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Getting Out of the Central American Maze

Central America is truly the terrain of Graham Greene, a place of lost hopes, betrayals, and, nonetheless, the possibility of some vaguely defined salvation. It is also a region that has suffered too often from the almost careless interventions of the United States. Washington has always assumed that since the United States is the major power in the region, other nations are necessarily subordinate, useful only when their policies complement our own. This attitude discounts the possibility of strong concerted efforts by the big regional powers. Today, Washington’s single-handed diplomacy may be a serious mistake because the two most important powers, Mexico and Venezuela, have developed strategies of their own for bringing peace to the region—strategies that are showing a surprising tendency to converge.

Recently I traveled through Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, and met with high officials both in and out of government, including Jorge Castañeda, the foreign minister of Mexico; Guillermo Ungo, the head of the Salvadoran Democratic Revolutionary Front; Sergio Ramirez, one of the three members of the ruling junta in Nicaragua; the foreign minister and two former presidents of Costa Rica; the current and former presidents of Venezuela; as well as numerous Sandinists, opposition leaders in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela (there is no effective opposition in Mexico), and diplomatic representatives of the United States as well as of Western Europe and Latin America.

My journey began in Mexico, where it gradually became clear that Mexico is playing an elaborate game aimed at making it the indispensable arbiter of peace in a region it has traditionally ignored. Yet Mexico seems curiously unsuited to taking a leading role in Central America. Its social and economic policies are in disarray. President José Lopez Portillo, a lame duck unable legally to run for re-election, presides over an essentially one-party state that propounds a doctrine of revolution while corruption is rampant and about 70 percent of the population—the growing middle class and the very poor—are excluded from the power and benefits accruing to the groups that dominate the country. Moreover, Mexico is suffering from spiraling inflation, which may run to nearly 100 percent in the next few years unless the next president initiates severe austerity measures. The only hope for domestic change comes from within the ruling party, the PRI, and its candidate, Miguel de la Madrid, who is sure to be elected later this year.

However, despite Mexico’s serious internal difficulties, its foreign policy has remained—and is likely to remain—remarkably consistent. It aims to replace the US predominance over the area, and it espouses political change in Central America, but tries to make certain that change does not mean an expansionist Marxist-Leninism. Since this brand of revolution might end up threatening Mexico itself, Mexican leaders are especially careful to see that the guerrilla movement in neighboring Guatemala does not get out of hand. In short, disturbed by the direction of the Sandinist movement, Mexico is trying to ensure that revolutions like Nicaragua’s, led by Marxist-Leninists, will evolve into states not unlike Mexico itself, whose 1910 revolution was also inflamed with rhetoric of the left. In fact, Lopez Portillo and Castañeda in their waning months in office may even come to regard somewhat wistfully the Sandinists (los muchachos, “the kids”) who, if they accept Mexican tutelage, may not only shed their extremism and, in particular, their close ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, but also construct a state with greater social justice than Mexico. Perhaps in Nicaragua, they imagine, socialism will succeed, even as it failed in Mexico.

The Mexican program, as spelled out by Lopez Portillo in a speech in Nicaragua in February and later elaborated by Castañeda, calls for three sets of parallel negotiations—between Washington and Managua, between Washington and Havana, and among El Salvador’s warring factions—in order to untie the three “knots” of tension in the region. At that time, Lopez Portillo and Castañeda recognized that there was little hope that any negotiations would take place in El Salvador before the elections that were scheduled for the end of March. In the light of the election results, which increased the power of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson as the leader of the right-wing coalition and pushed Washington’s candidate, José Napoleón Duarte, out of power, the Mexicans now hope that the situation has sufficiently ripened to encourage a new realignment of nations involved in Central America.

For one thing, Venezuela, under President Luis Herrera Campins, a Christian Democrat, is now apparently amenable to a negotiated settlement in El Salvador. Both Mexico and Venezuela see the El Salvador elections as a repudiation of the guerrillas. They were impressed by the size of the vote and the small proportion of voters, less than 12 percent, who chose to spoil their ballots. But both countries also recognize that the insurgents must be accorded some—though, both hope, a minor—role in any settlement. Thus the question is: who would participate in negotiations leading to a settlement? Venezuela would insist that the Christian Democrats have a leading part. Duarte has many friends among the Christian Democrats in Caracas, where he spent his years in exile. But, as I was told in discussions with Christian Democratic leaders there, “We are now open to conversations with Mexico and also with the Socialist International. We are willing to change our views. But there must be a cease-fire in El Salvador first.”

While the Mexicans and the Venezuelans both favor negotiations—the former in order to promote the fortunes of Guillermo Ungo, the latter to preserve the future of Duarte—however they interpret the reasons for the large turnout both also believe that the guerrillas were hurt by the elections. If the new right-wing assembly dominates the situation in cooperation with the army, as seems likely, then the Mexicans and the Venezuelans each fear that their respective protégés will lose out and that the guerrillas will eventually become stronger, making negotiations much more difficult.

But the Mexicans, I was told by leading figures in the Socialist International in Costa Rica and Venezuela, believe that they may have still another card to play in El Salvador. This would involve the reappearance of Colonel Adolfo Arnoldo Majano. It was Colonel Majano who helped lead the coup of October 1979 in El Salvador that overthrew General Carlos Humberto Romero, whose “election” was exceptionally fraudulent, even by the standards of the region. Supported by right-wing politicians, elements in the army, and paramilitary groups, Romero carried out the reign of terror that finally brought the Roman Catholic Church into full opposition.

After the fall of Romero, the relatively moderate Colonel Majano became a member of the new five-man junta, which then included Guillermo Ungo. However, Majano did not lend his full support to Ungo’s plan to put the army under civilian control; the defense minister, Colonel—now General—José Guillermo García, soon dominated the junta, and the murderous paramilitary groups were not curbed. As a result, Ungo resigned and went into exile. By the spring of 1980 the killing of civilians had vastly increased; Major D’Aubuisson’s paramilitary units went virtually unchecked. Majano’s faction in the army tried to control the worsening situation, a split in the army developed, and in December 1980, disgusted by the horrors being committed by members of the army’s forces, Majano left the country and went into hiding. Some of the Mexican and Venezuelan officials I talked to believe the scene is now set for Majano’s return, sponsored by Mexico but with significant support in Costa Rica and Venezuela. He might lead a movement within the army to get rid of the extremists and join in a coalition with the Christian Democrats under Duarte and the Socialists under Ungo, with or without participation by the guerrillas.

This scheme is perhaps too clever by half. It would require the support, if not the connivance, of the United States. It would effectively nullify the constituent assembly that emerged after the March elections. And Majano may have great difficulty mustering the support within the army he once had, even if the US and Mexico decided to give him backing. But at this point, other possibilities seem unpromising. The scheduled elections under a new constitution won’t take place for a year. The hopes that Duarte himself may harbor to return as president may be submerged in a situation dominated by General García and Major D’Aubuisson’s right-wing coalition now in control of the assembly.

The second element in the Mexican scheme involves serious negotiations between Washington and Managua. Here, too, the Mexicans are playing a dangerous game. The real goal of Mexican foreign policy, according to a leading member of the Socialist International who has held high office in Central America, is to supplant Cuban patronage of revolution throughout Central America. To accomplish this, the Mexicans are working along two quite different lines. They are openly supporting the Sandinists (who are allied with the Cubans) to such a degree that the Nicaraguan government has insisted that Mexico be present at any negotiations between Managua and Washington. But they have also sheltered the Sandinists’ most dangerous adversary, the legendary “Commandante Zero,” Eden Pastora, a hero of the Sandinist revolution who recently emerged after disappearing from Managua in July 1981. He left following a dispute with the minister of defense Humberto Ortega over the degree of Cuban and Soviet influence in the country.

Though the story is not generally known, according to high officials in Costa Rica, Pastora is being used by the Mexicans as a further inducement to get the Sandinists to the negotiating table. He is not an ex-Somocista leading a group of discredited exiles from Honduras but the man who had captured the Nicaraguan Legislative Palace in 1978 and negotiated the release of fifty-nine political prisoners and a ransom of half a million dollars. Now Pastora has issued a statement from San José, Costa Rica, saying that he will “bury” his former comrades in the National Directorate. Accusing the Sandinists of repressing the people, flirting with Cuba, failing to keep their promise to respect political pluralism and maintain a mixed economy, Pastora said that today Nicaragua has “more poor people, no less corruption, more foreign debt, fewer liberties [than in the time of Somoza].” Once he achieves power, he says, he intends to ensure a mixed state-run and private economy, permit foreign investment, promote freedom of the press and religion, and “demilitarize Nicaragua.”1

Pastora, I was told, had originally left Nicaragua for Cuba where he was “kept like a bird in a gilded cage.” (Even in his press conference in Costa Rica he praised both the Cuban revolution “in a Cuban context” and the “personal conduct” of the Cuban leaders.) Something of a romantic revolutionary on the lines of Che Guevara, Pastora had decided he would join the guerrillas in Guatemala who were having some success once they began to organize among the Indians on the Mexican border. Just such thoughts apparently alarmed the Mexicans, who, despite their revolutionary rhetoric, are reluctant to give support to the guerrillas in Guatemala, fearing that an insurgency among the Indians could spread across the border to their own Indian tribes. As I was told by a high official of the Mexican foreign office, a contingent of the Mexican army is patrolling the Guatemalan border so that there will be no problems in southern Mexico; the Mexican and Guatemalan armies, as he put it, “cooperate closely.”

  1. 1

    See the Miami Herald, April 19, 1982; The Tico Times (San José, Costa Rica), April 16, 1982.

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