1980s: U.S. Support for Contra Death Squads in Nicaragua

Joe Biden was against the Contra death squads and opposed CIA involvement in Nicaragua, but he flirted with supporting Reagan’s war.

Young Peasants Turn Away From Contras Patrolling the Area (Photo by © Bill Gentile/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
A woman and children turn away from Contras patrolling on Jan. 1, 1987. Photo: Bill Gentile/Corbis via Getty Images

Joe Biden was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the Reagan administration’s dirty wars in Central America throughout the 1980s, specifically in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Despite his opposition to the administration’s policies, Biden at times flirted with support for President Ronald Reagan’s wars if certain congressional and executive procedures were followed. When the CIA laid mines around three Nicaraguan harbors — an act of state terrorism for which the U.S. was convicted at the World Court of violating international law — Biden spoke out ferociously against the practice. “On the question of whether or not anyone should be mining the harbor, the answer is no,” Biden said in 1984. “I think it is outrageous. There is no reason to mine the harbor. It is an act of war.” Biden voted in support of an overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate rebuke, led by firebrand conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, of the Reagan administration policy. Biden also voted against funding for the Contra death squads. But then things get murkier.

When the Reagan administration requested $28 million in additional aid to the Contras, Biden attempted to broker a compromise that would have approved the funds but “specified the types of activities the rebels could engage in and conditions under which the American funding could be ended.” As Biden said in 1984, “I attempted to fashion a compromise that clearly stated the goals of the program and prescribed very tightly what the Contras could and couldn’t do with the money.” After Biden’s attempt failed, he denounced the funding, saying, “Support for the Contras is alive and well in the Senate Intelligence Committee.” Biden frequently cast his opposition to supporting the Contras in terms of the risks to U.S. “prestige” and portrayed the policy as strategically problematic. At the same time, he occasionally reinforced the Reagan administration’s attempts to cast its policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador as countering Soviet influence.

Despite congressional restrictions, the administration kept funding the Contras, including by illicit means — leading to the Iran-Contra scandal in Reagan’s second term.

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