaragua, your life and your freedom are at risk. It is just not fair to expect the peo­ple of Nicaragua to continue to risk their lives if we’re not willing to give them the support they need to struggle against their communist government.

Lehrer: Bishop?

Bishop Gumbleton: As recently as within the last couple of months, Amnesty International has been to Nicaragua again. They have tried to document the kinds of repressive actions that Mr. Abrams is talking about. And Amnesty International says that is not happening on anywhere near the scale that he is suggesting that it is hap­pening. They did document atrocities and acts of terrorism by the contras, but not by the government. That repressive action in October was relaxed in November of last year.

Lehrer: All right, let’s take another point that the bishop has raised, Mr. Secretary. He says that the ad­ministration lies when you call the contras freedom fighters. They’re thugs and terrorists.

Sec. Abrams: Well, first of all, when you have a group that’s headed by Mr. Calero who was imprisoned by Somoza, [and] Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robello, who are members of the original Sandinista junta, it’s hard to call them terrorists. Now, I would just ask the bishop that as we go through what is a very significant and important national debate we try not to call fellow citizens liars. Maybe you’re right and maybe I’m right, but I don’t call you a liar, and the charge of outright lying does not help the American people cope with this issue very much.

Bishop Gumbleton: It’s very discouraging to me that I have to say it. Two hundred other religious leaders also said it today, and we continue to get others signing our statement. It’s a very sad thing that we have to say that our government is lying. And yet, in the documentation which we published today we listed at least 15 separate areas where the facts show clearly our government says one thing, the facts are opposite.

Sec. Abrams: You won’t even stand up for the Nicaraguan church. It’s just shocking to me. I speak, I have to say, as a non-Catholic —

Bishop Gumbleton: Again, I wish you could only understand —

Sec. Abrams: — but I have talked to members of the church hierarchy there —

Bishop Gumbleton: No bishop is a church —

Sec. Abrams: Several bishops there —

Bishop Gumbleton: I don’t claim to be the church in Detroit. We have 1,500,000 people who are the church in Detroit. Cardinal Obando is not the church.

Sec. Abrams: No, he’s not the church, Bishop, but the church, as this report shows, and as Americas Watch and every other human rights group has said, is under enormous pressure in Nicaragua, and you haven’t said a word to criticize the Sandinistas for the pressure that they’re putting the church under. Why won’t you stand up for the church in Nicaragua?

Bishop Gumbleton: I am standing up for the church in Nicaragua, and they are the people who are suffer­ing because of the contras. They are the people who are be­ing killed with the weapons that we are supplying.

Lehrer: Let me ask you —

Bishop Gumbleton: That’s the church of Nicaragua.

Lehrer: Let me ask you a question, Bishop Gumbleton. You just disagree with the leadership of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua about the Sandinista govern­ment? The leadership of the church?

Bishop Gumbleton: The leadership of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is split. They don’t all agree with one another. And that’s not unusual. The leadership of the Catholic church in the United States is not of a single mind and a single voice. We don’t always agree with each other. And the same thing is true in Nicaragua.

Sec. Abrams: They’re not split on the question of whether there is oppression of the church by the Sandinistas. You still refuse to —

Bishop Gumbleton: There are bishops, there are —

Sec. Abrams: One word! Give me one word. Give me one word about Sandinista pressure on the church, one word of criticism!

Bishop Gumbleton: Why do I want to give you a word of criticism?

Sec. Aberams: Because we’re trying to tell the American people what the truth about the Sandinistas is. It’s just very discouraging— talk about discouraging, boy.

Bishop Gumbleton: The difficulty here is that we don’t have to depend on only what our government says. We have witnesses who have gone to Nicaragua. There are thousands of people from the United States who have gone down there. We have witnesses down there at this very mo­ment. And we also have the religious communities, the head of the Dominican Order, as an example, staffing parishes throughout that country, has made a public statement within the past year, “We are not being persecuted.” Now, those are the people that I know what’s going on, and they’re the ones telling us that they’re not being persecuted.

Lehrer: Mr. Secretary, you had the 200 religious leaders as exemplified here by Bishop Gumbleton. Up ’til now you’ve had a majority in the House of Representatives that have opposed aid to the contras. Why can’t you get the — if this is such a golden cause, why have you not been able to convince these folks?

Sec. Abrams: Well, I think we are convincing them. In fact, Bishop Gumbleton now is in a very isolated position. He’s a man who has refused now for the last 10, 20 minutes to say a single word of criticism of the Sandinistas, even of their repression of his church. Now, that is not typical of Congress. The real evolution of congressional views and of the views of Latin American and West European democrats is they now see the Sandinistas for what they are. When we talk to people in Congress there is no debate over who the Sandinistas are and what they’re up to. That question has been settled in the minds of Congress. The issue which is be­ing debated now is, okay, what do we do about it? I am hap­py to say that the people in Congress have met with and are listening to the archbishop and bishops of Nicaragua.

Lehrer: Is there anything, Bishop Gumbleton, that Secretary Abrams or the Reagan administration could say to change your position on this? Is this a debate for which there is a possible change of mind?

Bishop Gumbleton: Well, the one thing that [they could do] to change my position would be to withdraw the request for aid. Then I would be supportive of them. I am not going to support any kind of further aid to the contras to do further atrocities in Nicaragua. And I am not afraid to criticize the Sandinista government. And they have made mistakes. And they’ll probably continue to make mistakes. But they’re also willing to admit their mistakes. Today one of our religious leaders was Reverend Norman Bent, a Moravian minister, who was jailed for five days by the government. As he pointed out, though, it was not because of his religion: it was because of his political positions. He was released —

Lehrer: All right, gentlemen

Sec. Abrams: Political prisoners are fine according to the bishops.

Lehrer: All right, okay, gentlemen. Bishop Gumbleton, thank you for being with us from Detroit. Secretary Abrams, thank you.


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