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  Number 88 | Noviembre 1988
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Nicaragua

Nicaragua Tries Peace Moves While Waiting for US Voters

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While the US Congress voted more contra aid, the contras continued attacking civilian and military targets and the Honduran army repeatedly fired on Nicaraguan border posts and nearby towns in September, the Nicaraguan government made more gestures towards peace. It extended its unilateral cease-fire on offensive actions for another month, met with a contra delegation, agreed to a date for a Central American summit and continued its efforts to bring lasting peace to the Atlantic Coast. Nicaragua's room to maneuver is limited, however, as all sides await November's results of the US presidential elections.

Some small steps for peace

Calling on the US to "respect our autonomy and right to make our own political decisions with complete independence," Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, traveling to neighboring countries, got agreement on a new Central American summit meeting. The Presidents will meet in San Salvador in mid-November, a date reflecting the hope that once the US elections are out of the way, the peace process may again pick up steam.

The Central American Presidents may be anxious to meet before Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte's health worsens. His health problems and Cerezo's shaky hold on power make it difficult to predict the immediate future of Central American negotiations, although Honduras appears to have stopped conditioning such talks on Nicaragua's withdrawing its case against Honduras from the World Court. The summit may deal with such themes as reactivating the International Commission of Verification and Follow-Up.

An attempt by the Nicaraguan government to renew talks with the contras failed to bear fruit. The contra leaders, who had rejected the request for dialogue just the week before, agreed to a preliminary meeting in Guatemala after emerging from two days of talks with US officials, including Secretary of State Shultz. Meeting for four hours on September 19 to prepare the way for a high-level dialogue, the Nicaraguan government and contra delegations disagreed over where the talks should occur and preconditions set by the contras.

The contras, who have always insisted on negotiations taking place in Managua, now demand an alternative site. As new preconditions, they insisted on the release of the prisoners arrested at the July Nandaime demonstration and the lifting of all measures restricting public demonstrations or on the media. They earlier insisted that they would only meet with President Ortega.

Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco insisted that Managua be the site of talks. As Sofía Clark, formerly of the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington, explained, it is a question of pragmatics. "We want the talks to take place in Nicaragua, because it’s the only place where useful steps have taken place."

The Nicaraguan delegation also rejected any prior conditions for negotiations. Referring to the demand to release the Nandaime prisoners, President Ortega had insisted on respect for national laws. "There are no untouchables here, and these provocateurs will stay in jail the length of time that the judge decides."

After the talks broke off, Vice Foreign Minister Tinoco stated that the government is still interested in continuing negotiations on a definitive cease-fire and is willing to meet next month with the contras. This met with no response from the contra leadership.

Waging peace at home

Within Nicaragua's borders, efforts for peace inched forward. Although at this moment there is no large-scale laying down of arms in the Pacific or interior regions of Nicaragua, that process has been proceeding quietly but steadily on the Atlantic Coast.

Ten military leaders from the indigenous rebel group Yatama signed a peace agreement October 1, representing some 300 of their troops, and agreed to form a self-defense militia to protect their communities around the Prinzapolka River. The government in turn promised to address the health care, food and production needs of these communities. This is the second largest breakaway group to sign such an accord since the dialogue process began over three years ago. Well over 1,500 indigenous rebels have now reached similar agreements and still others have taken amnesty or simply slipped back into their communities. The few hundred Miskitos still committed to continuing the fight are under the leadership of Commander Osorno Coleman and Miskito pastor Wycliffe Diego, who now holds a seat on the directorate of the Nicaraguan Resistance.

In Region V (Chontales-Boaco) and Region VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega), the government launched an unusual campaign to bring a message of peace to war-torn peasant communities of the Nicaraguan interior. Hiking long distances into isolated mountain villages, high-level government and army representatives met with peasants and their religious and civic leaders. In village assemblies, they asked for and received complaints about army abuses, problems of marketing crops and requests for help in building roads and bridges washed away by rains. The government representatives reached agreements to fix the roads and bridges with community help and to address peasant grievances against the army, including applying the draft law more flexibly and paying claims for produce and cattle taken improperly by the army in the past. Some of these assemblies concluded with a Mass held by a local priest. The government delegation was joined by a medical brigade that gave hundreds of vaccinations and treated many cases, particularly of malaria, in these communities rarely if ever visited by doctors.

Until recently, contra presence was heavy in these areas. "That the government now enters deep into the mountains where before only the contras were seen, and that now we peasants can go down to the towns without the contras following us, is a sign that we're moving on the right road to peace," said Máximo Fernández, a farmer in Region V.

One more vote for war

On September 30, the US House of Representatives approved by 327 to 77 a $282.6 billion defense spending bill which included new contra aid. The complex aid package contained $27 million for "non-lethal" aid until next March, $5 million in medical aid to be administered by Nicaragua's Catholic Church and $20 million in "insurance" for a replacement in case a plane delivering the aid gets downed.

In addition, $16.3 million in previously frozen military aid, plus $5 million towards transportation for this aid, may be granted if President Reagan certifies to Congress that two of the three following conditions are met: the Sandinistas conduct "unprovoked" attacks on the contras; Nicaragua blatantly violates the Central American peace accords; and/or the USSR continues to provide an "unacceptable" level of military aid to Managua. Reagan would also have to satisfy Congress that he had talked with the other four Central American Presidents and would have to report on their recommendations. Congress also dedicated $2 million in National Endowment for Democracy funds for the internal opposition in Nicaragua. That is nearly five times the money given them through the NED two years ago.

Congress apparently sees this as a way to pass the buck to the next administration, avoiding a bitter quarrel during a time when both parties prefer not to dwell on Nicaragua as an election issue. The Republicans managed to keep contra aid alive until the next term and the Democrats managed not to be stuck with the label that they are "soft on Communism." They also succeeded in slapping together a package so ambiguous that both Michael Dukakis and his running mate Lloyd Bentsen, with their different views on the issue, could support it.

But to Nicaragua, the aid package is one more vote for war.

First, the package ensures that the whole contra policy survives to the next administration, making it more likely that even a Democratic administration would continue it, out of inertia, if nothing else. The money also allows the contras, some of whom are at the point of cutting their losses and deserting, to hold on for another six months.

Second, the conditions on the military aid are so loosely stated, and display such a touching faith in the Reagan administration's ability to present the facts, that President Reagan could easily assert that they hold true. A full-scale contra attack to which the Sandinistas could be said to respond with "unprovoked" attacks, a continuation not increase in Soviet military aid, or attacks from Honduras (which are ongoing) to which Nicaragua responded or could be said to respond, could all be used to manufacture the conditions needed. Indeed, just a few days after the aid was voted, a presidential spokesman noted that Reagan was considering asking for release of the military aid. Nicaragua continues to brace for an "October surprise," a last Reagan Administration attempt to secure its objectives in Nicaragua.

News of the aid for the internal opposition was greeted with dismay by most of the opposition parties inside Nicaragua. While many of them depend on funds from outside Nicaragua, such as from international party organizations, there is some reluctance to be shown publicly receiving funds from the US. The Nicaraguan opposition is weakened by receiving open aid from the very source seeking to overthrow the popularly elected government, a delegitimizing effect the US Congress apparently does not consider.

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, while by no means rejecting the medical aid, said he had not been consulted and knew nothing about it. President Ortega explained his objection to both the $5 million in medical aid and $17 million previously voted to aid children war victims. "We cannot accept resources from the Yankee government for Nicaraguan children when on the other hand it is approving funds to continue killing the Nicaraguan people."

On October 6, the National Assembly passed a law prohibiting the use of funds from the US Congress." The law would make receipt of such funds treasonable, and subject to 4-12 years of imprisonment.

These funds have only brought "death, sorrow and limits on the social and economic development of the Nicaraguan people," commented National Assembly vice president Leticia Herrera. Conservative leader Clemente Guido, one of several opposition members who voted against the proposal, felt the decision was "impolitic" and that funds would be slipped in anyway, through foreign bank accounts. But Nicaraguan Socialist Party representative Domingo Sánchez disagreed. "It isn't possible to receive money from an enemy power, even to go to a costume party."

Such restrictions on receiving foreign aid are not uncommon. A US law prohibits foreign nationals from contributing money or anything else of value towards elections for any political post. It is illegal for US candidates to accept such funds.

Destabilizing Nicaragua

If news of the funding for the opposition brought dismay, House Speaker Jim Wright's revelations that the CIA had "deliberately done things to provoke an overreaction on the part of the government in Nicaragua," produced real shock waves. While hardly news to the government or political observers in Nicaragua, the opposition rapidly sought to disassociate themselves from the CIA. Some defended themselves by going on the offensive. Some opposition members sent a critical letter to Wright while the opposition daily La Prensa printed stories focusing on Wright's ethics.

In the US, Reagan Administration officials, while not denying the charges, also focused attention on Wright's temerity in revealing information given in private briefings to the public. Sen. Wright defended himself energetically, arguing that the question "is not what I said and whether I should have said it," but rather "what our government has done and whether we should be doing it."

Wright noted that his remarks had been public information for years, and cited as proof former CIA analyst David MacMichael's testimony at the World Court as far back as 1985. MacMichael explained then that the hidden US agenda in Nicaragua has not been to make Nicaragua more democratic but to make the Sandinistas more radical, thus justifying a response. "It was hoped the Nicaraguan government would clamp down on civil liberties within Nicaragua itself, arresting its opposition, demonstrating its allegedly inherent totalitarian nature and thus increase domestic dissent within the country. Further, it was hoped that there would be reaction against US citizens, particularly against US diplomatic personnel within Nicaragua and thus serve to demonstrate the hostility of Nicaragua toward the United States."

Senator Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Latin America, said he could not understand why anyone would find Mr. Wright's declarations shocking. "You would shock me if you told me that the agency was not orchestrating people to have disruptive demonstrations. An agency that would mine harbors in violation of international law or publish pamphlets advising the contras how to execute government officials could easily do that."

Representative David Bonior issued a letter to his House colleagues recalling the CIA's involvement in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, saying that this August the press reported the existence of a $10-12 million account for the Nicaraguan internal opposition. Bonior observed that the US people support democracy through free elections, not through covert actions.

In the light of the July events at Nandaime, US Ambassador Richard Melton's alleged role in them and his subsequent expulsion from Nicaragua and Wright's more recent revelations, MacMichael's analysis rings true. It is all the more relevant today, as the emphasis in US policy switches from external aggression to internal destabilization.

The Nicaraguan government's concern about destabilizing, provocative actions is thus not an idle fear. The Ministry of the Interior denied a permit to hold an opposition march late in September, but doing so obviously had a political cost. (Twenty-three people staged a 3-day hunger strike at Democratic Coordinator headquarters in protest of the permit denial.) But this is outweighed by the government's fear of another situation like Nandaime where the crowd might again try to provoke a police response that could be played up internationally. An earlier demonstration, called for September 4 and billed by opposition parties as a "march of 100,000," had failed to materialize. Amidst rumors of opposition quarreling over the event's sponsorship, La Prensa a week before the date rather lamely cited the high cost of fuel and heavy rains as reasons for postponement.

The "third way": A lead balloon

With more fanfare outside Nicaragua than within, Social Christian leader Erick Ramírez teamed up with excontra leader Edén Pastora, inviting other opposition members to join them as a "third way" between the contras and the Sandinista government.

Pastora—known as "Comandante Cero" when he was with the Sandinista Front prior to the 1979 triumph—led the contra group ARDE but then quit, citing as his motive the dominance of former National Guardsmen in the main contra formation, the FDN. Known alternatively as "Comandante Kodak" by the contras for his penchant for having his photo taken while in battle, he may still be a charismatic figure but at this point is regarded as fickle and unreliable by all sides.

Opposition politicians interviewed by La Prensa showed doubts and confusion about this so-called "third way." Ramiro Gurdián, leader of the far-right coalition, the Coordinadora Democrática, politely noted that it must be a "personal attitude" taken by Ramírez. Popular Social Christian Party leader Mauricio Díaz, calling the move "premature" and unsuitable due to its abandonment of the Esquipulas II context, stated that "this position will politicize Nicaragua further and doesn't lead to a reasonable, civilized and political solution." Some opposition leaders objected to the inclusion of Pastora, a military man, as they sought to establish their image as a civic opposition, especially given the possibility of a Dukakis administration.

The initiative launched by Pastora and Ramírez with the pretext of unifying the opposition, seems by the opposition's responses to have been done without prior consultation. Without even La Prensa's backing, the trial balloon may quickly lose altitude.

The US gets petty

Petty harassment of both Nicaraguans and the US solidarity movement stepped up recently in a last-ditch attempt by outgoing Reagan Administration officials to undermine efforts by US citizens to learn directly about Nicaragua and conduct their own "alternative foreign policy."

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega cancelled his trip to the US to address the UN and the OAS due to the US refusal to grant visas for his entire delegation on time. On an even pettier note, visas were denied to the Nicaraguan representative to the "Maja" beauty pageant to be held in Puerto Rico and to a children's musical group from the Batahola neighborhood in Managua.

On August 31, in Madison, Wisconsin, US Customs officials seized Nicaraguan coffee and crafts sold by the solidarity organization Trade for Peace, claiming this violated the trade embargo. US Customs officials also seized a shipment of tools, medical supplies and building equipment in Canada due to be sent to Nicaragua by California-based APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua). APSNICA declared that these actions were "clearly harassment" and noted that "all of the materials seized are unquestionably exempt from the US trade embargo."

Solidarity efforts, however, scored a point in the case brought against US Customs by the Veterans for Peace for stopping their caravan of trucks filled with humanitarian aid for Nicaragua. A Federal District judge ruled the aid was humanitarian and the actions of Customs were thus improper. "The President has no authority to regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, donations of articles that the donor intends to be used to relieve human suffering," he noted. If this judgment is not appealed, it will set a helpful precedent for such cases.

Abandoning USS Honduras

There are some indications that, despite Reagan Administration efforts to keep the contra policy afloat, both the contras and the US's Honduran allies are abandoning a sinking ship.

US State Department and immigration officials said many contras were already making their way north across the Río Grande, entering the US illegally, according to a New York Times report on October 1. President Reagan assured anxious Honduran officials that the United States "accepts responsibility" for contras and refugees living in Honduras and that some of them can be admitted as refugees to the US. US officials confirmed they had begun discussing how to deal with potential refugee problems once the contras disband. This marks the first public admission by the US government that the contra policy may be in its last days.

Contras in Honduras have been selling arms to Salvadoran guerrillas and to Honduran citizens, according to revelations by an excontra chief in charge of procurements to the Honduran daily El Tiempo. Horacio Arce, who quit his post in protest over this corruption, gave examples of another contra chief who recently sold 112 AK-47 rifles and yet others who are selling medicines given to the contras as part of humanitarian aid packages. The Honduran government's increasing insistence on settling the contras outside of their country may reflect the contras' growing involvement in such criminal activities and the Honduran government's concern about the gradually building popular unrest.

That the contras are selling arms to the FMLN has its ironic twist. The never-proven accusation that the Sandinistas were supplying arms to the FMLN—and thus "exporting revolution"—was the initial justification for the US-contra war against Nicaragua. A high-level officer in the FMLN commented wryly on the contras' arms dealing. "The US Congress members shouldn't worry. Their money is in good hands."

In a surprising move, Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos López Contreras requested the United Nations Secretary General to provide an international peacekeeping force to monitor Honduras' borders with Nicaragua and with its traditional enemy, El Salvador. Nicaragua immediately backed this proposal in the UN; in fact, it is a measure Nicaragua has repeatedly requested in the past and Honduras has always refused. The border force may include representatives of West Germany, Canada and Spain. López Contreras noted that there are currently 300,000 Central American refugees in Honduras, and called for their relocation to other countries, given the excessive strain on Honduras. It is not clear yet whether the move by Honduras is genuine or more of its traditional posturing—a show of breaking ranks from US policy in order to bargain for a better deal from the US.

Indeed, at the same time as such moves, in which a rare glimmer of national assertiveness could be seen, there were reports that Honduras and the United States are considering a pact in which a permanent US military base would be constructed in Honduras, and the Southern Command would be moved there from Panama.

Contras: No end to terror

On September 30, Nicaragua extended its unilateral cease-fire on offensive actions for an additional month, despite overwhelming evidence that the contras were if anything increasing their attacks on military and civilian targets.

The following accounts have been investigated by the US religious-based organization Witness for Peace: On August 29 and September 14, the contras killed two off-duty members of the military in Waslala. On August 31, they kidnapped two girls in the Cuapa area, 9 and 14 years old; the 9-year-old was released, but the older girl has not been heard from since. Her mother speculates that she was taken because she has a boyfriend in the Nicaraguan army. Eight Miskitos were kidnapped September 9 in Zompopera; one who escaped said the rest were being taken to Honduras to be trained as contras. On September 24, 150 contras attacked the village of Los Angeles, near Nueva Guinea. While some contras engaged the soldiers in a nearby military post, killing one soldier and one militia member, others overran the village, stealing from stores and houses and setting fire to the health clinic. The daily Barricada also reported 10 civilians kidnapped at the end of August in the zone of El Rama and on the Cuapa-Juigalpa road, while 12 peasants were kidnapped near the mining area of Siuna in mid-September.

Particularly ominous are attacks on Nicaraguan towns near the Honduran border. On September 10, the rural community of Vado Ancho, Chinandega, was fired on from the Honduran side of the border. The town of Santo Tomás del Norte was fired on from Honduras for three hours on the following day. These communities have been attacked numerous times in the past by both the Honduran army and the contras. Residents interviewed by Witness for Peace said the Nicaraguan army did not return the fire. For several days starting September 13, according to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Defense, Honduran army troops attacked Nicaraguan army border posts in Teotecacinte and Jalapa, in Region I, with mortar and machine gun fire. On the 27th, the Honduran army again directed machine-gun fire at Teotecacinte. Contras also used speedboats to attack Nicaraguan vessels off the Chinandega shore. On September 28, six Honduran boats entered Nicaraguan territorial waters in the Gulf of Fonseca and attacked a Nicaraguan patrol boat, killing one soldier. There has been an upsurge in exploratory plane flights violating Nicaraguan airspace.

Minister of Defense Humberto Ortega warned in early September that the contras were regrouping in Honduras, nearer to the Nicaraguan border. Some are reported to have entered Nicaragua through northern Chinandega, Region II. In early October the Ministry of Defense again warned that there was a massive concentration of contras near the Nicaraguan border.

These events give weight to the Nicaraguan government's concern that as Reagan reaches the end of his term, attacks on Nicaraguan territory from Honduras would be used to provoke a reaction from Nicaragua, thus influencing congressional votes on contra aid and heating up the war once more.

Central America: Esquipulas violations

In other Central American nations, violations of the Esquipulas accords abounded. Costa Rica found itself at the center of a scandal this month, as Costa Rican reporters uncovered the existence of a clandestine hospital in the capital city of San José, where contras were treated, then returned to battle in Nicaragua. Costa Rican officials at first denied the story and then confirmed it, claiming it was not a violation of the Esquipulas accords (which call for the five signatory countries "to prevent the use of their own territory and to neither render nor permit military or logistical support to persons, organizations or groups attempting to destabilize the governments of the Central American countries").

The constant attacks by the Honduran army against Nicaraguan border posts and towns throughout September also constitute a serious violation of the accords, as the Nicaraguan government pointed out in a recent note of protest to Honduran Foreign Minister López Contreras.

Human rights violations were reported in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Bodies of fifteen people allegedly "disappeared" by the Guatemalan military were found with torture marks in El Petén, Guatemala, in early October. In Honduras, US Maryknoll priest Albert Reymann was expelled September 21 by the Honduran government, ostensibly for having distributed copies of a calendar featuring those killed or disappeared by the Honduran army. Ten Salvadoran peasants were massacred September 20 by members of the Salvadoran armed forces in San Francisco, San Vicente province. The story, covered extensively on Salvadoran television, was belittled by President Duarte, who commented that these peasants came from areas where there were "sectors allied with the Marxists" and that "their relatives may be lying."

Recent events in Guatemala and El Salvador confirm that the Reagan Administration is farther than ever from succeeding in its attempt to promote a "middle path," backing the Christian Democratic governments of Cerezo and Duarte. Rightwing forces in both countries are gaining even more political power.

Weakened by a military coup attempt and continued rumors of new plotting, Cerezo's administration is faltering. He faces escalating protests by workers, students and housewives against the rising cost of living, at the same time as he is confronting the powerful business association CACIF, which has now formally broken the social pact promoted by Cerezo some months ago. The government's recent decision that the Guatemalan guerrillas must be excluded from the national dialogue promoted by the Esquipulas accords moves Guatemala one step farther away from reconciliation.

In El Salvador, ARENA, the extreme rightwing party, threatened to organize its own guerrilla force if the US intervened in the presidential elections scheduled for March 1989, which ARENA is expected to win. The Salvadoran press revealed a CIA plan to influence election results in favor of the Christian Democratic Party, although there are other reports that the US is beginning to rebuild links to ARENA.

Meanwhile, the FMLN has been conducting a major military campaign. The guerrillas destroyed the Salvadoran army garrison El Paraíso in Chalatenango province for the third time, occupying five towns on the same day. This was only one of five such dramatic military successes this month, in which they carried out actions in eight of the nation's fourteen provinces. For the first time US sources admitted US military advisers took part in a battle when one garrison was attacked.

These events in El Salvador reveal the bankrupt state of the supposedly reformist model trumpeted by the Reagan administration since 1982. Once in power ARENA is expected to promote a genocidal policy, supported by those sectors in the military now pushing a "total war" strategy—an all-out attack on the popular forces. Death squad activity is already on the rise.

Hanging on until November

Reviewing the month's events, we thus can see a few trends emerge. One, the Nicaraguan government continues its search for peace, with the aid at least of President Cerezo. This search, however, is seriously hampered by the vote for contra aid and US influence over the contra leadership.

Two, the US is showing indecision about what to do with its troublesome contra policy. While funds for new aid were voted, Congress appeared to be tired of dealing with the issue and preferred not to dwell on it, at least until after the election.

Three, there are indications that both Honduras, in its request for border troops, and some members of the contras are losing confidence in the military option and "voting with their feet" towards Miami. The US may still desire to exercise a military option, but it is losing its proxy force with which to do so.

Four, the question of how the Nicaraguan opposition will define itself comes increasingly to the fore. Opposition actions this month appeared hesitant and more divided than ever. Taking their cues from the United States as usual, the opposition parties seemed unable to decide whether to position themselves for a Bush victory, bringing the likelihood of more contra war, or brush up their tarnished image as a civic opposition in the event of a Dukakis presidency. The "third way" may be one of several upcoming attempts by the opposition to reposition themselves. The Nicaraguan government, by demanding that the opposition not accept US funds, could, in effect, force them to declare themselves nationalist and patriotic—or beyond the pale.

Finally, and most pressingly, it is clear that this period before the elections, and indeed even before the presidential inauguration in January, is a dangerous one for Nicaragua. Increasingly under attack from Honduras, and facing contra aggressions despite its declared cease-fire, Nicaragua finds itself in a bind. Its persistent push for peace and diplomatic solutions have been equally persistently ignored or belittled by the Reagan Administration and much of Congress. But defending itself could bring the release of the military aid and give the military option, a policy on the wane, a new license to kill.

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