The Contra Contradiction

The supporters of the contras in the Reagan administration are demanding that they step up their military efforts and, also, that they improve their human rights record. Concern about the embarrassing political effects of continuing contra attacks against civilians was one factor in the recent efforts by the State Department, and particularly by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, to dissuade Arturo. Cruz from resigning from the contra leadership. Cruz was known as a proponent of improving contra practices on human rights, and his departure would have suggested the triumph of those in the contra leadership most closely identified with abuses. On March 9 Cruz resigned saying he was still opposed to the Sandinistas but had given up on his efforts to transform the contra political organization into a “pluralistic structure in the service of a goal equally pluralistic.” Still, both military success and the appearance of respect for human rights are considered necessary if congressional support is to be maintained, and we may now expect that the administration will soon put forward new leaders who, it will claim, embody these goals. What ought to be apparent to those who have studied the war in Nicaragua, however, is that the contras cannot now meet both demands. They conflict with each other.

In pointing this out, I do not intend to argue that it is impossible for a guerrilla force to wage war aggressively without engaging in systematic abuses of human rights. Rather, I would argue that in the circumstances of this war, and in view of the way that the contras have fought it up to now, they have no choice but to engage in more and more attacks on civilians if they are to satisfy those, like Admiral William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who demand from them “some kind of success.” In his press conference of February 12 at the Pentagon, Admiral Crowe followed that demand with a pointed warning when he said: “I don’t know of anybody that would ask the American public to go along indefinitely without progress.”

The connection for the contras between demonstrating success and abuses of human rights can be seen in the ways they have been fighting in the south-central region of Nicaragua—in the departments of Boaco and Chontales and around Nueva Guinea in the Zelaya South Department. In this sparsely populated region the contras have achieved their greatest military success. Many of the residents are ranchers and, by Nicaraguan standards, they are moderately prosperous. Unlike most urban Nicaraguans and many poorer peasants in other parts of the country, they did not suffer particularly under Somoza. Many of them have been adversely affected by the economic policies of the Sandinistas, particularly the bureaucratic regulations that have damaged their ability to market their produce, and they resent them. The Sandinistas have contributed to their own unpopularity in this region by arresting hundreds of peasants suspected of providing support to the contras and by mistreating many of the …

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