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.

Arias was disturbed by Washington’s open hostility to his proposals. He used a speaking engagement he had scheduled in Indianapolis in June to see Vice President George Bush, whom he believed was his only friend left in Washington and was sympathetic to his efforts. When he arrived in the United States, however, he was informed that President Reagan wanted to see him. At the meeting in Washington, Arias was confronted not only with the President but also with John Whitehead, the deputy secretary of state; Howard Baker, the President’s chief of staff; Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs; Frank Carlucci, the national security adviser; and José Sorzano, a member of the national security staff specializing in Latin American affairs. At this meeting Reagan spoke as though the Arias plan was a dead issue. He said that it was not possible to negotiate with the Sandinistas and that the contras could not be abandoned. Arias, in turn, pointed out that the contras were part of the problem, not the solution.

Economic pressure was also being applied—and still is—to Costa Rica, to ensure that it line up with Washington. Although $140 million of direct aid to Costa Rica for the 1987 fiscal year has been approved by Congress for balance of payment support, I was told by an American staff member who works with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Reagan administration has found bureaucratic excuses to delay disbursement of the funds.

The final effort to block the Arias plan came with the publication of Reagan’s own plan—worked out in collaboration with the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright of Texas—on the very eve of the Guatemalan meeting. The administration apparently believed that the prospects for new funding for the rebels had improved, mostly because of Oliver North’s stirring defense of the contras before the House-Senate hearings on the Iran-contra scandal. With the current $100 million appropriation to the contras due to expire on September 30, the administration believed that proposals for negotiations for a peace settlement in Central America would appeal to the American public. If the Sandinistas turned down the plan, as the administration fully expected they would, the new aid package would have a greater chance to pass. But as Fred Barnes tells it in The New Republic, Wright, who had previously voted against aid to the contras, believed the administration would not win the vote on contra aid in October. According to a Wright aide, “his goal was putting Central American policy on the track he had always favored, negotiations. To his surprise, the White House played along.”3

The Reagan-Wright plan was announced without consulting the Costa Ricans, and according to both Duarte and Azcona, it was actually somewhat softer than what they might have expected. In the copy I was given the Reagan plan called for an immediate cease-fire in Nicaragua and specified that

the United States will immediately suspend all military aid to the contras and simultaneously Nicaragua will stop receiving military aid from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Communist bloc countries.

It called for Nicaragua to restore “all civil rights” and for a “multi-party electoral commission” to ensure free elections. A timetable for elections was to be established within sixty days. Most important, the plan called for negotiations to be completed by the end of September when contra aid was to run out, or the deal was off. American officials, however, said that they were skeptical that the Sandinistas would accept either the proposals for democratic reform at home or its idea that negotiations would begin before the contras were disarmed and disbanded.

In Guatemala, I was told, the Reagan peace plan acted as “a catalyst” to the deliberations. It was, as President Arias put it, “the ghost at the table.” The feeling among the five presidents was that if they did not reach an agreement on what they had already been discussing, then the Reagan peace plan would necessarily be the alternative, and negotiations would break down altogether.

The hostility between Duarte and Ortega was evident at the very beginning, when Duarte presented Ortega with evidence that the Sandinistas were still aiding the Marxist guerrillas fighting in El Salvador, and Ortega produced his own evidence that the North Americans were using Ilopango air base in El Salvador to resupply the contras. But once this hostility was expressed, the meeting went on to discuss and to restore the Arias peace plan, which had been virtually gutted by the foreign ministers. In the early hours of the morning, after the language of the document had been agreed on, the Guatemalan president felt it appropriate to guard the computer printing out the final text, lest the foreign ministers tamper with it.

Ortega and Duarte have each got from the agreement what each has sought from the other—legitimacy. By signing the document, Ortega accepts the Duarte government as legitimate. In so doing, he puts the onus on the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador to negotiate—something they say they are now preparing to do in talks with Duarte this fall. Duarte, for his part, makes it clear to the contras that they are rebels against the established order and that Ortega’s election as president is legal. The Honduran president was courageous in signing a document that could endanger the aid ($198 million in fiscal year 1986) he has been receiving from the Americans in return for giving a base to the contras—a base the Hondurans denied existed until Honduras’s foreign minister recently acknowledged it. As Arias put it to me, “We had a chance to choose between rationality and madness. Just as Borges said about Switzerland, here you have a people who have taken the strange decision to become rational. We all want peace.”


The Sandinistas’ desire for peace derives in no small part from the serious situation in which Nicaragua now finds itself. Economic conditions are far worse since my last trip to Nicaragua in the fall of 1984. Inflation is now running between 700 and 1,000 percent, and most wages are not indexed to the inflation rate. For example, a year ago, when inflation was running at 300 percent, a pineapple in the district of Chontales cost about 500 cordobas; today it might cost three times that much, but a worker in the lowest category, making 42,900 cordobas (or less than $10 a month), would find it impossible to buy one. Members of the opposition parties told me that people in Nicaragua were going hungry—in an underpopulated country rich in natural resources. Outside the large market on the outskirts of Managua I was suddenly surrounded by beggars—something unthinkable when I visited there three years ago; and there are shortages everywhere—as one reporter put it, “from beans to toilet rolls.” 4

Today military expenditures take up 46 percent of the budget, and the current fiscal deficit—about 20 percent of GNP—roughly equals the military expenditures. Nicaragua is in default with the World Bank and with the Inter-American Development Bank. The stated policy of Nicaragua’s 1987 economic plan is to pay back interest on commercial loans only if this will release credits and financing greater than the interest payments themselves. The exchange rate is now 6,200 cordobas to the dollar, but a rate of 10,000 cordobas can easily be obtained on the black market. The government simply prints money because Nicaragua is broke. To make up for their balance of payments deficit of about $600 million, the Sandinistas rely largely on donations from some Western nations, mainly Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland, and on loans, which are not expected to be repaid, from the Soviet bloc.

About 60 percent of the economy is still in private hands, including farmers who grow sugar, coffee, and cotton, and cattlemen who own perhaps 65 percent of the land; about 35 percent of large industry is still privately owned, with another 25 percent made up of small artisans. But the state runs the banking system and sets the regulations that control import licenses, wages, and prices, and decisions on where to sell and to whom. Even the minister of foreign cooperation, Henry Ruíz, one of the nine ruling Sandinista commanders, admits that Nicaragua does not make efficient use of the aid it receives. “If there is a complaint that I consider legitimate, it is from countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany, which have been generous to our people,” Ruíz said. “In a subtle and delicate way, they have told us that we could do much more with the resources we have.”

The gravest difficulty now facing the Sandinistas is the shortage of petroleum and petroleum products as the war continues. This May the Soviet Union informed Managua that it would not ship the additional 120,000 metric tons of oil and oil products the government said it would need for 1987. Instead, it informed the Sandinistas that they could expect only the same amount as they had received last year, about 630,000 metrictons; moreover, the Soviets planned to reduce their share, with the remainder to be made up by the Eastern bloc. After the Sandinistas had signed the peace plan, however, Ortega announced that the Soviets had decided to provide Nicaragua with an additional 700,000 barrels of oil this year. Ortega went on to say that Nicaragua would still require more than half that amount from elsewhere to cover its basic needs.5 This may suggest that the USSR—eager for an arms control agreement on medium-range missiles and better relations with the United States—is now encouraging the Sandinistas to put their house in order. The first step in doing so would be to negotiate an end to the war against the contras, even if this means making some concessions.

Although the state of the economy may well have been the most telling reason for Nicaragua to sign the Guatemala accords, the Sandinistas might not have taken the risk of allowing open political opposition had they not believed that they would be able to contain any threat to their power to govern. Since my last visit three years ago, the state security agency, under the overall direction of the ministry of the interior, has become the central mechanism for repression. The Cuban-style “Committees to Defend Sandinism”—local block organizations that were used not only to carry out administrative tasks but also to spy on neighbors—have been downgraded because of their evident unpopularity and inefficiency. The so-called turbas, mobs of young people organized by the FSLN to harass their opponents, have been largely disbanded. I was told that most of them were often considered juvenile delinquents by their neighbors, and some are now serving in the armed forces. The war has made it far easier for the Sandinistas to extend their control over all aspects of Nicaraguan life.

Lino Hernández, the head of the non-governmental Permanent Human Rights Commission that had been monitoring violations since the days of Somoza, told me that he believes there are at least 7,000 political prisoners in a prison population of about 14,000, including as many as 1,500 held in state security facilities. It is impossible to document these figures. The Americas Watch report, Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986, published in February 1987, gives a total of over 4,000 “security-related prisoners.”6 Part of the difficulty in compiling figures is that under the state of emergency people arrested for alleged contra activity can be held incommunicado in pretrial detention centers for two and a half to three months. During this period they are denied the right of habeas corpus, and are often kept in small cells, deprived of sleep, food, and water. This is known as the white torture. Trial and sentencing can take a year and a half to two years. A sentence of five or more years implies that the prisoner’s private property will be confiscated.

The abuses by the contras are committed in the field and are generally documented by interviews with civilian witnesses. The Sandinista army, on the other hand, is rarely accused of such open violations of human rights. Part of the reason, I found, is that the state security forces who are concerned with political prisoners and their activities are difficult to monitor. In each army unit of about thirty soldiers, there is a political officer assigned from state security. If someone in an area where the army is operating is accused of aiding the contras, the army finds him and turns him over to state security. According to Hernández, if the person seized belongs to a church group or a political party or a union, he won’t be physically attacked—but he can still be held in a cell and subjected to white torture. A high Nicaraguan government official I talked to admitted that the state security was guilty of severe human rights violations. “That’s the type of crap that happens when you have a war,” he said. “You give people absolute power and it corrupts.”

If the Sandinistas are to make the Arias plan work, they will have to lift the state of emergency they imposed in 1982—it was partially lifted for the elections of 1984 and reimposed in 1985—and offer a general amnesty for political prisoners. This would mean allowing La Prensa to publish again without censorship, permitting Radio Católica to start broadcasting again, and doing nothing to prevent the opposition political parties to organize peaceful public protests if they choose to.

By the end of August the government had moved to form the four-member National Reconciliation Commission called for in the peace plan. From the Church hierarchy, the Sandinistas chose Cardinal Obando y Bravo; from the government, Vice President Sergio Ramírez Mercado; from the eleven legal political parties that make up the opposition, Mauricio Díaz Dávila, head of the Social Christian Popular Party; and from the ranks of the nonpolitical “outstanding citizens,” Gustavo Parajón, head of a Nicaraguan relief agency. It will be the job of the commission to verify compliance with the commitments to “amnesty, cease-fire, democratization, and free elections.”

The appointments of both Díaz and Parajón have been criticized by members of the other political parties as well as by the US State Department. Parajón, who is also a Baptist missionary, is certainly considered by the political opposition to be sympathetic to the Sandinistas. But he also has the reputation of being honest and without political ambition. Díaz’s sympathies are less clear. His party is a leftist branch of the Christian Democrats that participated in the 1984 legislative elections and holds seats in the National Assembly. Díaz himself is hardly a Marxist; his relations are with the official Church of Cardinal Obando rather than with the FSLN-sponsored “Popular Church.” When the American envoy Philip Habib was in Costa Rica last spring and asked to meet with members of the Nicaraguan opposition, Díaz went to San José to see Habib. He was sharply criticized for this by the Sandinistas. Since being selected, he has called not only for an immediate end to press censorship and for a decree limiting the state of emergency war zones, but also for an amnesty for all political prisoners—he said there were some 7,000—including members of the former National Guard. It seems premature to write Mr. Díaz off as being complicit with the Sandinistas.

The Catholic radio station has been closed since January 1986, after it refused to follow government directives to broadcast a New Year’s speech by President Ortega. La Prensa has been forced to suspend publication since June 26, 1986. The owner, Violeta de Chamorro, insists that she will not publish again if the paper is censored, as it was in recent years. If the contra attacks stop by November 7 and the government still refuses by then to allow La Prensa to publish or Radio Católica to broadcast, the Sandinistas will appear to be acting in bad faith. If the peace plan can be carried out, on the other hand, the main opposition to the continued rule by the Sandinistas shifts from the contras to the internal opposition parties, and particularly to the Catholic Church.

In 1984, some of the opposition factions, grouped together in a coalition called the Coordinadora, ran candidates for parliament and the presidency. After an election in which there was considerable harassment of opposition leaders, the ruling FSLN obtained sixty-one seats in the ninety-six-seat parliament, the Conservatives fourteen, the Liberals nine, the Social Christians six, and the Communist parties two each. But the parliament has been without real power; it has spent much of its time discussing a new constitution and its debates are barely reported. And under the state of emergency the ability of the opposition parties to protest against government behavior has been severely limited.

Six of the parties did meet in Madrid last February in a show of unity and called for a general amnesty and new elections. Throughout its history, however, political parties in Nicaragua have been subject to internal tensions and reluctant to act in coalitions, and nothing seems to have changed this tendency. In the week following the signing of the Guatemala accords, the parties were unable to get together even on who would represent them on the National Reconciliation Commission. Ortega could only have been pleased at such disunity.7

The difficulties surrounding the liberalization measures called for in the Arias plan were posed in mid August by demonstrations in provincial cities and in the capital. José Somarriba of the Liberal Constitutional party told me that in Ocotal, a town of about 40,000 on the Honduran border, the congregation had objected to priests from the Popular Church. And in the capital there were two demonstrations on the weekend following the announcement of the Guatemala accords: one started at the headquarters of the Social Christian party; the other was organized by the Coordinadora political group. In both cases police broke up the demonstrations with cattle prods, riot sticks, and dogs. In addition to arresting the human rights activist Lino Hernández, the interior ministry took into custody Alberto Saborío, the secretary-general of the Conservative party, as well as a dozen other people. Hernández was sent to jail for thirty days for “disturbing the peace.” I was told that a local police official arrested him, and the following day his superior officer came to Hernández in his cell to provide him with a typewriter with which to prepare his appeal. Both men went on a hunger strike and Ortega released them on September 9.

The crackdown on the opposition parties may well have taken place because the Sandinistas are determined to show themselves in control of events, especially the timetable for fulfilling the Guatemala accords. But the opposition leaders have gone on organizing demonstrations in order to test the government’s commitment to the regional peace plan. In early September, the Coordinardora organized in Chinandega a rally of more than 1,000 people at which several speakers praised the accords and demanded the release of Hernández and Saborío, which soon followed.8

Perhaps the most impressive of the opposition leaders is Virgilio Godoy, head of the Independent Liberal party (PLI). Godoy served as labor minister until early 1984, and ran for president in the November 1984 elections, only to pull out at the last minute, saying that the FSLN had failed to provide “minimal conditions” for a fair election. He told me he was worried about the lack of unity among the parties, and wants the PLI acknowledged as the leading opposition force, with what he claims are 11,000 supporters and about 600 to 800 “party activists.” He told me that 353 of these activists are now in jail. And he believes that in an open election the FSLN would win only 20 percent of the vote.

The greatest problem with the Guatemala compromise, Godoy said, is that Ortega’s idea of democracy is very different from Arias’s. In an interview in Peter Davis’s revealing and evocative book, Where is Nicaragua?, Davis quotes Ortega’s concept of freedom. “I always think of freedom in the plural,” Ortega said. “Freedom is for the people here, not for the individual…. There is room for the rights of the individual, too, but in the revolution we consider the rights of the people first.” When Davis pointed out that what Ortega called freedom of the people at large meant excluding the possibility of freedom for the individual, Ortega agreed: “Your freedom, sir, is a monster.”9

There seems little doubt that the Sandinistas do not seriously contemplate relinquishing their power, no matter how firmly elections may seem to be promised under the Guatemala accords. Just after Nicaragua accepted the Arias plan Tomás Borge put it this way: “It’s a possibility, a real one, backed by our constitution that a force which is not the Frente Sandinista could take over the Nicaraguan government. Personally, I think it is virtually impossible for a people to turn its back on history. If it happened I don’t know what would take place but I would cease to believe in history and mankind.”10

As for the contras, they are still unable to hold territory within Nicaragua. Although they have been able to move more and more freely among the peasants in the northeast and in the southern department of Chontales (where there is much sympathy for them among the cattlemen), the US military officials I have talked to admit that the contras cannot survive as a guerrilla force without continued airlifts of supplies and weapons by the United States.

According to US government figures, the contras number between 12,000 and 14,000; according to The Washington Post, contra commanders admit that during the past year, “the number of volunteers dwindled to almost nothing.” They are confronted by the Nicaraguan army whose regular and reserve forces total about 60,000 to 65,000 (with an additional 55,000 militia and special forces of the ministry of interior). In what was supposed to be their most important military action in the northern part of the country, the contras announced in July that they had destroyed military installations, including the airstrip that army helicopters use. But when a New York Times reporter investigated the scene of the “victory,” he discovered that the contras had captured nothing. There was no evidence of any damage to the airstrip or the shacks that served as the headquarters of the Nicaraguan army. But it turned out that the guerrillas had killed nine Nicaraguan soldiers, three children ranging in age from three to thirteen, and a pregnant woman. The contras also had burned houses and made off with cattle and other animals.11 Although US military officials maintain that a guerrilla war is not designed to hold territory, the facts are that while the Nicaraguan army can move at will throughout the country, the contras have scored no serious military victories. Moreover, even if the contras largely eliminate their abuses of human rights, they have not defined clear political and moral alternatives to the Sandinistas. As opposition politicians in Nicaragua have said of the contras, it is not enough simply to be against. Still, the contras have been able to impose the huge economic burdens of the war on the Sandinistas and to increase their dependence on Soviet-bloc arms.

By now it is hard to believe there is likely to be any significant change in the quality—or unity—of the contra leaders. In July, a report on human rights violations by the contras was released by the Association for Human Rights, an organization of Nicaraguans in exile financed by the US Congress and headed by Marta Patricia Baltodano, a prominent Nicaraguan lawyer who was formerly the executive coordinator of the human rights commission in that country until she resigned, convinced that the Sandinistas were not truly interested in human rights. The report described more than a dozen cases of human rights violations by the contras, such as the execution of prisoners, the burning of a church-sponsored health clinic, the killing of innocent civilians, and the forcible recruitment of soldiers. The senior deputy to Elliott Abrams called the report “credible” and “thorough.”12

Perhaps the most telling comment on the nature of the contras’ leadership was made by one of their strong supporters, Robert Owen, who carried money to the rebels for Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and had good opportunities to observe them closely. In a cable to North in the spring of 1986, he said:

The reality is that there are few of the so-called leaders of the movement who really care about the boys in the field. The war has become a business to many of them…. If the $100 million is approved and things go on as they have for the last five years, it will be like pouring money down a sinkhole.

The tensions among the contra leaders were exacerbated in the weeks following the signing of the Guatemala accords. According to The New York Times, two senior rebel officials said in early September that the military commander, Enrique Bermúdez, “feels particularly let down by the still-divided civilian political leaders of the contras.” 13

That the Reagan administration considers the contras its creatures was amply demonstrated when the Reagan peace plan was announced without anyone in the administration taking the trouble to inform them of it. They were the last to know, and when they finally did learn of it, it was “through the grapevine,” according to the top contra civilian leader, Adolfo Calero. They were finally briefed only hours before Reagan announced the plan he had agreed on with Jim Wright.14 For the first time, the rhetoric of support for the contras has a conditional tone. The contras have now asked for renewed military aid to be placed in escrow and released only if the Nicaraguan government fails to comply with the peace plan. The President has said, “We intend to see that you have adequate funding until a cease-fire is in place and a verifiable process of democratization is under way.”15

In view of their recent treatment and Speaker Wright’s confidence that they can be denied new funds, the contras may have come to distrust the President’s words. This may explain why they pledged themselves to accept the terms of the regional peace plan. They informed President Duarte in San Salvador on August 21 that they were ready to “begin discussions with the Sandinista regime that could lead to a cease-fire.” But they insisted on direct negotiations with the Sandinistas and reserved the right to receive weapons until a cease-fire goes into effect. Both conditions are likely to be rejected by the Sandinistas.16 But if the Nicaraguan government lifts the state of emergency, and offers amnesty and guarantees of political freedom, some of the contra leaders, including Alfonso Robelo and Alfredo César, and such former contra supporters as Arturo Cruz and Edén Pastora, are likely to return to Nicaragua to form part of the political opposition.

Just as President Arias predicted, the peace process may be difficult to halt now that it is under way. But the success of the Arias initiative finally depends on the willingness of the Reagan administration to seek peace. The issue was posed sharply just after the Arias plan was agreed on when pro-contra conservatives in the administration forced the resignation of Philip Habib as special negotiator on Nicaragua. Habib apparently wanted to go to Central America to pursue the Arias plan and was stopped. By way of protesting his resignation, Henry Kissinger said: “If the aim of the administration is to overthrow the Sandinistas, it should say so and get Congress to vote it up or down. If the administration is not prepared to do that, then it needs to seek formulas for an accommodation and cannot allow itself to be pressured into changing course constantly.” Kissinger later criticized the Guatamalan accords because they do not “address specific threats to our security and put forward concrete proposals to reduce or eliminate them, especially as Soviet military assistance and Cuban support have both increased far beyond 1984 levels.” Yet the administration has consistently sabotaged the efforts of such envoys as Enders and Habib who pressed for bilateral talks to deal with just such security issues.17

If the Reagan administration continues to support the Guatemala accords, what are the prospects for Nicaragua and its relations with the United States?

For the contras, the likelihood is that they will cease to be an effective fighting force. The Hondurans are extremely reluctant to take in large numbers of tough jungle fighters; if the administration cannot persuade them to do so, the rebels will either have to emigrate to the United States or accept the amnesty that is supposed to be offered under the Arias plan. If they can receive guarantees of their safety and are allowed to take part in the political process inside Nicaragua, political leaders such as Robelo and César, both former supporters of the Sandinista-controlled government, would likely prove highly effective spokesmen for the opposition.

The Sandinistas, in turn, will gain the respite they believe they need to improve their economic situation. But the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Sandinistas does not lead one to expect that they will change much. From my talks in Managua, I had the impression that the bureaucracy will expand and the regime’s ministries will take over more and more of the economy. With the state security apparatus in place, the Sandinistas will almost certainly do what they can to consolidate the state along Leninist lines. But this will not be easy. By fulfilling the letter if not the spirit of the Guatemalan accords, the Sandinistas will have to accept a far greater degree of political pluralism than they may have ever intended. Permitting an uncensored press and an outspoken opposition will certainly retard the ability of the Sandinistas to rule as they choose. The likelihood for Nicaragua under these circumstances is a long-term struggle for power, continued internal tensions, and a sad and impoverished country.

Will the US endorse the legitimacy of a Central American state governed by avowed Marxists? This remains hard to believe. From Guatemala in 1954, when the United States mounted a coup to overthrow the leftist regime of Jacobo Arbenz, to the US-sponsored landing of Cuban guerrillas at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, to the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger to destabilize Salvador Allende’s radical government in Chile, the United States has never accepted coexistence with a leftist regime of this kind in the hemisphere. Yet it has never been confronted with a regional agreement quite like the Arias plan.

Doubtless Washington would make clear to Moscow that any Soviet base or high-performance aircraft in Nicaragua would be intolerable. But Russia is not likely to challenge the United States so directly in America’s sphere of influence, especially at a time when Gorbachev is seeking a variety of arms and economic agreements with the West. While the USSR is hardly planning to abandon Managua, the recent discussions between Moscow and Managua over further economic aid from the Soviet bloc suggest the Sandinistas may be on notice that they will have to work out a modus vivendi with their neighbors.

The Guatemala accords came about because the leaders of the region wanted them. For this reason alone, Washington could hardly disavow them openly. No doubt there are ample chances for the plan to end in a debacle as the result of decisions made in Washington, Moscow, or Managua. But if Arias’s peace plan is finally carried out the result could be some protection for the Nicaraguan opposition, an end to the killing, a diminished Soviet presence, and the beginning of the demilitarization of the region. No one expected anything of the sort would be possible at the beginning of August, not even Oscar Arias.

September 9, 1987


Nicaragua: An Exchange January 21, 1988

  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).

  3. 3

    See Fred Barnes, “Peaced Off,” The New Republic (August 31, 1987).

  4. 4

    The Boston Globe (July 20, 1986); Financial Times (London, August 24, 1987).

  5. 5

    The New York Times (August 20, 1987); The Washington Post (September 8, 1987). Forrest D. Colburn’s book, Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua (University of California Press, 1986), is useful for evidence that the Sandinistas’ doctrine aggravated Nicaragua’s economic problems well before the effects of the contras’ war were felt.

  6. 6

    The Washington Post (May 18, 1987); see also Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986, an Americas Watch report (February 1987), pp. 99–101; p. 156.

  7. 7

    The New York Times, “The Week in Review” (August 30, 1987).

  8. 8

    The New York Times, “The Week in Review” (August 23, 1987); The New York Times (August 17, 1987); The Washington Post (August 29, 1987); The New York Times (September 7, 1987); The Washington Post (September 9, 1987).

  9. 9

    Where is Nicaragua? (Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 255.

  10. 10

    Financial Times (London, August 24, 1987).

  11. 11

    The Washington Post (September 8, 1987); The New York Times (July 19, 1987).

  12. 12

    The New York Times (July 29, 1987).

  13. 13

    I am grateful to Murray Kempton for uncovering Owen’s statement from the testimony before the Joint Congressional Committee on the Iran-contra affair. The Owen cable appeared in a Kempton column in Newsday, reprinted in The New York Review (June 25, 1987). See also The New York Times (September 7, 1987).

  14. 14

    Miami Herald (August 12, 1987).

  15. 15

    The New York Times (August 28, 1987).

  16. 16

    The New York Times (August 22, 1987).

  17. 17

    The Washington Post (August 16 and September 6, 1987).