Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 27 | Septiembre 1983



Nicaragua Delineates Its Concept Of Defense

News Analysis: August 5 to September 5, 1983 The circle closes tighter every day, trying to asphyxiate Nicaragua. Not only are there hostilities on its northern and southern borders, but the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have been effectively converted into zones controlled by the U.S. fleets.

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The threat of war in Central America that we described last month still hangs over the region like Damocles' sword. However, in the last forty five days there has been an adjustment of tactics in the overall strategy. The new offensive by Honduran based counterrevolutionaries, patterned after the failed Plan "C" of February and March, makes the closeness of war that much more evident. If the original was a failure, why were virtually the same tactics repeated? How do the U.S. war games, Big Pine II and Readex II, fit into the decision to repeat the same plan of attack?

Each day the noose is being pulled tighter around Nicaragua. There are hostile forces on both its land borders, Honduras to the north, Costa Rica to the south. To the east and west, both the Atlantic and Pacific have been virtually turned into controlled zones by the U.S. Navy. While the Reagan administration has not eased up its aggressive approach to the region, a look at the past month's developments helps explain the short term delay in a war between Nicaragua and Honduras. The change of power in Guatemala with the Mejia Victores coup and the almost certain resurrection of CONDECA caused shifts in U.S. policy toward the region during the month. (We will examine both of these factors in detail in the second article in this ENVIO.) The opening of talks with the Salvadoran insurgent forces completes the Reagan administration's moves. These moves can be seen as an attempt by the administration to achieve some results from its foreign policy in order to bolster its reelection chances.

In the face of the clear military pressure upon Nicaragua, the country's civil and military self defense capabilities have taken shape in the past thirty days. In July of 1982, ounterrevolutionary forces had little trouble entering the town of San Francisco del Norte, where they massacred fifteen people. Last month attempts to mount similar attacks against Ciudad Sandino (Nueva Segovia) and San Rafael del Norte were met with armed resistance by the local population. The year has seen qualitative advances in organization throughout the nation, which is now "adjusting" to life under attack.

In this framework the proposed military draft, known as the Patriotic Military Service Law, which was presented as an instrument for the institutionalization of the Nicaraguan army, is seen as the logical extension of the military training already being undertaken by a large percentage of the population. If it has also been presented as a necessity over the medium and long term, that is due to the fact that the country is under attack. During the month of August, official figures put the number of military confrontations between Sandinistas and Contra forces at 97.

The proposal for a military draft has a new and wide ranging ideological debate. The traditionally privileged sectors of society immediately identified themselves with the hypcritical response by the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference and did their best to use the open discussion of the proposal to launch a frontal offensive against the government.

In short, it has been a difficult month for a country which in spite of everything continues the process of reconstruction and which also continues to count on international support and confidence.


On August 5, Julio Ramos, Chief of military intelligence for the Nicaraguan Army, announced a new offensive by counterrevolutionary forces. The first signs of the campaign were seen toward the end of July; by the beginning of August, its dimensions had increased. Almost a month later, during Armed Forces Day celebrations on September 2, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega outlined the magnitude of the offensive and the casualties it caused.

August 1983

* 97 military confrontations in thirty days;
* 247 enemy casualties, including 197 dead;
* 76 members of the government forces killed. Of those, 28 were either in the militia or the reserve, the others were from the regular army;
* 40 violations of Nicaraguan airspace, many of these openly supported by Honduras;
* 30 attacks on Nicaraguan border posts and against military patrols along the border;
* 22 Nicaraguan civilians assassinated.

The February March 1983 offensive resulted in 309 Contra dead and 97 casualties among the government forces. A comparison between the Contra's Plan "C" used at that time and the tactics used in this latest offensive reveals little if any difference. In light of the resounding failure of the February March actions, one question arises immediately: why would such unsuccessful tactics be repeated?

Recycling an Unsuccessful Plan.

There is one key difference between the situation in Central America at the time Plan "C" was launched and the situation at the beginning of the second offensive. This difference is fundamental to understanding the magnitude and danger of the current situation. The U.S. is now holding war games only a few kilometers from the site of Contra attacks on Nicaragua.

There are two separate but complementary sets of war games. Big Pine II began in early August and involves land and sea forces, including the virtual occupation of Honduras and the deployment of warships off both Central American coasts. Readex II’83 began in the third week of August and is scheduled to end the middle of September. The fleet involved in these maneuvers in the Atlantic and the Caribbean includes the U.S. aircraft carriers "Independence" and "John F. Kennedy," sixteen cruisers, two attack submarines and numerous destroyers and frigates. British warships are also involved because the operation is being carried out by the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance. A Dutch ship which had been scheduled to take part was recalled at the last minute by the government in Amsterdam, which decided that participation in the exercises would be unwise at such a tense and critical time.

U.S. forces, whose strength in the region has been augmented considerably in the last month, are now providing strategic reassurance for the counterrevolutionaries. Any provocation or incident could easily become the justification that would transform the "routine maneuvers" into a full-scale attack. In such an event, the anti Sandinista "task forces" would be replaced, or strengthened, by the Honduran Army, which would then become the front line force in the regional theatre of operation.


The imminent danger of war that we pointed out last month was forestalled and the tactic of using the counterrevolutionary “task forces” was implemented instead. This change in tactics, from our perspective, is part of the adjustment which the Reagan administration implemented in August. Coming months will tell if this shift is only momentary.

There are, however, immediate and discernible effects of this change: the coup in Guatemala, the proposed resurrection of CONDECA (both of which are discussed in detail in the second article of this ENVIO), and the focus being put on talks between the U.S. and the popular forces in El Salvador.

Even without going deeply into these changes, we can find a common denominator: Reagan's decision to adopt a practical Central American policy and to avoid major errors which would increase domestic opposition and which could cost him reelection next November. Nonetheless, this tactical change does not indicate any real shift in the overall approach being taken in Washington.

The administration is hoping to point to the negotiations with the Salvadoran insurgent forces as a major foreign policy success. The reality is somewhat different. The launching of a new military offensive in El Salvador at the beginning of September and the dynamics of that war show that the U.S. now needs negotiations because of the weakness of the Magaña government and the progress being made by the insurgents. In other words, the willingness to negotiate shows the inability of the U.S. strategy in El Salvador to produce results. This failure is being hidden behind the presence of the U.S. fleet in Central American waters. Further evidence of the duplicity of the administration policy is Washington's decision to construct the CREMS regional training center in Puerto Castilla and a new base in Palmerola, announced just as the talks were beginning.

As for the coup in Guatemala, one general was ousted, another installed. Both are tainted by their responsibility for the massacres of campesinos and no real internal changes are foreseen in that country.

Thus, while there was no direct U.S. military intervention in Central America, the military maneuvers and the construction of new military facilities add up to virtually the same thing.

Recent statements from U.S. officials make current regional policy goals even clearer:

"The Big Pine II exercises will allow the United States to train its armed forces to deploy quickly in any country that asks for military assistance," Col. Arnie Shlossberg, Commander of the maneuvers, quoted in El Nuevo Diario, 8/20/83.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick said, "Military problems require military solutions." At the same time, she strongly defended Washington's intervention in the internal affairs of Central America, saying that the region "directly affects our national security." Interview with the French daily Le Figaro cited in El Nuevo Diario, 8/18/83.

The Reagan administration continues to see Central America as the most important area of U.S. Soviet confrontation. This perspective engenders a policy of support for those governments and for the "friendly forces" which will guarantee U.S. domination in the region and the view that it is Nicaragua and the revolutionary forces which threaten this domination. Finally, the administration views “security” and geopolitical military control as the methods most indicated to enforce its policy.

As for Nicaragua, in the last month a series of factors have helped forestall overt war with Honduras and direct U.S. intervention.

There has been growing opposition within the U.S. to the administration's Central American policy. In recent days more than fifteen U.S. officials, Senators and Representatives, among them presidential hopeful Gary Hart, have visited Nicaragua. Both Nicaragua and the peace proposals coming from the Contadora Group have enjoyed growing support from Latin American nations and political forces. An example was the firm stance against U.S. policy taken by Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid in his recent meeting with Reagan. At the regional conference of the Socialist International held in Brazil, delegates failed to succumb to administration pressure to vote for an aid cutoff to Nicaragua. President Reagan even sent a letter to the conference calling for the adoption of a resolution to that effect.

In Nicaragua, the arrival of more than fifty international voluntary work brigades, mostly from Europe, clearly demonstrates the growing support the country is enjoying. In Sweden, the First International Congress of Christian Socialists drafted a declaration of support for Nicaragua.


On July 24, 1982, a massacre took place in San Francisco del Norte, just a few kilometers from the Honduran border. From their bases in Honduras, a counterrevolutionary group took the town by surprise, killed 17 persons and kidnapped many others. Two things stood out in this attack: the brutality of the massacre and the town's weak system of defense.

On August 15 of this year, a considerably larger counterrevolutionary task force tried to take San Rafael del Norte. Located about 22 km. north of Jinotega, this town is a real symbol of the anti interventionist struggle, as it was one of the areas where Sandino fought. The plan of the Contra was the same as that used in San Francisco del Norte, but in San Rafael the attack failed.

San Rafael was prepared. Defense tactics had been set up and practiced earlier, and the attack was successfully repelled. A few days later, a similar attack occurred in Ciudad Sandino, in the department of Nueva Segovia, but the people were organized in defense units and over 200 Contra were driven out of the town. '(See page 9a)

Patriotic Military Service

On August 9, in a regular session of the Council of State, the Minister of Defense introduced the draft of the Patriotic Military Service (SMP) Law.

Article 24 of the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua, dated July 20, 1979, one day after the victory, instituted the Sandinista Popular Army: “Nicaragua's National Guard will be substituted by a new national army of a patriotic nature, dedicated to the defense of the democratic process and to national sovereignty, independence, and the protection of its territory.”

The possibility of obligatory military service had not been mentioned during these four years until this July. On July 19, the Coordinator of the Junta, Daniel Ortega, stated that the draft of the military service law would be presented to the Council of State soon. On August 9, as already mentioned, Humberto Ortega introduced it. Since then it has been going through the regular process every draft law follows. A special commission of the Council of State was elected to study the draft and make suggestions, additions or deletions. After three weeks of work, the commission presented the working document to the plenary session of the Council of State on August 31. That same day, 12 of the 51 articles which make up the law were approved. Those articles include the following points:

* Military service will include both active and reserve duty;
* Active duty means fulfilling military activities in any of the units or offices of the Defense ministry;
* Reserve duty consists of military training and formation;
* Military service is voluntary for women;
* After active duty (which will last 2 years and can be extended or reduced by 6 months) the person goes on reserve duty;
* Men between the ages of 18 and 25 will be recruited first.

More specific regulations and guidelines are included in the other articles, which will be coming up for analysis in future sessions of parliament. Some of these include: exemptions, the registration method, infractions, sanctions, etc.

According to the official announcement by H. Ortega, if the law is approved before October, registration will take place in that month for all males between 18 and 25 years of age, approximately 200,000 youths. Of that group, only 15,000 young men will begin training in January of 1984.

Within the articles already approved, Patriotic Military Service is defined as "the active participation of the nation in the tasks of defense" and as "the institutionalization of military service which the militia and reservists have been doing voluntarily for the last four years." Military service should be understood as an "effort to achieve better organization in the defense of the country.”

Reactions to the SMP Law

Immediately after the draft of the law published, various organizations, religious communities and institutions began make their positions public. The majority expressed their support for the new proposal. The parties in the Revolutionary Patriotic Front, Basic Christian Communities, evangelical institutions like CEPAD and the Eje Ecumenico all announced their support; however, they also presented suggestions for changes in the bill. CEPAD, reflecting the concerns of many of its members, such as the Mennonite Church, has begun a dialogue with the government. The purpose would be to allow some form of alternative service to members of traditionally pacifist denominations.

The mass organizations quickly held meetings to study the draft, as did the unions and the other associations who have representatives on the Council of State. In just two weeks, over 290 block committees had held meetings. Seminars were also held by CONAPRO (the association of professionals), ANDEN (the teachers' association UPN (the journalists' association), etc. Of these, the most vocal was AMNLAE, the women's association, which proposed that because of the historic role women played in the revolution, obligatory service should be for all and not just for men.

The first negative public reaction to the draft was from the Social Christian Party. After deciding to withdraw its representative from the Council of State's special commission to study the draft, it published a document which was very critical of the law. An earlier document of the Social Democrat Party also expressed its opposition. But without a doubt, the document of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference was the most negative and produced the strongest internal reaction. (See page 10a)

The Episcopal Conference Position

The document was dated August 29 and was published in its entirety in Barricada and El Nuevo Diario on September 1.

On September 5, Bishop Santi of the diocese of Matagalpa said in an interview with Radio Sandino, later published in the papers, that he had not read the document because he was out of the country on August 29. Asked about military service, he said that "it is a right of governments and nations."

On August 30, the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, published a statement by Bishop Barni (Leon) referring to the meeting which the Episcopal Conference called to discuss the draft of the military service law. "We haven't finished discussing it yet," Barni said on August 29, "and we won't finish until we meet again next week." The appearance of the document that very same day seems odd in the light of Barni's statement.

Since April, when the Episcopal Conference published a statement about the Pope's visit, the Catholic hierarchy has not made any other public statement.

The majority of analysts or theologians who have commented on the bishops’ document consider that it expresses a political position rather than giving a theological-moral analysis.

Themes like violence and non violence, which would seem to be important themes right now, are not treated, nor are moral values questioned in reference to military service.

The principal points in the Bishop's document are:

a) An army is an armed institution of a state, which gets its legitimacy from the need to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

b) This legitimacy loses validity if the state itself (which is the source of the army s legitimacy) does not have the authentic moral authority to oblige its citizens to join the army;

c) There is a classic concept of army and military service and a new one, the "revolutionary" one, based on a new concept of the right of the state and its institutions;

d) This new right has been created by totalitarian ideologies. This social legal revolutionary concept has not gained its legitimacy freely, rather it has been imposed by force;

e) In all countries which have totalitarian governments, there are strongly politicized armies to defend the nation's ideology;

f) Citizens cannot be forced to join an army which does not belong to the nation but to a party in this case, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN);

g) As no one can be forced to take up arms to defend a certain ideology or political party, and taking into account the party nature of the SMP, which is similar to all totalitarian laws, a conscientious objector position is morally acceptable.

The legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government called into question by the document has both internal and external foundations.

Internally, it is expressed by the support and participation of the majority of citizens. The most significant successes of these past four years would not have been possible without this overwhelming participation: e.g., the literacy crusade, the adult education program, the health campaigns. The Political Parties Law is another expression, as is the announcement that 1984 is a pre electoral year and 1985 is the year for general elections. It would be hard to imagine all the different social sectors in a nation participating in a reconstruction policy promoted by a government which they did not consider legitimate.

Externally, legitimacy was won on July 19, 1979, when the majority of countries in the world recognized the new Nicaraguan government. This international legitimacy is not something static. Nicaragua’s election to a seat on the United Nations Security Council with the support of 104 countries is proof of this continued recognition.

In these four years, few have questioned the legitimacy of the government. Exceptions are the counterrevolutionary groups which are trying to overthrow the government, and the Reagan administration, which just last month said that it would be almost impossible to reach a peaceful solution in the region with the Sandinistas in power.

The Episcopal Conference statement also calls the Nicaraguan army a party army. Granted the name of the army Sandinista a Popular Army has the name Sandinista in it, this is more a historical feature in Nicaragua than a party issue. Sandino is a national hero and he inspired the revolution. Not every soldier is a card carrying FSLN member; actually, the number of FSLN party members is very small. In Nicaragua, "Sandinista" is synonymous with nationalism, with cooperation between the various social sectors and the patriotic political parties. It is not a word used exclusively by the FSLN. An extreme example is that Eden Pastora's armed counterrevolutionary group uses the name Sandinista Revolutionary Forces.

Encouraging the youth in the nation to reject military service on this basis could be considered as giving legitimacy to the killings which are being carried out by those who have taken up arms to overthrow the government. The tone and content of this document have driven a wedge into national unity. This position at a time when the country is under attack gives implicit support to those who seek to overthrow the government, whether from Honduras or from the White House.

Nicaragua's defense, and military service to carry out that defense, are not totalitarian caprices nor expansionist dreams, but an objective necessity of a country under attack.


The focus of this article has been twofold: the aggressions and the Episcopal response to the military service law. These have had such serious repercussions in Nicaragua that we have limited this article to commenting only on them, but positive things have also taken place.

On August 13, the government held a meeting in Matagalpa to evaluate the work carried out in the first six months of this year. The conclusions of that meeting were later published so that everyone could be aware of what is happening on the government administration level in the country.

On August 17, the Council of State approved the Political Parties Law which had been under discussion and revision for almost two years.

Land titles have continued to be given out under the Agrarian Reform Law and the geothermic Plant at Momotombo was inaugurated in August. This is one of the most important plants of its type on the continent.

Despite the attacks by the Contra and the enormous energies expended to repel these aggressions, the reconstruction of the country continues.

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