We're Misreading Nicaragua as We Misread Cuba in '61

Manuel Gomez is president of the Cuban-American Committee in Washington.

In an ominous coincidence, the House will vote again on aid for the Nicaraguan contras on the 25th anniversary of the CIA-directed attack on Cuba that ended at the Bay of Pigs.

I was 13 and in my home in Havana when we all awoke that morning to the sound of explosions from a nearby military airfield. In the next few days I would get a crash course in political science; years of reflection in my adult life have only confirmed what I began to learn on that April 15.

The lessons are quite simple. The Cuban revolution was able to defeat the invaders, who were the contras of that day, for one very powerful reason: In the eyes of the majority of Cubans, the revolution had come to represent national pride and social justice.

One can argue endlessly about whether the revolution really embodied those ideals, but that's not the point. For most Cubans it did. My family and I did not think so; we were part of the middle-class, private-school crowd that made up the vocal but still decidedly minority opposition to Fidel Castro's government. We looked north for answers, and we were as convinced as the CIA analysts and the Kennedy aides who planned the invasion that everybody else in Cuba looked north, too.

The success of the Bay of Pigs was predicated on the accuracy of just that kind of analysis, as the planners fully expected massive popular uprisings as soon as the "liberators" set foot on Cuban soil. None took place, of course, unless you count the massive uprising of indignation that enveloped most of the nation. "They underestimated the fanaticism and combative spirit of those who supported Castro unconditionally," Phillip W. Bonsal, our last ambassador to Havana, would say many years later. "The notion that this support would melt away and that tens of thousands of Cubans would defect or refuse to fight . . . was simply wishful thinking."

Wishful thinking. How true. Quite contrary to what my family and I wanted to believe, most Cubans didn't want the answer to come from the north, and certainly not through the barrel of a gun.

Yet come from the north it did. The Bay of Pigs invasion was created, financed and directed by the United States, in a pattern that we are copying with the contras today. In his acclaimed account, Peter Wyden told how the Cuban exile leadership, the men who were to set up the provisional government as soon as the beachhead was secured, were kept in seclusion, without information, during the entire episode; their communiques were brought to them by "our boys" for signature.

Does it sound familiar? It should. It is the same picture that former contra leader Edgar Chamorro drew in his affidavit to the International Court of Justice. The Central Intelligence Agency, he said, had provided rebel leaders with communiques about the mining of the harbor at Corinto. Their job was to shut up and sign them. The contra force was, he testified, "created by the CIA, it was supplied, equipped, armed and trained by the CIA, and its activities, both political and military, were directed and controlled by the CIA."

Some historians cite Castro's charismatic ability to fan the flames of nationalism as the chief reason for the counterrevolution's failure. But nationalism alone would not have been enough. The other crucial component was most Cubans' fervid belief that the revolution had brought social justice. Again, for most of us who were against the government, social justice was a nice idea, but we didn't need it. We already had jobs, education, health care and so on. We agreed with the strategists up north that political freedoms were the important thing and, in typical fashion, we assumed that all Cubans felt the same way.

Not so, not by a long shot. For most Cubans the invaders represented a return to the past, to a time when few could even hope for change in the order of things.

I am no learned expert on Nicaragua, but it looks as if the same process is going on there. The Sandinistas, no matter what we think about them, carried the weight of defeating the Somoza dictatorship and raised the hopes of eliminating social injustice, and these are powerful weapons.

We have yet to see whether the Sandinistas will be able to deliver, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter if the CIA and the entire U.S. government are correct in their assessment that the Sandinista model is a disaster for Nicaragua. It doesn't matter so long as most Nicaraguans continue to support it. And it seems evident that if the contras can't even operate bases inside Nicaraguan territory, they don't have much popular support.

The expectation of mass uprisings in Nicaragua resembles the misreading of Cuba in early 1961. If this were a real possibility, would the Sandinista government have armed thousands of men and women in militias? Remember, it was mostly the militia, not professional soldiers, that beat back the Bay of Pigs invaders.

Both revolutions have prospered because they have managed to embody, for the majority of their peoples, aspirations of national pride and social justice. Our disapproval won't change that; we can't bomb it out of existence with SAMs or contras.

These things are hardly mentioned in the debate about aiding the contras. That is because anyone who does so risks being called a fool, a communist, or worse. We have a lot of politicians, but we are very short of political leaders, so opposition to aid is reduced to timid ritual confessions: "We disapprove of President Reagan's policy, but . . . (we want to get elected again)."

We need to get beyond the arguments about atrocities, Soviet Bloc advisers, high-tech weapons, trips to Moscow. We need some political leaders with the courage to pierce the heart of the issue: the blind spot that Cuba and Nicaragua represent in our foreign policy.

If our policies are to serve our interests, they must be based on what is, not what might be. The Bay of Pigs represented a wish that ignored reality. Aid for the contras is no different, and will have the same results.

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