‘The right thing to do’: De Blasio explains his Nicaragua work

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De Blasio on Wednesday. (Dana Rubinstein)
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On Wednesday afternoon, a reporter from the Spanish-language station Univision asked Bill de Blasio to "set the record straight" on Nicaragua.

An inordinate amount of attention has been devoted recently to de Blasio's support for the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua more than two decades ago and his work on civilian relief efforts there.

Joe Lhota, his Republican opponent, has suggested provocatively, and simplistically, that this makes de Blasio a Marxist.

De Blasio has stood by his support for the Sandinista government, and has never made a secret of that chapter of his life, or of his admiration for some of the things he saw when he was in Nicaragua.

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But he hadn't gone into particular depth about it until Wednesday, at an appearance with firefighters union leader Steve Cassidy, who had just endorsed him.

"A lot of us in this country believe that the United States policies towards Central America in the 1980s were wrong," said de Blasio. "By the way, the organization I worked with was founded by Jesuits. As you may know, a lot of the work being done on the ground to help needy people in Central America was done by leaders in the Catholic Church, it was done by nuns. And the sense of injustice that was so obvious in terms of United States policies supporting regimes that were in many cases very unfair to their own people. That’s why I got involved because I thought our policies were wrong."

"The organization I worked with that is talked about in that article literally collected medical supplies, clothing, and sent it to a nonprofit in Nicaragua to get it to needy people who were obviously affected by the environment of war surrounding their country that was being supported by the U.S. government," he continued. "So, I think it was the right thing to do. I am very proud of that work. And by the way, over time, the majority of the United States people came to believe that our policies were wrong and that finally is what changed our policies."

Given his activism on the Nicaragua issue, his welcoming of Robert Mugabe to City Hall back in 2002 (something he has since apologized for) and his participation in a recent press conference denouncing Iran, I asked him what role he thinks the mayor of New York City should play in foreign policy debates.

"I think we are an international city by definition, and the most diverse, or one of the most diverse, cities on earth," he said. "The United Nations happens to be located here. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s natural, but it pales in comparison to the work we have to do here at home in our neighborhoods. So from time to time it will be pertinent, especially during U.N. week for example. But no, I think the singular focus of the next mayor has to be to addressing inequalities of the city and that goes right down to the grassroots, neighborhood by neighborhood."