Lifting the Cease-fire to End the War
"If the United States would redirect the money currently going to finance the contra forces to the United Nations so it could be used for the demobilization and repatriation of those forces, the cease-fire would be renewed on October 31. My duty is to protect the life of Nicaraguans and ensure the smooth development of the electoral process... This is one way out; President Bush could do this immediately. Nicaragua is always being asked to make gestures; no one ever asks that of the US. It's time that the US makes a gesture. We can't allow the contras to go on killing Nicaraguans. President Bush should assist in the demobilization of the contra forces. He has said he supports peace, but he hasn't taken any action and he should do so now, by respecting the agreement reached by the Central American Presidents [in August]."
With these words, spoken by President Daniel Ortega at the summit meeting of hemispheric leaders in Costa Rica, Nicaragua forced the question of the demobilization of the contra forces back onto the Central American and international stage. At the same time, while the Costa Rican summit dominated news about Nicaragua this month, the ongoing electoral process—both internationally and domestically—and the economic situation maintain a high profile on the Nicaraguan political scene.
Ortega and Bush: Face to Face in San José President George Bush's response was aggressive and insulting, characterizing Ortega as a "little man" and "that unwanted animal at a garden party." Most of the US Congress reacted with shock and similar aggressiveness. What the representatives were forgetting is that their own decision to fund the contras—first with military and then with "humanitarian" aid—had resulted in 736 deaths since late March 1988, when the Sapoá talks between the Nicaraguan government and the contra forces were held. What the Congress doesn't comprehend is that Nicaraguan lives and dignity might be more important to President Ortega than the country's international image.
"The problem is not the cease-fire, the problem is how to end the war...the demobilization of the contra forces has a deadline—December 5... the contras are fighting in this brutal manner to try and block the electoral process," declared Ortega as he emphasized that lifting the cease-fire is necessary to put an end, once and for all, to the war so that the electoral process can go forward in peace.
The new infiltration of contra forces (some 2,000 in late September and October, according to both State Department and Nicaraguan army sources) is qualitatively different from the activity that has characterized the unilateral cease-fire in place since the Sapoá talks. It could mean that fairly extensive areas of the countryside would be cut off from electoral activity. But the greatest fear of the peasant population is that the contras who have recently entered the country will reestablish themselves in Nicaraguan territory, leading to a long-term re-escalation of the war.
In its official communiqué of November 1, the Nicaraguan government declared that, "independent of the attitude taken by the mercenary forces, the government guarantees the smooth running of the electoral process and the security of the international observers." The communiqué also notes that the government would be willing to "reestablish a unilateral cease-fire" as the Tela agreements regarding demobilization of the contra forces are complied with.
Summit highlights Bush-Latin American gapThe Bush Administration's reaction to the Costa Rican summit as a whole reflects a still undefined US policy towards Central America. Before arriving in Costa Rica, President Bush made it clear that he wanted no part of a multilateral summit empowered to issue a formal closing statement. Bush said he wanted to sign no statement that also bore Daniel Ortega's signature. The summit topics—including democracy, drugs, the debt, contra demobilization and deforestation—all challenged current US policy in the region.
One of the Bush Administration's announced goals for its first year in office was to develop a new policy towards Latin America—including issues such as Central America, the debt and the region’s general economic crisis. Brazilian President José Sarney arrived at the summit criticizing the US for the net capital flow from Latin American to the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose country does not benefit in any significant way from the tremendous Latin American debt, seized upon this theme and the unbearable burden it has meant for Latin America, as the main focus of his keynote speech. Many Latin American Presidents did not even come to the summit, including Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, Alfredo Salinas de Gortari of Mexico and Peruvian leader Alan García.
The fact that the Bush Administration forgave part of Costa Rica's debt—a bilateral step in what should have been a multilateral conference—did not sit well with the Presidents in attendance, who had hoped for some more comprehensive gesture from Bush. The fundamental problem that emerged clearly at the summit is that the Administration has not clearly formulated any positive policy vis-à-vis either the Central American crisis or the economic crisis affecting the entire region.
It was in the context of a summit meeting with virtually no agenda that Nicaragua was able to, albeit at a fairly significant risk, shift international attention to the criminal actions of the counterrevolutionary forces.
Ortega's announcement touches off war of wordsIn San José itself, the Nicaraguan delegation informed journalists at 3 pm on October 27 of the possibility that the cease-fire would be lifted. However, two press centers—and two press corps—were operating in Costa Rica. One was the official summit press center, set up in the same hotel where the summit took place and attending the Latin American press and other journalists who live in the region. The other press center was operated by the US State Department a kilometer away from the summit site and served as headquarters for the US media, including the electronic giants—CNN, CBS, ABC and NBC. This second center was open only to those journalists with special credentials and was feeding up-to-date information to those journalists, many of whom, therefore, rarely attended the summit itself.
The key result of Ortega's announcement was that the reality of the ongoing war and the question of demobilization of the contra forces was put back onto the international agenda and the true US stance regarding the Tela accords was revealed—to all but the US public. In addition, the lifting of the cease-fire made it clear that the US could no longer keep the issue of Nicaragua on the back burner.
The immediate costs of the announcement for Nicaragua, in terms of the country's international image, were quite high. The announcement touched off an energetic resurgence in "Sandinista bashing." The US Senate unanimously condemned the Nicaraguan government's decision to lift the cease-fire, while an overwhelming majority of the House did the same. Bush's harsh response was a regression to the Reagan era.
After the first rush of outrage passed, Nicaragua obtained the meeting it wanted at the United Nations between Nicaragua, the UN, the OAS, Honduras and the contra forces. The meeting began November 9, with Honduras participating solely as an observer. At the Nicaraguan government's request, Cardinal Miguel Obando traveled to New York to serve as an observer. Whatever its original response, the US media was forced to give significant airtime to Sandinista leaders for the first time.
Why end the cease-fire?In the wake of the Costa Rican summit meeting, the international media projected an image of Nicaragua as guilty of starting up the war again. Before the summit, the general sense internationally was that Nicaragua was at peace. Many people were unaware that the contras continued to operate within Nicaragua.
The fact is that after a short-lived truce (April-June 1988, following the March Sapoá accords), the contra forces stepped up their military activity. The Nicaraguan government continued, month by month, to renew the cease-fire agreed to at Sapoá, but did so unilaterally. Since the end on of the Sapoá talks March 25, 1988, 1,730 Nicaraguan victims of contra activity have been recorded, including 736 deaths. In addition, 1,350 people were either kidnapped by the contra forces or disappeared. Congress continued to fund the contras with humanitarian aid during this whole period: $19.8 million on March 29 1988; $27 million on September 30 1988; and $61.9 million on April 18, 1989.
Although the phrase "humanitarian aid" does not immediately conjure up images of war and destruction, the contra forces have carried out 2,433 attacks against economic targets, civilian and military vehicles, cooperatives and so forth. Though the so-called bipartisan accord this spring stipulated that the contras were to stay put in Honduras, the State Department itself admits that some 2,000 contras have recently entered the country.
The international campaign—isolating the giantIn diplomatic terms, the US government suffered three setbacks this month. The Nicaraguan government was able to put the US-Nicaraguan conflict back on the international stage. The crucial first step of Nicaragua's electoral process—registration—was legitimized through the presence of international observers, as was its right to maintain relations with the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, the role to be played by the UN in demobilizing the contra forces
The US initially supported the presence of UN forces (ONUCA) in Central America, primarily as a means by which to control the Honduran-Salvadoran border and pressure the Salvadoran guerrilla forces, but never wanted them to be used in any way to further or facilitate the demobilization of the contra forces. ONUCA acts under the auspices of the UN Security Council, where the US has veto power. The US government has also attempted to limit the power of the Commission for Support and Verification (CIAV) created as a result of the Tela accords, trying to put them under Security Council control. That attempt was thwarted, however, and the CIAV continues as a special initiative of the UN secretary general in conjunction with the OAS.
The visit of ONUCA's Francisco Vendrell to the contra camps in Honduras was another setback for US policy. It made it clear to the contra forces that the Tela accords stipulate their demobilization and repatriation, either to Nicaragua or to a third country. Vendrell's statement that the contras were serving the cause of an "anachronistic policy" was of special concern to US officials. This position clashes sharply with the one maintained by the Bush Administration, which still hopes to use the contra forces as an instrument to pressure Nicaragua "and guarantee democracy" in the country.
On October 23, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution regarding Central America that supports the Tela Accords, including CIAV’s role, as well as the ongoing work of ONUCA and the UN Commission observing the Nicaraguan elections (ONUVEN.)
Facts and falsehoodsAnother fallacy circulating about President Daniel Ortega's announcement at the Costa Rican summit was that it took everyone by surprise. The truth is that after the ambush of a truck of reservists near Río Blanco that left 19 dead, Nicaraguan newspapers displayed giant headlines that screamed "Contra Crimes will be Punished," announcing a meeting between the President and the armed forces command to "analyze the situation facing the country with the increased criminal actions by the counterrevolutionary forces." The lack of international coverage of the war was nothing new.
Perhaps the most significant image portrayed at the summit meeting was the nature of US-Nicaraguan relations and the specific role of the Bush Administration. The image that the State Department has so vigorously tried to project is that a new climate exists in Washington with respect to Nicaragua, and that both Bush and Secretary of State James Baker are ready and willing to negotiate. This image reflects a partial reality; US Undersecretary of State for Inter-American affairs Bernard Aronson met with Nicaraguan Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco at the inauguration of Argentine President Carlos Menem and a middle-ranking State Department official met several months ago in Managua with President Ortega and Vice President Sergio Ramírez.
Nevertheless, all of the Bush Administration's statements against the August 7 Tela peace agreements, its concern about the neutrality of many groups—including the UN and OAS—observing the Nicaraguan electoral process and its ongoing funding of both the contra forces and the UNO opposition coalition sharply contradict the image of a new era of Nicaraguan-US relations. Washington's position is that Nicaragua should read all the bad signs as a mere political tactic to appease ultra rightists—that the real goal of Washington is peace and the gradual normalization of relations with Nicaragua. This new climate of negotiation and normalization would not be ushered in, of course, until after February 25. Meanwhile, Washington is trying to block compliance with the Tela accords and is permitting and actually promoting the escalation of contra violence to such a point that it substantially damages the prospects of a smooth electoral process in Nicaragua.
Why did the contras step up their attacks?The unexpected turn of events in recent months is that Nicaragua's generally high and positive international profile, along with the FSLN's clear electoral advantage over the opposition, threw the new variant of the US war—giving predominance to the economic over the military option—into crisis. It forced the United States to reintroduce its military option through a massive infiltration of counterrevolutionary forces. Nicaragua's action at the Costa Rican summit thus worked to unveil the cosmetic character of the Bush Administration's policy towards Nicaragua.
The United States could not wait for the economic crisis to take its electoral toll, opting instead for a new escalation in the military conflict. Despite the economic crisis, the Nicaraguan people were enjoying a significant easing of tensions brought about by the new climate, however precarious, of peace in the country.
International peace—internal democracyOne question asked internationally in the wake of the cease-fire announcement has been "Why provoke Washington when everything was going so well for Nicaragua?" The most obvious response is that 3,000 victims (including dead, wounded and kidnapped or disappeared) is a situation the country can no longer tolerate. But there's another issue, one that turns on an analysis of Nicaragua's electoral process, both inside the country and in the international arena. The two processes are closely linked.
While the United States and the domestic opposition continue to pressure the FSLN and count on the international arena and the false images generated there, the Sandinistas direct their actions towards the Nicaraguan population itself. Lifting the cease-fire was precisely such a measure. It was not designed for international consumption but was aimed at addressing an increasing domestic crisis—the escalating contra attacks.
The Washington line is that the Nicaraguan government's lifting of the cease-fire was a desperate move brought about by the fact that the Sandinistas "know" they will lose the February elections. Yet public opinion polls show Daniel Ortega personally ahead of Violeta Chamorro by a 2-1 margin, with the FSLN as a party leading UNO by 3-1.
It's true that the Nicaraguan government's choice to defend the lives of Nicaraguan citizens carries with it a very high (political) risk. If the Nicaraguan initiative to negotiate a peace in November fails, the electoral process will be much more problematic for the FSLN.
Legitimizing the ElectionsIn order to respond to the threat that the Bush Administration might succeed in challenging the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan elections, the Nicaraguan government threw open its doors to unprecedented international observation. The most important observer groups are the UN Commission entrusted with electoral observation (ONUVEN) and the commission working under the auspices of the OAS. Both the OAS and UN reports have characterized the electoral process and the laws regulating it as positive. The UN pointed to a concern on the part of the electoral officials to "ensure the greatest possible participation of all political groups and citizens in the electoral process."
Both observer groups expressed their satisfaction with the October registration period. US observer Elliot Richardson also said he was pleased with the registration process. One problem noted was that 67 registration centers in 20 towns faced difficulties due to armed actions on the part of the counterrevolutionary forces. But by the last Sunday of registration, over 90% of those eligible to do so had registered to vote.
Shevardnadze's visit Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's visit to Nicaragua in early October had multiple effects that work in favor of Nicaragua and damage the interests of the ultra-Right in the US. The Soviet Union pledged to continue economic aid to Nicaragua, both in petroleum and other basic necessities, as well as increase commercial links between the two countries. Shevardnadze's visit was an implicit recognition that the relations between the USSR and Nicaragua is not an illicit one, calling into question the political and ideological justification long used by the US in its war against Nicaragua. The visit also paved the way for a Soviet role in negotiating the ongoing conflicts in Central America. The US has accepted this fact and says Nicaragua will be on the US agenda for the upcoming Soviet-US summit meeting. The official announcement of a decision already in effect—suspending the shipment of heavy arms to Nicaragua—helps ease tensions in the area.
The new era in US-Soviet relations may lead to a transformation of US policy in Central America. The US interprets perestroika and glasnost as victories for capitalism, enjoying the new autonomy of countries long in the Soviet sphere of influence, without realizing that world opinion, particularly in Latin America, will sooner or later demand similar moves on the part of the US itself. The US will have to acknowledge that its conflict with Nicaragua must be framed fundamentally in a North-South, rather than an East-West, context.
The domestic campaign—increasing polarization Even before the announcement that the government's unilateral cease-fire would be lifted, the electoral process was moving surely towards increasing ideological polarization. The opinion polls done by independent groups in October indicate that Daniel Ortega has a significant lead over Violeta Chamorro. INOP, the polling agency that conducts its surveys under the auspices of the Managua-based independent research center Itztani, shows that 41% believe Daniel Ortega will win, while 21% say Violeta Chamorro will emerge victorious. Of those interviewed by the ECO polling group, affiliated with Managua's Jesuit university, 29% say they will vote for Ortega, while 14% say they'll cast their votes in favor of Chamorro.
The other parties have virtually disappeared from the electoral map. In surveys done between April and August, other opposition candidates obtained about the same percentage as Chamorro, between 11 and 13%. By October, only 2% of those polled indicated that they would vote for any other opposition candidate.
Perhaps the most significant piece of information in the new round of surveys is that more than 50% of the population still does not demonstrate a preference for any candidate. In the months to come, the struggle for the undecided voters will begin. While they votes are not convinced Sandinista supporters, the surveys indicate that they can be characterized as strongly anti-imperialist. That will make a UNO-US victory more difficult.
Of the undecided voters, 71% think that the US should remove its military presence from Central America. 52% feel that the US is not contributing to peace in Nicaragua and 77% say that the US should lift the economic embargo against Nicaragua. 59% characterized US policy towards Nicaragua as bad or awful, while 60% feel that the policy of the USSR towards Nicaragua is good or excellent. 66% describe the European Economic Community's policy as good or excellent ande 58% give that same rating to Cuba's policy.
If the US does not acquiesce to the Nicaraguan demand for peace, the moderate-center parties may be able to recover some lost territory. To date, nearly a dozen UNO candidates for the National Assembly have resigned, many of them viewing the increasingly pro-US policies of the opposition coalition with alarm. (See "Nicaragua Briefs," this issue.)
Ortega visits the Arab Emirates The economic factor continues to be the Nicaraguan government's Achilles heel in the upcoming elections. President Ortega's visit to Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain represented another setback for the Bush Administration. Despite the fact that President Bush personally called Kuwait in an attempt to block any assistance from that country to Nicaragua, Ortega came away from his visit with promises of substantial support. Kuwait will also be sending an official delegation to Nicaragua in the near future to discuss more long-term investments.
During October the government had to devaluate the córdoba by 11.2%, and virtually no foreign hard currency was coming in, although there are many promises from Europe for the post-February period, regardless of who wins the elections. It is traditionally hard to control inflation in December, with a larger than usual influx of cash remittances from abroad, and significant government expenditures in the "thirteenth month" Christmas bonuses and year-end payments to agricultural producers. (See "Economy," this issue.) That problem is compounded this year by the tremendous expense of the electoral process itself.
After Ortega's trip to the Middle East, the United States, to no one's surprise, renewed the economic embargo first declared in May 1985. What was unexpected was a return to the highly charged anti-Nicaragua rhetoric of the Reagan years. The change in rhetoric was partly to appease the far-right wing in Congress. In any case, it's clear that the Bush Administration still views the continuing economic war as an effective card in the 1990 electoral game, particularly when backed up by military might.