On the Contras
Noam Chomsky debates with John Silber
Chris Lydon (Host)

Our guests are as far apart on the Contra question as American intellectuals can be --

John Silber, the President of Boston University, was a member of the Kissinger Commission that diagnosed a security threat in Central America.

Noam Chomsky, the language theorist at MIT, argues in his new book, entitled Turning The Tide, that U.S. intervention in Central America is the acute case of our general misuse and misrule of the Third World.

I would like you to begin, President Silber. Address yourself to the waverers, if there are any, in the U.S. Senate. Why would you vote for the Contra money?

John Silber

Well, the Senate of the United States has traditionally been in favor of supporting democratic forces as opposed to totalitarian forces. And if they continue that practice they are going to vote against the Sandinistas and they are going to vote in favor of the Contras. On October 15 the Sandinistas passed an edict that suspends the protection against the search of homes without a warrant, that suspends the privacy of mail and allows for the censorship of mail. They suspended the right of free assembly. They have suspended all freedom of the press. They have continued their harassment of their people and suspended virtually all democratic rights. The October 15 decree is much more restrictive and comprehensive than the decree that Hitler passed on February 28, 1933, when he ended the democratic republic of Weimar. Once you see this totalitarian nature of the regime, which was apparent since 1979 in September, and has continued ever since then, it is time for the Senate of the United States to support the Democrats.

Lydon

Noam Chomsky, in a short speech to the U.S. Senate, why would you be agin [sic] the Contra money?

Noam Chomsky

Well, as even the most ardent supporters of the Contras now concede, this is what they call a proxy army which is attacking Nicaragua from foreign bases, is entirely dependent on its masters for directions and support, has never put forth a political program, has created no base of political support within the country, and almost its entire top military command is Somozist officers. Its military achievements so far consist of a long and horrifying series of very well documented torture, mutilation and atrocities, and essentially nothing else. Administration officials are now openly conceding in public that the main function of the Contras is to retard or reverse the rate of social reform in Nicaragua and to try to terminate the openness of that society. The state of siege, for example, which was imposed last fall, and which is very mild, I should say -- there is much political opening in Nicaragua, as everyone there up to the American ambassador will tell you -- that corresponds roughly to the state of siege which has been in place in El Salvador since early 1980, except in El Salvador it has been associated with a huge massacre of tens of thousands of people. Destruction of the press, so on and so forth. Whereas in Nicaragua it is a reaction to a war that we are carrying out against them with precisely the purpose of trying to retard social reform and to restrict the possibilities of an open and developing society. That is a cruel and savage policy, which we should terminate.

Silber

Are you going to continue that series of plain falsehoods? That's a series of falsehoods the likes of which I've never seen compacted in such a small period of time. The massacres that have occurred in Nicaragua have been the massacres by the Sandinistas of the Miskito Indians. The repression there is massive. It is more serious than anything we have seen in Central America or in any Latin American country to date. It is a genuine dictatorship imposed there. And to describe the leaders of the Contras as being supporters of Somoza is simply fabrication. Robelo, Cruz, Calero, Chamorro are not Somozistas and never have been. And when you take the leadership of the army of the Contras -- some of them were members of the National Guard -- but then if you are going to object to that, which would be highly unreasonable because that was an army that was not simply followers, or Somozistas, it is important to remember that Modesta Rojas, the vice chairman of the air force of the Sandinistas, was also a member of the National Guard and a very large number of members of the National Guard are the ones who are coordinators of the block committees that imposed the dictatorship by the Sandinistas. This is a series of distortions and fabrications and the effort of the Sandinistas to discredit the Contras by the manufacture of atrocities is now a point that has been very well documented.

Lydon

Noam Chomsky's turn to respond to, among other things, to the original picture of the totalitarian...

Chomsky

...Let's just first start by talking about the facts. I stated again that the military leadership of the Contras is almost entirely drawn from the top, from the Somozist National Guard.

Silber

...Somoza's soldiers...

Chomsky

Forty-six out of forty-eight of the top military commanders according to Edgar Chamorro -- this is the top military commander...

Silber

...soldiers are...

Chomsky

Excuse me. Now look, I let you go on. Did I let you?

Silber

You engage in a series of fabrications of truth and it's time that somebody...

Chomsky

May I?

Silber

...had the opportunity of correcting your historical misstatements while you're still around...

Chomsky

Mr. Silber has a very good reason for not wanting me to talk...

Silber

...Mr. Marcos, Mr. Marcos...

Chomsky

...and that is he knows what the truth is and he doesn't want me to...

Silber

...no no no, it's because you have distorted the truth long enough.

Chomsky

May I have a chance to say what...

Silber

...No just let me finish. It is Marcos, Marcos is the very army that helped Aquino into power so when you try to take on the National Guard, as if the National Guard was Somozistas, you misstate the case.

Lydon

...But let him make the case. It's...

Silber

...You also overlook the fact that there are plenty of National Guard members who are supporting the Sandinistas.

Lydon

Mr. Chomsky...

Silber

Now you go ahead and distort the truth again.

Chomsky

Now let me, see, here you're having an action. A good example of totalitarianism, and that is to ensure that the opposition...

Silber

I'm the first one that stopped your monopoly on misinformation.

Chomsky

The idea that I have a monopoly of misinformation of the American press is a little ridiculous.

Silber

No it's not...

Chomsky

Really? I control the American press? Let me repeat. Let's go back to the facts: forty-six out of the forty-eight of top military commanders of the Contras are Somozist officers. You can find that in the Congressional report. You can find that from Edgar Chamorro who is the CIA appointed spokesman. That's exactly what I said and it's exactly true. As to the idea that the Sandinistas have carried out massacres on a par with those that we have been carrying out in Central America, this is really astonishing!

In El Salvador, the number of people massacred since 1978 or since 1979 when we moved in in force is on the order of sixty-thousand. In Guatemala, where we incidentally have been supporting it all the way through with military aid which never terminated and are now supporting it enthusiastically, the number of people massacred is on the order of a hundred thousand.

Mr. Silber referred to the Miskito indians, who were badly treated, I should say, the figures are that approximately sixty or seventy were killed. Whereas in contrast, about five or six thousand people have been killed -- and I don't mean killed, this is not your garden variety killing; this is torture, murder and mutilation, massively documented in great detail -- by our forces. Now there are crimes of the Sandinistas, there is no doubt, but they are undetectable in comparison with the crimes that we have supported...

Lydon

I'd like to go back to two central arguments this thing turns on. One is that Sandinista Nicaragua poses a security threat to the United States and to this hemisphere. Secondly, we owe it to the so-called democrats and the democratic notion to help people who are carrying our standard in the region. John Silber, are these equal arguments and do you support them both?

Silber

Well, I don't support the presence of about sixty-five hundred Soviet and Cuban troops in Nicaragua. I don't support the presence of twenty-four armed helicopter gunships supplied by the Soviet Union to Nicaragua, or a hundred and fifty battle tanks or about twelve hundred trucks and three hundred-

Lydon

...But where is the notion that it is a security threat to this country?

Silber

Well, it's not a security threat yet. And neither was Hitler a security threat when he suspended all freedoms of the Germans on February 28, 1933. He wasn't even a security threat that was serious in 1936 when he re-armed the Rhineland. But by the time that the Allies got around to recognizing that he was a threat it cost us tens of millions of lives and it took six years in which to defeat him.

Now, at the present time we can put an end to the Sandinista dictatorship in Central America without using a single American life. All we have to do is help pay for the firemen. There is a fire going on down there. We don't have to put the fire out. But we're asked to pay for the firemen. If we wait, if we decide to do nothing until the Soviets establish a land base there and it develops, as it will develop if we allow it to happen, we will then have to face the fact of a possibility of war. It is not a present threat, it is a vector. If people don't have sense enough to understand that a small fire in a room is a threat, not because it's a small fire but because small fires have a way of becoming big fires, then we haven't learned anything from history.

Lydon

It's Noam Chomsky's turn on the question of the security threat to the hemisphere and to this country.

Chomsky

Well, to talk of Nicaragua as a security threat is a bit like asking what threat Luxembourg poses to the Soviet Union. Mr. Silber mentioned Hitler and I am old enough to remember Hitler's speeches in which he talked about the threat to Germany posed by Poland from which Germany had to defend itself. And even that's unfair to Hitler to draw that example. It is quite true that Nicaragua is now Soviet-armed and heavily armed. And the reason is that it is being attacked by a superpower which has specifically blocked every other source of supply. For example, up until the May embargo last year twenty percent of Nicaraguan trade was with the Soviet bloc. Prior to that, its arms were coming from everywhere. We then blocked the arms from everywhere else. As we intensified the war, they do exactly what the U.S. government wants them to do; namely, to divert resources from the social reforms which we really fear, and they turn them towards militarization. The idea that Nicaragua could attack -- I might add that the countries of Latin America regard this as hysterical lunacy. Every country, all the Contadora countries, all the support countries which include all of the relatively democratic countries in Latin America, are pleading with us to call off the war against the country. They understand perfectly well exactly what it's doing. It's forcing them to be a militarized state and it's creating a danger of a wider war in the region. If we want to get the Soviet tanks out of Nicaragua, and there are very few, and the Cuban advisors out, what we should do is very simple and everyone in the government knows it. Call off the war and they will return to what they were doing before we attacked them; namely creating the most effective reforms in the hemisphere, which were widely praised by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, organizations like OXFAM, which described them as unique in their experience in seventy-six developing countries...

Lydon

We're running out-

Chomsky

...which we have retarded and stopped by this attack.

Lydon

We are running so far overtime that we might just as well keep going. I want you to deal with the question of democracy and our responsibility to aid the cause. You criticized the Sandinistas but do you really want to embrace the Contras as a vehicle of democracy?

Silber

Absolutely. And let's dispense with the myth somehow that these were lovely democrats until we drove them into the hands of the Soviet Union by our opposition. That is a myth. That is a fabrication of history that Mr. Chomsky knows is false. As a matter of fact, when the revolution came to an end in July of 1979 the Sandinistas came to Washington, after having pledged to the Organization of American States that they would hold free elections. They then received $117 million in loans, they received credit from the World Bank through the intercession of the United States. They were very well received and very well treated. And on September of 193-ah, 1979, they already began their process of repression. So the notion that we drove them into the hands of the Communists is utterly false. It's a fabrication.

Lydon

But the question is: are the Contras a vehicle for democracy?

Silber

The Contras do not have overt support among the Nicaraguan, people at the present time inside Nicaragua, for one obvious reason. Hitler's opponents did not have any obvious support in Germany after Hitler had taken over that country. In a totalitarian state the opposition does not have any effective voice. You don't find that effective voice in the Soviet Union now either. You have isolated groups of refusniks. But in Nicaragua you have a leadership: Robelo, Cruz, Chamorro, Colero-those are major figures, major democratic figures who opposed Somoza, and many of them went to jail and they are literally followed by thousands of people who are opposing the Sandinista dictatorship. To try to write these people off as totalitarian and to come up with that trumped-up nonsense about the atrocities that those people have committed is just a good example of doublethink. This is just a 1984 exercise by Mr. Chomsky for which he has already established a worldwide reputation. It's rubbish.

Lydon

Mr. Chomsky, when you hear this call to come to the rescue of democracy and democratic forces, what do you answer?

Chomsky

I would be delighted if the United States were to reverse its longstanding policies of opposing democratic forces throughout Central America and begin to support those forces.

Now, to return to Nicaragua and to return to the real world, I never described the Sandinistas as perfect democrats or whatever your phrase was. What I did was quote the World Bank, OXFAM, the Jesuit Order and others who recognize that what they were doing was to use the meager resources of that country for the benefit of the poor majority. That's why health standards shot up. That's why literacy shot up. That's why agrarian reform proceeded, the only place in the region. That's why subsistence agriculture improved and consumption of food increased and that's why we attacked them. It had nothing to do with democracy.

Now, I also did not say that Cruz and Robelo committed atrocities. In fact, Cruz and Robelo sit in Washington and don't do anything. They are figureheads who we concocted. The people who commit atrocities are the Contra forces led by the National Guard. And of all the figures you mention, one is involved: namely, Colero, who is an ultra-right-wing businessman and represents the extremist, narrow business forces in Nicaragua.

Now, if we had the slightest concern with democracy -- which we do not in our foreign affairs and never have -- we would turn to countries where we have influence, like El Salvador. Now, in El Salvador they don't call the archbishop bad names; what they do is murder him. They do not censor the press; they wipe the press out. They sent the army in to blow up the church radio station. The editor of the independent newspaper was found in a ditch mutilated and cut to pieces with a machete.

Silber

Don't you ever -

Chomsky

...May I continue? I did not interrupt you...

Silber

Don't you ever want to put a time value on anything you say...

Chomsky

Excuse me, that was 19...

Silber

...Or do you just want to lie systematically on television?

Chomsky

I'm talking about...I'm talking about...I'm talking about 198...

Silber

...You are a systematic liar...

Chomsky

...Did these things happen or didn't they?

Silber

These things did not happen in the context in which you suggest at all.

Chomsky

...Really?

Silber

...And when you suggest that Cruz is simply a figurehead and does nothing, you overlook the fact that Arturo Cruz was the Ambassador of the Sandinistas to the United States.

Chomsky

Yes, and he has always...

Silber

And he was the head banker of the Sandinistas...

Chomsky

Exactly -- in the United States

Silber

...until he finally broke with them when he found out that they were utterly totalitarian. You are a phony, mister, and it's time that the people read you correctly.

Chomsky

Well, it's clear why you want to divert me from the discussion...

Silber

No, it's not. It's because we get tired of rubbish!

Chomsky

Excuse me. Arturo Cruz, exactly as I said, was in the United States, he was brought to...

Silber

Why was he in the United States?

Chomsky

He was in the United States and he defected in the United States. He was brought back to Nicaragua, as a political figure, because the business-based opposition there had no credible candidate. He did not participate in the elections, as he could have, in part because...

Silber

...he couldn't because he was broke...

Chomsky

May I continue?

Silber

No, because you're lying again.

Lydon

I've got to cut you both off.

Chomsky

I didn't say anything yet.

Silber

The Turbas [pro-Sandinista street militia] were the ones who prevented Cruz from participating in the elections...

Chomsky

That's another fabrication. But let's continue with...

Lydon

Except we can't. I'm afraid we're out of time. You've given President Reagan a tough act to follow on Sunday night. We thank you both, John Silber and Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky

Yeah, OK.

 
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