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The End of the Affair?

I returned to Central America on the weekend that the five Central American presidents surprised the world—and themselves—by signing the Arias peace plan. The agreement reached in Guatemala on August 7, 1987, could be the beginning of the end of America’s affair with the contras—the fifteen thousand or so armed rebels based in Honduras—and thus of the effort to replace the Sandinistas with a regime much more to Washington’s liking. If the Guatemala accords can be put into effect, America’s declared foreign policy of fostering stability and democracy in Central America might at last get underway.

Before and during my trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I spoke with Oscar Arias Sánchez, president of Costa Rica; his close adviser, John Biehl; Alejandro Bendana, the secretary-general of the Nicaraguan foreign ministry; Lino Hernández Trigueros, president of the Nicaraguan Permanent Human Rights Commission, as well as members of other human rights organizations; and leaders of the Nicaraguan opposition parties. In addition, I had extensive conversations with United States military and diplomatic representatives. In so doing, I was able to piece together the events that led to the signing of the Guatemala compromise. It is a story that reveals not only how consistently members of the Reagan administration opposed the efforts of the Costa Rican president to inaugurate a peace process, but also how much the leaders of the region desire the end of military confrontation.


During the presidency of Arias’s predecessor, Luis Alberto Monge, from 1982 to 1986, Costa Rica, though officially neutral toward the conflict between the contras and the Sandinistas, had leaned heavily in favor of aid to the rebels. Costa Rica permitted a “southern front” to be established, so that the rebels fighting inside Nicaragua could be resupplied. The traditional Costa Rican hospitality to political exiles not only allowed contra political leaders, such as Alfonso Robelo, Alfredo César, and Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, to live in San José and to organize for the overthrow of the Sandinistas, but it also permitted the legendary Edén Pastora (“Comandante Zero”) to use Costa Rica for across-the-border attacks, until Pastora, reluctant to accept American guidance, quite the rebel movement. With Arias’s election in 1986, Costa Rica closed the southern front, insisted on strict neutrality (it had disbanded its army in 1948), and, in the spring of this year, put forward its own peace plan.

There had, of course, been another peace plan, the 1982 Contadora initiative, which looked to a regional settlement to be signed by the five Central American countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It was supported by the so-called Contadora group: Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela. The treaty the group produced called for amnesty for political dissidents, free elections under independent auspices, and the end of support both for the contras in Nicaragua and the Marxist-led guerrillas in El Salvador (the FDR-FMLN military and political alliance, known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). It also proposed a ban on the construction of foreign military bases in Central America, a reduction of military advisers in the region, and the eventual withdrawal of all such personnel. This would mean that both Cuban advisers in Nicaragua and American advisers in El Salvador would have to go.

The Contadora proposal did not, however, demand that the governments allow the opposition to have full participation in the political life of the country. In essence, the Contadora proposal stressed security considerations and stayed aloof from the domestic politics of the countries concerned. A draft Contadora treaty was eventually accepted by the Sandinistas, but the Reagan administration, though ostensibly supporting the Contadora process, tried to block the treaty by criticizing its failure to provide strict controls for ensuring Nicaragua’s compliance with the restrictions on a military buildup. By 1986, the talks came to a halt.

Meanwhile, between June and November 1984, at the urging of the Contadora countries the United States and Nicaragua had held nine bilateral meetings, all but one at the Mexican resort town of Manzanillo. According to a former foreign service officer, Wayne Smith, the American negotiating positions were rigid. “For example,” Mr. Smith writes,

the United States demanded that all Soviet and Cuban military personnel be withdrawn from Nicaragua but did not propose to withdraw any of its own military forces from the region, to dismantle any of its bases in Honduras, or to take any other specific measures. It offered only to take the Soviet and Cuban withdrawal “into account.” 1

The United States finally broke off the talks on the grounds that Managua was not negotiating in good faith. It appears that at the urging of the Contadora countries, Secretary of State Shultz started bilateral talks without first getting the support of the National Security Council. Not surprisingly, the talks went nowhere. Others have pushed for similar discussions. In 1981, Thomas Enders, then the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, met with the Sandinistas to discuss security issues but these negotiations were not pursued. Philip Habib, the President’s special envoy, resigned this August, reportedly because he was not allowed to open direct talks with the Sandinistas.

There is grave doubt, moreover, that the United States had at any time been acting as an honest broker. A secret background paper prepared for a national security briefing on October 30, 1984, stated: “We have trumped the latest Nicaraguan/Mexican efforts to rush signature of an unsatisfactory Contadora agreement.” A month later, the deputy national security adviser, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, informed his boss, Robert McFarlane: “Continue active negotiations but agree on no treaty and agree to work out some way to support the contras either directly or indirectly.”2

With talks stalled, with political repression growing more severe inside Nicaragua, and with the contras showing no evidence of being able to hold territory inside the country (let alone overthrow the Sandinistas), the Costa Rican president offered his proposals in February 1987.

The Arias plan differs significantly from the Contadora initiative by its insistence on democratic reforms within both Nicaragua and El Salvador. It calls for immediate talks between governments and unarmed opposition groups (the so-called National Reconciliation Commissions), a regional cease-fire within ninety days accompanied by an amnesty for political prisoners and rebels, and a restoration of “political pluralism.” According to the language of the treaty,

political groupings shall have broad access to communications media, full exercise of the right of association and the right to manifest publicly the exercise of their right to free speech, be it oral, written or televised, and freedom of movement.

On or about November 7, 1987, governments would therefore lift restrictions on the freedom of the press, individual liberties, and the right of opposition political parties to organize. In all five countries in 1988, elections would be held, under international supervision, to a Central American parliament whose powers are not defined. Military aid to the rebels from foreign countries would be suspended; the signers would refuse to allow their territory to be used for military actions against their neighbors; and talks would be held on reducing troop strength. In particular, according to the treaty, Nicaragua must lift the state of emergency that has been in force during the last five years. The key point, as officials in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica stressed, is simultaneity.

What makes the treaty possible for the Sandinistas to accept is that it calls for internal elections to take place in accordance with each country’s existing constitution. In Nicaragua, these will not take place until 1990. Arias’s plan, in effect, is saying to Ortega, you will have to allow opposition parties to exist and their leaders to speak out, but the treaty acknowledges that you and your security forces legitimately hold power and can suppress violent attempts to overthrow your government. You must eventually hold elections but you will have three years in which to prepare for them, without the hardship of fighting off US-backed guerrillas and while remaining in control of the economy, the schools, and most of the press.

The Arias plan also does not require cessation of Soviet and Cuban aid to the Sandinistas or US aid to El Salvador. Instead, it prohibits aid only to “irregular” forces. Nor are there provisions for inspections, or penalties for noncompliance. Eight other Latin American nations, however, have agreed to form a special commission to verify implementation of the commitments made in the treaty.

It was far from easy to obtain the signatures of El Salvador’s Duarte, Honduras’s Azcona, and Nicaragua’s Ortega. Guatemala’s president, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, however, was fully behind the Arias proposal from the start and Ortega apparently trusted him, because Cerezo had already shown himself neutral in his dealings with the Sandinistas, a striking change from the hostility the Guatemalans had previously shown.

The first obstacle was Ortega. When Arias, knowing that the principle of democratization would be the key issue, went to Managua to enlist Ortega’s support for the negotiations, he found him in a truculent mood. It was a difficult meeting, I was told, but then while Arias went off to meet with Violeta de Chamorro, the director of the now-banned opposition paper, La Prensa, and with perhaps the most formidable opponent of the Sandinistas, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, Ortega apparently changed his mind. For when Arias returned from this meeting to be taken to the Managua airport, he found Ortega far more forthcoming. Why this was so is a mystery. Was the able deputy foreign minister, Victor Hugo Tinoco, particularly persuasive? Did Ortega first need to get the support of the minister of the interior, Tomás Borge, who has a reputation for taking hard-line positions? Ortega’s changed attitude, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a split within the ruling Sandinista directorate. Eight years after the revolution there have been no defections from the directorate.

A meeting of heads of government to discuss the plan on June 25 was canceled, largely, I was told, because of Duarte’s hesitations. He is said to have complained of his lack of room for maneuver, hated as he is by the far right in El Salvador and increasingly unpopular with his own party, the Christian Democrats. On the other hand, as he put it to Arias after it appeared that the other presidents would attend a later meeting, “I am not going to be the only one who doesn’t sign.” Fearful of the objections from the Salvadoran military officers, Duarte insisted above all that the provisions of the plan must be carried out simultaneously. What this comes down to is that everything must be in place by November 7.

The Hondurans presented other difficulties. When the foreign ministers of the five countries, as well as representatives from the Contadora group, met in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, in July to discuss a draft of the Arias plan, they were suddenly shown a new plan that the Hondurans claimed was their own. It was a plan that was, oddly, printed in both Spanish and English and bound in a booklet. President Arias himself briefly showed me a copy of the Honduran plan and explained that it reflected US objections to his own plan, though he did not specify just what these were. To me and to others who saw it, the Honduran plan had every sign of having been prepared with help from an American agency. (Why was a facing English version needed when all the participants at the Honduran meeting were Spanish-speaking?) In any case, the Honduran plan was put aside through the diplomatic skill of the Mexican foreign minister, who suggested that the “Honduran proposals” be taken into consideration when the foreign ministers were preparing the final version of the plan to be presented in Guatemala.

  1. 1

    See Wayne Smith, “Lies About Nicaragua,” Foreign Policy (Summer 1987), pp. 98–99.

  2. 2

    See Tom Wicker, “An Old Pattern,” The New York Times (August 20, 1987).

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