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60 Minutes in Central America: The Politicization of Development During the Cold War

Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia
Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia

Complex geopolitical realities, poor leadership, and economic dysfunction characterized the Cold War in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. USAID (United States Agency for International Development) played a crucial role in strengthening the political and economic institutions of these countries. Its ability to work and achieve success in Cold War conditions was nothing short of extraordinary. However, the melding of national security and development objectives created an easy target for American media outlets, particularly CBS’ 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes had a noticeable influence on political discourse of domestic and foreign policy issues. Media became an important tool in the hands of politicians who leveraged 60 Minutes to attack sitting presidents, campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize, and stoke economic anxiety. In his oral history, John Sanbrailo recounts three times that 60 Minutes discredited important USAID programs. 60 Minutes lowered the morale of USAID employees abroad and created a negative perception of development projects at home.

After volunteering with the Peace Corps for four years, John Sanbrailo began his extensive career at USAID as an International Development intern. He quickly moved up the ranks thanks to his ability to work in nebulous situations without guidance. Over the course of 26 years, Sanbrailo was a mission director five times, serving in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, and El Salvador. After leaving USAID, he worked at the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank before directing the Pan American Development Foundation for more than 18 years.

John Sanbrailo’s interview was conducted by Alexander Shakow on June 19, 2017.

Read John Sanbrailo’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Lydia Laramore

Excerpts:

“Unfortunately, Somoza got tarred with being a brutal dictator, along the lines of Idi Amin in Uganda, who was reported to literally cut off the heads of his opposition and keep them in a refrigerator to show to visitors.”
Contra Commandas (1987) Tiomono | Wikipedia
Contra Commandas (1987) Tiomono | Wikipedia

Somoza’s Image Problem: “Benevolent dictatorship” is the right term, far less brutal than what was happening in Chile at the same time, or the Southern Cone, or in South Korea and Taiwan. [President of Nicaragua] Tachito Somoza gave focus to the programs, solved problems, made decisions quickly, and things happened. . . . Unfortunately, Somoza got tarred with being a brutal dictator, along the lines of Idi Amin in Uganda, who was reported to literally cut off the heads of his opposition and keep them in a refrigerator to show to visitors. . . . Somoza could never recover from his image problem. The Political Counselor had reported that Somoza kept a lion, perhaps to intimidate visitors, but I never heard about it and never saw such a thing.

. . . . in 1976, the CBS program 60 Minutes began focusing on Managua earthquake reconstruction, declaring it a failure because there were still empty spaces in the old city center that had not been rebuilt. These comments overlooked the Mexican Reconstruction Plan for Managua and were being used to discredit the Somoza government. 60 Minutes clearly went to Managua with preconceived views, and did not attempt to present an objective presentation.

Yet the Nicaragua situation later in the 1970s led the Carter administration, Robert Pastor at NSC, Viron “Pete” Vaky ARA (Western Hemisphere) Assistant Secretary, Karen DeYoung at the Washington Post, and CBS 60 Minutes to gang up on Somoza that greatly contributed to encouraging the Sandinista insurgency and forcing him out of office in 1979, through an overwhelming volume of distorted commentary.

“The 60 Minutes program showcased two women workers crying on camera and charging that USAID had exported their jobs to Central America.”

Discrediting USAID’s Program in Honduras: In the first 60 Minutes program in 1987, it compared U.S. policy in Honduras and Costa Rica, severely criticizing the Hondurans for allowing their country to support what was seen as the failing U.S. policy in Central America, while giving Costa Rica a pass for pursuing similar actions.

I particularly remember the first CBS program because it was narrated by Mike Wallace who followed me around a reception in Tegucigalpa trying to get me on camera for an interview. Ambassador Briggs had asked that any such interviews first be approved by the USIA Public Affairs Office, and that is what I did. But Mike Wallace would not give up when I said that I could not be interviewed, and that he and his producer had to first contact USIA. Some local leaders told Wallace that the USAID Director was one of the most important people in the Embassy. The Hondurans were mesmerized that 60 Minutes was focusing on their small country without fully realizing the negative consequences that could be produced in the U.S. and international media. The Ambassador was correct that we could not expect a fair and balanced broadcast, given the Iran-Contra Affair and the media’s bias against Honduras.

. . . . The second 60 Minutes episode was in late 1992 . . . and it was more serious. CBS sent a crew with hidden cameras to entrap USAID private sector officers into saying that they were encouraging textile manufacturers to relocate to Honduras. This was significant at the time because the U.S. economy was in recession. The textile industry had already lost most of its low-wage jobs, mostly to China and Asia, although also to Central America and Caribbean countries. The CBI [Caribbean Basin Initiative] legislation had contemplated production-sharing arrangements between American companies and those in the Caribbean Basin as a way to maintain jobs in the U.S. A number of analyses showed that such partnerships (value chains) created more jobs than were lost, but in different skills.

The 60 Minutes program showcased two women workers crying on camera and charging that USAID had exported their jobs to Central America. In the highly charged U.S. Presidential campaign of 1992, this was dynamite. It essentially ended USAID support to maquiladora (tariff exempt) industries and ZIPs. Later reports indicated that this media show was orchestrated by operatives like Charles Kernaghan of the ACTWU and staff from Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, who were seeking issues to use against President George H.W. Bush. This is particularly ironic because one of the major achievements of the Clinton administration was the passage of NAFTA that supported similar supply chain partnerships with Mexico.

. . . . Thousands of jobs were generated while also maintaining higher wage jobs in the U.S. By the time I departed, Honduras was on a track to create well over 100,000 jobs in Export Processing Zones with U.S. and other companies, thereby making textiles and other non-traditional products its leading exports. As Honduras moved into the 21st century, it had transformed itself, evolving from an economy mainly dependent on bananas and coffee, to a much more diversified production and export base. It was one of the important achievements of USAID that unfortunately was discredited by 60 Minutes.

“The action in Spain built upon another CBS 60 Minutes episode in March 1993 narrated by Bill Bradley in which he highlighted the most horrendous murders, such as at El Mozote and the Jesuit killings.”
El Mozote Massacre Memorial (2008) John Flannigan | Flickr
El Mozote Massacre Memorial (2008) John Flannigan | Flickr

Undermining the El Salvadoran Peace Accords: As a moderate in a highly polarized country, Cristiani was the right leader at the right time. He led the center right “National Alliance Republican” party (ARENA) to a 20-year period of ARENA presidencies through free and fair elections. . . . Unfortunately, after Cristiani left office, leftist groups in Europe and elsewhere attempted to discredit him and his government because of the Jesuit killings during the 1989 FMLN “Offensive.” For example, the Center for Justice and Accountability and the Spanish Association for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in Spain charging Cristiani and the Salvadorian military with direct responsibility in the murder of the Jesuit priests.

The action in Spain built upon another CBS 60 Minutes episode in March 1993 narrated by Bill Bradley in which he highlighted the most horrendous murders, such as at El Mozote and the Jesuit killings. It presented a negative view of El Salvador, the Bush administration, and Ambassador William Walker. The scheduling of the broadcast appeared to be an attempt to undermine support for the Peace Accords with the new Clinton administration and to make U.S. funding for them more difficult to obtain. While the 60 Minutes exposé proved less impactful among the American public than the previous one on the export processing zones, it did complicate our efforts to get final Washington approval of the $300 million to support the Accords.

“. . . Managing the fallout from the CBS 60 Minutes program and other similar exposés on USAID support . . . proved challenging and even demoralizing given the misinformation that was disseminated and sensualized.”

Reflections on the role of 60 Minutes: I hope one day someone will write a dissertation or book on the role of 60 Minutes, and those in the international media, who in my view misrepresented Central America starting with their attacks on Somoza in the 1970s. They regularly produced programs that presented the Sandinistas and FMLN insurgents in a favorable light, as “Jeffersonian democrats.”

. . . . Managing the fallout from the CBS 60 Minutes program and other similar exposés on USAID support . . . proved challenging and even demoralizing given the misinformation that was disseminated and sensualized.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Economics, University of California at Berkeley                                       1961-1965
Peace Corps: Puerto Rico & Venezuela                                                                   1965-1968
MA in Economics and Development, San Francisco State University             1968-1969
Joined USAID                                                                                                     1970
Quito, Ecuador—Project Development Officer                                                     1970-1972
Managua, Nicaragua—Capital Development Officer                                           1972-1975
Quito, Ecuador—Mission Director                                                                          1979-1982
Lima, Peru—Mission Director                                                                                  1983-1986
Tegucigalpa, Honduras—USAID Director                                                             1986-1991

60 Minutes in Central America:…

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