Esquipulas in Nicaragua Words Become Deeds
US pacifist Brian Willson, a Vietnam War veteran, sat down in the path of the train that transports US arms for the contras and the Salvadoran army from the Concord, California, military base to the port of San Francisco. It was September 2, 1987. By that time the Nicaraguan government had already created the National Reconciliation Commission in fulfillment of the Esquipulas II accords—the first of the five Central American governments to do so, and ahead of schedule. Within days, it would also convoke a national dialogue with the opposition parties, annul the "absentee law," lift prior media censorship, permit both the daily rightwing newspaper La Prensa and Radio Católica to reopen, and free 17 Central Americans involved in counterrevolutionary activity.
The war train did not stop; it rolled over Willson, severing both legs. While he lay in critical condition in the hospital, US officials said he had wanted to commit suicide. When it was clear that he would live, they shifted their line, saying he had provoked the situation. Months before, when the contras blew US engineer Ben Linder's brains out at close range, the administration said he should not have been in the war zone. War trains in the United States and war zones in Nicaragua are not to be questioned; the victims are to blame.
Before the signing of the Esquipulas II accords, Reagan declared in the plan he launched just before that summit that he was in agreement with any accord the Central Americans reached. When they came to an agreement, he said it wasn’t valid because Nicaragua would never comply. He then demanded that there be freedom of expression in Nicaragua. When La Prensa and Radio Católica were reopened, he declared that the United States had its own interests in the conflict and he would defend them. To Nicaragua's proposal that these interests be resolved in a bilateral dialogue, he refused once again, announcing that he would request $270 million more for the counterrevolutionaries.
Upon leaving the hospital, with two artificial legs, Brian Willson did not go home; he planted himself once again in front of the war trains. "My spirit has never been so strong," he declared. "Bold measures are needed to stop the war."
Nicaragua has fulfilled this view to the letter. To its bold measures of August and September, it added the boldest of all at the end of the month: a unilateral cease-fire in three zones of the country. These measures express a spirit intact after seven years of war imposed by Reagan. Despite everything, Nicaragua, like Willson, is on the tracks, determined to stop the war train.
Government reconciliation measuresOn September 1, in compliance with the Esquipulas II accords, the Nicaraguan government published a decree establishing the National Reconciliation Commission. The Commission’s brief is to verify compliance with the Esquipulas commitments on amnesty, cease-fire, democratization and free elections, and to report whether the national reconciliation process is alive and well and the citizens' civil and political rights are being fully respected.
The decree stipulated that the Commission will be headed up by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, representing the bishops' conference. Other members are Nicaragua’s Vice President, Sergio Ramírez; Mauricio Díaz, general secretary of the Popular Social Christian Party; and Rev. Gustavo Parajón, president of the Evangelical Committee for Aid to Development (CEPAD), the main coordinating body of the Protestant churches. A week later, on September 8, the Commission approved its own bylaws, one of which calls for decision by consensus rather than by majority vote.
The Commission was invited to observe and follow up the National Dialogue between the government and the legally constituted political parties. This dialogue would begin on October 5, ahead of the Esquipulas II timetable, according to a September 13 announcement by President Daniel Ortega. The opposition parties and groups were asked to name one delegate and one alternate, designate as many as five advisers and suggest agenda points they feel should be included. Counterrevolutionary groups will be able to attend the meetings too, as long as they, in keeping with Esquipulas II, have previously accepted amnesty. At the end of August the government reaffirmed the current Amnesty Law—in effect since January 1985—for all Nicaraguans involved in armed counterrevolutionary activities who lay down their weapons in the presence of the proper authorities.
Starting in August and gaining more momentum in September, procedures were created or strengthened to facilitate the process by which contras may stop their insurgent activity and accept amnesty. There are now more than 100 local Peace Commissions, generally located in small villages in the central part of the country—those areas most affected by the war. Their purpose is to assure that the message of amnesty and peace gets to the insurgents, to make it easier for them to lay down their weapons and to ensure that the authorities comply with the process of accepting them and incorporating them into the community. The commissions are typically made up of Protestant pastors, priests, Red Cross members, political opposition figures, distinguished local citizens and, in some cases, ex-contras who have already accepted amnesty. The makeup of the peace commissions gives a firm basis for those who have put down their weapons to feel personal security, and even frees them of the requirement of presenting themselves to Interior Ministry officials. The commissions have set up shop in Red Cross headquarters, chapels, schools and even houses to take care of the minimal legal procedures (providing them an ID card and some good advice); the individual is then returned to his family.
At Cardinal Obando's initiative, all these local commissions, which had come into being as independent units, were tied into the National Reconciliation Commission starting on September 23, so it could be kept informed of their activities. Regional and departmental commissions are being formed to provide that link between the national commission and the groups in the smaller municipalities. It is suggested that these regional commissions be made up in a manner akin to that of the National Reconciliation Commission: a bishop, delegates of the presidency, a political opposition figure and a distinguished citizen.
By the time this organizational plan came out, some regional commissions were already in existence. The bishop of Jinotega, Pedro Lisímaco Vílchez, has been active in one of these commissions since the start, bringing the message of peace and the call to amnesty into the most remote mountains of his diocese. The bishop of Matagalpa, Carlos Santi, whose diocese is also located in a war zone, has been president of the Matagalpa Peace Commission since the beginning of October. "This is a responsibility I cannot refuse," said Bishop Santi, "since people are unanimous about what they want." The peace commissions, with their diversified membership, have become signs of church ecumenism.
In this first phase, the commissions are taking the message of reconciliation into the war zones, especially to the contras’ relatives. Seeing that the commission members are keeping a close watch on the whole process and that the contras who have accepted amnesty are going free and aren’t bothered by anyone, many people (through public as well as private channels) have begun to ask their relatives in the counterrevolution to put down their weapons. Nicaraguan radio stations that reach Honduras have broadcast hundreds of such messages this month.
Moreover, the Las Manos border crossing with Honduras has been opened up on two occasions, and this will continue to happen every Saturday during October. This has made it possible for relatives separated by the border and by ideology to come together; it has also helped spread the message of peace. While statistics aren’t exact, it is evident that the number of those who have taken amnesty and those who have been repatriated has increased significantly this month. Still, the real impact is expected in the months to come as the contras overcome their natural distrust—which is being exacerbated by the contra radio stations. "Things are going well," Bishop Vílchez observed, "but let's wait a bit and not try to move too fast, too soon."
The formation of the National Reconciliation Commission, the call to the opposition groups to dialogue, the ratification of the amnesty decree for the insurgents and the collaboration of the peace commissions are just some of the actions the Nicaraguan government has developed to encourage national reconciliation in keeping with the spirit of Esquipulas II. In the same vein it has abolished the "Absentee Law," which allowed the government to confiscate the property of owners who stayed out of the country for more than six months without giving any explanation of their absence. (Living in other countries, many of these absentee landlords later showed up involved in propaganda activities against their own country while wanting at the same time to profit from their holdings in Nicaragua.) Only one of these steps toward national reconciliation was obligatory for Nicaragua during the 90-day period after the signing of Esquipulas II—the formation of the National Reconciliation Commission.
Obstacles to reconciliationThese steps for peace have come up against problems due to the militaristic posture of the Reagan administration. The “Abrams project,” put in motion by Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams at the end of August, is an attempt to lay the Central American agreements to rest so as to get new funds approved to keep the contras’ war adventure going. It seeks to do so in part by supporting the pro-Reagan political opposition inside Nicaragua and thus make the democratic opening harder. It also aims to undermine the progress being made by the Central American governments, especially by pressuring Honduras (the weakest link in the Central American chain).
Within Nicaragua, the pro-Reagan opposition has shown signs of marching in step with the Abrams project. On September 8 the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) had its annual assembly. COSEP represents one of the sectors into which Nicaragua’s business world is divided, the ultraconservative big business sector, as distinguished from the National Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG), which brings together those known as "patriotic business people" and supports the Sandinista mixed-economy project. For its assembly COSEP had on center stage a picture of coffee grower and counterrevolutionary Jorge Salazar, who was killed in an armed exchange with the Sandinista police in 1980.
Enrique Bolaños Geyer, re-elected president of COSEP, identified himself in his speech as a standard-bearer of the “liberation” struggle, which, he said, consists of "abolishing the Sandinista system." He claimed that the Esquipulas II accords were a product of his organization's struggle, noting that if the government didn’t comply with them "it would be necessary to demand that the Sandinista regime be replaced." He added: "We know that there are more than enough people who can carry out that sentence." Moments before this the assembly had roundly applauded the US Embassy officials on hand. Some days later Bolaños, together with other rightwing Nicaraguan figures, took part in the Embassy's bicentennial celebration of the US Constitution. He praised the gathering for, among other things, helping spark the nationalism that "Nicaraguans so need."
The Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Council, or “Coordinadora,” as the political umbrella of the pro-Reagan business people is commonly called, was also at the COSEP assembly and at the end of the month took part in the thirtieth anniversary celebration of one of its member parties, the Social Christian Party (PSC). In Nicaragua the Christian Democrats are divided into two sectors: the PSC, under the direction of Erick Ramírez, and the Popular Social Christians (PPSC), who split from it in 1978, and whose party is led by Mauricio Díaz. The latter took part in the 1984 elections and has five representatives in the National Assembly; the former abstained from the electoral process and has subsequently split again.
The PSC anniversary celebration saw the expression of two more currents. One, the position of the Christian Democratic International, was represented by Luis Herrera Campins, former President of Venezuela and now president of the Latin American Christian Democrats. In his talk Campins recalled that while it was true he had criticized certain "totalitarian tendencies of Sandinismo," it was an "historic error" of the PSC not to have run in the 1984 elections. In the post-Esquipulas II situation, he said, they should "use tactics adequate to the task and not put the party's position in question." Criticizing those who "have their palms out for US coins," Herrera Campins called for a new alignment of the party.
Notwithstanding this message, the tone of the celebrating participants came closer to the pro-Reaganism of the Coordinadora and COSEP—the other current in the PCS. Some of the slogans at the event were: "If they comply [with Esquipulas II], they'll be out; if not, they're still out"; "Without censorship, down comes the dictatorship"; "They won't stand the pressure"; "Democracy yes, communism no."
Unlike the Nicaraguan government, which has encouraged steps toward national reconciliation, certain groups appear to be using Esquipulas II to promote not political pluralism for the opposition within the constitutional framework but rather the Abrams project's attempt to overthrow or cripple the Sandinista government. These sectors have few followers; for example, there were no more than 3,000 sympathizers at the Social Christian celebration, for which the PSC had requested and obtained a permit to demonstrate in the street for the first time in years. As distinct from these sectors, the majority of the opposition parties seek support for a national political project different from Sandinismo but within Nicaragua's constitutional framework.
During October, debate within Nicaragua will become livelier, if not necessarily healthier, thanks to the opening of the National Dialogue and two other measures announced in September by President Ortega: the reopening of La Prensa and Radio Católica's return to the airwaves. La Prensa, which plays its role in the project to bring down the state, was closed in June 1986 after Congress approved $100 million for the contra war. Radio Católica had been shut down in January of the same year for flouting the law by refusing to broadcast the Nicaraguan President's year-end message. Both media outlets will now be free of any censorship restrictions.
On September 22 Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge announced the lifting of prior censorship from all communications media. The Sandinistas' response to the confrontational Abrams project, in terms of domestic policy questions, has been to open the door wider to democracy. The ongoing general defeat of the contras is the material base making it possible to launch and implement all these measures.
Central America moves forwardWith its efforts to block the Esquipulas II process, the Reagan administration has not been able to stop Nicaragua from moving ahead with its democratic opening. And something similar has happened regarding the continuation of the negotiating process among the Central American governments. By exerting various kinds of pressure on all these governments, especially on Honduras, the Abrams project is trying to make it harder for the region to take new steps forward. While signs of that imperialistic will have been felt, the desire for peace has thus far prevailed over the desire for war.
On September 17, Managua hosted the meeting of the Esquipulas II Executive Commission, made up of the foreign ministers of the five Central American governments. At the same time and in the same city there was also a meeting of the assistant foreign ministers of the 13 Latin American governments that, along with the OAS and UN representatives, make up the International Verification and Follow-up Commission for the peace accords. Both groups had come into being during the second half of August—the Executive Commission in San Salvador and the International Commission in Caracas.
The foreign ministers' meeting was seen as a step toward peace. The ministers' statements, however, diplomatically indicated that some differences had to be dealt with before arriving at the final agreement. Honduras seems to have been the country that created most of the difficulties.
The National CommissionsIt seems that the first problem had to do with the National Reconciliation Commissions. At the time of the Managua meeting, only Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala had formed their commissions. Costa Rica had argued that it had no need for such a commission since it has no armed conflicts going on within its territory, but this argument failed to take into account that counterrevolutionary forces have operated out of Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan government saw this very clearly when it decided to bring suit against Costa Rica in the World Court in 1985.
When a private plane crashed in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border a few weeks before the presidential summit in Guatemala, the ensuing search for it led to the discovery of several secret airports. The head of Costa Rica's Civilian Aviation had to tell the press that "we discovered unregistered landing strips operating without our authorization." US citizen John Hull turned up right in the middle of this scandal. A personal friend of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, Hull has publicly acknowledged receiving $50,000 from FDN chief Adolfo Calero, and, according to US Customs, is suspected of drug trafficking.
President Arias stated that his administration has been trying to put an end to this type of thing, and the Nicaraguan government took his word for it. But nothing would be lost if a Costa Rican National Reconciliation Commission, getting the jump on the International Commission, would verify the effective dismantling of these bases. Doing so would help clean up Costa Rica's democratic image, muddied by the previous President, Luis Alberto Monge, who is now accused in a Costa Rican court of illegally lining his own pockets. Statements by his own daughter are the basis of the charges.
The Costa Rican government changed its position shortly before the Managua meeting, announcing that it would form a National Reconciliation Commission. But the bad example it was giving by assuming that its democracy was so perfect it needed no such commission had spread to Honduras. In the Managua meeting, Honduran Foreign Minister Carlos López Contreras took the position that, since Honduras was free of internal armed conflicts, it did not have to form any commission either. (Like every other Honduran foreign minister before him, López Contreras had been selected from a set of three names presented by the military).
The Honduran Bishops' Conference took a different view, calling for a commission to see whether the government is really trying to put a stop to the habitual violation of human rights by the army, special troops and police security units. These violations mainly consist of consistent abusive application of the 1986 Penal Code. Very frequently the charge of "terrorist" is leveled against organized peasant groups squatting on vacant or government-owned land, and the squatters are said to have "political purposes" or to be harboring weapons. Similarly there are nighttime searches of homes (prohibited by the Constitution), arrests without court order, consistent mockery of the right of habeas corpus, and in general a serious anemia in the country’s democratic life of the. For example, the August 27 edition of the Honduran daily El Tiempo notes "the violation of the constitutional mandate to hold municipal elections this November."
Since the time of General Alvarez, Honduras has been plagued by the problem of the disappeared, and the Honduran Human Rights Commission has been demanding an investigation. The National Reconciliation Commission would have to deal with all these issues in order to move forward in the democratization process, not to mention the open presence of contras on Honduran soil—a basic problem that has been a huge nuisance to much of the population.
The Esquipulas II Executive Commission, however, did not want to let this obstacle bring the peace process to a halt at its meeting in Managua. Its final communiqué stated that the foreign ministers of each country had pledged to report to the International Verification and Follow-up Commission "on the progress of the internal commissions’ work and on compliance with the accords every 15 days beginning on October 1." Thus the door was left open for Honduras.
In the meantime, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador formed their National Reconciliation Commissions and agreed to dialogue with the guerrillas. The causes of this decision, however, are different in each country. In Guatemala the Cerezo government seems to want to strengthen the army's counterinsurgency strategy. The National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG) received strategic military blows during the 1981-1983 period and the military have kept up the offensive, fighting also in the political arena and calling for the elections that were won by Cerezo. The guerrilla forces were put on the defensive not only militarily but also politically. While the URNG has shown small but steady gains in its military activity in recent years, the dialogue accepted by Cerezo must be understood as part of the political offensive against the revolutionaries.
The balance of power inside Guatemala makes it difficult to expect significant advances in civilian exercise of power over the military in such things as strengthening democracy, or an explanation of the thousands of cases of disappeared persons—many of whom were killed in horrible massacres. Through the Mutual Support Group (GAM), relatives of the disappeared are demanding to know what happened to them. Civilians also want the death squads truly abolished and want to see peasants, especially the indigenous population, given access to land so as to develop a less unjust state system. Following this logic, the Cerezo government continues to encourage compliance with the Esquipulas II accords, as demonstrated by his strong push in this direction in his speech to the United Nations.
The Salvadoran situation is different. Unlike Costa Rica and Guatemala, which have complied with the Esquipulas accords for strategic reasons having to do with their respective national plans, the Salvadoran government has done so for tactical reasons. Finding himself in a domestic political crisis, President Duarte judged that sticking with Esquipulas II would help him regain the political offensive. He was thus relatively quick to form the National Reconciliation Commission and other domestic commissions.
Reality has shown, however, that he did not manage to isolate the FDR-FMLN politically by signing the accords. Given the upcoming elections within the country, even the most ultraconservative parties have been calling for dialogue with the guerrillas; and internationally President Arias has expressed his desire to mediate between Duarte and the guerrillas. Another basic factor that has kept the FMLN from being isolated seems to be its military power. Consequently, following the spirit rather than the letter of Esquipulas II, a dialogue meeting was set for October 4, the third such session in two years.
By accepting this dialogue Duarte has again implicitly recognized the fallacy of the alleged symmetry between the FMLN and the Nicaraguan contras. Unlike the FMLN, the contras are a force on the way out militarily and politically; moreover, they depend entirely on foreign resources to survive, lack any plan for the future with Nicaraguan roots and have no important international recognition. On the other hand the FDR, as an unarmed group with leaders like Rubén Zamora and Guillermo Manuel Ungo, has every chance to make an impact in the strictly sociopolitical Salvadoran struggle. Nonetheless, Duarte keeps pushing Esquipulas II, hoping to thereby turn around the troublesome domestic situation he was confronting before the signing of the accords.
Simultaneity Taking this whole Central American context into account, one can understand why Honduras was the main problem in the Managua meeting of the Executive Commission and the International Verification Commission. It became clear regarding not only the forming of its National Reconciliation Commission but also the concept Honduras seems to have of what is meant by simultaneous compliance with the accords. Esquipulas II clearly recommends that the Central American governments take peacemaking initiatives, but only obliges them to do so if the commitments that "must be seen as inseparable parts in harmony" are fulfilled simultaneously beginning 90 days after the signing of the accords.
The foreign ministers' discussion of the specific way to bring about such simultaneity was not made public. In their resolution they agreed "to appoint a sub-commission to study the matter of simultaneity." That implies in part that a proposal made by El Salvador the previous month, possibly to obstruct things, had not been successful; but it was mainly Honduran Foreign Minister López Contreras who hit the sour note. In statements to the press he said that his government, in keeping with the accords, would not allow its territory to be used to make war on another country, and added that this policy is linked to the simultaneous fulfillment of other obligations. But he explained this to mean that "to the extent that there is a cease-fire and reconciliation in another country [read Nicaragua], there will be no armed opposition that would need to look for sanctuary in another territory."
Thus Honduras' lack of compliance with its domestic obligations is complemented by its lack of compliance on the international front. Esquipulas II demands the ouster from all the Central American countries of forces that are destabilizing another country. The Abrams project made no mistake in considering the Honduran government the weakest link and the most docile to Washington's dictates.
Despite pressures and differences, the Central Americans have had the patience to keep the ball rolling. Hoping that international pressure may make Honduras change its stance, the Central American foreign ministers decided that the Simultaneity Commission would have its first meeting in Guatemala October 8-9. There the specific role of the UN and OAS in the negotiating process will also be clarified.
The Central American ParliamentFurther steps forward were taken when the Central American vice presidents met in Tegucigalpa on September 11 to discuss ideas about creating a Central American Parliament. It has been a year and a half now since Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo launched the idea, but the idea seems to be at the point of becoming reality thanks to the impetus of Esquipulas II and the steps taken this month. The Esquipulas II accords call for elections of Parliament members in all the Central American countries during the first half of 1988. The progress made in Tegucigalpa gave a basis to predict that in the next vice presidents' meeting, called for October 2 in Guatemala, a proposed Constitutive Treaty for the Central American Parliament will be made known. Each country would have 20 members in the Parliament, elected by direct vote in each country. This is expected to be a kind of unifying mechanism among the Congresses of the region.
International expressions pro and conThe Soviet Union expressed its support for the Central American peace process in a concrete way with material aid. On September 7 Vladimir Zagladin, Central Committee member and vice-chairman for International Relations of the Communist Party, visited Nicaragua. Zagladin gave President Daniel Ortega a letter from Gorbachov expressing the Soviet Union's support for the Esquipulas II accords and for the Nicaraguan revolution’s domestic and foreign policy. The USSR also responded to Nicaragua's demand for petroleum, providing 100,000 tons of crude oil beyond the amount it had already agreed upon with Nicaraguan authorities. With this, the Soviets are supplying more than 50% of Nicaragua's petroleum needs. Shortly before Zagladin's visit, Cuba had supplied an extra 40,000 tons. The shortfall that remains after these two important donations is on the order of 55,000 tons, and there is hope that this slack will be picked up by Latin American countries, especially Peru and Mexico. This strategic support helps maintain the country's subsistence economy, which has not suffered any significant deterioration in the last few months, and also definitely helps the peace process, which requires a material base.
At the end of September the Central American peace and democratization process continues on track. The Reagan Administration is racing the clock. Its attempts to accuse Nicaragua of not complying with its obligations have run into difficulties; in fact, the Sandinistas are doing more than they are obliged to do. Furthermore, Honduras is not proving itself capable of stopping this new regional process. In spite of Reagan's several strident attacks against Nicaragua several times this month, his war policy, with the contras as his main weapon, is seriously damaged. The third and most important point of the Abrams project—to get financial and political support from the US Congress for the contras—is finding its path strewn with serious obstacles.
Autonomy and peace on the coastThe armed counterrevolution is in big trouble in the two regions where it has traditionally operated—the Atlantic region and the swath that cuts down through the center of the country from the mountains in the north. The Atlantic region received a major impetus in its search for peace and democratization on September 2, when the National Assembly ratified with few changes the Autonomy Statute approved last April by the coastal communities in Puerto Cabezas.
The local affairs of the two new autonomous regions—which, even today, lack communications infrastructure between them—will be governed by a 45-member Regional Council elected by direct vote and a Regional Coordinator chosen by that council from among its members. Each Regional Council, as well as its 7-member Board of Directors, must include representatives from all of the ethnic communities in that region (Miskitus, Sumus, Mestizos and Creoles in the north and those four plus Ramas and Garífunas in the south). A budget for the region will consist of a regional tax package designed by the Regional Councils themselves, funds transferred from the central government and a special development fund made up of central government investment money and international assistance.
The Autonomy Statute also stipulates a series of economic, social and cultural rights already included conceptually in the new Constitution, which are designed to recover and promote the identity and the dignity of each ethnic community to assure their genuine equality as citizens of the nation. Among these rights are the official use of their languages in the autonomous regions, administration of health, education, culture and other programs, responsibility for promoting socioeconomic projects based on rational use of the region's resources, and the use and benefit of the waters, forests and lands of the communal properties. While defense of the nation as a whole continues to be the responsibility of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS), the coast populations Atlantic will have priority rights in participating in that defense in the two autonomous regions.
Filling in a blank left by the communities, which couldn't agree on a new name for the vast department previously called Zelaya* (although they all agreed it needed one), the National Assembly settled on North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions.
*José Santos Zelaya, Nicaragua's first Liberal President, governed between 1893 and 1910. In 1894 he sent troops to Bluefields to expel the last of Great Britain's colonial presence on the Coast. While the territorial unification of Nicaragua made Zelaya a hero in the Pacific, his indifference to the concerns of the coastal populations hardened their historic hostility toward the Pacific side of the country.
Autonomy is not a magic wand that will automatically solve the region’s historical problems. It is, however, the appropriate tool with which to begin that process, one based on a careful analysis of what is referred to in Nicaragua as the "ethnic/state question." A good demonstration of its appropriateness is that many problems have already found the road to resolution in the three years that discussion of the project has been taking place.
The greatest of these problems has been the war, largely rooted in the coast’s case in the lack of appropriate solutions to the region's age-old problems. With the approval of the statute, the revolution has assumed as its own the legitimate demands raised by the Miskitu armed opposition as banners behind which to destroy the revolution. As part of the pacification process, the Nicaraguan government sought to dialogue with armed groups in the region that were honestly fighting for the rights now guaranteed in the Autonomy Statute. This led to cease-fires in certain areas of the region, and to a greater understanding between the two sides. The result of these bold measures—put in practice beginning in 1984, well before the Esquipulas accords—are there to be evaluated in the near total peace that now reigns on the coast, an area once completely engulfed in war.
Applying the lessons in the interiorIn the central region of the country, the army’s military activity has been dealing heavy blows to the counterrevolution. The EPS is currently engaged in a strong offensive there called "Winter Campaign Plan," the goal of which is to speed up the FDN’s decomposition. Although the contras flee the confrontations, the army's tactic is to seek them out and oblige them to fight. In August, the EPS provoked 328 combats and inflicted 445 casualties. In September the number of combats rose to 408, with 460 contra casualties, of which 416 were deaths.
On September 30, as a consequence of the strategic decline the counterrevolution is suffering on the ground, President Ortega announced a unilateral cease-fire in three war zones of the country’s central region as an advance on the Esquipulas II accords. This partial cease-fire is taking up the experience that is already history on the Atlantic Coast, adapting it to the new situation and new geography. The cease-fire will begin on October 7 in 600 sq km in Nueva Segovia, Region I; 450 in Jinotega, Region VI; and 450 in Nueva Guinea, Region V. The permanent army troops operating within these zones will withdraw to their periphery until at least November 7, reserving the right to respond militarily if the contras attack civilians, cooperatives or settlements within the cease-fire zones. The civilian peasants in coops and settlements will maintain their armed self-defense systems to be able to ward off any such attacks. This unilateral decision is one more indication of the disarray in which the US-directed and financed contras find themselves.
At the moment of decreeing the cease-fire, the government also requested that the National Reconciliation Commission, the regional and departmental commissions and the local peace commissions verify the government's fulfillment of its commitments on the ground. It further invited them to establish procedures, in coordination with the corresponding authorities, to facilitate communication with contra forces in the field that show interest in dialogue. The government hopes that, given the counterrevolution’s increasing decomposition, many of those who joined the FDN because they were confused, resentful or misled and have no irresolvable contradictions with the revolutionary project will take advantage of the peace process. In fact, following the signing of the accords in Guatemala, some 300contras have laid down their weapons and turned themselves in through the amnesty program in different points of the country. For the first time in the history of the war, the number of fighters choosing this option is approaching the number of casualties inflicted by the army. As Bishop Pedro Vílchez, president of Jinotega’s Regional Reconciliation Commission, said, the situation "is maturing."
This strategic victory over the FDN forces also explains the democratization measures taken by Nicaragua. Since Reagan's imposed war is the main obstacle to the full exercise of the freedoms guaranteed in the new Constitution, the increasing consolidation of this victory permits greater democratic opening. It is precisely this consolidated victory—the result of seven years of confrontation between the Reagan Administration and Sandinista Nicaragua—that was expressed in the Esquipulas II accords. This juridical expression, in turn, is bringing peace closer and providing the framework for all these measures destined to deactivate the war once and for all.
No dialogue with the puppetsIn the Nicaraguan government's political and military offensive in this final lap of the Reagan administration, it has repeatedly refused to accept two points. One is political dialogue with the contra leaders and the other is a general amnesty that would release from prison all of Somoza's National Guardsmen convicted of atrocities following the fall of the dictatorship.
The Esquipulas II accords do not require either of these steps. In fact, one of the main reasons Reagan distanced himself from the Arias Plan was that, as an outgrowth of the successive Contadora negotiating conclusions, it did not contemplate this dialogue.
The Nicaraguan government is not refusing to dialogue with the counterrevolutionary leaders out of obstinacy, but because the contras are not an autonomous force in a position to make its own decisions. It is indisputable that as long as the contras are financed and directed by the Reagan administration, the only way to arrive at an effective solution to the war is to dialogue with the paymaster and director. When Reagan demands dialogue with these contra leaders, he is proposing nothing other than the political surrender of Sandinismo through the points they would include in the negotiation. Through this political mechanism, Reagan means to achieve what he has already sought through military means.
Based on this logic, President Arias' suggestion that the Nicaraguan government try to reach a cease-fire agreement by dialoguing with top contras through a mediator such as Cardinal Obando misses the point. The presence of a mediator doesn’t change the essence of the problem. Nor is Arias' suggestion an original one. It was already proposed in the Wright-Reagan plan, through which the United States intended to block the presidential summit in Guatemala. Secretary of State George Shultz already made this explicit to Congress when he proposed Cardinal Obando and Philip Habib as possible mediators.
Through all this Nicaragua has insisted that the only dialogue that could produce effective results would have to be with the US government itself. One cannot call it obstinacy when the Nicaraguan government has never had any problem negotiating with armed groups that are prepared to make independent decisions. The Sandinistas have successfully dialogued with some rebel groups on the Atlantic Coast, and are prepared to do so now with other groups in a similar position during the unilateral cease-fire in the Pacific.
No amnesty for convicted killersThe Nicaraguan government has also rejected a general amnesty that would include all ex-National Guardsmen serving prison sentences. Created as an armed body during the US occupation of Nicaragua in the late 1920s, the National Guard was directly and intentionally responsible for most of the 50,000 lives that the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship cost. Due to the generosity of the Sandinista revolution, none of those responsible were condemned to death, thus breaking with the tradition of "revolutionary justice" employed by other armed movements upon taking power. Nor were they even sentenced to life imprisonment. The maximum prison sentence in Nicaragua since the revolution is 30 years.
Today only the most conservative sectors of Nicaragua—among which must be counted some of the Catholic hierarchy—are asking for total amnesty. Many mothers of youth killed by these Guardsmen—particularly those pulled from their homes by the Guard and murdered in cold blood to avoid their joining the FSLN in the mountains following the September 1978 insurrection—have made their opposition to this measure loud and clear. Among other things, they reminded the bishops that while Pope John Paul II pardoned his would-be assassin, even he did not solicit his release from prison.
The Nicaraguan government encouraged open debate on this topic in the newspapers, on radio and in the weekly town meetings that have become a tradition between government officials and different sectors of the populace. After hearing one tearful mother after another denounce the idea, President Ortega announced finally that conditions do not exist in Nicaragua for such a total amnesty.
He did, however, decide to expand the current amnesty law to include some Guardsmen, although not those who committed criminal atrocities during the dictatorship. He pointed out that a general amnesty without an end to the war would also imply increasing the number of armed >contras, since it would be logical to assume that such hardened Guardsmen would quickly rejoin their comrades now in the FDN.
President Reagan, in addition to putting obstacles in the way of the democratic opening and the advances of the Central American governments, announced this month that he will ask Congress for $270 million for the counterrevolutionaries. This is the last missing peace of the Abrams Project, but the Sandinista political offensive has put both the aid request and the project itself in a very tough position. The most evident demonstration of this is that Reagan is holding off on deciding the date for making his request, aware that in all probability it will be denied by Congress.
Reagan on the defense but unrepentantThe reality is that, since the Esquipulas summit, Reagan has been unable to recover the offensive. His four virulent attacks this month against Nicaragua, including his speech to the United Nations, were responded to not by words but by the deeds of the Sandinista government: a series of bold, new measures that went beyond Esquipulas II and put the President of the United States on the defensive.
This Sandinista offensive has opened up contradictions not only between the Democrats and the Republicans, but even among the Republicans themselves. Most importantly, Democratic leaders such as Senator Jim Wright have supported the accords signed by the Central American Presidents. These Democrats are aware that the counterrevolution is a spent project, that direct US military intervention would carry a very high cost and that a negotiated solution is the best alternative. The accords, an expression of this same understanding among the Central American Presidents, fit the Democrats' needs like a glove. Up to now, the Democrats as a party have been unable to propose a consistent alternative to Reagan's Central America policy. The Latin American project promoted by Contadora, taken up by President Arias and accepted in Guatemala, offers them this alternative as they prepare to dispute the Republicans in the upcoming presidential race.
Following on the Esquipulas II accords, the legitimate US security concerns regarding Nicaragua could be worked out in direct dialogue with the Nicaraguan government. In such a bilateral dialogue, an accord that would prohibit the existence of Soviet military bases in Nicaragua, the importation of sophisticated military hardware or the presence in Nicaragua of foreign military personnel could be negotiated. The Sandinistas have already demonstrated their interest in discussing these points within the Contadora negotiating process and are agreeable to resolving them positively. Among the reasonable demands they have in exchange are respect for Nicaragua's sovereignty in accord with international law.
President Reagan's personal commitments to ultra-conservative forces in the United States and to the counterrevolution itself make it difficult for him to accept this option. The next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, if freed from these conditions, could promote this bilateral dialogue as a dignified way out of the morass for both the United States and Nicaragua. It remains to be seen whether this could happen before the change of government in the White House. It also remains to be seen whether the current titular head of the White House will, in his final lap, be able to reverse by force the current deactivation of the war and acceleration of peace without surrender.