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Imagine for a moment that Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate for mayor of New York City, had spent his mid-20s working for an organization that supported the regime of right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Of course, he never did. But if he had, do you think Lhota’s campaign could survive a revelation like that?
Yet similar revelations about Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio’s past associations with Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinistas—a terrorist organization that received support from the United States’s Cold War enemies—seem likely to cause no more than a brief detour en route to his January coronation as the Big Apple’s 108th mayor.
In its recent expose of de Blasio’s radical past, the New York Times called the war between the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contra militias “one of the most polarizing issues in American politics at the time.” Pinochet’s reign in Chile was no less polarizing. When he died in 2006, the Times’s obituary called him “a notorious symbol of human rights abuse and corruption.”
Few dispute that Pinochet’s regime was responsible for murdering as many as 3,000 political opponents and torturing tens of thousands more. Yet, despite his brutality, Pinochet’s free-market economic policies earned the admiration of many on the right. And, despite their brutality, the Sandinistas remain heroes to many on the left, including, apparently, de Blasio.
“They had a youthful energy and idealism mixed with a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational,” he told the Times. After the article appeared, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he was “deeply proud” to have been involved with the Sandinista movement.
While Pinochet and the Sandinistas were ideological opposites, both traded in terror, intimidation, and political violence. However, you can bet your boots that had the 26-year-old Lhota, a former Rudy Giuliani administration official and one-time chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, worked in support of Pinochet—which he did not—the New York Times would have referred to him as something other than a “fresh-faced idealist.”
That’s just how they described the 26-year-old de Blasio, who traveled to Nicaragua in 1988 as an employee of the Maryland-based Quixote Center. The Quixote Center describes itself as an organization that “seeks peace and friendship with the people of Nicaragua by advocating just U.S. policies and supporting Nicaraguan human development organizations.” Odd, then, that they would support the Sandinistas, a group responsible for numerous documented atrocities both before and after their 11 year-rule in Nicagagua, including mass murder of innocent civilians. Known by their official name, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, these Marxist-Leninists are described by the University of Maryland-based National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) as a terrorist organization.
During their time in power (1979-1990), according to START, the Sandinistas ceased to function as a terrorist group, but were state-sponsors of terrorism abroad.
Unfortunately, to most everyone under the age of 35, if the term “Sandinista” is recognizable at all, it is as the name of a third-rate Clash album. Yet, to young journalists, grad students, baristas, and software developers, the name of Augusto Pinochet lives in the pantheon of international villains alongside Hitler, Franco, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. This is due mainly to Pinochet’s controversial 1998 indictment for human rights abuses by the crusading left-wing Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon and subsequent 18-month house arrest in London.
None of this is to suggest that Joe Lhota did or would have worked in support of the Pinochet regime. In fact, while Bill de Blasio was sending aid and comfort to a group of left-wing revolutionaries that Ronald Reagan called “tyrannical,” Lhota was starting a career in finance that would lead him to high positions in the government of his native city.
But this little thought experiment is useful if it sheds any light on an inconvenient political truth: A radical past is really only a problem for Republicans (it certainly hasn’t been a problem for the Democrat in the White House).
Had the New York Times been able to dig up even the hint of any unsavory association in Joe Lhota’s past, it would be all they talked about from here to Election Day.