In My Words: In providing aid to Ukraine, U.S. should not repeat its past mistakes in Latin America

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Mat Gendle considers whether the current support for the Ukraine war effort has dangerous parallels to the proxy war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The column appeared in the Greensboro News & Record and the Butner-Creedmoor News.

By Mat Gendle

As the United States weighs whether and how to continue its financial support of Ukraine during its war with Russia, government leaders should be diligent to avoid the mistakes that left the country mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. What’s happening now in Ukraine has parallels to the proxy war in Nicaragua more than 40 years ago, and if we’re not careful, the mistakes could be the same, too.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022, the U.S. has provided over $75 billion in aid to Ukraine.

The public perception of this aid has been mixed, and multiple polls have demonstrated that a considerable proportion of those queried do not support the U.S. continuing financial assistance to Ukraine. Criticisms of this aid often center on domestic economic issues and concerns about whether it is appropriate to be providing extensive funding to foreign governments when there are so many ongoing and unmet health, housing, food, and infrastructure needs inside the U.S.

Negative commentary regarding aid to Ukraine has intensified following a September report by “60 Minutes” that some of the more than $20 billion of nonmilitary support from the U.S. has been used to subsidize Ukrainian small businesses, purchase seeds and fertilizer for farmers, and pay the salaries of all 57,000 of the country’s first responders.

Despite pushback from some citizens and members of Congress, several prominent elected officials including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Lindsey Graham and President Joe Biden believe that the U.S.’s investment in Ukraine has produced huge foreign policy wins, as Ukrainian forces have significantly weakened Russian military power and precipitated a decline in Russia’s political and economic standing on the global stage. Yet, these purported victories ring hollow for many American farmers, small business owners, and first responders, who are themselves financially imperiled and in need of support.

This situation is developing in a way that reminds me of U.S. engagement with the Nicaraguan revolution and Contra war from 1979 through 1990), when the U.S. also poured extensive financial and military aid into an external conflict for the sake of weakening a political and economic rival.

Much like the current war in Ukraine, the Nicaraguan conflict was viewed by many in the U.S. government as a proxy battle between the propagandized “values” of the right-wing Contras and the perceived threats of political leftism, communism, and Soviet influence in Central America being advanced by the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Parallel to the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. initially provided extensive support to the Contras in Nicaragua to bolster their role in fighting against Soviet encroachment within the Western Hemisphere.

Over time, public opposition to funding the Contras grew, and Congress passed legislation that barred ongoing U.S. military aid in Nicaragua. Despite this, members of the Reagan administration continued to illicitly support the military activities of the Contras through a criminal enterprise that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. This clandestine scheme contributed to the perpetuation of ongoing war atrocities and political destabilization in Nicaragua. It was an effort that expanded the domestic distribution of cocaine, which was one of the primary sources of cash for the Contra’s war efforts.

Current members of Congress and senior officials within the executive branch, including those in the armed services, would do well to remember this lesson of history.

Going forward, all aspects of U.S. funding to Ukraine that utilize public resources must remain completely transparent. And if providing funds to Ukraine turns deeply unpopular, government officials must comply with the wishes of the American people and terminate support, regardless of whether they think they “know better.” After all, the funds being appropriated for Ukrainian aid ultimately belong to U.S. taxpayers, and they are who must have final say over how those funds are utilized.

Covert operations that circumvent the wishes of the electorate can only result in criminal misdeeds and a further erosion of trust in the federal government, which already sits at a historic low point.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.