Contra Decline Continues: Will Peace Follow?
Immediately following the August 6-7 Central American peace negotiations in Guatemala, the Nicaraguan government set forth on a program of strict compliance with the accords signed there. This was neither tactic nor concession on its part, as the accords respect the fundamental principles of the Nicaraguan revolution. They stress authentic political pluralism, which in Nicaragua is based on a mixed economy strengthened by a policy of international nonalignment that permits Nicaragua to relate to developed countries with market economies, those with planned economies and the progressive governments of the Third World. The peace accords also promote greater social justice insofar as they support participatory democracy. Most importantly, they establish no obstacle in principle to a country's legitimate right to self-defense in cases where a country's national sovereignty is militarily threatened by a foreign power.
With these principles assured, the so-called Esquipulas II accords allow the Nicaraguan government to further undermine the military option pursued by the Reagan Administration for years and to promote concrete mechanisms for achieving a political solution to the conflict with the United States. Given its geopolitical situation, Nicaragua must come to an understanding with the United States, and in fact the revolution has struggled to obtain a just and dignified accord. After the Esquipulas II treaty, stopping the war is Nicaragua's primary objective. Negotiating a peace with the United States is the second.
But the Reagan Administration is still bent on changing Nicaragua's current government, whether by military action or by some political-diplomatic maneuver. For six years the US government has used the counterrevolutionary war as the principal means by which to achieve this objective, always reserving the option of direct military intervention. The peace accords signed by the Central American Presidents in Guatemala thus became a serious obstacle to the administration's goals. Only 10 days after the signing, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams met with 40 officials, including all key US diplomats in Central America, with a plan for derailing the accords and reasserting US strategy in light of the new political dynamic.
The Guatemala accords established 90 days as the time period that would permit the Central American governments, and other governments with interests in the region, to prepare the conditions necessary for compliance. Beginning November 5, 90 days after the accords were signed, the commitments, which form "a harmonic and indivisible whole," become obligatory. At that time an International Verification and Follow-Up Commission (CIVS), made up of the foreign ministers of the eight Contadora and Support Group Countries and the five Central American countries, along with the Secretaries General of the UN and OAS, will begin their evaluation of each country's fulfillment of the accords. They will meet to review their findings on December 5, 30 days later. On January 4, 1988, 150 days after the signing, the Central American Presidents will meet again and take action based on the CIVS report.
Thus, since August, a dramatic standoff between war and peace has been developing, not only in Nicaragua, but throughout Central America. In El Salvador, the situation is characterized by the profound internal conflict between the government and the revolutionary forces of the FDR-FMLN. The Guatemalan government’s attempts to consolidate its counterinsurgency strategy against the progressive forces in that country, Costa Rica’s efforts to avoid a greater military escalation that would adversely affect the entire region’s sociopolitical equilibrium, and the Honduran government's interest in maintaining its US military and economic aid levels, are some of the factors contributing to the complexity of the situation.
Three arenas of conflictFocusing on the US-Nicaraguan conflict, we will analyze the three most important arenas of contradiction between the Nicaraguan government's program of complying with Esquipulas II and the Abrams project of boycotting the peace accords.
The first battlefield is inside Nicaragua. The Abrams project seeks to shore up the debilitated counterrevolutionary forces and complement their activity with that of the pro-US political parties which, taking advantage of Nicaragua's economic crisis, are intent on forcing the government to close the political space opened in the wake of Esquipulas II. In response, the Nicaraguan government is continuing to strike at the counterrevolution’s military forces and is seeking to contain the country's economic crisis to deny success to the pro-US opposition parties and see that the other parties develop an active opposition in a context respectful of Nicaragua's Constitution.
The second battlefield is the Central American region. The Abrams project, taking advantage of the internal contradictions that exist in the Central American countries and exerting diplomatic pressure, seeks to reinterpret the accords in a way favorable to US interests. Describing them as "preliminary" or "fatally flawed," it hopes to eliminate this obstacle to its policy. For its part, Nicaragua seeks full respect for the letter and spirit of Esquipulas II, especially regarding termination of the varying ways that Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica have provided support to the counterrevolution.
The third battlefield is the US Congress. The Abrams project is working for the approval of $270 million for the contra forces with the goal of prolonging the conflict and justifying eventual direct aggression. Counterpoised to this, Nicaragua proposes a bilateral dialogue with the United States as a valid means by which to resolve the conflict, pointing out that the legitimate security concerns of both the United States and Nicaragua would be addressed in the dialogue. Clearly, the struggles and contradictions at play in these three fields of battle are linked. With more urgency than ever, the olive branch of peace is raised against the sword of continuing war.
The Nicaraguan battlefield:For some months, the Reagan Administration has been trying to hold back the military decline affecting the contra forces since 1985. By the end of 1986, their numbers had been greatly reduced—the approximately 16,500 men they had in 1984 was reduced to less than half. The contras have thus began forcing young boys of 12-15 into their ranks, many of whom have since been killed in the fighting. At the same time, many of the contras who had become almost permanent fixtures in the camps on the Honduran side of the border entered Nicaragua to fight, leaving a small number dedicated to rearguard activities in the camps.
Contras on the down staircase
At the beginning of 1987, the contra forces were given some 300 "Red-Eye" surface-to-air missiles to attack Nicaraguan Army helicopters. At the same time, the contras tried to improve their irregular warfare capacity by breaking up into smaller groups, carrying out nighttime attacks, improving their communications systems and relying heavily on the use of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. This increased defensive and offensive capability has been possible only by constant reliance on regular air drops from planes running supply missions from neighboring countries.*
*Between September 5 and October 5, Nicaragua noted 110 violations of its airspace, most of which came from Honduras.
The Nicaraguan Army has been trying to accommodate quickly to the shifting contra tactics by fine-tuning its tactical and operational capabilities—becoming even more familiar with the terrain to detect possible sites of contra supply drops, perfecting communications techniques, lightening the individual loads soldiers carry in the field, and so forth. At the same time, it has sought to improve the skills of the helicopter pilots in using the anti-missile systems each helicopter carries on board. Of the nine Nicaraguan Army helicopters shot down during the war, five have been in 1987, but it cost the contras five missiles to finally hit the Mi-25 helicopter downed in October.
According to unofficial estimates, Nicaragua has maintained an average of 100,000 men in arms the past several years, including permanent soldiers, young draftees and peasant militias. This number has permitted continual pursuit and harassment of the contra forces, whose number inside Nicaragua is now under 5,000.
It’s been harder to deal with the supply drops. The flights, originating primarily in Honduras and El Salvador, are carried out at night by planes that fly above the range of Nicaragua's anti-air defense system with their lights off. When the planes descend, they do so with extreme precision, above a very limited area. The only way to thwart such an operation is to be right near where a plane is making a drop. The alternative is to recover the weapons and supplies once they are in Nicaraguan territory, as the Army has focused on recently, with more success.
The supply flight problem would virtually disappear if Nicaragua had interceptor planes. For precisely this reason, the Reagan Administration has continued to use the threat of surgical strikes if Nicaragua acquires MiGs. It knows that such planes would cut off the counterrevolutionary forces' lifeline.
Despite the continued aid the contras are receiving, they have suffered some 450 casualties a month since the signing of the Esquipulas Accords. Neither forced recruitment of adolescents nor the joining in combat of contras long stationed in Honduran camps have allowed them to recover. The current rhythm of the war is leading them, month by month, to a military collapse in 1988.
Cease-fire and laying down armsIn this context, the Nicaraguan government took the measure of declaring a one-month unilateral cease-fire as part of its preliminary compliance with the accords. The idea was to give the contras a different option than the military one—that of laying down their arms and reincorporating themselves into their communities and civil society.
The cease-fire was declared on October 7, and covered an area of 1,450 square kilometers in three central zones of the country. After the initial declaration, the area was expanded to include over 400 square kilometers in the Northern Atlantic Coast region, in response to the distinct dynamic unfolding there.
For its duration, there was a constant movement of people, especially among those who have family members involved in the contra forces. They made contact with their relatives to bring them up to date on what was happening in the country as a result of Esquipulas, and often asked them to take advantage of the amnesty program. Local peace commissions linked to the National Reconciliation Commission headed up by Cardinal Obando y Bravo took on as one of their functions to guarantee the physical integrity and normal reintegration into their communities of fighters who decided to take amnesty.
In one important example with broader implications, an entire Operational Command of 400 men from the armed Miskitu group Yatama, under the direction of 23-year-old Uriel Vanegas, turned itself in to authorities on the Atlantic Coast. According to Vanegas, a six-year veteran of the Miskitu war, the key factors in the decision were "the international political situation, the improvement in the government's treatment of indigenous peoples, the lack of seriousness towards our people demonstrated by leaders like Stedman Fagoth and the realization that we were fighting for the interests of a power, the United States, that used us as cannon fodder."
In the negotiation of their cease-fire, Vanegas' men promised to reject any foreign aid arriving by any channel, cooperate with the Peace and Autonomy Commissions in the region, help protect the lives of the region's population, and contribute to the development of the zone covered by the autonomy law. For its part, the Nicaraguan government permitted the command to keep their arms, although two-thirds of the men will either return to farming or take up studies with financial help from the government.
In the country's central region, two contra leaders turned themselves in under the amnesty program: Luis Emilio Ramírez ("Cain," head of a detachment from the northern Quilalí Regional Command) and Denis Loáisiga ("El Coral," second chief of a Jorge Salazar Regional Command.) In addition, some 600 contra soldiers have taken amnesty in the period following the signing of the Esquipulas Accords.
With Esquipulas II, the cease-fire and amnesty reinforced the strictly military pressure, hastening the strategic decline of the counterrevolutionary forces from a slightly different angle. But it’s no secret that the cease-fire had a certain cost for the Nicaraguan government in military terms. The cease-fire zones allowed the counterrevolution a rest and chance to regroup. At the same time, they had constant access to air supply drops, as the Sandinista Army was committed not to enter these zones. These advantages are even greater if one takes into account that in the weeks prior to the announcement of the cease-fire, the Sandinista Army had been dealing sharp blows to the contra forces in precisely the zones delimited by the cease-fire declaration.
In their desperate search for dramatic actions to convince Congress to approve the $270 million requested by Reagan, the contra forces carried out coordinated predawn attacks on October 15 on four towns on the Juigalpa-El Rama road in the central-eastern part of the country: Santo Tomás, Muelle de los Bueyes, La Batea and San Pedro de Lóvago. At first they only had to contend with the defense put forth by the volunteer militias in these towns, but even then couldn’t take any of the towns or destroy the strategic Río Mico bridge on the highway to Rama, although they did destroy several houses and military vehicles and damage several bridges. The Sandinista army suffered 40 losses in its pursuit, while the contra forces' losses were over 100. Although the towns attacked are small, the military action was the contras’ splashiest in all of 1987. Yet it was also an isolated action, and thus no proof of any significant change in the their capability.
Economy: Another down staircaseUp to now, the Abrams Project has not been especially significant from a military point of view. What the counterrevolution has been able to do, especially given the damage already done to the country in previous years, is seriously affect the national economy. It is estimated that the inflation rate will reach 1000% by the end of 1987. This year's exports will be scarcely over $200 million, with imports running around $800 million.
Nicaragua also has a number of still unresolved problems in its ability to obtain oil. This year, the country's total consumption of crude was programmed at 765,000 metric tons. The Soviet Union committed itself to 300,000 tons. In addition, East Germany agreed to send 90,000 tons, Bulgaria 38,000, Czechoslovakia 30,000 and Hungary 10,000. In light of the remaining deficit, Cuba, the Soviet Union and Peru later this year assisted Nicaragua with 40,000, 190,000 and 3,000 tons respectively. Nicaragua has also saved 15,000 tons by imposing more rational consumption measures. Nevertheless, there’s still a 50,000 ton deficit for 1987. Nicaragua's consumption level is lower than Costa Rica's and higher than that of Honduras, so an even more austere consumption policy could possibly further reduce the deficit, but not significantly.
The serious economic crisis facing the country is fundamentally due to the accumulated wear and tear on the economy after years of war, and continues to be Nicaragua's real Achilles Heel. Given this material reality, the strictly political struggle between the Nicaraguan government and the opposition parties is more comprehensible. It is in this terrain that the country's military and economic contradictions are crystallizing. And it is also here that the Abrams Project will seek to insert itself in its eagerness to neutralize Esquipulas II.
The National Dialogue: The national dialogue began between the Nicaraguan government and the opposition parties on October 3 in compliance with the Esquipulas II accords calling for the governments of Central America to "dialogue with all unarmed groups from the internal political opposition and those who have availed themselves of amnesty." The Nicaraguan government invited all unarmed political groups to join the dialogue, first inviting the six parties that, along with the FSLN, participated in the 1984 elections: the Conservative Democratic Party (PCD), the Liberal Independent Party (PLI), the Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC), the Communist Party of Nicaragua (PC de N) and the Marxist-Leninist Movement for Popular Action (MAP-ML.)
Politics of provocation
The government also requested the participation of the parties that have legal status but did not participate in the elections: the Central American Union Party (PUCA) and three parties belonging to the rightwing coalition calling itself the "Coordinadora" that boycotted the national elections—the Social Christian Party (PSC), the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC.)
As a concession, the Coordinadora itself was invited to participate. The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) plays a key role in the Coordinadora, which also counts as members several small rightwing unions and tiny unregistered political parties as well as a few splits off some of the larger parties. The Coordinadora has faithfully and consistently represented the Reagan administration’s interests inside Nicaragua.
The problems began as soon as the dialogue itself did. The Coordinadora and two of its member parties, the PSD and the PLC, immediately walked out of the dialogue saying they wouldn’t participate until all 14 components of the Coordinadora—parties, party fractions, individual COSEP business chambers and unions—were given their own representatives to it. This position met with objections from both the government and the other opposition parties, which pointed out that the Coordinadora always acts as a unified political organization. Several argued that the Coordinadora's demand to include its unions and other affiliated organizations in the dialogue would give the corresponding right to all other opposition parties. It seemed additionally unjust to some that the Coordinadora should have 14 representatives to the dialogue, while the rest of the opposition parties (which together had tallied 33% of the votes in the 1984 elections) had 7 in total. The Coordinadora's confrontation posed a real obstacle to the dialogue’s normal progress.
While the Coordinadora expressed objections to participating in the dialogue, it had no problem showing up for Jeane Kirkpatrick's arrival at the US Embassy's protocol house. "Now's the moment!" was Kirkpatrick's slogan to the parties assembled. "You’re not alone," she added; "we've given our word of honor... and we won't abandon our promise." Many of those present waved US flags given to them by the Embassy. "We're in liberated territory here! We're in the United States!," they exclaimed.
During Kirkpatrick's speech, some in the audience shouted, "Long live Nicaragua without communism!" and "Death to the Sandinistas; Death to Daniel Ortega!" Carlos Huembes, representing the Coordinadora, stated that Senator Christopher Dodd had asked them not to block the Esquipulas process, and in his previous visits had never met with the "opposition." This was enough to cause some to shout, "Dodd is a communist!" La Prensa dedicated nearly three of its eight pages to her visit.
La Prensa returns to the streets:La Prensa had returned to the streets on October 1, resuming its role as Nicaragua's afternoon paper. The government fully complied with the agreement reached with La Prensa, allowing it to publish with no restrictions or censorship, even concerning military information.
More provocation than news
In its selection of news, La Prensa has emphasized only certain information having to do with Esquipulas II. It has specifically focused on the two anti-Sandinista demands of general amnesty and dialogue with the contra leaders. It has also concentrated in sensationalist fashion on what it calls the country's "decomposition"—deterioration of Nicaragua's physical infrastructure, street crime, shortages and administrative irregularities. Much of this news is based on unclear, and unchecked, sources, such as "citizens who came to our editorial offices."
La Prensa omits most general-interest national news. A notable example of this was its total silence regarding the extended visit of Edgar Chamorro, former contra leader. La Prensa has not reported any of the cases of people who have turned themselves in under the amnesty plan or the activity of the many peace commissions throughout the country. And, while President Daniel Ortega's speech to the UN General Assembly occupied only a few lines in La Prensa, critical comments by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias regarding the tone of the speech were front-page headline news the following day. In its editorial page, La Prensa frequently publishes anti-Sandinista articles picked up from US papers. The international news is full of disasters and economic and political problems in the socialist countries, as well as negative articles on third world nationalist movements.
La Prensa's presentation of news is neither democratic nor pluralist, given that it represents only the viewpoint of a tiny minority of the opposition—the Coordinadora and the businessmen associated with COSEP. Right now, for example, it is closely following the Reagan administration's line on the Esquipulas II accords.
La Prensa's criticism is not constructive and hardly contributes to the new climate of reconciliation it claims to espouse. Instead, with its polemical, sarcastic and belligerently anti-Sandinista tone, it attempts to leave the reader with a bitter image of chaos and to discourage any form of collaboration with the government—collaboration being defined as carrying out the duties of any ordinary citizen. While calling shrilly for total amnesty, La Prensa doesn’t seem disposed to forgive or forget.
It is difficult to measure the political impact of La Prensa. The paper claims to have sold out its first day's run of 200,000, but it has not maintained that and now has six or more young boys hawking the paper at night to stopped cars at each major intersection of Managua. In addition, a good number of its readers are Sandinistas themselves, who with a daily 15-minute glance at La Prensa can take the pulse of Nicaragua ultra-Right each day.
With La Prensa as their daily mouthpiece, the Coordinadora parties held a number of demonstrations during October. They requested prior permission, which the Ministry of the Interior granted them. In these demonstrations, which never attracted more than 3,000 people and in most cases significantly fewer, they demanded political dialogue with the US-based contra leadership and a total amnesty that would free all National Guard members imprisoned after the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown.
This latest demand has provoked a heated debate. The Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, a national association of women whose children were killed by the National Guard or in the contra war, have begun to speak out in the national media and in street demonstrations, demanding that the amnesty at least not cover National Guardsmen convicted of heinous crimes. One such demonstration took place on October 23 in front of Managua's El Calvario Church, at the same hour as a smaller demonstration led by the Mothers of January 22, a group of relatives of imprisoned National Guardsmen. In the ensuing confrontation, a man with a criminal record shot off his gun, wounding three of the pro-revolution women. This raised tempers throughout the country, and the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs took to the streets again, including a 5,000-person demonstration in front of the National Assembly in which they demanded once more that amnesty not be extended to the National Guard.
While this debate was waged in the streets, the country's National Dialogue continued battling out a solution to the Coordinadora's ultimatum. In the interim, a new proposal had been put forward: two more factions of Nicaragua's rapidly splitting opposition parties had requested a seat on the dialogue: the Movement for Unification and Democratization of the PLI, and another Liberal Party split, known as PALI.
After a full day of debate, the eight parties remaining after the Coordinadora and two of its three registered parties had walked out sent the following proposal to President Ortega: that all the party factions be given a seat on the dialogue, but not the unions and associations. The government agreed not only with that proposal, but also with one signed by all but the PSC, the Coordinadora member that had not walked out, that if the first proposal were accepted, the Coordinadora as such should not participate. In the end, the six parties and fractions in the Coordinadora sent representatives to the dialogue, touching off an internal feud in which COSEP members sharply criticized party representatives for accepting the measure.
Six sessions have taken place during October, most of them occupied by this debate. In a session following the government's decision, but before the Coordinadora parties had decided to take their seats, the other eight parties decided on the internal rules. The key issue was how decisions would be taken, with a heated debate between those who supported consensus and those who favored majority vote. National Assembly president Carlos Núñez, the government representative who is chairing the meetings, reminded them that the government cannot respond if the parties are themselves divided. This finally tipped the scales in favor of consensus, with the provision that any topic on which consensus could not be reached would be tabled in favor of pursuing the remainder of the agenda. In November, the parties will define the agenda itself. Núñez has made it clear that no topics that fall outside the context of Nicaragua's Constitution or the Central American peace accords will be viewed as legitimate. It is expected that part of the democratization process envisioned in the Esquipulas II accords—municipal elections in Nicaragua—will be scheduled in this dialogue.
October's events show that the rightwing forces that toe the Reagan line continue to carry on in a provocative fashion. Responding to these events, the FSLN called for its cadres and supporters to enter the ideological fray, defending their own rights and demands as a party and not letting the pro-US opposition be the only one to take to the streets.
Second battlefield—Central AmericaAnother source of concern for the Reagan Administration has been the political dynamic unleashed by the peace accords in the other Central American countries. Contrary to US expectations and wishes, Esquipulas II has inspired social movements throughout Central America to mobilize, opening new political space for a contest to be waged among governments, military establishments and democratic, progressive and revolutionary forces.
In an attempt to contain the forces let loose by Esquipulas and to isolate Nicaragua, the Reagan administration has attempted to impose its own reading of the accords on its Central American allies. It is leaning most heavily on El Salvador and Honduras, whose presidents visited Washington in October, and has pressured Costa Rica to a lesser extent.
Honduras: In the first 90-day phase of Esquipulas II, it was President José Azcona Hoyo of Honduras who showed the least interest in complying with the accords, and insisted on a highly selective interpretation of them: in Honduras there are no problems, there’s no war, and hence it isn’t even necessary to implement the most minimal accords, for example by forming a national reconciliation commission.
This initial position gave way to growing internal pressure from religious, political and popular sectors opposed to the contra presence in Honduras. A few hours before the 90-day limit expired, the National Reconciliation Commission was finally formed, presided over by Archbishop of Tegucigalpa Enrique Santos.
The Honduran position, however, was still held in check by US pressure to deny the presence of US bases and contra troops on Honduran territory. Just before a scheduled trip to Washington, Azcona said he would base his country's compliance on his personal assessment of Nicaragua's performance, adding that if the Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire with the contras they would no need to be in Honduras. This served two purposes, making it appear that Nicaragua was the only problem in the region, and undermining the independent role of the International Verification and Follow-up Commission. Honduras' lack of economic resources to deal with the contras was put forward as another obstacle—$250 million was the price the Azcona government was asking to get them out of Honduras.
Aware of the difficulties Reagan would face if he immediately presented his request for $270 million in contra aid to Congress, Azcona, once in Washington, suggested that this be postponed until next January, thereby complying as well with his duty to the peace accords. He also announced at that time that an amnesty would be declared in Honduras. On his return to Honduras, however, he proposed that the five Central American Presidents meet before the January date set by the Esquipulas accords, an apparent ploy on behalf of the Reagan administration's wish to advance the date for the contra aid vote.
Despite the Honduran government's attempts to trip up the peace process, the benefits that Esquipulas could bring to Honduras must not be ignored. International pressure and domestic opposition to the contras’ presence may be the key to positive advances in this country.
El Salvador: In El Salvador, President Duarte has been unsuccessful in his attempt to project an image of symmetry between the civil war in his country and the contras’ aggression toward Nicaragua. Duarte's difficulties in the last few weeks are proof of the growing inability of his Christian Democrats to govern the country or even manage their own internal crisis.
Duarte used the accords to recover credibility and legitimacy for his government in both domestic and international arenas. Promoting himself as a "man of peace," he nominated the National Reconciliation Commission, which, contrary to expectation, will not be presided over by Archbishop Rivera y Damas, the only person accepted as a mediator by the Salvadoran guerrillas.
President Duarte managed to convince the joint chiefs of the Salvadoran armed forces to agree to his plan, persuading them that with Esquipulas II, the guerrillas would have no alternative but to lay down their arms. A new round of negotiations with the FDR-FMLN took place.
Far from being the Salvadoran guerrilla's last chance, however, the dialogue in San Salvador on October 4-5 showed how little maneuvering room is left for the government, pressured as it is by the United States, the army high command and the extreme Right. Furthermore, the balance of forces on the battlefield did not allow Duarte and the military to force the FMLN's hand. All these factors together make the government see the dialogue only from a tactical perspective, without any real hope of producing results.
Duarte's announcement of a unilateral cease-fire did show a certain willingness to advance along the path spelled out in the Esquipulas accords. He also complied formally with Esquipulas II by asking Reagan not to approve new funds for the counterrevolution, but reaffirmed his government's total subordination to the United States by kissing the US flag while in Washington—an act that went far beyond the bounds of normal protocol.
The murder of Human Rights Commission president Herbert Anaya by rightwing death squads was like a bucket of cold water thrown on the dialogue. The FMLN-FDR postponed the second round of dialogue, and meetings of work committees on the cease-fire and other matters were set back. The situation was made more dramatic by the fact that the assassination occurred a few hours after an amnesty law was declared in which members of death squads may be set free.
Guatemala: For the Guatemalan government, which hosted the meetings that produced the peace accords, Esquipulas II has a special significance within its political project. President Cerezo formed a National Reconciliation Commission, proclaimed an amnesty and, going beyond expectations, held the first round of dialogue with the URNG, the most venerable guerrilla force in Central America.
The October 7 dialogue was subject to strong military pressure. It had to be held outside Guatemala, in Madrid, and although the guerrillas sent three top-level representatives, led by Comandante Gaspar Ilom (the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Asturias, son of Nobel Prize-winning author Miguel Angel Asturias), the government sent a lower-level delegation in which military "observers" outnumbered civilians four to three.
Cerezo preferred not to have any outside observers at the meeting. Even the Spanish government only took part in the opening and closing ceremonies. According to Guatemalan Church sources, the two sides had informally agreed to invite Archbishop Próspero Penados, but since only the URNG formally extended the invitation, the archbishop had to decline.
After the meeting, Cerezo tried to minimize its importance; it wasn’t a dialogue but just "conversations," he explained, to avoid extending political recognition to the guerrillas. The military even denied that they had attended. The government downplayed the topic, declaring that there would not be another meeting.
If Cerezo's room to maneuver is as limited as Duarte's, there are other factors in his favor, such as the defeats suffered by the guerrillas in recent years (although even the military admits that there has been a recent increase in guerrilla actions) and the weakness of social movements and political forces to put the Christian Democratic government’s political pluralism to the test. This is not to mention an accounting of the thousands of disappeared, the tens of thousands of indigenous people who have been massacred as a result of the military's scorched earth policy.
With visits throughout the region by Vice President Carpio Nicolle, Guatemala registered progress in forming the Central American Parliament, as required by the Esquipulas accords. Guatemala has long been the standard-bearer for the creation of such a parliament.
Costa Rica: The Costa Rican government has tried—with a good measure of success—to present itself as the official interpreter of the accords, based on Arias' authorship of the draft treaty. But the accords clearly state that the International Verification and Follow-up Commission is the sole mechanism authorized to judge whether the Central American governments have complied with the accords.
The Nobel Peace Prize granted to Arias has given the peace process more legitimacy but has also reinforced the image of Arias as chief arbiter. This tends to obscure the fact that Arias and Costa Rica are a part of the Central American conflict; until recently, US and contra forces openly used Costa Rican territory to launch attacks on Nicaragua, and some of the contras’ logistical infrastructure there is still intact. Several battles waged on Nicaraguan soil were launched from Costa Rican territory even after the signing of the Esquipulas accords, which Nicaragua has not denounced so as not to impede the peace process.
It is hoped that Costa Rica’s National Reconciliation Commission, finally established by President Arias, will include on its agenda an arrangement whereby Radio Impacto, the contra radio station operating from Costa Rica, will end its anti-Nicaraguan broadcasting. It is also hoped that President Arias will apply his Nobel prize-winning talents to his own country’s internal problems.
Third battlefield—The US CongressNicaragua has taken numerous steps toward peace since August 7: it formed a National Reconciliation Commission headed by Cardinal Obando; granted pardons to Central Americans imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activity; repealed the law permitting expropriation of properties belonging to those who have left the country; started up a national dialogue of political parties; permitted La Prensa and Radio Católica to reopen; established a unilateral cease-fire in four areas; and promoted an opening of political space to allow all political parties to express their viewpoints in marches and public meetings. These steps have so far met no equivalent steps from the Reagan administration signaling a desire for peace; the most important step would be, of course, an end to contra aid.
The Esquipulas accords specify that an end to aid from extra-regional governments to irregular forces is "an indispensable element to achieve a durable and stable peace in the region." Furthermore, all points of the Esquipulas II accords form a "harmonious and indivisible" whole, meaning that unless the United States ends aid to the counterrevolution, the remainder of the accords' provisions can’t fall into place.
Although the Reagan administration claims to support the accords, it has repeatedly asserted it will ask Congress for $270 million more in contra aid. In Reagan's October address to the OAS, he declared, "I've made a personal commitment to them, and I will not walk away. They are fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua not only for their own liberty but for yours and mine. And I make a solemn vow: As long as there’s breath in this body, I will speak and work, strive and struggle for the cause of the Nicaraguan freedom fighters." Thus Reagan continued to insist on a military solution, resolutely blocking the peace process.
In a dramatic speech to the UN General Assembly on October 8, President Ortega made yet another appeal to the US government to complement the accords with a bilateral dialogue between the US and Nicaraguan governments in which both countries would be able to satisfy their legitimate national security concerns. His speech concluded:
“It makes sense for us to renew this dialogue, since this dialogue was already started. There's a precedent in Nicaragua. There's a precedent of dialogue with the US government; we received Secretary Shultz in Managua, we spoke with him in Managua and then there were nine meetings in Manzanillo, Mexico, which the US suspended in an intemperate manner. If we have dialogued, why don't we sit down to dialogue again? And this time, from the forum of the United Nations I invite the President of the United States: that 35 days after November 5, the United States and Nicaragua begin an unconditional, bilateral dialogue, with the goal of signing accords that would give security to both countries and permit the normalization of bilateral relations.... May President Reagan not rush to turn this proposal down. Let him reflect upon it, asking himself why there are North Americans like Benjamin Linder or Brian Willson, who have spilled their blood so no more blood runs in Nicaragua. May President Reagan ask himself why the US bishops' conference and the leaders of Protestant churches have said repeatedly to him that this policy must end.
“...Don't rush to say no, President Reagan, and before you ask the advice of those who would rile you up, presenting you with diverse military options like a direct invasion, remember, President Reagan, that Rambo exists only in the movies. Because in Vietnam the result was the death of thousands of Vietnamese and over 40,000 young North Americans who today would be scientists, technicians, teachers, religious workers, athletes, farmers or doctors. The people of the world don't want Rambos, they want men of peace. Before you reply to my proposal for bilateral dialogue, President Reagan, reflect upon it, don't be precipitous. And may God enlighten you so you choose the path of peace and stop harming the people of Nicaragua.”
Since the Reagan Administration has shown no signs of changing its policies, it remains to be seen if Congress will approve more contra aid once it comes to a vote. To support contra aid would mean continuing along the path of war chosen by Reagan. To stop it would be a significant step toward a negotiated political solution to the crisis. So far the Democratic Party has shown itself incapable of promoting a coherent political alternative to resolve the Central American crisis. Will the Democrats continue along the same lines, refusing to give staunch support to the peace plan signed by the Central American Presidents?
In this sense, the $250,000 that Congress approved this October for internal political forces in Nicaragua is not insignificant. The decision follows the same logic that guides military support for the counterrevolution. The legislators see in such financing an effective alternative to the contras’ military strategy. It dovetails neatly with the Abrams Project to consolidate pro-US forces within Nicaragua, heating up the political battle.
What both Congress and the Reagan Administration tend to ignore is that by giving funds to political forces like La Prensa and the Coordinadora, they are branding these forces as US mercenaries, putting them in the same category as the armed counterrevolution. In the political struggle now to be waged within Nicaragua before a deeply anti-imperialist public, this mercenary character will only rebound negatively on the Right itself, making it impossible for it to gain popular support. The United States is really preventing the conservative forces in Nicaragua from developing their own independent and nationalist program, tying their political futures to steps the United States may or may not take on their behalf.
Despite great difficulties, Esquipulas II moves forward, though not all difficulties are being resolved in the hoped-for way, mainly because of pressures by the US government on its allies in the region. In Nicaragua, for example, compliance with the accords has created more internal tensions with the rightwing forces supported by the Reagan Administration. The major obstacles to peace continue to be the US President’s determination to support war "as long as there’s breath in this body," and the Democratic Party’s inability to promote a compelling alternative policy. Despite Nicaragua's continued progress both on the military front and in the campaign for peace, peace is not yet at hand.