Has Arias Made a Difference?

Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega; drawing by David Levine

On February 3, as the debate in the US House of Representatives on the President’s proposed package of aid to the Nicaraguan contras was ending, Congressman Mickey Edwards, Republican of Oklahoma and a leading proponent of support for the contras, took the floor and cited a Nicaraguan bishop’s support for the measure. Two days later, The New York Times quoted the leader of Nicaragua’s business federation as expressing disappointment that the aid bill had been rejected. Though such utterances would be considered treasonous by most governments fighting for survival, neither man has faced a serious risk of reprisal so far.

It is not that the Sandinistas have become civil libertarians. Six months ago they agreed to President Arias’s plan for Central America, which links the process leading to peace to respect for human rights. They are in a position in which, if they want peace, they must tolerate hostile expression during a time of war to a far greater degree than even governments with traditions of respecting freedom of speech. Clearly, some members of the Sandinista leadership are furious about what they are now being asked to tolerate.

That was evident when a number of prominent opposition leaders were arrested in mid-January and detained overnight on their return to the country from meetings with the contra leadership. Those arrests took place just as President Daniel Ortega was meeting with the other Central American presidents in San José, Costa Rica, to discuss compliance with the peace plan. Intolerance of dissent was evident again a week later when a band of about thirty Sandinista militants violently disrupted a meeting in Managua marking the first anniversary of the founding of an association of families of prisoners accused of contra activity. That the disruption had official approval was shown by the passive behavior of the police, who stood by and made no arrests. These episodes were seized upon by the Reagan administration and by some newspaper commentators to denounce Ortega’s bad faith.

Whether Ortega had a hand in these episodes, or whether—as some have speculated—they reflect his inability to control such hard-line associates as Interior Minister Tomás Borge and party leader Bayardo Arce, is difficult to establish. What is apparent, however, is that whatever the repressive tendencies among the Sandinistas, they must refrain, at least for the time being, from too often displaying intolerance for dissent. At least for now, they are putting up with such facts as the partial financing of La Prensa by the sponsor of a war against them, the government of the United States; with La Prensa’s banner headline, SANDINISTAS SURRENDER, to mark their termination of a state of emergency in January; with stories in the newspaper likening their jails to Nazi concentration camps; with “fact-finding” visits by propagandists for the contras such as those who accompanied New York mayor Edward I. Koch to Managua last November and representatives of former Alabama…

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