Electoral Meddling: Get the N.E.D. out of Nicaragua

Article excerpt

The Bush Administration, with eager Congressional support, is pumping millions of dollars into Nicaragua in hopes of blocking the re-election of President Daniel Ortega. However, if the Nicaraguan government were to fund similar campaign activities in the United States, the recipients and conduits of that money would be subject to stiff civil and criminal penalties. Ironically, a major reason that federal laws flatly ban foreign financing of U.S. political campaigns is the long history of interference in presidential elections in this country by the Somoza family dictatorship that ruled Nicaragua until it was overthrown in 1979 by the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Aside from the hypocrisy of U.S. funding of political parties and organizations opposed to the Sandinistas, the policy appears to have backfired. The scramble for U.S. money has seriously divided the already quarrelsome Nicaraguan opposition while supporting the Sandinistas' charge that their opponents are tools of an adversary government.

In March 1963 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met behind closed doors to hear about the activities of I.Irving Davidson, a Washington-based publicity agent for Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Garcia and his son and successor, Luis. Evidence presented to the committee indicated that Davidson, a registered foreign agent on retainer from the Somoza family, contributed to both the Democratic and Republican parties in an attempt to influence the election of a U.S. President favorable to the Nicaraguan family dictatorship. Davidson worked behind the scenes of the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to help Lyndon Johnson win the nomination. Having failed in that mission, Davidson went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, where he spread money around in behalf of the Nixon campaign.

Davidson's testimony was part of a Senate investigation into the influence of nondiplomatic agents of foreign governments on U.S. politics and governmental operations. He and other lobbyists for foreign interests who testified before the committee admitted paying large sums to Washington power brokers to gain access to key decision makers in government, to curry favor with the press corps and to bolster the campaigns of many prominent politicians.

"It is one thing for a U.S. citizen to represent or advise a foreign government or interest group in a highly complicated proceeding before the Tariff Commission," Chair J. William Fulbright told the committee, "and quite another to attempt to influence the press, the public or the government on basic foreign policy issues." Most of his Congressional colleagues agreed and voted overwhelmingly to amend the Foreign Agents Registration Act with a prohibition against campaign contributions from U.S. agents working on behalf of foreign principals. The amendment, which was signed into law in 1966, also made it a felony to accept such contributions.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, Congress further tightened the prohibitions on foreign participation in U.S. elections. Investigators for the Senate Watergate committee found indications of continued foreign financing of U.S. campaigns, including evidence suggesting that Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who had inherited the Nicaraguan presidency on the death of his older brother Luis, had continued the family tradition by secretly funneling money into the Nixon campaign.

I do not think foreign nationals have any business in our political campaigns," argued Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1974. They cannot vote in our elections, so why should we allow them to finance our elections? Their loyalties lie elsewhere.' Bentsen introduced an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act that eliminated political contributions from all foreign nationals, not just principals or their agents. His amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 89 to 0 and was signed into law. …