A good politician, Koch was careful to include some obvious leftists in his delegation to Central America. One was a Hispanic Marxist who was president of Hostos Community College in the Puerto Rican district of the Bronx; another was an African American woman who was president of the New York Urban League. The remaining six members included an African American union officer, radio magnate R. Peter Straus; Richard Ravitch, then CEO of the Bowery Bank and a former head of the New York Transit Authority; a Hispanic who was head of a Hispanic Catholic center; and former Kennedy speechwriter and Democratic player Ted Sorensen. Koch appointed me to the mission as a result of the suggestion of my friend, the late Eric Breindel, who was then editorial page editor of the New York Post.
Before the mission left, Koch convened a meeting at Gracie Mansion with President Arias, who later would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his suggested plan for bringing peace to Central America. Arias had critics on his left and his right, but he made it clear that he was a strong opponent of the Sandinistas, whom he rightfully regarded as enemies of democracy. As he told us, ”We may soon see the Communist government of Nicaragua using force against workers, students, peasants, and intellectuals.” The prediction was all too accurate, as their government organized mobs — called turbas (divine mobs) — which they regularly called out to beat up would-be opponents and protesters.
The press and media were hostile to Koch, but Arias was ecstatic, giving the mission his blessings, hoping that it would help lead to regional reconciliation. Although the mission would travel to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, the New York Times did not cover it or issue one report — although its own correspondent, Stephen Kinzer, was permanently in Nicaragua. The New York Post, which favored the mission, sent its top reporter and covered the trip each day, as did the New York City TV news divisions of the major networks.
Arriving in Managua on November 5, Koch issued a statement of the mission’s goals, stressing our desire to help reach the goals of “reconciliation, amnesty, democratization, a negotiated ceasefire, and an end to the cross-border supplying of irregular forces.” This addressed in particular the supply of arms to the Marxist rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua by the Cuban regime and the Soviets. Koch’s statement called as well for economic aid, refugee relief, and moving away from extremes towards “the democratic center.” It was intentionally ambiguous, and did not work to cease tensions within our group between the left and the right.
The most visible sign of this occurred at a giant Sandinista rally held in Managua where Ortega announced a new change in strategy. For months, he and his comrades argued that they would not negotiate with the contras, who were in fact gaining militarily and scoring defeats against the well-equipped Sandinista army. They would only negotiate, he had always said, with the United States, whom Ortega referred to as the “puppet-masters.” But at the rally, he abruptly shocked the audience by saying he would now negotiate directly with the armed opposition, through the offices of the archbishop of Nicaragua. As he said these words, Comandante Bayardo Arce, head of the party apparatus and a known hard-line Marxist-Leninist, visibly grimaced. At the same time, however, Ortega said that his ruling junta would continue to stamp upon the domestic civic opponents of the regime, and would continue to call out the government’s thugs to crack the heads of those who dared to publicly protest.
Our delegation noticed immediately upon arriving that eight seats had been put on stage, obviously meant for us to sit in. They were directly behind Ortega, who was scheduled to introduce us during his speech. Koch told us that he would inform the Sandinistas that we were not there to give Ortega or his regime its support, but to speak in favor of democratization and peace. To go on stage, he rightfully said, would make it appear to the world that New York’s mayor and his delegation were backing the Sandinistas.
At that moment, the two radical women in the delegation, Hostos President Isaura Santiago-Santiago and Harriet Richardson Michel, announced that they were not going to insult the Sandinistas, and would go on stage and offer them their support. Koch, madder than I have ever seen him, ordered them to stay put, or he would dismiss them from the delegation and send them home. They retreated immediately, and they later accused me of being responsible for Koch’s decision, since earlier I had openly challenged an assertion by a Sandinista official that they were not communists, and had denounced their private hidden agenda.
The rally, it turned out, had all the trappings of an orchestrated, fascist-style rally. Koch remarked at a press conference he called later in the evening that the rally, with its bevy of floodlights and screaming pronouncements by Comandante Ortega, made him think of Hitler’s famous Nuremberg rally captured in the film by Riefenstahl.
The leftists among our group blanched and held in their anger at Koch.