Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 85 | Julio 1988



Peace Recedes—Contra Militarists Dominate

Envío team

For the past seven years, the government of Nicaragua has sought a dialogue with the US government, convinced that if an accord could be reached with the United States then conflicts with the counterrevolution and with some of the other Central American governments could be quickly resolved.

Events of the past year, however, suggest that perhaps the path lay in the opposite direction: basic accords between the Central American Presidents were reached (Esquipulas II, signed in Guatemala on August 7, 1987, and Esquipulas III, signed in Costa Rica on January 16, 1988) and a basic accord was reached with the counterrevolution (signed in Sapoá on March 23, 1988). The accords were a product of the strategic military decline of the contras, changes in the relative strength of forces within Central America and changes in the United States itself.

The Esquipulas agreements kicked off at least an indirect dialogue between the Nicaraguan government and the US Republican and Democratic parties. On February 3, 1988, Congress spoke by denying President Reagan's request for more military aid to the contras.

That message, together with the prospect of a Reagan ever more lame in his last year of government, was not lost on one wing of the counterrevolution, which suddenly saw it the better part of valor to sign an accord with the Sandinistas. The goal of this sector—in essence the "bourgeois opposition" to Somoza before 1979—hasn’t changed, but they wanted to shift from a military to a strictly political strategy. The contra leaders who signed the Sapoá accords came from that group, and helped give another push to the peace process.

So far so good. But that change in strategy was opposed by another sector of the contras, which still prefers the military route. The Sapoá accords in and of themselves did not ensure a definitive cease-fire; once the shock that they had been signed at all wore off, it became clear that many points were still pending. And every tick of the clock as those remaining points were haggled over was time that could be used by the militarists within the Reagan Administration and their counterrevolutionary allies to scuttle the final accord and recover some battlefield positions.

The Sapoá accords surprised the Reagan Administration even more than the Esquipulas II accords had. In Guatemala, there was a change in the Central American governments’ traditional submission to Washington's dictates—there was a margin of real autonomy, at least temporarily. The key question became: Would the same thing happen with the counterrevolution? Totally financed and politically led by the Reagan Administration from birth, would it now finally cut its own umbilical cord? Or was the signing of Sapoá ephemeral, only possible because it caught the Reagan forces temporarily off guard?

Could Esquipulas and Sapoá possibly deprive the Reagan Administration of the tool it has used to execute its policies? Could President Reagan, in his last year, end up so weak?

The answer had to be no. Even though the Reagan duck is lame, it is not so crippled as to lose control of its own chicks. Those in the Somocista and militarist sector of the contras are the base of US government influence, and they know they have no place in any political project inside Nicaragua.

And they are exactly who have prevailed.

Despite that, it hasn’t been easy for the Reagan Administration to slam into reverse all the advances of the peace process. Events between the signing of the Sapoá accords at the end of March and the last round of talks between the Nicaraguan government and the contra forces (June 7-9) brought a significant part of the counterrevolution to the threshold of a definitive cease-fire.

The factors that brought peace nearer were:

First, the deep rift that tore through the counterrevolution following the signing of the Sapoá accords. The Reagan Administration tried, through Under-Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and the CIA, to paper over the contradictions that pitted the military wing against not only the civilian apparatus and its counterrevolutionary base, but even some of its own members. Using all their influence, the US managers succeeded in formally reunifying the contra leadership. Important contra commanders were separated from their troops by the Honduran Army, deported from Honduras and sent off to modern Miami apartments to silently wait it out. But no one believed that the unity was either real or stable. Sure enough, in that same city on June 22, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios, in the company of Sapoá military signatories "Fernando" and "To-no," announced a new contra alliance —a clear demonstration of the fragility of unity wrought by pressure.

Second, the existence of secret conversations between Alfredo César and General Humberto Ortega, revealed during the June meetings. These under-the-table talks complemented those taking place around the table and could have been decisive if, at the last moment, César had not reneged.

Third, the support given by an important sector of the Democratic Party, led by Jim Wright, to the César-Ortega conversations as the best solution to the US-Nicaraguan conflict. This Democratic position gained even more strength after the declarations of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who opposes military aid to the contras and is running far ahead of his Republican opponent. All this made it politically unlikely that Congress would provide the contras more military aid.

Fourth, the relative relaxation in international tensions following the Reagan-Gorbachov summit. This climate could have led more pragmatic Republicans to seek a quick solution in Nicaragua to further ease USSR-US tensions. There must have been lots of appeal in the prospect of eliminating from the Democratic arsenal one of its criticisms of Reagan foreign policy, of presenting Nicaragua as a foreign policy victory based on the "success of military pressures to force the Sandinistas to negotiate." Signs of such a shift were evident even in the State Department, given that Abrams was temporarily on the defensive because of his failures in Panama.

Given this new panorama, the Nicaraguan government went into the June negotiations ready to build upon these tendencies toward peace. Their openness had to be directed to the contras’ fundamental standing complaint: that the Sandinista cease-fire proposal gave no evidence of a real commitment to democratizing the country since it required that the contras give up their arms before being assured of what they considered an authentic democracy.

In the June meeting, the government delegation responded to that demand by proposing a detailed procedure and a calendar for carrying it out. In a period of no more than 10 days after the signing of the definitive accord, 200 ex-National Guard prisoners who had been exonerated of their crimes by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would be set free. Seven days from the signing, Nicaraguan army troops would withdraw from the zones already established by mutual accord so that, within 20 days, the contra troops could gather in them. The OAS' Pan-American Development Foundation would begin providing humanitarian aid to these troops on July 12, with oversight by the Verification Commission, composed of OAS Secretary General Joao Clemente Baena Soares and Nicaragua’s Cardinal Obando y Bravo. At the same time, the contras could send their eight delegates to the National Dialogue and the government would release another 1,150 counterrevolutionary prisoners. For a period of 60 days from this same date, the National Dialogue would discuss 10 points related to democracy.

The 10 points proposed by the Nicaraguan government would lead to "assuring or perfecting the existence of":

1. Political pluralism, respecting the ethnic, cultural and religious values of the Nicaraguan people;
2. The separation and independence of the branches of the state;
3. Equality of citizens before the law and full respect for human rights;
4. Freedom of expression, association, meeting and mobilization, as well as of religion and education;
5. Equality of rights and opportunities before the law for all Nicaraguan political parties;
6. Institutions and bodies of the state at the full service of national interests;
7. The right to strike and to trade union freedoms;
8. Procedural guarantees for a fair trial;
9. A pluralist and participatory electoral system on the basis of which free and honest elections will be called for municipalities and the Central American Parliament, the calendar for which will be established in the National Dialogue, and for the general elections to take place in 1990;
10. Norms and guarantees for the functioning of a mixed economy, which includes various forms of ownership (public, private, cooperative, etc.).

A deadline for reaching agreement on these points—and thus terminating the National Dialogue—was set for September 11. Between that date and September 28, the contras would disarm in four of the seven zones, under the watchful eye of the Verification Commission. On September 28, the government would free the remaining 50% of the counterrevolutionaries still in prison and the rest of the Guardsmen, in line with the decisions of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The disarming of the contras in the remaining three zones would occur by October 10.

Sandinista flexibility is quite clear in this calendar: for the first time they agreed that disarming take place only after accords were reached in the National Dialogue. This new concession raised hopes that the June round would yield an agreement with the contras, or at least with an important sector of them.

The hope was dashed.

Despite everything in favor of a peace accord, no agreement whatever was reached in the June meeting. The counterrevolutionaries arrived in Managua with a set position: they would maintain their criticisms of the democratic guarantees and would insist that disarmament happen only after these guarantees were given. Most importantly, they would sign no accord in any case and would blame the Nicaraguan government for "intransigence," thus throwing the peace process into a new crisis.

The Nicaraguan proposal and the government negotiating team's flexibility sent the contra team into disarray. "It was like a Persian market," General Humberto Ortega said later, referring to the cacophony of positions taken by different contra negotiators when the government presented its proposal. They had to reject no less than eight government proposals, as can be seen in the Verification Commission's report on documentary evidence submitted by the government (see translation below).

In an attempt to recoup the offensive, the counterrevolutionaries introduced a new proposal that required the virtual dismantling of the revolutionary government. Although this proposal was presented when the talks were within hours of concluding, the contra delegation refused to extend the period for its discussion. This absurd situation, known to all the international journalists present, contributed to the contras’ inability to sell an image of Sandinista intransigence to any media other than those always willing to buy such mauled merchandise. The contras, who refused even to sign a joint communiqué with the government, gave supportive journalists only a few wisps to cling to—verbal declarations that the Verification Commission was still in effect, that they would continue the cease-fire until the end of June, and that they wanted to continue the peace negotiations, though they did not offer a date when that might happen.

The contras said that the failed June meeting meant the death of Sapoá and that any new negotiations would have to return to Esquipulas II as their starting point. This, too, was part of their plan; by breaking the Sapoá framework, they could gain more room for maneuver until the November US elections. With their options open, they could either rekindle the war or return to the negotiating table in a better position. The choice would depend on the fate of Reagan Administration efforts to continue its attack on Nicaragua in the middle of a US election campaign.

The result of the June talks indicates that the hardest line within the Reagan Administration has come out on top in Washington once again; Elliott Abrams and the CIA have succeeded, at least for the moment. There is also a basic calculation by the "hawks" that the political and military situation, now so gloomy for the contras, could change if George Bush wins in November. This means sustaining the contras until then, so as to be able to juggle different options for continuing the aggression.

The renewal of military aid is not so likely, Elliott Abrams admitted, but nor is it completely impossible and “we’re going to try." A high-level State Department official expanded on this position: "If more military aid does not appear viable, the Reagan Administration could support the talks as a short-term tactic to help the rebels stay alive, but not as a way of ending the war. Obviously, keeping three or four thousand men in arms within Nicaragua would be the best option for this period, because it would increase the pressure on the Nicaraguan government, forcing it to use even more of its economic resources for the military, keeping it from resolving its economic problems, and this is good. In any case, the minimum is to maintain them as an armed entity until the next administration, to at least keep future options open. Involving ourselves in the negotiations to gain more force in Central America and prolong the negotiation process in this period can’t be discarded either."

This hawk strategy of waiting for a Bush victory is encouraged by Nicaragua's serious economic crisis, the immediate human costs of which became more acute with the measures the government announced in mid-June. From a militarist perspective, the situation suggests a strategy of continuing military pressure on the economy to provoke the overthrow of the Sandinista government. The Democrats, on the other hand, are betting on Dukakis to win the November elections and see the economic crisis as a way of weakening the Sandinistas in the next Nicaraguan elections.

But the economic factor is not the only one the US administration is weighing up. Its most militaristic faction also sees Central America's current instability as potentially useful in the short term. The region has been an unquestionable failure for Reagan's foreign policy, but the increasing weaknesses of these "emerging democracies" also makes them more vulnerable to US pressures than they were a year ago.

The Cerezo government in Guatemala is being pressured from the extreme right, as is clear from the various coup attempts. Christian Democracy in El Salvador is faced with a major internal crisis after its defeat in the latest elections, the terminal illness of President Duarte, the continuation of the FMLN offensive, the possible victory of the ultra-right ARENA in the 1989 presidential elections and the upcoming promotion to the Army General Staff of military officers who lean more toward ARENA than toward the Christian Democrats. Honduras, after a string of incidents culminating in the burning of the US Embassy, has increased its servility to the United States. And in Costa Rica President Arias, facing growing economic difficulties, strongly criticized the Nicaraguan government this month after a long period of silence or only moderate statements. His criticisms coincided with his signing of an agreement with the US Agency for International Development (AID) for an $85 million aid package to strengthen his country's balance of payments position. According to recent Costa Rican opinion polls, more than 60% of the population strongly criticizes President Arias' domestic management. The militaristic outlook is only brightened by all these weaknesses.

To achieve its ends, the Reagan administration applied pressure at three points: first, the counterrevolution, keeping it as glued together as possible; second, the Central American governments, making using of their fragility to regain the control it had over them before the Esquipulas II accords; and third, the Democrats. If it succeeds with the first two, the administration will have more powerful weapons to push the third for renewed financing of the war, or at least for humanitarian aid so the contras can negotiate from a stronger position.

This strategy can be seen in the Reagan Administration's most recent moves: first, try to unify the contra leadership or, if this is impossible, use the next round of contra general assembly elections to get rid of difficult figures and replace them with others more manipulable. Second, strengthen the Central American axis by sending Max Kampelman, a distinguished State Department adviser, on a trip through Central America in the third week of June, and Secretary of State George Shultz himself in the first weeks of July. Third, maintain pressure on typically indecisive Congress members to push them to renew economic aid to the contras.

The Nicaraguan government is trying to save Sapoá. For the revolutionary government, Sapoá has not died and the negotiations should continue until they yield agreements on the 12 points still pending from the 32-point proposal presented to get the Managua round of talks off the ground. After this the National Dialogue could take up the agenda described above. Nicaragua called for a new round of talks for June 26-29 in Managua, but the counterrevolutionary leadership did not respond, preferring to await the results of Shultz's trip through Central America and hoping that by delaying they could say Sapoá was dead.

The prediction made by envío two months ago still holds—the most likely scenario between now and November is still the tactical continuation of negotiations between the Nicaraguan government and the contras, with the possible strengthening of a US-Nicaraguan dialogue as another tactic. It is, of course, always possible that these plans could be aborted by other factors the hawks cannot control.

From a Nicaraguan perspective, whether Bush wins, which could likely mean a continuation of the war, or Dukakis does, which would open the doors for negotiation and for municipal and Central American Parliament elections, there is an urgent need to strengthen the battered Nicaraguan economy. Whoever wins the US presidential elections and whatever road the winner takes, the Sandinista government has to maintain the support of the Nicaraguan people. And that means the economy's problems have to be sorted out, war or peace.

Documentary evidence of the Sapoá accords verification

A. During the current round of negotiations between the delegations of the constitutional government of Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Resistance, the government delegation made the following proposals:

1. That the Sapoá accords remain in effect while a definitive cease-fire
accord is being reached.
2. That the Verification Commission created in the Sapoá accords remain in
3. That the humanitarian aid be turned over to the Nicaraguan Resistance
forces within Nicaraguan territory, through the Pan-American Development Foundation, while a definitive cease-fire accord is being reached.
4. That the Pan-American Foundation be the neutral body charged with getting the humanitarian aid to the Nicaraguan Resistance forces, within the territory of Nicaragua, once they are grouped in the zones, as stipulated in the Sapoá accords.
5. That the cessation of offensive military operations be extended until June 30, 1988.
6. That a date for a new meeting to continue negotiating the definitive cease-fire be fixed.

B. The government delegation has presented the following documents:

1. An overall definitive 32-point cease-fire proposal, presented on April 18, 1988; accords have been reached on 20 of these points, according to the document provided by the government delegation.
2. A proposed calendar for compliance, "of all points contemplated in
its definitive cease-fire proposal," according to the same delegation,
as an integral part of the proposal itself. (…)

This calendar includes a period of 60 days, states the government delegation, "to establish in the national dialogue the necessary accords on democratization contemplated in point 26 of the definitive cease-fire proposal."

This calendar includes concrete terms for fulfillment by the constitutional government of Nicaragua "of all its commitments referring to amnesty," the government delegation states.

C. In the current round the government delegation also:

1. Has proposed that the Nicaraguan Resistance permit the Verification Commission or the International Red Cross to verify the number and identity
of the people who were, according to the government, "kidnapped and remain in the camps and bases of the Nicaraguan Resistance."
2. Has insisted that "the Nicaraguan Resistance hand over the 66 kidnapped
people that it admits having."

D. In the current round of negotiations, the delegation of the government of Nicaragua has declared:

1. "Its willingness and decision to recognize the complete validity of the Sapoá accords, reached in the Esquipulas framework."
2. "Its willingness and decision to recognize the validity and existence of the Verification Commission created by the Sapoá accords."
3. "Its decision to maintain the cessation of offensive military operations in effect unilaterally until June 30, 1988," already expressed publicly.
4. "Its willingness to arrange a new date to continue the negotiations with the Nicaraguan Resistance, within the framework of the Sapoá accords, with the goal of signing a definitive cease-fire accord."

Managua, June 10, 1988

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo
Ambassador Joao Clemente Baena Soares

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