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The Biggest Victory for the Contras, Yet’: Hurricane Joan and the Cold War Debate over Natural Disaster Relief Aid

  • Gerald Larkin Building, Room 200 15 Devonshire Place Toronto, ON, M5S 2C8 Canada (map)


Featuring Andrew Brown (Texas A&M University)

On January 16, 2010, after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake demolished Haiti, President Barack Obama appeared in the White House rose garden with former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He announced a historic disaster relief package to Haiti, demonstrating that humanitarian aid was a duty that transcended politics and parties. Celebrities and citizens from around the world donated to efforts to rebuild the country, showing how relief efforts could unite a world together for a common cause. This unified vision has not always been the case. Disaster relief during the Cold War, rather than unite peoples, magnified the deep divisions in the United States over the purpose of foreign aid and the role of the United States in the world.

Hurricane Joan hit the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua in October 1988. The hurricane resulted in death or injury to hundreds of Nicaraguans. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans were forced to flee their homes. The port of Bluefields was hit the hardest and resulted in severe damages to the region’s infrastructure. The context of the hurricane made its impact so important. The Sandinistas and Contras had fought against each other since the early 1980s. The United States funded the Contra war effort, though the Boland Amendment limited Reagan’s commitment. The war and American embargo decimated the Nicaraguan economy and forced a significant labor shortage in the country. This economic reality left Nicaragua very vulnerable. The effect of Hurricane Joan hurt the Sandinistas considerably and became, as one American official claimed, “The biggest victory for the Contras, yet.” The question for many observers became, would foreign aid from America be used as a tool of war or a tool of humanity?

This paper investigates the debate over the use of disaster relief aid toward Nicaragua after Hurricane Joan. President Ronald Reagan elected to refuse aid to Nicaragua, citing his belief that the Nicaraguan government would squander the money. Many domestic and international observers condemned this decision, including members of the American left, the United Nations, and Puerto Rican independence activists. This opposition sparked a heated debate over the obligation of the United States to the world. This article outlines the decision-making processes, tactics used, and rhetoric utilized by both sides of the debate to illuminate what disaster relief meant to various groups during the Cold War. Furthermore, it explores government-civil society relations and how each side influences the actions of the other.

About Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a PhD student in the Department of History at Texas A&M University. His research interests include US-Third World relations, environmental history, the history of science, the history of foreign aid and natural disasters, and citizen diplomacy. His dissertation is a history of the Smithsonian-Peace Corps Environmental Program, which sent hundreds of scientists to solve environmental crises in the developing world. This research provides a new narrative of the role scientists play in American foreign relations. When he is not dedicating his time to school, Andrew enjoys watching movies, traveling, cooking, and being disappointed by his favorite sports teams.