Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 25 | Julio 1983



Moving Toward War

In June a large number of battalions, made up of Nicaraguan militia and reservists, left for the combat zones of the country. Thus does Nicaragua respond to an imposed war which is approaching an outcome that will be decisive for the future of all nations and liberation movements of the region. NEWS ANALYSIS: January June 1983.

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The current situation can be best understood if this month's news analysis of the political situation is broadened to include the region and events in the last six months. Since March of 1982, the U.S. government has made some changes in its plans toward Central America. Now the basic plan is to overthrow the Sandinista government while weakening the FSLN and the URNG, the guerrilla umbrella organizations of El Salvador and Guatemala respectively.


The U.S. strategy is based on the hypothesis that the resolution of the conflict by Inter American Peace keeping Forces or by military agreements with some South American governments is no longer possible because of the outcome of the Falklands conflict. The U.S. strategy is designed to avoid the high political cost of a confrontation and the institutional difficulties of a direct U.S. military intervention except in extreme cases. In light of this and the growing docility of the Central American governments to Washington's directives, the White House elaborated the following strategy against Nicaragua:

1.Armed attacks along both northern and southern borders with the Somocistas and the Miskitos in the north and Pastora's and Chamorro Rapaccioli's forces in the south;

2.Important acts of sabotage against economic and military centers carried out by counterrevolutionary commandos operating in the interior of the country and by military bands operating from the border areas;

3.The formation of a solid rearguard on both borders. In case of war, the U.S. and Honduras would fulfill this role in the north through land, air and sea operations. Costa Rica would then allege border problems and international forces would move to Nicaragua's southern border;

4.The establishment of a liberated zone with a provisional government junta which would be recognized at least by the U.S., Honduras and El Salvador. The Honduran army, protected by that type of legality and based on denunciations of Nicaraguan violations of its territory, would declare war on Nicaragua;

5.Given the above situation, the plan foresees an insurrectional-type uprising of important sectors of the Nicaraguan people, which the U.S. judges highly dissatisfied because of economic problems, the threat of atheism and supposed totalitarian policies;

6.As a last resort, and only in the event of the above plan's failure, direct U.S. military intervention cannot be completely ruled out;

7.Political diplomatic action, as a part of the war, would be taken to delegitimize Nicaragua, accusing it of being "totalitarian and bellicose," thus opening up the possibilities of carrying out the described plan.

This political military plan has not only been denounced by the Nicaraguan authorities, but it has also been borne out by the facts. Factual proof exists that the plan is being implemented. The plan would be rounded out to include actions against the revolutionary forces of El Salvador and Guatemala in order to make them retreat or at least to contain them. Thus, the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government would be a checkmate on the guerrilla forces in the region.


By the end of 1982, the Reagan administration expected to be much closer to its goal than they were. The Somocistas grouped in the FDN showed great advances militarily, but they lacked a clear strategy to bring about the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. The number of their monthly military actions was tripled while the assassinations were quadrupled, and they were able to inflict serious economic damage to the Nicaraguan government. They became a serious, well equipped force. However, as a result of the fighting they had 411 casualties (7% of their total number), and they did not effectively hinder the cotton or the coffee harvests. On the other border, ARDE's unity advanced very little, and its military power was not a threat.

What also became evident is that the Honduran army of 20,000 soldiers would encounter serious problems in a land battle with Nicaragua, and not just because of the numbers Nicaragua has on its side. While Honduras might have the largest air force in the region, it would be extremely risky to test that strength against the Nicaraguan anti air defense system.

The support of the U.S. as rearguard would only be possible if there were real possibilities that either the Somocistas or the Hondurans could win. At the same time, a direct U.S. intervention would raise serious political problems not only within the U.S., but also because of Nicaragua's international legitimacy. This was demonstrated by the victory in the U.N Security Council, by the support of the non aligned countries, which helped the Pro Peace and Democracy Forum to fail, and by the support of the Mexican Venezuelan initiative, which was later strengthened by Colombia and Panama on Contadora Island.

It is important to point out, though, that these limitations do not yet imply the complete failure of Reagan's plan. Because of the constant armed incursions and the ever existing possibility of successful sabotage attempts, the counterrevolutionary forces still have a strong potential for inflicting damage. And, although the Honduran army is incapable of achieving a strategic victory with its forces alone, it also has an extremely high capacity for destruction, especially if U.S. troops are used as the rearguard. Lastly, a direct U.S. intervention should not be rejected completely, especially if attention is paid to statements by high U.S. officials and if the contents of the Symms Amendment are taken into consideration. Even though a direct intervention would be costly politically, a defeat would also have its costs.

The panorama gets complicated if we also include an analysis of El Salvador and Guatemala. Although Rios Montt's regime has not been able to solidify his own, at times, tenuous hold on power, he has to a certain extent dealt some severe blows to the URNG. On the other hand, in El Salvador the situation has begun to accelerate. The FMLN "October '82 Revolutionary Heroes" campaign signified a break in the army's strategic equilibrium. Alongside that, the ever present conflicts sharpened considerably between the dominant groups and the military sectors.


Once December of '82 was reached, and the "final offensive" against the Nicaraguan government had not taken place, various questions arose. Had the U.S. abandoned its initial military plan, or was it just that they wanted to wait to create better conditions against Nicaragua? Were negotiations seen as the better course, faced with the difficulties of a military victory? Or, a more difficult question was: what to do faced with the important advances of the FMLN? The solutions narrowed to two: intervention or negotiation. Yet each of these options also had its variables. For example, in the case of an intervention, would it be a direct U.S. intervention or an attack using Honduran troops? In the case of negotiations, which countries would be the negotiating parties, and which countries would be the mediators? Not to be excluded is the possibility of both intervention and negotiation. What would be the relation between the armed action and the diplomatic action, and which of them would be dominant?

Based on the possibility of the intervention negotiation option five possible formulas have been seen in 1983:

a.The intervention option: This plan is fundamentally just a second edition of the original plan against Nicaragua, correcting and strengthening some points which proved problematic in the carrying out. The Salvadoran army would also have to be strengthened in order to keep a major FMLN advance in check. However, the Salvadoran situation, as well as the Guatemalan, would only become so defined in the case of a victory against Nicaragua. There are two possibilities at the heart of this formula. In the first, the FDN and the ARDE forces, with the assistance of the Honduran army and an internal insurrection in Nicaragua, overthrow the Sandinista government with the U.S. playing the role of rearguard. In the second, the victory sought with the Somocista and Honduran forces does not happen as planned, and the U.S. sees itself obliged to intervene directly to defend its plan and its allies.

b.Nicaragua wins a military victory: In the case that the intervention option is implemented without success, Nicaragua's victory would be accompanied by heavy losses in lives and material damage. Reasons for a defeat of the U.S. strategy could be any or all of the following: because the other Central American forces are unable; because the U.S. for whatever reason decides against direct intervention; or because a direct U.S. intervention would "Vietnamize" the conflict, impeding rapid victories, so that strength would be given to U.S. and Congressional opposition forces. A reverse of this type for the Reagan administration policy would open many possibilities for a quick revolutionary victory in El Salvador.

c.Double internal negotiations: If the White House decides not to intervene, the plan that would take its place is that of double internal negotiations: in El Salvador and in Nicaragua. This plan would suppose giving tremendous aid to the FDN and ARDE forces to create strong, massive uprisings against the Nicaraguan government, obliging it to negotiate internally with them. In El Salvador, the negotiations with the government and the FDR FMLN would also be promoted with the U.S. using all of its support capacity so that the Salvadoran army would have the best negotiating position. This formula implies comparing the Nicaraguan situation with the Salvadoran one and permits all the war machinery which is already in place to be used to the U.S. advantage, without arriving at the extreme of intervention.

d.International bilateral negotiation with Nicaragua and internal negotiations in El Salvador: An alternative to the formula of double internal negotiations consists in holding negotiations between Nicaragua and the U.S. and Nicaragua and Honduras. This posture presupposes that the real problem in Nicaragua is not caused primarily by the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries but by the support which both the Honduran and the U.S. governments give them. So that these dialogues would be successful, internal negotiations in El Salvador would also be implemented with the consent of the FDR FMLN. In this formula, the failure of any of the proposed negotiations would easily bring about the end of the others.

e.The Contadora option: In this option, the countries which make up the Contadora group would offer their good offices as mediators. This option does not reject the possibility that these negotiations would be very different ones, but the goal would be the same: to resolve the problems in the area through dialogue, not military might. The Contadora group considers it incorrect to describe the Central American conflicts within the East West framework: they see them rather as the result of outside interference in the isthmus and propose economic aid to promote the necessary social reforms.


This year the facts have made it clear that, faced with intervention vs. negotiation, the Reagan administration has opted for intervention. The increased actions of the FMLN in El Salvador have not convinced Washington to change their plans substantially. In the first five months of the year, Reagan has sought to strengthen the Salvadoran army by whatever means possible, but without forgetting that Nicaragua is the priority. Following is an analysis of the Reagan plan step by step, pointing out its possibilities and limitations.

a.Armed invasions on the northern and southern borders: In February, 1,600 U.S. soldiers and 4,000 Honduran soldiers held joint exercises called "Big Pine." A total of 900 U.S. military advisors worked on the preparations for these exercises. The exercises consisted in simulating a Honduran maritime invasion of a foreign territory with the help of U.S. marines and paratroopers. At the same time, the opportunity was taken to give the Honduran government modern weapons and to strengthen the FDN forces also. Once the exercise was over, at least 1,200 Somocista ex guards invaded Nicaraguan territory surreptitiously to carry out "Plan C." The principal objective of that plan was to splay out inside Nicaragua in six different groups called "task forces." Each task force could act as an individual unit or as irregular troops. The counterrevolutionaries had FAL and AKA weapons, machine guns of 50 mm and M 60s, mortars of 60 and 80 mm and sophisticated radio equipment.

The Sandinista soldiers carried out a counterattack. The majority of the "task forces" were surrounded only a few weeks after they got into the country. However, the circles had a 50 km radius which made it possible for some of the Somocista troops to escape. The biggest success of the Nicaraguan troops was to put the invaders on the defensive and make them retreat into Honduras. The Somocista forces had a large number of casualties, calculated anywhere between 20 and 40% of their total numbers.

Because of the grave situation in which the Somocista "task forces" found themselves, the ex guards located on the Honduran border regrouped into three areas to launch attacks and thus draw pressure away from the "task forces." As a consequence, 1,200 men attacked the outlying regions of Jalapa, with at least 500 of these coming from North Zelaya while smaller groups entered at other points. The Somocista military units were repelled after many days of hard combat. Once back in Honduras, they regrouped and attacked again. This is the strategy which has been maintained in these last few months.

As a result of the military actions along the northern border, U.S. attempts to install Somocista troops within Nicaraguan territory have failed, and the strength of the Nicaraguan army has hindered the invaders from taking any important towns. This has meant large numbers of Nicaraguan casualties and vast sums of money spent on the Nicaraguan side. Once again it would appear that the counterrevolutionaries are ready for a renewed attack because of the recent recruitment of mercenaries, aided by Cuban exiles in the Brigade 2506 and Alpha 66.

In the meantime on the southern border, the ARDE forces militarily led by Eden Pastora have begun operations. The role which these 2,000 fulfill is basically to take pressure off the northern front, obliging the Sandinista forces to cover more ground. A unity of action can thus be spoken of between the Somocista forces in the north and Pastora's and Robelo's forces in the south. However, within the overall plan, the secondary role which ARDE plays in the U.S. plan has caused friction between ARDE on the one hand and the U.S. and the FDN on the other. ARDE resents the limited economic and military aid which they have received. Obviously, this influences the specific weight that these forces might have in the event of a Nicaraguan defeat. Pastora's recent statements to the effect that he threatened to pull back his forces is a consequence of this situation. It is foreseen that the U.S. might have to augment its assistance to ARDE so that this important tactical support is not lost. Therefore, it is predicted that actions along the southern border will continue and become even more serious.

b.Internal sabotage: The internal counterrevolutionary commandos have found serious limitations to their work. In numerous areas of the country (El Viejo, Chichigalpa, La Paz Centro, Managua, etc.), State Security has detected them. Their successful operations have been few and not too damaging. Yet, the "task forces" have hit relatively important economic points. In June, they caused construction losses of $2 million. Between the border fighting and the internal sabotage, Nicaragua has lost 581 million cordobas.

A new and important U.S. tactic was denounced in June, when Nicaragua expelled three U.S. diplomats. Their mission was to destabilize by means of assassination attempts (which included, Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto), to infiltrate into political parties and trade unions, to promote speculation, to manipulate religion, to carry out military espionage and to make contacts to facilitate the training of armed cells of the Democrat Conservative Party.

c.Solid rearguard in Honduras and Costa Rica: The ARDE forces have moved with great freedom along the Costa Rican border. Units of the rural Costa Rican guard always find "unoccupied counterrevolutionary camps." Yet existence of the camps has been publicly recognized by high officials in the Monge government. In the case of war, this rearguard would be broadened.

In the case of Honduras, a joint operation with the U.S. is predicted which would both strengthen and supply those who would invade Nicaragua and would fortify the Honduran border in the event of a Nicaraguan attack on Honduran territory. Political observers have said that such an operation could be set up quickly given the tight relationship between Tegucigalpa and Washington and the joint exercises already carried out by their armed forces.

Recently, Costa Rica requested, through the good offices of the OAS, that the Contadora group set up an international peacekeeping force on their border. But Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and Colombia sent observers instead, and that momentarily halted any major offensives. But it is interesting to note that, after realizing Contadora would not assume a commitment of peacekeeping forces, Costa Rica has again presented its petition to the OAS.

d.The formation of a provisional government junta and intervention by the Honduran army: In the U.S. plan, the armed incursions from north and south, strengthened by the Honduran Costa Rican rearguard and the carrying out of internal sabotage, are necessary but not sufficient. It would also be necessary to send in the Honduran army against Nicaragua. For some time now, the Honduran army has been training as rearguard support for the Somocista ex Guardia. Yet, in the last few months this help has been even more continuous and consistent, with mortaring of Nicaraguan positions now common. In the first five months of this year, 26 attacks against Nicaraguan border posts or border patrols have been carried out. In just the first three months, Nicaragua repelled 6 direct attacks by Honduran troops, and there were 6 major Honduran mobilizations on the Nicaraguan borders. During May and June, this action increased. Meanwhile, U.S. personnel stationed in Tegucigalpa installed a powerful radar station (AN TPS 43) operated by 50 Air Force members, which has a range over Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Guatemalan territory. At the same time, in Silin, 20 km from Puerto Castilla, a military base was installed to train Honduran and Salvadoran soldiers and, according to some analysts, Somocista forces.

The increasing warlike tension between Honduras and Nicaragua was very evident in the recent visit of Gen. Gustavo Alvarez to the U.S. After being decorated by the Pentagon, he pointed out in a press conference that he had requested an important increase for both his air and land forces. Without rejecting the possibility of a war, he said: "Nicaragua is ready for a popular insurrection... and that would be the best way to save Central America and bring justice to the Nicaraguan people." He also requested that the U.S. commit itself to send troops to Honduras in the case of a war with Nicaragua. Without naming it, this would appear to indicate a resurrection of CONDECA.

According to Nicaraguan leaders, an open declared war with Honduras could be set off by a contrived Sandinista operation against a Honduran border town. Sergio Ramirez, member of the government junta, in his recent trip to Venezuela, denounced the existence of this plan. Honduran army soldiers, dressed as Sandinista soldiers, would attack a Honduran town and kill Honduran campesinos. This would rally the Honduran people against Nicaragua and it would be the pretext for the declaration of war.

In June, two U.S. journalists were killed on the border in Honduras, and the Honduran government blamed Nicaragua. However, statements by Dutch journalists in the same zone only a few days earlier, showed up the weaknesses in the Honduran version.

In the case that war was declared, it would be to support a provisional counterrevolutionary government in a "liberated zone." Many names have been put forth for this provisional junta, the majority of whom have had long associations with Somoza or with Somoza's National Guard.

e.An insurrection of the Nicaraguan people: The FDN and ARDE offensives, the internal sabotage, the solid rearguard in Honduras and Costa Rica, the intervention of the Honduran army and the setting up of a pro U.S. provisional government, still do not appear to be sufficient to defeat Nicaragua. Because of Nicaragua's anti-air defense system, the number of people under arms, the organization of its mass movements and the training of the population in earlier insurrections (that of September ‘78 and July ‘79), the U.S. needs one more factor. Therefore, the CIA has judged that the degree of discontent among the Nicaraguan people is such that they would not support the revolution but rather would support the invading forces. The principal argument which they use to support this thesis are the serious shortages which exist in the country.

The shortage of food stuffs is a serious problem in Nicaragua. Among the many causes for the shortages can be listed: the lack of foreign exchange to buy some products; the economic blockade by the U.S. (in wheat, spare parts, the reduction in the sugar quota, etc.); a productive growth not keeping up with the rise in the population's buying power; the floods and the drought of last year; hoarding of small businesses to raise speculation; hoarding by consumers when rumors are heard that such and such a product will be hard to find; and technical and humans errors in the distribution system. Lately, there have been problems with: cooking oil, powdered milk, pasteurized milk, chicken and eggs. Hoarding exists among the non perishable items: rice, corn, oil and sugar.

Discontent does exist. Yet economic conditions are only one of many factors which affect political attitudes in Nicaragua today.

f.Direct U.S. military intervention: If the U.S. successfully implements its strategy, its task would be reduced to being the rearguard. It would not be necessary for them to intervene directly. This is certainly what they desire. But, what if one element of the plan fails? What if the Honduran army, once inside Nicaraguan territory, is defeated? It would appear that Reagan would at that point opt for a direct U.S. intervention. The very way that he is working with Congress would seem to indicate that possibility.

In December of 1981, the CIA informed the Intelligence Oversight Committees that they had begun to prepare specialized commandos against Nicaragua. The expressed goal was to detain the supposed arms traffic to the Salvadoran guerrillas from Nicaragua. Sixteen months later, those commandos had become an army of 8,000 men. In February of 1983, the legislators were told that the goal was better described as pressuring the Sandinistas to get them to the negotiating table. This was at the time when the double internal negotiation formula, proposed by Enders, was carrying the most weight. But when Jeanne Kirkpatrick visited Central America, the interventionist formula was promoted, and this prompted the fall of Enders. Many members of both houses of Congress expressed their concern about the end results of the CIA operations. When President Reagan classified the counterrevolutionaries as "freedom fighters, "there was an unmistakable sentiment expressed in Congress that they had not been fully informed about the goals of such operations. The administration continued supporting the Somocistas, in spite of congressional opposition, and appeared to be setting the stage for a Central American battle which would force the U.S. to send in troops, many congresspersons began to ask the following questions: What if Nicaragua invades Honduras? What if Nicaragua asks help of the Cubans? and, What do we do in those cases?

In recent weeks, an important struggle began between the executive branch and the Congressional Committees which supervise the CIA. Concern increased when counterrevolutionary leaders stated that their objective was to overthrow the Sandinista government. Heated discussions were held in various committees and sub committees. Reagan's joint address to Congress on April 27, was designed to win bi partisan support for an eventual war in Nicaragua and to get approval for more military aid to El Salvador. "We want the President to tell us, in clear language, what it is that he wants to do with Nicaragua," said the president of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "To assure" that this would happen, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to continue the covert aid but only until September 30, at which time the President has to present a report on this aid in order to gain majority support to continue it. The following day, a spokesperson for the FDN said: "There's no problem with that, before that date we will be in Managua.”

A few days later, the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, E.S. Meyer, subtly changed the terms in which the problem was presented. He said: "I believe that the Sandinistas should understand that nothing is impossible.... We are committed to assuring stability in the area ... and we would be disposed to aid Honduras. I don't see how we could not go in."

In an opinion shared by many sectors of the Democratic Party, Walter Mondale stated: "I believe that this country is broadening the war, and it is becoming a U.S. war. Given the current policy, I feel that it is inevitable that U.S. troops are going to be sent to Central America." Consequently, even though Reagan would have important difficulties to bridge, he could place Congress in such a position that the only alternative would be to support the presidential policy.

g.Diplomacy geared for war: U.S. international policy has constantly sought Nicaragua's isolation. This was clearly demonstrated in the of the Central American Democratic Community and later in the Pro Peace and Democracy Forum. However, Nicaragua's diplomatic victories have achieved more just and progressive proposals, like the one Mexico and Venezuela promoted internationally. When Colombia and Panama joined these proposals and formed the Contadora group, the U.S. and Costa Rica suffered an important defeat. This obliged them to change their tactics in an attempt to save their objectives.

From the beginning, the U.S. and Honduras have refused bilateral negotiations with Nicaragua. While Honduras is participating in the meetings with the Contadora group, it is doing it with the intention of transforming the Contadora to the San Jose model: multilateral negotiations which would isolate Nicaragua. Honduras can play its card to gain time because it knows that in the event of a U.S. intervention, the significance of any diplomatic agreements would be cancelled.

On the other hand, Nicaragua has sought a bilateral solution in an attempt to overcome the adverse correlation. That is why, in spite of its successes, the Contadora group is now stalemated. At the same time, negotiations in El Salvador are hindered by President Magaña, because of his support for Reagan's plan.

Thus Washington's war plan and its diplomatic actions are clear. The U.S. and Honduras have given limited support to the Contadora's proposals, because they have both made it clear that they have no intention of holding bilateral negotiations. But in order to keep peace with other Latin American allies, the Contadora group must be taken seriously. At the same time, the U.S. appears to be impatient at the "slowness" of the Contadora group, while it moves forward in its war plans. The words of Richard Stone, Reagan's "messenger of peace" to Central America, could not be more clear: "The United States maintains a circumstantial and relative support for the workings of the Contadora group, but it considers that the countries who are protagonists cannot continue to drag their feet. Their negotiating actions should be done quickly, and the mechanics of gaining time should be abandoned. If they do not proceed in that direction and if we are convinced that Nicaragua is just gaining time, the clean up will start.... If they do not want peace, they will be defeated."


Based on the intervention negotiation formula, five different options have become evident in 1983. Currently, the Contadora option is faced with serious problems because of the U.S. position. What is clear is that we are moving toward war. If the Reagan administration is able to decide on some points that are not resolved yet, and if Nicaragua cannot do something to change the situation, war in Central America seems inevitable. The time limit set by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the U.S. electoral campaign all seem to point to an early resolution.

One of the main points in the option which calls for war between Honduras and Nicaragua is an internal insurrection. What will happen if this insurrection is produced not against the government of Nicaragua, but against the invaders? What will happen if Reagan does not get sufficient support within the U.S. to intervene directly? And what will happen if the U.S. does decide to intervene?

In the case of a direct intervention, the Reagan administration will have some hard questions to answer. How can the U.S. avoid getting bogged down in Nicaragua, if the Nicaraguan forces, as is to be expected, adopt guerrilla tactics instead of a face to face war? How can another Vietnam be avoided if the Sandinistas “take to the mountains”? If a naval blockade is imposed on Cuba to hinder them from supporting Nicaragua, what will happen if Fidel Castro's government decides to break that blockade, as he has declared to do? What will happen if the FMLN decides that a Nicaraguan defeat is not in their best interests, and they decide to attack Honduras, or to increase their attacks in El Salvador? These are serious questions. Can the U.S. answer them, or can they only be answered by Central America?

It would appear that there is only one thing which can detain this movement toward war a conclusion by the Reagan administration that significant possibilities of failure exist. In a pre electoral period, this conclusion could mean that Reagan would not rush into a decision for war. In that case (while training of Salvadoran soldiers and the war against the FMLN would continue and limited military attacks and more economic sanctions would continue against Nicaragua), the U.S. could present the Salvadoran electoral campaign juxtaposed with the difficult situation in Nicaragua, as a partial success. Internal policy and other points of foreign policy (the Mideast, the Soviet Union and its allies, etc.), could then occupy the chief place in the Republican campaign.

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