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Coming to the Aid of War Criminals

At the moment, the U.S. State Department is threatening to withhold millions of dollars of aid to Nicaragua on the basis that Nicaragua appropriated land – in many instances from those who served as National Guard officials under the repressive regime of Anastasio Somoza – without proper compensation.  This despite the fact that the Nicaraguan government has taken great pains to resolve such property claims.  A number of human rights groups see this threat to withhold much needed aid as, in the words of the Nicaragua Network, “nothing less than a transparent attack on the Sandinista government’s poverty reduction programs.”

The mere suggestion that the United States knowingly harbors alleged war criminals would surely come as a surprise to most Americans and yet that is precisely the case.

At the conclusion of the Nicaraguan Revolution in July of 1979 many among the wealthy and ruling class fled the country. In the case of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza it was surely rooted in a fear of recrimination and retribution for his horrific and well-documented record of human rights abuses. While Somoza eventually wound up in Ascuncion, Paraguay where he was killed by a commando unit of the Argentine Workers Party in 1980, many of his top lieutenants and associates ended up in the United States where eventually they were granted US citizenship. But that by no means was the end of the story.

When Somoza and company made their hasty departure they left behind property that in many cases had been illegally appropriated during the period of the Somoza family dictatorship. These abandoned properties were confiscated by the Sandinista government and redistributed through agrarian reform measures.

The Nicaraguan refugees who are now US Citizens received a warm reception and a safe home among other Latin American expatriate communities in South Florida. They were also the darlings of the far right-wing of the Republican Party, including members of Congress who felt the need to take up their cause.

In the mid 1990’s the Helms-Gonzalez Amendment of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act was adopted.  This required that the U.S. government refuse aid to countries that expropriated U.S. citizen lands, unless the President (or those acting on his behalf) provides such countries with a waiver.

Nicaragua has complied with U.S. demands on this issue, resolving 60 cases in the past year by paying out nearly $3.5 billion total over the years to those petitioning for remuneration, including to those Nicaraguans who mortgaged properties, spent the money, became US citizens, and then demanded return of the properties!

So who exactly are these individuals? The US State Department is reluctant to share such information as it would infringe on citizen’s rights to privacy, but a document obtained from Nicaraguan Attorney General Hernan Estrada’s office offers a chilling glimpse of victimizers now maintaining victim status. Several examples are offered here, but are by no mean exhaustive.

Alesio Gutierrez, at one time a colonel and leader of the notorious Guardia Nacional, stands accused of carrying out “operacion limpieza” or “operation cleansing” in various neighborhoods of Managua as well as directing the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Mr. Gutierrez now seeks compensation for a certificate of deposit.

Reynaldo Perez Vega, at one time second in command of the Guardia Nacional (GN), is best remembered as a torturer and for crimes against humanity.  Mr. Vega’s family now seeks compensation for a piece of real estate.

Hugo Pineda, once a GN officer, was allegedly directly responsible for the 1979 assignation of Conservative leader Bonifacio “Pancho” Miranda and others in the area of Barrio New Guinea. Mr. Pineda now seeks compensation for a piece of real estate.

As previously, the Nicaraguan government has in good faith sought to resolve these claims by former Nicaraguans (now US Citizens), but resolving cases such as those noted here becomes highly problematic and difficult.  Under increasing pressure from the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, under the leadership of Illeana Ross-Lehtinen, the real possibility exists that for the first time since the adoption of the Helms-Gonzales amendment, a waiver will not be granted.  As a result, millions of dollars in much needed US aid will be withheld — a move that would devastate efforts to alleviate poverty, provide for education and economic development in Nicaragua which remains the second poorest country in the Hemisphere.  Ironically, funds dedicated to so-called “democracy promotion” efforts would remain unaffected.

While the U.S. has already decided to withhold $3 million in aid on the alleged grounds of “transparency issues,” a decision on the property waiver is expected in the coming weeks.   We urge folks interested in this issue to immediately contact John Ballard at the Nicaragua Desk of the State Department (202-647-1510) and tell him that you support extending both of these waivers to Nicaragua this year.

Rev. Brian Peterson is a human right rights activist.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer.

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