Roy Gutman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

Page 4 of 8

Central America

You wrote a book on America's policy in Central America. Tell us a little about that and what you concluded.

I started covering Central America under protest, basically. My own predisposition was Europe: I just felt that this is where big wars break out, this is the area where we're now in a Cold War, this really matters, and Central America is just a sideshow. But in the Reagan administration they turned it into the main show. It was strange. It was bizarre. So my editor said, "Well, you've got to cover it." By this time I had joined Newsday. And so I went to El Salvador, I went to Nicaragua, I toured the region, and I felt that it really was an interesting thing: what is going on in this sideshow? I couldn't quite understand why the Americans were backing a military movement against Nicaragua, the Contras, when they probably could have, in time, won elections and done this whole thing peacefully. So I started reporting it.

I came up with the questions, I didn't have the answers, and I did a series of articles for the newspaper. I said, "I want to do more. I think I really want to continue with this subject," and they said, "Well, we think we've had enough." So then somebody said, "Why don't you do a book?" I spent almost two years researching it. It was called Banana Diplomacy. There, as I mentioned earlier, I went over all of my own stories and discovered how lacking they had been, and I tried to reconstitute the process. What was the decision-making, the Washington story? How did we get into this? What were we doing? And I found myself really fascinated by process. It was really a dramatic story. The book didn't become a best seller, but it was well reviewed. The interesting thing I discovered in doing this was that it was possible to talk to both sides. I went to the Contras. I met them all. I asked them to tell me the history of what they were doing. I went to the Sandinistas. I sat down with all of them. And so I went back and forth, back and forth, and I assembled a story that way. Afterwards both sides told me that they thought it was the best thing attempted in that area.

What was the interplay between what was actually happening in the field versus the way Washington was conceptualizing it?

Well, you know, in the Reagan administration they had a system where the president didn't always have his mind completely made up but he sort of knew where he would like to come down. So he would basically let everybody do their thing until somebody protested. And so Casey, the head of the CIA --

And an old OSS man.

An old OSS man, a guy who just loved these derring-do exploits, discovered (because somebody told him) that there was a movement there who were anticommunist, anti-Sandinista, and willing to fight. This must have appealed to the OSS in him. So he basically gave a wink and a nod and let the thing happen. It was not decided. It was not agreed on. Political operatives, some of Jesse Helms' deputies, went out there and gave signals without authority.

To fund a counter-revolutionary --

It wasn't to fund it, it was to get it started and say "Hey, we are behind you. You guys start up and we'll find the money to follow." So that's how it started. Casey took money that he shouldn't have, without authority, and created it. All of a sudden the administration and the government of the United States, in a sense, had a stake in something. Only then did they tell Congress what they were doing. They never told Congress honestly.

Meanwhile the State Department had a different perspective, which was that this could be dealt with through diplomatic means. But the people who were in favor of the Contras had the president's ear so much, and the president sort of liked this kind of thing, he just got sold on it. He was told that these were patriots and so on, and he liked that sort of thing. So that's how it happens. It wasn't the diabolical plot that a lot of people thought it was. Something was there and it was presented and the president said, "Hmm, I think I'll go with that," and nobody really put up enough of a fuss. And my God, it just caused them no end of embarrassment, and it was counterproductive in many, many ways.

At the end of the day, do you know what resolved Nicaragua? The elections. They had free and fair elections and people decided that the Sandinistas couldn't manage the economy, which was always the case, and people do vote with their pocketbooks at the end of the day if there's a fair race. So that's what made the difference. The Contras just caused a lot of destruction, a lot of war, and tremendous soul-searching and battling in Washington.

Next page: End of the Cold War

© Copyright 1997, Regents of the University of California