Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 114 | Enero 1991



Nicaragua: Ten Years of Independent Foreign Policy

Envío team

Though the current Nicaraguan government is allied with the United States, it cannot, after 10 years of a nationalist and anti-imperialist revolution that purged the Somoza dictatorship's servile pro-US legacy, be a simple US puppet.

Even more important than this complex historical inheritance is the US government's unwillingness to resolve Nicaragua's pressing economic needs. Not surprisingly, its lack of generosity erodes the pro-US position that one might have expected from Violeta Chamorro's government.

In the search for credits, assistance and funds—which must come from all over to respond to so many needs—the Nicaraguan government must maintain a certain independence from the United States. But how will it do this while at the same time maintaining positions in support of the US, its natural ally? The answer will be, and already is, an international policy where nothing is said or done to give Nicaragua too high a profile—don’t irritate the US or be its peon. This means a low-profile foreign policy with neither nationalist stridency nor unmeasured applause for the imperial state that could endanger eventual economic aid, from any source.

Sandinista foreign policy, on the other hand, was clearly defined and generally bold. It was revolutionary. And because of that, Nicaragua paid a price. Nevertheless, Nicaragua also made great strides, with victories that opened new roads not only for our country but also for other impoverished third world nations.

What follows is an account of those 10 years of independent foreign policy, written by Augusto Zamora, who worked in the Foreign Ministry in the day-to-day construction of that policy. Zamora's work is the second-prize winner in envío's Third Annual Writer's Contest.


For Nicaragua, the triumph of the Sandinista revolution meant, among many other transformations, a radical change in foreign policy. Assuming its position as a sovereign and independent nation for the first time since the defeat of General José Santos Zelaya in 1909, Nicaragua was confronted with the challenge of developing its own foreign policy.

The principles of national independence, nonalignment and defense of national interests—in the spirit of Latin-Americanism and the philosophy of Sandino—were key elements of that new policy. Its most historic element was converting Nicaragua from a simple pawn of the United States to a nation that speaks with its own voice in international forums.

The history of Sandinista foreign policy is marked by arduous battles and victories. From our tiny territory, we helped open new roads in the struggle for peace, breaking chains that had subjugated Latin American countries for decades. We taught other nations how to overcome their fear of the giant to the north. We showed the world that small countries can also aspire to holding their own in international politics—and can effectively do it.

Nicaragua joins the Non-Aligned Movement

In September 1979, the Fourth Summit of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations took place in Havana, Cuba. A Nicaraguan delegation presided by the coordinator of the Government Junta, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, attended the meeting, during which Nicaragua's membership in the Movement was approved with overwhelming support.

This was Nicaragua's first major international action—joining the move begun in 1956 by Nehru, Nasser and Tito to present a political alternative to nations emerging from the decolonization process that did not want to align with either of the great military blocs, because neither represented the interests of the earth's poor nations.

Nicaragua's entry into the Non-Aligned Movement, just 41 days after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, meant the end of a servile past and the beginning of a strong international presence. Nicaragua declared itself independent of any bloc and affirmed its decision to develop a policy of solidarity with third world nations. As Daniel Ortega said at the summit, "The Nicaraguan people, with their blood, have won the right to be here today, breaking with a history of subservience to imperialist policy."

Defense of national territory

In the last months of 1979, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, like the country itself, was a whirlwind of comings and goings, in search of how best to organize the institution overseeing the revolutionary government's foreign relations. In the midst of that rush, a concern arose: the defense of Nicaragua's territorial interests that would put an end to 70 years of carelessness and corruption with respect to the principal heritage of all Nicaraguans—the national territory. This concern was first expressed in the promulgation of the "Law of the Continental Platform and Adjacent Sea" on December 19, 1979, establishing a 200 nautical mile zone of Nicaraguan sovereignty and jurisdiction and proclaiming marine resources as exclusive national domain.

Nicaragua's territorial history is pathetic. General Máximo Jérez ceded Nicoya and Guanacaste to Costa Rica in 1858. In 1960, the Somoza dictatorship was involved in shady dealings regarding a case in the International Court of Justice that lost a "disputed territory" to Honduras. And the San Andrés and Providencia islands and adjacent territories were seized from Nicaragua by US military, political and economic intervention in 1928, through the imposed "Barcenas Meneses-Esguerra Treaty." In it, Nicaragua "ceded" the islands to Colombia in return for that nation's "recognition" of Nicaraguan sovereignty over its Atlantic Coast—which had been seized from Britain in the 1890s by the Zelaya government and incorporated into the nation after half a century of conflicts, including unequal battles between Nicaraguan and British troops. With this "treaty," the United States was "compensating" Colombia for the separation of Panama in 1903—with our islands.

In November 1979, the Foreign Ministry proposed to the Government Junta that Nicaragua take action to reestablish its rights over San Andrés and Providencia. The Ministry argued that the so-called "treaty" of 1928 was null and void—unconstitutional, imposed by force, in violation of treaties, etc.—and that the Junta should make a declaration to that effect.

The ministry's legal office outlined Nicaragua's reasoning. The decision was not easy. No one wanted the demand for territory—historically, geographically and legally Nicaragua's—to be interpreted as an unfounded gesture of enmity or a pretext for creating an artificial crisis, though it was clear that Colombia would not applaud the decision.

Nevertheless, given that large territorial interests were at stake—islands, seas and continental platform that Colombia and other neighboring countries coveted and that must be protected and defended—there was only one choice. In addition, the policy of trafficking in national territory that had characterized previous governments and was a constant in national history—with the exception of the staunch defense of the Mosquitia (Atlantic Coast) from British intentions—was at an end.

There were dozens of meetings, explanations, clarifications and reports. Someone asked the inevitable question, "Why do we want so much water?" The answer was clear: to defend territorial sovereignty and enormous maritime and island resources. With general agreement, Nicaragua declared the 1928 treaty null and void.

On February 4, 1980, in an official ceremony, the Government Junta read the "Declaration on the San Andrés and Providencia islands and surrounding territories" before the Cabinet and diplomatic corps. It demanded that the islands, which belonged to Nicaragua for unobjectionable legal, historical and geographical reasons, be returned. This declaration was the new government's first international action in defense of national interests.

It was also its first foreign crisis. Colombia rejected the declaration, asserting its supposed rights and withdrawing its ambassador to Nicaragua. There were incidents between Nicaraguan fishing vessels and Colombian warships, and we traveled to Colombia to keep the territorial dispute from becoming an armed conflict. A gentlemen's agreement put an end to the incidents and calmed the stormy waters. In the end, each country stuck firmly to its respective position. The mercenary war in Nicaragua soon displaced territorial questions as top priority, but the bases of Nicaragua's territorial rights in the Caribbean sea were set and their future course marked.

Ronald Reagan's ascent meant the end of any possible coexistence between the United States and Nicaragua. Reagan's virulent anti-Sandinismo led him, in 1981, to ratify the Saccio-Vázquez Carrizosa Treaty, signed in 1972, in which the US "ceded" Nicaragua's Quitasueño, Roncador and Serrana keys to Colombia as well. As in 1928, and before in 1850, US policy translated into a blow to our national territory, and it effectively signified the beginning of hostilities against Nicaragua.

The Security Council convenes

In the first months of 1982, serious armed activity began on the Honduran border. The possibility of a direct US military invasion, sparked by an armed conflict with Honduras, seemed imminent. Mercenary attacks with Honduran support devastated border zones in Northern Zelaya, Chinandega and Nueva Segovia and left hundreds of victims. Undersecretary of State Thomas Enders was promoting an "inter-American peace force" on the continent. Spy overflights and the presence of warships in Nicaragua's territorial waters had increased, and large-scale US troop maneuvers were underway in the Canal Zone.

An urgent meeting of the UN Security Council was called to avoid escalation of the conflict. The meeting was set for March 25.

Until then, conflicts between Latin American countries and the United States had been taken to the Organization of American States (OAS), where US interests inevitably won out. This happened with Guatemala's Arbenz government in 1954, which, though it also took the issue to the UN, was ubable to secure its involvement. The same happened with Cuba between 1961 and 1963, and again with the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Nicaragua had to break with that subservience since, given the circumstances, one could hope for nothing more from the OAS than a rubber stamp of US policy. The United States and its client states claimed OAS authority to hear Nicaragua's complaint. Documents circulated in the UN citing the obligation to appeal first to the regional forum, which we responded to with others demonstrating the opposite.

All the maneuvers against Nicaragua failed. Before the UN Security Council, Comandante Ortega denounced the increasing US aggression and, in a nine-point plan, expressed Nicaragua's willingness to normalize relations with Washington and sign non-aggression pacts with its bordering countries. Nicaragua received massive support, and though the US vetoed the resolution proposal, the precedent was forever set that American countries are free to choose the international forum they consider appropriate, with no obligation to approach the OAS first.

Fourteen months later, May 19, 1983, the Security Council approved resolution 530, praising the work of the Contadora Group, reaffirming the right of Nicaragua and other countries to live in peace and without foreign intervention, and requesting that the Secretary General update the Council on the situation in Central America. It was the first Security Council resolution on a Latin American country's conflict with the United States. Nicaragua's commitment and persistence achieved its goal: to register its case within the world forum.

The Malvinas War: Latin America against colonialism

The first Security Council meeting on Nicaragua had just concluded when Argentine armed forces took the Malvinas Islands, occupied manu militari by Britain since 1833. This surprising military and diplomatic conflict between two governments that were unconditional allies of the US troubled Europe and the Americas.

The bloody reputation of the discredited Argentine military dictator added an element of paranoia to the action. Backing a government that had carried out the most execrable human rights violations against its own people was repugnant. And given the dictatorship's proven participation in the mercenary war and reports that it was willing to send troops to Nicaragua in the event of a US invasion, Nicaragua was faced with a difficult decision. Not supporting the action was like turning our back on a sister country that was being attacked by an imperialist state; supporting it could be seen as patting the odious dictatorship on the back.

Finally, after understandable vacillation, Nicaragua opted for full support. Though the government was repugnant, the cause belonged to all of Argentina, whose people had poured massively into the streets to support their country's historic demand. Great Britain was making huge military preparations to re-establish colonial occupation of the Malvinas and other disputed territories. Faced with a growing war, the cause had to be assumed by all Latin Americans. We still think of how our decision must have surprised the Argentine dictators—receiving almost immediate and total support from a government they were committed to destroying.

Argentina called a historic OAS meeting, which began on April 25, 1982. For the first time, American solidarity was invoked to repel an armed action from an extra-continental country—a situation considered in the Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty (TIAR), justifying its creation.

In the meeting, Argentina received the general support of the Latin American countries, with the exception of Colombia, which expressed reservations about Argentina's methods, and Pinochet's government, which was apparently collaborating with Great Britain. US Secretary of State Alexander Haig made it clear that the US was abandoning its old military allies and leaving them in the lurch. His speech against application of the TIAR provoked such absolute silence that Haig, feeling out of place and uncomfortable, left the hall when he finished. Haig lucidly demonstrated the TIAR's true nature—an instrument of the imperial state, inapplicable in assisting a Latin American country threatened by what Washington considers a "more strategic" ally.

Because of the US attitude, the meeting reached no resolution. Argentina was defeated, and Latin America proved, as never before, that it is impossible for our interests to be compatible with US interests. The Malvinas War opened many eyes and led to new attitudes on the continent, including the strengthening of Latin American solidarity against the United States. One of the immediate indirect consequences of the colonialist war was the Contadora process and continental repudiation of the mercenary contra war. And a very specific consequence, demonstrated by Nicaragua: that fraternity and solidarity between Latin American peoples should prevail over the actions of tyrants.

David and Goliath: Nicaragua in the Security Council

In mid-1982, Nicaragua began to promote its candidacy as rotating member of the UN Security Council. We were fully aware from the outset that this meant an open battle against the United States, which would use all its forces to push Nicaragua to the most decisive political defeat possible. The previous hard-fought diplomatic battles between the United States and Nicaragua in the Security Council still resonated in UN hallways.

Our friends soon told us of the risk of a so-called "obstructing third." To be elected to the Security Council, a country must obtain two-thirds of UN members' votes (at that time, with 157 member States, 105 votes were required). When a candidate didn't please the United States, it promoted a "counter-candidate," which, although not winning, would at least pull a sufficient number of votes to prevent the non grata country from obtaining the necessary two-thirds. Blocked from winning, it would be obligated to withdraw its candidacy. The "obstructing third" kept Cuba from the Security Council until early 1990.

Consequently, Nicaragua's goal was to win two-thirds and prevent the formation of the "obstructing third." We feverishly organized Nicaragua's candidacy. Notes were sent to all foreign ministers, including, in our excitement and beginner's blundering, to countries that were not UN members. The delegation that had the job, together with the UN mission officials, of winning Nicaragua's first great international challenge went to New York at the end of September, headed by Miguel D'Escoto and Nora Astorga.

The seat of the mission was "general headquarters." We had to work at maximum capacity to compensate for limited human and economic resources. The workday began at 7:30 am even though nothing moved at the UN until 10:00. The file was a cardboard box. The goal: to convince all of the representatives of the member states that Nicaragua deserved to be elected. To do this, we had talk to all the delegates, from the ministers down to the last person in each mission; to go to all receptions, even if we weren't invited. On one occasion, it happened that almost our entire delegation arrived simultaneously at the reception of an Asian country that had not invited Nicaragua. There was one Nicaraguan for every six surprised guests!

But the United States was on the move too. The Dominican Republic was assigned the role of "obstructing third." The US "task force" in the UN, made up of hundreds of officials, was mobilized to assure Nicaragua's defeat. The United States made ample use of flattery, threats, bribes, etc; Nicaragua could only argue based on rights and justice.

Amidst that confusion, the Sandinista revolution's prestige, international rejection of the mercenary war, coercion and threats against Nicaragua and the US role in the Malvinas all played an important role. The vast majority of nations identified with the small country being attacked for the sole crime of wanting to be independent. Nevertheless, we were told it could take months to win the nomination.

The vote took place at the end of October 1982. For the definitive session, reinforcements arrived from our Embassy in Washington, and we divided up the General Assembly semicircle, assigning a row of tables to each Nicaraguan delegate. We stationed ourselves in the upper section of the semicircle, where we could see the whole room. The level of tension in our delegation was tremendous. It was the hour of truth, of measuring forces with the imperial state. Jeane Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador to the UN, took her seat. From where we were, we could see the hard expression on her face. Her hands played nervously with her glasses.

The moment arrived to choose the member that would occupy one of the two seats corresponding to Latin America for that year. The vote was secret, which had its advantages and risks. The advantage was that the United States could not get back at the countries that voted for Nicaragua. The risk was that Nicaragua would not know which of those who had offered us their vote had left us in the lurch.

The first vote. Nicaragua was far from getting two thirds. The ghost of the "obstructing third" ran through the room and gave us all a feeling of anguish. We took advantage of the recess before the second round to go up and down the hall in a flash, reminding the delegates table by table to vote for Nicaragua. Someone told us that the sole delegate from a friendly country was not in his place and we could lose that vote. The order was to find him and bring him to his seat. One vote can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Second vote. Another chill. We won votes, but still did not reach two-thirds. Again, we went table by table, asking delegates to vote for Nicaragua. One friendly delegate, surprised by our trips up and down the hall, exclaimed, "What an incredible lobby!" We moved to the decisive vote. Nicaragua had to win. There was great tension and expectation. Jeane Kirkpatrick, stiff in her chair, waited with pursed lips.

Third vote. The President of the Assembly read the result. Nicaragua: 107 votes. With more than two-thirds, Nicaragua became the new rotating member of the Security Council. The victory filled us and the room. A general applause exploded, intense. Jeane Kirkpatrick threw her glasses on the table and stormed out of the room. The Assembly continued to applaud Nicaragua's victory. The session was interrupted. Delegates rose to look for us. They hailed us, embraced us, squeezed us. Long lines formed to congratulate the Nicaraguan delegation. David had once again defeated Goliath. Mission accomplished.

Contadora: Trying to stop the war

Historically, conflicts between Latin American countries and the United States have followed the same path: when the "Great White Father" decided that a government was unacceptable, the situation ended with the resignation, subjugation or overthrow of the government in disgrace, through a coup d'état or a US invasion. Latin American history is full of such examples, which should be kept in mind when considering the significance and importance of the negotiating process initiated by four Latin American countries on Contadora Island. The initiative was pulled together by three Latin American heads of state who had worked for a regional solution to the crisis since the Sandinista insurrection: General Omar Torrijos of Panama, José López Portillo of Mexico and Luis Herrera Campins of Venezuela.

The most immediate antecedent was the September 1982 Mexican-Venezuelan initiative to set up a presidential summit between Nicaragua and Honduras to end the tensions provoked by contra activities and continuous Honduran army attacks. The Mexican and Venezuelan Presidents signed a letter inviting the two heads of state to the summit. As Junta coordinator, Daniel Ortega accepted immediately. Honduras rejected the invitation using the pretext of a meeting between President Suazo Córdoba and a group of merchants in San Pedro Sula. This was to be the Honduran line for 10 years: using pretexts to make peace impossible, while military and political interests profited from Nicaraguan blood.

A series of events then encouraged the broader Latin American initiative. In March 1982, Nicaragua petitioned the Security Council. The next month, Argentine troops occupied the Malvinas islands. Anti-imperialist sentiment in Latin America was on the rise. The Honduran border situation continued to threaten regional peace. The danger of a US military invasion persisted, and Central America threatened to become a conflagration with dramatic consequences.

The only thing missing was a little inspiration to pull together all these elements and translate them into a concrete initiative. López Portillo and Herrera Campins met in Cancún, Mexico, where they discussed the idea of a larger meeting. This larger meeting brought together the Panamanian, Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan foreign ministers on the island of Contadora. And on January 8, 1983, they issued the Contadora Declaration, giving birth to the negotiating process.

This was the first time in an open confrontation between a Latin American nation and the United States that a group of countries from the region stepped forth as willing mediators with the goal of avoiding US military intervention. The first support for Contadora came, on Nicaragua's initiative, from the ministerial meeting of the Coordinating Body of the Non-Aligned Movement in Managua in January 1983.

The "Big Pine 1" military maneuvers began in Honduras in February 1983. In March, Nicaragua appealed to the Security Council once again, denouncing US threats and requesting that measures be adopted to preserve peace in the region. The meeting had no resolution due to US opposition. In March, Reagan defined Central America as the "fourth border that the US must defend." In May, Nicaragua convoked the Security Council again, which, on the 19th, adopted resolution 530, reaffirming Nicaragua's right to live in peace without foreign interference, extolling Contadora's work and exhorting it not to skimp on regional peace efforts.

The first joint meeting between Contadora and the Central American nations took place on April 20 and 21, 1983. The negotiating process began slowly, and did not pick up momentum until the Contadora Group Presidents' summit, on July 17, 1983, in Cancún. The Central American governments' approval of the Document of Objectives, written in September 1983, gave the process a real push and received international support, though not from the United States, which saw Contadora as an obstacle to its war policies. On December 1, Nicaragua presented its Fundamental Agreements to Establish Peace in Central America—an official proposal and the first real contribution by a Central American country to the Contadora negotiating process.

In January 1984, Contadora and Central American foreign ministers met to develop a proposal that would make the Document of Objectives operable. After many hours of discussion and haggling, the one issue left to settle was whether or not a military balance should be struck in the region—the US position defended by Honduras—or a level should be set that took objective defense needs into account—Nicaragua's position, given the US threat. Contadora proposed a "reasonable balance of forces" for negotiation. Minister D'Escoto opposed this, and I, surprised, told him I thought the proposal looked good. He said, "Be quiet. If I oppose it, then [Honduran Foreign Minister] Paz Barnica can accept it." Said and done. The Honduran minister accepted and D'Escoto, with a resigned expression, said he would withdraw his objection for the good of the process. Everybody's face lit up. Finally, the accord.

Paz Barnica left to communicate the success to Tegucigalpa. He returned with a disturbed expression and said that his government could not accept a "reasonable balance of forces." Bernardo Sepúlveda, Mexican foreign minister, impatient, angrily criticized the Honduran, saying he had already accepted and telling him to be serious. Paz Barnica became indignant, protested and left the room. Silence and tension. More negotiations, this time to calm tempers. Consultations. After a long hour, the Honduran government finally accepted the Contadora proposal and signed the second basic accord.

Contadora's work was always like that—difficult, slow, many times ending at dawn just to return to the same starting point hours later. The results took shape in the September 1984 Revised Document for Peace and Cooperation in Central America.

Nicaragua accepted the Revised Document "immediately and without modification." Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras, after having praised it, rejected it and presented, together with Guatemala, a "counter-document," developed in a secret meeting in Tegucigalpa. In October, a US government document was leaked, celebrating the Contadora agreement's failure thanks to secret US maneuvers through its client states.

From that point on, the Contadora road was rockier. It was obvious by then that the United States would not let the process succeed unless it included dismantling the Sandinista revolution. Nevertheless, the effort continued. Nicaragua urged the reopening of negotiations, despite the fact the Contadora Group itself considered them closed in September 1984.

The crisis of the negotiating process moved other Latin American countries to look for ways to strengthen it. In July 1985, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay met in Lima and formed the Contadora "Support Group," giving the process new life. Latin America was unwilling to abandon Central America to US interventionist and hostile intentions.

The negotiations began with renewed will, because on October 31, US Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle declared that the United States could turn "to the direct use of force in the near future" to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. On September 12, 1985, Contadora presented an unfortunate version of the Revised Document that was a serious reversal of the September 1984 proposal and reflected enormous US pressure. Negotiations continued until the last draft of that Revised Document was presented on June 7, 1986. Nicaragua, once again, accepted the proposal; Honduras vehemently rejected it.

With that, the Contadora process effectively came to an end. But the negotiations' apparent lack of results should not lead one to believe they were a failure. The historic merit of Contadora and its Support Group is having contributing to preventing war in Central America, stopping US aggression and demonstrating that it is possible to create Latin American forums relatively free from the dictates of the imperial state.

Contadora strengthened Latin American solidarity, giving life to a regional dialogue abandoned decades ago. From Contadora came the Group of Eight which, with a little effort and will, would undertake a series of endeavors directed at responding to our countries' interests and problems. It opened the road to regional negotiation, preparing the ground for another, far more difficult, peace process, with a greater interventionist charge—Esquipulas II.

In the defendant's chair: The World Court

Between July and August 1983, the possibility was mentioned of suing the United States through the UN's principal legal body, the International Court of Justice. With few exceptions, the idea was received skeptically. The World Court, as it is commonly referred to, was seen as ethereal, remote and, according to some, "reactionary." Important friends advised us to abandon the idea, since Nicaragua could run the risk of suffering an adverse result that might translate into support for illegal US interventionist policy. Nevertheless, the proposal took hold. The conviction some of us shared was that regardless of US power, that country was violating the UN Charter itself; and that independent of its members’ origins and opinions, it could not decide against the Charter and international law. This reasoning won out, and Nicaragua turned to the UN's "principle legal organ" to defend itself against US aggression.

The case had to be organized under maximum secrecy. A leak would sabotage the project, since the United States could withdraw from the Court before Nicaragua introduced the suit. We were successful. The US only found out about the project a few days before the suit was filed. As we had foreseen, the Washington sent a letter to the UN Secretary General on April 6, 1984, as soon as it confirmed Nicaragua’s decision, stating that the Court's obligatory jurisdiction "should not apply to events developing in Central America."

The suit was presented on April 9—sped up by the mining of Nicaragua's harbors in February—soliciting provisional protection measures. On May 10, the Court ordered the United States provisionally to cease all actions against Nicaragua that were in violation of international law. On November 24, the Court declared that it was authorized to hear the case and a year and a half later, on June 27, 1986, only weeks after the Contadora process reached its definitive roadblock, condemned the United States for its policy of force and intervention against Nicaragua. That sentence constituted a historic landmark in international relations.

The International Court of Justice will no longer be a body dedicated only to resolving territorial and economic affairs, as the United States intended at one time. In spite of US allegations that the case was a Security Council issue, the World Court confirmed its competence to hear cases of armed conflicts and—through its ruling—that international law applies equally to small states and large powers, even though the latter believe they are above good and evil.

Honduras and Costa Rica before the World Court

With Contadora exhausted, there were no new formulas for moving closer to peace in the region. On June 11, four days after Honduras blocked the Contadora Revised Document, the head of the Honduran armed forces announced negotiations to reactivate the rusty anti-communist Central American Defense Council (CONDECA), without Nicaragua's participation. On July 16, the Costa Rican, Salvadoran and Honduran foreign ministers held another of their secret meetings to form a "democratic alliance" and a "peace project" excluding Contadora and Nicaragua.

In response, Nicaragua decided to take two actions it had been preparing for some time. On July 28, it filed suits in the World Court against Costa Rica and Honduras for their involvement in the war of aggression against Nicaragua.

The actions had a big impact in both countries. Costa Rica played the martyr, as if an ungrateful Nicaragua had unfairly threatened to reveal an irreproachable lady's secrets—partially true, since that government's involvement in crimes against the Nicaraguan people would come to public light in the Court. There were contradictory reactions in Honduras, but it was apparent that Nicaragua had more than enough of a legal basis for its actions.

Nicaragua's legal actions quickly reactivated the regional negotiating process. On October 31, the Honduran President, who had firmly rejected the Contadora Document on June 13, declared that the suit was incompatible with Contadora and that Honduras would not return to that forum unless Nicaragua withdrew its case.

What is known as the Esquipulas II accord, signed on August 7, 1987, between the five Central American Presidents had two immediate effects on both cases. With respect to Costa Rica, Nicaragua agreed in the accord to suspend its suit against Costa Rica. In fact, it was later obliged to withdraw it altogether—then-Costa Rican foreign minister Fernando Volio reportedly said "it was extracted with forceps"—to keep the newly-born Esquipulas negotiating process from sinking too soon when Costa Rica threatened to pull out. Costa Rica's insistence that Nicaragua close the case contradicted its constant protests of innocence; if it were innocent, it should not fear international justice.

As for Honduras, Nicaragua signed a bilateral agreement to freeze the case for 150 days, the original time period foreseen for dismantling the contra forces in Honduras. In the ongoing Esquipulas negotiating process, Honduras used the World Court case as a playing card to block the process when it suited US interests. Finally, in the Esquipulas accord signed in San Isidro de Coronado in mid-December, 1989, the case was put on hold until June 1990, giving the two countries six months to reach a bilateral agreement. The case remains in the hands of the new Nicaraguan government, which is not likely to pursue it.

Almost a miracle: The signing of Esquipulas II

In February 1987, Costa Rica, in a meeting with the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran Presidents, presented the "Procedure for Establishing a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America," which they approved. It was then presented to Nicaragua, Contadora and the Support Group in an essentially impudent process, since Nicaragua was excluded from the February meeting and was only presented a specific plan as a finished product.

From that moment on, an intense lobby began: continuous trips by special US government envoys, hasty visits of high-level Central American officials—with the exception of Nicaragua—to the United States, setting dates for presidential meetings then postponing them, etc., until it was decided to hold a summit meeting in Esquipulas, Guatemala, on August 6 and 7. On August 5, the US unveiled a "peace plan" to which no one paid any attention.

In the interim, something very important happened: Nicaragua decided to take on Costa Rica’s project and even sponsor it. This decision was so important that we could unequivocally state that the Esquipulas process stayed alive thanks to Nicaragua.

The signing of the Esquipulas II accord at the end of that summit was unexpected and surprising. It is hard to understand how countries that up to that moment had acted as faithful US client states would sign an accord with Nicaragua without prior US blessing.

Nicaragua, which for the sake of a yearned-for peace had agreed to withdraw its charges against Costa Rica and "freeze" the charges against Honduras, decided to put itself at the vanguard of fulfilling the accord. Of the other signatories, some took the stance that no one was forcing them to fulfill the accords—which was true—and others, that they had nothing to fulfill—which was not. At the end, it seemed that Nicaragua was the only country obliged to comply with the agreements.

The later summits—Alajuela, San Salvador, Tela, San Isidro de Coronado, etc.—and their results at least confirm the divorce between the will of those who signed the accords and the reality of their subjection to foreign interests. The contras continued to maintain their bases in Honduran territory and Honduras continued its involvement in the mercenary war, in spite of its obligation to dismantle and disarm the contra forces. The remaining countries assumed a spectator role, demanding only that Nicaragua fulfill the accords, while closing their eyes to Honduras' brazen involvement in the war against Nicaragua.

The Esquipulas meeting, however, opened great avenues of hope in Central America. For a moment, the region lived in the fiction of being effectively independent nations that could decide their future alone and seek to reestablish peace. But as to be expected, the United States quickly recovered its powers, and the plan that was to have been carried out in 150 days would have to wait for its consummation for the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas.

Esquipulas lived and survived thanks to Nicaragua, which, for the sake of peace, made repeated and continually greater concessions, receiving, in return, a heap of unending and never satisfied promises. The signing of some accords—like that of San Isidro de Coronado—was painful and brought very uncertain results. Nevertheless, the heat of Esquipulas aided US client governments in their first tentative steps toward forging an independent foreign policy.

The final battle: The case of Panama

The confrontation between General Manuel Antonio Noriega's government and the United States—which led to the US military intervention that destroyed Panama's defense forces and Panamanian sovereignty—was the Sandinista government's last battlefield in defense of the principles that formed its foreign policy, even at the risk that its position would be interpreted simply as support for the Noriega government.

On May 17, 1989, the OAS held its 21st Consultation to consider the situation in Panama after the elections. At that meeting, the regional forum adopted a resolution creating a ministerial committee to "promote urgent alternatives for a national accord" that would assure, "through democratic mechanisms and in the shortest period possible, the transfer of power [to elected president Guillermo Endara] with full respect for the Panamanian peoples' sovereign will." The resolution was approved by consensus, with support from the Nicaraguan delegation, headed by Victor Hugo Tinoco.

In the next OAS meeting, on June 6, Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto lamented the results of the previous meeting, criticizing the resolution as a violation of the principle of non-intervention and saying that if electoral irregularities justified OAS intervention, then many Latin American countries urgently demanded such intervention. Definitively, the OAS mission failed and the crisis between the US and Panama approached its fatal denouement.

The Panama invasion, at midnight on December 20, 1989, took the region back in time to a situation it believed had been overcome. The OAS approved a resolution condemning the action, but the deed was already done.

The invading troops’ assault on the Nicaraguan ambassador's residence in Panama City on December 29 provoked a new confrontation between the two countries. A few insufficient apologies from the State Department did not satisfy Nicaragua, which responded by expelling 20 US diplomats and limiting the number of personnel in the US Embassy in Managua. In addition, Nicaragua called emergency meetings first of the OAS and then of the UN Security Council. Both forums approved resolutions condemning the attack on the residence.

Ten years of aid from socialist countries

Under the Somoza regime, passports were stamped indicating that "This passport is not valid for travel to Cuba, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, People's Republic of China," etc. The list was exhaustive and because of it, Nicaraguans could not legally travel to the socialist countries. One visit could mean jail or an eternal file in Somoza's Security office.

The revolution broke with this absurd measure and established diplomatic, commercial and military relations with the socialist community. The socialist countries, particularly the Soviet Union and Cuba, were, with respect to our autonomy, key to resisting the US war. They gave Nicaragua basic economic and military resources to repel the aggression. In the most difficult moments, they footed practically the entire petroleum bill and supplied virtually all of our arms. Relations between Nicaragua and the socialist community were a constant target of US attacks, which time and again demanded the rupture of military relations and the expulsion of all advisers from those countries. The ultimate goal was to leave Nicaragua defenseless.

The disappearance of the socialist community and the Soviet Union's domestic crisis has filled the West, and especially the US, with joy. For third world nations, however, the far-reaching changes in those countries have bent a severe blow to their dreams of development and independence. Alone before the untiring voraciousness of the developed capitalist world, which pays for its well-being with our misery, expelled from scientific-technological development and subjected to the dictatorship of the IMF and World Bank, our countries seem to be facing a future without hope. Nicaragua is living that situation today with no visible alternative.

Given this current crisis, Nicaraguans must squarely evaluate the significance of socialist support during 10 years of revolution, because those countries provided not only petroleum and arms and ammunition for our defense, but also donated food, medicine, doctors and hospitals, technical advisers, technology and tens of thousands of educational scholarships. Today, when no one gives anything without many strings attached, it is worth remembering this assistance. The socialist countries helped make our survival possible, and allowed us to preserve our independence so that we could be here today, without US soldiers directing all but the traffic in Managua.


It is not easy to sum up ten years of foreign policy in revolutionary Nicaragua. A lot has been left out. We wanted to touch on the most important points—those that were landmarks and defined the course of the Sandinista government's foreign relations.

The revolution's foreign policy was developed, like everything, day by day, under extremely difficult conditions, in a struggle that could not have been more unequal. It was aimed at defending national interests and strengthening Latin American unity and solidarity among the poor of the world, but above all at defending national independence, avoiding direct military aggression by the US and achieving peace. Paradoxically, the longed-for peace was won at the cost of an unexpected electoral defeat—the result of an unparalleled process in Nicaragua and on the continent. Sandinismo was willing to give everything for Nicaragua. With that persistence it lost, but won peace.

Many things were left unconsolidated: territorial policy, the World Court cases and the place Nicaragua occupied in the international arena for ten hard and glorious years. The new government's first international actions, however, foretell a very different future with respect to Nicaragua's international policy. The signing of agreements detrimental to national sovereignty; the handing over, under US pressure, of a Nicaraguan diplomat to Japan for accusations of drug trafficking; and the underhanded efforts to settle the cases before the World Court are all unfortunate actions that indicate the new government's standards. The rupture with the People's Republic of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is a sorry example of the government's crudeness in handling Nicaragua's foreign relations. And, in fact, with the new government, Nicaragua's voice has disappeared from international forums.

All this makes the merits of the Sandinista revolution stand out. No one can deny that the revolution developed an international policy that went beyond—very far beyond—its limitations and the tiny geographic space Nicaragua occupies on this planet called Earth.

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