The Iran-Contra Affair
In 1982, there was a call by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and three Nobel Laureates—Gabriel García Márquez, Alfonso García Robles, and Alva Myrdal—for leaders in Latin America to address the long and debilitating civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The group called on the presidents of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela to act as mediators in the conflicts. The group met in 1983 on Contadora Island in Panama. The initiative drew international attention to the area’s conflicts and pushed hard for a softening of U.S. military actions in Central America. As the Contadora plan took shape, it gained the support of the UN General Assembly, as well as many international peace groups.
In 1985 the Contadora Act was tentatively approved by the presidents of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. But it did not gain the crucial backing of the United States, due to its de facto acceptance of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Reagan refused to recognize Daniel Ortega as the legitimate leader of the country, even though he had been elected in a fair and open election that year. The United States was also not supportive of the plan because it expressly prohibited any further unilateral military action by the United States in the region.
Although the Contadora Act failed to obtain the backing of the U.S. government, it laid an important foundation. Under the leadership of Costa Rican president Óscar Arias, the so-called Esquipulas Peace Agreement would emerge in 1986, leading to the Central American Peace Accords that fundamentally reshaped Central American politics.
At the same time that Latin America and most of the world were working hard to find peaceful resolutions to decades of civil war in Central America, Reagan and his henchmen continued to plot the overthrow of Daniel Ortega with their CIA-funded Contra “army.” Despite passage of the Boland Amendment, which forbade the president from funding the Contras, Reagan continued to secretly arm and train them with “dark” money in the Agency’s budget. Eventually, Reagan’s team of outlaws set up a private-sector operation known as “The Enterprise,” headed by retired air force officer turned arms dealer Richard Secord, to smuggle money and arms to the Contras. To raise funds for The Enterprise, Secord negotiated a secret deal with the Israelis and the Iranians. Israel would sell U.S. arms (that they already had) to Iran, and then the United States would resupply Israel under the guise of foreign aid. Israel would move the cash from their Iranian arms sale to Secord’s operation, and from there it would go to the Contras. The first arms sales began in 1985. The complicated involvement of Israel was necessary because Congress had also banned all U.S. weapons sales to Iran.
Then, along came Oliver North. Ollie was a military aide to the U.S. National Security Council (Reagan’s outlaw team), and in the parlance of the trade he was what was known as a “cowboy.” Ollie proposed a more straightforward and audacious plan for selling arms to Iran. Instead of using Israel as an intermediary, the sale would be direct from the United States, secretly and entirely illegally, with the proceeds going directly to the Contras. However, the Contras needed more cash than Ollie’s secret operation could generate, so the so-called counter-revolutionary army turned to narcotrafficking, moving huge quantities of cocaine and heroin from South America to U.S. markets.
The entire complicated scam would be revealed in 1986, when an airlift of guns to the Contras was downed over Nicaragua. The only survivor from the downed plane, soldier of fortune Eugene Hasenfus, would confess that the CIA was behind the illegal Contra arms supply. On hearing of the downed plane and confession, Ollie and his secretary, Fawn Hall, would quickly shred thousands of documents that could implicate President Reagan. By late 1986 Reagan would be pressured to appoint an independent committee to look into the accusations and the evidence. The final report of the committee, which was led by former senator John Tower, would note that President Reagan had exhibited “secrecy, deception and disdain for the law,” but there was no hard evidence found to dispute his claim that he knew nothing about the Iran-Contra Affair. Ollie and Fawn’s shredding party had succeeded. Later, Oliver North would write in his memoirs that Reagan knew and approved of everything.
The International Court of Justice would find the United States in violation of international law by sponsoring the Contras and order reparations be made to Nicaragua. The U.S. would refuse to recognize the judgment. Although the scandal would lead to a drop in Reagan’s popularity from 67% to 46%, the “Teflon President” would rebound to end his two-term presidency with a whopping 64% approval rating.
Eventually, more than a dozen of Reagan’s henchmen in the Iran-Contra scandal would be indicted on various counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, withholding evidence, and other charges, including: Caspar Weinberger (Secretary of Defense); Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter (National Security Advisors); Elliott Abrams (Assistant Secretary of State); Clair George (Deputy Director of Operations, CIA); Oliver North; and Richard Secord. Most of them would be later pardoned by George H. W. Bush, who had served as Vice-President under Reagan. North would be sentenced on three felony charges, which would later be vacated on the grounds that his Fifth Amendment rights “might have been violated.” Ollie would go on to retire as a lieutenant colonel, draw a large government pension, and get rich writing books and making speeches sponsored by conservative organizations. In 2018 Ollie became President of the National Rifle Association. The whole episode left Nicaragua’s economy in shambles.