On The Threshold Of Invasion News Analysis From October 5 To November 5, 1983
The tensions in Central America and the Caribbean have increased with dizzying speed. Among the most critical events have been the attacks against Nicaragua by land, sea and air; the vigor of the Salvadoran guerrilla offensive; the internal division of the governing party of Grenada and the grievous U.S. intervention in that island.
The possibility of a full-scale war in Nicaragua - with the participation of Central American and/or US troops - grew ever greater during the month of October. The invasion of Grenada created a precedent and may also have created a political momentum inside the White House for another invasion before the 1984 electoral campaign gets underway. The Central American Defense Council (CONDECA) continued its military planning, and Contra attacks against key Nicaraguan targets seemed to be aimed at weakening the country’s capacity to resist a full-scale invasion.
This month’s news analysis will examine the state of the military forces opposing Nicaragua. In the second section, we will examine serious and not so serious peace gestures, the former aimed at preventing a catastrophic war, the latter aimed at giving the Reagan administration a freer hand in Central America.
I. THE MILITARY STRUGGLE IN NICARAGUAIn evaluating the military situation facing Nicaragua, one must take into account three levels of force opposed to Nicaragua: a) the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary forces; b) Honduran forces (and those of other Central American countries); and c) U.S. forces. These levels are linked logistically and tactically: US advisors provide training to the Honduran military and leave behind generous supplies of war materiel after their military maneuvers. Honduran tanks and artillery battalions provide cover for Contras conducting border raids. In addition, the three levels of forces represent successive stages in the effort to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. When the Contras fail, regional forces will step in; when they fail…. In this section we will examine the situation of Nicaragua with respect to each of these three levels of force.
The Nicaraguan ContrasThe most serious Contra attacks during October were focused on Nicaragua’s energy supplies. On October 2, terrorist commands blew up two fuel tanks at Puerto Benjamín Zeledón, on the Atlantic Coast, cutting fuel supplies to Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas, Tasba Pri, and other towns. On October 10, a high-speed Sea Rider gun boat fired at several fuel tanks in Nicaragua’s main port of Corinto. The attack destroyed or damaged eight fuel tanks and set off a huge fire that forced the government to evacuate temporarily Corinto’s 25,000 inhabitants. The attack also damaged part of the port’s infrastructure, 40 tons of medicine, and 660 tons of food and coffee intended for export. Many observers of the events at Corinto suggested that the Contras do not possess the high technology used in the attack, and it was widely believed that the CIA was directly involved in the attack.
Other attacks on Nicaragua’s energy supplies during the month include the October 13 sabotage of the oil-tanker unloading facilities at Puerto Sandino (the facilities had also been sabotaged on September 8), an unsuccessful attack by Sea Rider gunboats against the fuel tanks at Puerto Cabezas, and two unsuccessful air strikes against the important Momotombo geothermal electricity plan.
These military attacks were accompanied by verbal intimidation. FDN leader Adolfo Calero threatened to attack tankers carrying oil to Nicaragua. On October 13, EXXON announced that it would no longer rent tankers to Mexico to bring oil to Nicaragua. Fortunately, Nicaragua was able to make alternative arrangements within a week of the EXXON announcement, though the country’s oil situation remains precarious.
The FDN also carried out infantry attacks during October through the departments of Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Jinotega and North Zelaya, all of which border on Honduras. The most important action took place in Puerto Cabezas, where 1,500 Contras tried to seize the port city after taking nearby points. The attack was repelled, and at least 180 Contras died in the fighting. The attack was significant in that the Pentagon has chosen Puerto Cabezas as the seat of a “provisional government”, according to well-informed US sources. The isolated city seems a logical choice for such plans, given its proximity to Honduras, the lack of a road link with Managua, and the area’s Miskito tensions.
FDN forces also attacked towns in Region VI (Jinotega and Matagalpa), which they had penetrated deeply in recent months. Their most serious attack occurred in Pantasma, a town without a single military objective. Between 250 and 300 Somocistas killed 40 civilians and 7 militia members, and burned the sawmill, the ENCAFE coffee warehouse, the Juan Castil Blanco cooperative, the local branch of the National Development Bank, and three posts of the state-run Nicaraguan Basic Foodstuffs Corporation (ENABAS). The attack, deep in the heart of coffee country, was obviously intended to frighten Nicaraguans into staying away from the harvest.
In evaluating the Contras’ situation, it is important to note that they have yet to establish a square yard of “liberated territory.” Their “victories” have always been against small communities, and the Contras have not even been able to hold these for any length of time. In addition, Contra taskforces inside Nicaragua have suffered severe losses in September and October. Taskforces in central and north Jinotega and in north Matagalpa are struggling for survival, though they remain capable of striking small, isolated hamlets. This Contra failure is a serious setback to the effort to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, for if an all-out war is unleashed in the near future, the invading forces will lack a solid backing in the country’s interior.
As a response to this failure, Contra forces began turning to more sophisticated weaponry, beginning with the attack on Managua’s airport on September 8. Contra planes have been shot down in Managua, Chinandega, Matagalpa, and Río San Juan, and attacks have been repelled in Rivas and at the Momotombo plant.
Highly sophisticated attacks of the type seen at Corinto or Puerto Sandino are a great cause for concern. The destruction of these key targets is essential not only for a war of attrition and destabilization, but also in preparation for a full-scale war. Because Nicaragua has few major fuel storage points, the national economy could be deeply affected by just a few successful strategic attacks. Still, the port of Corinto is functioning once again, and damage there and at Puerto Sandino is being repaired. In addition, the government has enacted energy conservation measures to prepare for possible future energy-supply disruptions, and it is seeking from friendly governments better planes and anti-aircraft weapons to defend key targets.
The Contras’ potential role in a full-scale war will also be affected by their ability to deal with their organizations’ internal problems. The FDN is weakened by a lack of solid leadership and by internal divisions. Various events have demonstrated these divisions: the purge carried out by the FDN high command against “El Suicida,” the leader of an extremely important taskforce that operated around Jalapa; the removal of Enrique Bermúdez from his position of control over the taskforces and his replacement by Adolfo Calero, former manager of Coca-Cola in Nicaragua and, according to Sandinistas, a CIA operative since 1961; and finally, the removal of “Negro” Chamorro from the FDN’s coordinating committee.
The infighting seems to reflect the conflicting personal ambitions of the various leaders and their scramble to get larger pieces of the CIA pie. These divisions should not be ignored when analyzing the FDN, though neither should the CIA’s capacity to impose a precarious “harmony” upon the Contras be left out of the equation.
Meanwhile, ARDE is also facing an internal crisis. Eden Pastora accused Alfonso Robelo’s group of betrayal for sending men to be trained in Honduran and Argentinean military academies, which, Pastora said, amounted to an attempt to set up a parallel general staff. Robelo denied the accusation. The heart of the conflict seems to be Robelo’s greater willingness to cooperate with the CIA and the FDN.
ARDE’s internal squabbling may explain its relative inactivity in October. It carried out only a few minor attacks in the Río San Juan and Rivas departments, and there were persistent rumors that the FDN, distrusting Pastora, is trying to open its own war front along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. By early November, however, there were reports that Pastora and Robelo were reconciled. The terms of any new agreement they may have reached will determine the usefulness of ARDE as a tool of the global strategy to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
In summary, despite the success of certain Contra attacks – especially those directed at Nicaragua’s fuel supplies – both the ARDE and the FDN have demonstrated their inability to lead a sustained offensive against Nicaragua and its revolution. However, they still have the capacity to pave the way for other invading forces and, to a certain extent, wear down the country.
The Central American PawnsThe second level of forces arrayed against Nicaragua, those of Honduras and other Central American countries, have advanced considerably in their war preparations. Joint maneuvers with the US (Big Pine II) have allowed Honduras to renew and increase its weapons supply, while steadily improving its technical capacity and military infrastructure. Honduras has completed improvements on three runways, each of which, according to the press, is 12,000 feet long – long enough for advanced jet fighters. Military hospitals have also been built, some with facilities for up to 5,000 patients, according to reporters.
When Henry Kissinger visited Honduras, President Suazo gave his commission a document affirming the need for a “short-term political and military solution” so that “Nicaragua might revert to the status of a democracy.” The document proposes a “special bilateral mutual-defense treaty,” similar to the one between the US and South Korea, and even states that “our relation could be that of an associated free state, like Puerto Rico.” Whatever the results of these proposals, it is clear that US-Honduran military relations are becoming closer. These relations will be fully consolidated if the Reagan administration decides to pursue the “mutual-defense treaty” option.
The coordination of Central American forces proceeded in October with the continued gearing up of the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA). The military leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras met with US Southern Command head Paul Gorman in Tegucigalpa. Panama sent observers to the meeting, but Costa Rica did not attend. Paz Barnica, Honduran minister for external affairs, stated that, following a meeting in the near future of Central American presidents (Nicaragua excepted), numerous military programs could be set in motion.
In Managua, government junta coordinator Daniel Ortega said that the objective of the latest CONDECA meeting was “to agree on precise plans for aggression,” including counterrevolutionary terrorist attacks against economic targets in Honduras and Costa Rica, for which Nicaragua would be blamed, thereby providing a pretext for an invasion.
In the wake of the invasion of Grenada, it is clear that CONDECA could play a role similar to that of the Organization of East Caribbean States, that of calling for U.S. “protection” from an “aggressive” neighbor. Costa Rica has also announced that in the event of war it would call upon the Organization of American States to protect its borders. Thus the political mechanisms are in place for the introduction of forces from outside the region.
It is not clear that CONDECA acting alone would be any more capable of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government than are the Contra forces. El Salvador, for one, is in no position to lend troops for a Nicaraguan adventure. In the last seven weeks, the FMLN has occupied 64 towns, causing in the area of 1,000 army casualties and taking 207 soldiers prisoner. According to their own radio broadcasts, the FMLN recovered 349 guns and 70,000 rounds of ammunition, while damaging six bridges, two electric plants, and three coffee mills. By early November, many Western diplomats in San Salvador felt that the FMLN had regained the initiative in the war.
It could also be risky for Guatemala to send troops out of the country. According to government sources, more than 10,000 soldiers are involved in anti-guerrilla operations in Huehuetenango, and an undetermined number are participating in the encirclement of the Kekchi Indians in Alta Verapaz. Observers believe that, despite recent blows dealt to the guerrillas, it would be dangerous for Guatemala to involve itself heavily in other Central American countries.
Guatemalan participation is such an adventure would also come at a time when the army itself is not fully united and the Mejía Víctores government has still not fully consolidated its hold on power. In the past few weeks, several officers have been removed from their positions, the most significant being General Hèctor López, former armed forces chief of staff. There were also cabinet shake-ups, with the ministers of finance and labor being dumped on October 27, reflecting friction inside the cabinet. Nor is the regime maintaining its base of political support. The leader of the influential ultra-right MLN party, Mario Sandoval Alarcón, attacked the government for what he sees as attempts to perpetuate itself in power – the same charge that led the MLN to oppose the Ríos Montt regime. Sandoval Alarcon’s party had originally supported the Mejía Víctores government, in which party members hold high posts.
CONDECA’s fortunes in a war against Nicaragua are also affected by the fact that Nicaragua’s self-defense is increasingly well organized. Both the regular and the reserve battalions of the army have been hardened in battle, first against Somoza’s National Guard, then against the Contras. The territorial militia, which defend work places and homes, grew impressively in October. Thousands of young people have registered for military duty, and the Military Service Law will provide both a large pool of candidates for active military service and enormous reserves of adults with rudimentary military training. All these military forces will receive support from the civil defense groups, which will coordinate the different popular organizations in the tasks of fist aid, constructing shelters, distributing medicines and food, etc.
The most generous estimate of the size of a potential CONDECA invading force would put it at 48,000 (20,000 soldiers from each of Honduras and Guatemala, and 8,000 Contras). This estimate appears unrealistic, as Guatemala would probably not be able to free 20,000 soldiers for any period of time, and the whole Honduran army is thought to number no more than 25,000 troops. In addition, CONDECA troops could be required in El Salvador, if guerrillas there stepped up their action in the wake of an invasion of Nicaragua.
But even if one accepts the 48,000 troop figure for the sake of argument, it is clear that in the event of war Nicaragua would be able to rely upon a much larger number of fighters. The Nicaraguans would also hold the advantage of fighting on their own terrain. Of course the bombings and logistical support that the U.S. would undoubtedly provide to the CONDECA forces would cripple the Nicaraguan economy and leave a great number of victims. However, one of the key lessons of Vietnam – where more bombs were dropped than in all of World War II – is that massive bombing alone does not win wars. The decisive battles would be fought by the infantry.
In summary, a CONDECA war against Nicaragua would entail immense suffering and material damage for Nicaragua. Yet CONDECA’s failure to overthrow the Nicaraguan government would provoke extremely conflictive situations in Honduras and Guatemala, not to mention El Salvador. Finally, any U.S. strategic and logistical support for a CONDECA invasion could cost the President and his party dearly as they enter an election year.
The Bottom Line: U.S. InvasionIn the wake of a CONDECA fiasco, the third level of anti-Nicaragua forces – the U.S. military – would almost certainly become directly involved. There is some irony in this, as many of the factors that would make a CONDECA war against Nicaragua unwinnable would also apply to any U.S. action. In response to a U.S. invasion, the Nicaraguan army could easily shift from a conventional to a guerrilla form of warfare, for which it has been trained. It has traditionally been estimated that eight conventional soldiers are required for each guerrilla if a guerrilla force is to be subdued. Would the Pentagon be able to commit the number of troops necessary to crush a guerrilla force ten times, twenty times, larger than the FMLN en El Salvador?
Nicaragua’s terrain – with its interior mountains – also facilitates guerrilla warfare. It should be remembered that the U.S. marines were incapable of defeating Sandino’s poorly armed guerrilla force in six years of fighting. The position of the invaders would be further complicated by the fact that the people of Nicaragua, like so many other peoples through history, would react strongly to the outrage of an invasion. The present popular consensus in favour of the Sandinistas would strengthen the country’s will and capacity to resist.
The Reagan administration would of course be able to destroy Nicaragua’s cities and cripple its economy through air strikes. But as we noted above, these alone would not be enough to win the war. Such air strikes and the invasion in general would provoke strong opposition to the U.S. administration both domestically and internationally, especially as it became clear that no quick victories were forthcoming. Relocated somewhere in the mountains, Nicaragua’s government would retain the recognition and active support of many nations.
Despite the enormous risks involved, the U.S. continues to prepare its forces and those of its CONDECA allies for a Nicaraguan adventure. U.S. spy flights over Nicaragua were stepped up in October. The Big Pine II maneuvers with Honduras, now joined by special amphibious troops known as “sea bees”, will enter their more active phase in November and December, with larger numbers of Honduran and U.S. troops involved in maneuvers close to the Nicaraguan border. Colonel Arnold Schlossberg, an officer of the Rapid Deployment Force and one of the leaders of the exercises, stated that the principal objective of the maneuvers is to train the U.S. army for a “rapid mobilization toward any country that requests its intervention.”
The strategic targets now being attacked by the Contras, the strengthening of CONDECA, and U.S. land and sea maneuvers in the region all point to the possibility of an imminent full-scale war. But if the invading forces will have to pay the high price that we have suggested here, why is the U.S. administration so set on a military solution? One factor may be a breakdown in the U.S. intelligence system – similar to that which occurred throughout the Vietnam war – that leads U.S. leaders to believe that the Nicaraguan people would not support the Sandinista government in the event of an invasion, or that they might even rise up against it. U.S. embassy officials in Managua have regularly admitted to visitors that the Sandinistas would easily win any election held today in Nicaragua, but it is possible that this realistic assessment has not made it through to the U.S. administration, a victim of its own rhetoric about a “Marxist tyranny suppressing the Nicaraguan people.”
Inside Nicaragua, the level of popular support for the government is obvious. The immense support for health and education campaigns, the participation of thousands of campesinos in the land reform program, the massive participation in military defense, and the Contras’ inability to provoke local insurrections: all these testify to the Nicaraguan people’s support for the government and the revolution which it guides. Powerful symbols of this support were two demonstrations held in Managua, (a city of 700,000) during October, both called on less than 24 hours’ notice and both attended by over 100,000 people. Unfortunately, it may take a war to convince the U.S. administration of the error of its understanding of Nicaragua.
Apart from a possible failure of the intelligence network, the rigid ideology of many members of the Reagan administration may play a role. These members have consistently defined U.S. Central American policy, ignoring the concerns of more pragmatic – though equally conservative – officials. This fact was indicated by the June 1983 dumping of Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders and Ambassador to El Salvador Dean Hinton – two conservatives who had grown sceptical of the administration’s search for a military victory in Central American. Pentagon official Fred Ikle’s September 12 speech, which clearly indicated that the U.S. administration would not rest until the Nicaraguan government had fallen, was given prior approval by the White House but not by the State Department, where many officials oppose such a course. Thus, White House decision makers may be surrounding themselves with officials who think as they do and isolating those who might warn them of the perils involved in a Nicaraguan invasion.
II. PEACE EFFORTSThere are still forces working to prevent the outbreak of a full-scale war. For the second time in less than three months, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to withdraw funding for the Contras. Although the Senate later voted to continue the funding – the two houses of Congress will now have to work out a compromise measure — the fact that the House vote broke down on party lines was a strong message to Reagan that the “bipartisan” Central American policy that he needs as he enters an election year has failed to materialize.
The Contadora peace process continues to receive extensive international support and at least the nominal cooperation of all the governments of the region. Nevertheless, as we noted in the last news analysis, the Contadora group has not been able to make much progress in recent months in terms of agreeing on concrete measures to prevent the outbreak of war. The last Contadora meeting, held in Panama in early September, came up only with a general series of regional objectives.
In an attempt to give concrete expression to the general Contadora principles, Nicaragua on October 15 presented four proposals for an agreement to both the Contadora group and the U.S. “Although we do not claim that these proposals are exhaustive,” they do form “an indivisible whole,” said Nicaraguan representatives.
The first proposal lays down the basis for a treaty between Nicaragua and the U.S. The proposal calls upon the U.S. to recognize “Nicaragua’s inalienable right to independence and self-determination as a sovereign state,” and that “Nicaragua does not constitute a strategic or aerial base for the influence of foreign powers, as such a concept is contrary to and incompatible with Nicaragua’s sovereignty and independence.” The document also stated that “Nicaragua declares that the exercise of its sovereign rights constitutes no threat to the security of the United States. Nicaragua will not allow its territory to be used to affect or threaten the security of the United States nor to attack any other state. Furthermore, Nicaragua assures safe passage thorough its territorial waters and air space to all American commercial air or sea vessels, in accordance with international and Nicaraguan laws.”
The second proposal in the Nicaraguan package calls for an agreement between Nicaragua and Honduras according to which each government would refrain from using force or backing groups that seek to destabilize or overthrow the other government. The third proposal concerns El Salvador and affirms the need for a negotiated solution there. The countries signing the proposed agreement would promise to abstain from “offering military assistance, training, arms and other war material to the forces in conflict or to third states serving as intermediaries. The signatories would also agree to suspend such activities if they were already being carried out.” The fourth and final proposal calls for an agreement among Central American nations in which they would promise not to attack each other or to support groups attacking any government in the region. The Contadora nations, or in extreme cases, the United Nations, would be responsible for compliance with the above agreements.
The Nicaraguan proposals will probably give rise to counter proposals from other Central American nations or from the U.S. The fist reaction was that of a U.S. State Department spokesman who termed the proposals “insufficient,” without elaborating further.
If the Nicaraguan proposals were a serious effort at finding peaceful solutions to the Central American conflict, the same cannot be said for the lightning visit of the Kissinger Commission to Nicaragua on October 15. The Commission spent the morning meeting with Nicaraguan opposition figures, the only country in which they did so. In the afternoon there was a meeting with government representatives. Sources present at the meeting stated that the atmosphere was extremely tense, and that it frequently appeared that the commission members were not even listening to the statements of the Nicaraguan representatives. At one point Kissinger is reported to have told government junta coordinator Daniel Ortega that he did not like Ortega’s rhetoric and criticism about the “U.S. war against Nicaragua.” Ortega responded: “We do not like the bombs that the United States is dropping on us.”
It would appear that the net result of the Kissinger visit was to bolster the U.S. administration’s anti-Nicaragua propaganda efforts. Nicaraguan leaders were not listened to, but the meetings with opposition figures, with ARDE leader Alfonso Robelo in Costa Rica, as well as with strongly anti-Nicaragua politicians in Costa Rica and Honduras, have given the Reagan administration more resources for spreading the image of a “totalitarian” and “expansionist” Nicaragua.
III. CONCLUSIONThe cool reception given by the U.S. to the Nicaraguan peace proposals bodes ill for the search for a negotiated solution in Central America. One cannot realistically expect any Central American solution as long as the U.S. government is convinced it can win a military victory in El Salvador and is talking openly of the need to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Peace is simply not part of Mr. Reagan’s short-term strategy.
Thus Nicaragua will continue to suffer military aggression. The important question is the form that this aggression will take. There is a small possibility that the aggression will remain at the level of the Contra forces only. Thus there would be continued border raids, combined with aerial attacks and sabotage against energy facilities, export products, and military centers.
The Reagan administration could decide to maintain the aggression at this level if it believed that the political or military costs of invading Nicaragua during an election year were too great. Thus it might choose simply to use the Contras to hold the Sandinista government “in check” during 1984, and unleash a “final offensive” following re-election.
All signs point, however, to an imminent escalation. Whether this escalation will involve CONDECA troops only or also U.S. marines remains to be seen, but it is clear that any war in Nicaragua will entail great human and political costs for all parties involved. As we have stressed throughout this article, the form of self-defense that Nicaragua has developed makes it inevitable that any invading army will be drawn into a long-term quagmire.
Whatever the near future holds, Nicaragua is preparing for the worst. Presently in a state of alert, the country is strengthening its military defense and making full use of its diplomatic resources. Nicaragua’s supporters will have to organize a full-scale campaign against intervention in an attempt to prevent the escalation of the war or to put pressure on the aggressors once the invasion has begun. At the moment, the major deterrent to an American or CONDECA invasion is the capacity of the Nicaraguan people to defend themselves. We hope that a second deterrent will grow ever stronger. That deterrent is the opposition of world – and especially American – public opinion to the crime which is being inflicted upon the people of Nicaragua Libre.