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Bernie Sanders - The senator's revolution began in the mayor's office in Burlington, Vermont.

Miami, Fl - In their first one-on-one debate of the Democratic presidential primary campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questioned Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion that the candidates shared some broad policy objectives. “Details make a difference,” Sanders interjected. After both addressed the COVID-19 crisis – Biden with proposals to implement immediately that could impact the pandemic, Sanders through the prism of how the crisis would have looked had his Medicare for All policy already passed the House and Senate and been signed into law – Sanders then initiated a thirty-plus year legislative retrospective of their records.

By Ari Amahae

With the CDC estimating that between 2.4 to 21 million people in the US could require hospitalization due to coronavirus, instead of debating what has happened to the White House Pandemic Office during the Trump Administration, Sanders chose to question Biden on “Simpson-Bowles,” the Obama-era National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. Then, to highlight what defines leadership, Senator Sanders once again pointed to his vote against the Iraq War in contrast to then-Senator Biden’s vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq.

In his 2007 book, Promises to Keep, Biden titled a chapter “My Mistake” which focuses on his Iraq War vote. In response to questions of foreign policy judgement, the former Vice President asked Sanders about his varying degrees of support for far-left regimes. “The Sandinistas?” Biden asked Sanders twice without reply. The Sanders campaign took the same posture when asked to comment for this article on the senator’s stance toward the Ortega-led Sandinista government in the 1980s, which, with Daniel Ortega again president of Nicaragua, continues to impact indigenous rights in this hemisphere today.

The Sanders campaign was approached before the debate and did not respond when asked if Senator Sanders still considers it “nonsense” to “use the word genocide” to describe what the indigenous Miskito people suffered in the first years of Sandinista rule. Voices as diverse as the late Russell Means and Senator Edward Kennedy described the “concentration camps” the Miskito were “relocated” to. Those inspired by the Sandinista revolution justified the forced removals as being motivated by humanitarian concerns – the Sandinistas, they contended, feared the indigenous people would be marooned in no-man’s-land between US-funded paramilitaries and the revolutionaries. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) documented the “repeated human rights violations,” “illegal killings” and “torture” committed by the Sandinistas against the Miskito.


The OAS report was dismissed as CIA propaganda by some on what then constituted the far-left of the American political spectrum; their theory was that the OAS had been co-opted by the Reagan Administration and the document was another plank in a false flag operation to discredit the Sandinistas. The OAS report was published in June 1984. Senator Sanders, then serving as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, met with Ortega as a guest of the Sandinista government in July 1985.  American Indian Movement (AIM) co-founder, Means, went on what he called “a fact-finding mission” to Nicaragua three months later.

President Daniel Ortega

Means’ support of the Miskito, their leader, Brooklyn Rivera, and factions of the MISURASATA indigenous alliance in Nicaragua, created one more ideological fracture in AIM. The late Vernon Bellecourt, also an AIM leader but a rival of Means, represented AIM’s pro-Sandinista position. Means compared Rivera to Red Cloud. Bellecourt accused Rivera of working for the CIA and Means of being a federal agent of some kind and a pawn of the Reagan Administration.

“They still deny and don’t recognize the Indian, our aboriginal rights for land, for self-government, for natural resources and so forth. Because of that, our people are still in the resistance,” Rivera explained during the conflict, encapsulating indigenous opposition to the Sandinistas.

Just weeks after Sanders met with Ortega, Russell Means described what he witnessed in Nicaragua. “In Ariswatla, Sandinista helicopters had landed troops who rounded up all boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen, herded them into a local schoolhouse, and set it afire, burning them alive. As I continued to ask about the absence of young men, I heard the same story, with minor variations, in almost every village.” Means had several close scrapes with the Sandinistas and bemoaned how “most of the depositions, the video and film” his party collected was lost when they were ambushed. In his autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, Means wrote, “I didn’t need the film or notes to remind me of what I had seen and heard,” before he detailed some of the atrocities and concluded, “Those Indians were struggling to survive the same kind of genocide my own ancestors had faced.”

While Means’ “fact-finding” party was dodging Sandinista patrols in a dugout canoe on jungle waterways, Sanders compared Oretga’s “suspension of certain civil liberties” to FDR’s treatment of “American Nazis” during World War II. “In fact, as you’ll recall – in a totally unconstitutional manner – thousands of Japanese Americans on the west coast were herded into concentration camps as a war time protection measure,” he wrote in a letter to Edward Pike, a Burlington resident who had questioned Sanders advocacy of the Sandinistas. So, Ortega “herded” the Miskito “into concentration camps as a war time protection measure”? “They did not do the right thing in the right way at the right time. And they acknowledge this,” Sanders later conceded to his hometown newspaper on the Sandinistas’ persecution of the Miskito. “The Sandinistas make their share of mistakes,” he added. Ortega used the same language to mitigate reports of the Sandinistas’ campaign against the Miskito; these were merely “mistakes” born of “cultural insensitivity” he claimed.

Upon his return from Nicaragua, Russell Means held a press conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, covered by Action 7 News. “The Sandinistas, first of all, I want them to identify for the world community, for you and I, the ‘mistakes’ that they’ve made. I want them to detail and document how many massacres and tortures – and maiming – they’ve done of Indian people. And dislocating Indian people,” Means began. In the same timeframe, Mayor Sanders told the Rutland Daily Herald that he doubted his constituents “were staying up nights worrying about this.” In neighboring Massachusetts, Senator Edward Kennedy evidently was. In a New York Times op-ed he urged the Sandinistas to engage in peace talks with the Miskito and recognize their sovereignty and “separate cultural and ethnic identity.”

2018 Indigenous People's Civic Revolution March in Nicaragua

Sons of Mother Earth party leader, Brooklyn Rivera, celebrates a 2017

election victory in Nicaragua

Details make a difference as does context. Senator Sanders was and remains a fervent critic of US intervention and policy in Central and South America in the Cold War era. In 1979, the Sandinista revolution ousted the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate and member of Nicaragua’s four-decade ruling oligarchy. After Somoza’s overthrow, his loyalists launched the Contrarrevolución. Dubbed the “Contras,” they were supported by the Reagan Administration and trained by the CIA in Nicaragua’s civil war. By the mid-1980s, the Soviets were supplying the Sandinistas.

Ted Kennedy, not known as a Reagan apologist, summarized the Sandinistas’ “unconscionable treatment of the Indians,” the “scorched-earth policy,” how “half of the 90,000 Indians on the coast” had been “displaced,” and the “forced labor camps – which resemble concentration camps.” Irrespective, the Miskito were conflated with the Contras as they opposed the Sandinistas. The Miskito, Sumu and Rama had been considered fodder by the CIA in Operation Red Christmas which launched the Contra counterassault in December 1981. A faction took up arms with the Contras. Most fought their own war, not America’s. The indigenous struggle for “aboriginal rights for land, for self-government, for natural resources and so forth” was of no consequence to the Reagan Administration.

James Anaya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, did not consider the Miskito “Contras.” In the intervening years, Anaya served as lead counsel for the Mayagna Community of Awas Tingni who prevailed over the Nicaraguan government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. A historic case that merits mainstream and not fringe attention, the Court, which has legally binding authority, found the State in violation of collective indigenous land rights.

Human Rights Watch denounced heinous acts committed by the Contras and in 1984 the Democratic-led US Congress affirmed the Boland Amendment to halt military support to the Contras, which gave rise to the Iran-Contra scandal and the conviction of President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State, Elliott Abrams, for withholding evidence from Congress. Human Rights Watch accused Abrams of complicity in not only Contra atrocities in the US-Soviet proxy war in Nicaragua, but also those of US-supported forces in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras where right-wing death squads executed opponents of US surrogates and the Vatican. With the aid of his Attorney General, Bill Barr, President George H.W. Bush pardoned Abrams who later served as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and influenced Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. As Attorney General for the Trump Administration, the next pardon Barr is expected to assist with is for General Michael Flynn. Abrams currently serves as President Trump’s Special Representative for Venezuela.

Though the Sanders campaign didn’t respond to questions for this article, it previously informed conservative columnist Philip Wegmann that Senator Sanders was critical of Ortega’s policy of indigenous relocation in the 1980s, and that he supports treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, tribes’ opposition to pipelines, and that as president he would not allow “huge corporations to put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities.” Why then, as they were asked but didn’t answer, did Senator Sanders decline to meet with tribal leaders to receive the landmark “Declaration Opposing Oil Sands Expansion and the Construction of the Keystone-XL Pipeline” signed by some eighty tribal nations? Between October 2017 and December 2018, multiple requests were made to present the document to Sanders.

Putting that aside, the campaign didn’t answer why, after almost three decades as a Member of Congress, no signature piece of legislation authored by Senator Sanders has reached a president’s desk which reflects his commitments to indigenous communities? For over half of his tenure on Capitol Hill, Democratic presidents have occupied the White House. During the Clinton Administration the Democratic Party controlled both chambers in the 103rd Congress, as it did in the 111th Congress during the Obama Administration. Though his surrogates point to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) of 2013 as one of his legislative achievements for Native America, Senator Sanders co-sponsored the Act with sixty other senators. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the bill, and as President of the Senate, Vice President Biden was instrumental in ensuring that the provisions extending to indigenous women were added and retained. Biden co-authored and first introduced VAWA in 1990 before President Clinton signed it into law in 1994.

In Nicaragua today, “huge corporations” seek “to put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities.” In 1987, the Sandinistas recognized the rights of the Miskito under Law 28, but in 2016, Global Witness published its Defenders of the Earth report, which identified Nicaragua as “the most dangerous country in the world per capita” for indigenous land and water protectors. Cultural Survival contends that now as in the 1980s, “the ultimate prize was (and remains)” the Miskito’s “vast, lucrative natural resources and uniquely biodiverse rainforest – historically preserved through Indigenous stewardship and conservation.” To the Sandinistas, Nicaragua’s indigenous people are now an obstacle to the construction of a $50 billion shipping canal project to be undertaken by the Chinese-funded Hong Kong Canal Development Group, that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific.

Brooklyn Rivera, once maligned as a CIA dupe, is now a leader of the “Yapta Tasbi Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka” the “Sons of Mother Earth” political party. “Our Indigenous Peoples have continued to suffer under the Sandinista regime since the 1980’s,” Rivera said recently. “But at the same time, we are still resisting all aggression and the policy of internal colonialism.”

After a hiatus, Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua. Senator Sanders apparently no longer thinks Ortega “a very impressive guy” and is now “very concerned about the anti-democratic policies of the Ortega government.” He does, however, continue to recognize the “good things” the Cuban-backed Sandinista revolution brought to Nicaragua, as he insists Castro did to Cuba – primarily healthcare systems and literacy programs. “The truth is the truth,” he recently stated at a CNN townhall. Floridians of Cuban heritage had the opportunity to cast their truth at the polls in the Democratic primary March 17. Despite the coronavirus crisis, voter turnout was up in Florida, and Senator Sanders didn’t carry a county.

As his campaign wouldn’t answer the questions and he didn’t answer Vice President Biden during the debate, we are left to assume that there won’t be a chapter on the Sandinistas in any forthcoming book from Senator Sanders titled “My Mistake.” We should pray that the country doesn’t pay for what would be another mistake, doing Donald Trump’s bidding by sustaining attacks on Biden through a protracted and now forlorn quest for 1,991 delegates. “Not me. Us,” Bernie. “We have to step up and care for one another,” Vice President Biden said after his primary victories in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, though his address wasn’t a victory lap, it was a reminder of empathy and compassion for a population shaken by a pandemic. After “assessing the state of our campaign” Senator Sanders needs to step up by stepping aside from a race he now cannot win. The revolution begins by defeating Donald Trump in November.



Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media, Intercontinental Cry and Cultural Survival.