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Wednesday, 20 March 1985
Page: 511

Senator BOLKUS(5.15) —When the debate was interrupted I was discussing the question of Nicaragua and civil rights in that country. I wish to continue my remarks on that subject. I had discussed the attitude of the United States Administration and the propaganda that was emanating from that source and was trying to compare reality on the ground in Nicaragua with the rhetoric coming from the United States Administration. I had touched on the position of censorship in Nicaragua and the attitude of the editor of the major opposition newspaper La Prensa.

I now wish to turn to other forces of opposition in that country and to highlight how those forces can operate within this so-called totalitarian dictatorship, as it has been described by the United States Administration. The trade union movement is often a major force of opposition to governments when it comes to totalitarianism. In Nicaragua there are four trade union organisations. One in particular is headed by a person named Alvi Gutrie. He is the Secretary-General of the Confederation of Unified Trade Unionists, the CUS, and was trained at the AFL-CIO training school at Fort Royal, Virginia, a school which is partly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Alvin Gutrie's criticisms are seized upon by the United States Administration as one lever to prove that civil rights in Nicaragua are being repressed. Gutrie has a number of complaints about how the Sandinistas treat him. I was able to listen to those complaints. In fact, I was able to ask him to document them, and with the assistance of a paper that had been prepared by a tutor-a lecturer in sociology at the Australian National University, Dr Andrew Hopkins-I was able to discuss with Gutrie the points of his complaints.

In the past Gutrie has claimed that many of his union organisers had been gaoled. In fact, he claimed that at the port of Corinto in May 1983 six of his union organisers had been gaoled, and he repeated that claim to me. The claim had been made in the past to many people, and in this instance I was able to respond that my information-information that had been substantiated by the United Nations-funded Commission for the Protection and Preservation of Human Rights in Nicaragua-was that these union organisers had not been gaoled by any indiscriminate act of the Sandinistas, they had been gaoled because they had been found guilty of frauduently converting 43,000 cordobas of unions funds. The sorts of criticisms Gutrie makes could all be explained. When I left him, having discussed with him the kinds of acts of repression about which he was concerned, it appeared that he was putting up a sham situation. However, even a person such as Gutrie, with a vested interest to play within the Nicaraguan state at the moment, was able to say that if he had any problems he was able to raise them with the administration. In fact, he had an open line to the President of the General Assembly. He made it very clear that the last thing he wanted to see happen in Nicaragua was an invasion by the United States. As far as he was concerned, the Nicaraguan people had come a long way and could handle their own problems. Once again, this sort of attitude runs counter to that expressed by the United States Administration.

Not only does Nicaragua have an independent trade union movement, not only does it have opposition newspapers, it also has an organisation which is, in effect, the right wing opposition in Nicaragua. This organisation is called Coordinora Democratica, and it consists of a number of colleges of professional organisations, business administrators, and so on. I had the opportunity to meet that organisation, together with embassy officials. The organisation participated to a certain extent in the electoral process in Nicaragua last year, but towards the end it withdrew from it. It withdrew because it claimed that there was excessive censorship. That was a claim which was repeated to me, but unfortunately for the organisation it was a claim that was not substantiated by the evidence from La Prensa. La Prensa made it clear that during the electoral process there was minimal censorship, this information coming from the editor of La Prensa and the editorial board. The right wing opposition organisation said that it thought there was excessive censorship, but the evidence from La Prensa, which is available to any visitor in Nicaragua, runs counter to that. I was rather disappointed with the organisation because, apart from general rhetoric, rhetoric which is very similar to the hardline left wing rhetoric we sometimes find in countries associated with the Soviet line, there was very little to substantiate the claims of repression that the opposition organisation put forward.

I turn to the church, which of course is a major obstacle to any government in that region which wishes to repress civil liberties. The church is playing a vital role within the Sandinista Government and outside it in Managua. The pleasing part about church-state relationships in Nicaragua is that all parties are prepared to consult and to talk with each other, to argue their points in a civil way. They have not heard of our system of conciliation and consensus, but in their own way they are prepared to discuss their outstanding problems.

The other point one must look at is the rights of minority groups. In Nicaragua there is a recent history of concern about the role and rights of the Meskito minority group. I will say nothing more about them than refer to the most recent report of the Americas Watch organisation, published towards the end of last year. That organisation said that, although the Sandinista Government started off treating the Meskitos badly, its policy in recent times had changed and was now one to be commended. The report says:

In the last two and a half years, the most serious abuses involved the Meskito Indians. In regards to them, the government has made substantial progress with the release of those held in prison, and the more careful procedures for investigation and arrests in the Atlantic Coast area. Local authorities no longer relocate villagers after attacks by the 'contras', and have opened both a complaints office of the Ministry of Interior and an office of the official National Commission for the Protection of and Promotion of Human Rights.

I mention that specifically because it is one particular point that the United States Administration seizes upon. It claims that the rights of that minority group are being repressed, but when we assess its claim in the light of a report such as that from Americas Watch once again we find that reality and the fantasy of the United States Administration's rhetoric are very different.

The electoral process has been of major concern in Nicaragua. When one assesses the rights of individuals within a country one has to look at the rights of those individuals to participate in the electoral process and the election of governments. President Reagan claimed that the election in Nicaragua last year was a sham. However, the electoral process in Nicaragua has been praised by a wide and disparate group of people-wide enough to include British Conservative members of parliament, members of the French Socialist Party, representatives of the British Guardian Weekly and also independent observers such as representatives of the Swedish and Canadian governments. All these sources have assessed the processes of election in that country as being far better than expected. British Conservative member of parliament David Ashby is quoted as having said:

There were no irregularities in the conduct of the electoral process or the counting which I could see. I asked the people if they considered the vote was secret, and the answer was in the affirmative. I asked if they felt free to vote for any party and the answer was yes.

The British Guardian Weekly summed up the situation as follows:

The United States had tried hard to persuade or force all the opposition parties to boycott the election, precisely in order to keep up the image that Nicaragua is a one-party state. But the effort failed and it was clear to most observers that they were fair elections.

The Sandinistas polled over 70 per cent of the vote in those elections, in which over 80 per cent of the electorate voted. Last year in America President Reagan finished up with something like 28 per cent of the people voting for him; so he has a major credibility gap when he claims that the Sandinistas do not have the support of the people in Nicaragua.

It is of concern also to see what is happening to the Sandinista Government and to the Nicaraguan people as a result of external forces. In this respect one must refer to the policy of the United States Administration. In assessing whether an intervention in a foreign country can be acceptable, one can agree that if one of four criteria can be met there may be some reason for intervention. Those four criteria can be summed up as follows: Internally, if there will be a build-up within the country which may have a destabilising effect within that country and may affect surrounding countries, there may be a need for external countries to interfere. Once again internally, if pluralism is threatened, if there are no free elections or if human rights are threatened, there may be cause for intervention. In the foreign affairs field, if a country can be proven to be a source of subversion or terrorism in a region once again there may be cause for intervention. In this instance President Reagan claims that a military build-up is being undertaken in conjunction with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. If that can be proven, obviously the Americans would claim that they have a right to intervene, given their continual adherence to the Monroe doctrine over the last 60 years.

The evidence in Nicaragua does not support intervention on any of those four grounds. In fact, the evidence is that the United States Administration's policy in that country is being counter-productive. Sure, we acknowledge that there is no separation of powers in Nicaragua and that human rights there are not what we acknowledge them to be here. However, because of the intervention, either through the dirty war, as it has been called in America, sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency or through the economic blockade which is taking place, there is a build-up within Nicaragua of antagonism and antipathy towards the United States Administration. In fact, the policy there is counter-productive and is being seen by the people there as such. It is easy now for the Sandinistas to claim that certain actions they have to take, whether repressive or otherwise, are related to the war effort. They have often claimed, quite rightly in many instances but not in all, that their acts of censorship are related to domestic security. They can claim, quite rightly in this instance, that their economic hardships have been occasioned by the fact that they have to mount a massive war effort to protect their own borders. Most international opinion is that that is what they are doing.

I had the opportunity to visit one part of the country in which a group of Australians, the Australian Brigade, had spent three to four weeks picking coffee for the local people. They had to do that because 30 per cent of the local labour force in the Matagalpa region was being used to defend the area from CIA-sponsored contras. The Australian Brigade-a group of young people ranging from apolitical housewives to very political Marxist-Leninists-outlayed almost $3,000 to spend that time there. It was quite obvious that the effects of the war effort were being felt by the people, that region having lost to the war effort 30 per cent of its labour force. That is only indicative of the general demands made on the Nicaraguan economy by having to mount this war effort. Around 30 per cent of its economy goes into defending its borders.

We see at the moment attempts by the Reagan Administration to move from the private war, or the dirty war, to an official war against the Nicaraguans. One wonders what difference that would make. John Stockwell, an ex-CIA case officer who left the Agency not long ago, is quoted as having recently said:

So the CIA has proceeded full strength. They are keeping about a million dollars a month flowing to the contra forces.

Now there is some limitation on what they can accomplish. The result is that the contra forces seem to have gone down from about 15,000 to about 12,000. But they are still able to do a lot.

So at the end of the day we have a situation where America is spending a great deal of money in an attempt to force these people away from their chosen, self-determined government. The Americans are spending a lot of money trying to undermine the Government of the Sandinistas, as the world now acknowledges they did in Chile over 10 years ago. I believe that it is a self-defeating policy, a contradictory policy and one that is totally hypocritical when one compares the attitude of the American Administration there with its attitude in respect of surrounding countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Rights are being threatened and people are being slaughtered but we do not hear the same sorts of objections to that sort of activity in those areas.

I am pleased that the Australian Government is taking an independent role when it comes to the Nicaraguan situation. I am glad that the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) and the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Mr Hurford), as well as a parliamentary delegation from this Parliament, have been able to go to Nicaragua. For the first time in 160 years countries outside the region are taking an interest in the people of Central America. I hope that this time that interest will mean that the people of this country will be able to exercise fully their rights of self-determination.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before I call the next speaker I inform the Senate that this will be Senator Parer's first speech in this chamber. I ask honourable senators to accord him the usual courtesies.