After US terrorist war and sanctions, Nicaragua fights for justice at international court

In Managua, Ben Norton interviews Nicaragua’s representative to the UN’s International Court of Justice, Carlos Argüello Gómez, who speaks about his country’s case against the US over its terrorist Contra war, the 2018 coup attempt, and why sanctions are an illegal form of warfare on civilians.


CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: I don’t know why many people in the United States have to see concretely something. Sanctions, although you don’t see them on a wall or in a room, they cause as much death as a war.

It’s like declaring a state of siege in medieval times against a city or whatever, just blocking it up. These type of sanctions, you can stop all medicine, you can stop gas, you can stop everything from going into a country with these sanctions.

Even during siege times there were laws regulating what you could do. Now you can squeeze a country and destroy the country without any limits. At least that’s what the United States thinks it can do.

So the only mechanism of defense is multilateralism.

BEN NORTON: For years, the United States has been targeting the small Central American nation of Nicaragua for regime change.

A violent US-backed coup attempt in 2018 was only the latest in a series of aggressive actions aimed at overthrowing its leftist Sandinista government.

Nicaragua is also one of dozens of countries suffering under unilateral US sanctions, which are illegal under international law, and which have taken a serious toll on the country’s economy.

In the capital Managua, I sat down for an interview with Carlos Argüello, Nicaragua’s representative at the United Nation’s International Court of Justice.

He spoke about his country’s attempts to hold Washington accountable for its aggression against his country, and the importance of multilateral institutions in giving a voice on the international stage to small nations like Nicaragua.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: It’s not perhaps very well known that the country that has had the most cases in the international court is the United States, 23 cases the last time. And the second country is Nicaragua, 15 cases. After that comes the UK, France, and then lower down. So Nicaragua, for our small country, has been very active at the multilateral level in the International Court of Justice.

But I think the multilateralism is alive. Of course a great power like the United States is doing a lot of damage. But there are many other countries that believe in multilateralism, keeping the spirit alive. So the mechanisms are there. The United Nations is active.

Of course without the assistance of the United States, it’s always a big problem. The United States is one of the biggest financial backers of these institutions, so what’s going to happen is other nations will have to take up the slack.

But Nicaragua believes in international law. In fact we have done so for many years. As I said, we have the most cases in the international court. But obviously with the United States — The experience we had, not with Mr. Trump; it was in the 1980s with President Reagan, he simply ignored the court. The court gave its judgment; the United States paid no attention to it. We went to the Security Council, I’m talking about the 1980s; the United States vetoed any decision. Although it was an interested party, yet the veto progressed.

So the United States has always been blocking international institutions when they don’t favor its perceived interests. So this is not a new point. Perhaps now it’s being talked about more openly in the United States, but my experience has been that the United States has always acted, has respected law when they perceived it was in their interest.

For example, in the ’80s, my first experience of this was, Nicaragua had an extradition treaty with the United States dating back to 1907. And when we toppled the Somoza dictatorship, we invoked the treaty and we went to the State Department; we did everything that they told us we had to do. And then came the election of Mr. Reagan in November 1980, and that was the end of it. Period. The treaty was not valid; I mean it was invoked, and then they revoked it. Period. So it was valid up to the point when the United States thought it was in their interest.

We went to International Court of Justice in the ’80s. There was a treaty, an agreement that the United States had accepted the jurisdiction of the court. The statute of the international court is part of the charter of the United Nations, so it’s as important, as valid as any article of the charter of the United Nations. And simply the United States ignored it.

So this has happened in the past. And now at present, what’s happening is that they are making it more obvious. They are not even trying to hide the intent. But naturally, I think for the world, and certainly for the smaller countries, international law, international organizations, are the only way to survive in this world. So in Nicaragua we are wholeheartedly interested in maintaining the multilateralism and the institutions that exist up to this moment, and bolstering them as much as possible.

BEN NORTON: In the 1980s, Nicaragua took the United States to the International Court of Justice over its support for a terrorist war aimed at toppling the socialist government in Managua. Ambassador Carlos Argüello recalled this history, which he was involved in, whose legacy very much lives on in Nicaragua today, although it is not well remembered in North America.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: When Mr. Reagan came into power in 1981, in fact when he took office, he immediately had a directive authorizing the financing of the Contra war, of an army, a real army, against Nicaragua.  This began escalating until we reached the point in 1983 when they bombed the Puerto Corinto in Nicaragua, where 20,000 people lived. They burned up all the petrol, the thousands, or millions of gallons of petrol in the tanks there, in the deposits, endangering the population. And this was done directly by the United States.

This was done by Argentinean military people under the pay of the United States. It’s a very ironic name they were given, these type of individuals, you can find in dictionaries, in the judgment of the court they also mentioned, they were called the UCLAs, “unilaterally control Latin assets.” These were the ones that — and the court mentioned it. That’s the name, the UCLA is a special type of university.

They attacked it directly from motherships by the United States Navy. They sent these guys. This was in October of 1983. It coincided more or less, it was a few days before the United States invaded the island of Grenada, which was also one of the things that we were analyzing here in Nicaragua.

There was President Ortega, at the time Father Escoto, who was the minister of foreign affairs. One of the things that called our attention was practically no newspaper in the United States mentioned the fact that it was illegal, the invasion of Grenada was illegal. I mean it went against international law. As if the national law had nothing to do with it.

So this was building up. And then in January 1984, February, they mined Nicaraguan ports. This was something that astounded the world. Because even when you have open warfare, you’re supposed to tell the world, “Well, we have minded ports.” That will endanger the shipping. The United States didn’t tell anybody. Several ships were damaged.

And by the way, all of these things were not — they were all covert, but they were very open. When they asked President Reagan about the mines, he said, “Why are they complaining? They are small mines.” When they talked about the Corinto, he said, “Well, I believe that a country, when it’s in its own interests, can practice covert operations.”

I mean there was nothing hidden about this. In Congress, the assistance, financial assistance and all that, for the Contra forces was openly discussed. There was a discussion, mostly the Republicans with Mr. Reagan were in favor of the aid to the Contras and the Democrats were against it, but it was discussed openly. There was nothing hidden about it.

And by the way, perhaps I should go back a few years, where we got the idea, one of the places where the idea of going to the court originated, was precisely the activities of the United States. When the United States had problems in Iran, and the hostages were taken by the students in Iran, the United States took Iran to the International Court of Justice, and said that was the civilized way in which nations should resolve their disputes. This was in ’79; the court gave its judgment in 1980.

So we had this, let’s say, precedent. So if this is the civilized way, well let’s go to the court. So we took the United States to the court. The court almost unanimously, when we requested provisional measures, almost unanimously, in every way, including the American judge at that point, were saying that the United States should cease these operations. And then the United States said that the court was not the appropriate forum to discuss this issue and all that.

Then we had to discuss the question of admissibility and jurisdiction. And the United States participated. They had a brigade of lawyers there. They did everything that — and when the court decided that there was jurisdiction, then the United States said, “No, we’re not going to participate anymore.”

And the reason was very obvious. It’s not because they didn’t trust the court. It was a matter because everything was open. I mean we didn’t have to go around looking under the table for proof. The president had recognized what they were doing; it was being openly discussed in Congress. So there was nothing to do. That’s what the United States was doing. If they had certainty that they were going to win, they would have remained. So it was simply what they perceived as their own interest. It was frankly an open-and-shut case.

But the judgment was given in 1986. The United States ignored it. The court indicated that the United States should pay compensation for all the damages caused to Nicaragua. But that was going to be analyzed in a different phase of the case. So we presented our memorial and damages. That was in 1989. The United States didn’t react.

But then came a change of government in Nicaragua. And the new government was convinced that the United States was going to give a lot of assistance. And part of the idea was that the case should be withdrawn. So the case was discontinued in the court.

But one point which I should make very clearly is that Nicaragua didn’t renounce the compensation. The only thing that happened in that moment is that we discontinued what was going on in the court. That’s the extent of it. But morally and legally the United States is still liable for paying that compensation to Nicaragua.

I mean it was 10 years of war, thousands of troops fighting against Nicaragua, all the damage that was done. Not only — I’m speaking only of the use of force in particular, but there were other elements. Because the first thing that the United States did when Reagan came in was to block multilateral institutions, financial institutions, to block all loans to Nicaragua. And it was done by a letter. It was official, they said that the United States will veto any loans to Nicaragua.

Now they are doing it in other ways, more hidden. But then they did it quite openly, simply no loans to Nicaragua. So that, let’s say the financial attacks against countries, is something long-standing. It is something that the United States has been doing very frequently.

Now of course the mechanisms are being improved, and they are doing it with effects outside of the United States. In the 1980s, the United States also decreed an embargo against Nicaragua, because it was supposedly, Nicaragua represented an enormous “danger for the security of the United States.” Which of course I mean it’s — but what you read it that’s what the, it’s the only way they could have done it, I mean they had to say this is an especially difficult and dangerous situation for the United States.

But anyway the situation continued of course with the new government that came into power in Nicaragua in the 1990s. It didn’t really get any aid from the United States. I mean they stopped blocking international institutions. But to say that real financial aid was given, it never happened, it never happened. It was just an imaginary carrot that was placed in front of the government.

And the country was really in ruins. Imagine a small country like Nicaragua after 10 years of practically an all out and out war, with incredible things. Imagine, it’s part of the record — all law students who study international law, one of the main cases they study is this case. And if you go and read the case, one of the things you come up to is something that must have shocked the judges.

The CIA had prepared a manual for the Contra forces, a manual of what they should do to terrorize the population, that they should kill certain people in small towns, kidnap, and do a lot of things, even hire criminals to do things. And this was proven, it’s on the record, that it was prepared by the CIA. Because in the records, in the congressional records of the United States, they mention this publication as being prepared by the CIA.

So you can imagine not only financing, directing, and doing everything, and preparing a manual of creating terrorism in Nicaragua. I mean the extent to which these operations went is incredible.

As I said, there was opposition in Congress between the Democrats and the Republicans and the financing. So finally in 1985, officially, the finance was stopped. And of course that was the impression given to the international court, well the financing is stopped.

But it never stopped. What happened was that the United States was authorizing selling drugs, drug trafficking, making deals underhand with Iran, which was the enemy number one, for getting money, selling weapons to Iran.

All this came out in the congressional records afterwards. In the question of the drugs, there was a commission, a Senate commission, headed by Mr. Kerry, the former secretary of state; he was a senator at that time; in which they came to the conclusion, I mean within the limits that obviously you’re talking about your own country, within the limits, that yes, the United States had been involved in these operations with drugs.

And then you have for example Mr. Elliott Abrams, who is now in charge of Venezuela. Mr. Abrams was accused of lying to Congress because he was in charge of the operation with Iran and other countries, of getting illegal financing for the Contras. So in fact the operation continued.

It was a really a fraud, also for the court, because even the court was under the impression, when they gave the judgment in 1986, that the financing to the Contras had ceased. It never stopped.

So the United States was officially going against the law, unofficially also doing everything possible, incredible things, to destroy a very small country. This is going back to the ’80s.

And now, what’s happening now? Now we’re beginning in the same way as it was in the early ’80s with the financial coercion against Nicaragua. The so-called NICA Act, the first thing that we have to remember is that the NICA Act did not come about because of any events that happened in Nicaragua two years ago. The NICA Act was already in Congress several years before that. It was during the Obama administration that this was brought to Congress, basically by Cuban-Americans from Florida who were in Congress and in the Senate of the United States, who had a special interest in destroying Mr. Ortega.

So this was preceded, so to say, that, “The sanctions against Nicaragua are sort of a punishment for crimes committed.” It has nothing to do with that. This began years before that. It was simply a way, they simply did not like the government of Nicaragua; they could not understand that the government was being very successful; it was Mr. Ortega who was in charge and he was being successful, much more so than all the other before him. So this they couldn’t stand.

So the only way they could attack without going back to the Contra war, a sort of Contra war, was what happened in Nicaragua. It began with the NICA Act, and now of course this type of sanctions, the main damage they are doing is for the population. That’s what always happens with these type of sanctions.

BEN NORTON: Given Washington’s role in the 2018 coup attempt and other recent aggressive actions against Nicaragua, I asked Ambassador Argüello if they have considered reviving their case against the United States in the International Court.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: The thing is that the United States has withdrawn all of its commitments for international justice. So every agreement or every treaty in which the United States had somehow accepted the jurisdiction of the court has been eliminated. So it would be very difficult to bring a case against the United States in the international court. They have completely blocked it and withdrawn.

As I said, that is not the only mechanism open. If there is an obligation of the United States, the obligation exists still. There are mechanisms that we have been studying. The United Nation as a system has a lot of possibilities. But at the moment our main interest is not so much, from my point of view, in recovering the debt, the enormous debt, the United States has.

Our main interest is in peace, is to leave us in peace, and leave us alone. Nicaragua was doing very well in all the standards, the measurements, in poverty, in criminality, in any type, Nicaragua was doing excellently well. We had mechanisms, the government was with the business people in Nicaragua, working together, and with the workers, reaching agreements, and everything was going very well.

This was something that couldn’t be stood by certain elements in the United States, who wanted to destroy the government. So that’s why they created the situation in 2018.

I remember I was in Spain a couple of years ago, giving a conference, and some of the students asked me about, because the situation was very recent at that point. But they had the problem in Catalonia, in Spain. So I asked them, “Listen, what do you think would happen if the Catalans all of a sudden blocked all communications with France, with the rest of Spain, and there were no trucks or no possibility of transit for more than a month? You think that the military or the police in Spain would simply just cross their arms?” And I said, “By the way, no policeman in Catalonia has been killed.”

That is a very different situation from what is happening and what happened in Nicaragua. This was an attempt at a coup d’etat.

And then with what happened with Chile, I also made the comparison. What happened in Chile [with the protests]? Well the government Chile didn’t sit down and talk with them. They sent the army to start shooting them, and blinding them, and doing anything.

What happened in Nicaragua? President Ortega decided to sit down and talk. And the only thing that happens is they took to the streets, blocked everything, and that was it. If President Ortega had reacted like Chile, and sent out the army or the police immediately, no conversations, this would have not gotten very far.

The only thing that happened is precisely because he was very open to conversations. He sat down with him. They insulted him in public; they did everything. He very quietly took it.

For more than a month, all traffic between Central America, even from Mexico, was blocked. There were thousands of trucks waiting, because they couldn’t get through Nicaragua. They were even thinking of preparing a ferry to bypass Nicaragua, because all commercial, everything coming from Panama, Costa Rica to the north, had to pass through Nicaragua. And everything coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras had to pass to Nicaragua. Well that was blocked during more than a month and a half.

So I mean that situation, how can you react to it? You can’t just say, ok, we’ll continue — I mean, they talked for more than a month. So what else can you do? Just say, ok, we have to sit down?

Because, by the way another thing is, you can create this type of havoc with 1 percent of the population. I mean 1 percent of the population is 60,000 people; there were less than 60,000 people in the streets. So with a very small amount of people, you can create havoc.

And if you just have one guy with a gun, or whatever, shoot a policeman, well that’s it also. In Chile [in the protests], no policeman has been killed in Chile. In Nicaragua there were about 25 or 30 policemen killed, and a couple of hundred wounded, seriously, not with rocks, with guns.

And when you look back, you see that the people that were leading this coup d’etat in Nicaragua had been constantly going back and forth to the United States, meeting openly Congressmen and people in the United States.

So what can you deduce from that? These are people that have no known way of living. They don’t have any business, many of them, and they live very well. So where are they getting their funds? All that is a relative mystery.

But that’s the situation. This is the new type of covert war that is being practiced against Nicaragua. This time a bit more covertly.

But what we hope is that we don’t continue an escalation like what happened in the ’80s, to reach limits, incredible limits, at which — One of the things we hope we can more or less maintain some reason. And the government continues trying to find ways of communicating with the United States and see how we can reach agreements.

So hopefully that will happen. I mean frankly I’m getting too old to begin another case in the court.

BEN NORTON: I asked Ambassador Argüello if there is any legal basis for the US government’s unilateral imposition of sanctions on Nicaragua and many other countries across the planet, and what these nations are trying to do to get around this economic coercion.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: From a legal point of view, in public international law, obviously sanctions dictated by one country cannot have extraterritorial effects.

I mean any country can dictate a law; the United States is perfectly, it would be perfectly legal, from an international point of view, if the United States said, “We don’t accept any business with Nicaragua; we’re not going to receive any goods from Nicaragua or allow any goods from the United States to go.” But to apply that extraterritorially, to a bank that has any business with Nicaragua, even if it’s based outside the United States, or businesses like that, well that you are trying to apply your internal law outside your country; that’s illegal. That’s an internationally illicit act. You can’t be applying extraterritorially your law. It’s a very clear violation.

In fact this has been creating  problems even with departments of the United States with the European Union, with the question of Iran, they are trying to find mechanisms, or were trying to find mechanisms, to avoid this. Because it’s completely illegal. You dictate laws, countries dictate laws for their own territory, for their own people, for their own country. If I say this law here is going to apply everywhere in the world. Well that’s not true, and that’s not possible. That’s the way the United States is acting.

In the ’80s, for example, with the attacks against Nicaragua, they were not, they didn’t have any extraterritorial effects. The embargo against Nicaragua was bilateral. Nicaragua could not buy anything from the United States, or sell anything in the United States. But we were open, many countries were helping Nicaragua. Including the country where I am based, the Netherlands, used to help Nicaragua a great deal. Many European countries were helping Nicaragua. There was no problem. But these type of sanctions are frankly…

We were recently celebrating the 87th birthday of the former minister of Nicaragua, Father Escoto, who died a few years ago. And one of the things I remember speaking with him about, and he visited me and we talked about, was to talk about the past always, the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq, after the first Iraq war. A few years with those sanctions, I mean the records were that more than, I don’t remember, 300,000 or 400,000 —

BEN NORTON: More than 560,000 children.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: Exactly, children, had died because of these sanctions.

BEN NORTON: And the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an interview on 60 minutes, she was asked, “Is the cost worth it?” And she said, “Yes, the cost is worth it.”

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: Well, frankly, if you wanted to stop this interview, because you left me words. That frankly leaves one… I don’t understand it.

LESLEY STAHL: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: Well anyway, the sanctions against Nicaragua, I mean we are trying to, the government here is doing everything possible, to try to avoid as much as possible to have a serious impact on the population. But obviously with the racing cost of many things, from gasoline to everything, that is impossible for a poor country like Nicaragua to be offsetting all the sanctions and all the problems that it’s creating for us. If we have to bring gasoline from 10,000 kilometers away, well obviously the cost for everything in Nicaragua increases enormously, that has an enormous impact.

So there are some things that will certainly be causing serious problems in Nicaragua. As I say, the government is trying to distribute as much as possible the goods we have so the population isn’t too affected. But of course the United States can increase, if there is no limit put to what they are doing.

At least in the ’80s we had a difference between Democrats and Republicans. Even within the United States there was a discussion, “I mean this is illegal. What are we doing here?” Now there is with sanctions, that hasn’t the same effect. Because they are — I don’t know why many people in the United States have to see concretely something. Sanctions, although you don’t see them on a wall or in a room, they cause as much death as a war.

It’s like declaring a state of siege in medieval times against a city or whatever, just blocking it up. I mean these type of sanctions, you can stop all medicine, you can stop gas, you can stop everything from going into a country, with these sanctions. Even enduring siege times, there were laws regulating what you could do. And now you can squeeze a country and destroy the country without any limits. At least that’s what the United States thinks it can do.

So the only mechanism of defense is multilateralism. A small country Nicaragua, or even a big country like Russia, or a medium-sized power like Iran, cannot defend themselves alone. So what we need is for the international community to be aware, you can’t be permitting a country to create this type of havoc in the economy all over the world.

The sanctions, I mean we have lived with sanctions in the past. It causes a lot of damage. Our only hope would be that the United States would come to a sense that it’s ridiculous what they are doing with Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America. The death by murder in Nicaragua is lower than in Costa Rica, and a fraction of what is happening in the north. I mean there is no invasion of our population going to the United States because they are flying away from Maras or criminals, like they are doing all over.

The Drug Enforcement Agency in the United States knows perfectly well that Nicaragua blocks within its limits everything that, any traffic of drug that goes to this country. So they are trying to destroy a country which on the other hand has, let’s say, a 10 in conduct, an A+ in conduct.

I mean what are they looking for? If they begin attacking us and they create havoc in Nicaragua, well ok there would be 100,000 Nicaraguans trying to go to the United States; the drug traffickers would get in.

If the situation in 2018 had not been stopped, all the Maras from El Salvador and Honduras would have come in to Nicaragua. So what do they want? Do they want to destroy the country? I frankly don’t see in whose benefit that is. Certainly not in the benefit of the United States.

So hopefully the people in the in the United States in certain areas will come to their senses and say, “Well come on, what are we doing here? This is absurd.”

BEN NORTON: Many countries have criticized international bodies like the United Nations and its constituent organizations for being disproportionately manipulated by the United States. I concluded the interview asking Ambassador Argüello if he still believes that these institutions can truly ensure that the world is governed on a multilateral and not unilateral basis.

CARLOS ARGUELLO GOMEZ: For me the advantage of the international organizations is that you have people from all over the world. Talking about let’s say my particular business at the international court, you have 15 judges from all over the world. You have from Uganda to Russia, I mean everywhere, Jordan. It’s a multilateral organization. You have people from all ways of thinking, all parts of the world.

So on a balance, I mean all human institutions are not perfect, obviously. But anyway, within what you can expect from human beings, you have a spectrum, a variety of ways of thinking, of different problems that they grew up with in their countries or whatever. So I think normally you can you can expect institutions that are integrated in that way to come up with something, well normally you’re not going to say either black or white, but I mean they try to be balanced.

At least in the international court, this has been my experience. Obviously if you go to certain other — The international court is a principal organ of the United Nations, in the same way that the Security Council is a principal organ of the United Nations. But of course if you go to the Security Council, then that’s a different situation. There, if that was the only multilateral organization body, then I would completely agree, I mean what are we doing there?

If you have a veto, well Russia would veto something, the United States would veto something else, the Chinese or the British or whatever, so I mean you never get any work done, any real work.

But that doesn’t happen in all the institutions. I’m a member for example of the Commission of International Law of the United Nations. There are 34 members from all over the world, lawyers. I mean we discuss all types of legal questions. And we reach agreements normally. We reach, normally, everything is by consensus.

So it comes out, and the International Law Commission has been doing a lot of work in the 70 years of existence. Many things have come from there, the law of treaties, all matters of commerce. There are many institutions, many things, it’s very important.

So I think multilateralism functions. You can just go back a hundred years before anything like this began, and you can see the difference in the way the world works now. I mean perhaps the last century would have been different if we had a United Nations at the end of the 19th century. But multilateralism didn’t exist then. Was the world better off? Frankly I can’t I can’t imagine.

I mean multilateralism permitted you to send your mail with a postage stamp from here to Burundi in Africa. That didn’t go by a miracle; it went through agreements, international agreements. I mean we have to live like this; this is part of multilateralism, everything we do now.

What we do here affects everywhere else and we need — So international law is the only way to survive. And multilateralism, let’s say it’s an expression of putting into force international law.