Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 54 | Diciembre 1985



Contadora’s Last Stumbling Block: The US Role

Envío team

As was predicted in various “Chronicles of a Crisis Foretold,” the final draft of the Contadora peace treaty was not signed on November 20, as scheduled. Instead, Contadora has ventured down a narrow alley, without an easy or even foreseeable exit. The situation this has created could be classified as an international emergency. Nicaragua has reacted provocatively to this critical juncture by putting its finger right on the sore point. It has conditioned its signing of the draft treaty on a public US commitment to peace, to a cessation of the counterrevolutionary aggression it initiated in 1981.

While Nicaragua’s challenge to Contadora took center stage this month, the economic and military constants that led to last month’s state of emergency have become more pronounced.

Contadora: The worst deadlock yet or reflection on the crisis at last?

Once the final “refined” version of Contadora’s new draft treaty was made public, a series of open and closed discussions were held in Panama in mid-September. The objective of these meetings was to reach consensus on the points that remained unresolved, concerning highly sensitive security matters.

The third of the public meetings was held in Luxembourg on November 11-13, taking advantage of a European-Latin American conference on economic aid to Central America. Twenty-one foreign ministers came from the ten member countries of the European Economic Community (EEC), Spain and Portugal (future members of the EEC), the five Central American countries and the four Contadora countries. The conference was the continuation of an earlier meeting held in October 1984 in San Jose, Costa Rica. At the Luxembourg conference, a five-year plan involving over US$150 million in aid, more than doubling the amount given over the last five years, was approved for the region.

The significance of the conference, however, lies in its political dimension rather than in the important but modest amount of economic aid, or the fact that no country was excluded. Europe established closer ties with Latin America regarding its most problematic region, Central America, and specifically regarding its most autochthonous diplomatic initiative to date, Contadora. The conference instituted a political dialogue between Europe, Central America and the Contadora countries which could affect Reagan’s efforts to reapply the Monroe Doctrine.

On November 11, President Daniel Ortega took advantage of this European public attention to announce the Sandinista government’s position on the new draft of the treaty. He also made public Nicaragua’s letter to the presidents of the four Contadora countries and the presidents of the four countries in the Lima Group explaining its position. Strengthened by its sustained military victories over the counterrevolutionaries, Nicaragua has forced the issue, dissolving in an instant the enormous expectations that the draft treaty would be signed forthwith. Nicaragua is the first country to openly point out the series of contradictions contained in the draft that everyone mumbles about in private, but has not dared broach in public. Nicaragua risked being labeled the obstacle to the Contadora peace plan. The Sandinistas’ inflexible and nonnegotiable November 11 statement has caused what could be considered either Contadora’s worst deadlock yet, or, from another perspective, a moment for reflection over Contadora’s original objectives and the nature of the Central American crisis.

Nicaragua’s position was well received in Luxembourg. While the European countries clearly understood Nicaragua’s message—that the US is the true obstacle to Contadora—Honduras, the most submissive US ally in Central America, reacted inopportunely. Honduran officials had repeatedly insinuated that their country would not sign the draft treaty (which does not completely suit US interests either) but upon learning of Nicaragua’s decision, the Honduran Foreign Minister emphatically announced that his country was ready to sign the draft that very day “in honor of the Europeans.”

Given the crisis provoked by the publication of Nicaragua’s position, a general consensus was reached in Luxembourg that no more deadlines should be placed on Contadora. A few weeks earlier, November 20 had been firmly set as the final deadline for signing. Also in Luxembourg, the Central American and Contadora ministers scheduled another meeting for November 19-21 in Panama to analyze the current situation and discuss new goals.

Why won’t Nicaragua sign?

The statement issued on November 11 explains Nicaragua’s position on the September 12, 1985 draft treaty in detail, beginning with its acceptance of the sections on which the Central American countries had already reached a consensus. On the controversial issue of “national reconciliation,” the statement says, “Even though our own suggestions on the matter were not incorporated, the concept underlying those obligations, presented in the text as something to be assumed by the countries towards their own peoples, preserves their internal character, and consequently the sacred principal of non-intervention in the affairs reserved for national jurisdiction.” This has been a polemical issue in the Contadora process and in the writing of the draft treaty, and is a constant argument used by the US and its Central American allies to pressure the Nicaraguan government.

The issues that remain unresolved are military maneuvers, levels of armaments and military operatives. Before stating its position on these and other issues, Nicaragua explained its fundamental disagreement with the new draft and suggested what it considered the most effective way to overcome it:

“With reference to Protocol II, the Nicaraguan government would like to reiterate that the interventionist and aggressive policy of the US government is playing the central role in the Central American crisis. Given this, it is not possible to find a lasting or stable solution to the prevailing conflicts unless the US government agrees to serious and detailed commitments to halt its illegal conduct.

“The Nicaraguan government notes with concern that Protocol II does not contain concrete commitments from the government of the United States, without which it is impossible to reestablish peace in Central America. In Nicaragua’s opinion, this Protocol should explicitly require the government of the United States to consider the following obligations:

A) Cessation of all forms of aggression against Nicaragua and a commitment to initiate no similar actions in the future.

B) Adoption of international agreements on military maneuvers as its own.

C) Strict compliance with the May 10 ruling of the World Court [to cease mining Nicaragua’s harbors], as well as the decision it takes in the case taken by Nicaragua against the United States.

“In the opinion of the Nicaraguan government, however, the most viable and effective option would be the addition of a new protocol directed solely to the government of the United States, which would include the previously mentioned commitments.

“This Protocol should be signed by the US at the same time that the Contadora treaty is signed, since anything short of this would leave Nicaragua and the other Central American peoples, defenseless in the face of US aggression.”

In emphasizing this basic discrepancy with the draft treaty, Nicaragua is putting its finger on the fundamental problem in the whole Contadora process. The course of Contadora’s three years of peace negotiations has run parallel to the course of US aggression and war in the region, and Contadora has been unable to confront this contradiction.

Undoubtedly, Contadora has contained the possibility of invasion and has complicated US efforts to create an international climate that would facilitate such a move. This is insufficient, however, if the goal is to bring the peace process to a meaningful conclusion. Nicaragua has decided that, given the characteristics Contadora has shown to date, a negotiation could easily become distorted. Instead of providing a mechanism for peace, it could become a mechanism for covering up further aggression. Contadora could cave in to US pressure to such as degree that instead of being a mediator, it could begin to act as a mechanism for exerting more and more political pressure against Nicaragua and never put sufficient pressure on the US The rush to sign a treaty, even when it is full of contradictions and does not assure a true peace—“better something than nothing”—has been halted at this point by Nicaragua’s refusal to accept a treaty that avoids most substantial issues; “better nothing than just anything.”

The changes—so-called “refinements”—that have been introduced are important. Nicaragua is pointing them out for the first time vociferously and in full detail so that its message will be heard in all the foreign ministries and all the organizations that are applauding Contadora.

We present in its entirety the portion of Nicaragua’s text that assesses the treaty’s new position on military maneuvers. The text sheds light on the maneuvers’ strategic significance within the policy of aggression (examined in more detail in another article in this envío):

“The September 12, 1985 document introduces for the first time the concept of regulation of international military maneuvers, taking a backward step, inexplicably, from what the September 7, 1984 treaty had already taken up as a principled Latin American position; that is, that the carrying out of international military maneuvers in the region should be proscribed immediately. For that reason it was proposed that the prohibition of maneuvers and the freeze on arms acquisition be simultaneous. The new document of September 1985 defers proscription to a later stage, and accompanies the immediate freeze on arms acquisition only with the ‘regulation’ of maneuvers. Of course, if Nicaragua were to accept the terms of the September 12, 1985 document in this aspect, it could use the prerogatives provided by such a statement to hold military maneuvers on its own soil, within the limits established in the document, together with one or more of the armed forces of the friendly countries that have provided weapons or military advisers to the Nicaraguan armed forces. Nonetheless, Nicaragua understands all too well that this would not contribute to peace in Central and Latin American and could even aggravate the already difficult conditions of the present international situation.

“In the judgment of the Nicaraguan government, the absolute, immediate and categorical prohibition of international military maneuvers, of all kinds, is an irrevocable position of principle. This position of Nicaragua is in full accord not only with the Revised Contadora Treaty of September 7, 1984 and the preamble of the new draft, but also with the September 1983 Document of Objectives. The need to absolutely prohibit international military maneuvers is all the more evident if we consider that the government of the United States has demonstrated at each of its military maneuvers in Honduras that these are warning signs designed to pressure and intimidate Nicaragua. On the other hand, military maneuvers objectively constitute preparatory stages for future concrete acts of aggression against Nicaragua.

“In this sense, a regional peace accord should establish the absolute proscription of international military maneuvers, and complete the provisions regarding these commitments to better guarantee that they will be met. Nicaragua considers it fundamental that the following complementary aspects be incorporated into the treaty, so that omissions and gaps in the text cannot provide loopholes to the detriment of the commitments in this area:

“A) International military maneuvers should be prohibited simultaneously and in the precise moment in which the freeze or moratorium on arms acquisition goes into effect.

“B) A state located outside of the area should be expressly prohibited from carrying out unilateral international military maneuvers, using only its own troops, in the territory of one or more of the Central American states.”

Nicaragua’s other major point of contention concerns the halt to the regional arms buildup and the freeze on arms and military equipment acquisition and on increases in troop strength. On this point, Nicaragua reiterated that the main problem is the aggression it is suffering, which justifies its need for defensive weapons. Because Contadora has avoided the reality of war throughout the draft, Nicaragua declared its inability to make commitments in this area. As a “minimum condition,” Nicaragua would need:

“A halt to the US aggression against Nicaragua in all its forms, including covert assistance delivered through private organizations and individuals to the mercenary forces as well as official aid, and the solemn commitment of the US government to refrain from promoting or permitting similar acts in the future.”

Relative to the concept of a “reasonable balance” of armed forces in the different Central American states, Nicaragua noted that “the geographic and geopolitical situation” as a barometer for scheduling the reduction in arms and troops has been removed from the draft. The principal obstacle to determining any balance remains the same, Nicaragua adds, an essential problem that is still not taken into account in the draft:

“Nicaragua obviously aspires to the achievement of a reasonable balance that guarantees our security, not only relative to possible actions by any one our neighbors, but also to the possibility of several of them in combined actions against Nicaragua. All that has been done so far, although clearly important, is not sufficient. For Nicaragua, the level of arms necessary for the defense of its sovereignty is determined by its capacity to resist US aggression, an option that the government of the United States has systematically refused to discard.

“As long as the US government does not assume, in a public, clear and responsible manner, an international commitment to not militarily invade Nicaragua, directly or indirectly, the Nicaraguan people have the right to guarantee a level of armaments and of military and paramilitary forces capable of putting them in a position to defend their sovereignty with dignity; [they have the right] to acquire the minimum dissuasive capacity to cause their potential aggressors to seriously reflect on the grave consequences of such an adventure.”

Furthermore, Nicaragua pointed out the contradictions in other revisions introduced in the draft with respect to arms control: “With reference to the criterion about Gross Domestic Product (GDP), contemplated in the draft as an element to be considered in determining the maximum limits on arms and military troops, Nicaragua considers that, in its case, this criterion should receive special consideration, in that Nicaragua’s current GDP has been drastically reduced as a consequence of the economic, financial and military war waged by the US government, which has gravely affected the country’s production levels.”

Nicaragua also expressed its position on another security issue, that of foreign military advisors, stating that it considered the change in the text on this point “totally unacceptable”: “Nicaragua considers it fundamental to the needs of peace and stability in the Central American region that a foreign military presence be proscribed, including the immediate withdrawal of all military advisors, even those whose function is technical in character and related to the installation and upkeep of military equipment.”

The September 12, 1985 document, however, introduces a new and totally unacceptable variant regarding the concept of “foreign elements capable of participation in military, paramilitary and security activities,” a concept, vague and imprecise in the extreme, that could lead to obvious confusions and contradictions. This formulation defining what could be considered an “advisor” was drafted by Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica after a meeting in Tegucigalpa in 1984 and aims to deprive Nicaragua of the solidarity cooperation of innumerable international collaborators. “For Nicaragua,” says the November 11 text, “the significance of the definition is extremely broad and ambiguous, such that any doctor, engineer or teacher, whether man or woman, who is not physically handicapped, could be included within the criterion of being “capable of participation in military activities.”

Although there are many other subtleties and details, these are the most substantial reasons why Nicaragua will not sign the treaty in its current form. As the Sandinistas have reiterated more than once in recent days, it would be “suicidal.” By touching the sore point of this cruel war of aggression, incompatible with any peace treaty, the Sandinista government obliged Contadora to consider a similar ultimatum: substantially shift its negotiating style or commit suicide itself.

To facilitate this shift, Nicaragua once again repeated its desire for peace and its willingness to dialogue with the United States. Again it appealed to Latin American consciousness. “The dream of Bolívar, Hidalgo, Martí and Sandino of a united Latin America in defense of self-determination, independence and peace demands the chivalry of its rulers now more than ever,” said President Ortega in his letter.

During the reception a few days later for the first young people demobilized from military service, President Ortega appealed even more clearly to this Latin American consciousness: “If the United States is carrying out an aggression in its own name against Nicaragua, why does Latin America not dare, in its own name, to demand that the United States cease its terrorist policy against Nicaragua?” He called on the leaders of the eight Contadora and Lima Group countries to act “energetically, firmly, clearly and with dignity” in order to “say clearly to the United States that it is making a mistake with Nicaragua and, thereby, a mistake with Latin America.”

The Honduran arms buildup: “A shameless mockery of Contadora”

The day after Nicaragua made public its position on Contadora, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega held a press conference. After reiterating that the counterrevolution had suffered a “strategic defeat” in 1985, and assuring that in 1986 it would be reduced to an “insignificant expression as a military force,” he reaffirmed that, as long as US policy did not change, Nicaragua would not reduce its armed forces by “one single soldier, one single officer or one single weapon.”

The most interesting aspect of the conference—and its objective—was information offered by the Minister about the hidden and growing Honduran arms buildup, in open violation of the spirit and the letter of Contadora. Complementing what had been stated in Nicaragua’s official document about the treaty, he referred to the arrangements initiated in 1981 by the United States to sell Honduras F-5s (light missile-equipped combat planes) and to the training of Honduran pilots in the United States in 1984. He noted that the Honduran Air Force is the most powerful in Central America, with 229 aircraft, including 157 airplanes. He also spoke of the plans between the two countries to establish of a joint task force in the US base in Palmerola, Honduras for five years. Finally, he mentioned the preparation already underway for the new “Terencio Sierra” military maneuvers in Honduras for January 1986, the “Sendero Luminoso” maneuvers for February, and the continuation throughout 1986 of the showy “King’s Guard” maneuvers. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon announced that “Terencio Sierra” would last five and a half months and would involve 4,500 US troops. In his first declarations, the new Honduran President-elect, Liberal José Azcona, defended the US maneuvers in his country as necessary “to prepare our armed forces,” although he said that this would have to be done in a “rational” form and be “limited in such a way that they are not onerous for our people.”

This arms increase and the persistent US military presence in Honduras were qualified by Ortega as a “shameless mockery” of Contadora. From any point of view, this information shows that those who say it is Nicaragua’s arms buildup that is throwing obstacles in the path of Contadora are using biased judgment at best.

Panama meeting: Things go backwards

After the Luxembourg meeting, expectations for the meeting of the Contadora and Central America foreign ministers in Panama on November 19-21 were not high. Considering that there were still three topics without consensus—Nicaragua was the only country to make public its position regarding the proposed text for these points—they had to be discussed once again.

Contadora presented a new proposal on maneuvers and on arms control and reduction which was not acceptable to all parties either. On the third point of debate—mechanisms of verification and control—consensus by the five Central American countries was finally reached; from another angle, this very achievement shows the limits and contradictions of Contadora. “There is now consensus about the mechanisms of verification and control, but it remains to be seen what it is that will be verified and controlled,” said the Nicaraguan Deputy Minister on his return to Managua. “Things go backwards here: first the mechanisms are approved and then the obligations.”

After this minor success, Contadora fixed no more dates either for another meeting, or for possible signings, or for new proposals. Panama favored setting a new, final extension of 30 days, in which either an accord would be reached or the Contadora process would end. Nonetheless, people were aware that the key to the way out of the alley would not be found in the calendar. Contadora continued its contradictory search, unclear whether it was mortally wounded, dying, or in shock prior to recovery.

Reagan-Gorbachev meeting: Nicaragua under discussion

From the information that followed the US-USSR summit meeting in Geneva, it appears clear that Gorbachev rejected Reagan’s proposal to focus the talks on the five “regional conflicts” he mentioned in the United Nations, among which Nicaragua is his favorite target. For the USSR, the central issues are the problem posed by the US strategic defense initiative (“Star Wars”) and the challenge of disarmament in general.

This does not mean that the USSR did not discuss Nicaragua with the United States. Before the summit both powers did so at the level of experts and through special commissions. It was the first time this had happened in six years of revolution. And at the summit, Reagan spoke about Nicaragua to Gorbachev with his habitual intolerance. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista leaders expressed in various ways their confidence that Soviet respect for the self-determination of the Nicaraguan people would neutralize any possible US pretension to negotiate Nicaragua’s future without Nicaragua’s presence.

Julio Lopez, head of the FSLN’s International Relations Department, addressed this issue during the commemoration of the 68th anniversary of the Soviet revolution on November 6, at the Sandinista Workers’ Union headquarters:

“Nicaragua’s friendship with the USSR is not negotiable, as has been previously said about Nicaragua’s friendship with Cuba…

“Nicaragua has no intention of giving any foreign government explanations or justifications for our friendship with the USSR…

“The struggle and the destiny of the Nicaraguan people will only be determined and decided by the people of Nicaragua… If the US government wants to come to accords about Nicaragua, the method is simple: it has to negotiate with the government of Nicaragua, and we have the most absolute guarantee that the USSR shares this position with us.”

Theater in the UN: A version in miniature of the permanent Contadora crisis

On Friday, November 22, during the 40th General Assembly, the anticipated debate about Central America got underway in the United Nations. (On that same day, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, on an official visit to India, fasted for peace in front of the monument to Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi.)

In the debate, among other things, emphasis was made on the original principles of the peace initiative: self-determination and non-intervention. Through three direct or indirect references, the renewal of bilateral US-Nicaragua dialogue was requested as a show of support to Contadora.

To break the public deadlock into which Contadora had fallen by Nicaragua’s announcement and by the failure to sign the treaty by November 20, the four Contadora countries introduced a resolution on Central America. The contents of this resolution, quite clear and direct, had been worked out by the Contadora ministers in Luxembourg and approved by all the foreign ministers of Contadora and Central America in Panama, in the November 19-21 meeting.

This, then, is Act One: Latin America decides to confront the United States on the crucial issue under debate in the area, respect for the self-determination of the Central American peoples.

During the weekend of November 23-24, General Vernon Walters, US Ambassador to the United Nations, held a series of conversations with the ambassadors of Contadora and the Central American counties, with the exception, naturally, of Nicaragua. These ambassadors in turn held a series of meetings in the Venezuelan Embassy, which excluded both Nicaragua and Mexico. On Monday the Central American ambassadors announced that they had discrepancies with the resolution; Panama, Colombia and Venezuela asked that it be withdrawn. Another apocryphal resolution began to circulate through the UN, in which substantial modifications had been made. The paragraph had been eliminated, for example, in which Contadora expressed its concerns about foreign military maneuvers in the region. Also circulating through the UN was a rumor that the change was because Mexico had decided to withdraw the resolution. The Mexican Foreign Ministry denied this, and reiterated its support for the first version. It attributed the incident to a “lack of coordination” between the foreign ministries and their respective ambassadors to the UN.

Thus the curtain closes on Act Two, in which the United States maneuvered to crush any seed of Latin American firmness against its hegemony in Central America, and succeeded. The US can count on the permanent submission of the Central American countries and make the Contadora countries yield to it. In this case, even Guatemala, which on other occasions tried to preserve its independence, lined up with El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica.

The resolution, boycotted by the United States, should have been put to a vote on November 27. Nicaragua, however, stuck to its new policy of firmness, to oblige Contadora to seek flexibility and concessions not from Nicaragua but from the United States. It did not allow any resolution to be voted on that did not contain explicit and clear references to the United States. “What good does a resolution such as this do us?” as a Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry official explained to IHCA. “Arriving on Tuesday and reading it, we saw that the text explained nothing about what is happening in Central America. These are luxuries that Nicaragua can no longer permit. With these ambiguous positions Contadora now only serves to cover up US aggression.”

The incident in the UN was a stage “in miniature” of what has happened time and again throughout the Contadora negotiating process. What was different was that such things previously occurred only in private and this time they happened out in the open, before the eyes of the international community. For Nicaragua, the UN incident was the best object lesson the was to show the world what it had been saying for some time, and what it said straight out in its November 11 documents: The United States is the real obstacle to peace in Central America and to the Contadora initiative.

Apart from this little theater piece, the UN debate as a whole showed the concern with which all the countries of the world view the Central Americans crisis. In the more than 60 statements made during the debate, Europeans, Latin Americans and non-aligned alike offered very clear analyses about the real causes of this crisis.

Even apart from these statements, 108 of the 137 speakers in the sessions commemorating the UN’s 40th anniversary referred to the Central America issue, the majority expressing the need for a change in US policy toward the region. Another important demonstration of this universal concern was the resolution that Mexico, Peru, Algeria and Nicaragua introduced to the Second Economic Commission of the General Assembly on November 27. It lamented the embargo decreed against Nicaragua, urged its “immediate revocation,” and invited economic cooperation with Nicaragua, noting each country’s right to elect its own policy and development strategy. The United States made enormous efforts to prevent this project from being voted on in this draft form. It proposed 16 revisions that substantially altered the text and exercised pressures against many countries. Its effort failed, however, and on December 5, the original resolution was approved by 83 votes in favor, 4 against (the US, Israel, Grenada and Gambia) and 37 abstaining.

The OAS at a real standstill

The 14th Special Session of the Organization of American States (OAS) was held on December 2-5. The meeting, which took place in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, was largely devoted to a discussion of the reform of the organization.

The meeting brought together 31 ministers from the Americas and 80 representatives of observer countries, and there were expectations that it might in some way help reduce the level of tension in the Central American crisis. To the contrary, the meeting offered little but more tension and empty remarks on the issue, further inflaming the sore that Nicaragua kept insistently poking.

The Contadora and Lima Group ministers offered a breath of air when they stated their renewed determination to stand by the original resolution Contadora had presented to the UN. Despite this boldness, however, no progress was made. Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica opposed the resolution and took up the US position, and the meeting of the Contadora and Central American ministers was a fruitless one. What was worse, the Contadora ministers, after a private meeting with U.S Secretary of State George Shultz, concluded that there was no future to the process, because the United States would accept no accord that Contadora might agree upon if it guaranteed the existence of the Sandinista government.

Shultz’s statements before and during the Assembly abundantly demonstrated the intransigence of the Reagan government. On the flight to Cartagena, Shultz declared to the Los Angeles Times that “Our commitment [to the counterrevolutionaries] is indefinite.” He also took advantage of the Colombian setting, where the impact of the November 6 tragedy in the Palace of Justice is still alive, to accuse the FSLN of having ties to the Colombian M-19. On December 4 the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry protested these statements, which it called “surprising” and “extremely serious,” and which, it said, “openly confront and contradict the peace efforts that Contadora is carrying out.” In a press conference during the OAS meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams shamelessly responded that the war of aggression would continue “until the measure has the desired effect.”

The OAS meeting also failed to get to the core of the other major issue that moves Latin America right now: the continent’s foreign debt. Nor was the moment ripe for the readmission of Cuba to the organization, despite the fact more and more Latin American countries are reestablishing diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. The situation of acute economic crisis still permits the United States a large margin to exercise the “arrogance of power” to which the Colombian President referred in inaugurating the Assembly.

Thus, with the OAS failing to accredit itself as the instrument capable of taking Contadora’s place in Central America, but with Contadora lacking sufficient strap to break the hegemonic influence of the United States in the OAS, the meeting ended leaving Contadora in an untenable situation.

For Nicaragua, this moment of profound paralysis on Contadora’s part must also be the moment to put Latin American dignity to the test, as well as a moment for the world to reflect on the roots of the Central American crisis. Ten days before making its position public in Contadora, Nicaragua had written to the Presidents of the four countries, stating once again what that root is:

“The Central American crisis has its origin, on one hand, in decades in merciless economic exploitation of our countries’ natural resources by the fundamentally US transnational companies, which have thrown millions of Central Americans into marginalization and poverty; on the other, in the dictatorial military regimes that, supported by the United States, have denied democratic political expression to the Central American peoples.

“To this desperate situation has been added in the last five years the policies of intervention and war in Central America implemented by the government of the United States which, while trying to stifle the crisis, have been the determining factor in aggravating and projecting it to levels never before known in our history.”

To break the paralysis through some initiative and, at the same time, to put to the test the will of the Latin American governments, the President of Nicaragua again wrote to the eight Presidents involved in the Contadora process with a very concrete petition: that in the next six months it negotiate, with the United States, the cessation of the war of aggression against Nicaragua.

The internal situation: An emergency without tension

While this critical and complex “international emergency” plays itself out, Nicaragua goes right on living out the state of emergency brought on years ago by the war of aggression and reaffirmed by the recent additional limitations of the emergency law. As was expected and as the past month has proven, the new law is being applied in such a selective and limited manner that it does not affect the daily life of the majority of the population.

War continues, first draftees demobilized, coffee harvest begins

In the military terrain, the factors leading to the Sandinistas’ success in 1985 against the armed counterrevolution have not changed. On November 24 a group of 300 FDN contras attacked the town of Santo Domingo (Chontales), 160 kilometers east of Managua. The attack was very similar to one launched several months earlier against La Trinidad (Estelí) in the north, both of which have been described as “suicidal” by the Sandinista army. Army analysts attribute the latest such attack to the contras’ need to score sensational victories while Congress is debating a reduction in the restrictions on “humanitarian aid” going to the contras. The FDN forces in Chontales were met by army units, self defense units from the town and those of the Permanent Territorial Company (COPETE), a reorganization of the old campesino militias, with helicopter air cover. The contras suffered 41 dead and 9 wounded. There were two Sandinista casualties and eight civilians wounded, including a young girl who died in the first moments of the attack.

The Defense Ministry stated that in other fighting this month, especially in the central area of the country, the contras have suffered 15 dead. On November 10, some 20 kilometers west of the river port town of El Rama, 30 members of the Sandinista militia and 3 civilians were killed in a contra ambush. This type of action has not produced such a large number of Sandinista casualties for a long time. It is interesting to note La Prensa’s coverage of these military events. On November 11, the front page headline read “Defense Reports 30 Militias Dead” in big bold letters, while on November 22, an article on the last page, titled only “Defense Report,” described the contras’ frustrated attack on Santo Domingo.

On the day of the Santo Domingo attack, the US House of Representatives approved, by a vote of 387 to 21, a bill reducing the restrictions on “humanitarian aid.” In addition to the food, medicine and clothing permitted under the original bill, the new bill allows for sophisticated communications equipment, land vehicles and aircraft, with the restriction that they not be equipped “to cause grave damages or to kill.” This broadening of aid to the counterrevolution, which also provides for information sharing between the CIA and the contras, was passed after months of debate in the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees over the interpretation of “humanitarian aid.” On December 4, President Reagan signed the new law. Comandante Humberto Ortega, in the aforementioned press conference, referred to CIA plans to provide the contras with “Piraña” armed attack boats. He went on to affirm the growing importance of the US military intervention in the form of communications and information. He cited 431 US spy-plane flights over Nicaraguan territory between January and November 1985 and the presence of the US spy ship ARL-Spleen off the Pacific coast, equipped with sophisticated equipment for intercepting and interfering with Nicaraguan army communications.

All previous denunciations of the contras’ arms escalation, promoted and funded by the US, are overshadowed by the downing on December 3 of a Nicaraguan MI-8 helicopter by a SAM-7 surface-to-air-missile fired by FDN fighters. Fourteen Sandinista military personnel riding in the helicopter were killed. On December 5, following its investigation, the Nicaraguan government issued a statement detailing the event, confirming the use of this powerful and sophisticated portable rocket in downing the helicopter, and recalling that in May of this year the Nicaraguan Ministry of Defense had announced the delivery of these missiles to the contras. Concurrent to Nicaragua’s denunciation, the US State Department issued an official note saying, in effect, that the US government had furnished the FDN with the missiles and justifying the move as an “act of defense” and “a logical response” to Nicaragua’s use of Soviet helicopters. George Shultz went so far as to congratulate the FDN leaders on the success of their action.

Nicaragua took great pains to point out that no guerrillas forces have ever had access to this type of weapon before, except in Afghanistan, and that in the contras’ hands it posed a threat to air traffic in the whole Central American region. It claimed that by justifying the use of this weapon by such forces, the US governments encourages other irregular forces to take similar action. Nicaragua alerted the international community—especially the Latin American governments involved in Contadora—to the gravity of the situation, called a session of the UN Security Council to the events, and reaffirmed its decision to acquire all means necessary to defend itself from such US sponsored terrorism.

Another sign that the war is now moving in the Nicaraguan government’s favor is that the first group of army “cachorros” or “cubs,” as the young recruits are affectionately called, were demobilized on December 2. At the ceremony, Nicaragua’s President recalled the “initial difficulties” and the “real limitations and mistakes” that accompanied the early organization of the draft. Two years after that first challenging call-up, the overall balance is positive. The participation of thousands of young people in the struggle against the contras has significantly changed the course of the war, and the education these young people have received in the grueling “school of the mountain” will play an important role in rebuilding Nicaragua.

The battles continue in the mountains; thousands of young soldiers are demobilize and replaced by others; work continues on drafting the constitution; efforts are redoubled to eradicate the dengue epidemic; and in the midst of all this, the largest mobilization in the country is now under way to harvest this year’s coffee crop. For the next three months, December to February, thousands of high school and university students, state employees and campesinos will pick coffee, Nicaragua’s principal export product.

This year there will be some 30,500 volunteer pickers, half of whom will go into the coffee fields armed. To guarantee a full complement of state employees, two Ministries (Culture and Education) and several other state institutions will be almost entirely closed during the harvest season. Given the rise in the international price of coffee to over $140 per hundredweight, a successful harvest will bring Nicaragua more than one-fifth of the foreign exchange it needs to cover its imports.

Religion and the State of Emergency

The months of November and December are particularly important ones in Nicaragua’s religious calendar. Christmas celebrations take a back seat to those surrounding “La Purísima,” the Immaculate Conception, which reaches a high point of festivities on December 7, but includes weeks of preparation by traditional associations and religious organizations in neighborhoods and communities throughout the country.

Initially the emergency law specifically prohibited open air gatherings, even of a religious nature (processions, for example), without the prior permission of the local police. Since the Purísima celebration is extremely popular, and takes place largely in the streets, misunderstandings arose about how the state of emergency would affect this national festival. Several priests and lay people took advantage of the confusion to spread rumors that reflected negatively on the government, and a few officials themselves fueled the rumors with inappropriate behavior. On November 23 the Ministry of the Interior made public a statement specifying that this “beautiful religious tradition will be celebrated with the utmost liberty, and with the fervor and joy with which it has always been celebrated, especially since the triumph.” The statement went on to say that no one will be permitted “to give it a political connotation” and that “the law will be applied to those who irresponsibly propagate rumors against the religious freedom which the state fully guarantees.” In fact, the Purísima was celebrated this year with fewer rockets, lights and candies than in other years, due to the economic situation, but with the same amount of joy and creativity as always.

Cardinal Obando continued his visits around the country right up to November 16, the day on which he left for the Synod that was being celebrated in Rome. Perhaps the most conflictive visit during this period was the one to Chinandega on November 10. Local organizers of the event charged that they had been detained for several days for having organized the Cardinal’s visit. In fact the members of the reception committee were arrested at the end of his visit for breaking a signed agreement to confine the visit to an indoor mass. At the last minute they had organized a march of 2,000 people in the streets without a permit, in violation of the country’s wartime emergency laws. The organizers were lay religious figures and rightwing businessmen, many with longstanding connections to the Somoza regime.

Cardinal Obando always hides the political overtones of his visits in the statements he makes abroad. He prefers to leave an impression of religious persecution and portray himself as the principal victim; he also frequently misrepresents the number of people who attend his local appearance. For example, in an interview with the Madrid daily ABCon November 13, the Cardinal said, “When I returned from Rome several months ago, after being named Cardinal, a half million people were waiting for me at the airport, and three hundred thousand attended the mass that we celebrated in Managua.” He mentioned the same three hundred thousand to the Italian publication Avvenire as well. Innumerable witnesses to these events have indicated that the dispersed crowd that arrived at the airport did not exceed three thousand, that the crowd that lined the streets to see the Cardinal along his journey from the airport to the city numbered less than sixty thousand, and that at the mass given the following day there were around forty thousand people.

The real status of religious freedom in Nicaragua is a continual subject of debate internationally, as well as within the Church itself. At the Roman Synod, where the Nicaraguan Cardinal also presented his anti-Sandinista message, the statements of Father José Manuel Pérez, the Latin American Secretary of the Dominican Order, were influential. Among other things, he said, “I really don’t understand the international press scandal [over the Nicaraguan state of emergency]. It seems to me that they should be scandalized over radically different situations, such as those in Guatemala. I was in Nicaragua recently, where we have 15 priests who are living in conditions of poverty and they are extraordinarily happy to be in this country, because they believe they are on the cutting edge of change necessary for Latin America… I deny these judgments [concerning religious persecution in Nicaragua] in the most absolute manner. In Nicaragua the Church is divided, and this is a scandal. But whose fault is that? On the one hand, it is said that political activity is the province of lay people, but then the hierarchy has a well-defined political position, and whoever is not in agreement with this position is not considered a good Christian… The People’s Church is an expression that is used to discredit and accuse of rebellion an ecclesiastical movement that is very strong throughout Latin America. It, on the other hand, feels itself to be part of the Church, and that should be enough: it is part of the Church…”

As mentioned in last month’s issue of envío, conversations were held with all foreign priests and the more conflictive Nicaraguan priests in Region IV (Granada, Masaya, Carazo and Rivas) and the most conflictive foreign and Nicaraguan priests in Region III (Managua). None of the priests was imprisoned or tortured, as was rumored in the States, and no Church women were summoned for interviews.

Some evangelical pastors from Region III were called in for similar meetings because of their tight links with certain US organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy. (One of those summoned had regularly been attending White House breakfasts with President Reagan himself). One pastor, Boanerges Martínez, went to the US Embassy right after his interview. His accusations of torture against the government were later widely circulated in the United States, even though they had not been substantiated. Martínez was subsequently jailed briefly, charged by the government with making inflammatory false accusations.

The emergency law, even in its application in the sensitive area of religion, bears little relation to charges of “religious persecution” made by the Cardinal and others. As has happened with the Contadora treaty, the real war taking place in this country has been obscured by a smokescreen of dubious secondary issues. Tomás Borge, Minister of the Interior, who has been blamed by some outside of the country for imposing the law, was asked by IHCA for his views on these attitudes of alarm. He said, “I share this concern about the emergency. But it concerns me even more that they are not worried about the aggression that is victimizing us. One cannot help but notice that they are alarmed about a state of emergency that has not meant one single death, not a single tear gas bomb, no persecution of anyone, yet they are not similarly alarmed about the thousands of Nicaraguans who have lost their lives, victims of US aggression. In my view this should be their main concern.”

This is the central point, the sore point that Nicaragua insists on making felt. International reactions to the broadening of the state of emergency laws have frequently sounded as if it were capricious. Nicaragua does not intend to let it be conveniently forgotten that Nicaragua is in a war, and one not of its making, or in its power to call off.

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