Page 42 - Foreign Service Journal - April 2013

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april 2013
the foreign Service journal
As was often the case in Central
America during the 1980s,
Washington’s plans did not
work out quite as anticipated.
An Inspired Invitation
I few out to Limón early the next morning in a Costa Rican
Civil Guard airplane, dressed not as a tourist—as I had been
advised—but, conspicuously, as a Foreign Service ofcer, in
my usual suit and tie. Tere I tried to locate my quarry, still not
quite sure about my mission or how I would carry it out.
As I anticipated, Means, a 6’2” American Indian man with
long braids, clearly stood out in a town populated primarily by
the descendants of African slaves who worked in the nearby
sugar cane felds. So I only had to ask a few questions of locals
to determine that he had checked into a hotel near the center of
I asked the hotel clerk for his room number and, with a
mixture of curiosity and apprehension, went and knocked on
his door. After a few moments, a gruf, clearly annoyed Means
opened the door and asked what I wanted. I immediately
identifed myself and said I’d been tasked to inquire about his
intentions. Before he had a chance to slam the door, I had the
inspired idea to invite him to breakfast; much to my surprise, he
Over eggs and pinto de gallo, an initially suspicious but
increasingly forthcoming Means explained that he was about
to set of with a small group of other Indian activists, including
the Nicaraguan opposition leader, Brooklyn Rivera, to travel
by fshing boat to the eastern Nicaragua coastal region popu-
lated by Miskito Indians. Te Miskitos had long bristled under
central rule of the Spanish-speaking mestizos in the Nicaraguan
capital of Managua, and had at one time opposed the right-wing
regime of Anastasio Samoza.
When the Sandinistas deposed Samoza and attempted to
reassert control over the Miskito coast, relations became frayed
and the indigenous groups took up arms against the revolution-
ary regime. Means, a longtime critic of the U.S. government and
advocate for progressive causes, intended to take what he called
“an information-gathering trip” to assess the situation for himself.
I wished him well and attempted to return to San José before
the New Year holiday began. It took most of the day to arrange
a fight (there was not yet a modern road from Limón), but I
fnally was able to get the Civil Guard to fy me home later that
evening. Te none-too-pleased pilot was pulled out of a New
Year’s Eve party and, with his open champagne bottle in hand,
drove me to the airport. Against what should have been my bet-
ter judgement, I stayed on the little two-seater plane even after
it ominously stalled on the runway. After a few swigs of cham-
pagne, the pilot was able to jump-start the aircraft and, some-
how, few me back home. I dutifully reported what I had learned
to the ambassador.
Bad Timing
A few weeks later, I discovered that colleagues of the CIA
station chief had arranged for Means and his companions to
bring along a radio transmitter so they could communicate with
agency personnel during their journey.
To evade Sandinista surveillance, the agency had instructed
Means to speak only in Lakota, the language of the Sioux tribes
of America’s northern plains. But as a fummoxed station chief
informed me soon after the travelers set out, Means apparently
didn’t speak Lakota. (I don’t know whether he really couldn’t, or
simply chose not to.) Tus, the best-laid plans of America’s spy
agency and its unwitting Foreign Service co-conspirator came
to naught.
Toward the end of January 1986, the agency got word that
Means and his party had been pursued and even shot at by the
Sandinistas during their journey. Tere were sketchy reports that
some of the travelers had been wounded and would soon be
coming ashore in Limón. So it was not surprising that the ambas-
sador would again dispatch me there to locate the beleaguered
travelers and arrange a press conference for Means to tell his side
of the story. His anticipated demonization of the Sandinistas was
expected to be a real propaganda coup for the U.S.
I succeeded in meeting up with a bedraggled Means, who
had apparently been grazed by a Sandinista bullet, and others
in his party who had sufered more serious injuries. Means
was livid and eager to tell the world about what he consid-
ered the Nicaraguan regime’s treachery and oppression of the
Miskito Indians.
A hastily arranged press conference soon followed in San
José, during which he and other Indian leaders did just that,
much to the delight of the Reagan administration. Means even
implied that he supported the ongoing U.S.-backed war to oust
the Sandinistas.
Stephen J. Del Rosso was a Foreign Service ofcer from 1982 to 1991.
He is currently the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s director for
international peace and security.