The End of the Affair?

Oscar Arias Sánchez
Oscar Arias Sánchez; drawing by David Levine

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…

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