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On This Day: Reagan Endorses CIA Support of Nicaraguan Contras

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Nov. 23, 1981, President Ronald Reagan provided the Central Intelligence Agency with $19 million in military aid to support guerrilla groups fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government; the decision led to the 1986 Iran-Contra affair.

U.S. Provides Military Support to Contras

Nicaragua was ruled by a leftist military government that had been established by the Sandinista revolutionaries after overthrowing Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a brutal and corrupt dictator, in 1979.

The goals of the Nicaraguan government ran counter to American interests in the region and were seen as a vehicle for Soviet political strategy. President Ronald Reagan, who believed that anti-communist insurgents should be supported wherever they might be, allowed the CIA to fund and train Nicaragua’s counterrevolutionary guerrillas, the “Contras,” primarily made up of soldiers from Somoza’s National Guard.

President Reagan signed off on a top-secret document, National Security Decision Directive 17, which gave the CIA permission to recruit paramilitary units to take part in covert actions against the Sandinista regime.

News of the CIA directive leaked to the press in 1982; Congress acted to block these operations, and by 1984 the Boland Amendment made further support of the guerrillas almost impossible. However, members of the Reagan administration continued to push for the ouster of the Sandinista regime.

In 1985, National Security Advisor John Poindexter used a third party to send funds to the Contras, sanctioning the redirection of funds from illicit U.S. sales of arms to Iran to the Contras. The deal would be made public in November 1986 by Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, sparking a major political scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair.

In June 1986, the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. violated international law by providing aid to the Contras. The court ruled that the U.S. owed compensation to Nicaragua, but the Reagan administration ignored the verdict and the case for compensation was dropped in 1991.

Background: Reagan Doctrine

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Breaking with President Harry S. Truman’s policy of containment, Reagan’s foreign policy was based upon John Foster Dulles’s “roll-back” strategy in which the United States worked actively to push back the influence of the Soviet Union, especially in the developing world.

A 1983 White House directive given to the State Department read, “The U.S. must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy.”

Key Player: Daniel Ortega

Sources in this Story

Ortega headed the ruling junta of Nicaragua after the ouster of the Somozas in 1979. He won an election in 1984 to become president and stepped down when he lost the 1990 election to the center-right opposition.

Ortega made a comeback in 2006, winning the presidential election with 38 percent of his country’s vote. “Running on a platform of reconciliation and peace, Ortega—who was careful not to mention the United States on the campaign trail—broadened his base by forming alliances with former Contras and making peace with the Roman Catholic Church, once one of his harshest critics,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations.

Reference: Contra Documents

George Washington University provides an online book of declassified briefings about the Contra affair and key players in the operation.

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