The five Central American presidents have agreed upon measures for restoring peace to their region. There is little sense and less use in disputes over whether their plan is fair and reasonable. It is both, and eminently so; and, as often happens with reasonable and fair proposals, it cannot be.
The signers of this compact are sitting presidents, who differ about many aspects of public policy but are quite alike in each one’s conviction that his countrymen could not hope to find another head as wise and just as his own. They are incumbent officeholders and, of all the armors that come with office, the thickest-plated is the certainty that whatever is incumbent is for the best and must endure.
El Salvador’s José Napoleón Duarte is a centrist president beset by leftist guerrillas. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega is a leftist president annoyed by rightist guerrillas. Now each promises to withdraw his countenance from the other’s enemies.
We need not much doubt Duarte’s pledge or Ortega’s; the problem is the substance attending either’s fulfillment. The rebels in El Salvador constitute a genuine force; they cannot yet and probably will not conquer, but they hold territory and now and then break out of it to fight by no means uneven battles with government troops. They may indeed have been long enough entrenched by now to live off the land; their support from the Sandinistas has been languid lately, and to have it cease altogether would be more slap than heavy blow.
El Salvador’s guerrillas are not party to the Guatemala accord, and their fires will likely burn on uncooled. The prospects for Nicaragua are better; but their light is no brighter than gray. There is, of course, the chance that the contras will wither away; the bulk of their troops are encamped in Honduras, and the Guatemala agreement clearly forbids them further lodgment, although it is hard to see how the Honduran government could evict them.
When Duarte cuts off the link to El Salvador, the contra supply lines will shrink to a thread; there will not be an airfield open in Central America capable of sustaining a steady flow of weapons. And yet the contras may stay in being as the nuisance that is pretty much all they are already, isolated in rural fastnesses, and bloodied more than bloodying when they come down for an open fight. But they have their base, pinched though it be; and they might well carry on and wait for something to turn up from their great if faltering patron to the north.
The Sandinistas would inarguably prefer to have the war end; but can we really be sure that they think of peace as a passionate necessity? They are not monsters and they cannot be happy about the dead children the contras leave behind to mark their brief and furtive passages with the torch of freedom. But those wounds aside, the contras are more troublesome than perilous and their existence may in fact be rather a convenience. The Sandinistas are revolutionaries; and the revolutionary idea is more comfortable as a war doctrine than as a social philosophy. The end of war is the beginning of constructive rehabilitation, a craft that seems strangely beyond the capacity of Marxist-Leninists.
Vietnam has functioned as badly in peace as it did superbly in war. Castro appears to have botched the Cuban economy; and he relieves his frustration by exporting, if not the revolution, anyway its troops. And, since he has mellowed and lost much taste for bothering his neighbors, he sends his soldiers to Africa to serve as house guards for other failed revolutions.
The Sandinistas are in this tradition; and, if they are poor hands at governing, they are shrewd heads at ruling. The war excuses every administrative failure; so long as they need to fight, they need not face up to building the model society they remain sure would be easy work if they didn’t have to fight.
Still there is a certain engaging innocence about the Sandinistas; and they are probably honest in their promise to restore democracy as soon as they are let alone. It does not occur to them that they ever took democracy away. To pledge free elections is no strenuous concession. Their last election was comparatively free and produced a substantial opposition in a Nicaraguan assembly whose business is conducted in a sealed chamber where the voice of dissent breathes with no hope of being heard on the radio or recorded in a newspaper. The Sandinistas preserved elections and simply abolished public debate; and they seem serenely unconscious of the difference between formal freedom and the real thing.
But what if the United States accepted their illusion? Our governors are already used to substituting countries of their imagination for countries that really are. Our president imagined a contra Nicaragua and shows signs of suspecting that it can never be. Might we not relocate this foolish benevolence in the imagination of a reformed Sandinista Nicaragua? Then, with minds calmed that shouldn’t have been upset in the first place, we can turn to other things and leave Central America with a measure of the peace worth having even if justice never comes.
September 24, 1987