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The Endless War

Cuba, they say, has no role in Salvador because, unlike Nicaragua, Salvador has “a great diversity of social classes, a broader political spectrum and is in a stage of much higher economic development.” Like the Sandinistas now in power in Managua, the Cubans now insist they are prepared to let the Salvadoran guerrillas fend for themselves. Unwilling to let themselves be caught out by the United States as a major arms supplier to the FMLN—which might give Washington the pretext it is looking for to intervene directly against Cuba—they appear to believe that the FMLN can hang on with the arms it captures from the government troops while it continues to press for a share of power, or even win a military victory in a long war that the United States will grow weary of supporting.

As for bilateral relations with the United States, the Cubans are willing to negotiate on issues such as the repatriation of Cuban criminals who were sent to the United States along with other Cuban refugees in the 1980 Mariel boatlift—but only if these issues are tied to the broader range of US-Cuban relations. They showed no disposition to modify any of Cuba’s significant foreign policy involvements in Angola or elsewhere in Africa. The Cubans themselves feel cut off from any approaches from Washington since the resignation of Alexander Haig. The US diplomats at the US Interests Section in Havana have had no contact with high Cuban officials in well over a year. As the Cubans tell it, the meeting Carlos Rafael Rodriguez had with Secretary Haig in Mexico City in November 1981 was encouraging simply because it took place. But the second meeting, with Reagan’s envoy General Vernon Walters in Havana in February 1982, got nowhere. As the deputy prime minister put it: “It was not a dialogue.” Instead, it was a virtual monologue, “full of anecdotes of a life which was rich in anecdotes, but which we knew.”

As I left Cuba for Central America, I saw no hope for a serious dialogue between Washington and Havana. Cuba might be willing to put distance between itself and the fighting in El Salvador, but the United States, for its part, would only negotiate with Cuba if Havana renounced its policy of supporting armed revolution elsewhere, which the Cubans are not prepared to do. Meanwhile, after the Grenada intervention the possibility of military confrontation with Cuba may have increased.


Visiting Honduras after Cuba one comes to understand why a wider regional conflict in Central America is more and more likely. It is in Honduras, after all, that many of the exiles who oppose the Sandinistas and are backed by the CIA are based. These contras were once largely made up of former supporters of the hated Somoza; they now include a number of former supporters of the Nicaraguan revolution who have become disenchanted at the Marxist direction it has been taking. The FDN, as the nationalist movement calls itself, has recently been negotiating with the other group of exiles fighting the Sandinistas, the ARDE, based in Costa Rica. Coordinated operations by the two groups, estimated at about 10,000 men, would present the Nicaraguan regime with a two-front war, but relations between them have always been strained. ARDE, whose military wing is headed by one of the heroes of the Sandinista revolution, Edén Pastora (“Commander Zero”), and whose political half is led by Alfonso Robelo, a high school classmate of Pastora and a member of the first junta of the Sandinista government, is often split within itself. Pastora has been described as resisting the formation of the joint military command with the FDN called for by the CIA.7 Unlike the FDN, ARDE sees itself as made up of “authentic Sandinistas” whose own revolution has been betrayed.

The contras in Honduras reject any ideas of negotiating with the Sandinistas, who they are convinced will spread revolution throughout Central America. “Their ultimate objective,” one FDN leader told me, is “the Panama Canal and the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela.” While the exiles claim military successes all along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border and maintain that their support within Nicaragua is increasing daily, they are also aware of their complete dependence on the United States. The CIA’s financing of their so-called secret war allows them the fire-power they need, but unless they are able to hold and occupy a significant portion of Nicaragua itself within the next six months, they are fearful the United States will abandon them. Meanwhile, the contras call for free elections, a general amnesty, and “the abolition of repressive institutions.”

In fact, while the contras are considered by US officials to be useful as a means of putting pressure on the Sandinistas, neither the US government nor the Honduran army is convinced that they have the staying power to bring down the Nicaraguan regime. To back up the contras and to prepare for a successful military engagement with the Nicaraguan armed forces, the United States has resurrected, with Honduras’s blessing, Condeca, a Central American mutual defense organization that includes Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama (the northern three nations making up the self-styled “iron triangle”). Should open war with Nicaragua come, Condeca would probably be the regional instrument used to head the campaign.

As it is, Honduras has become, in effect, America’s aircraft carrier. Not only are there 3,500 American troops on joint maneuvers with the Honduran army, but the US has also set up the new Regional Military Training Center there. Ostensibly under the control of the Honduran military, this in fact is a training center for Salvadoran and other Central American soldiers under the direction of the US army. A US military base is also reportedly to be built on the Caribbean coast.

In view of these commitments, I was not surprised to be told by the Honduran leaders that negotiating with the Sandinistas in order to ensure Honduras’s security was out of the question. Although in July 1983 the Honduran government captured between ninety-six and 100 Honduran insurgents (which the United States says were trained in Cuba and came over the border from Nicaragua), the government’s main concern is less to prevent such infiltration than to destroy the Sandinista regime and the ideology it expounds. In the president’s office, the foreign ministry, and, above all, in talking with the commander of the armed forces, General Alvarez, I heard only one solution proposed to deal with “the ideological threat from Nicaragua.” This was for Nicaragua to carry out the promises it once made to institute a mixed economy, political pluralism, and nonalignment. If this were done, so the story ran, then the contras would be able to participate in free elections and thus the external threat to Nicaragua would be removed.

How, I asked, would Honduras arrive at this neat solution? “By putting pressure on the Sandinistas and strengthening the Honduran army.” If the Nicaraguan armed forces were to attack the contras by crossing the Honduran border under the doctrine of “hot pursuit,” then things might deteriorate to the point where “Central America will have to respond.” As General Alvarez put it: “We cannot negotiate with a Soviet base.”

Under these conditions, some observers believe that Honduras’s elected civilian government may be threatened. This is not likely, since the government is a feeble one and the armed forces can carry out whatever policies they wish to follow. But the incipient democracy that exists in Honduras may well perish in an atmosphere of increased militarization.


Assaulted by the contras along its northern border, its oil tanks and pipeline damaged by the rebels with the admitted help of the CIA, Nicaragua is clearly under siege. The Sandinistas insist they want and need security. And they are prepared to make important compromises to get it, even if that means cutting off direct aid to their ideological comrades fighting in El Salvador. What they are not willing to do, they told me, is to negotiate the terms of their own rule or the direction of Nicaragua’s internal affairs.

American government officials I talked to in the region are divided over the degree of support the Sandinistas enjoy. There have been clear signs of discontent with the direction of the revolution. Pressure on the trade unions to submit to the control of the Sandinista party is heavy and widespread; freedom to travel outside the country is getting more difficult; conscription will begin at the end of the year; the press is censored; foreign priests who criticize the revolution have been expelled; economic shortages are common, while necessary commodities such as soap, toilet paper, and gasoline are rationed. In addition, the Sandinistas have organized Cuban-style Committees to Defend Sandinism (CDS), local block associations which are used not only to carry out administrative tasks such as the distribution of supplies but also to spy on neighbors. As I was told by a leader of the CDS when I went out to see the organization at work in one of the barrios, “as long as there are counterrevolutionaries, we will need vigilance.” The principal Sandinista leaders, particularly the powerful party organizer Bayardo Arce, I was told, are committed to the Cuban system of organizing such vigilance.

At the same time, private business still makes up about 40 percent of the economy, with prices controlled by the state. (The government controls all banks, all access to foreign exchange, and regulates all imports.) The land-reform program continues. So do ambitious efforts to improve health and education. Above all, I was told even by Nicaraguans who are not enthusiastic about the Sandinistas, the regime receives support because of the pressures—economic and military—inflicted on it by the United States as it pursues its avowed goal of forcing Nicaragua to take the road to pluralistic democracy and to move away from the direction taken by Cuba.

A trip north to the Honduran-Nicaraguan border gives some indication of the ways by which the contras can threaten the peace and stability of the region—and of the confidence the regime displays in the face of this adversary. About four hours from Managua, in sparsely settled cowboy country near the small settlement of El Espino, is the main border crossing into Honduras. After enduring repeated rebel attacks at the border, the Sandinista army has abandoned the frontier checkpoint and pulled back about five kilometers to a better defensive position. At the bottom of a high hill at the border itself, the half-dozen small buildings have been shelled and are now vacant and burned out. A hundred yards to the rear, in El Espino itself, the people have been evacuated and the houses and stores are boarded over. The new border check-point is now established at the Coco River, and I drove with two companions along a secondary road that ran beside the river to try to enter the town of Ocotal, which has been the scene of serious fighting.

  1. 7

    See the report in The Sunday Times of London, October 23, 1983.

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