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Ad watch: Nicaraguan visits 30 years ago continue to fuel misleading ads against Congress challenger Lisa Brown

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 15, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 1985 file photo, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega raises his fist after being sworn in as the country’s new president, in Managua, Nicaragua. Ortega, who helped topple the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinista guerrilla leader, ruled Nicaragua from 1979-1990. After losing power in a shock electoral defeat, he later returned to power through the ballot box, assuming the presidency again in 2007. Fidel Castro is pictured left. (Jeff Robbins / AP)
FILE - In this Jan. 10, 1985 file photo, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega raises his fist after being sworn in as the country’s new president, in Managua, Nicaragua. Ortega, who helped topple the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinista guerrilla leader, ruled Nicaragua from 1979-1990. After losing power in a shock electoral defeat, he later returned to power through the ballot box, assuming the presidency again in 2007. Fidel Castro is pictured left. (Jeff Robbins / AP)

Political radio ads that have been airing in Spokane make incomplete and misleading claims about Lisa Brown’s early political and academic career, which took her to Nicaragua long before the current political unrest that now grips the country.

The spots revive decades-old claims that the Democrat supports socialists because of visits to Nicaragua in the 1980s and early ’90s. The ads rely on an article from the time whose author says Brown’s statements weren’t radical. They also attempt to tie the current turmoil in the country to Brown’s support 20 years ago of a political leader she has since repudiated.

They’ve been running on at least two FM stations in the Spokane market for the past three weeks, according to filings with the Federal Communication Commission.

Brown has faced political accusations in previous runs for elected office dating back to 1992 that have tied her to the efforts of the Sandanistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s and early 1990s. The congressional candidate said the attacks have conflated her work as an educator in the country in 1990 with political activism in Eastern Washington in the 1980s, which included a demonstration on the federal courthouse steps against congressional aid to rebel fighters.

Brown denounced the Sandanistas’ leader, Daniel Ortega, at a public debate last month amid reports of widespread violence in the country this year. She said later the current accusations by conservatives are a way of shifting focus from the Trump administration’s immigration policies, which she calls a “human rights issue,” and her record in the Washington Legislature.

“I do not support governments that engage in human rights abuses against their citizens,” Brown said at a debate last month, in response to an audience member’s question about her support for the Sandanistas. “It seems to me at this point in time, that Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, that regime, is engaging in human-rights abuses and antidemocratic practices, and so I do not support that.”

Brown had been lecturing on Central American politics at Eastern Washington University when she first took a trip to the country in 1985. She followed that visit with a demonstration on the federal courthouse steps in Spokane in 1986. The action was in opposition to Congress’ decision to send $100 million in aid to the Contra rebels who were fighting the Sandanistas, who had been voted into power two years prior.

At the time, Senate Democrats accused Reagan of getting the United States involved in the country’s civil war, actions that echoed the run up to the Vietnam War.

Public opinion polling at the time showed that the U.S. policy to become involved in Central America, and Nicaragua specifically, wasn’t a clear-cut preference for Americans, and a majority opposed overthrowing the Sandanistas. Several Republicans and Democrats defected from their parties in the vote on aid to the Contras in 1986.

Within months of the approval, an investigation revealed that the Reagan administration had been funneling the proceeds from illegal weapon sales to Iran to help arm the Contras against the Sandanistas. The sale of weapons to the Iranian government sidestepped a legal embargo that had been established after the Iranians took 52 American hostages following their own revolution in 1979.

The subsequent scandal led to the indictment of 11 administration officials and televised hearings that gripped the nation in the waning years of Reagan’s presidency.

Ads paid for by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers have continued as recently as the pas week to air on local radio stations, saying Brown “worked against U.S. policy in places like Nicaragua, and sided with socialist dictator Daniel Ortega, who continues today to terrorize his own people.”

The “continues” part of that sentence is the rub, and the ad paints Brown with a broad brush that is unfair, say Nicaraguan experts and those who traveled with Brown to the country 30 years ago. It also implies that U.S. policy toward Nicaragua was widely supported, which wasn’t the case.

Ortega, the military leader who emerged at the top of the Sandinsta ticket in 1984 elections that were widely considered to be the first free and independent in the country’s history, has long been critical of American interventionism in the Central American country. At the time of his defeat in the 1990 contest, Ortega was arguing that his opponents were conspiring with the Americans to invade Nicaragua, but the transition of power was peaceful.

After two subsequent re-elections, there’s now evidence that the Ortega government has, in fact, turned on its own people and alienated former allies.

Reports from human-rights groups indicate more than 400 people have been killed in violence in the Central American country of roughly 6 million people, slightly less than the 7.5 million people that call Washington state home. The politically driven carnage, initially fueled in May by opposition to proposed tax hikes and pension cuts, prompted a full-throated condemnation from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in September, who compared the corruption occurring under Ortega to the rise of totalitarianism in Venuezuela under Nicolas Maduro.

More than 50 of Ortega’s former associates, including his own brother, signed a statement earlier this year denouncing the current regime as “a bloody dictatorship.”

The violence has forced tens of thousands of Nicaraguans to flee the country for Costa Rica. While the Trump administration’s total cap on refugee resettlements shrunk to 30,000 this year from 45,000 in 2018, the State Department doubled its allowable limit for refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean in this year’s report from 1,500 people to 3,000 people. Reductions were imposed on those seeking entry from Africa and parts of Asia, not Nicaragua.

McMorris Rodgers, like other Republican opponents in the past, criticized Brown for her interest in visiting Nicaragua in 1990, just as Ortega’s party of Sandanistas lost an election to a coalition calling for an end to bloodshed that had, in part, been supported by the U.S. government. The outcome shocked the Sandanistas in a contest that was watched by several outside democratic observers, including a contingent of 21 people from Washington state that included Brown.

“From what I understand, I have a lot of concerns about what you were involved in, in Nicaragua,” McMorris Rodgers told Brown, before requesting a follow-up in which she accused her Democratic rival of supporting “socialist dictators.”

On stage, Brown called the attack unfair. It’s one she’s had to grapple with in many campaigns. Often the attacks have been fueled by an article written by Abdon Pallasch, then a correspondent for United Press International who interviewed Brown during her sabbatical from Eastern Washington University to teach in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

Pallasch concludes that piece with a scene of Brown boarding a bus, along with 200 other Americans supporting Ortega at the time, with a cry of “viva revolucion.”

“I came down here to participate in this experiment as it was unfolding,” Brown told Pallasch for the article.

Pallasch, now director of communications for the Democratic comptroller in Illinois, said in an interview this month he stood by the words and quotes that were published in that story, which ran in The Spokesman-Review on March 3, 1990. He said there was nothing about Brown’s words that were radical for that period.

“What I do recall, is that she struck me as a college professor,” Pallasch said. “She was mainstream, level-headed. I think you can take her at face value.”

The Sandanistas came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 by overthrowing an autocratic dynasty run by the Somoza family. They quickly implemented a policy of collective farming, which was later rescinded to push for more individualized ownership of land. In Pallasch’s article, Brown praised Nicaragua’s “mixed” economy of state and private ownership of industries and financial institutions, arguing it was more beneficial for the poor in that country.

The next 10 years saw education efforts to rapidly raise literacy levels in rural areas, efforts which were also criticized as a political recruitment tool. The overthrow also prompted a proxy war between the United States and Russia, with the Americans funneling millions of dollars of aid to the conservative-leaning rebels and the Soviets backing the left-leaning Sandinstas led by Ortega, respectively.

Brown said that her political passions in Central America were inspired by the murder of four American Catholic nuns in El Salvador, a December 1980 crime perpetrated by the country’s national guard that prompted outrage in the United States. President Ronald Reagan would later give economic support to the El Salvador military-led government against leftist groups jockeying for power.

“They understand the United States sees it as an East-West conflict, but what the Nicaraguans want is independence,” Brown told the interviewer then. “They would like to establish relations and trade with both Russia and the United States.”

Brown said her actions in the 1980s, and the trip in 1990 to observe the election and teach economics, are being conflated by her political opponents. Larry Winters, former pastor of the Cheney United Church of Christ, went on that 1990 trip with Brown and said its purpose was to observe, not participate in politics.

“We all had our opinions,” said Winters, who has given $75 to Brown’s congressional campaign according to federal campaign filings. “I found her willing to listen and engage anyone.”

Winters said there was another woman on the trip who arrived in Nicaragua wearing a button supporting the Sandanistas, a transgression the delegation quickly squashed when she got off the plane.

Greg Cunningham, a local immigration legal advisor who’s visited Nicaragua frequently along with his wife, Gina Mikel Petrie, a professor of English at Eastern Washington University, said it’s fair to cast the Sandanistas in the 1980s and ‘90s as socialists. But it’s important to remember what they were replacing, and what role American expatriates had in the country at the time as the violence swirled around them, he said.

“They turned that country around,” Cunningham said of the Sandanistas. “Whatever they’ve become now, in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, they transformed the country of Nicaragua.”

“It’s a real stretch to say what she did there is strongly supportive of socialism in general,” Cunningham continued.

Still, the trip has been seized upon by national Republicans watching the race. It’s been amplified by the public release earlier this fall of Brown’s 1986 thesis in economics, which included praise for socialist thinkers such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as part of a larger argument about gaps in the scholarship focused on feminist thinking.

Brown has defended her trips to Nicaragua in interviews, and said any continued attacks on her early academic and political career are efforts to deflect from unpopular Republican policies, and her own more recent legislative record in Olympia, which included bringing a medical school to Spokane, expanding health care coverage for children and establishing a rainy day fund to stabilize the state budget.

“It’s distracting people with a very bizarre claim, that I’m sympathetic to Communists, which is absolutely not true,” Brown said.

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