Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega; drawing by David Levine

On February 3, as the debate in the US House of Representatives on the President’s proposed package of aid to the Nicaraguan contras was ending, Congressman Mickey Edwards, Republican of Oklahoma and a leading proponent of support for the contras, took the floor and cited a Nicaraguan bishop’s support for the measure. Two days later, The New York Times quoted the leader of Nicaragua’s business federation as expressing disappointment that the aid bill had been rejected. Though such utterances would be considered treasonous by most governments fighting for survival, neither man has faced a serious risk of reprisal so far.

It is not that the Sandinistas have become civil libertarians. Six months ago they agreed to President Arias’s plan for Central America, which links the process leading to peace to respect for human rights. They are in a position in which, if they want peace, they must tolerate hostile expression during a time of war to a far greater degree than even governments with traditions of respecting freedom of speech. Clearly, some members of the Sandinista leadership are furious about what they are now being asked to tolerate.

That was evident when a number of prominent opposition leaders were arrested in mid-January and detained overnight on their return to the country from meetings with the contra leadership. Those arrests took place just as President Daniel Ortega was meeting with the other Central American presidents in San José, Costa Rica, to discuss compliance with the peace plan. Intolerance of dissent was evident again a week later when a band of about thirty Sandinista militants violently disrupted a meeting in Managua marking the first anniversary of the founding of an association of families of prisoners accused of contra activity. That the disruption had official approval was shown by the passive behavior of the police, who stood by and made no arrests. These episodes were seized upon by the Reagan administration and by some newspaper commentators to denounce Ortega’s bad faith.

Whether Ortega had a hand in these episodes, or whether—as some have speculated—they reflect his inability to control such hard-line associates as Interior Minister Tomás Borge and party leader Bayardo Arce, is difficult to establish. What is apparent, however, is that whatever the repressive tendencies among the Sandinistas, they must refrain, at least for the time being, from too often displaying intolerance for dissent. At least for now, they are putting up with such facts as the partial financing of La Prensa by the sponsor of a war against them, the government of the United States; with La Prensa’s banner headline, SANDINISTAS SURRENDER, to mark their termination of a state of emergency in January; with stories in the newspaper likening their jails to Nazi concentration camps; with “fact-finding” visits by propagandists for the contras such as those who accompanied New York mayor Edward I. Koch to Managua last November and representatives of former Alabama senator Jeremiah Denton’s “National Forum”; with speeches in Managua by former US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick, who contributed so significantly to launching the war against them that one of the contra brigades is named for her; with opposition street rallies in which anti-Sandinista slogans are spray-painted on public buildings; and with radio call-in programs and news broadcasts in which just about anything may be said.

As Stephen Kinzer pointed out in The New York Times on February 3,

today the Nicaraguan press is presenting news from a broader range of political perspectives than is available in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and even Costa Rica, the countries characterized by the Reagan Administration as the Central American democracies. No other country in the region boasts a major daily newspaper that fundamentally questions the legitimacy and ideological foundation of the ruling group.

Kinzer might have added that what makes this all the more remarkable is that, for the moment, the greatest diversity of expression prevails under the Central American government that faces the most severe threat to its survival.*

Such freedom of expression has not prevailed for very long in Nicaragua. When I visited Managua a few weeks after the signing of the Central American Peace Plan on August 7, only publications and broadcasts that toed the Sandinista line were allowed; and two prominent opposition leaders, the director of a human rights organization and the head of a lawyers’ group, were in jail and had been summarily convicted for allegedly trying to take part in an impromptu demonstration that followed the dedication of a new headquarters for an opposition political coalition. They were soon freed. No one can say with any certainty how long the present situation will last. If the Congress had approved President Reagan’s aid package for the contras, the Sandinistas might well have clamped down again, as they did in response to past US votes of assistance to the contras. Moreover, since the aid proposal was defeated by a very narrow margin—it would have won had only five votes in the House of Representatives shifted—and since the President may find some way to reverse the defeat of February 3, the current opening could quickly close.


Even more difficult, of course, is predicting what might happen to freedom of expression if the Sandinistas hold on to power and no more US aid is provided to the contras. By mid-February one could only say that the current combination of the Arias Plan, a sense of urgency among the Sandinistas about bringing the extremely costly war to an end, and the prospect of an end to US military aid to the contras is a powerful inducement for them to respect the right to dissent. The decisive factor is the Arias Plan and, indeed, it is the key to the other two factors: the Sandinistas seem to recognize both that the Arias Plan represents their best prospect for ending the war on terms that they consider acceptable and that its failure would probably be ascribed to them—particularly by Oscar Arias himself. Were it not for the Arias Plan, moreover, President Reagan would undoubtedly have obtained the congressional votes needed to approve his contra aid package. Indeed, it seems very likely that, were it not for that plan, he would have obtained something close to the $270 million package that administration officials had been discussing since last summer.

In Nicaragua, the Arias Plan has not only produced much greater freedom of expression. It has also resulted in an end to the state of emergency; the dissolution of the special tribunals in which alleged contras and alleged contra supporters were tried, and almost always convicted, without due process since May 1983; the restoration, as a matter of law, of habeas corpus; time limits on incommunicado detention and on preindictment detention; inspection tours by outsiders of the state security detention center in Managua, El Chipote, where many abuses had been reported; the release of 985 prisoners—783 held for reasons relating to the conflict (about a third of the total) and 202 ex-national guardsmen—and a commitment to release the remaining 1,600 or so people imprisoned in connection with the conflict (mainly captured contra combatants and peasants accused of aiding the contras) along with some 1,800 national guardsmen still confined since 1979; a reduction in new arrests related to the conflict; and permission for exiled Nicaraguan priests to return to the country.

The Nicaraguan government, however, not only continues to intermittently harass and arrest members of the opposition and to hold prisoners tried without due process; it has failed to comply with one of the major human rights provisions of the Arias Plan, a provision aimed at relieving some of the harshest suffering arising from the conflict. It has not made good on its commitment under the plan to “give urgent attention” to helping refugees and other displaced persons to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. As far as refugees outside Nicaragua are concerned, of course, this requires that they first demonstrate a desire to return home. Thus far, except for the Indian minority, there is scant evidence that they want to do so.

Those who have been displaced within Nicaragua itself are in a different category. It is usually estimated that about 250,000 Nicaraguans have been displaced within the country, either because they fled to escape the war, or when they were forcibly relocated to deny the contras a civilian base of support or to permit Sandinista troops to create free-fire zones. Many of these displaced people live in poverty. Relocated with little or no notice, they were unable to take with them livestock, farm tools, or anything else except their clothes and a few cooking utensils; and little provision was made for receiving them where they were resettled.

Indians—principally Miskitos and Sumos—are an exception. They were the first to be forcibly relocated, and they have been the first to return to their destroyed communities. There are no remaining restrictions on their right to go home, and at least twelve thousand who were forcibly displaced within the country have done so. In addition, thousands of Indians who fled into Honduras have also returned to their homes in the Atlantic Coast region of Nicaragua. For the most part, the war has now stopped in their section of the country. It was once thought that the contras might invade the Atlantic Coast from the sea and establish a “liberated” state because local antagonism to the Sandinistas was so great. Peace has largely been achieved there because the Sandinistas’ policies have changed. They have curbed their abuses against the Indians, apologized for many past abuses, and, in some cases, have made reparations. They have also ceded a large measure of “autonomy” to the Indians in the region, and demonstrated some flexibility in negotiations. The contras and their associates in the CIA, for their part, have managed to antagonize many of the Indians even more than the Sandinistas have by their brutal tactics and by using the Indians as pawns in their effort to overthrow the Sandinista government.


Resettlement of the evacuated areas of the Atlantic Coast region has been underway since May 1985, although it was interrupted in March and April 1986 when the contras organized an exodus, which figured importantly in subsequent Indian resentment of the contras. The Nicaraguan government’s part in resettlement can be attributed not to an effort to comply with the Arias Plan but to a separate effort, which had already been underway, to negotiate a peace agreement on the Atlantic Coast. Since no other significant efforts have been made by the Sandinistas to facilitate resettlement, this provision of the Arias Plan has so far been a dead letter in Nicaragua. The government’s failure to help displaced peasants return to their villages should arouse intense concern and continuing demands for a change in policy.

The Arias Plan’s call for resettlement is also a dead letter almost everywhere else in the region. Indeed, it is only in El Salvador that it has even become an issue.

A few weeks after the signing of the Arias Plan, I met with three members of the Salvadoran high command at military headquarters in San Salvador. The main subject we discussed was the right of the 500,000 or so displaced persons within the country to return to the communities they either had fled or were forced by the army to leave. Absolutely not, I was told by the three colonels I talked to. They proceeded to mark off on a large wall map of the country about ten regions to which refugees would not be permitted to return. Those places had been guerrilla strongholds, and the military would not take the chance that the guerrillas might reestablish themselves by allowing peasants considered to be sympathetic to the guerrillas to go home.

Yet despite the military’s insistence that resettlement would not be permitted, a few displaced people have filtered back to those regions and have started to try to support themselves by cultivating the land. In October, some 4,300 Salvadoran refugees who had been living for years in the Mesa Grande camp in Honduras crossed the border and returned to three different regions of the country that the military had told me were off-limits.

The return of these refugees was not easy. Salvadoran officials had at first said they would stop them, but they changed their minds to demonstrate their compliance with the Arias Plan. The identities of the refugees were checked at the border; they were required to fill out a questionnaire and their fingerprints were taken. Efforts to bring them food and medicine have been restricted for fear that they will turn over these provisions to the guerrillas. When he attempted to visit them, the archbishop of San Salvador was harassed.

Most of the returned refugees have not as yet been provided with identity papers. Since it is risky for adults to travel in El Salvador without such documents, the refugees have been largely confined to the villages where they have resettled. (Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic Church, has issued its own documents to them—signed by the archbishop—saying that they are Salvadorans who returned from Mesa Grande and that they are under the protection of the Church.) Troops enter the communities that have been resettled, and there have been several violent incidents, including the killing of a volunteer teacher in Arcatao, one of the communities where the displaced peasants are attempting to resettle. (A Salvadoran colonel had told me two months earlier that anyone who advocated resettlement in Arcatao was a Communist.)

Aside from making it possible for the Mesa Grande refugees to go home, the major consequences of the Arias Plan for human rights in El Salvador have been the enactment of an amnesty and the temporary return of two political leaders allied to the guerrillas.

The amnesty has been a very controversial matter. In addition to freeing close to five hundred prisoners accused of being guerrillas or supporters of the guerrillas—few of whom were ever tried—it exempts military men and death squad members from possible prosecution for the more than 40,000 murders of civilians they have committed since 1979. Guerrillas, on the other hand, were required to turn themselves in and give up their arms within fifteen days to benefit from the amnesty. The law, as proposed by President Duarte, was published on Friday, October 23, and enacted on Tuesday, October 27. During the brief interval, Herbert Anaya, the president of the El Salvador Commission on Human Rights, a group frequently accused by US and Salvadoran officials of ties to the guerrillas, was murdered. To make it possible to prosecute his murderers, the law was altered to limit the amnesty to crimes committed before it was proposed. One other last minute change was made at the insistence of the Catholic Church. As a result, the murderers of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 may still be prosecuted.

The amnesty for members of the death squads and others who killed a great many noncombatants was vigorously protested by human rights groups on the ground that it was not the intention of the Arias Plan to exempt killers from prosecution. State Department spokesmen expressed “understanding” and “respect” for the amnesty, but they were outraged when it became clear that it was also likely to lead to the freeing of Salvadorans charged with killing American citizens such as the four US Marines killed at the “Zona Rosa” in 1985 and the two US labor advisers killed in 1981 in the Sheraton Hotel. In a few cases, efforts were made in the Salvadoran courts to block these releases, but there was little prospect that they would succeed.

Salvadoran military men had previously had de facto immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses against other Salvadorans. One reason why Duarte’s government may have seized the opportunity to institute this immunity was the appointment of a new attorney general, Roberto Giron Flores, a few months earlier. When I met with Giron Flores not long before the amnesty law was adopted, I thought that, for the first time, a Salvadoran official was making a serious effort to investigate and prosecute those responsible for major abuses of human rights against other Salvadorans. The amnesty law has virtually ended those efforts.

The major effect of the Arias Plan on freedom of expression in El Salvador was to make it possible for two opposition leaders, Guillermo Ungo and Rubén Zamora, to return to the country temporarily in November to hold meetings and rallies and to express their views through the press. Sadly, their return may have led to the murder, by death squads, of two young men whose bodies were found at a roadside on November 8 with FDR written on their chests in red ink. FDR are the initials of the Frente Democrático Revolucionario, the political coalition associated with the Salvadoran guerrillas that is headed by Ungo and Zamora, and the killings were interpreted as a warning to them not to return—which they disregarded. Zamora is apparently planning to return to the country permanently to enter political life.

As a matter of law, there are no restrictions on the press in El Salvador. In practice, however, the range of views reflected in the daily newspapers is narrow, from support for the government to criticism from the far right. The press also fails to cover the war, which takes place outside the capital. As in the past several years, most of the coverage is limited to the publication of handouts from the armed forces. Remarkably, television is the most adventurous medium in El Salvador, followed by radio. The greatest range of political views is expressed on two television channels—Channel 12 (since 1986) and Channel 6 (since 1987).

El Salvador formerly had two newspapers that were critical of the government’s repression, but La Crónica was violently closed by the armed forces in 1980 and El Independiente in 1981. The publisher of El Independiente, Jorge Pinto, has lived in exile in Mexico City since his newspaper was closed. In September, Pinto told one of my Americas Watch colleagues that he hoped to take advantage of the Arias Plan to return to El Salvador and reopen his newspaper. So far there is no sign he will do so.

The peculiar difficulty in getting El Salvador to comply with other human rights provisions of the Arias Plan is that, on paper, the government was complying when the plan was signed. In practice, abuses of human rights are still often committed by paramilitary groups suspected of being linked to the armed forces. Labor union activists have been frequent victims of such abuses in recent months. And the government can accurately claim that some violent abuses are also committed by the Salvadoran guerrillas. Indeed, a young man who confessed to the murder of Herbert Anaya—after being held incommunicado for much longer than Salvadoran law permits—said he acted for the guerrillas. The killings by guerrillas permit the military to deflect attention from its own abuses. Indeed, whenever dead bodies are found President Duarte announces that he suspects the guerrillas, regardless of the circumstances and without waiting for an investigation.

It is difficult to say whether the Arias Plan has promoted the cause of human rights in El Salvador or set it back. The return home of the 4,300 Mesa Grande refugees has been the greatest gain; the de jure amnesty for mass murderers is a serious reversal. If it helps to perpetuate the impunity with which the armed forces and the death squads engaged in political killings in the past, the consequences will be very grave indeed. On the other hand, if the return home by the Mesa Grande refugees helps to prepare the way for resettlement by hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, the gain will be very great. So far the effects of the Arias Plan on freedom of expression in El Salvador do not count for much.

In Guatemala, as in El Salvador, there are no restrictions in law on what may be published or spoken. The newspapers report on political violence much more readily than in El Salvador, but they generally refrain from implicating the armed forces in abuses; they provide little information on developments in the highlands where the country’s large Indian population is concentrated and where abuses of human rights are endemic.

An amnesty of the sort that El Salvador enacted in ostensible compliance with the Arias Plan was promulgated by the Guatemalan armed forces for themselves in January 1986, just before the newly elected civilian president, Vinicio Cerezo, was inaugurated. As a consequence, the many thousands of murders and “disappearances” they have committed may not be investigated or punished. Since Cerezo took office as the first civilian president in two decades, such crimes have continued, though in smaller numbers than under military rule.

Up to now, the Cerezo government has seemed powerless to deal with the violence and in fact a new surge of killings has recently taken place. A promising development, however, was the arrest in January of six police officers in Quezaltenango, including the departmental head of the National Police, on charges of kidnapping and murdering two students. If they are successfully prosecuted and punished, it would set a precedent for Guatemala.

At the height of political violence in Guatemala, in 1982 and 1983, when General Ríos Montt’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign was underway, the country’s Catholic bishops estimated that a million people, nearly all of them Indians, had been internally displaced. It is very difficult to arrive at an estimate today. Many of the displaced have become permanent urban slum dwellers; some have settled on land that was previously considered inadequate for subsistence farming; some continue to lead a more or less nomadic existence; some were “reeducated” and sent to “model villages”; and some were killed. Only a minority ever managed to return to their original communities.

Despite the Arias Plan’s call for “urgent attention” to their needs, no discernible effort is underway in Guatemala to help the people who were forced to leave their villages five or six years ago. Traveling in the western highlands of Guatemala during the first week of February, an Americas Watch delegation came upon a miserable group of 182 Indians that a military contingent had just brought down from the mountains near Nebaj, one of the towns of the Ixil Triangle. They were being interned in squalid conditions for three months of “reeducation.” After that, they will probably have to settle in a militarized “model village,” since the government has no plans to help them return to their homes and rebuild their communities.

Unlike its neighbors, Honduras has not been ravaged by internal war in recent years. A significant number of its human rights problems derive from its shared borders with the three countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua—that have such wars. Accordingly, it has provided refuge to some victims of those wars, and it has been a staging ground for some of those making war across the border.

Like El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras lacks formal restrictions on free expression. Unlike those countries, it has suffered neither from thousands of political killings nor from the displacement of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Yet there have been some abuses of both kinds in Honduras.

Between 1981 and 1984, Honduras was effectively ruled by a military strong man, General Gustavo Alvarez, who, at behest of the United States, had a central part in establishing the contras and in preventing the Salvadoran guerrillas from using Honduras as a safe haven. To assist in these efforts, Alvarez established a death squad known as Battalion 316, which kidnapped, tortured, “disappeared,” and murdered at least 130 suspected leftists. The killings all but ended in March 1984 when Alvarez’s military colleagues became fed up and put him on a plane to Miami. Since then, he has lived in Florida and has been well paid for “consulting” work by the US Department of Defense, and has become an evangelist.

Last September, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights sitting in San José, Costa Rica, began hearing testimony in a lawsuit involving the killings by Battalion 316 under Alvarez, the first time that an international judicial body has put a government on trial for such crimes. The first witness for the plaintiff before the court was Miguel Angel Pavón, vice-president of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH). In January, Pavón and a companion were murdered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A few days earlier, a Honduras military man who was scheduled to testify at the trial was murdered. A few days before, another military man who had provided testimony to CODEH and was trying to defect from the armed forces was killed in what was described as a military training accident.

People are displaced in Honduras to clear space for contra military bases on the border with Nicaragua. According to the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo, the contras took over about 450 square kilometers, principally in an area known as the Las Vegas salient. El Tiempo has reported that about 16,000 peasants, most of them coffee producers, were moved out as a result. Others put the number as low as six or seven thousand. The people of the region have also been victims of raids across the border by Nicaraguan forces attempting to strike at the contra camps. Although US and Honduran officials have claimed that the contras have left their sanctuaries and moved into Nicaragua, no effort has been made by the Honduran government to help the displaced peasants to return to their homes and to their land.

As almost everyone agrees, the fifth signer of the Arias Plan, Costa Rica, was complying with its provisions on human rights before the agreement was signed. As for the countries that were not complying, plainly the largest impact has been on Nicaragua. There have been some effects on El Salvador and almost none at all on Guatemala and Honduras.

Two factors explain the disproportionate impact of the plan on Nicaragua. First, restrictions on human rights were incorporated in Nicaraguan legal practice: that is, the independent press had been closed down under the state of emergency; habeas corpus had been circumscribed; the special tribunals had been established; time limits on detentions had been suspended; and so forth. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many violations of human rights have been committed by shadowy groups that seem to be linked to the armed forces. It is far more difficult to hold a government to account for abuses that it disclaims than for those that it has announced and established by law.

Second, and far more important in my view, has been the intensity of concentration on Nicaragua. Few observers hesitate to hold the Sandinista government responsible for the disruption of a peaceful opposition rally by thugs obviously directed by the regime, even though these people are not in uniform and not ostensibly acting on government orders. If the Nicaraguan government opposed such disruptions, it would be investigating and prosecuting those responsible. The same may be said for death squad killings and disappearances elsewhere in Central America. The complete failure to punish these—and, indeed, the amnesties in El Salvador and Guatemala renouncing the possibility of punishment—make the responsibility of governments plain.

One of the successes of the Reagan administration’s policy in Central America has been that it has concentrated attention on Nicaragua, and the Sandinista government has now responded, at least for the present, by its own highly visible shifts in policy. The political effect of the Arias Plan is to put compliance with its human rights provisions at the center of international attention, and to make compliance offer protection from military attack. If the Sandinistas continue to believe that they must demonstrate compliance, the consequence could be that their government, if not their ideology, will be considerably changed. The failure of the plan in its first six months to have such an impact elsewhere in the region is lamentable; but if the Arias Plan can indeed have an improving effect on human rights in one country, this is no small achievement.

February 18, 1988

This Issue

March 17, 1988