In the Hurricane’s Wake
In the days after Hurricane Joan swept through Nicaragua, leaving an unprecedented trail of destruction, Nicaraguans began to pick up the pieces. "How many times will we have to walk the same road? How many times will we have to start again from scratch?" asked Nicaraguan journalist Sofía Montenegro, recalling Nicaragua's history of earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions, of conquest and colonization, of invasion and rebellion. But she ended up marveling at her country's ability to rise up out of the ashes. "Where does this will come from, to reconstruct time and time again all that which nature and human plunder has destroyed?"
The hurricane, however, poses a new threat to Nicaragua. It struck, with severe damage to crops and infrastructure although relatively little loss of life, at a moment when the country was in the depths of an economic crisis. There is no doubt that this will deepen that crisis. And there is the additional danger, already confirmed by military movements, that the US government and the contras will take advantage of the hurricane to strike some last blows in a war they have already lost. On the other hand, it is likely that the Nicaraguan government's life-saving actions and generous response has won it some hearts among those hit hardest. And it is clear that the emergency has brought out the best in many Nicaraguans, working to rebuild.
Destruction and reliefThe Nicaraguan government is currently working with the United Nation's Economic Commission on Latin America to develop a precise estimate of damages and draw up reconstruction plans. Preliminary estimates are that the agricultural sector alone was hit with $124.5 million worth of damages. (For a more detailed description of preparations for the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, see our report, "Blown Away: Hurricane Joan Puts Nicaragua at Risk," in this issue and watch for further information on damages and reconstruction in upcoming issues.)
At stake is Nicaragua's immediate survival; food, medicine and housing aid is desperately needed, as are seeds and tools for planting the next harvest. But also at stake is the fate of the difficult economic adjustment the government was implementing to try to put the brakes on astronomical inflation, cut government deficits and lay the basis for economic reconstruction.
For a country cut off from the usual international sources of credit, development aid is all the more urgently needed. National Directorate member Bayardo Arce cautioned that "the foreign aid we will receive for Hurricane Joan will not be enough in comparison with the magnitude of the damage, without precedent in the history of Nicaragua."
Nicaragua is tapping its most valuable resource to help reconstruction—the volunteer spirit of its people. Some 1,000 state workers have already volunteered to help bring in the coffee crop, ripening early due to the heavy rains. Others are helping peasants hit hard by the storm to harvest their corn. Medical students have been attending to the injured and working on preventive health measures to prevent the epidemics that often follow natural disaster. An international relief worker just back from delivering aid to disaster-struck Colombia and Jamaica commented on what he saw in Nicaragua. "Here it's different, here the people have hope..."
Who is politicizing relief?Coordinating relief efforts is the National Emergency Committee (CNE), originally formed to deal with the 1982 floods. Headed up by Social Welfare Minister Reynaldo Téfel, it incorporates members of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Nicaragua, national NGOs and government agencies. Protestant development agency CEPAD's representative Milton Argüello stressed that the purpose of the committee is "to coordinate the aid, to know what resources are available, which organizations can respond to which particular need. But each organization continues to do its own work." He emphasized that the government has "invited everyone to participate."
Ramiro Toruño Gámez, president of the Nicaraguan Adventist Mission, a member of the CNE, praised the government's decision to allow receiving organizations to distribute donations as each sees fit. He added that it was a "very intelligent" response to insinuations from abroad and from contra radio stations that aid would be misused. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater has said that the US is not likely to offer aid, arguing that “our concern is that Ortega's government will use it against the contras.”
Toruño noted that most organizations, as well as the government itself, are coordinating distribution of aid through the Red Cross. The Commission for Aid to Hurricane Victims on the Atlantic Coast and Region V, headed up by Red Cross President Gonzalo Ramírez, is working alongside the CNE to gather and distribute donations from within Nicaragua.
Nonetheless, hurricane relief and reconstruction efforts are offering a new focus for opposition activities. Despite the government's appeal for all to participate in the National Emergency Committee and the Aid Commission, and despite the active participation of the Red Cross, many church workers, NGOs, Lions' Club members and a number of business owners in these efforts, some opposition sectors took up the argument that the relief aid was being "politicized." Twelve days after the hurricane, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, opposition politicians including Virgilio Godoy (Independent Liberals), Mauricio Díaz (Popular Social Christians) and Erick Ramírez (Social Chris- tians), COSEP leader Gilberto Cuadra and opposition paper La Prensa's editor Pablo Antonio Cuadra formed their own commission for aid to the hurricane victims.
La Prensa, which had blasted government evacuation efforts as "the militarization of the hurricane," has already come down hard on reconstruction plans. In a November 7 editorial, the paper criticized a Cuban offer to build 1,000 houses in Bluefields, saying Cuba was "only doing its duty" in helping out but that by sending construction brigades, it was "colonizing" Nicaragua.
Others have called for Nicaraguans of all persuasions to unite in this crisis. Bishop Santi noted that the National Emergency Committee should be as open as possible to all comers and criticized the opposition's formation of another committee, saying "one committee is enough, when what is at stake here is the people, our brothers and sisters, and this we shouldn't politicize." He noted that in his area (Matagalpa), the regional government and church were working well together in coordinating relief aid. Bishops Schlaefer of the Atlantic Coast and Barni (León-Chinandega) called on their parishioners to join in official relief drives in their areas.
In Washington corridors:In the closing days of the 100th Congress, President Reagan reluctantly admitted that he did not have the votes to win more military aid for the contras. Reagan aides agreed in a meeting with Republican members of Congress that barring an emergency, no more action would be taken until the next administration. But Reagan, with his US-centric view of the world, warned the Sandinistas to respect the US congressional calendar and not attack the contras within their own borders. "If, during adjournment, the Sandinista regime attacks the resistance, available resources may not be enough to protect and sustain the freedom fighters until the new Congress convenes. In the event the Sandinistas attempt to capitalize on this situation, they should know I would not hesitate to call the 100th Congress back into session to consider emergency assistance for the freedom fighters."
The post-contra era?
The conditions for calling Congress back into session include "unprovoked" Sandinista attacks on the contras, an "unacceptable" level of Soviet military aid to Nicaragua and blatant violations of the Central American peace accords. Current Honduran army attacks on the Nicaraguan border and an upswing in contra activities show a plan in action to provoke Nicaragua to respond, thus fulfilling these conditions. Yet most Washington observers believe it is unlikely that contra aid will be dragged out again until the new Congress convenes. And even the Reagan Administration's point man on Nicaragua, Elliott Abrams, recently admitted that "we're entering the post-contra era." Nonetheless, these vaguely worded conditions function as a threat, making it a crime for Nicaragua to defend itself against the very country threatening it.
What chance is there of military aid being revived in the next administration? In an interview in the Washington magazine Times of the Americas, Richard Haas, Bush's adviser on foreign and defense policy, noted that there is currently no consensus for military aid. At the same time, he ruled out direct negotiations with the Sandinista government, and said that continued political and economic sanctions would be continued, as would aid to the internal op-position. The next administration may have its hands full with critical situations in El Salvador, Panama and Chile. It will be facing a Latin America grown increasingly united behind a stance of continental sovereignty. And the Bush Administration will also face increasing opposition to the contra policy from a Democratic Congress dead tired of the issue.
Nonetheless, the day after the election, Bush stated emphatically that support for the contras was high on his agenda. La Prensa, which had virtually backed Bush in the weeks preceding the US elections, ran this as its lead story on November 9, under the banner headline, "Bush promises to maintain pressure for freedom in Nicaragua."
The Vice President's murky past as head of the CIA in 1976 and involvement in the Iran-Contragate scandal suggests that, while the contra war is not yet over, covert action—possibly including a return to covert funding for the contras—and money for internal destabilization may be the wave of the future in US policy towards Nicaragua. This would only continue an established trend. In the last three years, Congress has voted increasing amounts of aid to the internal opposition in Nicaragua, as the contra option began to wane. In 1986/87, the National Endowment for Democracy provided $250,000 to the opposition; in 1987/88, $800,000; in 1988/89, a full $2 million.
Contra forces may be kept in reserve as a bargaining chip and instrument with which to pressure Nicaragua, or, as contra chief Enrique Bermúdez recently declared, their operations could continue on a smaller scale. "We will continue. There are people who are willing. I've been looking into the alternatives. One thing we can do is reduce our forces, and continue... If I get 50% of the men, it would be good." A US diplomat who has been a relentless contra supporter described the contras' future in the October 20th Washington Times: "They're deader than a doornail.... But remember, there are some forms of cancer that take an agonizingly long time before the inevitable result."
While they are defeated as a force capable of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, the contras can still be useful to a Bush Administration as part of an overall destabilizing effort. By threatening Nicaragua's already devastated economic infrastructure in small, hard-to-rout bands, Nicaragua would be forced to maintain levels of military spending that are needed for economic recovery and to continue the draft when the population no longer feels defense is a priority. Rather than the internal opposition being the political arm of a military strategy, the remaining contras would become the military arm of a political plan.
The Nicaraguan opposition:Opposition parties and fractions within the contras are positioning themselves for a return to the civic battle. In the last envío, we reported that ex-contra Edén Pastora and Social Christian Erick Ramírez had formed a "Third Way" to provide a new focus for opposition activity. In October contra leader Alfredo César announced the formation of a new "Democratic Center Coalition" with members of Social Christian and Social Democratic leaders in exile. (César and Pastora fought together in the contras' southern front; it's possible these two coalitions might join forces.) César, who was the contras' chief negotiator of the Sapoá accord, promised that his new alliance would present a peace proposal within 30 days.
Reshuffling the pack
Neither coalition was received warmly by the bulk of opposition within Nicaragua. One Sandinista leader noted that the Pastora-Ramírez match up was probably more of a trial balloon or publicity stunt than a serious alliance. But these are just the first steps as the opposition and some contra members adjust to a possible end to the war. We can expect to see more such alliances in the immediate future.
The opposition parties assembled in the "Group of 14" met at the end of October to work out a common agenda, but failed to reach an accord. Indeed, one small party, the Central American Union Party (PUCA), announced November 6 it was breaking with the 14. Ramírez's "Third Way" apparently provoked division within the already tenuous alliance.
Another issue likely to divide the parties is whether to participate in upcoming elections—the municipal elections planned for 1989 and the presidential elections in 1990. They are aware that in the freest and fairest elections possible they simply don't have the votes to win, and indeed if they don't unite, their showing will be dismal (see our survey article "Sandinistas Surviving in a Percentage Game" in this issue). Given the parties' tendency towards divisiveness, it is unlikely they would achieve such an electoral alliance. "They get together to form an alliance if and only if they get to lead it," commented one observer cynically.
The parties currently in the National Assembly—the PLI, PCD, PPSC, PSN, PC de N, and MAP—plus a few, like PUCA, formed since the 1984 elections, are likely to participate. Erick Ramírez of the Social Christian Party—part of the far-right Democratic Coordinator, which refused to participate in the 1984 elections—may choose the electoral path this time. This would leave the rest of the Coordinadora parties at the margins of political activity. Without the war, with electoral politics being the only game in town, they may lose their edge to those who participate.
Preparing for the shift in US strategy from funding a war to funding the internal opposition, the Nicaraguan government has been defining the legal boundaries of legitimate politics. The "Law Prohibiting the Use of Funds from the US Congress," passed October 6 by the National Assembly, seeks to prevent the use of "humanitarian" aid or aid "to promote democracy" to destabilize Nicaragua.
Following its passage, the government blocked the delivery of 19 vehicles and 16 electric generators waiting in customs for Cardinal Obando. The items were part of a $10 million package originally voted by Congress for a commission composed of Organization of American States Secretary General Joao Baena Suárez and Obando to verify the Sapoá accords, signed by the Nicaraguan government and the contras in March. The Cardinal's three-month, $2 million budget, submitted to US AID and including expenses for public relations offices in Washington and Miami, was meant to be used to verify a definitive cease-fire. The cease-fire was in fact never arranged, since the contras walked away from the negotiating table in June. If there's no cease-fire and nothing to be verified, national reporters were quick to ask the Cardinal, "What exactly is it that you're verifying?"
Why not allow such US aid, which after all includes medicine and aid to children, to be distributed? First and most important, no government in the world permits its opposition parties, newspapers and churches to receive large-scale funding from a country seeking to overthrow it. Indeed, the United States has a law prohibiting candidates from receiving campaign contributions from any foreign nationals, in wartime or peacetime—a logical prohibition for a sovereign nation. Two, these sums skip over the range of more moderate opposition within Nicaragua, to strengthen only the most conservative sectors of the Catholic Church, press and parties. Those bankrolling the opposition might do well to consider the fact that accepting US dollars tends to damage the opposition's legitimacy and credibility within Nicaragua.
It is also instructive to note the scale of the US aid: $2 million to La Prensa and opposition parties, $17 million in aid to children (which may not be used by Nicaragua's social service ministry or by any local or foreign agency that coordinates with it), $5 million in aid to war victims for the Church to distribute, $2 million for the Cardinal to verify the Sapoá accords—and this only for starters: $26 million in a country with total 1987 exports of only $287 million. For a nation in a severe economic crisis, such a sum either in direct funds or in goods to distribute can have a powerful destabilizing impact. If the US Congress continues to vote such highly political aid packages, it should give them a more honest label: this is money for polarization, not for democracy or reconstruction.
In another effort to use the rule of law to set limits, a Managua prosecuting attorney brought a libel suit against leaders of the US-funded Confederation of Trade Union Unity (CUS). In a front-page story October 4th, La Prensa reported that three men robbed and killed in a bar were members of CUS and had received death threats from government officials as part of a campaign against the civic opposition. But relatives of the victims discounted this interpretation of the crime, telling rival papers Barricada and Nuevo Diario that the three were not CUS members at all; in fact, two of them were long-time members of the Sandinista army. The family members claimed that CUS Secretary General Alvin Guthrie Rivers approached them after the incident and offered them money if they signed a statement saying the victims were members of CUS. The CUS lost the case and an appeal, and had to pay a small fine. This was only one of several stories lately in which La Prensa has sought to create political incidents out of what appear from the facts to be common crimes.
Central American summit delayedA long-delayed Central American presidential summit scheduled to meet in El Salvador in mid-November was again postponed after another whirlwind tour through the region by Special US Envoy to Central America Morris Busby. Salvadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Acevedo Peralta publicly stated that the summit was called off due to the "country's limited economic capacity, so that it isn't possible to [act as] host" to both the summit and an OAS meeting scheduled for the same month. President Duarte claimed that the summit lacked a "positive agenda." But more to the point may be that once it became clear Bush was the likely winner of the US elections, some of the Central Americans preferred to leave the incoming President more room to maneuver by not calling a summit until he was in power.
While soliciting relief aid in Norway, Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramírez made a call for talks with the United States as soon as possible after the US elections.
President Arias of Costa Rica recently said he would call on both the Salvadoran FMLN and the contras "to abandon the war as a solution." Arias noted that he would like to meet with the contra leadership but would wait until after the US elections, which would produce a winner with "a greater understanding of the peace efforts for the area" than President Reagan. "I will continue to insist with the next President that if he is going to support the peace plan that support will not be compatible with the war."
Arias' comment underscores the Reagan Administration's failure, after two terms of intensive efforts, to keep the four Central American nations squarely in line with its war against Nicaragua. Even one of the US's staunchest allies, Honduras, has been showing some signs lately of being tired of having its territory and sovereignty used as a platform for US policy.
Honduras shows signs of lifeHonduras suspended negotiations on a new agreement with the US over military bases, the Foreign Ministry announced October 19. "We do not deem it convenient to sign it now," said ministry spokesman Eugene Castro. This was a protocol to the 1954 military assistance agreement that would give the US even greater access to Honduran bases and would permit the US to build its own permanent bases. Behind such an agreement lies the possibility, as US-Panamanian relations grow increasingly tense, of moving the US Southern Command from Panama to Honduras.
Honduras no doubt intends to sign the agreement but is using its temporary refusal to win more money from the United States and to extract assurances that it will deal with the contras and refugees within Honduras as the war is winding down. Honduran President José Azcona stressed that his country could not bear the economic burden of the 250,000 Central American refugees currently living there. "If it is necessary, we could put the United States to one side" in the search for a solution to the Nicaraguan situation, he suggested. "The time has come for the United States to find a political way out of Nicaragua’s internal problem."
Honduran authorities are increasingly expelling illegal Nicaraguans from Honduras, according to Juan Andino Yánez, head of the Honduran immigration office in the border town of El Triunfo, as quoted in the October 9th Washington Post. "We have enough Nicaraguans in Honduras." His superior, Captain Heriberto López Amador, said that Nicaraguans are given the choice of leaving or going to refugee camps, but that many choose to return to Nicaragua because the camps are seen as the equivalent of jail.
These unusual stirrings of independence stem in part from the government's concern over the weakening economy and growing popular unrest. The latter found a focus recently in a five-day public employees' strike, which threatened to turn into a general strike. The army occupied public buildings for the strike's duration. Some 60,000 public employees went back to work October 31 when the national legislature agreed to consider their demands. Popular unrest also centers on the contras, who have pushed Hondurans from their coffee lands near the Nicaraguan border. "The US has a moral obligation to remove the contras from Honduras," said Gilberto Goldstein of the opposition National Party. "We don't want to become another Lebanon, torn apart by frustrated and abandoned guerrillas."
Also at issue is the alarming growth in human rights violations. The Honduran Human Rights Commission (CODEH) issued a report November 5 charging that 129 Honduran citizens were "executed" during the first half of 1988. CODEH blamed the deaths on Honduran security forces and on contras inside the country.
Tension on the borderHonduras' will and ability to stand up to its benefactor has definite limits. Honduras has not followed up its request for UN peacekeeping troops on the Honduras-Nicaragua border. And in fact the Honduran army has stepped up its attacks on the Nicaraguan border. On October 7, Honduran forces fired from across the border on a group of Nicaraguan journalists trying to investigate the situation.
Sandinista intelligence officer Major Ricardo Wheelock warned in an interview on November 2 that the Honduran Armed Forces had carried out 33 separate attacks against Nicaraguan border posts in September and October alone. He said that Sandinista troops are under strict orders not to return fire.
Calling the border situation "very grave," he charged that over the past few months Honduras has significantly built up military presence and equipment along its borders. The Honduran army's 110th Brigade, with 2,500 men, is stationed in the first military region in Honduras along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, while 1,500 more troops are located near the border in the department of Choluteca. The Hondurans have 82, 105 and 155 millimeter artillery, with ranges of up to 30 kilometers, trained on Nicaragua.
Wheelock charged that the United States was trying to touch off a major confrontation between the Honduran and Nicaraguan armies. He said that US advisers are accompanying the Honduran army's 5th Battalion in its maneuvers along the border. He revealed a drastic build-up in US intelligence activity in the past several months, with nearly 100 different overflights in September and October. Wheelock noted that spy flights increased dramatically after Hurricane Joan hit Nicaragua.
A high-ranking contra officer, Horacio Arce, recently took asylum in the Mexican Embassy in Tegucigalpa and then headed back to Nicaragua to take advantage of the amnesty law. In an extensive interview with the Nicaraguan News Agency (ANN) in Mexico, Arce described the assistance the Honduran military provided to the contras. "We received assistance from the Hondurans, for example from Battalion 3-16 of the armed forces as well as from the Directorate of National Investigation...we received assistance from all branches of the Honduran Armed Forces." He added that the Hondurans "give us the intelligence information we need, they help us store our equipment, they help train us. Our parachutists train at the 2nd Battalion's base in Tamara...as well as at the 11th Battalion in Choluteca. They also come to our military instruction centers to train our people." Arce noted that officials from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa give the contra forces regular intelligence reports.
The contras take advantageAs the Nicaraguan government and army stretched its forces to the limit to successfully evacuate 325,000 people in the path of the hurricane, contras moved in to take advantage of the storm. On the night of October 21, just before the hurricane hit the Nueva Guinea area full force, they attacked a resettlement community near Los Santos, 20 miles northwest of Nueva Guinea, and ambushed an ambulance taking a sick child from Nueva Guinea to Juigalpa, injuring the driver.
This was the second ambulance attacked by the contras that week. On October 19, they ambushed a Red Cross ambulance near Las Cuchillas, 24 miles from Jinotega, wounding the president of the Jinotega branch of the Red Cross. In another particularly brutal attack, on October 16, contras kidnapped and killed a voluntary policeman, a peasant leader and his two sons in the town of Santa Rita, four miles south of Juigalpa. According to the peasant leader's 11-year old daughter, interviewed by US human rights group Witness for Peace, three armed men entered the house and dragged off her father and brothers as they were watching the World Series baseball game on television. The bodies were found mutilated with a machete the next day.
In one of the worst attacks since last year, nine civilians were killed near San Juan del Río Coco on October 29th as they traveled in a passenger bus. Fátima Salgado, a nurse who survived the attack, said, "The contras knew we were civilians. We screamed, 'Don't kill us! Don't kill us!' But they threw a grenade into the bus and some people were immediately killed, while others were left screaming in pain." She said that after many rounds of gunfire, the contras slit the throats of six people who were wounded. On November 3, a jeep returning from a weekly meeting in Juigalpa of FAGANIC, the cattle ranchers' association affiliated with rightwing business federation COSEP, was ambushed, killing one man and wounding two others.
In an October 28th press conference, President Daniel Ortega warned that 3,000 re-supplied contras were massing on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, ready to cross into the country. He said that contras were under orders from Washington to block reconstruction and relief efforts, and, as they have tried to do before, slow down harvesting of Nicaragua's all-important coffee crop. In fact, on October 29th, contras in Region V ambushed a military truck delivering food to hurricane victims in La Esperanza, killing a soldier and wounding two young civilians.
Despite this upswing in contra attacks, Nicaragua renewed its unilateral cease-fire on offensive military actions for another month.
Soviet aid: A limited commitmentIt is becoming increasingly clear that Nicaragua cannot expect to rely on the Soviet Union to pull it out of its economic crisis. Soviet economic aid to Nicaragua will remain constant at $300 million per year in credits and grants until 1990. In the wake of the hurricane, the USSR promised to maintain this level plus guarantee Nicaragua's fuel supply. While the Soviets sent several plane and boatloads, the amount of Soviet relief aid so far trails behind that from Cuba, Western Europe and some US-based NGOs. A plan for Soviet aid for reconstruction is soon to be announced.
The new Soviet ambassador to Managua, Valeri Nikolayenko, stated in an interview in The Miami Herald that the Soviet Union would continue to support Nicaragua "according to our possibilities," but he stressed that "of course those possibilities are not unlimited. We have our own well-known economic problems."
The Soviet Union's Finance Minister Boris Gostev recently admitted that the USSR has been running large budget deficits for years, citing government subsidies of mismanaged industry and agriculture as the primary culprit. The Soviets have recently asked for credit from Western banks and plan to allow more liberal terms for foreign business partners. Another way in which they may trim the deficit is by cutting back their foreign commitments.
Ambassador Nikolayenko dismissed Pentagon claims that the USSR would immediately reduce its military aid to Nicaragua, but stressed the importance of reaching a peace agreement. "Each regional conflict sooner or later negatively influences the entire international situation. For that reason, the Soviet Union wants relations between the US and Nicaragua to improve, not only to bring peace to Central America, but for the good of the whole world."
US administration and congressional officials have noted that the Soviet Union has in fact been slowing the pace of military shipments to Nicaragua. Military equipment shipped from Moscow and Warsaw Pact nations to Nicaragua in the first five months of this year was 5,500 metric tons, compared to 9,040 for the first five months of 1987.
One more trial for NicaraguaThe hurricane did more damage in the space of two days than the contras had been able to achieve in several years of attacking economic targets. It set Nicaragua's hard-won development back a long way.
Yet the hurricane also offered several opportunities. It offered both the Nicaraguan government and the opposition an opportunity to pull together for those whom the storm put at risk. The government, army and people saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives in their tireless evacuation efforts. Many private citizens, NGOs, religious organizations and others not necessarily admirers of this revolution pitched in, donating money, goods and long hours of hard work to the relief drives. Others chose to stand apart and criticize or play politics while the rest did the work that needed to be done.
The hurricane also left an opening for the United States to change its Nicaragua policy by providing relief aid to the government with no strings attached. That door was quickly closed.
The day following the US elections, President Ortega invited Bush to talk with Nicaragua. "Any normalization of bilateral relations starts with dialogue," he noted. But it will be largely up to the US public to put pressure on the incoming administration to make sure it chooses dialogue, the only road to peace.