Behind the State of Emergency
On October 15 the government of Nicaragua announced that the state of emergency, in effect since 1982 but significantly reduced in July 1984, when the electoral campaign began, would be broadened and extended for another year. The measure came as a surprise in Nicaragua, both because of the dramatic, formal tone of announcement, and because a few days earlier official reports had been issued describing the military situation in optimistic terms. Outside of the country, the decree was interpreted even more dramatically, eliciting nor only surprise but harsh criticisms from Nicaragua’s friends and enemies alike. The emergency raised many questions about Nicaragua’s present situation.
- What is the internal situation in Nicaragua?
- What does the emergency law consist of?
- Has the international situation become more critical?
The answers to some of these questions should help to clarify the context surrounding the present measure.
Nicaragua’s internal situationAlthough the decision to broaden the state of emergency can only be understood within the framework of aggression that the country has been confronting since 1982, it is more a response to an interpretation of the internal situation than it is to the war itself. The state of emergency was not declared in order to meet a new military challenge, but to consolidate the recent military gains with political restraints and controls.
The Military Situation is Favorable to the RevolutionSeveral hours before the state of emergency was decreed, Deputy Defense Minister Joaquín Cuadra gave a detailed and optimistic explanation of the current military situation. Five days earlier, the FSLN daily, Barricada, reprinted an extensive interview with Defense Minister Humberto Ortega conducted in September by a reporter from The Washington Post. It too was quite positive.
The optimism expressed by these two Sandinista military leaders can be easily checked against the daily experience of those who live in the war zones or the soldiers of the Nicaraguan army who are fighting the war. Indeed, the observations of different social sectors with whom envío has regular contact concur with these official analyses on the following assessment of the military situation: the counterrevolution has suffered a serious strategic defeat and the present correlation of forces is for now wholly favorable to the Nicaraguan government; this situation is not likely to change unless the war takes on qualitatively different characteristics. The Sandinistas’ advantage has become consolidated throughout 1985, as a result of the Nicaraguan army’s considerable accumulation of forces in 1984, and because of the permanent crisis of unity, honesty and political platform that the armed counterrevolution suffers, now more than ever.
In 1984 the counterrevolution scored its greatest military successes, maintaining a stable or frequent presence in some strategic areas. Its principal objective for the year was to create substantial fighting units in order to carry out large operations. It managed by various methods—coercion, propaganda, kidnapping and skillful manipulation of the Sandinistas’ strategic errors—to capture a certain social base among the peasant farmers, allowing it to replace its casualties and even to grow. During 1984 the estimated number of men in the contra forces reached its all-time high of 16,000.
The end of 1984, however, marked the beginning of the counterrevolution’s decline, which can now be synthesized as the dismantling of the large contra units and the defeat of the big operations they had undertaken. An important military fact in this was the incorporation into the Sandinista army of thousands of young men fulfilling their patriotic military service. These recruits, now well organized and trained, make up the Irregular Warfare Battalions (BLI) that have become they key military element in the battle against the contras. The complex kind of fighting that has come to characterize this war is so physically demanding that youth is imperative, and tactically varied that it requires specialization in irregular warfare.
In the first half of 1985, in addition to consolidating and extending the BLIs, the Sandinista army introduced Soviet helicopters, which have been crucial in transporting and supplying army troops operating in remote areas. They have also played a decisive role in combat, prompting FDN leader Adolfo Calero to refer to them as “devastators.”
Also at this time, a reorganization of human and material resources resulted in improved border control. Both infiltrations and unmolested retreats to and from contra camps in Honduras were reduced, and their traditional supply routes were cut. Although some 2,500 of the most committed counterrevolutionaries are in the main camps on the Honduran side of the border, prepared to enter Nicaragua and attempt a strategic blow, the Sandinista army now controls Nicaraguan territory along the border, “right up to the last hill,” as Commander Cuadra put it. “This is the war of the hills,” envío was told by a Sandinista soldier who had just returned from the major battles that broke up the counterrevolutionary plan called “Round-Up ’85.” “Whoever controls the hills controls the enemy. We’ve made a lot of headway in controlling the hills.”
Today the Sandinistas’ advantage is firm and has given rise to the following:
- A general reduction in the number of armed confrontations between the contra and the army. (There are fewer contras in the country and those who remain have reduced their initiatives and are not inclined to direct combat.)
- The larger battles are being fought more and more in northern zones, along the borders or in especially difficult mountainous areas. Important contra commandos have been broken up and smaller groups are retreating towards Honduras or have become trapped in isolated zones where they are attacked by the Sandinistas.
- The contra presence has become dispersed over a larger area; they area now operating in 9 out of the 16 departments. This extension does not mean greater power, since the actions of these dispersed groups indicate a defensive presence with little strategic value. The contras are acting more and more like bands of thieves. Lacking enthusiasm for military confrontations, they channel their energies into actions against the civilian population. Among the terrorist actions carried out between January and September 1985, for example, are 98 ambushes of cargo and passenger vehicles and 130 attacks on economic and civilian targets. The bands persist thanks to this pillage, and to the supplies that continue to be flown in from Honduras and Costa Rica with impunity due to the ineffectiveness of Sandinista anti-aircraft defenses.
- A significant reduction in the number or deaths for the Sandinista forces both in general fighting and in battles initiated by the Nicaraguan army. (The greatest number of Sandinista deaths are occurring as a result of contra ambushes, many of which occur in areas where the FDN still control “the hills.”)
After months in which the army has maintained a favorable military situation on both of Nicaragua’s borders, Commander Cuadra described the FDN as “a military force in decline and virtually finished.” ARDE, in turn, was dismissed as “a dispersed group on the road to disappearance.” It is important to point out that in this final stage of ARDE’s deterioration, the FDN is controlling Costa Rica’s northern border. This is particularly worrisome for Nicaragua, given the FDN’s Somocista leadership and its close ties to the CIA. The FDN has been transferring troops from Honduras to Costa Rica for some time now, and most of ARDE’s troops who survived the Sandinista May-June offensive, “Operation Sovereignty,” have volunteered or been recruited into the FDN ranks. Many ARDE members have abandoned the war altogether.
It is this overall situation which allows Nicaraguan leaders to speak of a Sandinista victory. “At this moment,” said Humberto Ortega, “victory consists of the mercenary force’s inability to develop strategically into a military threat to the revolution. This is now impossible.” He added, “We have put them in a defensive position, a position which has no prospects for development strategically, militarily, or politically, because they do not have their own social base.”
Agrarian reform and the resettlements: Two favorable factorsImportant advances in agrarian reform and the success of the first phase of rural resettlement are important political and social factors which must be included in any explanation of this victory. On October 16, in honor of the fourth anniversary of agrarian reform and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s fortieth anniversary, lands were given over to peasant farmers in a special ceremony in San Dionisio, Matagalpa. That day 588 families from the region received property titles to a total of 7,063 manzanas of land (1 manzana = .7 hectares). Turning land back to small farmers is, in itself, nothing new in Nicaragua, but San Dionisio broke with a “top down” bureaucratic pattern typical of other such occasions. The farmers’ participation at all stages of this particular process, from the selection of lands to the organization of the final ceremony, was greater than ever before.
By the end of 1985, 400,000 more manzanas will be given to small farmers, with the same emphasis on “bottom up” participation. With these 400,000 manzanas the Sandinista government will have given away 2,225,609 manzanas of arable land since July 19, 1979, benefiting half the country’s peasant families. The agrarian reform, especially after the implementation of policy changes this year, has strengthened the alliance between the poorest peasant farmers and the revolutionary process (envío #51). This is a political victory for the government, given that the counterrevolutionaries take advantage of discontent among farmers without land, food or access to social benefits, to spread their propaganda and recruit supporters.
It is already possible to evaluate the overall results of the government’s resettlement program for people in the war zones, since the decision was made to implement only the first phase, and that has now been carried to completion. The scope of the project was to be much broader, but partly due to the favorable military situation, and partly due to the high economic costs, no additional people will be resettled in the immediate future.
The results of the resettlements have been both socially and militarily positive. Many of the people evacuated from the war zones or Region I (Murra, Quilalí, San Juan del Río Coco) and Region VI (La Rica in Yalí) have family ties with the contras. Nonetheless, they have not adopted hostile attitudes towards the revolution and most have positive expectations for a new life, despite the initial trauma accompanying the forced evacuation and resettlement. This is due to the fact that they received better lands than they had before, to the relative tranquility of the new settlements compared to the war zones they came from and to the FSLN’s careful political work with these communities. The evacuations have also significantly cut back the contras’ ability to operate in these key zones, where the population used to provide logistical support.
Commander Humberto Ortega’s optimistic analysis and President Daniel Ortega’s statements during his visit to the US for the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations are efforts by Nicaragua’s leaders to stress to the Reagan administration that the counterrevolution has been strategically defeated. The message is meant to provoke a sensible reaction—if there cannot be a military victory, let there be a political understanding.
Administration officials understand and accept the message, but instead of changing their course, have begun speaking of the contra defeat only to suggest the inevitability of a direct invasion. Under Secretary of Defense Fred Ikle, for example made no effort to deny, hide or euphemistically allude to the goal of removing the Sandinistas at any cost. “According to divers sources the Sandinistas are taking the lead and have won the initiative in the military field,” Ikle said on November 1. “We are not satisfied at all with the situation of the so-called contra forces.” He followed with the opinion that more aid for the contras was needed and if that did not improve the situation, “it will be necessary to resort, up ahead, to the direct use of US forces to dislodge the Sandinistas from power.”
It appears obvious to all that the counterrevolution can never hope for victory through large battles with the Nicaraguan army. For this reason the objective must be to constantly spread into new areas and make destabilizing strikes, much as cancer does. In this sense, stagnation in a given area without the possibility of advance or of a strike is itself a strategic defeat.
Thousands of contras still function within Nicaragua, however, supplied from neighboring countries with plenty of arms, communications equipment and other necessities. In certain areas they still have the capacity to carry out actions and the ideological propaganda that helps then keep filling their ranks. Official analysts, however, do not identify victory as the total elimination of the counterrevolution; the government is prepared for a prolonged war. This was not the US objective; the Reagan administration expected more satisfactory, even definitive results in the short term.
To prolong the war in order to win it is now the objective of the Nicaraguan government. “We do not have a strategy of reconciliation, of cohabitation with the enemy,” said Commander Humberto Ortega. But, he added, “one can live with parasites without dying.” With that comparison, the Defense Minister expressed the fundamental change in the military situation and the new view of the war held by the Nicaraguan government. To eliminate the contras completely, the Sandinista army continues engaging them in combat, wearing them down more and more through special maneuvers, ambushes, and the mining of their traditional routes of infiltration. Battalions even more specialized in irregular warfare than the already proven BLIs are now being prepared as well.
Demoralization plagues the contra forcesThis month, the Ministry of Defense reported 210 counterrevolutionaries killed in combat in various regions of the country, an average of seven a day.
Following the dispersion of the counterrevolution, the largest groupings can now be found in the central Atlantic zone, an area in which the FDN commando “Jorge Salazar” has operated since 1984. The extremely isolated area in which it functions is one of the zones least influenced by the revolution in all respects. The largest commando, the “Jorge Salazar” is also the least militarily prepared; yet given the difficult characteristics of the terrain and the impossibility of the Sandinista army covering all fronts, it was not considered a military priority. This is no longer the case; in a large offensive against the “Jorge Salazar,” many of the current battles are making very effective use of combat and transport helicopters in this huge, empty, wild jungle. (Jorge Salazar is the name of a large coffee grower who led an armed conspiracy in 1980 and died late that same year in a shoot-out with the police. This year, COSEP businessmen tried to celebrate Private Enterprise Day on September 8, Salazar’s birthday. The event was to have included a public homage to his memory, which La Prensa repeatedly publicized, but the Ministry of the Interior prohibited the celebration. On announcing the extension of the state of emergency this month, Vice President Ramírez recalled the case, calling it an intolerable provocation.)
In these areas of the country, the counterrevolutionaries appear to be suffering demoralization among their ranks caused in part by the failure of their ambitious “Plan Round-Up.” This demoralization is reflected in the growing number of “desalzados” (a newly coined word among Nicaraguans which refers to armed rebels—alzados—who have taken up the government’s amnesty offer, sometimes even in the midst of battle). It can also be seen in the growing number of prisoners—most of them peasant farmers—that the Sandinista army has managed to take in the middle of combat.
The number of contras who have turned themselves in or allowed themselves to be captured has not yet reached generalized proportions, but there are significant symptoms along those lines. With increasing frequency, amnestied or captured contra fighters—some of them victims of forced recruitment, others manipulated into taking up arms and still others willing volunteers—agree to talk about their personal experiences in the counterrevolutionary ranks at press conferences. In almost all of these stories, one can detect this demoralization among the FDN troops which, according to numerous testimonies, they often try to overcome by using hallucinogenic drugs.
The military reserve is activatedIn November, thousand of youth who have fulfilled their two years of military service will return to their jobs and their studies, carrying with them an even longer and more powerful experience than perhaps their older brothers had seven years ago. This new reality for the revolutionary process raises many questions. Will these demobilized combatants be capable of creatively integrating themselves into the routine of the rearguard without negative effects from the strong contrast? Will Nicaraguan society, with all its lack of discipline, know how to harness the energies of these young people forged in discipline? Will the society allow itself to be taught by those who in the mountains quickly learned many of the values—generosity, decision, resistance—that the rearguard’s struggle for survival so urgently needs? What qualitative changes can be expected from the contribution they will make to the productive, administrative, organizational and party structures of the country?
Those returning to civilian life will pass automatically into the Reserve Military Service (SMR), together with all other Nicaraguan citizens between the ages of 25 and 40. The SMR was established in 1983 as part of the Military Service Law, but until now the army’s organizing efforts had been directed toward the Patriotic Military Service (SMP). The characteristic of the new SMR clearly reveal the military strategy behind it.
The defensive war Nicaragua is fighting today has no need of the reserve. It is rather conceived of and will be organized to respond to the eventuality of direct US invasion, a variable permanently included in the analyses of the Reagan administration and in the denunciations of Nicaragua. Just as the SMP was organized for the irregular war throughout the territory, the SMR will be organized to assure defense of the Pacific cities—especially Managua, a priority target if direct US intervention does occur.
For this reason, registration into the reserve has only been put into place in the Managua region. The militias, reorganized after the SMP was initiated, will be the permanent reserve for the defense of rural areas. Registration, which took place the last days of October and the first days of November, involved companies, factories and state or FSLN institutions with 100 or more workers. In the roster of work centers selected, there were only 17 private enterprises, and the registration affected some 45,000 workers.
The plan is not even to recruit all those workers already registered. At the end of November some 43% (under 20,000) will be selected for intensive training for 30 days a year, starting in 1986. They will be assigned to a reserve unit in the capital close to where they work or live, thus facilitating their immediate mobilization in case of emergency. Selection criteria will be age and, above all, prior combat experience and work specialization. Many workers who are now registered are or have been militia members, or belonged to the reserve battalions which fought the counterrevolution until 1983 when formal military service was implemented. The selection will also take care to affect production as little as possible, avoiding the mobilization of too many workers from the same enterprise, and leaving to the directors the decision regarding which technicians should not be mobilized due to their specialization.
Unlike the experience that the initiation of the SMP created, the SMR has not been accompanied by tensions, family anguish or evasion. On the contrary, more workers registered than was expected, and in the majority of the centers the enthusiasm was palpable. This can be explained in part by the guilty conscience many experience enjoying the “peace” of Managua, while younger work companions are risking their lives in the mountains.
The difficulty is the economic situationThe military situation today may favor the revolution, but the economic situation does not. Complicated and extremely serious, the economic imbalance, provoked in large measure by the war, will make it very difficult to implement adequate measures in the near future. This imbalance favors discontent which could be used by the counterrevolution to “round up” on the socio-political side what has slipped through its fingers on the military side. The state of emergency, then, was expanded to be better able to control and discourage such efforts at political destabilization.
The package of economic measures put into effect at the beginning of 1985—written about in some detail in previous numbers of envío—were intended to correct the economic imbalances accumulated in the previous four years. This imbalance has, in turn, limited the positive effects of the corrective measures. Inflation, for example, has not been contained as much as expected. A certain lack of coordination in the application of the measures has also contributed to limiting more positive results.
The continuing deterioration of purchasing power for urban salaried workers is well known. Less known is the even greater deterioration in the rural areas, given that the package of measures was skewed in favor of urban areas. These measures reinforced the traditional overexploitation of the rural work force by the cities through commerce, a traditional phenomenon in the Nicaraguan economy. The situation is even more worrisome if one considers that the countryside has been dragged down by the serious disruption of traditional networks of commerce and supply for several years now, and no efficient solution is in sight.
This general situation in turn creates social malaise which is easily converted into a medium for the growth of individualist activities. Hoarders, speculators and all kinds of fast dealers, some of them traditional hustlers of the informal sector and others new to the game, live relatively well—sometimes very well—without the state being able to control their activities effectively or even to forecast such control in the short run without resorting to repressive or coercive measures. Up to now, there has been no desire to employ such measures, given the negative political consequences they would have in a country so full of merchants as Nicaragua. They are, however, becoming increasingly necessary in order to avoid reaching the point of an ungovernable economy.
The enormity of the economic problem makes it also a political problem. Who wants to produce, and in exchange for what? There continues to be a good deal of shifting from the productive sector to an uncontrollable and corrupt commercial sector which offers much more money and carries with it less obligations. The scarcity of dollars conditions productive options. In córdobas it is profitable to produce almost anything, but inflation and the scarcity of supplies discourages production as well as savings.
There still exists a huge stratum of small- and medium-scale producers in the agricultural sector who could be stimulated to produce, not only monetarily but also by being assured the provision of essential inputs such as tires. Such provisioning, which would not be too difficult with better planning, is one of the government’s proposals for the start of the major harvests from which Nicaragua obtains its foreign exchange.
The coffee harvest has already begun in the northern zone, where the beans mature earliest. Perspectives are optimistic since the international price of coffee is good and 12,000 manzanas can be harvested which last year were in active war zones. The prediction is that 1,100,000 hundredweight of coffee will be picked at a national level. Of that, 85% of the high grade coffee will be exported (in 1984, 78% of this harvest was exported). Each hundredweight (100 pounds) will bring the country $100 in earnings.
It is calculated that almost half off all export earnings this year will come from coffee. They are the “cleanest” dollars that Nicaragua will get, due to the drop in the international price of cotton as well as the plagues and adverse climatic conditions this crop has suffered from this season. (Because of the crisis in the price of cotton, many cotton lands are now evolving toward sorghum and sesame cropping, and this year Nicaragua will begin to export sorghum. Any change in the traditional agricultural structure, however, require dollars for investments and for credits, and this delays the decision to go ahead.) For this reason, there is an effort to assure the best coffee harvest, with concrete incentives for producers and traditional pickers and, as in previous years, the mobilization of youth as voluntary harvesters. It is calculated that there will be 30,000 pickers, of whom 17,000 are expected to be student or state worker volunteers.
The external sector deficit most seriously conditions the effort of the unbalanced economy to escape its crisis, even in the medium run. To at least stabilize the external sector debt (trade and loans) is a prior condition for the effectiveness of any other measure, taking into account the weak economic structure of the country, which does not permit qualitative short term changes.
With exports that this year will not reach the traditional $400 million, Nicaragua needs to import $800 million worth of basic products and production inputs. (One example is that the foreign exchange earnings from meat export is invested in its totality in the import of medicines, according to Health Minister Dora María Téllez.) Credits and donations from the socialist countries have been generous, and are substantially resolving basic problems: petroleum, industrial inputs, machinery, iron and steel, food, etc. Currently 25% of Nicaraguan international commerce is with socialist countries. In the industrial sector, 45% of the inputs come from the socialist block and 30% of exports are sent there. Following the US commercial embargo, all of the agricultural machinery in Nicaragua’s state enterprises is being converted to machinery of socialist origin. The execution of the commercial assistance from Western Europe promised or arranged in April 1985 following the US embargo has not yet been concretized effectively. Possible credits from the capitalist world also come with increasing political conditions.
This month 36 representatives from 9 member countries of the socialist bloc Economic Council for Mutual Assistance (CAME) met in Managua. CAME is a body in which Nicaragua has observer status and which has financed several of the revolution’s strategic projects, such as textiles, agroexports, and ports. Of particular importance were accords signed with the German Democratic Republic to assure maintenance of the productive infrastructure. Maintenance is a priority difficult to fulfill because it requires foreign exchange; it is easier to buy new tractors on credit than to pay cash for the replacement parts that deteriorated tractors need. The GDR’s project is to improve the capacity of parts manufacturing shops and to set up technological design in metallurgy.
The embargo and the debt: The commercial embargo decreed by the United States against Nicaragua last May 1 has had its effect on the Nicaraguan economy. The Reagan administration chooses to go on affecting it. On October 31, President Reagan sent a message to Congress ratifying the embargo and expanding it, definitively abolishing export licenses which remained in effect even with the embargo, since they had been contracted prior to May 1. In Nicaragua it was calculated that 40 transnational corporations and private sector Nicaraguan enterprises will be affected by this expansion. “The policy and the actions of the Nicaraguan government,” said Reagan in his message of justification, “continue presenting an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security and to the foreign policy of the United States.”
Two unfavorable factors
The foreign debt, which for Nicaragua is also “unpayable,” threatens to permanently affect the country’s economy. In the United Nations, Nicaragua joined the majority of the Latin American countries in expressing more than just its position on possible formulas for payment or non-payment and its difficult situation; it also emphasized that the solution lies in international solidarity. In President Ortega’s words:
“Even in the midst of the profound economic crisis caused us by the aggression of those who govern the United States, Nicaragua has made huge sacrifices to try to fulfill the financial commitment of the debt we inherited from Somoza with the international banking system and the multilateral institutions, as well as the debt we have contracted with friendly countries since 1979. With the blood and the sweat of the people of Nicaragua, we have paid $621 million in debt service in five years. In other words, in five years we have invested the total exports of two years to fulfill part of our financial obligations. With the prolongation of aggression by the government of the United States, the situation is so grave that, according to World Bank studies, although the value of our exports should be billions of dollars annually, we are exporting only $300 million. As can be appreciated, we face an extreme situation that not only limits but eliminates our ability to pay. In such dramatic circumstances, Nicaragua demands an urgent concerted action by international solidarity, a decided support by the countries with which Nicaragua has bilateral financial relations and a change of attitude by creditor institutions.”
In this situation so difficult for an economy with such weak structures, the embargo and the debt both obviously weigh heavily, but small and unpredicted incidents also have an effect. For example, 100 million córdobas have been spent to halt an epidemic of dengue, which in its hemorrhagic strain has already killed eight people. To this calamity must be added the torrential rains at the beginning of November, causing flooding which produced as yet uncalculated losses in plantains and basic grains. The rain and the accumulation of storm water in Managua’s Lake Tiscapa sank the floating stage constructed in 1982 with help from France. This amphitheater was the scene of many unforgettable national and international music festivals which brought joy to the capital. The sinking of this work is like a symbol of the fragility of the country’ infrastructure, overcome only by the daily will of “a proud people, with a thousand battles lost,” as the song sung numerous times in Tiscapa’s amphitheater by says.
The Emergency Law of October 15In this situation of Sandinista military advantage and an economic crisis that cannot be resolved in the short term, a good strategy for the counterrevolution is to consolidate an internal political front that brings together the malcontents and foments more discontent, manipulating for its own ends the economic difficulties and the unrest caused by the prolongation of the war. If this counterrevolutionary “internal front” were to become consolidated, particularly in the Pacific cities far from the war, the revolution would face a difficult problem that could neutralize its advances in the military terrain. “When someone is losing, he either surrenders, negotiates or launches a counteroffensive. They are not going to negotiate or surrender,” said President Ortega of the counterrevolutionary leaders allied with the US government. This statement was made a few days after decreeing the broadening of the state of emergency, indicating that the measure was to put a brake on such a “counteroffensive.”
The announcement of the emergency: The state of emergency was first decreed in Nicaragua in March 1982. At that time a larger number of rights and guarantees were suspended than on this new occasion. The original law was promulgated during a tense period provoked by the first strategic sabotages carries out by the counterrevolution (the blowing up of two important bridges in the northern part of the country) and by the first revelations about the financial connections between the CIA and the contras. In those days, direct and imminent intervention by the United States formed part of the concerns that justified the law.
Surprise, contradictions and distortions
After several weeks of high tension, maintained by the official communications media, people were proving in practice that the law did not in any way obstruct their normal life. They became quickly aware that it bore no relation to the curfews and states of siege that are so well known in Latin American countries, including the last year of the Somoza regime, in which the army owns the streets, and disappearances, torture and other forms of terror are the common expression of police arbitrariness. Nothing of this sort ever occurred in Nicaragua between March 1982 and July 1984, the period in which the state of emergency was more rigid than it is now. Observers from various prestigious international human rights organizations visited the country during those two and a half years and never denounced any systematic violations of human rights. Even the oft-mentioned “prior censorship” of the press, made official in March 1982, was not strictly applied, with periods of great flexibility and even of relaxation.
In July 1984, the state of emergency was virtually abolished with the initiation of the election campaign, despite the fact that the military aggression was at that time much more serious than had been foreseen in 1982. On reducing the emergency measure, it was made known that when the US aggression disappeared, the emergency and any continuing limitation on citizens’ rights would automatically disappear with it. After the elections and the new government’s inauguration in January 1985, the law was maintained at the low level set the previous July.
It must be said that, emergency or no emergency, Nicaragua’s revolutionary state has never been characterized by rigidity in its application of laws, be they coercive or flexible, inherited from the Somocista past or conquests of the revolutionary present. On the contrary, Nicaraguan society is still rooted in bad habits of anarchy, laxness, permissiveness and a lack of discipline, which make systematic application of any law difficult.
In moments when there is a large swing in the military correlation of forces, a lack of discipline or permissiveness can represent a danger. If the above-mentioned economic crisis is added to this, the risk becomes greater. Nicaragua is up against the wall, and the war only aggravates the situation. The open period of expression, demonstrations and political activity that accompanied the pre-election period does not correspond to the current situation. The heightened state of emergency closes that period of flexibility and seeks to give a stricter legal framework to the control that must begin to be exercised on activities of conspiracy, sabotage or social destabilization. It must also be remembered that the Nicaraguan legal system has evolved very little and does not yet dovetail well with the needs of the country’s political and military situation. It is a system that is too anachronistic to even deal well with juvenile delinquency, much less with counterrevolutionary activity.
Why was the emergency decree extended on October 15 and not on August 15, however, if the situation two months ago was very similar to what it is now? It is not easy to answer this logical question, based on just the information that has been made public. As regards the specific date, the July 1984 decree was to expire on October 20, and a decision about its future character had to be made. Would it be suspended completely, extended in its existing form, or strengthened? Confidential intelligence reports exist indicating that we are entering a period in which the CIA and the FDN are ready to activate plans to politically destabilize the cities of the Pacific. Conspiratorial cells of an incipient internal front are to carry out sabotage plans and other attacks to delegitimize and weaken military defense and eventually create uncontrollable social unrest. For example, in response to a question made on October 18 by a journalist wanting to know about possible attempts against revolutionary leaders, President Ortega answered, “we can already state that dozens have been detected.”
The tremendous seriousness with which the new emergency measures were announced caught the majority of Nicaraguans and foreign journalists by complete surprise. This was because for many years any interpretation of the gravity of the moment has depended mainly on an evaluation of the course of the war in strictly military terms, and the current breathing space and notable victories were no secret. Suddenly, with no advance preparation, the routine in propaganda, so centered on the military situation, was broken, and this raised contradictions. Why had the full FSLN National Directorate and the Cabinet announced the measure, and why was it carried several times on the radio network? Why create mystery by not detailing the measure? Why such a dramatic tone? What lay behind it? These were the questions at the beginning, fomented by an intense presentation, full of communications errors.
This was not the first time in the short history of the revolution that such a disconcerting event has taken place, and within 24 hours it became clear that this was, as before, nothing so major that it would affect the daily lives of the majority. By the following day other subjects that did indeed affect their daily lives were back at the top of the news: the scarcity of bread, the transportation problem, increasing prices, even the Major League baseball scores.
The “staging” of the Nicaraguan revolution has always had its spectacular aspect, corresponding to the consciousness of a people whose national cultural is as dramatic as it is irreverent. The excessive drama was a mistake, but within Nicaragua such a presentation causes a two-sided reaction: on the one hand its importance is reduced and on the other it is interpreted for what it really is, a repetition of the call to national awareness about the real seriousness of the war.
The foreign journalists who communicated the news to the rest of the world, either because they were not accustomed to this reality or for their own political reasons, magnified the intentions of the law. They painted the image of a country tied and gagged, a population deprived of all its rights, fodder to all the arbitrariness of a now clearly defined totalitarianism. Once again the real country was divorced from its image as seen through the looking glass of the outside world. Not 48 hours earlier, the Salvadoran government had prolonged for another month the savage state of siege that has been continuously extended for some years, and if there were any reactions abroad at all, they were certainly not the same. And a few days later, the Argentine governments decreed an emergency as well; again the interpretation was different. Nicaragua was once again being judged on different terms.
This whole problem of the gap between Nicaragua as lived from within and Nicaragua viewed from afar, with excessive glorification by some and with equally excessive condemnation by others, must be taken into account in trying to understand the state of emergency announced on October 15. Try to survive or to maintain a good image abroad? Move to disrupt the project of counterrevolutionary urban terrorism in time by issuing a stern public ultimatum or keep a low international profile and take quiet steps with no explanations? Resolve the real internal problems with adequate measures or keep smiling into the foreign cameras? This is the perpetual dilemma of the Sandinista revolution, and of others before it. As discussion continues about the emergency law, as it surely will, it must be remembered that Nicaragua is at war. For some reason, it is easily forgotten by those abroad that this war, as bloody and destructive as any war can be, is a costly, daily reality. Yet in this war of sheer survival that the revolution is fighting, there is no death penalty, no court martial, no summary proceedings; there are not even prisoners of war. It is a war in which the prolongation of the state of emergency goes hand in hand with the prolongation of a generous amnesty for anyone who has taken up arms—including contra leaders—permitting overnight reintegration into daily life with full assistance and even with welcoming events in the person’s community, as has happened in the case of dozens of small farmers.
The scope of the state of emergencyThe emergency law suspends for the period of a year various rights and guarantees contained in the “Statue on Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans” of August 21, 1979. The rights affected include certain procedural guarantees in the case of detention (including habeas corpus); the inviolability of the home; freedom of movement, of information, of meetings, of demonstrations, of association and of organization; the right to strike; and the right to amparo, that is, the right of any citizen to present to the Supreme Court of Justice a complaint that could lead to the suspension or cessation of some government action against that person’s particular interests.
At first sight, looked at coldly with no explanation of its concrete scope, the law seemed “excessively harsh,” as some parliamentary party leaders called it. It soon became apparent, though, that the law would be exercised in a very limited and selective fashion.
Commander Jaime Wheelock, in the agrarian reform event celebrated in San Dionisio on October 16, was the first to discuss its limits. It is, he said, “the suspension of the guarantees that the enemies of the revolution enjoyed here… We are annulling the license of the false prophets and the oligarchs to attack the revolution.”
On October 21, Nicaragua’s Vice President explained article by article the scope of the law, which had evidently been drafted with haste and was lacking in nuances, and when presented without commentary, had caused all kinds of confusion. Vice President Ramírez had to announce that the official gazette would publish a clarifying statement.
He specified that all procedural guarantees would remain in effect for common prisoners, including habeas corpus, and that the entry of police into private homes would be done selectively, not massively, as in the prospecting searches typical of the Salvadoran state of siege. With regard to meetings and demonstrations, they can be held with prior permission, which will be given any time under normal circumstances. Ramírez clarified that there are no prohibitions on nighttime circulation, regarding either hour or locale. With respect to press censorship, he recalled that it had never stopped being exercised over military and security topics. In relation to strikes, he pointed out the difficult situation of the country. He also specified that the right to amparo would remain in effect to resolve any disagreement that should arise between the state and a citizen regarding ordinary laws not related to security.
On October 30, the National Assembly, with 76 of its 90 members present, discussed the emergency decree for purposes of ratification, as established by law. After a long and heated debate in which important qualifications were presented, even from the Sandinista bench, the decree was ratified 58 to 2, with the remainder either abstaining or in a few cases, departing immediately after making their presentations. The earlier proposal of the Popular Social Christian Party to annul the decree, seconded by the Socialists and the Communists, received 9 votes.
Before approving the decree, the Assembly modified it by adding four articles to rectify the first formulation. Habeas corpus was retained for all crimes not affecting national security, and amparo was also restored under similar constraints.
Although the debate was hard, it was less so than might have been expected, since the previous day four opposition parties (the Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists and Communists) together with the abstentionist Social Christian Party and the tiny Central American Unification Party met to discuss their objections to the decree. In a press conference afterward, led by the PLI, they announced that if the law were not annulled they would withdraw from the Assembly as well as from any further discussions about the constitution. (This, it should be noted, took place with the state of emergency in effect.) For all this, the rushing stream never made it to the river, and the debate in the Assembly showed advances in the ability of the parliamentarians—Sandinistas and opposition alike—to argue their case in healthy debate.
Two days after the emergency was decreed, journalists were invited to a press conference where several men were presented who were linked to a terrorist plot to blow up a low-price supermarket recently opened for workers, an electric sub-station, the offices of Aeroflot, the urban transport central and others. In these same days, the capture in Jinotega of 130 other people was also made public. The group included peasants, merchants and freelance import traders who formed a counterrevolutionary network of messengers, informants and recruiters, and were responsible for organizing ambushes, distributing propaganda, and drawing up lists of people to be assassinated; most recently, they had been planning actions with explosives. The latter have been used very little so far in this war, but they seem to be an increasingly common element in the counterrevolutionary destabilization plans. In these two groups of detainees, it became clear who the most direct objects of the emergency measures will be.
When Vice President Ramírez was explaining the state of emergency, a journalist challenged him as follows: “A leader of the PLI said that the revolutionary government, even without the state of emergency, would have broken this terrorist plan” (referring to the first of the two cases cited above).
Ramírez responded: “This would be an invitation to take actions outside the framework of the law. These kinds of actions certainly could be stopped here with revolutionary power, but precisely what we are doing is making use of the legal mechanisms that the laws themselves give us, through exceptional measures, to confront these situations.”
The emergency and Cardinal ObandoMany interpreters of the Emergency Law suggest that its principal objective is to repress the Catholic Church, and in particular Cardinal Obando. This assessment ignores the full context of the measure, although it cannot be denied that that the Cardinal’s activities over the last few years, and particularly since his investiture, have frequently been confrontational. Through his actions, the Cardinal increasingly appears to be encouraging the population to challenge the revolution, and trying to bring about political confrontation dressed in religious garb. The plans of the armed counterrevolution are unquestionably benefited by this situation of continuous confrontation.
Upon learning about the state of emergency, the US State Department, through its spokesperson Larry Speakes, deplored the measure as a “totalitarian” decision. FDN head Adolfo Calero, too, said the Sandinistas were now openly recognizing their “totalitarian project.” Cardinal Obando declared to on AP wire service reporter in Managua that “This action makes us nervous, since it seems that we may be taking steps toward totalitarianism.” Once more the coincidences in the interpretation of Nicaragua’s situation between the US government, the counterrevolutionaries and the Archbishop are clear. When a journalist asked President Ortega’s opinion about the Cardinal’s statements, he said, “If there was a state of totalitarianism here, the Cardinal would not even have the possibility to speak. And he would not have had the possibility of carrying out political activity.”
This coincidence concerns the Nicaraguan government, which has stated on numerous occasions that beneath religious arguments and symbolism, the Cardinal, along with the priests and other religious sectors that unconditionally follow him, are putting out public messages that are illegal precisely because they coincide with the messages of the US government and the armed counterrevolution. This can be especially appreciated in the US characterization of the war of aggression as a “civil war” (Obando calls it a “war between brothers”); in the delegitimizing of the military service and of defense in general (Obando stresses the “sin” of those who carry hate in their heart and a rifle in their hands); and in the propaganda that is made about a formula for peace based on dialogue with the counterrevolution (Obando, and now Reagan, call it “national reconciliation”). Given that Obando has not once condemned the contras’ acts of terrorist violence when he speaks of the war and has never even referred in his public messages to other peace proposals already in existence such as the amnesty law, the process of autonomy for the Coast or the Contadora project, his “religious messages” could be qualified as politically one-sided. Many have long recognized in Obando a political opposition figure who acts as such, but ever since he was named Cardinal it is easier to see that he is being stimulated to head a political opposition project, using the traditional religiosity of a large part of the Nicaraguan population to this end.
The tours Obando has made through the country since becoming Cardinal are particularly noticeable in this sense. Since April, when has was named, he has already made 80 visits, 66 of these since returning from his investiture in Rome in June. He has visited some places up to five or six times. In these visits the whole act centers on the person of the Cardinal, the honor his visit represents for the community and the reverence with which his message should be heard. Such activity was not normal for Archbishop Obando before being invested, and it is not a typical activity for pastors upon receiving this distinction.
All this suggests that behind Obando’s Cardinalate is a project. It also suggests that for those who oppose the revolution, including those who do so with arms, his actions serve as an excellent umbrella under which they can protect themselves, project themselves, and plan and carry out their activities. The most extreme case is that of the FDN, which in its radio transmissions from Honduras propagandizes the visits of Obando as if they were part of their own anti-Sandinista activities. Photos of the Cardinal, as with those of the Pope, always appear in the printed material that the armed counterrevolution hands out. One often hears people comment on these images by saying that “they’re burning the Cardinal.” The question that immediately arises is, of course, how the Cardinal can allow himself to be used in this way?
There are also in the actions of the Cardinal and his followers from the Archdiocese a lack of respect for laws and a constant disregard of civil authorities. The latest demonstration of this willful disrespect occurred just a few days before the emergency was decreed, and of course Father Bismarck Carballo denounced the government response to this provocation as “persecution of the Church.”
Since September the Sunday sheet of the Archdiocese, as well as La Prensa, had been announcing the imminent appearance of a new, semi-monthly, ecclesiastical bulletin that would be called Iglesia. Upon learning of the project through these media, the government advised Father Carballo, who is responsible for the communications media in the Archdiocese, that the publication had to be registered according to law, and that its contents had to be presented for “prior censorship,” also as established by law. The priest refused to listen to this repeated warning and on the last occasion responded that the Church was not affected by any of these laws and that the paper would be put out without complying with them. This statement was made on October 12, the day in which the first copies of an initial printing of 10,000 copies began to be distributed.
Iglesia is a small tabloid of eight pages, with a structure and contents identical to a traditional parochial Sunday sheet. In this first issue, three full pages (two with just photos) were dedicated to comments on the Cardinal’s visits. Some headlines were confrontational, such, as “MINT [the Ministry of the Interior] Muzzles Radio Católica.” Four news articles were subject to legal censorship since they dealt with military issues, referring to denunciations about recruitment into the military service of seven supposed seminary students in Granada and Río San Juan. (Seminary students are exempt from military service through a verbal accord between the government and the Church hierarchy, and the government has always respected this accord. The seven, however, were not ascribed to a seminary, so the government had challenged their opposition to mobilization through normal legal channels. Some Bishops defended them to the authorities saying that the status of seminarians depends only on the word of the Bishop, independent of whether the youth is involved in a specific curriculum of studies or lives in a particular place. Such a broad interpretation could favor evasion of military service under the pretext of “religious vocation,” cases that have already occurred with suspicious frequency.)
The government confiscated the illegal edition of the newspaper in several places where it was already being distributed and in the print shop of the Commission for Archdiocesan Social Promotion (COPROSA). The occupation as well as the ensuing investigation of COPROSA by Ministry of Justice officials followed legal criteria. COPROSA is a cooperative that does not have and has never attempted to attain legal status, as required by law. Without this legal status, COPROSA has nonetheless received funds from abroad, made loans as a financial entity and carried out a whole series of activities parallel to or outside of those of the state in areas of health, housing, teaching, provisioning, etc. The government knew of its existence and activities, but until now had been tolerant. The emergency has put an end to this tolerance. The law intends to put a stop to cases of confrontation such as these with a rigor that has scarcely ever been applied before.
What has happened since the state of emergency was declared to Cardinal Obando’s visits? They have continued as before with little greater difficulty. In some cases, police authorities have permitted open air gatherings to welcome the Cardinal or processions that precede the mass, as in Estelí. In other places only the indoor activities have been permitted, as in the masses in San Marcos or Tipitapa. Guarantees that members of the reception committee or the parish priest himself will not give a political connotation to the event, as happened in several visits before the emergency law was decreed, carry weight in such decisions. The Cardinal has not only continued his travels but has continued speaking in the same terms about the futility of the war and of hate between brothers and the necessity of reconciliation. As has been happening before now, the majority of his listeners—simple people of a very traditional religiosity, among whom even Sandinista soldiers can de found—do not succeed in translating this message from the plane of moral principles, from which they are delivered, to that of political positions, to which they are aimed.
Upon learning about the law, Father Bismarck Carballo publicly announced by radio that the law would be challenged “from the pulpits.”
Foreign priests and the more conflictive Nicaraguan priests in Region IV (Granada, Masaya, Carazo and Rivas) as well as the most conflictive foreign and Nicaraguan priests from Region III (Managua) have been notified by government authorities of the significance of the emergency law in relation to possible political content in their Sunday sermons.
Taking into account the lack of leadership and the disunity—ever more public and ever more preoccupying for US authorities—that exists in the counterrevolutionary ranks, it is not strange that the enemies of the revolution recognize in the red-robed sacred figure of the Cardinal, as well as in his priests, with their organizational capacity and weekly public tribunals, the best road along which to consolidate the largest, best organized opposition to the revolution that has been thus far organized within Nicaragua. The emergency law, then, was also decreed to discourage such expectations.
The international situationAs we have analyzed, the emergency law responds to internal factors; it has nothing to do with Nicaragua’s international situation. Some observers have warned, however, that the law is quite inopportune in international terms at this moment and is becoming an unnecessary liability. Others view it as another negotiating card for the revolution, within a more critical international situation. This latter analysis of the international setting is not without foundation. The situation is more critical in the sense that time passes, initiatives come and go, and nothing makes the US determination to continue the war even waver. The Contadora process is almost at an end; the final treaty has undergone substantial changes and, in fact, no one is signing it. As was shown in the United Nations, President Reagan refuses to accept the true nature of his dispute with Nicaragua and instead insists on placing it within an East-West framework.
The story behind ContadoraOnce again, Contadora is at a standstill. This time, however, the deadlock comes after the date for signing the treaty has been firmly announced for November. It is the same crisis as always, except that on this occasion all formulas and timetables seem to have been exhausted and there is more publicity than ever to highlight its possible failure.
Three of the treaty’s basic points are still pending, although there is no foreseeable consensus: military maneuvers in the region, troop and armaments levels of each country, and verification and control mechanisms. Forty-five days were allotted for meetings and discussions to try to reach agreement on these three issues. This month two of these predictably polemic meetings were held. No solutions, however, came out of either the first meeting on October 8-10 or the second on October 17-19. A third meeting planned for November 7 was changed to November 10, when all the Contadora and Central American foreign ministers would be in Luxembourg for a meeting with the foreign ministers of the European Economic Community.
Substantial differences remainMilitary maneuvers: The September 1984 act, which only Nicaragua signed, completely proscribes military maneuvers in the region, as did the original Document of Objectives of Contadora drawn up in 1983. The new text, on the other hand, establishes regulations under which they would continue, and only hints at the possibility of phasing them out. The regulations now only state that maneuvers cannot last more than 15 days, that only a predetermined member of troops may participate, and that they must take place more than 50 kilometers from the border.
There are two positions on military maneuvers. Nicaragua holds that peace requires a return to their absolute proscription. To prevent any loopholes, Nicaragua wants the treaty to also contain specific language prohibiting unilateral maneuvers by a foreign country as well as bilateral ones. Currently, all maneuvers are bilateral, conducted by the US Army in conjunction with other Central American armies. In addition to this, Nicaragua wants the treaty to prohibit the use of Central American territory for the stationing or transporting of foreign troops.
Honduras and El Salvador, which objected to the proscription of maneuvers in 1984, now even reject the regulation on maneuvers proposed in the act. They are asking that maneuvers last up to three months, and be permitted much closer to the border, thus betraying their true intent: intimidation.
Armaments and troop levels: Taking into account the positions defined by Contadora in 1983, the new treaty establishes as a principle for determining the military strength of each country a “reasonable balance of forces,” which would take into account each country’s specific security situation. Nicaragua accepts this principle and offers a series of observations on what criteria should be used to define reasonable balance of troops and armaments. Honduras and El Salvador oppose it and propose as an alternative the principle of mechanical military balance, which would limit all the Central American countries to the same size military force. Ignoring the fact that the war against Nicaragua has not stopped and is not expected to stop in the near future, this proposal would prevent Nicaragua’s access to new means of defense. It is because of this point that Nicaragua has insisted that the treaty as is would not be an “act of peace” but rather of surrender. As a way out of this impasse, Nicaragua proposed at the mid-October meeting that the treaty include an “Additional Protocol,” which the US would sign, agreeing the stop its aggression against Nicaragua and never renew it. Nicaragua could then accept a commitment in security matters.
Verification and control mechanisms: Nicaragua’s position is that all the agreements that are signed should go into effect immediately and simultaneously. Honduras and El Salvador, on the other hand, proposed that the treaty not be put into effect for six months. They are also introducing a completely new element, which may recall the changes US Congress unilaterally made to the 1977 Panama Canal treaty after it had been signed by both Panama and the US. They have suggested that in addition to waiting six months, the treaty must be discussed and approved by each of the five countries’ national parliaments before it goes into effect.
The positions outlined here are hopelessly incompatible. The “refinements” to the treaty are in reality profound changes, and are unacceptable to Nicaragua unless the US agrees to stop its war of aggression and indeed does stop it. Costa Rica has kept silent during this stage, while Honduras and El Salvador have not accepted the treaty, since the changes seem to them insufficient. Both countries would rather see Contadora collapse than sign a “bad agreement.” It became clear several weeks ago that this new text, even with all its changes, does not satisfy US interests, since its continued domination requires nothing less than Contadora’s disappearance as a negotiating body.
In September 1984 Nicaragua led the countries of the area in agreeing to sign a treaty, which although it implied concessions on Nicaragua’s part, assured a real peace. Now Nicaragua must lead the way again by explaining why it cannot sign a treaty which fails to take into account the principal stumbling block to peace in the region, the bellicose policy of the United States. Its position in this period must be to firmly explain that a substantial change in US policy is the key factor to achieve peace. It is clear that if Contadora does not react to this, and put more emphasis on nationalist and Latin Americanist positions in its initiative, it will surely collapse. In any event, we are on the verge of an especially critical moment, of an international emergency.
Ecuador breaks relations with NicaraguaThe abrupt rupture in Nicaraguan-Ecuadorian relations this month can be considered another failed attempt to block Contadora and isolate Nicaragua.
On October 9, Ecuador suddenly announced that it had joined the Lima Group supporting Contadora. Without having been either invited or accepted by the four countries that make up the group, Ecuador’s President, León Febres Cordero, declared that he would propose “a new focus” for Contadora. His stated judgment about Nicaragua shed light on the nature of this focus. “As long as there are not legitimate popular elections,” he announced, “in which the whole Nicaraguan public can exercise the right to self determination, to choose its destiny, without the exclusion of anyone, without sticks, cudgels or violence, we are going to have a fire blazing in Central American.”
On October 11, Ecuador urgently called its ambassador in Managua. The following day (Hispanic unity day, ironically enough) came the announcement that Ecuador was breaking relations because of “the gross and inadmissible offense to the dignity, sovereignty and independence of Ecuador.”
The Nicaraguan government issued a statement calling the measure “regrettable, hasty and unjustifiable,” pointing out that it left Ecuador unable to participate in any Central American mediation effort. Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister said that was “a lamentable decision, the product of a diplomacy that went out of style some time ago, but that is what the United States wants done in its eagerness to isolate Nicaragua.”
It was predictable that the participation of the ultra-conservative Ecuadorian government in Contadora would bring frictions. The Nicaraguan ambassador in Quito detailed the consistent difficulties that he had with Ecuador’s Foreign Minister and the latter’s irregular and undiplomatic method of advising him of the break in relations. Despite all the antecedents and expectations, it was not expected that the conflict would sharpen so quickly, that the rupture would come so brusquely. The break in relations presents Nicaragua with a new diplomatic problem, but it hurts the Ecuadorian government’s reputation by revealing its true colors. It also hurts the US government, which clearly stood to gain more from Ecuador’s disruptive participation in Contadora than from this break in relations, which has not succeeded in isolating Nicaragua, and might in fact isolate Ecuador by promoting greater Latin American unity.
Not an East-West conflictContadora’s ongoing problem is the political unwillingness of the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica to accept even one of Nicaragua’s peace proposals. Far from addressing the common need for peace, the positions taken by these governments serve US hegemonic interest in Central America. Contadora’s crisis is that the US government will not accept a Latin American solution to its dispute with Nicaragua. If there were any remaining doubts about this fundamental stumbling block, President Reagan dispelled them in his speech to the UN. His proposals on this occasion aggravated the international situation in general and the situation in Central America and Nicaragua in particular, by reiterating his desire for confrontation and revealing a historical myopia that prevents him from seeing the world beyond the confines of the East-West conflict.
On October 21 Nicaraguan brought to the UN a report on the human and material costs of the US aggression and on the proposals for peace and commitment to legal order with which Nicaragua has responded to this aggression. Above all, President Ortega delivered an important political challenge to the US President in his speech:
“From this high tribunal, Nicaragua calls upon the government of the United States to cease—in compliance with the norms of peaceful co-existence between states, consecrated in the Charter—its policy of aggression against Nicaragua; manifesting during this commemoration whether it is disposed to respect the sovereignty and the right of self-determination of a small country; whether it is ready to respect the provisional order of May 10, 1984 of the International Court of Justice and recognize the jurisdiction of this body of the United Nations; whether it is ready to stop the war against Nicaragua and declare peace… The President of the United States, then, has the floor. Let him respond on October 24, when he appears before this Assembly, whether his government, in homage to the 40th anniversary of the United Nations, is ready to normalize relations with Nicaragua in conformity with the principles of the Charter and international law. This is the challenge of peace that Nicaragua puts to him. The peace of Central America depends upon his answer.”
On October 24, Reagan spoke before the UN. As was expected he did not respond to Nicaragua’s challenge and, as was also expected, his speech focused upon his government’s differences with the Soviet Union on the eve of the Summit in Geneva. In this context of fundamental ideological differences he placed the case of Nicaragua together with four other countries—Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Angola—and proposed for these “regional conflicts” a plan that would unfold as follows:
Phase 1: Negotiations between the parties to the conflict and an improvement in internal political conditions. These negotiations must achieve a cessation of violence, the withdrawal of foreign troops and national reconciliation.
Phase 2: If there is progress in the first phase, the US and the USSR would discuss the conflict, thus backing the negotiations and promising to guarantee the resulting accords.
Phase 3: If the two previous phases are successful, the US would offer generous assistance to the pacified countries, even though differences between the US and the countries may remain.
Reagan failed to mention other dramatic regional conflicts, such as the Middle East, South Africa, or the regional economic conflict that Latin America’s foreign debt represents—issues that came up again and again in the speeches of other world leaders at the UN. He neither referred to Contadora nor mentioned any possible application of his peace plan to the other countries in Central America’s regional conflict. Rather he clung doggedly to his hegemonic conception which clashes with the strong nationalist current in Latin America. Once again he attempted to place Nicaragua on the chessboard of East-West conflicts, refusing to recognize the essence of the Nicaraguan challenge, which is not a struggle between two superpowers, but an imperial power’s attempt to dominate a small country.
Although Reagan did not respond to Ortega’s statement in his UN speech, the US did respond through other venues, once again reaffirming its lack of willingness to negotiate. On October 29, Harry Shlaudemann met with Nicaraguan Ambassador in Washington Carlos Tünnermann and made it known that a return to bilateral talks between the US and Nicaragua would be contingent upon the constantly repeated demand for dialogue with the contras and the dissolution of Nicaragua’s National Assembly. Nicaragua responded with a firm statement refusing to accept such conditions from the US As has happened on previous occasions, the US pretension, which offended nationalist sentiments, served to unify Sandinista and opposition parliamentarians behind shared anti-US sentiments and in defense of Nicaragua’s legitimate institutions.
The next day, on October 30, the State Department issued a statement defending its definitive withdrawal from World Court in all disputes of a political nature, which it had announced two weeks earlier. (It had previously withdrawn for two years from any case dealing with Central America and had refused to appear at the tribunal at the start of the case presented by Nicaragua.) In the statement, it argued that the US has the right to protect its option to use force in its own defense and in the defense of its allies in international affairs. As Father Miguel D’Escoto declared following the US decision to abandon the Court completely, this “reveals the total moral bankruptcy of the US government.”
It will not be easy for the US to play its pawns at will on the real East-West chessboard. On October 31 and November 1, Nicaragua was the topic of prepared talks between the superpowers which resulted in a refusal by Soviet leaders to focus the upcoming summit in Geneva on the “five regional conflicts” theme. Several other statements followed, including one by the Soviet Foreign Minister, expressing a clear position of support for Nicaragua’s right to self-determination.
Reagan’s proposals also drew criticism from a completely different quarter, the US Bishops Conference. After Reagan’s UN speech, the Conference issued a statement through its Secretary, Bishop Daniel Hoye, which constitutes one of the most direct criticisms to date of Reagan’s policy towards Nicaragua. Calling on members of the House Appropriations Committee to support “the broadest possible prohibition” of aid to the contras, the bishops said:
“The increasing recourse to military means as an instrument of policy in the region, especially in Nicaragua, reveals the fundamental weakness of this policy. The path to peace and freedom in Nicaragua will not be found, in our opinion, through methods of force which prolong the suffering of innocent people. We believe, rather, that diplomatic and political means of dialogue and negotiations, such as proposed by Contadora, offer hope for a peaceful solution to the current conflict… [Aid to the counterrevolution] is incompatible with our commitment to Contadora and to a political solution to the crisis.”
In Latin America, official reactions so far have been subdued but concerned. Only Luis Herrera Campains, former President of Venezuela and founder of Contadora, has spoken out. In a dramatic letter to Mexican President Miguel de La Madrid, which suggested that the time might have come for the Presidents of the Contadora nations to meet to specifically address the question of policy toward the region, he wrote:
“If Contadora has proposed anything, it is to cooperate to find Latin American solutions to the Central American problem that depend on the will and the political decisions of the region’s governments, and to put them out of the reach of the direct East-West confrontation… For the first time, the US and the USSR would sit down at the negotiating table to try to resolve a difficult Latin American situation. For the first time, the Soviet Union would be invited to have an active presence in the continent, and invited by none other than the greatest industrial power in the world. Today it might be about Nicaragua and tomorrow, about some other country in similar circumstances… Although he won’t admit it, [Reagan] is essentially trying to supplant Contadora…”
The total crisis of the Contadora option could change the rules of the game both internationally and within Nicaragua. If Contadora is blocked, and particularly if it is supplanted by another framework, Nicaragua can expect US policy to become double aggressive. But even if Contadora succeeds in salvaging some of its original intent at the eleventh hour, the war of aggression in all its aspects—military, economic, political and ideological—will not be stopped in the short term. In its confrontation with this undeniable threat, the country has really been in a state of emergency for several years.