68. Action Memorandum From the Acting Director of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs (Bushnell) and the Acting Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Kreisberg) to the Deputy Secretary of State (Christopher)1


  • U.S. Policy Toward Nicaragua


Should the U.S. continue to play an active role in attempting to encourage in Nicaragua a national dialogue between Somoza and his opponents or take a clear position of distance from the political maneuvering?


Nicaragua currently faces a crisis of regime perhaps more severe than at any time during the past forty years. The trigger was the assassination of newspaper publisher Pedro J. Chamorro, but the cause is largely regime fatigue. Somoza is being challenged by a broad opposition spectrum including conservative businessmen, moderate political, labor and religious leaders and Marxist-Leninist guerrillas at the same time that his traditional support from the U.S. Government is perceived to have been withdrawn.

The Somoza regime has taken some steps toward improving its human rights performance over the past year, partly because of its understanding of the policy of this administration. Somoza last February effectively terminated most of the National Guard’s serious abuses associated with its counter-insurgency campaign, in September restored the rights of press freedom, political assembly, habeas corpus and civilian trial, in November agreed to a national dialogue with non-violent opposition groups and in December publicly confirmed his intention to respect the Constitutional prohibition against any member of his family’s retaining the Presidency after 1981. These shifts have contributed to the overt emergence of the intense political crisis in the country which threatens Somoza’s power.

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Nevertheless, there continue to be prisoners held for politically motivated crimes, accusations of brutal treatment in jails, abusive treatment of some persons involved in demonstrations, some invasions of the home, Constitutionally mandated discrimination against non-traditional political parties, censorship over radio and television, and Government corruption. In addition, although the Nicaraguan Government has indicated it is considering an invitation to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, no invitation has as yet been offered. Because of those remaining problems, the U.S. has curtailed arms shipments, eliminated Nicaragua from our FY 79 FMS request, held up new AID loans, and prevailed on the IDB to hold up most new loans for Nicaragua.

Venezuelan President Andres Perez has both expressed belief that serious violations continue and has asserted a presumption of Somoza government involvement in the Chamorro assassination. Embassy and intelligence reporting has not confirmed these charges.

Despite the mounting domestic political ferment, the disunity of the opposition and the lack of military strength of the guerrilla FSLN lead us to believe that the U.S.-trained National Guard will for the foreseeable future be the ultimate arbiter of power, with or without Somoza. The departure of Somoza could, however, initiate a period of new violence should new authoritarian figures attempt to reverse his recent liberalization.

The U.S. has been heavily involved in Nicaragua for a century and the Nicaraguan political perception of our dominant role continues even now, with the U.S. Embassy being seen by all as a power center second only to the Government. All opposition elements other than the Marxist-Leninist faction of the FSLN have been soliciting our active support. Our Ambassador, most recently on February 7, has encouraged Somoza to publicly commit himself to reforms to get the dialogue underway again and not to retaliate against non-violent participants in the recent general lockout/strike. Somoza’s reaction has been favorable.2

In the short run, we may not win many friends regardless of how we behave toward Nicaragua. The alternative policies described below reflect distinct views of the role the U.S. should play in Nicaraguan politics at this time and will have an impact on how the U.S. is viewed by Nicaraguan Government leaders once the political ferment settles down.

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Alternative draft Presidential replies to the letter to President Carter from President Perez flow from the alternate options presented below and these are attached at Tab 1.3


1. Authorize our Ambassador to continue use of his contacts with the Government and opposition to encourage a national dialogue, while making it clear to both sides that the U.S. cannot guarantee performance or good faith. The U.S. would not participate in the dialogue once the two sides were talking, but we would continue to urge Somoza toward basic reforms broadening political participation, giving greater independence to the judiciary and professionalizing the National Guard, and we would counsel the opposition against violence. In the course of promoting dialogue, our Ambassador should try to avoid being seen as a supporter of Somoza or the opposition.


—May prevent hostile radicalization of the opposition.

—Involves the U.S. in an effort to prevent widespread bloodshed and loss of life.

—Active involvement may improve the chances of a democratic change, and would set a good precedent for other badly divided Central American countries.


—One side or another may be intransigent.

Somoza may try to use our involvement to buy time and co-opt the opposition.

—We may be blamed by one side or the other, either for stabilizing Somoza in power or for imposing a political solution.

—In the long-term, we are likely to be accused of continuing to attempt to control events in Nicaragua and of failing to fulfill the President’s pledge of non-intervention.

2. Authorize our Ambassador to state our strong support for democracy but avoid involvement with Somoza or his opponents as an intermediary in proposing or transmitting political terms or solutions to one side or the other. We would respond to suggestions for more [Page 197] direct intervention by President Perez or others by emphasizing our position in support of democracy and non-intervention.


—By keeping our distance, neither Somoza nor the opposition will be able to claim our support.

—We would strengthen our commitment to non-intervention in Latin American politics consistent with the President’s declared policy, and over the long-run, help contribute to the growth of political self-reliance and independence in Nicaragua.


—May encourage Somoza to react by repression and defiance.

—If Somoza is overthrown, his probable replacement in the short term would be a National Guard dictatorship which might eventually lead to a radical regime which could include Sandinista guerrillas.

—If Somoza remains in power, the Liberal Party, Nicaragua’s traditional majority political element, may be forced into supporting a hard line as confrontation intensified.

—If confrontation engendered civil war, we would be forced by public opinion or security considerations to consider involvement under much worse circumstances.


That you approve option 1, and that you recommend that the President sign the letter to President Perez at Tab 1. (ARA favors)

ALTERNATIVELY, that you approve option 2, and that you recommend that the President sign the letter to President Perez at Tab 2.4 (S/P and HA/HR favor)

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Records of the Office of the Deputy Secretary, Warren Christopher, Lot 81D113, Box 17, Human Rights—Nicaragua I. Confidential. Drafted by Mathews and Kreisberg on February 13; cleared by Ollie Jones (HA/HR). Tabs 1–3 are not attached.
  2. See Document 67.
  3. In telegram 1053 from Caracas, January 31, the Embassy translated the text of Perez’s January 31 letter to Carter, in which Perez described the Nicaraguan Government as a “corrupt dictatorship that has systemically violated human rights.” Perez proposed “a joint action through the Organization of American States, which among other things could include requesting the permission of the Government of Nicaragua for an urgent visit to that country of the Human Rights Commission.” On the copy of the telegram sent to the White House to Pastor’s attention, Brzezinski wrote: “RP Comments? Response?” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor Files, Country Files, Box 33, Nicaragua: 1/78–4/78)
  4. Christopher approved this recommendation. For the text of Carter’s letter to Perez, see Document 71.