Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 103 | Febrero 1990



FSLN Scoreboard—Esquipulas 1:4, Elections 3:2

Envío team

As the 1980s came to an end, the United States made clear that it has no intention of abandoning its option to use military force in the Central American region. Several days after the December 20 invasion of Panama, Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that "with the invasion of Panama, we've hung a sign on our door that says: A superpower lives here. What happens in Eastern Europe doesn't matter."

The massive US intervention in Panama, the ongoing aggression against Nicaragua by the contra forces—whom the US refuses to demobilize—and the obstacles to a negotiated solution of the Salvadoran conflict are all clear signs of the US decision to continue its war in Central America.

In this context, Nicaragua continues to try to neutralize US policy, regionally by its defense of the Central American peace accords and domestically through its pursuit of successful elections. At year's end, the Esquipulas peace process showed increasing signs of wear; at the same time Nicaragua's electoral process was leaning ever more clearly toward consolidating and legitimating the revolution.

Esquipulas endangered

In early December, while the FSLN in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador continued to push for negotiated solutions to the conflicts in their countries, the Central American peace process and the possibility of such solutions entered into crisis once again. While the underlying causes were continuing US pressure and growing instability in the region, a number of specific factors also contributed.

* The Nicaraguan government's decision to lift its unilateral cease-fire following an upswing in contra infiltrations into Nicaraguan territory and the resulting mobilization of Nicaraguan troops along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border significantly increased tensions between the two countries.

* The US refusal to demobilize the counterrevolutionary forces in compliance with the accords signed in Tela, Honduras, together with the collapse of negotiations between the Nicaraguan government and the contra leadership in Washington and New York made it clear that these forces would continue to be an integral part of the US strategy to destroy the Nicaraguan elections. The US propaganda campaign against that electoral process also stepped up, with the Administration portraying the FSLN as sure losers in the February elections and provokers of electoral violence during the campaign.

* By giving El Salvador's Alfredo Cristiani government a pretext to suspend diplomatic and commercial relations with Nicaragua, the FMLN's military offensive and the downing of a small airplane carrying surface-to-air missiles to the Salvadoran guerrillas endangered the continuation of the regional peace process and created even more tensions between the two Central American countries with the most acute internal conflicts.

* And finally, the increasing tensions between General Manuel Noriega and the US during the months preceding the December 20th invasion of Panama also affected, if indirectly, the whole peace process.
It was thus that the period between the fifth Esquipulas summit (in Tela, Honduras in August 1989) and the sixth, scheduled for December in Managua, saw a progressive darkening of the regional horizon.

Although the strategy of low-intensity conflict imposed against Nicaragua has at times emphasized economic, political and diplomatic aspects of the war over purely military ones, the underlying goal has not changed since Ronald Reagan first took office. It remains that of destroying, by force, the Sandinista revolution. US intervention in other countries in the region is also aimed at thwarting any process of social change underway. This reflects both the US administration's ideological rigidity and its inability to accept that the superpowers' so-called spheres of influence were to disappear with the end of the Cold War. This rigidity has led many in Latin America to view Bush as even more aggressive than Reagan.

Some analyses have also hypothesized that the hard US military line in Central America—maintenance of the contra forces, a resounding no to dialogue between the FMLN and El Salvador's armed forces, and the invasion of Panama—results from the search by the military-industrial complex for justifications to keep defense spending at a high level. As the Cold War draws to a close, the Pentagon faces a substantial cut in its budget for the maintenance of NATO forces. Currently, more than 60% of US forces and 58% of the US budget are linked to the NATO apparatus in Western Europe. With the "threat" from the Eastern bloc disappearing, the Pentagon needs new theaters of action to maintain its huge budgets. It would seem that the Central American conflict and more precisely, Panama, gave the US military immediate justification in the wake of the tumultuous upheavals in Eastern Europe in November and December.

It is in this context of increasing conflict in Central America that December's events—particularly the emergency Central American summit meeting at San Isidro Coronado, Costa Rica on December 10-12— should be placed.

A clash of objectives

To get around Cristiani's refusal to attend the regular summit meeting scheduled in Managua, an extraordinary meeting was held in Costa Rica. The basic agenda, established in a prior meeting by the five Central American foreign ministers, included three main points: demobilization of the contra forces, the Salvadoran situation and an extension of the UN peacekeeping forces' mandate in both El Salvador and Nicaragua.

For the first time in the history of the regional peace process, the US government, instead of pressuring for the postponement of the meeting, urged that it take place. The US wanted the meeting to give solid support to the Cristiani government, whose reputation was badly tarnished by the bombing raids against the civilian population and the waves of repression against political and religious leaders. The US essentially wanted to ensure that the FMLN's military offensive would not lead to a negotiated solution. To accomplish this, it pushed for”symmetry" between the FMLN and the contra forces—a symmetry which had appeared, although in an ambiguous and even somewhat contradictory form—in the accords signed at Tela. The US also wanted once again to link the theme of the internal democratization of Nicaragua to the demobilization of the contra forces and use it as a pressure point in its campaign against the Nicaraguan elections.

Nicaragua had its own set of objectives for the meeting. It hoped to breathe new life into the peace process, already in jeopardy (President Cristiani had said he would never take part in another summit meeting.) Within that, Nicaragua's principal goal was the immediate demobilization of the contras, the use of US "humanitarian aid" funds for contra demobilization and an increased role of UN peacekeeping forces in that process.

Salvadoran President Cristiani had the double objective of recovering some legitimacy for his government, and obtaining both a denunciation of the FMLN and a demand that the FMLN lay down its arms as a precondition to any negotiating process.

The FMLN made its own position known at the summit through the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican governments. It called for an immediate cease-fire with international supervision and simultaneous negotiation involving all the country's social and political forces in order to achieve the demilitarization and democracy of the country. It also asked for the removal of seven high-level Salvadoran military officials due to their involvement in the bombings of the civilian population and the November assassination of the Jesuit priests.

Honduras' goal was to avoid the charges introduced against it by Nicaragua in the International Court of Justice for its collaboration in the contra war, a war already characterized as "illegal" by the Court.
President Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala arrived in San Isidro worried about the repercussions that the FMLN's new military and political advances could have in his own country. And Costa Rican President Oscar Arias was concerned, still, about projecting himself as the sole architect of the Central American peace process, as well as defending Cristiani as the only force capable of establishing a dialogue between the FMLN and the most right-wing sectors of ARENA.

A debatable outcome

The summit's final document, drafted by Presidents Arias and Cerezo, was a diplomatic blow to the FMLN, since it seeks nothing less than the FMLN's surrender. The Central American Presidents "decided" support to Alfredo Cristiani and the relative symmetry the document establishes between the FMLN and the contra forces (calling on the FMLN to "immediately and effectively" end all hostilities and take part in the "already initiated" dialogue) set back a negotiated solution in El Salvador.

While the US made strides in its Salvador strategy, it was unable to do the same in the Nicaraguan case. The San Isidro document is a key nail—if not the last one—in the coffin of the contra forces. The presidents agreed to ask that the funds already appropriated by the US government for the contra forces be handed over as soon as possible to the International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV) of the Esquipulas accords for use in the contra's demobilization. The presidents also asked for an expansion of UN involvement in the implementation of the peace accords. They specifically called on UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar to take the "actions necessary for the re-initiation of the dialogue between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN." This provides an opening for a real negotiation and was one of the most concrete points of the document.

The principal failure of the US was that it was unable to reintroduce the theme of internal democratization in Nicaragua. According to The Los Angeles Times, UNO campaign chief Antonio Lacayo had asked Oscar Arias to propose sending representatives of each Central American president to Nicaragua to put an end to electoral violence there. The Los Angeles Times reported that Arias rejected Lacayo's proposal, declaring that he was not willing to risk the support that Cristiani would need by introducing such a conflictive theme into the summit.

The meeting was long and tense, with a dramatic final chapter regarding the case against Honduras in the World Court, resolved with flexibility by the Nicaraguan government, which agreed to postpone for six months the date by which Honduras must file its position.

When the summit finally ended in the early morning hours of December 13, journalists surrounded President Daniel Ortega to ask if Nicaragua had sold out the FMLN in exchange for demobilization of the contra forces. Many sectors of the Nicaraguan population not only had serious questions in the wake of the summit, but felt great concern and sadness at its results. Hours after the summit, the FMLN rejected the final document with "indignation." Among those in solidarity both with the Salvadoran revolution and the struggle of the Salvadoran people, the San Isidro summit created more confusion and discussion than any other step in the long march towards peace initiated with the Contadora process in 1983.

Four aspects of the final summit document were of particular concern. The first was the unconditional given to a government responsible for bombing its own civilian population and carrying out a wave of persecution against the Church through illegal searches, tortures, expulsions, destruction and, finally, the assassination of the six Jesuits; a government, moreover, that broke with the Geneva Convention by not allowing the International Red Cross to evacuate dead and wounded from the fighting zones.

A second concern was the portrayal of the FMLN and the contras as symmetrical forces at precisely the moment when the FMLN is clearly escalating in military strength and the defeat of the contra forces is equally evident.

Third, many observers wondered how the accords could demand the demobilization and disarming of the FMLN when its military strength provides the only counterweight to the Salvadoran armed forces, the only ticket to a negotiated end to the military conflict. From this point of view, demobilizing the FMLN effectively closes the door to the possibility of a negotiated solution.

Finally, although some argued that the summit strengthened the most moderate wing of ARENA by supporting Cristiani, critics took the position that, on the contrary, the summit weakened the more moderate sector vis-a-vis the hard-liners who were now using the document to insist on the FMLN's virtual surrender. This point of view argues that the summit document effectively bolstered the most fascistic sectors of ARENA, who were never sincerely interested in any serious dialogue. The document thus limits civilian power with respect to the armed forces and death squads. Ironically, it also obliges the FMLN to carry out new military efforts to force the government to break with the militaristic strategy that has long been the essence of US policy in El Salvador.

The initial indignation in Nicaragua died down some as the government's limited maneuvering room in the complex summit meeting became known. According to the government, the principal danger it faced was that of falling prey to the provocation represented by the inflexible pro-Cristiani position of the other presidents. By refusing to sign the document, Nicaragua would be blamed for destroying the peace process. With the public image of a war-mongering Nicaragua, the US would have had a blank check to heighten its aggression against the revolution.

The Nicaraguan government also argued that one signature (or even five) is not enough to legitimize the Cristiani government. That was borne out only days later when the UN General Assembly condemned the Salvadoran government for its systematic violation of human rights. It was clear that the summit document had done nothing to bring down the wall of repression separating the Salvadoran government from the international community. Only two days after that meeting, Daniel Ortega accused Cristiani's government of violating the accords regarding human rights by continuing to bomb the civilian population. At the same time, the FSLN daily Barricada declared that the summit meeting was only one battle within a larger war. It distinguished the immediate impression that Cristiani had been granted legitimacy from the "essence" of the document, which commits Cristiani to "promote political negotiations as the only way to democratize the country," and emphasized the point of the summit document calling on Javier Pérez de Cuellar to take part in the negotiating process.

Had Nicaragua been blamed for the breakdown of the peace process, it would have put at risk the economic support of the European Community, which is very interested in maintaining the framework created by Esquipulas. It would also have strained Nicaragua's relations with the Soviet Union, which sees the regional peace process as the most effective way to avoid a wholesale regionalization of the military conflict. The FMLN's offensive also made it clear that, given the new detente with the United States, the Soviets were giving priority to a regional peace worked out within Esquipulas over revolutionary advances in El Salvador. In the first days of the FMLN offensive, the Soviet Union criticized the FMLN based on an analysis not shared by the Nicaraguan government, the FMLN or many other political forces in the world. "In the current correlation of forces in that country," said a USSR communiqué, "this new wave of violence will only result in more civilian victims." The Soviets proposed a return to the "already initiated" dialogue while the FMLN argues that dialogue has proved bankrupt and must be reinitiated with a new set of premises.

The tensions touched off in the region by the crash in El Salvador of a small plane carrying surface-to-air missiles for the FMLN guerrillas led El Salvador to suspend relations with Nicaragua. While the event permitted Bush to make Central America a key agenda point in the US-USSR summit at Malta, Gorbachov declared, and Bush accepted, that the Soviet Union had not sent the missiles. It was later determined that the missiles were not even Soviet-made.

Is Esquipulas a spent force?

The contradictions that the San Isidro document provoked among those supporting Central America's processes of change reveal an important shift in the regional situation and a weakening of Esquipulas. Until recently, the correlation of forces in Esquipulas was usually 3 to 2: the pro-US bloc of Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua and Guatemala, the countries more independent of US pressures. This correlation changed to 4 to 1 after the FMLN offensive. Guatemala had to change its position of "active neutrality" given both the danger on its own border and the fact that the FMLN's political-military defiance of El Salvador's repressive military is uncomfortably similar to that of the URNG in Guatemala.

Esquipulas was conceived as a vehicle for a Central American negotiated solution to the region's conflicts, especially that between the US and Nicaragua. In Esquipulas the weakest countries could fight diplomatically to make the stronger ones respect international law and to prevent the US from flouting these laws. The Central American countries' non-compliance with the Esquipulas accords—with the notable exception of Nicaragua—has created a situation in which what is written has less and less to do with reality. The prime example came in the San Isidro accord: symmetry between the FMLN and the contras was put in writing at the very moment reality most clearly refutes it.

The crisis resulting from Esquipulas VI was superseded only days later by an even greater crisis: the invasion of Panama, which gave new life to the most warlike tendencies in the region—the Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran armies, staunch defenders of the US military strategy in the region. While Nicaragua defended its national sovereignty by responding firmly and with dignity to US provocations against its Embassy in Panama, the other regional governments all supported the invasion in one way or another.

Although the San Isidro summit is the clearest sign that the Esquipulas process may be taking its last gasp, a seed was also sown there that could well grow into a new negotiating process. That seed was asking the UN Secretary General to "involve himself more directly" in the peace process. The inability of the Central American presidents to deal with El Salvador along with the inability of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan presidents to halt the systematic violation of human rights committed by their armies make evident to the international community the need for a new dynamic so that the peace process can really move forward. The expanded role of the UN—with more involvement of both the Secretary General and the UN peacekeeping forces already in the region since December 4—facilitates the creation of this new dynamic. It also depends in part on any future Salvadoran guerrilla offensives and the impact they have on the Salvadoran right wing. Also key will be the role of international solidarity, which must help assure that the walls thrown up last century with the Monroe Doctrine fall, just as longstanding walls have fallen in Eastern Europe.

Peace through elections

At tremendous cost, Nicaragua has maintained its flexibility with the hope of keeping the peace process alive, even in the face of the US military escalation in the region. The core of the Nicaraguan government's negotiating strategy has been the defense of international law, while domestically it seeks to neutralize US aggression through its electoral process.

To date, Nicaragua's decision to open its doors to the broadest possible international observation of its electoral process has served to control the external factors affecting the elections. The greatest concern thus far expressed by the UN and OAS observers is the "increase in political tension because of continued military activity and the lifting of the cease-fire." In the countryside, ambushes, attacks and threats by the contra forces are impeding the normal development of the electoral process. Day after day the contras continue their incursions into the Nicaraguan countryside, assassinating Sandinista activists and candidates. But the targets have not only been Sandinistas. On January 1, a contra ambush against a religious vehicle left two nuns dead (Sister Maureen Courtney, a US citizen who had worked on the Atlantic Coast for 12 years, and Sister Teresa Morales, a Miskito from the coast) and two people wounded—the auxiliary bishop of the Atlantic Coast, US-born Paul Schmitz and Sister Francisca Colqmer, also Miskito.

Violence within the electoral campaign was also on the upswing in December. The violence, largely between youths supporting the UNO or the FSLN, did not go beyond shoving and some rock-throwing until an incident at Masatepe on the eve of the Central American summit meeting that led to much more violence and left one person dead. (See article on International Election Observers, this issue, for details on the Masatepe violence.)

The ONUVEN report on electoral violence pointed to two key causes of the rise in political tensions. The first is an increased effort to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process itself, promoted by both the UNO and La Prensa. The report noted with great concern UNO's "challenging of the electoral authorities, [its] anticipation of electoral fraud and its insistence that the only explanation for a UNO defeat is fraud." The other cause listed by ONUVEN is the continual "identification of the opposition alliance as a whole with Somoza's National Guard, the contra forces and the war" in the FSLN's electoral publicity. While it is true that the FSLN makes this identification, UNO vice-presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy does as well. On December 1, he stated that "the profile they have tried to create, saying that the UNO and the Resistance are the same thing, corresponds to reality, because objectively we are working together on this civic project to change things." The contra radio station "15th of September" makes the same identification, daily exhorting its listeners to adhere to the line taken "by the leaders of the internal, opposition." It also gives significant airtime to UNO declarations, including their frequent "announcements" of a Sandinista fraud in February.

In this context, and given the bolstering of the US right wing in the wake of recent events in Eastern Europe and the Panama invasion, the FSLN's key goal is to guarantee elections that will be characterized as free, just and honest according to the Western tradition revered by the range of observer groups. In this way, the elections become the principal weapon of this small country, submitted for now some nine years to a war cynically labeled as "low-intensity." For the FSLN, the elections are also the best tool with which to break the bipartisan accord drawn up in March 1989 by the US Congress and move forward on the critical road to normalization of relations with the US and negotiation of the ongoing regional conflict.

The poll vault

In December, one of the crucial unknown variables of the Nicaraguan electoral process—the undecided vote—became clearer. Until December, almost half of the electorate polled indicated no preference for any candidate. In December, the number of undecided votes fell to 25%, as the FSLN increased its plurality over the UNO.

The discrepancies among the many different opinion polls carried out in Nicaragua were also clarified. Public opinion institutions in Nicaragua had published polls favorable to Daniel Ortega while foreign-based ones showed Violeta Chamorro in the lead. In early October, Itztani-INOP, a national institution, gave Ortega a 26%-21% advantage over Chamorro, while ECO, also national, showed Ortega with 29% and Chamorro with 21%. At the end of October, the Costa Rican-based Borge and Associates, contracted by La Prensa, showed Chamorro with 56% and Ortega with 22%. Another Costa Rican group, CID-Gallup (which is not recognized by the US Gallup organization), gave Chamorro a 40%-29% advantage over Ortega. And, finally, a third foreign institution, Univision-Bendix-Schroth, reported 40% for Ortega and 39% for Chamorro in the same month. In mid-November, ECO and Managua's Central American University published another poll showing Ortega with 35% and Chamorro with 16%.
Two important elements distinguished the national polls from those done by institutions based in other countries. First, the foreign-based polls showed far fewer undecided votes. Second, these polls refused to release or discuss the methodology used. (See Polls, this issue.)

The latest group to enter the polling fray is the highly respected US-based firm Greenberg-Lake, whose polls in both the United States and Latin America have shown a high accuracy rate. Their Nicaraguan poll was carried out from November 23 to December 3.

The Greenberg-Lake poll was the first to select its sample based on the data gathered during the registration period. It was also the first truly national poll, being the first to cover the Atlantic Coast along with the rest of the country. Greenberg-Lake reported 44% for Daniel Ortega and 27% for Violeta Chamorro, very similar to ECO's November statistics. The poll also offered the first profile of the rural population's electoral preferences, and showed a significant decline in the number of undecided voters, which it showed to be some 23%.

Stanley Greenberg characterized the FSLN's base of support as "very solid, and not likely to erode in the course of the campaign, while the UNO base is nowhere near as solid." Of those who expressed a preference for the FSLN, 87% said they were very sure of their votes, while only 67% of the UNO supporters said the same.

Campaign strengths and weaknesses

As the campaign heads into its final month, both leading parties are relying more on direct contact with the population than on media images. The FSLN has mobilized people all over the country at levels never before seen. Both Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez are visiting towns, cities and rural communities across the country in a festive departure from the more formal speeches and ideological polemics that characterized the early days of the pre-campaign period. The Sandinista campaign in recent weeks has been characterized by folkloric traditions and more spontaneous and direct contact between the population and their natural leaders—teachers, religious and economic figures—who are given public recognition in the events. Given Nicaragua's high level of nationalist sentiment, the popular uprising in El Salvador and the US invasion of Panama tend to favor the FSLN's campaign bid over that of UNO, which warned badly on the issue of non-intervention.

The UNO campaign has also been hurt by the weakness of its coalition. The internal conflicts, beginning with the naming of the presidential candidate (Violeta Chamorro or private businessman Enrique Bolaños)
damaged the UNO's credibility. The key internal disagreement since then was Violeta Chamorro's appointment of former contra political leader Alfredo Cesar as her principal adviser over the vehement opposition of Virgilio Godoy. In addition, the UNO was unable to fill the slates for national assembly candidates in every region of the country and since the campaign began, more than 100 UNO municipal and regional candidates have resigned. (See In Brief, this issue.)

With the elections only six weeks away as envío goes to press, the increasing advantage that the FSLN enjoys over the UNO could well lead this pro-US alliance to withdraw from the campaign, taking advantage of, or creating, an incident that would justify such a move.

The FSLN, which views honest elections as an essential step towards legitimizing and consolidating the revolution, is firmly committed to carry them out. Despite the critical regional situation—explosive conditions in El Salvador, the invasion of Panama and US provocations against the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama culminating with the December 29 ransacking of the ambassador’s residence by US Marines, which Ortega described as "the most delicate moment in 10 years of revolution"—Nicaragua has not declared a state of emergency, which could have served as a pretext for UNO to withdraw from the campaign. The Sandinista Police, who have been extremely cautious at opposition demonstrations so they not be accused of provoking any eventual violence, have been empowered by the Supreme Electoral Commission to play a stronger role to stop any violence that does break out.

In the midst of a number of contradictions, but maintaining its firmness as it has these many years, Nicaragua has hung a sign outside its own door declaring, "A small country that defends its dignity, respects international law and has confidence in its people, lives here. Provocations from the superpower in the north don't matter."

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


FSLN Scoreboard—Esquipulas 1:4, Elections 3:2

Nicaragua's Poll Wars


International Election Observers: Nicaragua Under a Microscope

Just the Facts: US Military Interventions

El Salvador
The FMLN Offensive—Search for a Negotiated Solution

The Last Word: Comments on the US invasion of Panama
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development