Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Regional Editors and Broadcasters on United States Assistance for the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance
March 11, 1986
The President. Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It's an honor to be able to speak to you, and through you, to the thousands of readers and listeners that you serve. Permit me to add, this is one day when I don't intend to say anything under my breath. [Laughter]
This afternoon I'd like to discuss a matter of overriding national importance -- been talking about it here all through lunch. But it's the debate, the importance of the debate on Nicaragua. Nearly 7 years ago, the Sandinistas and all those others who'd rebelled against Somoza brought months of fighting to an end when they marched down the avenues of Managua and took control of the government. Thousands of Nicaraguans banked the streets. The new leaders claimed to embrace the highest ideals of democracy and individual liberty, and in the course of some 18 months, the United States provided them with $118 million in economic aid. Nicaraguan businessmen began to hope for new prosperity. Nicaraguan journalists began to hope for freedom of the press. And throughout the country, millions of Nicaraguans dared to hope for democracy. And soon these hopes were crushed. Just months after taking power, the Communists began doing what they'd planned all along -- they ousted their critics and fellow revolutionaries, they tightened their military grip on the nation, and then they censored the media in Nicaragua and suppressed free speech.
Today Radio Catolica, the voice of the Catholic Church, has been silenced; and Cardinal Obando y Bravo, primate of Nicaragua, has said: ``We want to state clearly that this government is totalitarian. We are dealing with an enemy of the Church.'' La Prensa, the last independent newspaper, is subject to constant censorship and often violent threats. The Communists have driven the Jewish community from the country and persecuted the Miskito Indians, killing and imprisoning thousands of these gentle people. Soviet, East German, Libyan, PLO, Cuban troops and advisers swarm over the country in the thousands. Corruption in the regime has become blatant. Last October Commandante Ortega pulled up to a Manhattan optician's shop in a 17-car motorcade to spend $3,500 on designer glasses for himself, his wife, and his daughter. The Sandinistas, faced with internal unrest and disaffection, have responded to the cries of repression by the Nicaraguan people by building nine new prisons; Somoza had only one.
In a century that has witnessed monstrous crimes, Nicaragua has become the site of one of the most harrowing: the murder of liberty in a nation that had the chance to become free. Some predicted that Nicaragua would become like Cuba: a staging post for Communist subversion throughout Central and South America. Well, the prediction has already come true. The Nicaraguan Communists have built their lightly armed, 1979 force of 5,000 into a heavily armed army and militia of about 120,000. They are the principal suppliers of the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador. They provided the weapons to those who carried out the recent assassination of Colombia's Supreme Court justices.
This is awful. I've never had to do this in 25 years in show business. [Laughter] [At this point, the President had difficulty speaking and took a sip of water.] It's that cookie that didn't go all the way down. I was eating it fast because I knew they'd turned the lights on.
Well, they are the principal suppliers, I've said, of the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador, and what they did in Colombia -- we have seen that and the great tragedy there. Hundreds of terrorists with clear ties to Nicaragua are now located in countries throughout Central and South America. Sandinista military units regularly cross the Nicaraguan border, intimidating their neighbors in hopes of promoting unrest. Have the people in so many of these countries struggled to reemerge into the light of democracy only to be confronted with Soviet-backed efforts to subvert their new governments and snuff out their resurgent liberty?
Now Nicaragua, this Soviet satellite on our own continent, threatens the national interests of the United States. In purely military terms, Nicaragua's military bases could be used for strikes against our Caribbean sealanes, avenues that bear roughly half our foreign trade and half our oil imports; but the graver risk arises from the threat that the Communists will continue to spread violence and unrest among their neighbors. Refugees -- millions of them -- would stream toward our borders, and for States like Florida and Texas, this flood would make the Mariel boatlift look like a trickle. In time, the United States could be forced to surrender Central America to the Soviet sphere.
Some say to our administration, why not negotiate? Well, that's a good question, but it's directed to the wrong party. Nine times we have sought to bring about direct negotiations between the resistance and the Sandinistas. Nine times the Sandinistas have refused to negotiate. So the truth is clear: The Sandinistas will come to the table only when they see the carrot of peaceful settlement backed up by the stick of well-equipped armed opposition.
Today the opposition, the brave Nicaraguan freedom fighters, numbers over 20,000 and has the growing support of the Nicaraguan people. To give the freedom fighters the help they need in countering their Soviet-equipped opponents, I've asked the Congress to vote them $100 million in aid of already appointed funds, a modest amount when compared to what the Soviets are providing the Sandinistas. And make that point clear there: This is not new money that's going to add to the deficit. This is money already appropriated that is going to be redirected to this effort. Just how effective this aid to the freedom fighters would be becomes clear in considering their past support. The Soviet bloc gave the Nicaraguan Communists over $500 million in aid. But last year we provided the freedom fighters with less than $27 million in boots and Band-Aids. What happened? The freedom fighters have been battered. You can't defend yourself against Soviet helicopter gunships with bedrolls. But even at that, the freedom fighters were able to use mobility and surprise to keep the Sandinista forces largely on the defensive.
Now, we need to provide the aid we've requested, this time military as well as humanitarian, to see the ranks of the freedom fighters swell and their victories mount, forcing the Sandinistas to come to the table at last. In the last few days there's been talk here in Washington of compromise on this issue: smaller amounts of aid, delay in providing it, restrictions on the uses to which it could be put -- all the usual temporizing and quibbles. Well, let me set the record straight. The Soviets continue to fund the Nicaraguan Communists with massive infusions of arms, cash, and so-called advisers. To delay or reduce the aid we've requested for the freedom fighters could be to send too little, too late. Those who would compromise must not compromise the freedom fighters' lives nor their immediate defensive needs. They must not compromise Latin America's democracies or our own southern borders. They must not compromise freedom.
So we call upon the Congress to vote the aid we've requested and to do so without delay. And we ask you, the members of the press, to help -- you who can be so persuasive by way of your editorial pages and whose opinions are so valued in the communities you serve. And that we stand for freedom -- just as we stand for freedom in the rugged land of Haiti, just as we believe in human rights for the green islands of the Philippines, let us take a stand for democracy in the mountains and the plains of Nicaragua.
And now, thank you all. I'll be happy to take some questions.
Q. One of the plans mentioned in the press this morning was the possibility of your accepting the full $100 million on condition that it would not be used until you had tried diplomatic efforts for a specified period of time. Is this the kind of compromise that you find unacceptable? Or would you agree to something like that?
The President. Well, I'll listen to any proposal that anyone wants to make that is tied to the idea of letting us come to the aid of these contras. But the only proposal of that kind that I had heard was one that involved a long period of time and, then, was not a sure thing. But they would then vote again to see whether we could have the money and use it. So I think that would be counterproductive. I think it would destroy the morale of the contras, and they would be asked to live through a great period of time with no assurance that they're ever going to get the funds. And I don't think that would be a compromise that I could listen to at all.
Q. Mr. President, this sounds like the domino theory hitting us again. It did this in the sixties with regard to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etcetera. Is this the Latin American version of the domino? Aren't you a little wary about using the term ``domino'' because of its negative connotation?
The President. Well, I hadn't used it. But let me just suggest where there is one difference. The domino theory was expressed as a theory of what could happen with regard to the Vietnam situation. But here, we have firm evidence. We have the documents that were seized in Grenada, documents from the Soviet Union; documents from the Cuban Government to their counterparts there in Grenada and outlining the future plans and naming the future targets. And many of those documents began with the gloating sentences: ``We now have Cuba and Nicaragua and Grenada . . . '' and then went on to where the other targets are. So, the dominoes have already been named by the people who are going to tip them over. But I would like to also say -- and with all respect -- before we start sneering at those who threatened dominoes, the North Vietnamese are now at the border of Thailand, and the dominoes did begin to fall.
Q. Mr. President, this morning Defense Secretary Weinberger indicated that he feels certain American troops would never be used in Nicaragua if you got the $100 million aid. Do you feel that's true?
The President. Yes. I believe that the image of the great colossus of the North is too fresh in the peoples' minds in Latin America for us to even think about sending troops of that kind. But where -- I have said there could come a day, and it wouldn't be going in to intervene there -- but where we were under hostile attack ourselves, because that cancer that is Nicaragua would have been allowed to spread until it became a force that could target things of interest to us and of interest to our national security in the Caribbean, to say nothing of -- well, one of their officials early on made a statement about that we could expect to see them at the borders of Arizona and New Mexico, meaning that they did have ambitions. This is the threat to the possibility of American forces -- that there would come a day when we, ourselves, would be faced with hostile actions against our best interests.
Q. Mr. President, in addition to Nicaragua, among the topics of concern to those of us in New England is organized crime. The Federal Government recently won a major conviction there for organized crime people in New England. I wonder if you would expound for just a moment on a statement you made earlier that this administration has organized crime on the run.
The President. Well, I think there has -- yes, there's been a great increase in the arrest and conviction of figures in organized crime throughout the country. And we do have a program, and we have had a commission that has just brought in a report which reveals how much more embedded in our legitimate society and the economy organized crime is, and so we've got more information to go on. But we're determined that that is a major target of our Justice Department.
I'd better switch to the other side of the room.
Q. Mr. President, I'm from Miami. By the way, next Friday we're going to have a march in support of your policy in regards to Nicaragua in Miami, and we expect several thousands of people there.
The President. Well, bless you, and thank you.
Q. Sir, the question is we keep hearing about a second Cuba. Some people may think that we would be satisfied with one Cuba. Are you happy with one Cuba? [Laughter]
The President. No. I think this is, here again, we can look back and second-guess all that was done at that particular time and wish we had done other things than we did do. But, no, and I feel this way about most of the world that is under those totalitarian governments. I think that this last great island of freedom in -- the world has to look down the years and see if our destiny does not involve restoring to freedom someday and that could be simply by means of our example and whatever it took to -- you know, every year we still recognize a Captive Nations Day.
The President. Yes?
Ms. Mathis. Last question.
The President. Last? Oh, sorry.
Q. Mr. President, do you believe that the public has sufficiently gotten behind your request for aid to the contras? And if not, then, why not, sir?
The President. No, they haven't. And our own polls indicate that there is a great feeling and many people saying what are we doing in that little country, and where is it and so forth. I think that a great many people -- there's a lack of understanding, and that's why I'm going on the air Sunday night. But also there is a great disinformation network that is at work throughout our country, and it's a custom that was established by the Soviet Union. And a great many people are confused. They think, for example, the message has been that -- what are we doing backing revolutionaries who are trying to overthrow a legitimate government? Well, there's nothing legitimate about the Sandinista government at all. After a revolution against Somoza, they took over at the point of a gun, they ousted the revolutionaries who didn't agree with them. They have had one so-called election, if you could call it that. They wouldn't let anyone run against them, and they wouldn't allow campaigning. And then they said they'd done their democratic duty and came to New York to buy those designer glasses. So it isn't an established or a legitimate government. But the American people -- Thomas Jefferson said if the American people know all the facts, they will never make a mistake. And I think we haven't completed the job of letting the American people know all the facts. And we're sure going to try to do that.
This young lady told me that I've had the last -- could I just one -- all right. She's very nice. [Laughter] She's kind. But I won't push my luck too far. This will have to be it.
Q. Mr. President, I would like for you to elaborate a little bit on what you said a moment ago about a disinformation network throughout the country that has undermined your efforts to enlighten the public about Nicaragua.
The President. Well, a number of people that go down there, and that are sympathetic to the other, and then come back and tell the stories of what they've seen -- no repression and the people are happy with the government and so forth. There's quite a network of those covering lots of lines of activities, probably well-intentioned; I don't know. I'm not going to fault their motives.
But also the other day I had handed to me a slick paper publication, a magazine -- $3.75 an issue -- and this magazine is published by the Nicaraguan Information Foundation. And it is filled with propaganda. It is a propaganda thing against the contras and against us and in favor of them. And one prominent university professor had written a lead article in this particular issue, and if that's what he tells his students, God help them, because it was pure propaganda. And they've hired lobbyists in this country, professional lobbyists who make their case before the Congress. And it's false stories that can be refuted by others that go down there.
I remember one story having to do with a Catholic bishop who was hailed in the press as having rescued some refugees that he was trying to get across the Honduran border. On foot they were making their way through the jungles. And the story said that they were attacked by contras before they got to the Honduran border. Well, this bishop came back to the United States, and I phoned him and asked him about his story and all about this. And he said, yes, he had led this band of refugees out of Nicaragua into Honduras. ``But,'' he said, ``before we got to the border we were attacked by Sandinista armed forces, and we were rescued by the contras. Now, the story somehow went off on a different tack when it was published.
But it is a program of -- constantly aimed at -- that big imperialist United States is off again doing the wrong thing. But I don't think we are, and I think that the Nicaraguan people -- you'd be surprised at the proportion of the contras who are former Sandinista soldiers drafted into that army, but who deserted. You'd be surprised at what we've heard from nearby governments about the flood of young men whose families smuggle them out of the country before they can be drafted into that army. And the -- much of the leadership, this charge that they are Somozistas -- the contras. Well, the leaders -- two of the three that were here in the United States recently were both imprisoned by Somoza, and they are former revolutionaries, most of these people.
Well, I know that I've taken too long here, and I'm sorry I can't take the rest of the hands. This is as bad as a press conference. [Laughter] Someday I'll convince them I shouldn't make that speech, I should just stand up here and take the questions instead, and then we'll do it. But thank you all for being here. I appreciate this very much, and it's been a pleasure to be with all of you here.
Note: The President spoke at 1:08 p.m. at a luncheon in the State Dining Room at the White House. Susan K. Mathis was Special Assistant to the President and Director of Media Relations.