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US Policy Threatens Nicaragua Property Settlement
By Chuck Kaufman and Lisa Zimmerman, Nicaragua Network Education Fund, Friday 21 February 1997
The Helms-Burton Cuba embargo law has been widely criticized for granting retroactive US citizenship rights to former Cubans. The Washington Post wrote in an editorial on March 7, "No similar right has been granted to Germans, Vietnamese, Estonians, Russians or any other nationality." In fact, retroactive US citizenship rights have been granted to Latin Americans since the passage of the Helms-Gonzalez amendment to the 1994 Foreign Assistance Act. That amendment was intended to force Nicaragua to return to former owners properties confiscated by the Sandinista government in the 1980's. That amendment now threatens resolution of Nicaragua's vexing property problem.
In late November 1995, Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro signed a comprehensive property law legalizing the ownership of small homes and farms received by some 200,000 rural and urban families through Sandinista land reform in the 1980's. The law also legalized the properties Chamorro passed out to demobilized soldiers from both the contras and the army after 1990. Finally, it guaranteed compensation to previous owners whose property had been confiscated by the Sandinistas. Only the Somoza family itself is excluded from compensation.
The fact that Nicaraguans have now solved one of the greatest hurdles to social stability has brought no rejoicing to the halls of Congress or the US embassy in Managua. Nicaragua has defused an issue which all parties agree is a significant obstacle to economic recovery and has the potential to destroy the relative peace.
Practice Run For Cuba
However, US government policy on the Nicaragua property issue is shaping up as a practice run for its policy on property in Cuba. Thousands of Cuban-Americans salivate at the prospect of taking back properties confiscated by the Cuban revolution or abandoned when they moved to the United States.
US Ambassador to Nicaragua John Maisto told the right-wing Managua daily newspaper La Prensa on January 9, 1996, that the US Embassy would not rest until the Nicaraguan government has "justly settled" all the claims by US citizens on property confiscated during the Sandinista government (1979-1990). Maisto stated that he had not yet seen any concrete results of the property law.
In 1994 the Clinton State Department dropped its behind-the-scenes objections to Sen. Jesse Helms' (R-NC) effort to make property claims of US citizens the central issue to determine the level of US aid and cooperation with the Chamorro government. The US Embassy even went so far as to run ads in Miami soliciting Nicaraguans-turned-US-citizens to file claims.
Helms has successfully taken a law known as the Hickenlooper Amendment which was passed in 1962 and then largely ignored, and built it into a potent weapon against land reform. Hickenlooper requires the US government to cut off aid to countries that have expropriated the property of US citizens. The Helms-Gonzalez amendment extends US citizenhip rights retroactively.
Helms dubious contribution to legal theory is to extend that protection of US law to people who were not US citizens at the time their property was confiscated, but who became citizens at a later date. According to the Carter Center of Emory University, only 31% of the properties being claimed in Nicaragua by U.S. citizens were actually owned by U.S. citizens at the time of expropriation; the remainder were owned by Nicaraguans who subsequently became naturalized citizens. Included among the naturalized claimants are former members of Somoza's brutal National Guard and former business associates of the dictator who had completely decapitalized their properties.
The Helms-Gonzalez amendment effectively eliminates the possibility of land reform in Latin America since confiscated property owners need only move to Miami for five years, become US citizens, and have the entire legal, diplomatic, and economic weight of the United States government backing their efforts to reclaim property. This view positions the United States to intervene in Cuban property issues since international law only recognizes a nation's right to intervene on behalf of its own citizens.
Helms was forced to redraft his original legislation, restricting its impact to Latin America, for fear that Palestinian-Americans might be able to use it cut off US aid to Israel. Many of the provisions that Helms has succeeded in incorporating into US policy on Nicaragua property issues have been included in the Helms-Burton bill to further tighten the US government's embargo of Cuba. The US government is not going to accept anything in Nicaragua that undermines its Cuba strategy; not even if that policy has no precedent in US or international law and puts the US in the morally untenable position of backing the claims of criminals.
Sandinista Land Reform in Jeopardy
What the Clinton administration fails to realize is the extent to which this strategy undermines broader goals of U.S. foreign policy. By pressuring the Nicaraguan government to return expropriated property to its former owners, the U.S. government is placing the land reform carried out by the Sandinistas in jeopardy. This reform, which affected more than half of the country's arable land benefitting sixty percent of all rural families, has been lauded by all except the extreme right (namely those with whom Helms is allied) as a significant contribution to Nicaragua's economic development. President Chamorro promised to respect the redistribution of land when she took office in 1990. In fact, her government carried out additional land reform, distributing land to former contras and demobilized army members.
If Helms' policy succeeds, there is a real danger that land tenure in Nicaragua could revert to the high concentration of the Somoza-era. At the time his US-backed dictatorship was overthrown in July 1979 Anastasio Somoza Debayle is estimated to have owned between
20-25% of the arable land of the country, leaving over half of the rural population either cultivating below subsistence level or landless. Among the first acts of the Sandinista government were to confiscate all Somoza holdings and the properties of the dictatorship's high ranking military and political supporters known as Somocistas. These properties accounted for 56% of the land confiscated for agrarian and urban land reform.
Since the advent of the Alliance for Progress, the U.S. government has recognized the importance of land reform for economic development and democratization--at least on a theoretical level. John F. Kennedy himself argued, "There is no place in democratic life for institutions which benefit the few while denying the needs of the many, even though the elimination of such institutions may require far reaching and drastic changes such as land reform and tax reform and a vastly increased emphasis on education and health and housing."
The unwillingness of the present administration to defend Nicaragua's land reform contrasts sharply with past government policy toward other countries. In numerous instances, the U.S. government has actively encouraged land reform as a means to promote political democracy and economic development, or to break the power of a hostile ruling elite. Post-war Japan is a prime example in which the U.S. has viewed land reform as inextricably linked to the dismantling of an authoritarian system. Laurence Hewes, one of the Americans who administered the land reform in Japan during the U.S. occupation, observed, "A reform of the rural way of life was indispensible to sweeping away the structure of military rule which had made the Japanese a nation of obedient puppets. As long as Japan stayed with the current land system, there would always be a lever susceptible of domination by undemocratic leaders to coerce all other segments of society."
Land reform was also seen as an effective mechanism for achieving the United States' political agenda in El Salvador in the 1980's. The political agenda in this case, however, went beyond strengthening democratic institutions. On the contrary, the U.S. government viewed land reform as a means to diffuse the revolutionary movement, and as a step toward creating some sort of moderate center in El Salvador's polarized political spectrum. Experts pointed to the "success" of the 1970 Vietnamese land reform to support a similar policy in El Salvador. According to one of the architects of the Vietnamese land reform, "Vietcong recruitment declined from 7,000 men a month to 1,000 men a month while land reform was carried out."
It is interesting to note, in the case of El Salvador, Senator Helms' protests that land reform was "a giant step toward socialism" had little if any impact on U.S. policy. The Agency for International Development (USAID) financed most of the initial cost of the Salvadoran land reform, and together with the AFL-CIO sponsored American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), provided extensive technical assistance. In some cases, these organizations were directly involved in writing the land reform legislation. Decree 207, which gave land titles to individual beneficiaries of the reform, was said to be "the only piece of legislation in the history of the country that had to be translated into Spanish."
In the case of Nicaragua, however, land reform has not been viewed by the U.S. government as being politically expedient. The defense of private property seems to have far surpassed economic development and genuine democratization on the United States' agenda for Nicaragua. Not only does this stance expose extreme hypocrisy, it also reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Sandinista land reform. It is certainly true that this land reform sought to affect profound changes in Nicaraguan society, and, to a large extent, this goal was fulfilled. Approximately 43% of all peasant families benefited from this reform, or 60%, if the squatters who were given titles to the land they occupied are included.
Despite its far-reaching effects, the Sandinista land reform was never "anti-private property." Instead, the Sandinistas' emphasis was on productivity. That is, if a land owner was using his or her land productively for the benefit of society, their property rights were respected and guaranteed by the government. (The exception to this rule was, of course, the Somoza family, former members of the National Guard, and cronies of the dictator--all of whom had their properties confiscated under Decrees 3 and 38.) As late as 1988, large landholdings accounted for 13.5% of Nicaragua's agricultural land. Even the Bolivian land reform of 1952, which enjoyed the full backing of the U.S., left only 10% of total crop land in the hands of large estate owners.
Every previous study of the Nicaraguan property conflict has stated that the issues are complicated. The Carter Center has published reports and sponsored two conferences which were instrumental in creating the consensus that permitted the passage of the comprehensive property law. While former President Jimmy Carter's "split the difference" negotiating style treats all positions as morally equal, his mediation helped Nicaraguans unite behind a law that will put the property issues behind them -- if the US government allows.
However, even the Carter Center reports don't offer an explanation of why the property issue is complicated. In the United States, where property rights have greater protection than civil rights, most people begin with an assumption that any government confiscation of a citizen's property is unjust by definition.
The property issue is made much more difficult by the failure of the Sandinista government to legally title the land that it redistributed. In hindsight, the decision to focus on more important issues such as defense against the US-sponsored contra army was unfortunate. After 1990, when former owners began trying to recover confiscated properties, ownership by those who now possess it was often legally difficult to prove. There were a number of evictions by judges who refused to recognize land reform documentation. The Community Movement organized anti-eviction brigades and the National Assembly finally passed a moritorium on evictions. The Sandinista failure to complete paperwork is not alone responsible for clouded titles. The dictator Somoza, in a last ditch effort to stay in power, bombed his own cities and in the process destroyed many government and legal property records, including deeds, tax, and survey records.
Given the complexity of the issues at hand, a rigid policy which determines US government actions based exclusively on the foreign property rights of US citizens, serves neither the cause of justice nor legitimate US foreign policy objectives. Yet this is exactly what Helms is proposing and what the Clinton State Department is defending.
Nicaraguans whose properties were confiscated under the Sandinista government fall into three very different categories. First are the criminals who committed human rights or economic crimes, second are the debtors who mortgaged their properties to the hilt and took the money out of the country, and third are those we call the "abandonistas" who succumbed to red scare propaganda and fled the country. The property of the "abandonistas" would not have been confiscated if they had stayed. Both natural and naturalized US citizens fall into each category.
What reasonable person would disagree that different standards should apply to Lt. Col. Bayardo Jiron who, as head of Somoza's State Security, was directly responsible for the tortures and summary executions in the prisons, and Beatriz Cardenal Fuentes whose four houses were only confiscated because she abandoned them and peasants made homeless by Somoza's bombing moved in as squatters? Both Jiron and Cardenal are now US citizens.
There are at least 21 former high ranking officers of Somoza's brutal National Guard on the list of 751 US citizens allegedly claiming property in Nicaragua published by Helms in 1994. The US embassy in Managua knows of only about 560 US citizens who have filed claims, so it is unclear where Helms got the other names. For instance, one person from Matagalpa who is on the Helms list, but has not filed an official claim, told her fellow canasta players that she sold her property years ago but said she got on the Helms list because she might get something out of it.
It is not possible to determine how many claimants are committing outright fraud. However, Nicaraguans who examined the Helms list challenged a number of the names there, saying that those people had never owned property in Nicaragua. For example, Nelson Eger is claiming a coffee processing plant near Matagalpa named Kokomo. Nelson is a US citizen, but we were told the farm was owned by his father, Alfonso, who is a German citizen. Nelson's name is not on the deed.
The business, which is now owned by the workers, was confiscated along with other Eger properties because Alfonso invited the National Guard to use his farm as a staging area for the attack against Matagalpa. His brother Carlos was a Colonel in the Somoza National Guard and one of his sons is alleged to have been a member of the Mano Blanco death squads.
The cases of the pilots of Somoza's Air Force are instructive. Somoza had ten pilots for the war planes his father, the first dictator, bought for $1 from the US after WWII. Two pilots deserted and left the country rather than carry out orders to bomb civilian populations in the cities. Two other pilots who did bomb civilians, Col. Jose de la Luz Guerrero and Lt. Chester J. Delagneau, have become US citizens.
Both had property confiscated under Decree 38, the Sandinista government law expropriating the properties of the high ranking members of the National Guard, members of Somoza's government and other architects of Somoza-era crimes. De la Luz was born in France and had a distinctive French accent. Former Nicaragua Charge d'Affaires of the Nicaraguan embassy to the US Leonore Hupper told us, "We could hear him on our short-wave radio when Somoza would say 'drop more bombs' we could hear him say 'Yes, my general.'"
However, as former Attorney General Ernesto Castillo pointed out, the Sandinistas never brought criminal charges against most of the Somoza era criminals, known as Somocistas. "We made a decision that we weren't going to spend our time going around placing the blame," he said. "It doesn't make sense. Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You're not going to go around one by one figuring out who killed each Japanese. Here there were ten pilots. Two pilots left the county because they didn't want to be criminals. So, you can't be mistaken."
Not only naturalized US citizens meet the test of criminality. Donald Spencer, Charles Kettle, and their partner Jurgen Sengleman in various combinations were partners of Somoza in the gold mines, and they owned the companies COPA and METASA where the air force bombs were manufactured. Spencer and Kettle are both natural-born US citizens. Sengleman was also an air force pilot. Former Attorney General Castillo told us, "You have to understand that being a partner in the mines is the same thing as saying you were a criminal, because it wasn't like being a businessman in a civilized country. They were assassins. They were the ones who directly gave the orders to the military to carry out the repression."
Too often US progressives and supporters of the Sandinista revolution have simply vilified the dictator Somoza while tagging the particpants in his brutal dictatorship with the nondescriptive title of "crony." While especially the last Somoza, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was brutal and rapacious, the crimes of his rule were not his alone. As Roger Cuadra Marenco, former Criminal Prosecutor of Leon and District Attorney of Chinandega, explained, "Maybe people up there in the United States don't know about Somoza. Somoza was a system, not just a person. People can't justify themselves by saying they are not Somoza. Those who were close to Somoza were part of the system."
Among the most barbarous of the dictatorship's tactics were the "disappearances" of hundreds of peasants in the mountainous jungles of north central Nicaragua as documented by the Capuchin Fathers in the mid-1970's. Some of them were dropped out of helicopters. At the time of the uprisings of five cities in 1978, the National Guard concentrated all of its force on each city in turn, bombing and shelling, and then rounding up and shooting any young men who had not
fled. They were called "clean-up operations" and the victims numbered in the thousands.
There is a substantial overlap between the group of "criminals" who want properties returned and the "debtors." Roberto Arguello Tefel was a Somocista, now deceased, who owned a financing business called CAPSA. He allegedly took all the money out of Nicaragua, including the money of his depositors. His son is a member of Jesse Helms' staff. Although Roberto is dead, his name is on the Helms list.
While capital flight in Nicaragua was always a problem, the floodgates were opened in 1977 when Somoza had a heart attack. After 40 years of dictatorship, those who had made their fortunes through support of the Somoza dynasty knew there would not be a peaceful transition and began moving their assets out of the country.
Leonore Hupper explained, "The people who had access to the banks got loans on their houses and their farms. Loans they never had before because they didn't need them. They took all that money out of the country. It was impossible to collect on all those loans. They left the carcass here, that was about all." Those unpaid loans became debts inherited by the Sandinista government. The majority were from foreign banks, borrowed by the Somoza controlled National Bank and are now part of Nicaragua's foreign debt burden. Per capita that external debt is the largest in the world.
Hupper said, "It was a virtual looting. The people stole the money from the things that they mortgaged and they sent it out of the country. And they say the Sandinistas took everything when we left office!"
Hupper does acknowledge that the Sandinista government made a serious error in the way it handled the confiscations of debtors who had left the country. "We should have published in the newspapers notices which said, 'So and so you owe ten million cordobas. Pay the money by such and such a date or we will foreclose on your property for non-payment.' That wouldn't have been socialist or communist. That's what you do in your country." Many of the people on the Helms list now want their former properties back free and clear of debt.
Ariel Solorzano is the president of the Association of Confiscated Persons and now a US citizen. He is regularly invited to testify before the Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is demanding the return of SOLKA, a major pharmaceutical company, of which he owned about 25%. His brother Roberto owned 35%, other relatives owned another 20%, and the remaining 20% was given to Isabel Urcuyo de Somoza, daughter-in-law of the dictator, in exchange for Somoza's intervention with the bank which saved SOLKA from bankruptcy. It was a common practice by Somoza to hide his ownership through various fronts, usually relatives of his.
Solorzano and some of the other members of the family want the company, which today employs 220 workers, returned to them. SOLKA was so deeply in debt that Eugene J. Petzrik, Vice-President of Chase
Manhattan Bank sent Roberto a letter dated Oct. 2, 1975 refusing a loan saying "...you have a negative net worth." The Chamorro government has offered to pay the family 20% of the company's value, but the Solorzanos want the whole thing.
Today the factory is debt free and has been modernized largely through donations of pharmaceutical equipment by European governments and solidarity groups, investments by the Sandinista government, and volunteer work by the employees. Should Ariel Solorzano and his family win return of the company, they will receive a thriving business worth an estimated $5 million.
That is the case with many businesses and farms claimed by US citizens. The Sandinista government invested heavily in improving the quality of life, particularly for rural workers. Farms that had little or no infrastructure when they were confiscated were given electricity and running water. Where workers had once been crowded into dormitory style housing, individual family housing was built and day care and health care centers were provided. Many US solidarity workers participated in construction brigades in the 1980s which built houses for the agricultural workers. The US government backs the claims of the naturalized US citizens who want former properties returned with all the improvements.
The up-scale Managua restaurant El Gaucho, formerly Los Gauchos, is another case in point. Los Gauchos was founded by Argentinians and was confiscated by Somoza who controlled it through his nephew Jose Alberto Bermudez Somoza. Joe Albert, as he calls himself now, has become a US citizen and wants El Gaucho returned to him. This despite the fact that he had stripped it of everything before it was confiscated so that not even the basic structure was salvageable. The restaurant workers, with help from the Sandinista government, put in hundreds of unpaid hours to build a nice new restaurant, equip it, and today they serve the best steaks in Nicaragua.
CORNAP, the agency of the Chamorro government charged with privatizing government-owned companies, signed a contract with the El Gaucho workers union on October 16, 1992, agreeing to sell the restaurant to the workers for $180,000. However, because Bermudez Somoza is now a US citizen, CORNAP is trying to renege on the contract. It went so far as to cut off the restaurant's phone and utilities in September. Bermudez Somoza has also allegedly tried both threats and bribes to dislodge the workers from the restaurant. They now take turns guarding the site all night long.
The final class of US citizens claiming return of property are those we call the "abandonistas." These are people who abandoned properties which would not have been taken from them had they remained in the country. In most cases these properties, particularly houses and farms, were not actually confiscated until years after they were abandoned. As in most of the other confiscations, the Sandinista government had more pressing priorities than to take care of the paperwork that would have given the recipients clear title.
Confiscations of abandoned properties are the cases most commonly described as abuses. There is a consensus in Nicaragua that these former property owners should receive compensation. Some abuses surely did occur as in the case of a former US marine who had gone to Nicaragua to fight rebels led by Sandino in the 1930's and stayed. Several people we interviewed stated that he was confiscated only because he was a North American. He was not a Somocista nor had he abandoned his property.
However, the vast majority of the confiscations of the "abandonistas" were not abuses. They were rather an attempt to bring order out of chaos. There was a huge housing shortage following the overthrow of the dictatorship because of the bombings of the cities, and because most Nicaraguans had always lived in sub-standard housing. It was only to be expected that any vacant building would be taken over by the homeless, and that they would not necessarily take care of the property as well as the previous owner.
Leonore Hupper, who spent years in Washington, DC as a diplomat said, "I saw when I was in Washington, DC, people would leave their house and the next week everything was gone, the windows, the doors, everything. You can not leave things like that." She also noted that the cotton and coffee had to be harvested on abandoned farms, beans and corn had to be planted so people could eat, and in many cases, by the time the Sandinista government got around to actually confiscating abandoned houses, there was nothing left but a shell.
Former Attorney General Castillo cited the example of the milk processing plant in Managua. "The owners left and took their capital, but they weren't Somocistas. The production plant remained and we had to have milk for the children, so we took the plant. But, if the owners hadn't left we would not have taken their business." Sandinista land reform did not aim to eliminate private property, but rather to ensure that property was used productively.
Theodolinda Becklin was married to a US citizen who died in the 1950's. She abandoned 30 to 40 houses outside Managua on the South Highway, most of which have since been returned by the Chamorro government. They were confiscated simply because she left the country and they were being ransacked and ruined. The Sandinista government took them over as housing for government employees. As with the debtors, Leonore Hupper says that in hindsight they should have published a notice in the newspapers stating, "Mrs. Becklin, come take care of your houses. If you don't we are going to take them because we need those houses."
Becklin's claim to the houses is one thing, but she is also trying to get back the Grand Hotel which was ruined in the 1972 earthquake. She had stripped everything possible out of the ruins after Somoza decreed that nothing could be built again in the areas hardest hit by the quake. However, now that it has been restored as a cultural center thanks to a donation from a Scandinavian government, she is attempting to reclaim it, and her status as a US citizen adds weight to her claim.
Violation of US and International Law
Because property rights are held sacred in the United States, few have been willing to challenge Helms' actions. However, such a challenge would not be difficult to construct in light of the fact that there is no legal precedent for extending the rights and privileges of citizenship retroactively. Likewise, no other country in the world has attempted to grant this sort of legal protection to its naturalized citizens. Although Senator Helms points to U.S. constitutional law to demand equal treatment of natural and naturalized citizens (only in the case of foreign property claims, that is), several Supreme Court rulings have, in fact, denied the legitimacy of this principle of "retroactive rights." The case of Knauer v. U.S., for example, establishes that naturalization does not deal with the past, but rather makes a promise for the future. In a similar case, Jean v. Nelson, the Supreme Court ruled that the rights of unadmitted aliens are not coextensive with those of citizens. Though this changes when a person becomes a citizen, the privileges of citizenship begin on the date of naturalization and cannot be invoked with regard to previous incidents.
Neither U.S. nor international law allows a country to interfere in another's relations with its own citizens, which is what--for all intents and purposes--the U.S. government is guilty of in the case of the naturalized citizens' property claims. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the case of De Sanchez v. Banco Central de Nicaragua, which deals directly with the issue at hand. Mrs. Josefina Navarro de Sanchez, the wife of Somoza's Minister of Defense, brought suit in a U.S. court against Nicaragua's Central Bank to collect on a check for $150,000 issued to her by the Bank shortly before the fall of the dictator. Upon assuming power in 1979, the Sandinista government issued a stop-payment on the check in accordance with Decree 38, which confiscated the property of members of the National Guard and business associates of the Somoza regime.
The court ruled against De Sanchez, stating that because she is a Nicaraguan national, this breach of contract did not violate international law. Therefore, in this case, Nicaragua's actions were not subject to review by U.S. courts. The decision asserts, "With a few limited exceptions, international law delineates minimum standards for the protection only of aliens...Only where a state has engaged in conduct against its own citizens that outrages basic standards of human rights or that calls into question the territorial sovereignty of the United States is it appropriate to interfere."
A Supreme Court decision handed down on March 4, 1996 clearly reveals the "double standard" that is being used to deal with the property issue in Nicaragua. In Bennis v. Michigan, the Court ruled that the government can seize cars, houses, and other property used for criminal activity, even if the actual owner was not involved in the wrongdoing. Those justices that opposed the ruling argued that this could lead to the seizure of vast amounts of property from innocent people. This ruling comes, ironically, at a moment when dozens upon dozens of criminals are being handed back their properties in Nicaragua, largely because of the support they have received from the U.S. goverment.
Property Rights and the US Revolution
In the quest to defend private property rights and avenge the allegedly unjust confiscations carried out by the Sandinistas, neither Helms nor the administration has considered how the issue of confiscated property was dealt with after the triumph of our own revolution. Any such comparison would certainly diffuse Helms' arguments, given the striking parallels between the behavior of the post-revolution governments in the United States and Nicaragua on this issue. It could be argued that, in many respects, confiscations--and the subsequent resolution of property disputes--were carried out in a much more vengeful manner in the United States than in Nicaragua.
The criteria for confiscating property during and after the American revolution were far from rigid. Anyone who took up arms in defense of the British Crown, accepted protection from Loyalist forces, or fled the country during the revolution was viewed by the as having forfeited their property rights. There were a few cases in which the mere suspicion that an individual was a Tory provided the grounds for seizure. It is estimated that the value of the property confiscated without due process or compensation exceeded $20 million, one-fifth of the total value of improved properties at the time.
These confiscations were only one manifestation of the intense anti-Loyalist sentiment that prevailed after the American revolution. Several states also passed laws that limited Tories' freedom of speech and took away their right to vote. Nine states went as far as to completely exile British Loyalists. Within this emotionally charged context, the resolution of property disputes rarely favored the former owners. The new U.S. government argued that the return of properties could endanger the recently-achieved peace and perhaps the safety of the state. Likewise, the founding fathers felt no obligation to provide compensation for confiscated properties--and in most cases did not. George Mason best summed up the logic of the times when he asked, "If we are now to pay the debts of the British merchants, what have we been fighting for all this while?"
Ironically, Helms' state of North Carolina was the most active confiscator of property in the new nation. North Carolina confiscated the highest percentage of total acreage of any state. This creates an interesting scenario that Senator Helms may himself own confiscated property. What would be his reaction if he were sued in British court by heirs of the Tories on whose land he squats?
The Nicaraguan government, in contrast, has proven much less intransigent when it comes to resolving property claims. The Property Law, which guarantees compensation for all individuals that had property confiscated under the Sandinistas, except members of the Somoza family, places an extreme burden on the Nicaraguan government, which is already encumbered by an external debt of $11 billion. So committed is the Chamorro administration to fulfilling this promise that it has designated the profit from the sale of the national telecommunications system to repay the former owners rather than to meet the many pressing needs of the effectively bankrupt country.
Lesson For US Policymakers
The lesson US citizens and policy makers should learn from the complexity of the Nicaragua property situation is that it is not rational for US foreign policy to be driven first and foremost by a simplistic law to protect US citizens' property rights abroad. Nicaragua further shows the absurdity of extending that protection retroactively to naturalized citizens. Finally, it shows that US policy toward Nicaragua continues to be intrusive and heavy-handed.
[Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator and Lisa Zimmerman is Information/Program Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network Education Fund, a network of over 300 local committees and sister cities working to support the gains of the Sandinista Revolution and to change US government policy. For more information: NNEF, 1247 E St., SE, Washington, DC 20003.
Quixote Center/Quest For Peace which jointly sponsored this research supports material aid projects in Nicaragua through the John XXIII Center. It raises money for projects and also regular container shipments of tools, computers, medicines and clothing. For more information: Quixote Center/QFP, PO Box 5206, Hyattsville, MD 20782.]
The authors want to thank NNEF interns Michael Eitner and Ron Garcia and Quest intern Andrew Padovano for their hard work and professional research in the areas of land reform and US and international law.
Jones de Freitas