On Hold for the US voter
After the flurry of provocative events in Nicaragua in July, August was relatively uneventful. Only relatively, as there was significant movement in each of the three main parties (Republicans, Democrats and Sandinistas) to the indirect dialogue that began with the Esquipulas II peace accords a year ago.
In a game plan coached by US Ambassador Richard Melton and played out by Nicaragua's rightwing opposition, the Reagan Administration sought, unsuccessfully, to create an atmosphere of chaos inside Nicaragua. In August, other Reagan team members tallied up new defeats. Internationally, Shultz's attempt to isolate Nicaragua was a non-starter, and in the US, Republicans failed to push their contra aid package through Congress.
The Democrats, on the other hand, won Senate approval for a different contra aid package, making it clear that they are not interested in pursuing their own dialogue with Nicaragua during the US election campaign.
The Sandinista government nimbly avoided Shultz's effort to condemn it to diplomatic isolation in Quito, where hemispheric leaders gathered for the inauguration of Ecuador's new President. But it was unable to get agreement on a new date for the Central American presidential summit, or to tighten up Latin America's support for reactivating the Esquipulas peace process. Meanwhile, the Sandinistas are gearing up for an eventual policy change in the United States, readying Nicaraguans for the ideological-political battle that could replace the military struggle after the US elections.
The Reagan administration: Shultz returns empty-handedUS Secretary of State George Shultz arrived in Guatemala on August 1 for a meeting with the foreign ministers of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. He hoped to leave with a document signed by the four Central American ministers condemning Nicaragua for lack of democracy and noncompliance with the Esquipulas accords. From there he would tour Latin America, stopping in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia to gather more statements critical of Nicaragua, ending up in Ecuador for the inauguration of President Rodrigo Borja. With this chorus of condemnations, Shultz would return to the United States with a good argument to support the $45 million Republican contra aid package.
From the start, it was iffy whether Costa Rica and Guatemala would sign what one US official termed a "virtual declaration of war" against Nicaragua. Guatemala's traditional policy of neutrality towards the US-Nicaraguan conflict has led it to insist on Nicaragua's presence in such meetings. For its part, Costa Rica continues to maintain a position different from the US because of President Arias' support for Esquipulas II, known in the US as the Arias Plan. Despite Reagan Administration efforts to alter the intent of the peace agreement, Arias has not lost sight of the fact that it is supposed to bind all Central American countries to compliance, not just Nicaragua. Furthermore, both governments are aware of the high economic cost to their countries if military tensions escalate.
Shultz thus came away empty-handed from the four-hour meeting. Despite intense pressure aimed mainly at Guatemala, the Cerezo government's representatives—including the defense minister—refused to sign his document. So did Costa Rica's. In the end, the only statement to come out of the meeting gave generic support to democracy and development; Nicaragua wasn't even mentioned.
This did not mean, however, that Shultz packed his anti-Sandinista rhetoric away for the South American leg of his tour. (Contra leader Wilfredo Montalván had said just before Shultz's departure that the contras' diplomatic strategy was to pursue a "Latin Americanization" of the pressures against Nicaragua with the aid of the US State Department.) "There is a cancer in Nicaragua that we must remove," Shultz proclaimed in Montevideo, Uruguay, his first stop.
After a bomb attack in La Paz, Bolivia, Shultz returned briefly to Central America, where he failed again to get Central American consensus for his position. Arriving in Quito on August 10 for a brief touchdown on the day of the new President's inauguration, he had nothing to offer but his by-now stale diatribe, which found no audience.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's arrival in Quito was delayed until after Borja had actually received the presidential sash because outgoing President Febres Cordero would only permit him entry as a common tourist. He used the time to make an official stop-off in Panama, where he met with General Noriega and expressed Nicaragua's solidarity with Panama at a time when both peoples were the target of US aggression.
Arriving in Quito, a huge crowd of Ecuadorians enthusiastically welcomed Ortega while the numerous heads of state and other political dignitaries attending the inauguration officially greeted him. Presidents Ortega and Borja also reestablished diplomatic relations between their two countries, broken off unilaterally by Febres Cordero. Instead of diplomatic isolation for Nicaragua, Quito was a victory.
The meetings, celebrations and press conferences that took place in Quito, including a warm welcome for Fidel Castro, were recognition of the political pluralism in today’s Latin America—a pluralism Latin America is increasingly willing to defend. It was more evidence of the gradual erosion of the Monroe Doctrine.
Latin American unity was not yet strong enough, however, for Nicaragua to succeed in getting a date set for the Central American presidential summit, despite a lot of diplomatic effort. August 7 was the anniversary of Esquipulas II, and August would have been an obvious time for the summit.
Honduras is the main obstacle to setting the date. It refuses to participate in the Esquipulas peace process until Nicaragua withdraws its case, presented to the World Court in July 1986, accusing Honduras of lending its territory for a war declared illegal by that same court. Nicaragua offered in August to reach a settlement out of court if Honduras would agree to installation of a multinational force of observers on the two countries' common border. It proposed that this force be made up of observers sent by Spain, Canada, West Germany and one Latin American country from the Contadora or Support Group nations.
In the end, neither the Reagan Administration nor Nicaragua could make real headway, because all political actors in Central and South America are waiting to see which way the wind finally blows in the US elections.
The Democrats: Just short of all for the contrasIn July, Republican Senator Robert Dole proposed a $47 million contra aid package that included $27 million in "humanitarian" aid and the $16 million in military aid that had been frozen from the $100 million voted in 1986. The CIA could distribute both, immediately, and in Nicaraguan territory.
On August 10, after heated debate, the Senate voted down the package 57 to 39. Instead, it approved the Democratic alternative by a partisan 49 to 47. According to this bill, the non-military aid would be delivered the Agency for International Development (AID) starting October 1. The CIA could deliver the $16 million in military aid, following a vote by both houses, whenever President Reagan asks for it, once he consults with the four Central American Presidents and offers information that two of three conditions exist: 1) the Sandinistas "unjustifiably" attack the contras; 2) the Sandinistas commit gross violations of the Esquipulas accords; or 3) the Nicaraguan government continues to receive an "unacceptable level" of Soviet military aid.
To understand the meaning of this package, which will reach the House floor in September, one must look again to the November elections, in which the war in Nicaragua is a delicate issue for both Republicans and Democrats.
After the Esquipulas II and Sapoá accords, and the subsequent cutoff of aid to those inside Nicaragua, the contras, already suffering military defeats since 1985, entered a period of disintegration and demoralization. Those in Nicaragua are demoralized not from lack of weaponry—of which there is plenty—as much as from the lack of good food and nice boots to which they had become accustomed. Their long dependence on US supplies—two or three airdrops of food and other necessities daily—has left them with few resources of their own.
In August, a large number of fighters and their collaborators pulled back into Honduras. In the US, this was played up as a huge exodus of hungry and desperate contra forces—an image aimed at wringing more aid from a guilt-ridden Congress. In fact, the contras' hunger is an eloquent sign of their inability to build a social base in Nicaragua. Any guerrilla force worth its salt has access to food supplies through the territory it controls or the support it receives from the population.
To their material crisis must be added declining morale due to the Sapoá accords, the ongoing dialogues between Sandinistas and contra groups within Nicaragua, the work of local peace commissions and broadcasting of the amnesty policy. All this made the Reagan Administration recognize that, to keep the counterrevolution alive, talks had to be broken off with the Nicaraguan government (now accomplished) and the contras had to pull out of Nicaragua (which they are in the process of doing).
The Republicans' minimum aim is to ensure that the contras survive past the elections—thus institutionalizing them as a military legacy for the new administration, whether of Bush or Dukakis. Their fundamental objective, however, is still the collapse of the Sandinista revolution through sustained military, economic and diplomatic pressure, no matter how long that may take.
The Democrats, also unsympathetic to the Nicaraguan revolution but with their own interventionist view of the world, share the aim of keeping the contras alive for a different reason. They want them in Honduras as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Sandinistas if Dukakis wins in November. What they oppose is the millions in military assistance, which contradicts this preference for political negotiations. A sign of the lengths to which the Democrats are willing to go to ensure the contras' survival was their silent acquiescence to the CIA's appointment of Enrique Bermúdez as top contra leader, despite his unsavory past in Somoza's National Guard and his authoritarian rule within the contras.
For the most part, both parties are being silent on the divisive issue of the contras during the electoral campaign. In his speech to the Republican convention in New Orleans, George Bush didn't even mention them; nor did President Reagan in his address enumerating his foreign policy successes. The Democrats managed not even to mention the word Nicaragua in their platform presented at the convention in Atlanta. Indeed, Dukakis differs on this issue from his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, who favors contra military aid. In his speech, Dukakis did at least say that the prime enemy facing the United States today is drugs, not Nicaragua.
Congressional Democrats fear accusations of "being soft on communism," particularly in an election year, and they have not been helped by Nicaragua's inability to fix a date for another Esquipulas summit. (Senator Christopher Dodd's recent trip to Central America can be seen as an attempt to rekindle the negotiations begun in Sapoá, to provide a political alternative they can point to.) Democratic senators thus did no more than present a moderately altered aid package.
The aid bill has yet to be debated in the House. Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright noted after the Senate vote that the House would have some difficulties passing the compromise package. Yet, if passed, the Reagan Administration can be expected to maneuver for the military portion of the aid. One way would be to provoke border incidents, using the current high concentration of contras in Honduras, so the Sandinistas can be seen to "attack them unjustifiably." It is possible that the current contra activity in Honduras and within Nicaragua is aimed at provoking just such a military response.
US congressional decisions are all compromise decisions right now. The Republicans still favor war, but with more caution than at other times, while the Democrats are trying to win ground for negotiation, but with even less boldness than before.
Nicaragua: Greasing all the wheelsIn the midst of a severe economic crisis, Nicaragua, too, is in limbo pending the outcome of the US elections, preparing itself for either Bush or Dukakis. For the first time in years, however, the Nicaraguan government is gearing up more for a political-ideological campaign than a military one.
It is in the economic sphere that the daily battle is most difficult. On August 30, there were adjustments to the February and June economic measures. The main ones were a 150% increase in the price of petroleum products, a devaluation of the córdoba relative to the dollar from 80:1 to 180:1 in the official exchange rate for imports/exports, a 140% salary increase for state workers and significant wage increases for agricultural workers, and an end to subsidized electricity rates for most consumers (institutions, industries and all but minimum-use residential areas). The goal of these adjustments and others having to do with credit policy, collection policy for basic grains, etc., was to stimulate production—particularly of exports, which reap hard currency—and give it more realistic prices. The salary increase for those state workers unable to increase their earnings by improving the productivity of their enterprise, as other workers have done, meant at least temporary relief for a large number of workers nationally.
The military truce the Nicaraguan government has maintained since March was again prolonged unilaterally, for the fourth time, until September 30. Nonetheless, some counterrevolutionary groups are continuing armed attacks against civilians. The two most tragic actions last month were the August 2 attack on the passenger boat that goes from El Rama to Bluefields, which had 200 passengers on board (2 dead and 25 wounded), and a nighttime attack on the settlement of Monterrey, Jinotega, two weeks later, leaving 9 dead (3 of them children), 10 wounded (7 of them children) and 10 houses burned.
But while the contras want to continue making their presence felt inside Nicaragua to show Congress they are still kicking, they don't want to risk their existence as a group so the bulk of them have gone to Honduras, where they can not only rest and relax but also carry out border actions. The retreat, made possible by Honduras' servile attitude towards the United States, is their ticket to survival. In Honduras, they can be whipped back into shape, reunified and resupplied, there to wait out the US election results.
This double game can also be seen in the policy of the contra leadership. On the one hand, the directorate remains under the total control of ex-National Guard officer Enrique Bermúdez, thus ensuring the cohesion of the "freedom fighters" while waiting for a Bush victory. But on the other, substitute figures are preparing to lead the contras if Dukakis wins. This month Alfredo César, Pedro Joaquín Jr., Alfonso Robelo and Edén Pastora—the latter two now also appear to want to return to the political scene—said that if Bermúdez continues controlling the directorate they would form a new organization that would bring together all factions of the counterrevolutionary non-Somocista business class, those grouped in what in 1986-87 was called the Southern Opposition Bloc (BOS).
The same tug-of-war exists over the process begun in Sapoá. The negotiations in Managua have neither been renewed, nor have the contras formally pulled the plug on them. They are posing difficult preconditions for resumption of the talks just to keep the possibility alive.
Thus, though there is no progress in the peace process begun with Sapoá, there is motion. The Honduranization" of the contras and the "Bermudismo sin Bermúdez,"* as General Humberto Ortega called the initiative of César and the rest, are two of the dynamics growing out of this pre-selection period.
*A play on the phrase "Somocismo sin Somoza," or Somoza-like rule without Somoza, used in 1978-79 to characterize the goal of the Nicaraguan forces who negotiated for Somoza's departure without including the Sandinistas or contemplating changes in the National Guard.
Nicaragua's opposition political parties are not free of this same tug-of-war. The atomization of the four "families" of parties that existed in the political spectrum of Nicaraguan opposition (Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists and Marxists) has reached the point that there are now some 24 distinct groups or tendencies. There are divisions between the parties even when they are ideologically compatible, and there are divisions inside each party.
Some leaders of the rightwing parties continue betting on the Republicans, but find inside their ranks those who are putting their money on the Democrats. Other parties of the center or "left"—those who participated in Nicaragua's 1984 elections—see a chance to accredit themselves to the Democrats as the anti-Sandinista tool they will need to carry out a future policy of civic pressure against the revolution. To win the confidence of the Dukakis forces, these parties are tending to move to the right and to subordinate their own project to US policy. By doing so, they are alienating those inside their parties with more nationalist positions.
The traditional tendency towards "caudillos," or strongmen, and even the new electoral law (its criteria for the creation of new parties are more demanding than the 1984 law, so new groups are rushing to sign up before it goes into effect) are also influential in the fragmentation going on today among those opposed to the Sandinistas.
All this division weakens the opposition, which is giving no sign that it wants to return to the National Dialogue. With so little coherence among them, no one wants to play their strong suit before seeing what happens in the US in November. Despite the warning to the most pro-Reagan groupings when the Melton plan* came unstuck in July, and the weakness caused by their divisions, they may still try to mount some action to impress and influence US congressional representatives.
*On August 19, following talks between Cardinal Obando y Bravo and government authorities, Radio Católica, which had been indefinitely prohibited from broadcasting on July 11, returned to the air—minus its previous inflammatory news programs.
At the same time, the government established another democratic legal structure with the National Assembly's discussion and passage of the electoral law. Five of the six opposition parties represented in the National Assembly participated (the Communists absented themselves).
On August 24, after 11 days of debate, the National Assembly finished approving the new law’s 204 articles, which will govern municipal elections, those for the Atlantic Coast autonomous governments (both still awaiting a date), legislative and presidential elections (next fixed for 1990), and those for Central American Parliament (also still awaiting a date, partly because of the Costa Rican parliament’s slowness in approving the statute). The law will regulate not only the electoral process, but also the formation and functioning of the political parties; before, these were two separate laws.
Highlights of the new electoral lawThe Supreme Electoral Council will be made up of five magistrates, to be elected by the National Assembly from five lists of three candidates each submitted by the President. There are also nine Regional Electoral Councils, corresponding to the country’s nine administrative divisions. All opposition parties have the right to accredit their own inspectors in all vote-counting sites, from the smallest polling place to the national computation center.*
*The Supreme Electoral Council is the highest body of the electoral branch of government, the fourth branch together with the executive, legislative and judicial.
Propaganda urging people not to vote is prohibited, as are foreign donations for the campaigns, whether of private, state or mixed origin. The state will give each party a sum of campaign financing proportional to the percentage of votes each won in the 1984 election.
Parties that did not participate will receive the same amount as the party that received the smallest number of votes in 1984. During the campaign, 30 minutes of advertising time will be made available on each of the two state TV channels daily, and 45 minutes on the state radio stations, which will be proportioned among the parties according to the same system.
A new political party wishing to register must present a list of its national, regional, departmental and municipal leadership bodies (in total, about 800 people).
The Council of Political Parties will make all final rulings regarding registration and other party-related legal issues. The Council has 11 members, 7 elected by the National Assembly and 4 named by the Assembly of Political Parties, a body in which all legal parties are represented and in which the opposition obviously has the majority. In this Assembly, a party of the opposition will always occupy the secretariat.
Sandinistas seek greater grassroots democratizationThe Sandinistas, too, are engaged in a push-pull of sorts, to respond to both the military strategy that Bush would have, and the political-ideological strategy that Dukakis would propose. Defense Minister Humberto Ortega announced in August that he would continue recruiting for military service at the normal pace, and the Sandinista Youth organization said the military strengthening of the revolution is its primary objective.
At the same time, there is a major renovation effort in all Sandinista grassroots organizations to strengthen their bases by responding better to their concerns. While each organization's style is different, the common denominator is a move away from a political "line" delivered from above that was considered valid for everyone on every occasion. At bottom, this mobilization reflects a search for Sandinista hegemony, or influence, rather than direct domination, which has often put a damper on creative participation by the base.
The restructuring of the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) is perhaps the most notable initiative in this search for greater democratization. The Sandinistas want to transform the CDS into a broad communal movement that will attend to the large and small demands of each community and be directed by elected natural leaders from each neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, the local CDS, under entrenched local Sandinista leaders, had become instruments of control, sectarianism or excessive bureaucracy. Paradoxically, to urge leadership that is not necessarily Sandinista is seen as a way to make them more revolutionary. It will be left to each block organization to define its own road, based on its own specific community characteristics and its achievements or errors in these nine years under past leaders.
Another example can be found in the steps taken by AMNLAE, the women's organization, to expand its influence to all women in the country, organizing more around their reality—still some distance from classic feminist concerns—than defense of the revolution. Yet another was the intense campaign the Sandinista Youth carried out in the high schools the past two months to win the leadership positions in the Federation of Secondary Students (FES). Their goal is to transform the FES into an administrative body that can respond to student demands without waiting for state action.
The case of the Sandinista Workers Confederation (CST) is the most complex. Given the economic crisis, workers' demands are directed toward their very survival and are becoming very high profile. Leftist trade union confederations, attentive to these demands, have managed in some enterprises to win bases neglected by the CST. This happened in Sacos Macen, the state-run sacking factory, in August. The CST defeat to the Marxist-Leninist Party's Workers’ Front in factory-floor elections led CST militants to turn to firings and pressure on workers from other factories to impose Sandinista domination instead of reevaluating their practice and developing a more effective medium-term course of action. The FSLN leadership roundly condemned these methods.
Energetic discussion of political methods to build base support is the order of the day among Sandinista activists. Propelled by the economic crisis, the grassroots organizations criticized several government initiatives this month, a healthy expression of the democratization the Nicaraguan revolution has sought from the beginning.
In sum, the period is both stagnant and swirling. As the various actors wait for November, they are basing their actions on elaborate hypotheses or just plan bets about the possible winner in the US elections. Further moves in this waiting game, if there are any, will be short-term, only necessarily valid until November 8. It is poignant commentary on Nicaragua's only fundamental demand to the United States—its right to independence in determining the course of its own destiny.