Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 94 | Mayo 1989


Central America

In the Negotiating Mode

Envío team

As Soviet peace initiatives lead the way out of the cold war era, a series of regional conflicts are coming to a negotiated end. It is difficult to imagine that the peace agreements being reached in Afghanistan, Angola, Namibia, Iran-Iraq and Kampuchea could fail to affect Central America. Latin American leaders are pushing for a more rational relationship with the United States, ranging from a renegotiation of the Latin American debt to a negotiated outcome in Central America.

And in fact, a move toward negotiated solutions was at the heart of the Central American situation in 1988 and early 1989. It was pushed forward with all the tools at the disposal of the Central American people, from military pressure to social mobilization and diplomatic and political initiatives. In El Salvador, while the FMLN waged a major military campaign, the FDR participated in elections; the FMLN itself launched a dramatic proposal that, had it been accepted, might have moved the country towards a negotiated settlement. The Guatemalan counterinsurgency offensive backfired, nearly taking down with it Vinicio Cerezo's government and his plan for army-led modernization; at the same time, the Guatemalan guerrillas advanced proposals for dialogue. Nicaragua continued pushing the peace process forward inch by inch, with breakthroughs in the cease-fire reached March 1988 at Sapoá and the Esquipulas IV accords signed this February in El Salvador.

Three routes for Esquipulas

In our analysis of the Central American scene last year, we suggested that Esquipulas could go in one of three directions. First, the peace accords could turn out to be simply an instrument for the five governments to legitimize themselves, helping them to manage their economic crises and delegitimize the political and military movements that challenge them. The accords would thus have little ability to reform repressive governments but could avoid a more direct US intervention in the remainder of Reagan's second term. This was a view shared by some Central American governments and at first, for pragmatic reasons, by the insurrectionary movements.

Another possibility was that the accords could be used to domesticate the Sandinista revolution, relying more on political pressure than on force. They would be used to push the revolution towards Western-style democracy while underplaying the emphasis on self-determination. The accords would thus become just another tool for low-intensity warfare. US democrats and President Arias backed this option.

A third outcome would be that the accords could provide a new framework for Central American politics, one which stressed civil society over military domination and helped the popular sector assert itself against the state. Esquipulas would thus become a shield not only against direct US intervention but also against low-intensity warfare and the counterinsurgency strategies of repressive Central American regimes. The Nicaraguan government and, increasingly, the Guatemalan and Salvadoran revolutionary movements pushed this interpretation.

This last outcome, we said then, would be most likely to occur if the following conditions were met: 1) the principles of nonintervention, self-determination and Latin American solutions to Latin American problems could be maintained; 2) social mobilization in favor of peace increased; and 3) an interpretation of the accords rejecting the false symmetry between the contras and revolutionary movements in the region could be pushed through, thus resolving the contradiction between the Nicaraguan revolutionary government's desire to legitimize itself and the revolutionary movements' attempts to avoid delegitimization.

Esquipulas Survives

The United States and its Central American allies certainly tried throughout 1988 to turn the peace process into another tool of low-intensity warfare, putting the entire burden of compliance upon Nicaragua. But they succeeded only partially. The ratification of the Esquipulas peace process in the January 1988 summit meeting in Costa Rica was weak, but sufficient to make US direct intervention impossible and maintain some momentum for peace.

Esquipulas faced four main obstacles in this period. The first was the weakening of Latin American involvement, which had lent vital support to regional peace initiatives from the Contadora process through Esquipulas II. After the Central American presidents excluded the foreign ministers of the eight Contadora and Support Group countries from the commission set up to monitor the Esquipulas accords, those governments had less space to act and were resentful. But the more powerful and active countries were also otherwise engaged. Mexico and Venezuela were waging electoral campaigns and battling severe economic crises; Peru, Panama, Argentina and Colombia were dealing with their own mounting economic and political troubles.

The second obstacle was the ongoing US effort to scuttle the accords. During this period, the United States continued maintenance aid for the contras, convinced them to abandon the Sapoá cease-fire accords, pushed the Nicaraguan opposition to confrontations culminating in the Nandaime demonstration and backed Enrique Bermúdez, ex-National Guard colonel and the most intransigent leader, as the new political head of the counterrevolution.

Third was the weaker domestic position of most of the Central American governments than in the previous year, which rendered them less able to assert independence from the US line. In El Salvador, President Duarte was beset by illness and rightwing ARENA's ascendance; Costa Rican President Arias was reined in by economic troubles, by accusations of his party's involvement in drug trafficking and by an upcoming electoral campaign; Guatemalan President Cerezo had to tread carefully given coup threats, while increased US military aid undermined Guatemalan neutrality.

The last obstacle was the repeated postponement of the Esquipulas IV summit, first scheduled for August 1988. The motive for these postponements was the reluctance of some Central American Presidents—including Arias, promoter of the original peace plan—to move ahead without a green light from the incoming US administration.

But despite these obstacles, the Presidents ultimately signed a document that kept the peace process alive and was, in general, a victory for Nicaragua. While Nicaragua was forced to become the focal point of the accords, the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government was recognized. Although the accords called on Nicaragua to make specific reforms regarding its electoral and media laws, they did not demand constitutional reforms. Furthermore, for the first time Honduras explicitly admitted its role as a base for the contras and committed itself to demobilizing the contra forces.

And where from here?

Despite US efforts to derail Esquipulas and the wavering resolve of some Central American presidents to defend a degree of independence, the clamor for peace from the Central American people has grown stronger. And the conditions mentioned above that would favor the third, most hopeful direction for Esquipulas are still possible.

While the popular movement for peace's still incipient organization limited its power, the revolutionary organizations have been able to use the Esquipulas framework to push for dialogue. Emphasizing its basic principles of independence from US policy, self-determination, political pluralism, participatory democracy, human rights and social justice, they also succeeded in avoiding the false symmetry problem equating the contras with their movements.

Real change could come to Central America in 1989 if the negotiating trend continues in El Salvador and if the national unity program being launched in Nicaragua allows it to reach a modus vivendi with the United States. The Guatemalan conflict will continue, and will have an impact on the Central American scene. Costa Rica and Honduras, on the other hand, will play less important roles in the immediate future. Honduras will continue to bargain with the United States over its role as US military base and haven for the contras. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias will be likely to withdraw from regional leadership, weighed down by economic and electoral troubles of his own.

A lot is at stake in 1989. The Central American conflicts could become institutionalized if the United States blocks further peace initiatives in El Salvador and keeps the pressure on Nicaragua. Or there could be a genuine negotiated solution, taking into account the reasonable security interests of the United States while opening up political space to popular forces.

Peace in Central America still hangs in the balance. It depends on a US response that goes beyond exhausted cold war rhetoric and stale Monroe Doctrine. Economic reactivation of these war-torn economies also relies on international response, an extensive package along the lines of the post-World War II Marshall plan. And both peace and economic reactivation depend on the concerted power of the Central American people, who are the only ones who can turn the rhetoric of the Esquipulas accords into the real social changes that their societies demand.

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