Nicaragua Draws the Line
Little time remains for the Reagan Administration to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution. While Esquipulas II and Sapoá have somewhat manacled the administration's militarist policy in the past year, a strategy is in play to get around the accords.
The Melton and Shultz plans are the internal and international faces of this strategy, and both are made possible by openings provided in the agreements themselves. Secretary of State George Schultz is working to isolate Nicaragua by manipulating the Esquipulas II agreement in the international press and diplomatic circles and, if possible, hoist it mortally on its own petard. Richard Melton, availing himself of the political pluralism and freedom for the opposition called for in Esquipulas II, put himself at the head of a destabilization campaign inside Nicaragua during his tenure there as US ambassador. This, the administration dreams, will trigger the last phase in dismantling the revolution.
The Mexican newspaper El Día, basing its coverage on diplomatic sources, laid out in detail in its May 23rd edition the steps the Melton plan would take to foment a climate of civil disobedience. Undaunted by the exposé in a third world newspaper, Melton's actors—the most righting parties, and some sectors of the Church and members of the national media—all took up their roles on cue, moving the script inexorably toward its dramatic denouement. The July crisis, pitting provocation against legality, was a prewritten scene. The Nicaraguan government responded firmly. Although domestic popular support was enthusiastic, this firmness had its risks and a sure international cost.
Reagan's race against timeWhile the outgoing Reagan Administration touts its successes on behalf of peace, citing its relations with the USSR and its role in several regional conflicts (Afghanistan, Angola, Iran-Iraq), a policy of war persists in Nicaragua’s case. President Reagan, after discussing with his advisers the agenda for his last six months in office, announced in mid-July that he would continue fighting to support the contras. In his speech, he made no other announcements on any other foreign policy issues.
For the past year this policy has been snarled in the straight jacket of the Esquipulas accords; six months ago the sleeves were drawn tighter by the signing of the Sapoá agreements. Any significant action taken by the administration to make its policy work requires the destruction of these two accords. As the months pass, it becomes .a race against time.
In mid-June, the Reagan Administration tried to scuttle the Sapoá accords by supporting the most reactionary sectors of the contra directorate in the fourth round of talks between the Nicaraguan government and the contra leaders. Enrique Bermúdez and Co. dutifully treated Sapoá as a dead letter in those talks and refused to accept a new date to continue negotiations on the basis of those accords.
The stalled talks paved the way toward breaking the even solider agreements of Esquipulas II. Violating Esquipulas "in the name of Esquipulas"—that is, pushing for renewed military aid from Congress by charging that Nicaragua has not complied, that the dialogue has broken down and that the cease-fire is not working—was the next step.
The Republicans’ objectiveThe Republicans' immediate goal is to get bipartisan congressional approval for more contra military aid. With this, they can maintain three or four thousand armed men inside Nicaragua, keep the pressure on the government and aggravate the economic crisis by forcing continued high military spending (now 62% of the national budget). If the aid is not forthcoming, however, recent statements by high US government officials have not excluded the possibility of renewing negotiations.
This second option would not be an effort to end the war, but a short-term plan to keep the contras alive until the arrival of a new administration. In this option, it is even possible that the United States might stretch out the time by entering the negotiations directly. This option also includes "humanitarian" aid to the contras, enabling the US government to maintain pressure on Nicaragua at the negotiating table.
With the successful implementation of either of these options, the Republicans will not only have accomplished their objective against the Sandinistas, but will have also scored a victory against the Democratic Party. If the Democrats vote to approve further aid to the contras, they show their support for the Reagan administration's policies and give up a point of attack on this important foreign policy issue in the pre-election political arena. If they don't, they will become campaign targets for "losing the war against communism."
The fact that Secretary of State George Shultz has come to the forefront in the US conflict with Nicaragua—evidenced by his two trips to Central and South America in recent and coming weeks—is a sign of the political weight currently being given to the anti-Nicaragua drive. Nothing indicates a change in the policy of aggression spearheaded by Elliott Abrams; the image of a Shultz visit to Central America simply has a larger political impact—and perhaps better results—than an Abrams visit.
To further this drive and assure its success, the Administration has to mount an authentic "anti-Sandinista unity campaign" with four basic objectives—unite the contras; unite Nicaragua's domestic opposition; unite the Central American governments and unite Congress.
It’s not an easy task, and July was a busy month for organizers of this effort. What follows is a systematic analysis of the order of events.
Unite the contras: All power to BermúdezThe directorate of the "Nicaraguan Resistance" was to have been reshuffled in May. However, the peace talks with the Nicaraguan government that began in March and internal divisions within the contras delayed the election of a new directorate until July. Preceding the actual elections were the June negotiations in Managua, during which the anti-Sapoá line of the Bermúdez faction prevailed.
On July 18 and 19, the contra assembly convened in the Dominican Republic to select the new directorate. The meeting was not held in Miami or any Central American country for fear of external pressure from exiled Nicaraguans that could widen existing divisions among the contras.
As a result of the assembly, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Jr. and Azucena Ferrey left the directorate, replaced by Roberto Ferrey and Wilfredo Montalván. Wycliffe Diego joined the directorate as the representative of the indigenous contras—the first time they had gained this level of representation. The most outstanding aspect of the meeting, however, was the concentration of political power in the hands of Enrique Bermúdez, who already controls the military operation.*
*The fact that "Comandante Quiche" is now the contra military commander is strictly a formality. "Quiche," like Bermúdez, represents the ex-National Guard members: he belonged to the EEBI, the elite group within the Guard led by Anastasio Somoza's son that specialized in repression.
Despite Bermúdez's longtime officer status in Somoza's National Guard, the corrupt authoritarianism other contras have accused him of exercising and his opposition to Sapoá and any end to the war, all of which made his election highly controversial, the Reagan administration had no other alternative if it wanted to maintain secure control of the contras. The directorate has become even more divided in the last few months, now not only for historical reasons, but because the sector headed by Alfredo César began to ally itself with Dukaki’ people, foreseeing a Democratic victory in the upcoming elections.
The cracks began to widen immediately after the election of the new directorate. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr., who had formed a "nationalist" current together with the contra commanders who had signed the Sapoá agreements, stated that "a dictatorship to overthrow another dictatorship" had been created in Santo Domingo. The entire "Southern Front"—7 commanders who supposedly control 2,700 soldiers—refused to recognize the new directorate. Exiled Social Christian groups directed by Jose Dávila rejected Social Christian Roberto Ferrey, the Robelo faction rejected Montalván, and Brooklyn Rivera rejected Diego as leader of the few remaining pockets of armed Miskitus.
In the new directorate, only Alfredo César, given his links to the Democratic party, could possibly get genuine negotiations underway with the Nicaraguan government. Bermúdez and Aristides Sánchez represent the far-right wing of the Republicans, and Diego, Ferrey and Montalván are not trusted by the political sectors they say they represent. For a few days it appeared that César and his faction might abandon the Republicans to continue negotiating with the Sandinistas on their own.
Facing such chaos, Abrams called an urgent meeting with the new directorate, to impose unity under the leadership of the Bermúdez wing. This unity, held together with chewing gum and bobby pins, has one function only: to get more money out of Congress. In his race against time, President Reagan desperately needs a live and "united" contra mannequin. The contras are only viable now if they are under the absolute control of someone the United States can itself control each step of the way. And the only man who fills the bill is Enrique Bermúdez.
Unite the opposition: Melton Plan takes the stageSince April, almost all of the Nicaraguan opposition parties—both parliamentary and extraparliamentary—have united in what is called the "Group of 14" to pressure the government for more political power. The National Dialogue set up in response to Esquipulas II had given them very high expectations in this area.
The Group of 14 is a tactical alliance that includes the Nicaraguan Democratic "Coordinadora," a coalition of far-right party, union and business groupings. The Coordinadora saw the climate of political pluralism and reconciliation promoted by Esquipulas II as a way to gain the political clout it had been unwilling to earn by participating in the 1984 elections or organizing a genuine base.
As Reagan's countdown continued, his Administration pushed the Nicaraguan political opposition to coalesce around the Coordinadora. This coalition maintains the same relationship to the Reagan Administration as the ex-Guard members of the contras: one of utter dependency.
Reagan's plans for an internal offensive, referred to as the "Melton plan," are based on the realities of Nicaragua's economic crisis. The effects of eight years of war, with US aggression both economic and military, are really beginning to bite. The steps taken by the government in February and June [see economic analysis in this issue] are designed to bring some order to an economy that was on the verge of collapse by the end of last year, but there’s no way to avoid a deteriorated standard of living for most Nicaraguans. The essential pieces of the plan are fomenting strikes, violent street demonstrations and permanent defiance of the authorities and the country's laws by the communication media—which have been functioning freely since Esquipulas II.
On July 3, 600 people from the Coordinadora, and particularly COSEP (the organization of large business owners), met in Estelí to announce their new political agenda: a "government of national salvation." Through international pressure and domestic street disturbances, they explained, the FSLN would be forced to hand power over to a government made up of the ultra-right groups, the armed counterrevolution, other opposition parties, and—according to La Prensa—"some" Sandinistas. This "salvation" government would then supposedly call new elections. The guest of honor at this meeting was US Ambassador Richard Melton, who was cheered from the platform and the crowd on several occasions.
La Prensa and various radio stations close to the Coordinadora and the Reagan Administration—among them Radio Cató1ica—placed great emphasis on promoting the new "government of national salvation" scheme. It was the domestic version of the contras' proposal for completely dismantling the current structure of government, a proposal they had put forward in the June talks, just two hours before ending the meeting. The aim of both was quite simple: block any real peace negotiations, given that both proposals are non-negotiable for the Nicaraguan government.
The role of the street demonstrations under such a provocative banner would create a backdrop of growing destabilization. On July 10 in the town of Nandaime, the Coordinadora organized a demonstration of some 3,000 people against the government and in favor of a government of national salvation. Fears that it was calculated to lead to violence were justified.* At the cry, "Here come the dogs!" made from the platform by Miriam Argüello, a leader of one of the Conservative Party factions, a group of demonstrators attacked the handful of police who were nearby (sans dogs) with rocks, knives and clubs. When police reinforcements arrived, they used tear gas for the first time ever, to disperse the crowd and halt the escalation of violence. The morning ended with dozens of demonstrators and police injured, and 42 people detained.** Among those jailed were four leaders of the Coordinadora, including its president, Carlos Huembes.
*This particular town was chosen to remind people of a 1981 demonstration that ended in confrontation between the Sandinistas and the followers of Alfonso Robelo, then leader of a recently formed political party called the MDN, and later a contra. Robelo had organized the demonstration.
**As this issue goes to press, 39 have been tried and sentenced for violation of the laws of public order by inciting violence or themselves using violence against the authorities.
Richard Melton had come to Nicaragua in mid-April as the new and perhaps last ambassador of the Reagan Administration. As soon as he arrived, he began to brazenly push at the limits of his post, violating the norms of at least public diplomatic behavior respected by his predecessors, Pezzullo, Quainton and Bergold. After two months of continuous contact with the country's opposition groups (much of which was secretly filmed by Nicaraguan TV news crews and shown on the nightly news to no visible diminishment of the practice), Melton viewed his task by July as publicly filling the leadership gap he saw within the Nicaraguan opposition.
On July 7, between the meeting in Estell and the demonstration in Nandaime, Comandante Bayardo Arce spoke for the first time about what he called the Melton Plan, describing Melton's leadership as a key part of this most recent US plan to destabilize and thus destroy the revolution. Just as the Reagan administration could not risk giving leadership of the counterrevolution over to someone in whom it had less confidence than in Bermúdez, it also did not dare, on the internal level, to risk a formula that was not that of the Reaganite Coordinadora, controlled directly by Ambassador Melton himself.
In Estelí, as La Prensa reported it, the COSEP representatives had called the Sandinistas a pack of young foxes, "who leave to rot what they don't eat themselves," and demanded the dismantling of revolutionary power. Melton applauded.
In Nandaime, the Coordinadora publicly unleashed the demonstrators against the police. Photos taken at the demonstration showed various US Embassy officials present and active during the melee. The Nicaraguan government later announced that the Embassy had given some 180,000 córdobas to each of the Coordinadora groups to organize the activity and bring together the demonstrators. The script of the US plan was thus revealed: it consisted of challenging authority and the laws to provoke a repressive reaction and thus unleash a vicious circle of provocation-repression-new provocation that could end up out of control. The Coordinadora had also called for a "March against Hunger" on July 17, two days before the anniversary of the revolution, and was organizing activities such as hunger strikes among the Somocistas in prison.
Within the Melton plan, the Coordinadora was anointed as the unifying vanguard, but there has never been real unity among parties of such differing ideologies as those of "the 14." Given the ever-growing internal divisions among Conservatives, Liberals, Social Christians and Socialists, the unity of these parties is stuck together with the same materials used for the armed counterrevolution: chewing gum, bobby pins—and US dollars. The ultra-Right is ready to serve any model like the Melton plan, dreaming of being pushed into power by the force of Reagan's last sweeps or by the first of Bush. The majority of the other parties—the parliamentary parties and extra-parliamentary ones close to them—are looking to the Democrats and moving to the right, confident that this will help them be chosen by Dukakis as his instruments to challenge Sandinista power.*
*Mauricio Diaz, head of the parliamentary Popular Social Christian Party, went to the Democratic Party convention in Atlanta to distribute a document asking for help for the opposition.
In mid July, both sectors of the Group of 14 visited President Arias to propose that he be a super-mediator between them and the Nicaraguan government to organize a new government (though they did not use the term "of national salvation"). The visit received little attention either nationally or internationally, and demonstrated again that in these final days of the Republican era, the majority of the opposition parties are looking more toward the United States than toward Nicaragua. The visit to Arias and the anti-Sandinista document they presented him could be interpreted as both a move from the more moderate sectors so the Democrats won't identify them as "closet Sandinistas" and as opportunism by the ultra-Right to make use of the prestige of Arias' position.
Once again opposition activity in Nicaragua ended up powerless by seeking international projection and making itself so dependent on the movements of US politicians. With such blinders on, the parties are ignoring both their limited existing base and the potential one they could use to challenge the Sandinistas if they were to take up a more realistic and nationalistic project.
The war’s not overIt goes without saying that the continuation of the war obstructs the Sapoá process. It also violates the spirit and letter of the Esquipulas II accords, which in essence propose to transfer the military conflicts to the arena of political confrontation.
The internal radicalization and social destabilization presupposed by the Melton Plan thus demonstrates an important point of tension with the continuation of military activity by the counterrevolution. Since March 23, when the Sapoá accords were signed, the Nicaraguan government has maintained a cessation of offensive military operations, renewing it each month; it is now in effect until August 31. Although the counterrevolutionary leadership committed itself in writing between March and June and verbally since then to a similar cease-fire, the contras have violated the accord on numerous occasions.
Beyond the information provided by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Defense (see chart above), the bodies of unarmed civilians and the high number of peasants kidnapped are the most eloquent proof of these violations.
Some of the contra attacks against civilians in July were particularly cruel. On July 4 several vehicles near Acoyapa (Chontales) were attacked as they were transporting peasants from a cooperative and some soldiers. Among the twelve people killed, seven were civilians, five of them women; ten were wounded. When the driver tried to flee the burning vehicle, he was grabbed and his throat slit. Typical of this kind of contra attack is that the vehicles are destroyed by anti-tank mines placed in the roads, and the passengers are then wounded or killed by machine-gun fire.
On July 2 the contras hit the Miskitu border town of San Carlos with mortars. Two sleeping children, one five and the other six years old, were torn apart by the indiscriminate mortar fire, and three women, including one 80-year-old, were wounded. Three Miskitu former contra fighters, members of the recently formed Indigenous Militia, were also killed. On July 19, five children and two adults were killed in an ambush on a civilian vehicle in Paiwitas. Such ambushes are always denied by contra spokespersons, who simply say the events did not occur, they are not responsible for them or they were provoked by Sandinistas.
On June 30 and again on July 8, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega asked Cardinal Obando and OAS Secretary Baena Soares, who are in charge of verifying the Sapoá accords, to carry out on-site investigations of the cease-fire violations in order to issue a judgment. The two letters are still waiting for a public response, and up to now there has been no action on verification. Cardinal Obando's differences with Baena Soares in the interpretation of what is happening appear to be what is holding up progress.
The large number of peasants, including women and children, being kidnapped during these months is an indication that the contra faction that follows Bermúdez remains active and even plans to continue the war, since kidnappings have always been done for the purpose of enlarging the contra ranks.
The total number of kidnapped in eight years of war now amounts to several thousand, and their families have no idea where or how they are. Are they in the camps in Honduras? Were they killed in combat wearing contra uniforms? Were they murdered? In the negotiations with the contra leaders, the Nicaraguan government demanded that the kidnapped people be released in reciprocity for the freedom granted to 100 imprisoned contras in April and the amnesty that has been in effect for several years for any contras who wants to put down their weapons. They gave the contra delegation the full names and places and dates of kidnapping for 1,000 victims.
In the June meeting, the contra leaders committed themselves to freeing 66 of the kidnapped, but they have not handed over even one. Driven to resolve this intolerably painful situation, a large group of mothers of the kidnapped from all regions of the country decided to be present every Thursday at the chancery of the Managua archdiocese until Cardinal Obando takes a more active role to solve this problem. On three Thursdays of July the mothers organized heartrending manifestations of pain and faith. The Cardinal did not receive them, designating his auxiliary bishops to do so. His representatives spoke of their limitations in trying to achieve anything concrete in this sphere, and referred back to the Somocistas still in prison (whom the government has already agreed to release according to a timetable the contras themselves have dragged their feet on).
As another part of Reagan's war plan for his waning months in the White House, the Honduran-US military maneuvers have come back on the scene this month. Throughout the Reagan years, these exercises have been used as an instrument to pressure Nicaragua and encourage the Honduras-based contras. They, too, are a flagrant violation of the Esquipulas II accords.
Despite months of all-out efforts to reach a negotiated peace, Nicaragua has to face hostile military action by some contra forces that do not respect the truce and hostile political action by groups that are trying to create an unmanageable situation. By July, Nicaragua's flexibility and concessions had borne no fruit, and both the government and the people were reaching a critical point in their patience.
Unite Central America: Enter ShultzIn late June, Secretary of State George Shultz kicked off the international version of the Melton plan, aimed at destabilizing the revolution by uniting the other Central American countries in a series of demands and pressures unacceptable to Nicaragua, thus pushing it into an "intransigent" stance that would end up isolating it in the region. Shultz has several options for achieving this unity, from grinding diplomatic pressures to militaristic ones that run the risk of erupting into a regional war. At the diplomatic level he could aim at "breaking Esquipulas in the name of Esquipulas" or simply manipulate it to reassert pressure only on Nicaragua.
Shultz took up the reins of this offensive himself, to give it the greatest possible weight. His first trip to Central America, from June 29 to July 1, overflowed with anti-Nicaragua rhetoric. The argument was not new: "Nicaragua is the only rotten apple in the democratic Central American barrel." The Melton Plan, with its internal provocations and pressures, is necessary to support this international assertion.
At the start of that trip, Shultz declared that his government "will not give Nicaragua any peace or quiet," nor will it "tolerate Nicaragua's intentions to subvert the Central American democracies." He tried to make clear that this was "a message from the United States" and not just from the administration he represents.
During the tour, psychological pressure was applied in Panama with the delivery to the Southern Command of 5,000 caskets and 5,000 plastic bags for bodies of US citizens. The message was unavoidable: the United States is ready for intervention in Central America; everything has been taken into account, even the deaths that will occur.
His pockets bulging with economic incentives, Shultz sought to put together an anti-Nicaragua and anti-Esquipulas alliance with the region's governments. In Guatemala he signed an agreement to cooperate in development programs to the tune of $75 million. To the Duarte government in El Salvador he gave a donation of $125 million. For the government of Honduras there was one $57.3 million agreement for health programs and another, the amount of which was not specified but which could be extended for 20 years, for the installation of radar equipment to be used by the US in the "anti-drug" struggle in the Caribbean. Finally, an AID donation of $85 million to help with Costa Rica's balance of payments paved the way for Shultz’ visit there.
In San José, Shultz made categorical declarations about Nicaragua's failure to comply with the Esquipulas II accords. His words elicited a tough protest note from the Nicaraguan government: "We must remind Mr. Shultz that he is nothing more than a spokesperson of a delinquent state that has been condemned in the world's highest court of justice."*
*While in San Jose, Shultz met with four politicians from the Coordinadora: Adán Fletes, Gilberto Cuadra, Silviano Matamoros and Antonio Jarquín. The choice of these four leaders was made by the US Embassy in Managua and created bad feelings among the majority of the opposition parties in the Group of 14. Typically, Shultz and Melton chose "their men" from among the most reactionary minority in the country.
Shultz achieved an easy consensus among the Central Americans on that trip, given the economic sweeteners and the fact that they were being asked to do what they have always done in greater or lesser measure according to the political moment: focus pressure on Nicaragua, accusing it alone of failing to comply with Esquipulas—especially for not having reached a definitive cease-fire. He also got agreement for a meeting between himself and the foreign ministers of Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala on August 1.
Indications are that Shultz’ Central American trip also had the objective of reassuring the Central American right wing and military, which have been worried about the Reagan Administration's failure to remove Noriega from the scene in Panama. Part of Shultz’ mission, then, was to firmly establish that the US does have a Central American policy and that it is still a hard-line policy in spite of the reversal in Panama.
Roving Ambassador to Central America Morris Busby who, together with Elliott Abrams, accompanied Shultz, made another swing through the region in the middle of the month. His objective was to draw up a document that the foreign ministers would release after their August 1 meeting with Shultz. The resulting ten pages, in which the year's progress of Esquipulas II was evaluated, featured and condemned Nicaragua as the "rotten apple" that had not complied with the peace accord's provisions. This would surely open the door to reviving military aid for the contras.
At the time of Shultz's trip, there was no pretext for such an extreme document. But by the time of Busby's, such pretexts were in abundance: Melton had been expelled, La Prensa closed and so forth. Those who saw the draft document described it as a "virtual declaration of war" against Nicaragua. The unity of the Central Americans was achieved with the same materials as that of the contras and the internal Nicaraguan opposition.
Unite Congress:The Reagan Administration, meanwhile, sought domestic consensus for renewed military aid for the contras, even if only on a small scale. The White House prepared one request in June but didn’t submit it to Congress, doubtful of the reception it would receive from the Democrats.
New aid for the contras
When Ambassador Melton was expelled from Nicaragua, the Republicans grabbed at this unexpected opportunity. Sen. Robert Dole dusted off the proposal requesting $47 million, including $20 million in military aid and $27 million in so-called humanitarian aid. Dole's package left decisions about the delivery of aid completely up to Reagan, opening the door for the reentry of the CIA. While the Republicans' main aim was to obtain aid for the contras, they were also interested in dividing the Democrats in an election year. Dole himself was trying to win points among more conservative Republicans, his eye on not only the current elections but also the 1992 presidential campaign.
The contra aid issue is indeed a divisive one for the Democrats, and goes right up to the top: Dukakis opposes aid, while his more conservative vice-presidential candidate, Lloyd Bentsen, has consistently voted for it, except when he ran for senator from Texas. To avoid internal splits, the Democrats didn't ever mention Nicaragua in the platform they presented at the Atlanta Convention. Their reluctance to touch this topic reflects the growing polarization among the US public regarding Nicaragua.
To avoid at all costs a debate that could only weaken the party, the Democrats began to draft their own aid legislation. Their goal was to avoid Republican accusations that they were soft on the Sandinistas, and mollify their own hawks and swing votes—an expression of their basic "no, but yes" policy. United against the Republicans, their stance at least makes it more difficult for Reagan to achieve bipartisan support to continue the war.
What's behind Nicaragua's response? Nicaragua's goals, as could be expected, are diametrically opposite those of the US. While the Reagan administration finds it necessary to scrap the Esquipulas and Sapoá accords in order to achieve its objectives, the Nicaraguan government has continued to work within the framework of negotiations established by these accords as the most viable way to reach a peaceful solution to the US-Nicaraguan conflict.
While the Reagan Administration wants to unite the counterrevolution behind continuation of the war, Nicaragua is trying to keep the Sapoá accords alive, despite the end of the talks in mid-June. Twenty of the 32 points in the government negotiation proposal had already been approved, and the ups and downs the plan faces are no more than could be expected in any process of political and military negotiations. When the ninth anniversary of the revolution was celebrated in July, President Ortega issued a call for a new round of talks at the end of that month and extended a unilateral cease-fire for another month. He also repeated his call for bilateral negotiations with the United States to resolve security issues. The US immediately rejected the proposal.
While the United States is trying to unite the four other Central American countries to isolate Nicaragua, the Sandinista government is seeking another meeting of the five Central American nations, with the proposal that they revive the International Verification and Follow-up Commission to judge fulfillment of the Esquipulas II accords.
The verification commission, made up of all the Central American foreign ministers and those of the eight Contadora and Support Group countries, along with the secretaries general of the OAS and UN, was created to provide an international guarantee that the Esquipulas accords would not end up as so much scrap paper. The commission issued its first and last report in January 1988, spelling out the failures of compliance in all five countries, while also noting advances. The document demanded equal compliance from all signatory nations, and did not isolate Nicaragua. All but Nicaragua rejected the report and opted to replace the commission with an Executive Commission composed only of the five Central American foreign ministers. Although Nicaragua was strongly against this change, which made the commission's members judges of their own country's behavior, it was forced to approve it as the only way to save the peace process as a whole.
In the months following this decision, the Executive Commission has been incapable of verifying anything, failing even to establish any concrete mechanisms for verification. In the letter President Ortega sent to President Arias calling for the International Commission's reinstatement and for a new Central American summit, he stressed the dangers for the peace process when nations are left to be both judge and party in the conflict.
While the US was attempting to unify the Nicaraguan opposition around a plan that openly challenged national laws, the Nicaraguan government continued to work towards even greater institutionalization. In July the National Assembly passed the Municipalities Law, establishing rules for municipal elections, and opened debate on the new Electoral Law, which will replace the one passed by the provisional legislature in 1984 and will regulate future national elections as well as those for the Central American Parliament. These laws develop the mechanisms of representative and participatory democracy as enshrined in the Constitution, and establish a framework in which the armed conflict can eventually play itself out on political terrain.
The Melton Plan’s foretold crisis The flexibility and tolerance shown by the Nicaraguan government in recent months was a risky measure. Although many Nicaraguans believe that the government's flexibility—giving amnesty, lifting the state of emergency, opening a dialogue with the contras, giving them concessions —is necessary and justified if it can win peace, the continuation of the war and ongoing terrorist actions by the contras changes the picture.
The day before the disturbance in Nandaime, a group of contras, using anti-tank mines and mortar fire, ambushed a truck taking some dance groups and women to visit their children and friends in the military school at Mulukukú Three of the women and two teenagers were killed, while four other women were wounded. Among the dead were two leaders of the Juventud Sandinista youth group, one of whom had just been elected to a post in the Federation of High School Students in Managua. The next afternoon, President Ortega was to be found visiting homes in Managua holding wakes for the victims of this attack, and visiting the hospital where the wounded were taken. The elderly father of Ruth Rocha, a 45-year-old woman killed while visiting her son in the Mulukukú attack, told President Ortega: "My son, treat them like they’ve treated us; start another Operation Danto," referring to the spectacular Sandinista offensive against the contras in March.
Many people were even more pained when, after this contra attack, La Prensa and some radio stations, including Radio Católica, either kept quiet about the episode or blamed it on the "intransigent Sandinistas," making fun of the revolutionary authorities or even of those killed in the attack.
The events in Estelí and Nandaime were worrisome signs of the advances of the Melton Plan. The government was in a dilemma; should it continue allowing such activities, which openly flout national laws, and thus let Congress see that the Nicaraguan opposition could operate freely? Or should it enforce the laws, sending a message to Democrats as well as Republicans that any future negotiations with Nicaragua would have to start from a basis of respect for its laws and institutions?
If the government opted for the first choice, permitting disrespect for authority, it would only encourage the US and its Nicaraguan allies to continue pressing the limits of this flexibility until they were either stopped or provoked a generalized crisis in Nicaragua aimed at leading to the government's downfall. The second choice would clearly exact a price from Nicaragua's international image, but would also establish the rules of the game so as to get beyond the Melton plan, at the same time laying the basis for future relations with the United States, whether with Bush or Dukakis. The Nicaraguan government decided to pay the costs of the second option, thus spelling out the boundaries between flexibility and firmness. Although the measures taken by the government surprised many international observers, this crisis had in fact been brewing for a long time.
On July 11, the day after Nandaime, Ambassador Richard Melton was declared persona non grata and given 72 hours to leave the country, along with seven high embassy officials. On the same day, La Prensa was closed for 15 days and Radio Católica was closed for an indefinite period. In this way, three strategic centers of the Melton Plan were at least temporarily neutralized.
The Nicaraguan people happily accepted these decisions. The expulsion of Ambassador Melton, in particular, was greeted with the same gleeful nationalist pride that had been heard last year on buses and street corners when Senator Dole founded himself bested by President Ortega in an unexpected open debate.
The active anti-Nicaraguan government stance that Melton assumed was not only a provocation for the Sandinistas but a violation of the Vienna Convention, which prohibits diplomats taking any political actions whatever against a government that has received them. To applaud the strategy of setting up a "government of national salvation" went beyond meddling; it was encouraging illegality. The Sandinistas had been freely elected in 1984 with a 67% majority, and according to the Nicaraguan Constitution their term of office is for six years. To proclaim the Sandinista government illegitimate, so you can then call for a new government, is thus not only contrary to fact, but also to the Esquipulas II accords, which recognize all five Central American governments as legitimate. All five are required to take steps toward democratization, more political spaces for opposition and national reconciliation, but this is all to happen without violating the country's legal constitutional framework. Melton's activities were patently illegal, as were the positions he was encouraging others to take.
Announcing the expulsion, Nicaragua's foreign minister, Father Miguel D'Escoto, said, "Nicaragua is a sovereign nation and not the United States' back yard. We are not going to accept proconsuls here, because this is not Honduras." In response to a question about possible US reprisals, he said, "It’s difficult to speak of reprisals when we’re facing a government that maintains a policy of systematic assassination against our people. What more can they do?"
The Reagan administration response, although long on rhetoric, was no more than standard in such diplomatic incidents: it reciprocated in kind and number. Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States, Carlos Tünnerman,* and seven other Nicaraguan officials were given 72 hours to leave US soil.
*Tünnerman was also Nicaragua's representative to the Organization of American States, which sits in Washington. The Nicaraguan government tried to keep Tünnerman in the United States so he could carry out this other function, but the timid reaction of the OAS’ Permanent Council, which met urgently at Nicaragua's request to discuss the situation, was insufficient to block the expulsion. This has left unresolved a legal wrangle over the rights of the Latin American countries and those of the United States as the country where the OAS meets.
"It is an honor for me and a privilege for my professional record to be ‘non grata’ to President Reagan," Tünnerman declared as he left the United States.
Reagan repeatedly said there would be no break in diplomatic relations with Nicaragua. His administration needs the cover of a diplomatic post in Managua for its political agenda.
The Nicaraguan government had thought that the expulsion of the US ambassador would be the most controversial of the delicate measures it decided to take. In Washington political circles, however, the close relationship between Ambassador Melton and Under-Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, an extremist among Washington contra supporters and the only high-ranking one who kept his job after the Contragate scandal, is quite well known. Many Republican and Democratic politicians were thus far more critical of the closing of La Prensa and Radio Católica than of the sanctions against the US diplomat. A yardstick of the limited political sophistication of the members of those circles is that while none appeared surprised to learn that Melton had been up to skullduggery, they still took great umbrage when the Sandinistas acted punitively against those illustrious guardians of the free Nicaraguan press who had enlisted in his conspiracy.
It is not coherent to isolate the two measures. From the day it was reopened in October of last year right up to the day it was temporarily shut again, La Prensa has voiced the Reagan interpretation of the national reconciliation and political pluralism proposed by Esquipulas II. It has consistently excluded the FSLN and the people that party serves—which remains the majority of Nicaraguans—from its coverage. La Prensa’s daily output has been the crudest sensationalism, character assassination and inaccurate and unverified stories, which often prove to be outright lies; libeled individuals have often angrily demonstrated this with ample detail in letters published by the other newspapers, but the damage has by then been done. The intent, so bald-faced as to be undeniable, is to undermine confidence in the government and its supporters and thus encourage civil disobedience and violence among its more gullible readers. This also describes Radio Católica, which shields its political orientation under its relationship with the Catholic Church hierarchy in Managua.*
*At the time of writing, public reactions from the Vatican between flexibility and outright illegality are not known.
This misuse of the media violates the Nicaraguan Constitution, which guarantees the right to "responsible" information "at the service of national interests." The continuing war makes the role those media are playing even more irresponsible. It must also be noted that closing communication media does not violate Esquipulas II, which calls for pluralism in information, but always within the context of each country's laws.*
*After being shut for 15 days, La Prensa began publishing again at the end of July. Its policies were little altered. A slightly more moderated tone can perhaps be detected in its attacks on government figures. Radio Cató1ica will begin broadcasting again once there is an agreement between the government and the Managua church hierarchy.
The three steps the government took to begin neutralizing the Melton Plan freed Nicaragua from a crisis that has recurred several times during the revolutionary process. Because of internal policies and US aggression, the Nicaraguan government has been forced at several points to forcefully curtail an increase in aggression and clearly signal the line.
Comandante Bayardo Arce described the current situation this way: "The little games of the Right are over; the double standards are over. The revolution will be respected or we will make it be respected!" And Comandante Tomas Borge added, "The revolution is tolerant, but it’s not stupid. The government accepts an opposition that is combative, loud, passionate or nostalgic for the past, but that’s quite different from disrespect for the law and civil disobedience. We accept broad liberty of expression but neither shameful disinformation, organized lies, criminal slander nor communication media that lend themselves as instruments of ideological terror or of a foreign power." President Daniel Ortega, with the bodies of the women killed in the contra ambush at Mulukukú, said it most plainly: "With this drop, the glass overflowed."
Although the measures were the domestic province of the Nicaraguan government, many governments of the world take upon themselves the right to focus a judgmental magnifying glass on every step which the Nicaraguan government takes. That instrument is hard at work now, and the critical statements are appearing at the same time as pressure is being brought to bear on Nicaragua, including threats of cutting economic aid.
And it’s always the United States, itself a party to the conflict, that appoints itself as the final arbiter of justice and democracy. After the steps were taken to derail the Melton Plan, Ambassador Morris Busby categorically declared, "There is no doubt that the commitments of Esquipulas II are now dead." In reality, Busby saw the crisis as an opportunity to kill them and Esquipulas itself.
The anti-Sandinista rhetoric reached a peak in both houses of the US Congress, with almost complete bipartisan support for a resolution condemning the government of Nicaragua for violating "human rights," asking the other Central American governments to assess the situation and warning that Congress may renew military aid to the contras. Apparently carried away by his own rhetoric, Democratic Congressman Thomas Foley declared that "repression with teargas" had strengthened the possibility of more money for the contra war. Asked how Nicaragua's actions differed from those recently taken by the Salvadoran government, which left 300 wounded from the teargas and guns used to suppress a broad-based demonstration in San Salvador, the Congressman said simply, "The government of El Salvador is our ally."
The Sandinista government also made a forceful and challenging diplomatic response to the Shultz initiative. As Shultz was preparing for his first Central American tour, doling out millions of dollars and turning up the diplomatic heat, Daniel Ortega traveled to Cuba to receive help from the socialist government of Fidel Castro and be awarded the highest Cuban decoration, the Order of José Martí.
Although he had traveled to Cuba many times before, this was President Ortega's first official visit to the island. The timing was not accidental. Receiving his decoration, Ortega referred to the many "conspiracies" that the Cuban and Sandinista governments had carried out and would continue to carry out to aid justice and peace in Latin America.
On the occasion of the visit, Cuba gave Nicaragua an aid package worth some $150 million, including the pardoning of a $50 million debt, initial investment in a timber processing plant on the Atlantic Coast (worth some $37 million), 90,000 tons of cement each year for three years, a donation of raw materials for Nicaraguan industry, a donation of technology for the renovation of the sugar industry and a trade relationship agreement equivalent to $2 of Cuban goods exported to Nicaragua for every $1 of Nicaraguan goods imported.
The Nicaraguan government and FSLN leaders are also being more and more explicit about the need for other Central American countries to comply with the commitments undertaken when they all signed Esquipulas II. That document places the same responsibilities on each and every signatory, and Nicaragua has begun spelling out the accords that haven’t been met. For most of the past year, the Nicaraguan government has been very cautious about criticizing the level of compliance of the other Central American governments; it has put more work into its own compliance than into demanding it from others. Now, for the first time, this balance is being adjusted. It is one more instance of the government trying to stake out more clearly the line between flexibility and firmness.
As part of this clarification process, the Nicaraguan government also explicitly affirmed its intention to build socialism, a Nicaraguan socialism. In the President's ninth anniversary speech on July 19, this was perhaps the point he emphasized most and was certainly the one most applauded by his audience. Other government leaders also spoke of it in their many meetings last month to explain the new economic measures to agricultural and industrial workers around the country. The affirmation is also a way of putting more cards, face up, on the table for any future negotiations.
In August, the fate of the difficult and indirect "tripartite dialogue" that Esquipulas opened between Nicaragua and US Republicans and Democrats will be clearer. As for July's messages, each of the three parties put new cards on the table around the "foretold" crisis:
* The Republicans developed the Melton Plan to unite the Nicaraguan
opposition around him, and the Shultz Plan to unify the Central American
governments; they stuck the contra directorate back together; and they
launched a new effort to build a bipartisan consensus in Congress for
continuing the war. Although their plans are weak and have already been
dealt some initial blows, the Republicans are not going to fold their
tents and give up. They don't want dialogue, they want war.
* Nicaragua acted decisively, after long months of being flexible, despite the high international price. The rules of the game were clearer for everyone, both for continuing the existing dialogue and for beginning a new, hopefully direct one with a new Democratic or Republican administration in a few months' time. Nicaragua wants and needs peace.
* The Democrats, absorbed in the election campaign where they are so far running ahead of the Republicans, desperately want to avoid the subject of Nicaragua, or to use it only to throw punches at the Republicans. They have completely suspended their dialogue with Nicaragua for the duration. They want, above all, to win the election.
The July crisis, which reshuffled the deck for a new round, left various questions still up in the air. The answers will largely depend on the sort of aid Congress approves in August. Any aid—whether in the form of bullets or boots—violates the Esquipulas and Sapoá agreements. Nicaragua’s responses will depend on the package that’s approved and the conditions that are attached. The pace of the game will increase in intensity if the costs are projected beyond the Reagan era.