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.”

Alarmed at Pastora’s plans, the Mexicans persuaded him to drop any such idea and brought him to Cuernavaca where his attack on the Sandinists was drafted with the help, I was told, of other former supporters of the Nicaraguan revolution such as Arturo Cruz, former president of the Central Bank under the Sandinists and now with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Moreover, not only do the Mexicans envisage Pastora as a serious threat to the Sandinists but the new Costa Rican government, which took office in May, also believes that it can use Pastora as a kind of bargaining chip to persuade the Sandinists not to threaten Costa Rica’s northern border. In return for this guarantee, the Costa Ricans will make sure that Pastora, a Costa Rican citizen, will not use Costa Rica as a staging ground for military actions. Already apprehensive because they allowed their territory to be used as a base for operations against Somoza, the Costa Ricans are determined to pursue a policy of “non-interference” in Nicaragua’s internal affairs while at the same time strengthening their own small security forces. They have no army and do not intend to set one up.

What, then, is the situation in Nicaragua? Are the Sandinists ready for serious negotiations? Does the reappearance of Pastora, along with threatening gestures by the United States including statements about the desirability of using covert action against the Sandinist regime, create an atmosphere conducive to meaningful contacts between Washington and Managua? After talks with the Sandinists, their opposition, and diplomats in the region, I concluded that the next few weeks may well be a good period for negotiations. The Sandinists appear to be genuinely alarmed at Pastora’s appearance. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, editor of La Prensa, the only opposition newspaper available, believes this is “the biggest setback for the Sandinists” since they came to power. When I was in Managua at the time of Pastora’s press conference, the regime certainly showed signs of alarm, mobilizing the mass organizations to demonstrate against the “CIA-backed traitor.”

But even apart from the threat of “Commandante Zero,” the Nicaraguans I spoke to—both those who supported the revolution and those who believed it had been betrayed—indicated that the Sandinists were genuinely fearful that the United States was trying to undermine the government. Only a few weeks earlier, both the Washington Post and The New York Times reported that President Reagan had approved a plan to invest $19 million in clandestine operations by the CIA to “destabilize” the Nicaraguan government.2 Now might be the right time to strike a deal.

It is difficult to know much about the different factions within the nine-member directorate. The threat from the United States clearly serves those who want to quicken the pace of turning Nicaragua into a Marxist-Leninist state. The “state of emergency” proclaimed in mid-March for thirty days and extended for another month—and then still another month—because of presumed US activity aimed at undermining the regime makes it far easier to justify censorship—imposed most dramatically on La Prensa, which is also not allowed to reveal the extent of what has been censored—and to increase repression generally.

While I was in the office of Pedro Joaquín, a reporter suddenly appeared who had been arrested two weeks earlier for possessing a leaflet from the employees’ union protesting a decree requiring Nicaraguans to work during Easter week. He said he had been kept in a fiercely hot room, denied food for forty-eight hours, and psychologically tortured with questions about the role the CIA allegedly plays in controlling La Prensa. The most prominent opposition leader, Alfonso Robelo, a businessman who resigned from the Sandinists’ first junta to form his own party, has now left Nicaragua. His home had been attacked by organized mobs; the few opposition party meetings that were officially permitted had been broken up. The motto of these rulers, like those who ran Hungary during the Stalinist era, appears to be: he who is not with us is against us.

The avowed aims of the Sandinists—pluralism, a mixed economy, and nonalignment—no longer appear as the true objectives of the revolution. The Church has become deeply divided over the direction the revolutionary directorate is taking. There are priests in the government itself and some who support it from the outside—such as those who run the leading university and the economic research institute; but even these Jesuit educators and economists are wary of the junta’s extension of the state of emergency and the economic and political costs that this entails. Other priests, led by Archbishop Obando y Bravo, who once supported the overthrow of Somoza, now openly denounce the policies of the revolutionary leaders. Unlike the Mexican and Cuban revolutions, Nicaragua’s was not anticlerical, and the Nicaraguans, like the Poles, are deeply religious. Now the government is trying to organize a “church of the people,” which it believes will gain adherents from the official Church. It also no longer permits Obando y Bravo to broadcast his Sunday Mass over the state-controlled television system. Thus when the government defines pluralism it means a pluralism that will exist only so long as it conforms to what the government wants.3

The same holds true for the private sector, which still comprises 60 percent of the economy. The Sandinists need the private sector—for the moment. And they are likely to continue to maintain it—once again, as long as it conforms to what they want. As one US diplomat explained: “Esso, for example, says to the government: ‘Look, don’t bother to nationalize us because if you do, production will probably drop.’ So Esso’s okay. The people who are most likely to suffer are the small manufacturers.”

Three years after the overthrow of Somoza the economy is faltering, with a mounting external debt that has increased from $1.6 to $2.3 billion. Maintaining a large army of approximately twenty thousand in a country with a population of 2.7 million, while aiming to increase it to fifty thousand, puts a further drain on the economy. As for foreign loans, Alfredo César, head of the Central Bank, who, as a good monetarist, had clamped down on the money supply, told me that it is virtually impossible to get any private money from the United States.4 Only, short-term loans are available from European sources; and new loans on “soft” terms from international lending agencies, where the US can exercise a blocking vote, are hard to obtain. Even the USSR denied Managua’s request for emergency funds to meet its estimated $400 million trade deficit; instead, it will provide only $168.8 million in technical assistance and long-term credits, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal of May 11. Only France and West Germany are offering any significant credits. Under these conditions, Nicaragua can hardly move to suppress the private sector in the near future. Like the Church it is a reality.

As for the third proclaimed goal of the revolution, nonalignment, here the Sandinists are hardly likely to assume a position of equidistance between the two superpowers. They will doubtless remain closer to Russia. The more telling question, according to a West European diplomat I talked to, is how far can they be separated from Moscow. The West Europeans believe that they must offer the Sandinists an alternative to the Soviet Union—an appealing idea, but one not likely to affect the Sandinist definition of nonalignment. At best, the support from West European governments could act as a brake on the trend toward very close alignment with the Soviets and, of course, with Cuba.

If these are the realities in Nicaragua, what is the reality in Washington? Is the administration serious when it proposes eight negotiating points to the Nicaraguans, as it did in April? Probably not, according to the Western diplomats I talked to. If the proposal were serious, the points the US ambassador presented to the Nicaraguans in Managua would not have been announced publicly by the State Department.

The reason, then, for announcing the eight points was that the administration wanted to appease public opinion in the US and to deflect Castañeda’s Mexican initiative. Far from wanting to involve the Mexicans in the negotiations, the United States wants to exclude Mexico, apparently because Mexico believes it may be fruitless to make the issue of arms shipments through Nicaragua to El Salvador a condition for successful negotiations. A secondary reason, according to US diplomats close to the scene, is Mexico’s desire to get international credit for any settlement—a kind of valedictory to Lopez Portillo’s presidency which has been otherwise marked by domestic failures. A final legacy of Lopez Portillo would thus be Mexican involvement in a region it has generally avoided (with the obvious exception of neighboring Guatemala).

Washington, however, may be underestimating the seriousness of the Sandinists’ desire for negotiations. Although Nicaragua responded to the administration’s eight-point proposal with a seventeen-point position paper of its own, it may not be simply “playing games,” as an administration official said in Washington.5 The Nicaraguans may be willing to consider what can be realistically worked out. In its essentials the US plan offers to resume economic aid to Nicaragua and pledges nonintervention in Nicaraguan affairs; in return, Nicaragua would have not only to curtail the aid it has been reputedly giving to Salvadoran guerrillas but also to limit imports of heavy arms from the Soviet bloc and reduce the number of foreign advisers in Nicaragua.

Though arms do pass through Nicaragua to El Salvador, the government is not likely to admit openly that this is true. At best, the Sandinists will declare that Nicaragua, though it has not been shipping arms officially, will try to curtail the arms flow in the future. For example, Sergio Ramírez, one of the members of the Nicaraguan junta, told me that the government would be willing to sign nonaggression pacts with Honduras and El Salvador. When I pointed out to him that this was not the same thing as stopping the transit of arms through his country, he asserted that arms could be obtained in any number of ways and that “it would be impossible to police the whole country even if [the junta] chose to.” There are simply too many sources—not least of which is the large illegal arms market in democratic Costa Rica. Neither the Mexicans nor the Costa Ricans believe that stopping the flow of arms from Nicaragua would cause the insurgency in El Salvador to “wither on the vine,” as some US diplomats believe.

On the other hand, there seems a real possibility that the Sandinists would agree to a limitation on the size of their armed forces and the importation of heavy arms from the Soviet bloc. As a corollary, the current reliance on Cuban advisers would also be reduced. One reason the US should be willing to explore this possibility is precisely Managua’s insistence that the Mexicans be present at the negotiations. It is Mexico that is eager to expel the Cubans from Central America. It is Mexico that also demands a reduction in Nicaragua’s armed forces. For Washington to hold back from negotiations, as it may according to a report in the Washington Post of April 17, in the hope that internal unrest “will soften the Sandinists up,” would provide further ammunition for those hard-liners within the directorate who wish to use the US threat to move more rapidly to eliminate any traces of pluralism.

Clearly, the administration’s tough talk has intimidated the Sandinists, and they are generally fearful of US intervention—whether overt or covert; they worry particularly about covert attacks across the Honduran border. They also appear to be genuinely worried about Pastora’s appearance on the scene and the legitimacy he incarnates from the heroic days of the revolution. Before the elections in El Salvador, both Nicaragua and Cuba thought El Salvador would be the next to fall; they now see that this is not likely to happen—at least, not in the near future. The time may indeed be ripe to begin serious negotiations, and this means without public pronouncements on anyone’s part, including the Mexicans, who justifiably irritated Washington when they revealed that a secret visit to Cuba had been made a few months ago by Washington’s special representative, General Vernon Walters. The US should nonetheless take the risk of including the Mexicans in the negotiations. Their public praise of the Cuban revolution and the Sandinists has more than a trace of hypocrisy to it; it is clearly self-serving. But beneath their rhetoric, if high-level officials in both Costa Rica and Venezuela are to be believed, they seriously intend to reduce Cuban influence in Central America and to blunt the Sandinists’ desire to export revolution by means other than revolutionary rhetoric.

None of this means that Nicaragua is likely to turn into a democratic state. At best, it might maintain the sort of pluralism that is now found in Mexico, where opposition parties and criticism of the government are allowed but have no chance of displacing the ruling party and the government bureaucracy. More likely, the Sandinists will pursue their own goal of creating a single-party state, with pluralism defined as tolerance for groups that support the government, and a mixed economy defined as tolerance for private business willing to serve the government’s ends.

The question for Washington is whether it will tolerate such an internal development if it is restricted to Nicaragua, if it does not involve intense rearmament, and if it effectively excludes the Cubans from having a decisive presence in Nicaragua. If the United States is willing to coexist with such a state of affairs in Nicaragua, this still does not prevent it, through a variety of means, from encouraging pluralism and trying to mitigate the development of a single-party state. Even the leaders of Nicaraguan business organizations who are opposed to the direction the Sandinists are taking believe that US aid is important since most of the money allocated would go to the private sector. As one of them put it: “It is like a person with cancer. There are generally three possible treatments—surgery, radiation, or therapy. But there is a fourth. You can kill the patient and you also stop the cancer.”

As for the third set of negotiations, involving the United States and Cuba, certainly the Mexicans and the Venezuelans would like to see negotiations that would lead to Cuban disengagement from the region. The opposition Social Democratic party in Venezuela is openly critical of the Christian Democrats for not having sent Venezuelan teachers and physicians to Nicaragua after the revolution in order to reduce Nicaragua’s dependency on Cuba.

Yet, according to a group of foreign-policy experts who visited Havana last April, the Cubans they spoke with felt that we may be now at a turning point in East-West affairs. According to one member of the US delegation, a senior Cuban official declared that Cuba had already reduced arms shipments to Nicaragua (and US officials acknowledge that “they have no hard evidence of Cuban involvement in arms shipments in recent months”). More broadly, the Cubans claim that they are willing to negotiate on a large number of foreign-policy questions, including Cuban involvement in southern Africa and Central America, even before normalizing bilateral relations with Washington, which had once been a precondition for such talks. Seweryn Bialer and Alfred Stepan, members of the delegation, reported that the “Cuban leaders hope—or say they hope—that by helping to resolve the Central American crisis they would shield both Cuba and Nicaragua from the fearful consequences of a widening confrontation in the region.” And the Cubans told Bialer and Stepan that they would agree to a multinational peace-keeping force to help bring about a cease-fire and a peaceful solution in El Salvador.6

If the Cubans are serious, it may be because they, too, are fearful of the administration’s tough position toward them. Furthermore, they may believe that Moscow is no longer prepared to give them the degree of economic aid they need. According to US intelligence sources as reported by Leslie Gelb, when Castro went to the Soviet Union over a year ago to obtain new Soviet commitments to Cuban defense, he failed. 7 The costs to the Soviet Union of the conflict in Afghanistan and the crisis in Poland may have finally led the Cubans to believe that Soviet economic help is no longer something they can count on.

As with Nicaragua, however, it is difficult to know what the administration intends. Secretary Haig has spoken openly of Castro’s “anguishing” over the idea of shifting the emphasis of Cuba’s international relations from Moscow back to the West.8 Whether the administration wants to become serious in its talks with Cuba, whether it intends seriously to pursue talks with Managua (with or without Mexican participation), it is impossible to know. But this seems indeed to be a moment when the administration should make an honest effort to test the possibilities of negotiations. The elections in El Salvador are over, and no matter how one interprets them, no one believes that the results were favorable to the insurgents—or to the US, since the government may well be dominated by the right-wing assembly whose policies in the long term are likely to benefit the extreme left. Furthermore, the prospects of the US getting regional support for its current Central American policies have been diminished by the conflict over the Falkland Islands.

Now that Venezuela is joining Mexico in urging negotiations, another significant change seems about to take place. The appearance of “Commandante Zero,” for all his revolutionary rhetoric, is a serious setback to the beleaguered Sandinists. A new government, hostile to Nicaraguan expansionism, is being formed in Costa Rica, which is determined to strengthen its internal security forces.

Among some of the major actors in the Central American drama, there appears to be a growing consensus that they must act together in order to tame the Sandinists, restrict Cuba from revolutionary—and particularly military—involvement in Central America, and work toward a peaceful settlement in El Salvador. None of these aims can be accomplished without the participation of the United States. The question remains whether the Reagan administration can shift from its rigid and unpromising emphasis on military victory.

—May 25

This Issue

June 24, 1982