Speaking at a news conference during a recent trip to Colombia, Republican presidential candidate John McCain remarked, “I must say, I did not admire the [Nicaraguan] Sandinistas much.” It’s the understatement of the century.
According to Thad Cochran, a GOP Senator from Mississippi, McCain roughed up an associate of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on a diplomatic mission in 1987. According to Cochran, McCain grabbed the Sandinista by the shirt collar and literally lifted him out of his chair. The Republican presidential contender, who is known for his hot temper, denied the allegations. “I had many, many meetings with the Sandinistas,” McCain said. “But there was never anything of that nature. It just didn't happen.”
Lorne Craner, an informal foreign policy aide to McCain who took part in the trip to Nicaragua at the time, told the Associated Press that he didn't recall the incident Cochran described. “Honestly, if my boss had grabbed a foreign government official like that and lifted him up I would certainly remember that,” said Craner.
While the McCain aide could be telling the truth, Craner is hardly an impartial source of information: in addition to his ties to the McCain campaign, he is also president of the International Republican Institute, a shady public-private organization which has cultivated links to the right-wing opposition in Venezuela. McCain chairs the outfit.
Craner and McCain’s comments do not square with Cochran's detailed recollection of the alleged incident. “McCain was down at the end of the table and we were talking to the head of the guerrilla group here at this end of the table and I don't know what attracted my attention,” Cochran said in an interview with The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. “But I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever.”
Cochran continued his inflammatory story: “I don't know what he [McCain] was telling him but I thought, 'Good grief, everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission.' I don't know what had happened to provoke John, but he obviously got mad at the guy ... and he just reached over there and snatched ... him.” Cochran said no punches were thrown and the two sat back down. The man, who appeared ruffled after the confrontation with McCain, was an Ortega associate but Cochran said he was unsure of his identity.
Though Cochran is known as a consummate gentleman, when he talks about McCain the Mississippi Senator does not mince any words. The thought of McCain being president, Cochran said, “sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”
While it’s unclear whether Cochran is telling the truth about McCain’s roughing up of a Sandinista official—the two legislators have sparred for years over pet projects or “earmarks” inserted by committee members into spending bills—it wouldn’t be so surprising if the allegations were true.
Throughout the 1980s, McCain was one of the most stalwart supporters of the Contras, Nicaraguan rebels who waged a long war of attrition on the left Sandinista government in Managua. During his frequent visits to Nicaragua, McCain was hardly diplomatic towards his Sandinista hosts and even sought to brazenly antagonize them.
Notorious For Their Brutality
In 1979, the Sandinistas overthrew U.S. puppet dictator Anastasio Somoza following a successful but bloody revolution. Hoping to thwart the Sandinistas and regain U.S. influence, the CIA provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-Sandinista Cardinal Miguel Obando and the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. According to journalist William Blum, “One end to which Obando reportedly put the money was ‘religious instruction’ to ‘thwart the Marxist-Leninist policies of the Sandinistas.’”
Langley had other dirty tricks in store. For example, the CIA and the Contras blew up oil pipelines, mined the waters of oil-unloading ports and threatened to blow up any approaching oil tankers. What’s more, Nicaragua's ports came under siege in an effort to starve the country of imports by frightening away foreign shipping.
In his book Killing Hope, William Blum writes, “The contras' brutality earned them a wide notoriety.” The Nicaraguan rebels regularly destroyed the symbols of the Sandinistas’ social programs in rural areas: health centers, schools, agricultural cooperatives, and community centers. Innocent people caught up in the assaults were often tortured and killed in the most gruesome fashion.
One survivor who spoke to The Guardian of London remarked, “Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they [the Contras] cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off, and their eyes poked out. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.”
Such reports were of little concern to an up-and-coming two-term House Representative from the state of Arizona. In the mid-1980s John McCain and other GOP stalwarts in Congress were doing their utmost to overturn Democratic opposition to aiding the Contras. Specifically at issue was the so-called Boland Amendment, pushed by Democratic Representative Edward Boland of Massachusetts. The measure prohibited the federal government from providing military support "for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua."
Since the outset of the Reagan administration, Congress and the President had fought a long pitched battle over Contra policy. Though Congress had funded the Contras from 1981 to 1983, legislators grew skittish once the CIA started to mine Nicaraguan harbors. Concerned that such U.S.-assisted attacks might provoke an international incident with the Soviets, Congress passed the first Boland amendment in December 1982.
When Boland’s provisions came up for a further vote in the summer of 1985, Dick Cheney, then a Representative from Wyoming, called the Boland language "a killer amendment'' if attached to the Contra aid plan. Joining Cheney in the House was John McCain, who remarked, “This amendment is death by hemorrhage. It lets the Contras bleed to death over the next six months.” Debate on the floor of Congress became acrimonious, with GOP members accusing Democrats of being “soft on communism.”
In the end, the House voted to end the Boland restrictions and fund direct logistics aid to the Contras. The legislation, which refused to renew a ban on use of U.S. funds to aid military actions against the leftist government in Managua, reversed previous denials of such assistance and gave President Reagan a major legislative victory.
From House Representative to Senator
However, throughout early 1986 Congress continued to debate the scope of Contra aid with McCain being one of the point men for the Nicaraguan rebels. In March, the House rejected Reagan’s request to send $100 million in aid to the Contras. At the time, McCain called it “a serious setback.”
The following month, the Democratic majority of a House Foreign Affairs panel called for Reagan to account for millions of dollars of non-lethal aid sent to the Contras the previous year. Such an accounting was necessary, said Democrats, because the funds had disappeared after being deposited in a Miami bank. California Representative Leon Panetta explained, “There is no way of knowing whether this money was comingled with funds from other sources, meaning that our aid money could have been used to buy guns and ammunition instead of medicine and clothing.”
But the GOP countered that a public airing of exactly how the money was spent would embarrass Honduras, Nicaragua's neighbor and the country where the Contras were based. “We are carrying out an operation in which the countries that are cooperating with us have asked us to be as quiet as possible,” McCain said. “The government of Honduras wants as little publicity as possible. It seems to me that we would want to protect them from being identified as a conduit of supplies for the Contras, even if this is a well known fact.''
A few months later, Contra booster McCain continued his political ascent, winning the Arizona Senate seat vacated by Barry Goldwater. However, in the November election the Democrats won overall control of the Senate and, as a result, Reagan faced yet more gridlock and controversy over his Contra policy in Nicaragua.
Adding to the president’s worries was the eruption of the Iran-Contra scandal in October and November 1986. As a result of a story run in a Lebanese newspaper, the administration was forced to admit that the White House had circumvented Congress by providing military aid to the Contras from 1984 to 1986, thus rendering Boland a moot point. To keep the Contras alive, Reagan armed Iran in contravention of stated U.S. policy and in possible violation of arms-export controls. Then, the administration sent some of the proceeds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras.
As a result of the scandal, Reagan officials engaged in a concerted effort to deceive Congress and the public about their knowledge of and support for the operations. Top officials continued this stonewalling effort throughout the duration of Congressional hearings, which lasted from late 1986 to the summer of 1987.
Senator McCain and the Contra Dilemma
The Iran-Contra scandal meant that when McCain entered the Senate in 1987, the GOP was in political disarray over official U.S. policy in Central America. Republican House Minority Leader Robert Michel said that successfully shepherding President Reagan's expected request for an additional $105 million in Contra aid through the House would be "a mighty difficult row to hoe" because of the Iran arms scandal, the increased Democratic majority, reports of human rights abuses, and disunity among the Contra leadership.
To make matters worse, Costa Rica President Oscar Arias was making some headway with a Central American peace plan which proposed a ceasefire in Nicaragua, to be followed by negotiations between the Sandinistas and its domestic opposition groups regarding rights and political freedoms. Under the Arias plan, the Contra leaders would not be involved in the negotiations. Needless to say, Reagan was tepid towards the proposal.
Perhaps fearing a continued drop in political support, McCain fretted that the administration “has got to show more clearly that military overthrow is not their sole goal and that we would support whatever diplomatic activities would achieve the same goal.” McCain, a former Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, probably recognized that sending in U.S. ground troops would receive little public support in the present political environment. In light of the situation, McCain said that the only viable alternative for the United States was to “beef up the economic and military capabilities of [Nicaragua’s] neighbors.”
McCain Gets Set to Travel to Nicaragua
With the Arias proposal now gaining traction and various Central American leaders signing on to a regional peace agreement, the GOP was left in a slight quandary. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole remarked that any Central American peace plan should include a pledge that the United States wouldn't abandon the Contras. The rebels, Dole said, should be involved in any talks with Nicaragua about the future form of that nation's government.
In an effort to keep the pressure on Managua, Dole added that he and McCain would travel to Honduras to visit refugee camps and then on to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinistas. McCain would bring his new legislative assistant with him, Lorne Craner. Two other Senators accompanied the entourage, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Steven Symms of Idaho.
Dole remarked that he hoped the peace plan would hold. However, the Kansas Senator added "I am skeptical about some provisions, some omissions, in the plan. Right now, a peace process is going forward and we're not really players in it. We just can't abandon the Contras. American credibility can't stand one more trip down that disastrous road. They [the Contras] have to play a role in negotiations. They have to be a party to both cease-fire arrangements and post-ceasefire political activities inside Nicaragua. The only reason the Sandinistas have negotiated at all is that we've kept the heat on, through aid to the Contras…We can't give up all our leverage, just as the crucial talks start.”
“Keeping the heat on” was certainly one euphemistic way of phrasing it. In early 1987 the Contras extended their low-intensity war of ambushes, sabotage and attacks on government farms throughout Nicaragua. Moreover, just prior to the Senators’ trip to Central America the Contras shot down a Sandinista helicopter with a U.S.-supplied Red Eye surface-to-air missile. The attack killed eleven soldiers and wounded nine. In another incident that occurred 20 miles southwest of the helicopter attack, the Contras ambushed a military jeep, killing a Sandinista army major and captain.
The attacks, which came close on the heels of the Arias plan, outraged the Sandinistas. Indeed, the Contra push came just as the Nicaraguan government and opposition leaders were poised to begin discussions toward implementation of the peace accord. The agreement called for a regional ceasefire to begin within two months.
“This constitutes irrefutable proof that it is the United States which really wants to boycott the peace process in Central America,” the official government newspaper Barricada said. “These terrorist acts are being brought on by the belligerent tone of (President) Reagan and his spokesmen, who have expressed their desire to . . . destroy the revolution and frustrate peace efforts,” the newspaper added.
The Sandinistas had other reasons to be skeptical of the Dole-McCain trip. As an “insurance” policy that all sides would seek to end the war, Dole said he would support a cutoff of military aid to the Contras as long as ongoing “humanitarian” funding was kept in place. "Military aid would stop… But the president would have the authority to resume it unless Congress objected [or] if the Sandinistas try to take military advantage of the period of negotiations or cease-fire," Dole added.
With the Contras in Honduras
Dole and McCain’s purpose in traveling to Central America was to assess Ortega’s commitment to the peace plan that had been recently signed by the Nicaraguan President as well as the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica in Guatemala City. The plan called for simultaneous ceasefires in the region's insurgencies, amnesty for all rebels, and restoration of civil liberties in Nicaragua.
In Honduras the U.S. delegation met with President José Azcona Hoyo, a key U.S. ally. Since they began fighting the Sandinistas in 1982, the Contras had maintained base camps in Honduras occupied by some 6,000 troops. What’s more, about 1,200 U.S. soldiers were stationed at Palmerola Air Base. Thousands of other U.S. soldiers, including national guardsmen, had been conducting joint military maneuvers with Honduran troops every year.
McCain, Dole and Symms went to a Contra camp near the Nicaraguan border, a delicate diplomatic maneuver since Honduras had never officially recognized the existence of the site. In an effort to give the Honduran government some political cover the trip was not even announced. Dole wanted the entire group to fly by helicopter to the contra base but had to abandon those plans because the U.S. embassy and Honduran officials were displeased by such a stark acknowledgment of the rebels’ presence.
The problem for the Senators was that diplomatic initiatives now threatened to put the camps’ existence in jeopardy. Under the Central American peace plan signed in Guatemala, regional leaders had agreed to prevent the use of their territory by insurgents seeking the overthrow of other governments.
Such moves put Dole and his Senate colleagues in a bind. Despite recent diplomatic progress, the Kansas Senator declared that the United States would not abandon the Contras. "We want a democratic environment to exist in Nicaragua, but to achieve that objective it is indispensable that the United States pressure the Sandinistas," he said. Dole also fretted that the peace plan did not address “vital U.S. interests.”
McCain himself remarked that there would be little trouble eliminating the camps under the peace agreement. However, the freshman Senator from Arizona left himself a convenient loophole. The United States, he said, would only support the closing of the camp if Nicaragua kept its promise to become more democratic.
Further eroding his image as a peacemaker, McCain went to the Nicaraguan border in an effort to rally the Contras. Once at the camp, he and the others launched a rhetorical broadside on the Sandinistas. "How many here want freedom and democracy?" Dole asked the crowd. "Does anyone have faith in Ortega or the communist Sandinistas?" Not surprisingly, the audience bellowed a unanimous “no.”
Cochran or Sorzano: Who’s Right?
Landing in Managua, McCain and the others convened with Ortega. McCain was hardly diplomatic. According to the New York Times, as the meeting began the Arizona Senator told Ortega that while in Honduras he had met with Contra military commander Enrique Bermúdez. ''Colonel Bermudez sends his very best regards,'' McCain told Ortega.
The Times account did not say whether McCain made the remark in a serious or taunting tone of voice. At the very least however it might be said that the Arizona Senator’s comments were insensitive and at the most provocative. ''Colonel Bermúdez and Ronald Reagan should stop killing Nicaraguan children,'' Ortega responded.
With the meeting hardly getting off to a good start, the encounter grew increasingly hostile. According to press accounts, Dole sat next to Ortega during the meeting. At the other end of the table sat McCain. At a certain point, Cochran charges that the Arizona Senator grabbed a Sandinista official and lifted him up by the collar. The atmosphere was tense, Cochran said, as the United States was pressing “pretty hard.”
But José Sorzano writes of a very different recollection of events in an article entitled “McCain Didn't Assault Sandinista” for the right-wing magazine Human Events. Sorzano, who was Senior Director for Latin America in Reagan’s National Security Council, says he accompanied the Senators to Managua in that fall of 1987.
“McCain’s moment came when Dole had finished his talking points and Ortega responded,” writes the former National Security Agency official. “The Sandinista [Ortega] said, ‘Senator, in our country we have a saying that claims that when one has to negotiate, one sits with the owner of the circus and not with the clowns. The Contras are the clowns and the U.S. is the owner of the circus and that is why we want to negotiate with you and not with them.’
“At that moment, Sen. McCain jumped up from his chair and started leaving the room. Ortega asked him where he was going and McCain responded: ‘I had not heard that saying before, but I find it very wise. That is why I am taking the first plane to Havana to negotiate with Castro because he is the owner of this circus and you are the clowns.’”
Sorzano’s account continues: “It was a verbal blow, not a physical one. And, from my standpoint, it was a rhetorical home run. There was no physical contact between McCain and any of the Sandinistas present.”
Sorzano’s account provides an interesting counterpoint to Cochran’s recollection. Could the Mississippi Senator have been mistaken? It’s certainly possible though again Sorzano can hardly be considered a neutral player. A Cuban American and former President of the right wing Cuban-American National Foundation, he later went on to serve as U.S. Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Jeane Kirkpatrick before joining the National Security Council.
Since Cochran spoke to the Sun Herald, the Mississippi Senator has been more cautious in his public statements about McCain. In the beginning of the presidential campaign Cochran endorsed Mitt Romney, remarking that the Massachusetts governor had “the experience, vision and values needed to strengthen our country for future generations.” But after the flap about McCain roughing up the Sandinista Cochran said he would support the Arizona Senator, who had become more “levelheaded.”
Cochran spokeswoman Margaret McPhillips released a statement which read, “…though Sen. McCain has had problems with his temper, he has overcome them. Though Sen. Cochran saw the incident he described to you, decades have passed since then and he wanted to make the point that over the years he has seen Sen. McCain mature into an individual who is not only spirited and tenacious but also thoughtful and levelheaded."
At the end of the day then we are left with two very diverging versions of events, on the one hand Craner and Sorzano’s accounts, which bolster McCain’s claims, and on the other Cochran’s story. No other journalists present at the encounter have commented on the controversy, nor has Ortega himself.
In a certain sense it would seem logical that the Sandinista leader, who was recently reelected President of Nicaragua, might wish to buttress Cochran’s story if he did indeed see something odd that day. By calling McCain out as unstable, Ortega might affect the U.S. presidential race. Ortega has a vested interest in ensuring a Democratic victory, since Obama is far less likely than McCain to pursue Big Stick diplomacy in Latin America.
One way that the controversy might get resolved is for the mysterious Sandinista official who allegedly got roughed up by McCain to come forward. However, if the Sandinista is still alive and well, he has not spoken up publicly on the matter.
It turns out however that Dole, who at the time wanted to bolster his national security credentials, had a Republican camera crew film the entire event. It’s unclear whether the film still exists, or even whether the camera captured what was happening across the table where McCain was sitting. It would be ironic, and that is putting it mildly, if the film, originally intended to bolster a Republican’s presidential chances in 1988, ultimately wound up damaging McCain’s presidential aspirations in 2008.
Nikolas Kozloff, a NACLA senior research associate, is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).