Peace Accords: On Track or Derailed?
Just one month after the Esquipulas IV accords were signed at the recent presidential summit in San Salvador, Nicaragua has moved to fulfill its part of the bargain. On February 27, President Daniel Ortega presented the National Assembly with a bill that would allow the release of some 1,900 ex-National Guardsmen, as specified by the five Presidents' agreement. The government reconvened the National Reconciliation Commission and started a series of bilateral talks with opposition leaders to sound out their suggestions for revising the electoral and media laws, as agreed to in San Salvador. President Ortega also announced that elections would be moved up to February 25, 1990 instead of the originally scheduled date of November 1990.
With these actions, Nicaragua made a start on all of the accords' provisions dealing with its domestic situation. The two other key actors implicated in the accords—Honduras and, behind the scenes, the United States—show signs of backing out of the agreement. Honduras is required to participate in the demobilization and resettlement of the contra forces, working with the other Central American foreign ministers and with UN and OAS technical assistance to draw up a plan in the 90 days following the February summit. While not specifically mentioned in the accords, the position of the United States—whether, as seems probable, it will ask for new "humanitarian" aid, thus undermining key provisions—is crucial in determining whether these accords will bring peace or be so much scrap paper.
As with the Esquipulas II accords, those who work for peace in Central America need to keep a close watch on how the accords are interpreted. Esquipulas IV is a limited set of agreements that, regarding Nicaragua, focuses primarily on the conditions for free and fair elections and the release of certain prisoners. The Nicaraguan opposition and domestic and international media are already starting to stretch the accords to encompass other demands: a series of sweeping constitutional reforms, total amnesty for the National Guard and other prisoners, a ban on presidential reelection, a timetable for democratization that differs from Esquipulas IV. None of these demands are included in the actual document. In such interpretations of the accords, the Honduran role fades out of the picture. In fact, Honduras' commitment to assist in the demobilization of the contra forces is just as crucial to the accords' success as Nicaraguan compliance. It is the sole guarantee Nicaragua received in exchange for the series of steps it agreed to take. It also responds to increasing demands from the Honduran people—and now, indeed, from some members of the Honduran government—to rid themselves of the contra presence.
This past month has seen Washington scrambling to put a policy together to catch up with the Central American initiative expressed in Esquipulas IV. In Nicaragua, the steps the government has taken to arrive at peace and to reform its economy have unleashed a debate both with the opposition and among supporters of this revolution about which road the revolution will take.
Bearing carrots—and carrying a big stick After two months in which the Bush Administration appeared to be too bogged down in wrangling with Congress over the budget and the nomination of John Tower and other key appointees to define a Central American policy, some signs of a new Nicaragua policy are beginning to filter out of the White House.
The administration postponed a request for renewed nonmilitary aid for the contras until after the Easter recess, reflecting doubts that Bush could round up the votes in Congress. The current "humanitarian" aid package of $27.1 million runs out March 31, but administration sources say there is enough in the pipeline to keep the contras supplied well into April. According to reports from Honduras, US armed forces participating with Honduran troops in the "Ahuas Tara 89" exercises have been dropping weapons and ammunition to contra units, skirting congressional approval. (See "Contra Attacks Continue" in this issue.)
Secretary of State James Baker began testing the waters around Capitol Hill regarding a new "carrot and stick" approach. The draft policy is said to propose a timetable by which Nicaragua should comply with certain democratization measures. The United States in return would offer a series of rewards for compliance, including upgrading diplomatic representation, relaxing and then lifting the economic embargo and offering economic aid. Baker said the State Department would call on its allies in Europe, Latin America and Central America to exert pressure on the Sandinistas during this period. Administration sources have also floated the possibility of an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet aid to Central America.
The significant element in this new policy is its underlying principle of "containment" rather than rollback of the Nicaraguan revolution. The administration is still not clear on what to do with the contras—keep them going as a fighting force or just give them enough supplies "to leave some ambiguity in the minds of the Sandinistas," according to administration sources quoted in the Miami Herald. On March 13, State Department officials, Honduran diplomats and contra leaders agreed to try to keep the contra forces intact for eleven more months, until Nicaragua carries out elections in February. State Department sources said Bush would be requesting a $50 million package of nonmilitary aid to tide them over that period.
Maintenance aid in any form would run contrary to the Esquipulas IV accords, which specify that any assistance to the contras be solely for their demobilization, repatriation and resettlement. Whether Democrats will pick this up as an argument against such aid is a matter of speculation.
Honduran acquiescence in allowing the contras to remain in their country another eleven months would also be a violation of the accords. While Honduran President José Azcona Hoyo is reported to be strongly against keeping the contras on Honduran territory, sectors of the Honduran army would support such a move and the United States is currently twisting Azcona's arm to accept it.
The primary concern for Nicaragua is that US policy not push aside the agreement reached in San Salvador by discounting the importance of demobilizing the contras and, in effect, appointing the United States as sole judge of Nicaraguan compliance—and of what "democratization" should really mean in Nicaragua. For this reason Nicaragua fought for international verification of the accords, specifically by the United Nations, the Organization of American States and a UN peacekeeping force.
While Nicaragua was forced to back down on its demand for verification of provisions dealing with democratization in the New York preparatory meetings for Esquipulas IV, Nicaragua unilaterally requested UN, OAS and other international verification of its electoral process and of the selection and release of prisoners taking place in March. A UN commission is putting the finishing touches on a plan to send peacekeeping forces which would act as mobile units to verify the security provisions of the accords, specifically keeping a close watch on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. This plan, however, must be approved by the UN Security Council, where the US has veto power, and would only take effect once demobilization and resettlement of the contras begins.
Explaining Esquipulas IVIn a series of speeches and interviews, government and FSLN party leaders this month sought to spell out for the Nicaraguan public the promises they made as part of Esquipulas IV, as well as the further compromises they may be willing to make as part of the ongoing political and economic opening known here as the national concertation. At the same time they are signaling those demands they consider beyond the pale.
These announcements are aimed at two audiences within Nicaragua. First, they are directed to the FSLN's supporters. As the government opens talks with the largely rightwing opposition parties, calls for a concertation with producers including the large capitalist growers, and administers a set of austerity measures that could have come straight out of an IMF manual, it must reassure its supporters that they will not be abandoned and the revolution will not be rolled back. In the last month FSLN National Directorate members Henry Ruiz and Tomás Borge faced the delicate task of explaining why the concertation and economic reforms involving a shift towards free-market mechanisms did not mean the FSLN was abandoning socialism. Central to this explanation is a view of socialism that is flexible, post-perestroika and distinctly Nicaraguan in flavor (see “Some Thoughts on Socialism—And Austerity” at end of this article).
The FSLN is especially concerned with reaching those who suffered most in the insurrection and the contra war, explaining why measures such as pardoning the National Guard are necessary to achieve peace. Pardoning the Guard is a "bitter pill" we must swallow, President Ortega said to a hundred thousand supporters gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution February 21 (see "A Pardon for Peace" and "Sandino Lives" in this issue). Borge explained this step to the organization of those disabled in the war and President Ortega again addressed the issue at a march commemorating the fallen heroes of the 1978 Monimbó insurrection.
Setting legal limitsThe second audience is the opposition itself. The government is seeking not so much to set the exact agenda of talks as to insist that political reforms be hammered out within the established legal context—the National Assembly, the constitutional process, elections.
In his February 21 speech, President Ortega rejected the demand by the opposition parties known as the Group of 14 that a National Dialogue composed of opposition and government representatives be empowered to reform the Nicaraguan Constitution. "It would be dictatorial, totalitarian" to change the Constitution in that way, he asserted. But "the day that the people say" they want to reform the Constitution, then we will reform it, he confirmed, cautioning the opposition that the people may well choose to reform it in a left- rather than right-leaning direction.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias confirmed Ortega's position when he stated publicly that the accords "at no moment included a commitment to carry out constitutional reforms in Nicaragua." The list of 17 constitutional reforms is a revival of a set of demands proposed during the National Dialogue when it first opened following the signing of the Esquipulas II accords in August 1987. At that time, the 14 parties participating in the National Dialogue insisted that the government immediately approve all 17 constitutional reforms they proposed or they would end the Dialogue. This all-or-nothing stance blocked the way to compromise and contributed to the Dialogue's demise.
In evaluating the opposition's proposals about constitutional reforms, it is helpful to recall how the Nicaraguan Constitution was drafted and approved. After sending delegations to Latin American, West European and socialist nations (the United States refused a visa to the Nicaraguan delegation sent to study its Constitution), the National Assembly elected in 1984 drew up a draft. This draft was discussed at town meetings of people drawn from different sectors of society—women, rural and urban workers, peasants, students, professionals, religious and laity and others—whose proposals were then debated by the Assembly. To reform a constitution whose creation involved such wide sectors of society in a National Dialogue which is not an elected body and includes only representatives of the government and the now over 20 opposition parties (whose combined support was shown in a June 1988 opinion poll to be only 9% of sampled Managuans) could hardly be termed an advance for democracy.
Nor would it be constitutional. The Constitution determines that any reforms must be submitted to two consecutive legislative sessions of the National Assembly (in other words, two consecutive years) for debate before the final vote can be taken. Ironically, if the parliamentary parties in the National Dialogue had submitted the reforms to the National Assembly instead of pushing for their immediate passage outside that body, they would now be half way toward filling the legislative requisites. As it is, they have not yet begun that process.
National Assembly Secretary Rafael Solís, interviewed by the Popular Social Christian Party's weekly, La Crónica, stressed that it would be unconstitutional to discuss reforms to the electoral, media or other laws outside the National Assembly. He did point out, however, that bilateral talks between government and opposition parties could advance the process by working out agreements and compromises that could then be brought before the legislature. Solís invited opposition parties that did not have seats in the legislature to attend the Assembly debates and said they may be granted an opportunity to express their viewpoints in that forum.
Bilaterally speaking In late February, the Nicaraguan government started a second round of bilateral talks with opposition parties. The first round took place right before Esquipulas IV and covered the Nicaraguan proposals to the summit. Government officials emphasized that the second round of talks would focus on the rescheduled election date, the proposal to pardon prisoners and reforms to the electoral and media laws—in other words, implementation of the agreements reached by the government in San Salvador.
To participate or not to participateThe Group of 14 tried but failed to work out a common position on the bilateral talks. While some took the stand that all parties should refuse to go, in the end the decision was left up to each party. A number of parties chose not to attend, discounting the advances that could be made in bilateral talks and insisting that a new National Dialogue be opened up instead. From their point of view, the multilateral dialogue would be able to decide upon reforms rather than just serving as a channel of communication with the government.
While it is possible the government may convene some form of National Dialogue, Rafael Solís turned to the history of the last one to explain why he felt reopening it now would be counterproductive. "We had a national dialogue here that failed, that's the reality. During six months from the end of September 1987 to April 1988, when the National Dialogue was underway, it couldn't even approve its own agenda, and with difficulty managed to approve its own ground rules. There were almost two months of debate about who should be in the dialogue. Now again just the problem of determining who should go to the dialogue would take us more than a month. Why? The Group of 14 for example, with an intransigent position...says that only the same 14 who went to the last dialogue should go to this one.... Why? In order to exclude the factions of Clemente Guido, Agustín Jarquín, that's to say, two factions that are representative in the political life of this country...."
What's on the agendaThe parties that attended the bilateral talks brought forward a number of wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting proposals regarding the media and electoral laws. Opinions on the pardoning proposals ranged from outrage by the Workers' Revolutionary Party (PRT) that the Guard would receive pardons to demands by a number of rightwing parties that the pardon be replaced by a total amnesty which would include those Guard members whose crimes were so serious that the OAS' own International Commission of Human Rights decided not to put them on the list of those to be freed. The Esquipulas IV accords only state that the prisoners should be freed according to the commission's list, and do not specify either pardon or amnesty.
Other issues that were brought up by some of those attending the bilateral talks were a call for a private television station for the opposition; a ban on presidential reelection; a moratorium on the military draft and reserve service; and a series of reforms to the Constitution.
Finally, the majority of opposition parties both attending and refusing to attend the bilateral talks firmly oppose advancing the date of elections. Although Nicaragua agreed to advance the date due to pressure from other Central American nations at Esquipulas IV, in fact the opposition apparently does not yet feel prepared to compete with the FSLN. It would seem that once again international pressure in the name of Nicaraguan democracy is being carried out with little knowledge of the Nicaraguan situation and without consulting the domestic opposition itself.
This will be a delicate issue. If the United States insists on keeping up pressure until Nicaragua carries out elections, the Nicaraguan government will have the choice of insisting on early elections over the protest of the opposition, or moving the elections back to their original date and facing international criticism and continued US pressure. The experience of the 1984 elections suggests that whatever date the government sets, a number of the opposition parties will protest that it is either too early or too late.
Desperately seeking advice
The Group of 14 sent delegates to Costa Rica and Venezuela to discuss the opposition's stance with Presidents Arias and Carlos Andrés Pérez. These delegates found themselves in the awkward position of having to delay their visit to Caracas in view of the fact that Pérez was otherwise occupied. The man they were going to consult with about how to bring democracy to Nicaragua was busy bringing widespread riots under control in his own country, suspending civil liberties and using a degree of police and army force that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded and detained.
While the parties already in the National Assembly are prepared to run again, some of the extra-parliamentary parties are giving mixed signals about whether they will participate or play the abstentionist game, much as they did before the 1984 elections. But other actors are moving to take advantage of the opening space. The parties that do not move quickly to take part in public debate and elections may find themselves even more at the margin of events as their bases of support in the private sector hammer out accords with the government as the economic side of the national concertation advances. (The economic concertation is explained in this issue's "Economic Reforms: Taking Effect?" and will be examined in greater detail in our next issue.)
Of Ironies and PerilsIf so much were not at stake, one could enjoy this month's little ironies: The US insisting on advanced elections in Nicaragua while the Nicaraguan opposition calls the advanced date a Sandinista move to stay in power; Nicaragua's repeated pleas for international verification of the democratization aspects of the accords being brushed aside by the other Central American countries, while the Bush Administration complains that what the accords lack is verification for Nicaragua; Managua Mayor Carlos Carrión being denied a visa to attend a US mayors' conference on drugs, on the grounds that Nicaragua is a drug exporter, when in fact it was Nicaragua which introduced a plan to stop Central American drug trafficking in Esquipulas IV; the Nicaraguan opposition visiting riot-torn Venezuela to learn about democracy.
But the moment is a critical one. Once again, an agreement reached by the five Central American presidents is in danger of being derailed. While the Nicaraguan government steadily moves to comply with its part of the bargain, the Bush Administration looks like it will attempt to bury a key provision of the accords, by keeping the contras intact for nearly another year in Honduras. In the interests of free and fair elections, the US is aiming to keep Nicaragua in a state of tension in which only a polarized debate can flourish. But there still is time for those who wish for peace to come quickly to Nicaragua to insist that all parties stick to the letter of the Esquipulas IV accords.
Some Thoughts on Socialism—and Austerity Gioconda Belli: There's concern in some sectors that the economic measures in the 1989 plan mean a step backwards for the revolution. What do you think of this?
Henry Ruiz: This question has to do with the tendency to apply "recipes" or rigid formulas to economic and social contradictions. Capitalism has shown itself to have an enormous capacity to reproduce itself and resolve its own crisis, precisely because it does not follow pat "recipes"; it follows the thread of its contradictions, and responds according to its own needs and characteristics. This way of resolving contradictions does not imply a change in its essence or nature, and workers shouldn't let themselves be deceived in this sense: the exploitation of work, the greed of those who own the means of production, the appropriation of the riches produced by labor, are maintained intact... Why then, if revolutionary analysis of society is truly scientific, based on dialectics, should we apply "recipes" to our reality and believe that searching for new forms of resolving contradictions implies a change in our essential principles? We live in a changing world that demands new answers.
Barricada: From the perspective of the FSLN's historic program, do the new socioeconomic policies mean that some strategic demands will have to be postponed? Will the program be kept intact?
Tomás Borge: In essence, there is no contradiction. We can't rule out postponing satisfying some demands in order to ensure that the process goes forward; yet in no way does this imply renouncing the essential tenets of the revolution.
The Frente's historic program is the revolution's program. It is a political program defining the key historic tasks in the transition from a dependent and backward country in economic terms to an independent country with potential for development. Its goal is the economic and spiritual development of this country in the best interests of the people. For this reason, we can't abandon any part of our historic program, because that would be abandoning our principles.
Barricada: What is being postponed with the new measures?
Tomás Borge: Well, for example, social programs, economic development projects. The essence of the agrarian reform program is untouchable, although some adjustments can be made.
The measures being taken which affect social programs are in the name of economic stabilization, which is the condition for once again moving forward with what we have planned. It should be pointed out that in reality these measures didn't cause this postponement; the cause is the economic deterioration resulting from eight years of war. That is to say, the impossibility of improving health care and education for the people is [a fact] beyond our control. Unlike other types of regimes, where social programs are not postponed but rather their absence is an intrinsic part of the social system—in our case, this occurs against our will.
(Barricada, March 7, 1989)