I was both alarmed and relieved when this article by Javier C. Hernandez, which recalled Bill de Blasio’s work on behalf of the Nicaraguan Sandanistas, came out in The New York Times. De Blasio, those of you living outside of the New York metropolitan area may need to be reminded, is slated to be the next mayor of New York. He is running on the Democratic party line — not the Marxist party line, as Republican candidate Joseph Lhota predictably asserted after this story was published.
I was alarmed by this. Once again, and this time in a civilized place like New York, the Republican strategy is to not talk about things that matter (health care, housing, feeding the poor, education) but to rile people up about things that don’t matter (for example, the relevance of nineteenth century radical European philosophy to contemporary politics.) But I was relieved too, that de Blasio’s most leftist moment came out and that Lhota went to town on it. This is an opportunity to demonstrate, in a major Northeastern metropolis served by four major newspapers and numerous smaller ones, what unbelievable phonies the Republican right wing have become; and also how much people like Joseph Lhota, a fine public servant and longtime conservative, have been changed by radical Tea Party tactics.
First off, let me say that back in the 1980s, I supported the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional too. I was briefly associated with the Bluefields sister city project, which paired New York’s Lower East Side (otherwise known as Loisaida, because of its large Spanish-speaking population) with a community in Nicaragua. My neighbors were also subjects of a century of United States imperialism in the hemisphere, and increasingly, of federal drug policies that were swelling the populations of U.S. prisons with young men of color.
But back to Bill de Blasio, and our mutual support for the Sandanistas (full disclosure: I am also fond of the EZLN, otherwise known as the Mexican Zapatistas.) You didn’t have to be a Marxist, or a neo-Marxist as I briefly thought of myself in graduate school, to support the revolution in Nicaragua or to oppose Reagan administration policies there. Terrible stories of massacres were filtering out of the region in the 1980s. Spanish-speaking communities in New York became host to new refugees, primarily fleeing Central American violence. This violence was primarily, although not only, aimed at clearing indigenous people from land coveted by cronies of US-backed right-wing regimes who claimed to be fighting communism. In the 1980s, most liberals did support the Sandinista government that had toppled the murderous and corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 and consolidated its power by 1981.
Since the 1940s, U.S. policy in the region had been based on ruling through right-wing governments, often military juntas, which President after President embraced as allies and friends. Military officers were trained in the torture techniques that they used to maintain their reigns of terror in the United States. As an added bonus, endless loans from institutions like CitiBank were foisted on these countries, siphoned off into Swiss banks by oligarchs and their various puppets, and foisted on the common people through brutal taxes. Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and many others in the southern hemisphere paid in blood and coin for these deals cut between dictators, banks and U.S. politicians. This is actual history, not political flim-flammery.
Ronald Reagan raised the stakes by vowing to roll back communism around the globe, and by pursuing policies that he hid from Congress and from the American people. I spent Monday reading Douglas Brinkley’s edited volume, The Reagan Diaries (HarperCollins: 2007), which is a good reminder of what the Reagan doctrine meant for this hemisphere. It meant supporting, and covering up, death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. It meant illegally siphoning money to the Contra opposition in Nicaragua while also facilitating equally illegal arms sales to Iran. It meant lying to the American people about human rights crimes that the President of the United States endorsed and spent U.S. tax dollars on.
In other words, it meant a new Cold War with the old rules. It meant United States-sponsored terrorism abroad, resulting in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
So this is what people like Bill de Blasio and I were opposing, although he devoted himself to it far longer than I did.
What we, and millions of other Americans, were also opposed to was the gutting of health care, education housing, care and employment for the disabled, food stamps, welfare and numerous other social programs to pay for Ronald Reagan’s military build-up and secret support for state terrorism. You can see it right there in the diaries: Reagan knew he was overspending on the military even as he sent tax cut after tax cut to Congress. So did the conservatives in his coalition, and they didn’t care. Why? Because defeating communism was a dream more cherished than small government. Hence, Ronald Reagan not only left behind a murderous foreign policy legacy, and thousands of U.S. workers without the help or the organizing power they needed to stay out of poverty, he left a $2.8 trillion deficit, up from $900 billion in 1980.
You didn’t have to be a Marxist to see the economic writing on the wall or the ethical problem with this.
But worse, Joseph Lhota apparently doesn’t even know what a Marxist is; I doubt seriously that he has ever met or talked to one. When Republicans say “Marxist” what they really mean is Leninist, or Maoist, or Stalinist; but they don’t know the difference because Republican candidates are about as delusional and ill-informed as any group of politicians in the United States has ever been since the McCarthy era. You can read Marx through and through and never see the marks of what twentieth century totalitarian regimes came to look like. What Republicans mean by Marxist are police states that are given to mass incarceration and unwarranted search and seizure, states that imprison people indefinitely without trial and have secret prisons where people are interrogated and tortured unceasingly, states that conduct unrestricted surveillance, and states that spread their ideology abroad through violence and intimidation.
Who does that sound like? Not Bill de Blasio. But it does sound like what we’ve got now.