Bill de Blasio, ‘Sandalista’

In their desperation, Bill de Blasio’s opponents in the New York City mayoral race have turned the clock back to his time in Nicaragua, and the media is playing along.

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Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio greets supporters after a news conference, Tuesday, September 17, 2013, on the steps of City Hall in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio greets supporters after a news conference, Tuesday, September 17, 2013, on the steps of City Hall in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Did Bill de Blasio force his friends to say “Neek-a-rog-wha” once upon a time?

The folks at The New York Times think it’s front-page news that back in 1988, when he was 26 years old, Democratic mayoral candidate and current New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio spent 10 days in Masaya, Nicaragua. Apparently, at the time, the burly, bearded fellow “opposed foreign wars, missile defense systems and apartheid.” The paper’s reporter, Javier C. Hernández, sought out “hundreds of pages of records” and undertook “more than two dozen interviews,” discovering that “[de Blasio’s] time as a young activist was more influential in shaping his ideology than previously known.” One is tempted to ask, “Previously known by whom?” But that’s what so wonderful about using the passive voice. A reporter gets to insinuate that de Blasio was hiding something from someone without even bothering to try to prove it with evidence.

The entire story reads as if it were written in a nearly 30-year time warp. Back in the late 1980s, when “Mr. de Blasio, who studied Latin American politics at Columbia and was conversational in Spanish, grew to be an admirer of Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista party” and “thrust himself into one of the most polarizing issues in American politics,” it was hardly unusual for young Americans interested in politics to travel to Central America to see what was going on in the region. The Reagan administration, after all, appeared to have every intention to involve U.S. troops in another war there. One recalls the bumper-sticker slogan “El Salvador is Spanish for ‘Vietnam.’”

As part of their campaign to revive the Cold War, Reaganites were aiding a murderous regime in El Salvador propped up by death squads, the victims of which were sometimes nuns and priests and often entire villages. They were trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua with the help of murderous authoritarian dictatorships, such as the one in Argentina. And as Guatemala lobbied Congress to lift restrictions on military aid, the dictator in that country, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, was committing genocide against indigenous Indians.

The Reaganites could not get away with everything they wanted, so they resorted to selling missiles to Iranian terrorists—who were holding Americans hostage at the time—lying about it to Congress, and painting virtually everyone who sought to expose their policies as soft on Communism. It was all based on what became known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” under which “the U.S. provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements in an effort to ‘rollback’ Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

I went to Central America as a journalist in 1988, and the place was crawling with people like young de Blasio. Most were relatively unsophisticated about politics, but they were looking for adventure and were uncomfortable with the impression that President Ronald Reagan’s policies were creating around the region. The United States was making allies with right-wing dictators and turning a blind eye to the massacres and assassinations they regularly carried out. De Blasio may have been more involved than most—I really can’t say—but what I can say is that to support the Sandinistas in the 1980s was not in any sense a way to express sympathy with communism. Rather, it was a way to say that one opposed his or her country’s emphasis on “security” over the human needs of people in Central America, South Africa, or wherever else the so-called Reagan Doctrine put America on the side of dictators and human rights violators. As de Blasio put it during a recent interview, “My work was based on trying to create a more fair and inclusive world. I have an activist’s desire to improve people’s lives.”

Now, de Blasio leads his Republican rival, former New York City Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota, by a 65-22 margin “in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one.” His rivals, therefore, are eager to seize on anything that might give them even the slightest boost. In a next-day follow-up, reporters dogged de Blasio about the story. In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Lhota insisted:

Mr. de Blasio’s involvement with the Sandinistas didn’t happen in 1917; it happened 70 years later when the cruelty and intrinsic failure of communism had become crystal clear to anyone with a modicum of reason. Mr. de Blasio’s class warfare strategy in New York City is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.

Adolfo Carrión Jr., who is apparently an Independence Party candidate for mayor, added that he thought de Blasio was guilty of “propping up a brutal dictatorship in Central America,” saying—in the words of reporter Thomas Kaplan—that “his political philosophy was inspired by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.”

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Can there be a single New Yorker—in a city where nearly 50 percent of residents are living below or near the poverty line, while Wall Street profits are at record highs—who will vote for or against a mayoral candidate because of his views on Central America back in 1988? It’s hard to imagine. Again, in order for the story to make any sense at all, one has to return to a period when people in Washington pretended that what happened in Central America was the most important thing in the world. For example, President Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, came into office wishing to turn Cuba into a “parking lot.” And while it’s true that the Sandinistas did fool a lot of idealists like de Blasio into believing they were interested in democracy, it’s also true that it is awfully hard for any government to act democratically when the world’s most powerful nation is mining your harbors, blowing up your bridges, and generally trying to overthrow you with the help of local fascist dictatorships. Given the damage that President Reagan—together with the likes of Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, and company—did to the U.S. Constitution and rule of law through their actions in the “Iran-contra scandal,” it would appear that the folks who supported their actions have a great deal more to answer for than the folks we used to call the “Sandalistas.”

The notion that the Times thinks that this is significant today is hard to explain—as is the wondrous attitude of the reporter who reported on these events. The degree to which reporters will take the bait on such diversions at a time when multiple crises are facing America’s greatest city is staggering. But such are the fruits of decades of conservatives “working the refs.”

Now, back to things that matter: Was Hillary on that spy trip that bearded Oxford student Bill Clinton took to Moscow?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

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