Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 28 | Octubre 1983



World Attention Shifts East: Tensions In Central America Persist

NEWS ANALYSIS: SEPT. 5, 1983 OCT. 5, 1983 The international context in which Nicaragua is situated is being defined by the repercussions of the downing of the South Korean plane and by the recrudescence of the conflict in Lebanon – all this as the time limit on the discussions about missile placements in Europe is running out.

Envío team

A recent Washington Post cartoon sums up certain elements of September's news analysis. A commuter reading his paper which is filled with headlines on Lebanon and the Korean jet liner turns to his seatmate and asks, "I've been on vacation. Whatever happened to Central America?" The jet liner and Lebanese issues effectively bumped Central America off the front pages of the international press and reduced awareness of critical events in the region.

Though the two issues unfolded in parts of the world remote from Nicaragua, they both have indirect implications for the region, which we will examine in the first part of this news analysis. The flurry of anti Soviet and anti communist declarations in the wake of the jet liner incident could not but affect Nicaragua, as the U.S. administration has been working for two years to portray our country as part of what it calls the "Soviet Cuban Nicaraguan axis." On the other hand, what the Reagan administration might do in our region can be analyzed in the light of its actions in Lebanon. In spite of the geographic distance, similar intentions and scenarios can be found.

In the shadow of these international events, tensions in Central America continued to intensify. The resurrection of CONDECA proceeded and the creation of a regional counterrevolutionary force points ominously toward the possibility of a conflict. The increasingly open use by ARDE forces of Costa Rican territory to launch attacks against Nicaragua unmasked the complicity of some Costa Rican leaders and confirmed that country in the destabilizing role which it has been assigned. In the face of these developments, the progress of the Contadora negotiations was frustratingly slow. It is hoped, however, that the U.N. General Assembly's decision to include the Central American question on its agenda, following a request from Nicaragua, might strengthen the international search for political solutions to the Central American crisis.

In their attacks against Nicaragua during the past month, the Contras demonstrated progress in their technical capacity, carrying out sophisticated sabotage attempts against various key targets. In response to developments in Central America and to Contra action, the Nicaraguan government made political and diplomatic efforts to reduce the social base of the counterrevolution and to maintain international support for the country.

Despite the aggressions against Nicaragua, national reconstruction continued. The Council of State took further steps toward holding national elections in 1985, and the Patriotic Military Service Law was passed. The economically crucial coffee harvest began on October 1. We will conclude this article by examining the challenges presented by the coffee harvest, challenges which symbolize Nicaragua's process of reconstruction, a process facing complex problems, problems being met with hope and the generous participation of the Nicaraguan people.


The repercussions of the shooting down of a South Korean jet liner on September 1 dominated last month's international scene. We do not wish to analyze here the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, nor make judgments on it. The tragedy's significance for Nicaragua lies less in the event itself than in how the Reagan administration used the incident to gain political ground.

The event served, first of all, to focus world attention upon a remote area of the Soviet Union. Just as TV camera crews abandoned San Salvador for Buenos Aires at the outset of last year's Falklands war, so too did world press coverage of the U.S. military maneuvers off the coasts of Central America evaporate in the wake of the jet liner incident. The incident also conveniently allowed the U.S. administration to wrap itself in the mantle of the defender of human rights and of the aggrieved victims of "communist barbarism." The administration quickly placed itself at the head of the international outcry against the Soviet Union, organizing low level economic sanctions on the part of most of the Western allies.

In August the coverage of Reagan's gunboat diplomacy and the worldwide expressions of protest to which it gave rise were an important factor in stalling the U.S. administration's warlike policies in the region. The Reagan administration found itself condemned from many quarters for the maneuvers, the military buildup in Honduras, and the continued attempts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

However, during September, the events that reveal the basic line of Reagan's strategy for the region, such as the continuing military maneuvers in and around Honduras, the resurrection of CONDECA, and the increased aggressions against Nicaragua, were barely covered by the international media. Instead what little Central American coverage did see the light of day was focused primarily on the activities of the "fact finding" Kissinger commission. This was designed to divert attention from U.S. military moves in the region and to project the image of a Reagan administration seeking peaceful, political solutions in the area.

The ideological maneuvering in the wake of the jet liner incident had two key objectives. First, by continually stressing the idea that a nation that would shoot down a passenger jet could not be serious in its desire for world peace, the U.S. administration subtly prepared Western public opinion for the probable failure of the Geneva negotiations, which are seeking to forestall the placing of Pershing and Cruise missiles throughout Europe. Time continued to run out on those discussions during the month, and U.S. allies in Europe reaffirmed their willingness to accept the missiles.

Secondly, the virulent anti communist rhetoric which followed the tragedy helped to keep alive the persistent American fear of all things "red", a fear which influences the confusion of many Americans on the origins and nature of the Central American conflict.

U.S. Intervention in Lebanon and its Significance for Central America

Can a glimpse of the future of U.S. involvement in Central America be gleaned from the past month's events in Lebanon? After the Israeli withdrawal into Southern Lebanon, the U.S. "peace keeping" force in that country was quickly transformed into an active military force. The U.S. launched what UPI called "the largest American naval operation since the Vietnam war," involving over 16,000 soldiers and 15 war ships that repeatedly bombed Druze Muslim positions above Beirut, with the result that once again U.S. service personnel were dying abroad.

There are a number of parallels between the Middle East and Central America, which may justify viewing the month's events in Lebanon as a precedent for the isthmus.

1. The U.S. has defined both regions as key for its "national security" interests. The reasons for the definition vary from one region to the other, with the focus in the Middle East being upon its oil resources and its key role in the geo political strategy of "containing Soviet expansionism". In the case of Central America, less attention is paid to its economic resources and more to its geographical proximity to the U.S. and the Panama Canal.

2. For reasons of economy and in deference to domestic public opinion, U.S. governments have relied upon "surrogates" in both regions to secure its interests. In the Middle East, these include Israel, Egypt (since the Camp David Peace Accord), and Lebanon (since the Israeli invasion of 1982). In Central America, U.S. surrogates include the armed forces of Honduras, El Salvador and in the wake of the August 8 coup - Guatemala, as well as the Contras based in Honduras and Costa Rica.

3. In both regions the forces resisting U.S. interests have proven more resilient than originally expected by U.S. strategists. Palestinian fighters, thought to have been militarily crushed by the 1982 invasion, are back in Lebanon, while the Druze militia have proven themselves to be a serious military force. In Central America, repeated predictions of the imminent demise of the Salvadoran guerrilla forces and the Sandinista government have failed to come true, and instead both the FMLN and the FSLN are consolidating forces in their respective countries.

Given these parallels, what lessons do last month's events in Lebanon hold for Central America? The most obvious point is the speed with which the U.S. presence in Lebanon escalated as the regional surrogates proved unable or unwilling to play the role set out for them. As the U.S. "peace keeping" force was the forerunner of a large scale intervention, so too we can expect the few hundred U.S. military advisors in Honduras and El Salvador, and the land, sea and air forces on maneuvers in the region, to evolve rapidly into a U.S. invasion force should events go badly for the U.S. administration, despite that administration's promises to the contrary.

It is also worth noting that the weakness of one of the U.S. surrogates in the Middle East, Israel, had less to do with its military incapacity than with the domestic political tensions generated by its aggressive military actions. It is possible that U.S. attempts to turn Honduras into its primary regional surrogate could also provoke significant internal opposition.

Finally, the compromise worked out by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Reagan administration on September 23 bodes ill for Central America. The compromise, which gives the administration a relatively free hand in Lebanon for 18 months, symbolizes Congressional unwillingness to challenge Reagan in the area of foreign policy during the pre electoral period. This reluctance, which was also shown in the Senate Intelligence Committee's decision to continue U.S. military aid to the Contras, removes one more obstacle to the administration's search for a "military solution" in Central America.

Intense Movement in an Increasingly Conflictive Region

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, the Junta Coordinator, Daniel Ortega, expressed the relation between the frustration of U.S. policies in the region and the possibility of more direct involvement:

“Where are the successes of U.S. policy in the region? Where are its victories in El Salvador? Where are its 'freedom fighters' in Nicaragua? The Reagan administration's regional policy of attacks and military aggressions has already failed, and it now has no alternative but a larger and more direct involvement.”

It is hard to speak of the failure of Reagan's strategy in the region when one sees the daily attacks against Nicaragua, the fierce repression in El Salvador, the growing weapons buildup in Honduras and its regional military involvement, and the new Guatemalan regime's servility to U.S. strategic interests. Nevertheless, the historical trends of the region must be analyzed. Despite some setbacks suffered by the revolutionary forces in the region, these forces have substantially weakened U.S. hegemony in an area that it has considered its "backyard" since the Monroe doctrine was invoked in the early 1800s. The fact that the deterioration of this hegemony has accelerated over the past few years makes a direct U.S. military intervention ever more possible in order to "solve" the Central American problem.

Nevertheless, the last month has been characterized by political and military maneuvers, through which the U.S. administration is trying to solidify the response of its regional surrogates.

On October 1, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Paul Gorman, met with Guatemalan President Mejia Victores and with the defense ministers of Honduras, El Salvador and Panama, in Guatemala. The main goal of the meeting was to resurrect CONDECA officially (see "The Coup in Guatemala", Envio #27). Statements leaked from the meeting left little doubt that CONDECA's targets are Nicaragua and the popular movements in the area.

Perhaps the most ominous factor in the regional situation this past month was the attitude of Costa Rica, which is accepting in spite of some internal opposition - both the presence of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), and ARDE's use of Costa Rican territory to launch attacks against Nicaragua. As we have noted before, Costa Rica's relations with Nicaragua have been highly contradictory. On the one hand, Costa Rica supports the mixed commission with Nicaragua that is trying to reduce bilateral tensions between the two countries. On the other hand, Costa Rica is lending its infrastructure and its territory to the cause of the Contras.

ARDE's most serious military action during the month was the September 28 attack on the Peñas Blancas customs station, the point where the Pan-American Highway crosses the Costa Rican Nicaraguan border. Though border traffic returned to normal a few days later, the attack against the one border area which had enjoyed a certain calm demonstrated the Contras’ strategy of imposing a land blockade against Nicaragua. The attack and the distorted presentation of the events made in the Costa Rican press revealed a political disposition on the part of certain Costa Rican sectors to deepen the tensions with Nicaragua. Costa Rica's Minister of Foreign Relations, Fernando Volio, even threatened to invoke the "Rio Treaty" (the Inter American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty) against Nicaragua. As Costa Rica's Public Security Minister Edmundo Solano commented, "Unfortunately, there are sectors in Costa Rica which apparently want war."

These more aggressive sectors are responding to U.S. strategy in the area. The new U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Curtin Winsor, raised the possibility of U.S. military intervention to protect Costa Rica from Nicaraguan aggression (Barricada, October 3).

Costa Rica, with its liberal democratic institutions and its lack of an official army, can play the role of the "aggrieved victim" much better than can Honduras, with its growing militarization. Last year, at the time of launching the Central American Democratic Community, and later the Pro Peace and Democracy Forum, Costa Rica was assigned the role of diplomatic mouthpiece for the plans to isolate Nicaragua. With the failure of these efforts, confirmed by the establishment of the Contadora group in January of this year, it is not difficult to imagine that Costa Rica's role in the "regional division of labor" against Nicaragua was readjusted. Its effectiveness, though, even in this new role, could still be limited by the various internal tensions in that country.

As a counterpoint to the revival of CONDECA and the growing implication of Costa Rica in a coordinated anti Nicaragua strategy, the Contadora group continued its efforts to slow the trend toward regional conflict. Meeting in Panama on September 7 9, the Foreign Ministers of the Contadora Group and of the five Central American nations drafted a document of objectives for the region, that was later ratified by the Central American governments. Though the participants in the meeting expressed some optimism with the results, the 18 points agreed upon did not advance significantly from the earlier accord reached in Cancun, Mexico. Nor was it clear how the Contadora proposals could be concretely implemented in a context of increased military tension. The air attacks on the Managua airport on September 8, even as the Contadora meeting was taking place in Panama, symbolized the two processes at work in Central America: while the Contadora negotiations take two steps forward and three backward, the military aggressions against Nicaragua take giant steps forward.

Twice this month Nicaragua showed that it was not putting all of its diplomatic eggs in the Contadora basket. On September 13, it convoked an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the latest attacks against Nicaragua, and in his September 27 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Daniel Ortega asked that body to include the question of Central America in the agenda of the 38th session. Though the decision of the General Assembly to consider the Central American question, over the opposition of the U.S. and its allies in the region, was considered a diplomatic victory for Nicaragua, there were nevertheless repercussions within the Contadora group. Speaking to the press, Panama's foreign minister, apparently representing the Contadora group as a whole, expressed concern over Nicaragua's unilateral request to the U.N. Thus, there may be a certain short term tension between Nicaragua and the Contadora group, though Nicaragua continues to respect the Contadora process, as shown in its call upon the group to send its commission of observers to the border with Costa Rica in the wake of the Peñas Blancas attack.

Nicaragua's request to the U.N. was less a sign of a lack of confidence in Contadora than a demonstration of its willingness to use all the international forums at its disposal to discuss the Central American situation, a willingness understandable in the light of the escalating pressure upon the country. In the face of continued Contra attacks and the increased military coordination of U.S. regional military allies, Nicaragua's request to the U.N. attempted to create a worldwide awareness of the dangers facing the region.


The more open use of Costa Rica as a launching area for anti Nicaragua aggression was not the only new factor in Contra activity this past month. The Contras demonstrated technical progress as they unleashed air attacks and conducted various sabotage operations using sophisticated equipment. This progress does not demonstrate a widening of the Contras’ social base, but it does reflect the increasing materiel support of the Reagan administration.

Main Aerial Attacks

September 8: Two planes bombed the Augusto Cesar Sandino airport and other civilian targets in Managua.
September 9: Two combat planes fired rockets against the oil storage tanks at the port of Corinto. An aerial attack against Cibalsa took place the same day.
September 23: A plane attacked the Nicarao electrical plant and the INDUSQUINISA factory, both near Leon.
September 28: On the same day as the Peñas Blancas attack, two planes attacked Nicaraguan army positions in El Naranjo, near the Costa Rican border.

October 3: A DC 3 was shot down near Los Cedros, in Matagalpa, as it was trying to bring supplies to Contras inside Nicaraguan territory.


September 8: "Frog men" placed bombs near the Puerto Sandino pipeline, which is used to bring oil from ships to shore. The bombs damaged the pipeline, which lies 60 feet under water, and destroyed five buoys weighing four tons each.
October 2: Two fuel tanks with a combined capacity of 380,000 gallons were blown up at Puerto Benjamin Zeledon, on the Atlantic Coast.

Nevertheless, a number of factors during the month thwarted both the Contras’ military offensive and the attempts to isolate Nicaragua in the region. The unfavorable experiences of many campesinos and Miskitos who had been recruited by the Contras by a variety of methods, and the work of conscientization undertaken by government supporters with the families of Nicaraguans who have joined the Contras, helped lead to more than 200 defections from Contra ranks during the month. The defections underlined the government's efforts to frustrate the Contras’ attempts to create a social base of support by appealing to Nicaraguans living in isolated regions where, because of historical and geographical factors, the people's experience of the revolution is only beginning.

The visit of a group of Honduran business people to Nicaragua, which resulted in a $16 million barter deal, symbolized the hope that the region's economic crisis can be faced in a united fashion despite the political tensions in the area.

Finally, various Nicaraguan leaders undertook diplomatic visits during the month. The political isolation to which the U.S. administration would like to condemn Nicaragua was broken by these visits: Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal went to West Germany; Sergio Ramirez traveled to North Korea, Mongolia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria; Central Bank President Figueroa visited Belgium, where he took part in a meeting of the European Economic Community; Henry Ruiz attended the Latin American Economic System meeting in Caracas, Venezuela; Tomas Borge visited eight Western European countries; and Daniel Ortega spoke at the U.N.


The process of national reconstruction continued throughout the month, hindered but not stopped by external aggression. On September 13, the Council of State gave final approval to the Law of Patriotic Military Service (See "Nicaragua's New Army" in this ENVIO). In the following session on September 21, the Council of State formed a Special Commission to draft a proposed Electoral Law. The draft law will then be discussed with all the political parties, and once it has been approved by the Council of State in 1984, a date for the 1985 elections will be set.

As part of the electoral preparations, an electoral commission headed by Council of State president Carlos Nuñez had been invited by several members of Congress to visit the U.S. The commission, which had already undertaken visits to various European and Latin American countries to study their electoral systems, was refused visas by the U.S. State Department. The State Department's decision to refuse entry to the commission is in sharp contrast both to Nicaragua's reception of many U.S. congressional junkets during the past few months and the visa extended by the U.S. to ARDE leader, Eden Pastora.

The existence of political pluralism in Nicaragua, evidenced by the continuing electoral preparations, was also symbolized by the conventions of two opposition political parties: the Social Christian Party and the Social Democratic Party. Two important events also took place among the popular organizations. The Sandinista Defense Committees celebrated their fifth anniversary in Esteli on September 9, and on September 29 the Nicaraguan Women's Association (AMNLAE) celebrated its sixth anniversary, which culminated in a series of peace marches.

The Coffee Harvest: Nicaragua's "Gold"

The coffee harvest season officially began on October 1. Nicaragua receives a large part of the foreign exchange needed to buy medicine, raw materials, oil, etc., from its coffee exports. Thus, coffee, the "golden bean," is a vital factor in the country's survival and reconstruction. Nicaragua exports to 23 countries, the principal buyers being the U.S., West Germany, Algeria, Holland, France, Belgium, and the U.S.S.R.

The importance of Nicaragua's coffee exports has led to a five year coffee renovation project, which will affect 9,500 hectares. By 1988 this project will allow for an increase of 15,000 tons in coffee production, a 25% increase over the average harvests of recent years. The project will generate 10,700 new jobs and an extra $33 million worth of coffee exports each year. The renovation will cost 416 million cordobas ($41.6 million at official exchange rates), which the state will provide to private and public producers. Seventy percent of Nicaragua's 25,000 coffee producers belong to the private sector.

This year's coffee harvest is expected to reach 60,000 tons, down from last year's record high of 70,000 tons. Reasons for the decline include the prolonged drought of last year and a coffee blight which hurt the plants. Decapitalization on the part of some coffee producers who have not taken care of their plants has also been a factor, as has the Contra military action in the northern border zone. Contra activity in the coffee producing zones is expected to cost the harvest 7,300 tons of coffee this year.

Of the 70,000 persons needed for the harvest, 50,000 farmworkers, who have traditionally taken part in the harvest, are already available. The other 20,000 will be made up of voluntary workers recruited from the popular organizations, such as AMNLAE and the Sandinista Youth. The government has taken emergency measures to ensure that an adequate labor supply is available, such as the formation of battalions to harvest the coffee and the approval of a new labor law, which offers incentives to the workers and guarantees better food and living conditions during the harvest.

Besides the coffee lost in the northern border region, much of the coffee will have to be picked in the dense, mountainous regions of Jinotega and Matagalpa, where there is considerable Contra penetration. It is expected that the Contras will step up activity in these areas to reduce the harvest and thus add to the country's economic problems.

In the face of these difficulties, the coffee harvest, like all Nicaragua's reconstruction tasks, will be an ongoing challenge from now until December. At that point, the cotton harvest will be a national priority, which will demand new efforts on the part of this people that continues constructing a new Nicaragua despite the harassment, the blockades, the sophisticated attacks and the ever present possibility of a direct U.S. intervention.

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