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Robert S. Leiken: March 19, 1939-June 7, 2017. R.I.P.

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Early in the morning of June 7, my friend Bob Leiken passed away. Numerous and serious health problems took their toll, and he eventually died of pneumonia. Few today recognize his name, but he played a major role in the 1980s in the fight against communism in Central America. He was an early supporter of the Reagan administration’s policy of strong opposition to the Marxist regime that had taken power in Nicaragua.

Bob was a serious student of literature, earning honors with his B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. in history from Harvard, and eventually a Ph.D. in politics from St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. His doctoral thesis on American press coverage of the Sandinista reign in Nicaragua was published as a book, Why Nicaragua Vanished: A Story of Reporters and Revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the biased press which was in favor of the Sandinistas failed to inform Americans about the true nature of the Sandinista revolution. Yet the book is relatively unknown, and does not even appear in the otherwise comprehensive and accurate Wikipedia entry.

What Bob accomplished was of major importance. He was undoubtedly the single most important person outside of the administration to make Americans aware of the Sandinista government’s agenda to institute a Cuban-type repressive communist state in Nicaragua. This was at a time when most liberals and important Democrats saw them as only indigenous radicals with no ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba (untrue) and  believed that U.S. policy should support their effort to change their country. When war broke out between anti-Sandinista peasants -- called the “contras” (as in counter-revolutionaries, a badge they adopted with pride) -- and the Sandinista government, liberals in and out of Washington blamed the failure to reach a cease-fire on American policy, rather than on the actual agenda of Comandante Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista leadership to build another Cuba.

Because Bob had started out as a well-known liberal, he was able to reach some major centrist and liberal papers and magazines with his reports on what was actually happening in Nicaragua. He first reported on events there for The New Republic, which under the editorship of Marty Peretz had moved from its left-liberal roots to become a serious centrist magazine of opinion. His article in that publication, “Nicaragua’s Untold Stories,” received national attention and began to change the minds of even dedicated liberals. The National Journal best noted its impact:

The turning point came in the fall of 1984, when, after an intense 10 day trip to Nicaragua, Leiken returned "appalled and angry" over conditions there. He wrote an article criticizing the Sandinistas in terms that were, for a liberal Democrat, unmistakably powerful and all the more striking because they appeared in the traditionally liberal  The New Republic, which itself was undergoing something of a political reorientation to a more centrist line.