Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 196 | Noviembre 1997


Central America

Contadora and Esquipulas Ten Years later

In 1987 the Contadora initiative was transformed and stayed alive, with a future and with meaning. What about the Esquipulas II accord? After interring the revolution in Nicaragua, it leaves Central America in the place the empire always assigned to it: a sad corner of the “backyard”.

Augusto Zamora

When Central America's former Presidents who had signed the August 7, 1987, Esquipulas II peace accord met in August of this year to commemorate the agreement's tenth anniversary, a number of us, in Nicaragua at least, questioned the motive for the celebration. Historical events are usually celebrated when they have produced some benefit for a country or a region, and a bigger benefit leads to a bigger celebration. Ten years later, what benefits did the Esquipulas II process bring to Nicaragua? And what benefits to the region? An adequate answer must begin by looking at origins.

Latin America Speaks After 125 Years

Esquipulas II emerged as the consequence of the failure of the mediation effort promoted by the Latin American countries that were part of the Contadora Group. Contadora's objective was to reach peaceful solutions to the US intervention in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran civil war. This goal put the Contadora countries in opposition to the military option chosen and promoted by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. That challenge encompassed both the greatest merit and the reason for failure of the Contadora negotiating process. Its mediation was, from start to finish, a doomed competition against the imperial will of the United States, a repetition of the myth of Sisyphus, who had been condemned to push a rock to the top of the mountain only to watch it fall again and again. Or of another myth, that of Prometheus, tied to a mountain while an insatiable vulture ate his entrails during the day, only to have them grow back at night so the vulture could devour them again the next day.

One of the principal though rarely noted characteristics of the Contadora process is that it was the first Latin American initiative against US imperial policy since the Congress celebrated in Santiago, Chile, in September 1856, almost 125 years earlier. Paradox of history: the Santiago Congress was the primary Latin American reaction to the national war against the US filibuster William Walker, who had been sponsored by powerful sectors of his country—another incident that centered on Nicaragua and had involved the entire Central American region.

In response to that war, delegates from Chile, Peru and Ecuador met to examine the situation in Nicaragua and the threat that growing US expansionism represented for the region. Just eight years before, in 1848, the United States had ripped away half of Mexico's territory and now threatened to annex parts of Central America. The three countries signed the Continental Treaty, whose fundamental proposition was to promote Hispano-American unity to preserve the union from external threats; Peru was charged with adopting measures to assure that other countries adhered to the treaty.

The great majority of countries responded positively, though faithful to their tradition of speaking but not doing their signing of the treaty was not accompanied by actions. Once more, good intentions went aground on the miseries and stinginess of oligarchic governments. Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia signed the Continental Treaty. Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil did not.

A new attempt at unity began in the II Congress of Lima, celebrated in 1864, after the French adventure in Mexico. That attempt, the last of those initiated to forge a Latin American entity, also failed.

Contadora: Facts about its Origin

Under distinct circumstances, though with a common essence, the Contadora process signified an unexpected resurgence of Latin American identity in the face of US hegemony. It was the most serious and sustained effort to save the independence of the region's countries within the range of possibility and in adverse circumstances—Mexico's critical 1982 economic crisis had just recently passed.

Just as on previous occasions, including the actions of Sandino (1927-1933), which sparked other Latin American initiatives in favor of non-interventionism, the factor that triggered the coordination of the regional powers in the Contadora Group was foreign aggression in a Latin American country, in this case Nicaragua. In addition, two other incidents had influenced the birth of the Contadora process in previous months, one paving the way and the other acting as a stimulant.

The first incident was the Sandinista insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship, which won broad international support; first in line were the governments of Mexico, Panama, Cuba, Venezuela and Costa Rica. When the government of Jimmy Carter tried to get the OAS to sponsor an Interamerican Peace Force to intervene in Nicaragua, this group of countries formed the core of opposition to the US proposal and finally managed to pull the great majority of OAS member countries with it. For the first time in its history, the OAS was unfaithful to its tradition of giving in to the hegemonic power; it not only refused to respond to "the voice of its master," but impeded US attempts to frustrate the revolution in its infancy with a new armed intervention destined to save the basic apparatus of the dictatorship.

The incident that acted as a stimulus to the Contadora process was the Malvinas War, in April-May 1982. The attitude of the US government, generously supporting Great Britain against Argentina, led to a profound crisis in the OAS and provoked indignant reaction among Latin Americans. The conflict in the South Atlantic isolated the United States politically and reinforced Latin American identity.

The effects of that unequal war did not end there. Argentina's bloody military dictatorship was the key piece in US policy toward Nicaragua, to the extreme that the Reagan administration counted on the Argentine army for creating the contra forces and for an eventual military intervention. Three other governments, those of Colombia, Venezuela and Chile, had been part of that scheme. By torpedoing that alliance, the Malvinas War triggered the fall of the Argentine dictatorship and also caused a modification in these forces.

All of this paved the way for and facilitated a regional regrouping against US militaristic policy in Central America. This regrouping was the heir of Bolívar's dream of unity, conceived not only out of motives of cultural identity, but also as a form of defense against foreign aggression and imposition. Although Contadora ultimately failed in its efforts to pacify the Central American region with the signing of the Contadora Treaty, it was successful in impeding direct military intervention by the United States.

Contadora Becomes the Río Group

With the passage of time, the Contadora process moved beyond its mediation of the Central American crisis. Aware of the value of constant exchanges and of the possibilities that unity offered in the international arena, the countries making up the Contadora negotiating process became the Río Mechanism. The official name they chose was Mechanism of Political Consultation and Consensus Building (Concertación). That group held its first meeting in Bariloche, Argentina (April 1987), ten months after it formally delivered the last—and not accepted—Contadora Document for Peace and Cooperation in Central America (June 1986) and four months before the signing of the Esquipulas II Accord.

The decision to turn itself into a regional mechanism was not a gratuitous one. The Contadora Group had failed in its effort to get its document accepted, and, though it would continue as a mediating process, it was clear that, after four years of being boycotted by the United States, its role as a negotiating body was exhausted. Thus, its destiny, in the near and particularly medium future, was to dissolve unless it could expand its horizons.

The solidarity forged and the returns obtained in four years of laboring together against the empire had ended up imposing a dynamic, so these countries decided to maintain the group and give it a larger identity than that of mediation in the Central American conflict. Such actions and willingness explain how the Contadora process has survived, ten years later, without conserving that name and without anyone saying so, as a Latin American consultation and debate entity—the only one existing as of now. It still goes by the name of the Río Group, and is now made up of twelve countries—all of South America plus Mexico and Panama, as well as two rotating members: one from Central America and one from the English-speaking Caribbean.

The Río Group: Free of US Presence

The XI Summit of the Río Group was celebrated in Buenos Aires in September 1997. One of the central items of discussion was which Latin American country would become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, if the UN Charter is reformed to broaden the number of permanent members, giving voice, vote and veto, for the first time, to countries of the so-called Third World.

From this perspective, the process that Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama initiated in January 1983 on the island of Contadora has had a longer and more fruitful life than its founders could have imagined. Although it is far from being the strictly Latin American organization which so many attempts have been made to create, the Río Group is today, despite its limitations, the most solid entity of regional debate, without the perturbing and always deforming presence of the United States. Its limitations are caused more by the intrinsic weaknesses of its members and the limited autonomy of its governments than by the forum itself.

The Latin American economic diaspora, accentuated by Mexico's participation in NAFTA with the United States and Canada, has a political counterweight in this forum, insofar as its annual meetings allow the countries to deal with timely issues and forge consensus fundamental for the region. A good example is the Río Group's condemnation of the Helms-Burton Law in its X Summit of Heads of State and Government (Cochabamba, October 1995), despite the undesired visit by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to try to prevent this vote.

In its 1997 Summit, the Río Group was able to resolve the conflict between Brazil and Argentina over the post that Latin America would have in the UN Security Council, adopting a proposal by consensus: the Latin Americans will demand two posts for the region.

Contadora Left a Valuable Legacy

No less important are the possibilities for bilateral understanding and cooperation offered by the Río Group's annual meetings. For example, the X Summit allowed the first visit of a Chilean president to Bolivia in 43 years. The differences between the two countries date from the Pacific War (1879-1883), promoted by England, which left Bolivia with no access to the sea. During this same summit a meeting also took place between the Presidents of Peru and Ecuador, facilitating the improvement of relations between the two countries after the brief but violent armed confrontation between January and February 1995 over a territorial dispute.

At the X Summit, the Presidents of Argentina and Chile were able to directly address the mistrust created by the US decision to establish "special relations" with Argentina. That link worries the Chilean military, which has a rivalry with Argentina. Its small territorial controversies with that country are its main justification for maintaining both permanent military readiness and its coercive influence on the Chilean democracy, where ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet is still Chief of the Armed Forces 24 years after his bloody coup against the Allende government.

Thus, the Contadora Process knew how to transcend its origins and transform itself into an instance of dialogue and coordination that, 14 years later, still bears positive fruits for Latin America. Its growth dynamic and its ability to adapt allow the belief that the Río Group, heir of the Contadora Group, still has a wide and promising pace, more necessary as the world shrinks by the day and regional blocs increasingly tend to replace individual states as protagonists in international politics and economics. The consolidation of a Latin American group—needed and wanted since the traumatic and premature origin of our states—is a prerequisite for our survival in the 21st century. The Río Group is today the only forum that can create that group and turn it into an international subject.

Central America in Three Pieces

Up to here, Contadora. But what about Esquipulas II? What was that process, if it indeed was one?
In more than one sense, the Esquipulas II process was the opposite of Contadora, similar to mutatis mutandis, the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If Contadora was the expression of the best tradition of Latin American solidarity, Esquipulas II was the immediate offspring of the tradition of foreign intervention, an expression of the ordeals that the region's countries have suffered since independence itself as a consequence of their submission to extra-regional powers: Great Britain in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th.

It is impossible to understand the Esquipulas II process without recalling its immediate antecedents. As a consequence of US policy, Central America in the 1980s was divided into three fragments. One fragment was Nicaragua, converted into a "target" of the United States, as Newsweek termed it in 1982.

Another fragment consisted of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, which formed a monolithic bloc through which important aspects of the hegemonic power's interventionist policy were implemented. These three countries acted like simple client states, with neither self-identity nor autonomy. Together with them, Guatemala, through the US-imposed parody of democracy that brought Vinicio Cerezo to power in 1985, attempted to present an image of neutrality that revealed its true face at the moment of truth, falling into line as indicated by the Reagan administration.

The third fragment was Panama, governed under the shadow of the Defense Forces, heir of Omar Torrijos' sui generis nationalism. Panama was not only part of the Contadora Group, but in many ways actively supported the Sandinista government. That mortal sin would lead to the military intervention in 1989 that put an end to all traces of Torrijismo and, once again, converted Panamanian sovereignty into no more than a symbol.

This panorama made any proposal to "Central Americanize" the regional conflict suicidal. That is to say, it was impossible to deal with it exclusively within the Central American countries. That is why Nicaragua had systematically rejected any such proposal, always demanding the presence of mediators, observers or guarantors to neutralize the mathematical reality of four against one.

Esquipulas II: Nicaragua Gives In

The decision the Sandinista government made in 1987 to adopt and promote the proposal to resolve the conflict offered by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica—who owes his Nobel Peace Prize to Nicaragua—was a desperate move to try to end a war that had destroyed its economy and exhausted its people. By accepting the game of Esquipulas II, Sandinista Nicaragua, like the Trojans of the Homeric epic, would allow the enemy into its home and voluntarily allow the burial of a revolution due to a war that had cost close to 10,000 dead and another 500,000 victims since 1977, including wounded, orphans, disabled and displaced, out of a population of no more than 3.5 million. The damages caused by the US military and paramilitary activities against Nicaragua exceeded $15 billion and left us the legacy of an astronomical foreign debt. It is impossible to explain Nicaragua's current misery without remembering the impact of that aggression.

Nicaragua went to Esquipulas only after exhausting all other possibilities for a peaceful solution. Bilateral negotiation efforts had fallen apart early on with the removal of US Undersecretary of State Thomas Enders in 1983. Nicaragua's appeals to the UN Security Council were systematically vetoed, making UN action impossible. The US government put an end to the Manzanillo conversations—they were not negotiations—in 1985. The case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, though won by Nicaragua, was ultimately a useless exercise because the United States refused to recognize the court in January 1985, and finally vetoed the Security Council resolutions that required complying with the June 1986 sentence. That same June, Contadora issued its last proposal, which was rejected by the empire's client states, burying the negotiating process with neither wake nor mass.

Ceremony of a Collective Self-Delusion

The Esquipulas II Accord created great expectations. The signing was celebrated with pomp and circumstance, which was no more than collective self-delusion. A group of men—no matter that they were all Presidents—momentarily forgot who they were and what their circumstances were and thought they could do what they could not do, and what the majority of them did not even want to do. At the signing they acted as if they were representatives of independent states and not what they really were: four client states together with another state, Nicaragua, the victim chosen by the empire's arrogance. The greatest quota of this self-delusion belonged to Nicaragua. Self-deceived, it repeated the story of the donkey striving to reach a carrot at the end of a stick tied to its own harness, with the difference that the cart the Nicaraguan donkey was hauling was full of cadavers, destruction and suffering.

The Esquipulas II dream evaporated in a few short months. The accord to be fulfilled rigorously within 150 days would be an interminable obstacle course with only one competitor: Nicaragua. The heart of the accord was to open the political space in Nicaragua in exchange for the dismantling of the contra forces in the region. Honduras, the military base for foreign aggression, never fulfilled its part. In contrast, Nicaragua was pressured to fulfill every detail in exchange for nothing. So it went, month after month, until the 1990 elections put a de facto and unexpected end to the Esquipulas process.

Esquipulas Died on February 25, 1990

Esquipulas II was the only great failure of Sandinista foreign policy. In Nicaragua's circumstances, there was no need for any other. Worn down physically and psychologically and without firm allies—the Socialist bloc was crumbling, Latin America was suffering its "lost decade," and, except for a very few countries, Western Europe was still not taking on a serious commitment—the revolution was on a knife's edge. Beneath it, to paraphrase the sonnet by Manolo Cuadra, the "ill-fated trio"—the oligarchy, the official Church and the empire—awaited the fall to tear it to pieces.

With the revolution defeated, the empire could be satisfied and erase Nicaragua and Central America from its agenda of priorities. Although there were a few more meetings, it is fair to say that the Esquipulas II process died on February 25, 1990. What happened afterwards is another story with other agendas. After the Sandinista's electoral defeat and with the Soviet Union self-destructing, Central America returned to the place assigned it by the empire since the beginning of the century: the far corner of the "backyard."

We Were left Poorer And More Dependent

If Contadora knew how to change into the Río Group, nothing more remains from Esquipulas II than an historical memory and a devastated region. The extreme poverty in which the great majority of the region's inhabitants live is revealing. The Pan American Health Organization estimated in 1990 that, of 850,000 children born in Central America, 100,000 would die before their fifth birthday. The Inter-American Development Bank noted that same year that per-capita income had fallen to 1971 levels in Guatemala, 1961 levels in El Salvador, 1973 in Honduras, 1974 in Costa Rica and 1960 in Nicaragua.
The UN Economic Commission on Latin America indicated that 15 million Central Americans—almost 60% of the population—live in poverty, and of those, 9.7 million people in extreme poverty. The World Health Organization estimated that sanitary services are lacking for 75% of Guatemala's rural population, 60% of El Salvador's, 40% of Nicaragua's and 35% of Honduras'. Central America emerged from the 1980s poorer, more backwards and more dependent than ever.

Is there Peace In Central America?

The end of the Cold War and the domestic and foreign conflicts have not improved the panorama. Contra disarmament in Nicaragua ended in 1991, at least officially. In 1992 the Salvadoran guerrilla movement, which had resisted and fought heroically for ten years, signed a peace accord and incorporated itself into civilian life. Guatemala's URNG, the oldest guerrilla force in the region, signed a peace accord in December 1996.
Peace has been signed at very high costs. One of them is impunity for the region's repressive bodies which, in three decades of crimes, left over 300,000 dead. The peace accords, the text of a still precarious reconciliation, were followed by amnesty laws that, as José María Tojeira, then the Jesuit provincial in Central America, termed them, are "an offense to justice."
Can it be said that there is now peace in Central America? If we understand the concept of peace in the negative sense—the absence of war—yes, there is. If we understand it in the positive sense—the reduction of preventable mortality, respect for human rights and minimum wellbeing—peace remains absent from the region.

In Guatemala the death squads continue to act with impunity. In 1994, out of a total of 14,156 accusations of abuses and human rights violations processed by the People's Defense Office, 287 were accusations of extra-judicial executions. In 1996, Amnesty International charged that 10 peasants had been assassinated by landowners and, in 1997, that human rights defenders are still the targets of paramilitaries. Meanwhile, there is a continued demand to dismantle the death squads and private armies.

In El Salvador, the former guerrilla comandante Joaquín Villalobos, converted to a Social Democrat, denounced in January 1997 that "common crime takes 8,000 lives every year, when during the war there were no more than 6,000, and one quarter of the population is still illiterate."
There are an average of three suicides daily in Nicaragua, over 1,800 violent deaths per year, while the recontra and recompa phenomenon, cemented by the abandonment of the peasants, grows or shrinks according to the winds or the miseries they are suffering. Can it can be stated, in any seriousness, that our countries are at peace or that peace has improved their status?

We're in Bad Shape... And Getting Worse

In 1993, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its report on the Human Development Index. Of the 173 countries, the Central Americans were ranked as follows: El Salvador (110), Nicaragua (111), Guatemala (113) and Honduras (116). Only Costa Rica was part of the higher sector of countries, occupying position 42.

Four years later, in 1997, the index showed that the Central American countries had dropped even further down the scale. El Salvador dropped to 112, Honduras to 116, Guatemala to 117, and Nicaragua sank to 127, a drastic drop of 11 points thanks to the sacking of the country by the Chamorro government, possibly the most corrupt in Nicaragua's history, responsible for the economic and moral bankruptcy the country is suffering today. Only Costa Rica had improved, now occupying position 33.

But real Gross Domestic Product numbers best illustrate the extreme inequality throughout the region. According to the 1997 Human Development Index, the poorest 20% of Costa Rica's population earned $1,136 while the richest 20% earned $14,399. In Honduras the poorest earn $399 while the richest earn $6,027. In Guatemala the difference is $357 compared to $10,710, and in Nicaragua it is $479 compared to $6,293. That means that, in Nicaragua, the richest 20% earn 13 times more than the poorest 20%, a ratio which is 12.4 in Costa Rica, 15.3 in Honduras and 30 in Guatemala, the country with the second greatest index of inequality and duality among all Latin American societies, outmatched only by Brazil, with the highest inequality index in the world. In Brazil, the richest 20% earn $18,563 against the $578 of the poorest 20%, a difference of 32.2 times.

Today the conditions are equal to or worse than those that led tens of thousands of Central Americans to take up arms to change the old model of exploitation for other, less unjust models. The results could not be more discouraging.

Changes in Policy and Conscience

Foreign intervention not only left Central America's countries in greater ruins, it also triggered significant political changes that, like the economic crises, have been greater in some countries than in others. The signing of the peace accords modified the traditional political map in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, where the left only had legal space in the cemeteries. These accords—blows of the end of the Cold War—have forced a reduction in the always fatal role of the military elites in these two countries and in Honduras, although they are still a long way from making the armed forces respect human rights. They also continue to be the bulwark and refuge of crimes and criminals, as well as a permanent mortgage for the people.

Other perverse effects are less notorious, though more profound. The erosion of so many years of war and global political changes generated by the Soviet suicide, added to the critical problem of illiteracy and ignorance, has left the region in the hands of the traditional oligarchy. The left is self-censored and self-flagellating.

Thought it has been neither proclaimed nor even spoken, the people have been marked by the very high cost of the foreign intervention, the more marked the greater the punishment. That intervention left a fear in the collective unconscious that if people vote for the political forces that confront the empire, it could bring reprisals once again and a new and traumatic punishment on the population.

The formal and insubstantial democracies bring to government again and again those politicians who keep the people in extreme poverty, confirming what a Central American Human Rights Commission president said when commenting on the presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt: Our peoples, victims of their own ignorance, vote for their executioners.

Instead of maintaining the basic principles that they fought for, relevant sectors of the left forces, marked with this brand, manage to obtain the official approval of the empire and the international financial organizations, converted into the new inquisitors of the economic orthodoxy imposed by the victors.

With the zealotry appropriate to the converted, some guerrilla leaders have become accusers of their former companions as a way to purge the sin of having been—for a day, a year, ten years—revolutionaries. Nothing new either. In Nicaragua, after the 1912 military intervention that put an end to the Zelaya government, the Liberal Party of the defeated President had to submit to the dictates of the interventionist power in order to be readmitted to the political game.

"It was all Useless"

Ten years after Esquipulas II, Central America has returned to its condition as a conglomerate of banana republics as if nothing had happened at all. The national oligarchies still govern, now with more power than ever, because they have before them a left wing that is in some cases perplexed, in others divided, if not integrated at the highest levels into its businesses and way of life. This is an even more painful result when, with the left's confusion and the extent of corruption and double standards reaching historical levels, the only possibilities for the poor are exploitation or abandonment.
The poet Claribel Alegría told me in Managua of her meeting with an elderly woman from Guazapa, where the FMLN guerrillas resisted the oligarchic army stubbornly and heroically: "I lost my husband, I lost my two sons, we gave everything and now we have nothing," the woman said. "It was all useless," The empire and the oligarchies have emerged winners. The Central American people, once again, join the ranks of the defeated.

The Presidents and parliaments of the area, who at one time hoisted some loosened folds of the Esquipulas II flags, have returned to the dynamic of the 1960s as if the decade of the 1980s had been simply a bothersome parenthesis, closed thanks to the empire. And self-deceit returns once again with the Central American Union proposal to politically unite the region.

Union? Any similarity between the process of European and Central American integration is pure coincidence. Costa Rica, exultant about its economic, political and social levels, sees itself as head and shoulders above the other countries and refuses to ratify the integration treaties. The Central American Court of Justice functions with only three participating states. The Central American Parliament lacks real power.

There is little to celebrate ten years after Esquipulas II. The Central American people can only wait for the progressive forces to recover from their astonishment and be capable enough to work on a project that not only permits the recovery of hope, but also envisions a future for our region.

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