Dole-Ortega Exchange: A Lesson in Sovereignty
On the way to Costa Rica from Honduras, a delegation of five Republican senators stopped in Nicaragua for the afternoon of August 31. They arrived at 12:30 pm, and were met at the airport by Foreign Ministry officials and the press. Both press and the delegation were then taken to the César Augusto Silva conference center, where the press found itself unexpectedly treated to a 50-minute open dialogue between the senators and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, which began at 1:30.
The delegation, led by Senate Minority leader Robert Dole, the Republican presidential aspirant from Kansas, included Thad Cochran (Ms), David Karnes (Ne), John McCain (Ar) and Steven Symms (Id). Dole selected the other three to join him on a bipartisan Senate observation committee to monitor compliance with the peace accords signed in Guatemala on August 7. (The Democrats selected by Senator Robert Byrd to join him on the same committee are Christopher Dodd (Ct), Terry Sanford (NC) and Jim Sasser (Tn).) In their interview with President Ortega the four Republicans were joined by Congressman Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa), who had arrived several days earlier.
In responses to press questions at the airport, Senator Dole said the delegation had come to Central America to find out if there was any realistic chance for peace and freedom.
Asked if the reference in an open letter by Sen. Dole to President Ortega in the Miami Herald that he was interested in reopening direct talks between Managua and the United States meant that the United States could finally get along with the Sandinistas, Dole responded, "No, I don't think it means that at all," adding that "we're not going to abandon the contras." Senator McCain of Arizona said he didn’t think it in anybody's interest to see the war drag out to infinity, "which obviously works to the tremendous disadvantage of the contras."
The arrogant and demanding tone of several of the senators in the early part of the dialogue with President Ortega loses its force in the printed word, but we decided to include a complete transcript of the dialogue, so our US readers can judge for themselves if this is how they want international diplomacy to be conducted in their name. Much of the dialogue was shown on Nicaraguan TV news that night and reprinted in the newspapers the following day. In El Nuevo Diario, the article appeared under the headline, "Dole in his place." It’s fair to say that the mood in the country was one of national pride that their President had demanded respect from the United States. It was one more lesson in the real meaning of the sovereignty and self-determination for which Nicaragua has been fighting.
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President Ortega: You're coming from Honduras, aren't you? Did you visit the contra<> camps?
Senator Dole: Not myself. Some of us did, but I went to the refugee camps.
Ortega: How's the morale of the contras after hearing the message from their leader, President Reagan, over their clandestine radio station?
Senator Symms: Very good.
Senator McCain: [Colonel Enrique] Bermúdez [head of the FDN] sends you his regards.
Ortega: I have a message for both President Reagan and Colonel Bermúdez: that they stop killing children, that they stop violating the human rights of the people of Nicaragua.
McCain: What message do you have to give the people of Nicaragua about freedom?
Senator Cochran: In the message we sent you we asked for certain freedoms for the people of Nicaragua.
Ortega: We wish that President Reagan and the government of the United States would give the Nicaraguan people the freedom to do what they want. It's not up to the US government to dictate to them what they should do.
Dole: Well what about the communists in Nicaragua, the Soviets, the Bulgarians and the Cubans? Are they going to go home?
Ortega: What we have here in Nicaragua are Bulgarians and Cubans who are helping the people of Nicaragua.
Dole: Well, we're helping the contras.
Ortega: We would be happy to have the US help the people of Nicaragua. Just as the Bulgarians and Cubans send engineers and doctors, we would be happy to have US technicians and doctors.
Dole: What about freedom of the press?
McCain: Yeah, you’ve got to open up La Prensa and the Catholic radio station.
Ortega: As soon as the war is over, as soon as they stop massacring the people of Nicaragua, we'll open up La Prensa. It was your Congress that approved the millions to assassinate the Nicaraguan people. Just a few weeks ago they killed the Catholic priest (sic) Zavaleta here in Nicaragua.
Dole: You get $300 million a year from the Soviets.
Ortega: We'd be happy to receive $300 million from the United States. We receive aid from the Soviet Union, Spain, Latin America... but we get only bullets from the United States. Yet the United States wants to determine our policy.
Dole: What about the August 7th agreement?
Ortega: In your letter you said you were concerned about the fate of Mr. Lino Hernández and Mr. Saborío, who are jailed because they broke the laws of Nicaragua.
Dole: Is a peaceful demonstration against the law in Nicaragua?
Ortega: I have a proposal for you that would enable Mr. Hernández and Mr. Saborío to be freed immediately: exchange them for this Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, who's been jailed in the United States because he was protesting US policy towards Central America. He was given nine months in prison for his demonstration.
Dole: We don't do that in our country, you've got us mixed up with the Soviet Union. (General laughter.)
Ortega: (Holding up picture of Bourgeois being arrested.) Look, these are US policemen, and they are repressing the rights of a Catholic priest. You have him in jail because he protested against US policy in Central America. Is this your democracy? If Father Bourgeois is released, we'll release Saborío and Hernández.
Dole: Can we go visit Saborío and Hernández?
Ortega: As long as we can send a government delegation to visit Father Bourgeois in jail. Can Father D'Escoto visit him in jail? As long as you can guarantee that, you may go visit Saborío.
Dole: Now, do you want to talk about the August 7 peace initiative or do you want to have this pep rally here?
Ortega: But you instigated this 'pep rally' in your letter to The Miami Herald. I haven't received a private letter. I received my copy this way (holding up newspaper clipping).
Dole: Would you publish that letter here?
Ortega: Of course we'll publish it. We also published the message President Reagan sent to the contras. Now, if you have good will and you don't want a pep rally, and if you're serious in your intentions...
Dole: This is a propaganda rally.
Ortega: Why didn't you send me a private letter if you really have these concerns? Because this [the public letter] is propaganda! If you had serious interests, you would send us a private copy of the letter, but you made it public first!
Dole: Here's a private letter (handing Ortega an envelope). But why didn't you agree to meet us? We had to wait 'til 1:00 before we even knew you'd meet with us.
McCain: Why didn't you agree to meet with us another time?
Ortega: Why doesn't President Reagan receive me, or Nicaraguan congresspeople? We receive you whenever you say you want to come. You're the ones who say what date you're going to come and what time you want to meet with us. You don't even bother to consult with us. That's lack of respect. You say, 'I'm arriving at such and such an hour; if you want to, you'll receive me.' You don't say 'Let's make an agreement, let's see when we can meet.'
Dole: Alright, let's make an agreement right now. Let's talk about the peace initiatives.
Ortega: Good. That's the most important thing.
Dole: Yeah, that's what we came for. Why did you come?
Ortega: I learned of your letter through The Miami Herald. At that time you provoked a pep rally from the United States when you made the letter to The Miami Herald public.
Dole: Here, this is a different letter [general laughter], a private letter, a shorter letter.
Senator Symms: So are we going to have peace and freedom in Nicaragua, or not?
Ortega: We’re working very seriously. We've already formed our national reconciliation commission.
Dole: That's stacked.
Ortega: Well, I didn't realize Cardinal Obando had turned Sandinista.
Dole: He's only one. There are four.
Ortega: You have to take into account the other representatives on the commission, for example, of the Protestant churches. They certainly can't be accused of being Sandinista members.
Dole: What about a dialogue between the United States and your government?
Ortega: That's the most important thing.
Dole: What about a three-way dialogue including the <>contras<>, the US and your government, to talk about the cease fire?
Ortega: But the head of the <>contras<> is the US government, so it's better for the United States and Nicaragua to talk.
McCain: Then we should meet with the Cubans, they're your bosses.
Ortega: If you think that's the case you should communicate with President Castro. Go to Havana, if you think that would be the solution.
Cochran: What about La Prensa? Are you going to allow La Prensa to open or not?
Ortega: When you cease the war and respect the verdict of the International Court of Justice and respect the law. Now I ask you all: Are you going to respect international law? What do you think of the International Court of Justice?
Representative Kostmayer: Mr. President, I'm the only Democrat here, and the only member of Congress who has voted consistently against contra aid. I disagree with all my colleagues in the Senate here on the subject and I hope there will be no more contra aid and no more war in Nicaragua. But in the long run that's your decision more than ours. You have to do much less than you imagine to stop contra aid. If you will take those relatively small steps, moving in the right direction, while you will not convince President Reagan, nor perhaps my colleagues, I think you do have the capacity of convincing the majority of the members of the House of Representatives. On that subject we agree, because we're all democrats with a small d. I hope you will promptly take those steps so that the United States will cease the war.
Ortega: What are these small steps you're referring to?
Kostmayer: I think that Sen. Dole and Sen. McCain have said that the opening of La Prensa would be a very important step, the reopening of the Catholic radio station, the release of the head of the human rights commission who is in jail now, arrested just the other day. These are important steps. But I recognize that your country's been under a tremendous strain because of the war. More than half of your budget goes toward the war. We’ve had a curtailment of civil liberties during wartime in our own country, so we understand that, to some degree. But if the war ceases and contra aid isn’t resumed after September 30, and you take those steps, Congress won't approve any more aid, in my opinion.
Dole: He's got to take more than those steps. It's got to be total, total democratization!
Cochran: I think compliance with the agreement you signed in Guatemala is basically what we're all hoping will occur. What is your judgment as to the possibility of compliance with all the terms of the Guatemala accords?
Ortega: I think the first thing the United States must do is stop acting like an empire. That is to say, you shouldn't act in the Roman style, but rather in the fashion that respects the right to a people’s self-determination. The US Congress, the President of the United States should respect the agreement signed by the Central American heads of state on August 7. That means that you shouldn't interfere in our negotiation process. Now if the United States has security concerns with respect to Nicaragua, Nicaragua is willing to dialogue with the United States. But at the same time, let us Central Americans talk among ourselves; let us resolve our problems. You must let us construct our democracy. You shouldn't come here to give us lessons in democracy, the same way we're not going to travel there to give you lessons in democracy. When Somoza was in power, how many Republican members of the Senate or House came down here concerned about democracy, or about freedoms in Nicaragua? What you've done instead is give arms and money to a criminal like this Bermúdez, who was a high officer in Somoza's National Guard, so he can kill the people, the children of Nicaragua. The most constructive thing the United States could do is let us Central Americans alone to work this out and respect us.
Dole: What about the peace initiative that Comandante Ortega initialed? It talks about all the freedoms—religious freedoms, rights to assembly, the right to publish—and it was initialed by President Ortega. Now, I assume you're going to abide by that agreement.
Ortega: If you would take a little more time, you’d have a chance to visit the headquarters of the different political parties in Managua. You'd see that each opposition political party has its headquarters. Those that are legally registered have their headquarters, and so do those that aren't legally registered. And they are constantly meeting. Here, as in any country in the world, you must have authorization to have a demonstration...
Dole: No, not in our country.
Ortega: This year there have been a number of outdoor demonstrations, and those have been carried out with authorization because they requested it.
Symms: We are going to visit one of these headquarters, next to the jail where the head of the human rights commission is locked up, incarcerated.
Ortega: Fine, you can visit anybody you'd like to. There are 11 opposition parties here, and there's also a non-registered group that calls itself the Coordinadora, and they also have their headquarters. You can go speak with any of them, or with the owners of La Prensa, and they'll speak openly against the government, as they always do. They're not afraid to do that because they know there are no reprisals and they have the freedom to express themselves as they wish.
Dole: With La Prensa?
Ortega: With the owners, yes.
Dole: What about the newspaper?
Ortega: In due time, when the United States abides by the verdict of the International Court of Justice and stops the war against Nicaragua, everything will return to normal.
Dole: Let me make it clear, and I think I speak for all six of us here: We have no quarrel with the Nicaraguan people. I don't believe any of us have any quarrel with the Nicaraguan people. We understand the difficulties they are facing—the earthquake and everything that's happened. The truth is we came here to hold serious discussions over whether or not you believe there can be democracy—freedom of thought, of religion, of movement, and all the other freedoms enjoyed by a country that's not dominated by communists.
Ortega: As I said, if you could stay longer, you'd have a chance to realize that democracy does exist here. The trouble is you've come on a very quick trip, and that's what concerns us. I'm speaking very frankly. Beginning with the fact that you released a letter to the press before you even left the United States doesn't create the best conditions to enter into a frank and serious discussion. Your whole mission takes on the nature of a propagandistic confrontation with Nicaragua. And then you come for just a few hours. That makes me think that you embarked on this trip with the objective of going back to the United States and saying, 'I spoke with Ortega, I spoke with the opposition parties and just as I always told you, this is a communist regime and nothing can be achieved by talking with them.' That's been done by many senators and congresspersons; they just come for a few minutes. They don't have a chance to get to know our country; they don't talk to the people here. They just come and, as we say, 'touch down' and return immediately and say 'I've been to Nicaragua and now I can speak with authority.'
I hope that you are here in a constructive spirit and are seriously interested in letting peace reach Central America and normalizing relations between the US and Nicaragua. We are nonaligned. We seek diplomatic relations with all countries of the world. We want good relations with the United States. But we also want to have relations with the Soviet Union, or France, or Italy, or Spain, or any other country in the world. It depends on the United States. The United States hasn't wanted to listen to Nicaragua or give Nicaragua a chance. What's important is a bilateral dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua. At the same time that we Central Americans are working to comply with the Guatemala agreement, I think it would be very important to achieve a dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua, rather than continue throwing more gasoline on the fire of this war. You can contribute a great deal to this.
Dole: Let me just say that Senator Cochran, Senator McCain and Senator Symms are three Republicans who are going to be part of the observers' group. Senator Byrd, the Democratic leader, has named Senator Dodd, Senator Sasser and Senator Sanford. So there'll be six senators, plus myself and Senator Byrd. Our primary purpose is to see if we can play some positive bipartisan role in monitoring and observing what happens with the August 7 agreement. But I think it's fair to say that while we don't want confrontation, if the agreement fails, by say November 7, there will be an effort in Congress to continue funding the contras. Hopefully that request will be made by the President by October 1... but between October 1 and November 7 it would only be humanitarian aid. Then, of course, if everything fails, military aid would continue, the reason being that there is US interest in Central America, not because of Comandante Ortega, but the Soviet threat is a matter of great concern to us.
Ortega: There is no Soviet threat in Nicaragua. If we were members of the Warsaw Pact, the United States would undoubtedly be very careful in its treatment of us. They would be very respectful and not carry out this kind of policy, because it would mean confronting a big power. But, because they know we’re on our own, that we’re a tiny country that just wants self-determination and independence, they carry out this erratic policy which only causes suffering for the people of Nicaragua. Now if President Reagan really wanted to contribute to peace in Central America, he should immediately cut off all supplies of war materials and logistical supplies to the mercenary forces, and he should encourage them to take advantage of the amnesty, which many contras, even former contra leaders, have already done. They're living here with all their rights. As long as we Central Americans are negotiating among ourselves with a pistol held to our heads, telling us, "If you don't agree among yourselves by November 7, we're going to continue the military support for the contras," that doesn't help at all.
McCain: Mr. President, if no more contra aid is approved by November 7, what specific steps would you take by that date?
Ortega: You can be assured that the document we signed in Guatemala is identified with all the basic principles of our democracy, of our revolution. For that reason, in this 90-day period and at the end of it, according to the attitude that has been taken by the United States, there may be a state of normalcy in Nicaragua. La Prensa could be publishing daily, restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency could be lifted; but it depends on the US government. It's there, in your Congress, where financing decisions are made, and the supply flights continue with all the mercenary supplies. That is throwing more gasoline on the fire, every day. What we have to do is help build the best possible environment for negotiating peace. Of course, the best thing of all would be if President Reagan would say today, or tomorrow: "Out of respect for the agreement that was signed in Guatemala, I'm going to cut off all assistance to the contras—or the mercenaries, or the 'freedom fighters,' as he may prefer to call them—and at the same time, I encourage them to take advantage of the amnesty that has been extended." That would be best, because these steps could be taken not in 90 days, but much sooner.
McCain: Mr. President, we regret that this meeting began in an atmosphere of confrontation. That was not our desire when we came.
Ortega: This setting was established before you left the United States, when the letter was published in The Miami Herald.
McCain: Be that as it may, we're still hoping to have a serious discussion about the August 7 agreement. I want to assure you that our President and the American people want that agreement to succeed. We wish for peace in Central America as strongly as you do in Nicaragua, and I believe the way to that peace is through complete adherence to that agreement. I hope that you and your government will adhere very carefully to the implementation of that agreement, keep us informed of the progress made in Nicaragua and throughout Central America as we walk a very difficult path in Central America.
Ortega: We too consider this to be a serious meeting and we believe that the journalists who are here are also serious; we believe it doesn't reduce the seriousness of the meeting to have them present. To the contrary, it helps commit us to what we are saying, because we have all these witnesses here.
Several senators: We're not bothered by the journalists, but what are the commitments?
Ortega: For example, you're saying that you're interested in peace in Central America, interested in seeing the Guatemala accords respected. We hope you continue along that path and repeat the same thing after you've left Nicaragua, especially upon your return to the United States, and that you don't go back to the United States and say, 'I was in Nicaragua, I'm completely convinced that it's a communist regime because I spoke personally with Daniel Ortega. I spoke with the opposition and because of that I'm going to continue supporting the contras." That won't have anything to do with what we've said here in this meeting. Now, if you'd requested a private meeting, and sent me a private note, we would've had a private meeting. Following it, if we'd been interested in talking with the press we would've done that. But you sent me an open message through The Miami Herald. It makes sense to hold our meeting in a public forum because that's how you began the request for the meeting. As I understand, that's the democratic way, rather than closing up our meeting, and afterwards each one says what went on behind closed doors...
Dole: Perhaps we can work it out right here.
Ortega: That would be the best.
Cochran: Mr. President, we are not a party to the Guatemala plans, the United States is not one of the signatories to that plan because it involves the five countries of Central America. As I understand the meaning of the plan as far as the United States is concerned, on November 7, when the 90 days have elapsed, if there is compliance with all the terms of the agreement, the five heads of government will announce that there is compliance and request all aid and assistance to any insurgent or contra group in any of the five countries to stop. Is that your understanding of the agreement as well? And would that include assistance to the Nicaraguan government by the Soviet Union?
Ortega: This aspect of the agreement has to do with simultaneity. This means that the five Central American governments are obliged to meet all of the different aspects of the agreement within 90 days. If one of those elements is not complied with by any of the Central American governments, another government can say, 'This element is lacking, so I'm not obliged to comply with the other elements of the agreement.' In the same fashion, the Central American governments can take all the steps they consider correct, or consider necessary to contribute to peace, without needing to wait for the 90-day period to end. The obligatory time frame is when the 90 days are up, and that is, of course, when all the elements are complied with. And there's an International Verification Commission, composed of the Contadora and Support Group nations, the Secretaries General of the OAS and the UN. That commission is the one that will determine whether or not a country has complied with all aspects of the agreement.
Now the theme of armaments, of arms and military advisors, foreign military bases, foreign military troops—everything that has to do with a foreign military presence and arms—is going to be dealt with as a separate point, not necessarily completely tied to the rest of the agreement. It will be addressed under the auspices of the Contadora and Support Group nations. Now, on that occasion the Central American governments will discuss arms limitations, an eventual arms limitation agreement, the issues of foreign military advisors and bases, etc. Nicaragua is willing to sign agreements with the other Central American nations and with the United States itself to the effect that Central America be freed of all foreign military presence and be completely neutral, in terms of foreign military presence.
Dole: How do you arrange a cease-fire with the contras?
Ortega: That's easy. The President of the United States immediately cuts off aid to the contras and calls upon them to take advantage of the amnesty. We have all the mechanisms ready to put this into practice. The National Reconciliation Commission has already been formed, and it will verify whether or not the amnesty is being met, and the International Verification Commission has also been formed and has the same job. Both of these commissions have the function of verifying and following up on compliance with the agreements. That's why I say to you that if the US government ceases its policy immediately, it's possible that rather than in 90 days, the situation would be resolved in 60 days, for example.
Cochran: Thank you for meeting with us. I know we're out of time, but how do you plan to implement peace and freedom simultaneously with the people of Nicaragua?
Ortega: You have to come to Nicaragua for a few days...
Cochran: We're going to come back.
Ortega: That way you can see for yourself that freedom already exists in Nicaragua. What happens is that many North Americans aren't familiar with what's going on here and firmly believe there's no freedom in Nicaragua, because there's the idea that wherever a revolution is carried out there's a denial of liberty. They forget the United States itself grew out of a revolution. It's unfortunate that that's been forgotten. That's why it's good for you to come. Yes, there are some restrictions, but they would be lifted when the war of aggression disappeared.
Dole: We thank you very much, Mr. President. I think that there will be some differences. You may not agree, but there is a United States interest, even, with all due respect, to the regional approach. I think what may have been important in the regional approach—what was the President Reagan-Speaker Wright agreement and the whole thought behind that—was to give peace and freedom a chance in Central America. So we appreciate the chance to visit, and these three Senators are going to be spending a lot more time in Central America.
Ortega: It's good that you have come, but it would be better to come for a longer stay so you could travel wherever you wanted to, speak with whomever you wish, so you could find out what's really happening in Nicaragua. I invite you to come back and stay for a longer period. We also hope that just as we received you all and dialogued with you, there will be a moment when we can converse with the President of the United States. We're not enemies of the United States. I don't have anything against you or against President Reagan, but I don't agree with the way you've treated Nicaragua, and that can be resolved… in conversations.