Nicaragua Wages Peace, Reagan Steps Up War
The political trends discussed in March's envío were confirmed by April's events. Despite his increasing isolation, Ronald Reagan has not swayed from his determination to topple the Sandinista government. At the same time, the Nicaraguan revolution is moving toward the military defeat of the contras and consolidating itself politically both at home and abroad, despite the deteriorating economic situation fueled largely by the war. Nicaragua's strong political position provides support for those forces in the United States who increasingly oppose Reagan's militaristic policies, as well as those in the international arena who believe now is the time for this ongoing war to come to a just and negotiated end.
Reagan digs inOn April 21, Ronald Reagan renewed the economic embargo against Nicaragua, first imposed in May 1985, for six more months. The reasons given in 1985 for the embargo—that "the actions and policies of the Nicaraguan government represent an extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States"—are still apt, according to President Reagan. The renewal of the embargo is a sign that the Reagan administration's policy of aggression against the Nicaraguan revolution continues. Neither the strategic defeat of the contras in Nicaragua nor the opposition of the US Congress and public to his Nicaraguan policy—an opposition that is mounting daily with the ongoing revelations of the Iran/Contragate scandal—nor the strengthening of peace proposals at the international level have swayed Reagan from his course.
This was apparent as new US-Honduran military maneuvers began in Honduras on April 25, under the name "Solid Shield." Some 50,000 US troops—the largest number ever to participate in the series of maneuvers carried out in the region since 1981—were involved in the two phases. The first phase was a simulated evacuation of civilians at the US military base in Guantánamo, Cuba. A fleet of aircraft carriers headed up by the USS-Saratoga assisted in amphibious actions. The second phase involved an amphibious attack against Puerto Castilla, Honduras. The Solid Shield 87 maneuvers partially overlapped with Pegasus 87, an air exercise over Honduras in which 19 airplanes and 7 helicopters participated, including Thunderbolt A-10s, Corsaire A-7s and EC-130s—all specifically designed to lend air support to land forces with armored units.
Before the Solid Shield and Pegasus 87 exercises, seven other military maneuvers were carried out in Honduras in 1987, among them Lempira 87, in which the 237th Airborne Division participated, demonstrating that they could be deployed from their California base to Central American territory in 48 hours. Two more phases in the prolonged Ahuas Tara maneuvers were also carried out in the Honduran provinces of Olancho, El Paraíso, Choluteca and Gracias a Dios, all bordering Nicaragua.
The upcoming reorganization of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) must be considered in the context of the continuing embargo and ongoing military maneuvers in Honduras. The UNO will be restructured as the Democratic Nicaraguan Resistance, with a seven-member directorate and an assembly of 54 delegates. On April 19, Alfonso Robelo announced that he would not take part in this new group, charging that it will remain under the control of Adolfo Calero and former National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, both leaders of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN). Robelo's reaction and Arturo Cruz's resignation for similar reasons a few weeks before show that, in spite of repeated face-lifting attempts, the real power of the counterrevolution remains in the hands of the former National Guard, the Reagan administration's real allies.
For its part, the armed counterrevolution operating within Nicaraguan territory continues to concentrate on destroying strategic electrical installations as well as stepping up attacks against other civilian targets. This economic warfare—the embargo and the increasing sabotage—coupled with military and political pressures such as the US-Honduran maneuvers and UNO's reorganization, indicate that despite the expected political weakening of Reagan's Nicaragua policy in light of the Iran/Contragate scandal, US military aggression continues with an irrational and increasingly dangerous obstinacy.
Nicaragua resists: The economic crisisResisting these pressures and enduring this war of attrition for more than six years has had serious consequences for the Nicaraguan economy. The Reagan administration's main hope lies in the dangerous deterioration of the national economy that the Nicaraguan government has had to confront. This deterioration could be seen in April, with the soaring prices of basic goods following a nationwide salary increase. The increase, announced in March and implemented in April, is 100% for lower-paid workers and around 45% for those currently on the upper end of the scale set by the Labor Ministry.
Despite this substantial increase, reactions among union leaders and workers were not very enthusiastic, and the most common response was one of skepticism, due primarily to the spiraling inflation rate. Prices continue to rise more rapidly than salaries, severely restricting the real buying power of the working population. The Sandinista Worker's Federation (CST) and Association of Rural Workers (ATC) insist that the problem lies in this widening gap. Inflation has become increasingly difficult to control. Although there are no statistics yet for 1987, preliminary indicators from the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) indicate that the 1986 inflation rate in Nicaragua was almost 780%.
This situation largely explains a phenomenon that is also affecting the deteriorating economy: the high turnover rate in the workforce, which further damages the already weak Nicaraguan industrial sector. According to CST statistics, 7,689 of the 12,896 industrial workers who began work last year changed jobs before the end of 1986, in many cases leaving their factory jobs to participate in the informal commercial sector. The textile industry has been the most seriously affected, as 3,272 of the 5,211 workers who began the work year had left by year's end.
In one of the regular "Face the People" open meetings, this time with union leaders from around the country, President Daniel Ortega and government ministers pointed out that the recent wage increases are not intended to resolve all the salaried workers’ problems, and are just one small part of a broader package of economic measures. These measures include giving top priority to the productive sector (industrial and rural workers), providing special incentives and guaranteeing access to certain basic goods to protect these workers from rising inflation. The government representatives pointed to the war of aggression and the international economic crisis, which is affecting the entire Third World, as the principal causes of the economic crisis.
For their part, workers insist that the most important measures that can be taken to improve their difficult situation include providing incentives linked to production and ensuring a more regular supply of basic goods to workers through the system of workplace stores as well as in the regular supermarkets, rather than granting across-the-board salary increases.
While such measures are not even a short-term solution to the high cost of living, they do offer workers the possibility of some protection from rising prices, thus helping to stabilize the workforce. That stability is crucial to assure the production level needed for the country to survive in the midst of a very costly war. The need for the government to efficiently and skillfully manage the crisis provides the context for the dialogue between the unions and the government.
As Nicaragua continues its resistance, Reagan's hope increasingly rests on the possibility that this resistance will be worn down by the economic crisis, leading to political destabilization, thus making his goal of overthrowing the Sandinistas considerably easier.
Nicaragua resists: Political and military consolidationReagan's hope could be far off the mark, as political and ideological realities don't spring mechanically from economic conditions. And in the political-ideological arena, the Nicaraguan revolution continues to reap successes.
Political pluralism in the country continues to thrive, and relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the government have improved, as their dialogue goes on. The Nicaraguan government is also dialoguing with the Christian base communities. On April 25, President Ortega and his Cabinet members held a "Face the People" meeting with members of the Christian base communities and Catholic lay workers from all over the country, the first meeting of its kind since 1980. On this occasion, President Ortega reaffirmed, to much applause, some ideas he has expressed in the past: "There are those who would like to see a definitive confrontation between the Catholic hierarchy and the revolution. And I emphasize hierarchy, as there can't be a confrontation with Christianity in this revolution, because that would be a confrontation of the people against themselves." Later he added, "I haven't been excommunicated. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church and I feel identified with Christianity. And so I think, as many people do, that the Church is the people of God. Without people there cannot be a Church. There can be a hierarchy, but there can't be a Church.... Christians have been part of the Sandinista Front. And the majority of the Nicaraguan people are Christian. So what we have is a revolution of the poor, in the interests of the workers, the peasants; a revolution in which religion is not an opiate of the people but a liberating element. This is what many people should understand, although they don't want to, maintaining their suspicion that everything is a tactical step taken so that later on we can do away with religion."
Another step for autonomy on the coastApril marked an important step forward on a third front. The autonomy proposal was approved by the peoples of the Caribbean Coast and now has only to be ratified by the National Assembly before it becomes law. Over 200 community leaders from the coast, representing all the different communities and ethnic groups, approved the proposal on April 24, the final day of a three-day Multiethnic Assembly held in Puerto Cabezas. The assembly was the culmination of a lengthy and intensive discussion process begun in December 1984.
The proposal takes into consideration the historical legitimacy of the rights of the coast population and the particularities of their historical and cultural roots, and reaffirms the unity of the diverse peoples of the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts in the construction of a new Nicaragua. The plan proposes establishing two regional governments with their respective autonomous parliaments, one in northern half of the department of Zelaya and one in the southern half. (The regions' names are also up for discussion; four proposals were made during the assembly, but no consensus was reached.) The highest level of autonomous government will be a Regional Council, with all ethnic groups represented. One of the most important parts of the autonomy bill is the section dealing with the use of the region's extensive natural resources, exploited and plundered for years by transnational companies. These resources—mainly the forests, fishing and mines—are the backbone of the coast's future economic development. The Regional Councils, with assistance from the central government, will be entrusted with administering the regional enterprises and determining who will have access to their benefits.
The autonomy bill is the cornerstone of the solution to the problems that have historically pitted the Pacific and Caribbean sides of Nicaragua against each other. It is the first step down a long road towards that solution, not a magic key but rather a guide to daily practice and an instrument for action. The process towards autonomy, along with the amnesty offered by the central government, has meant that over 1,200 indigenous people who once fought against the Sandinista government have given up their arms and reentered civilian life on the coast.
The proposed law is also the concrete expression of the advances the Sandinista government has made in understanding the coast’s social and cultural realities. In the closing session of the assembly, Comandante Tomás Borge, president of the Autonomy Commission, stated that "this law is the affirmation of the honesty of those of us who have never denied our own errors... We recognize the social and ethnic diversity among the motor forces of the revolution, in Nicaragua’s particular conditions. We’ve been able to absorb certain lessons, we've opened our eyes and we've had the modesty to enrich our knowledge of reality."
Thus, while the political parties and the Catholic Church in the Pacific half of Nicaragua are increasingly taking part in the new revolutionary order, the Caribbean coast with its approved autonomy proposal is making a significant contribution to the country’s political stability. This "stabilizing political triangle"—new governmental links with the opposition political parties, the Catholic hierarchy and the coast’s different ethnic groups—constitutes its own "solid shield."
The contras continue suffering defeats The Nicaraguan army’s military successes, continuing a trend begun months ago, should also be considered part of the political strengthening of the revolution. In April the movement towards a strategic military defeat of the contra forces was again confirmed. On April 25, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega stated that the counterrevolutionary forces had suffered 1,400 deaths in the first four months of 1987, while Sandinista losses were 300 for the same period. He also reported that the army had carried out a commando attack against a contra base that doubled as a military training center, located near the border with Honduras. The attack resulted in a high number of casualties to the FDN forces at the base. Also in April, Nicaraguan security forces captured two terrorist groups who had plans to destroy electrical installations in various parts of the country.
These Sandinista actions against the counterrevolution are complemented by the ongoing preparation for an eventual direct intervention by US troops against Nicaragua. Recent military exercises carried out by the Sandinista army to prepare the "circular defense" of Managua and other cities in the Pacific—with an emphasis on participation by the reserve forces—are part of the precautions against the concrete threat represented by the Solid Shield maneuvers.
The "stabilizing political triangle" (political pluralism, dialogue with the Catholic hierarchy and the autonomy process), then, is closely linked to Nicaragua’s two-pronged military strategy: taking the offensive in the contra war and internal maneuvers aimed at dissuading Reagan from direct intervention against Nicaragua.
At this time, despite the great difficulties, especially in the economic arena, Nicaragua's internal situation demonstrates the ongoing political consolidation and institutionalization of the revolution. The stage is certainly not set for the political weakening and collapse of the Sandinista government Reagan so desperately seeks.
US opposition to Reagan's policyNicaragua’s internal political consolidation and its consistent diplomatic successes are factors that provide support for those in the United States who, for their own political reasons, increasingly oppose Reagan's policy towards Nicaragua.
For example, there was the April 24 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which the committee opposed the sale of 12 F-5E combat planes to Honduras 10 to 9. The committee also limited US assistance to its Central American allies to $150 million, a $61-million decrease from the Reagan administration's request. Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd argued that sending the F-5Es to Honduras would greatly escalate the military conflict in Central America and give Nicaragua justification for possible acquisition of Soviet MiG-21 fighters.
Opposition to Reagan's policy is not limited to the legislative arena. More and more it is being expressed in the streets of the United States. On April 25, a huge demonstration—recalling the massive protests against the Vietnam War—linked two points on the globe where Reagan administration policy is coming under increasing attack: South Africa and Central America. Some 100,000 demonstrators, among them religious groups, academics, peace activists and union members, demanded an end to apartheid and to US intervention in Central America. The following day more than 500 people opposed to Reagan administration policy in Central America were arrested and jailed after taking part in a peaceful demonstration in front of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
US opposition to the Reagan policy in Nicaragua is not only seen in the United States; it is evident in Nicaragua as well. In early April, 10 US war veterans undertook a long peace march in the country’s northern war zones to show their solidarity with the Nicaraguan people and express their opposition to US policy in the region. The marchers, who heard gunshots and rocket fire from nearby combats during their walk, said they marched with the inspiration of civil rights and pacifist leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the veterans described how he had experienced the faith, hope and love of the poor, which in turn gave him a deeper faith in God. Brian Wilson, one of the four veterans who fasted last fall on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C., was among those who took part in the march.
The errors of Reagan's Nicaraguan policy were demonstrated more clearly than ever only a few days after the public demonstrations took place in the US. On April 28, the US-financed contra forces killed Benjamin Linder, a US citizen who was volunteering his services in a hydroelectric project in the Cuá-Bocay region of Jinotega in northern Nicaragua. Eight European and more than ten Cuban civilian volunteers have also been killed by the contra forces since 1979. Linder, a mechanical engineer and amateur clown and juggler, came to Nicaragua in 1983, first working with the National Circus and later assisting in the design of mini-hydroelectric plants. Four months ago, the first plant of this kind began functioning in El Cuá. From November 1986 on Linder worked directly with the government in Region VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega) on projects designed to bring electricity and running water to the peasant communities of the region. He received no salary and had raised funds to finance the project through the solidarity network in his city of Portland, Oregon.
On the day he was killed he was working with two local farmers, studying the prospects for installing another mini-hydroelectric plant, this time in Bocay. The contra forces surprised them, opening fire and throwing hand grenades. The three, wounded and defenseless, were then finished off by the attackers. Pablo Rosales was stabbed in the heart and Sergio Fernández was shot in the ear, while Benjamin Linder, immobilized by wounds to his legs and left arm, was shot in the head.
Three doctors—one Nicaraguan and two from the US—who examined the bodies stated that some of the gunshot wounds were from weapons fired at point blank range. The Linder family denounced the killings as premeditated and said that in the days leading up to the attack, the contra forces had been monitoring the movements of those associated with the hydroelectric project. As Ben's father, David Linder, explained, "Ben and the other workers had been there long enough for the contras to know who they were and what they were doing. This was not a chance encounter. This is murder."
The Linder family shares Ben’s commitment. His parents and brother and sister came to Nicaragua to share their grief with his friends and co-workers and to express their solidarity with Nicaragua and share in its people's desire for peace. Ben was buried in Matagalpa after a funeral service attended by thousands of people, in which President Daniel Ortega spoke. (See the text of his speech in this issue.) Ben's father said, "It makes me proud to know that my son will rest in peace here with all of you in this land he loved so much." On the first of May, the Linder family, visibly moved and in turn displaying a very moving strength, took part in the May Day celebration in Managua's Plaza of the Revolution. Ben's brother and sister addressed the crowd, his sister Miriam declaring that "this war must end now," while his brother John repeated that he holds President Reagan—who has said, "I'm a contra, too"—responsible for his brother's murder.
Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was visiting Nicaragua at the time of the killing, said in Matagalpa, "I want the Nicaraguans to know that the people of the United States are the people of Benjamin, not the people of Ronald Reagan."
International opposition to Reagan's policyThe contradictions and divisions created within the United States by Reagan's policy towards Nicaragua have their parallels in Central America.
As Nicaragua’s army defeats the contra forces and diplomatic advances continue to strengthen the Sandinista revolution in the international arena, the Central American countries are experiencing deep divisions among themselves. Costa Rica and Guatemala have adopted positions favoring a peaceful solution to the Central American crisis while Honduras and El Salvador continue to support the military course pursued by the Reagan Administration, although to varying degrees and in different ways.
One interesting change in the situation has been the shift in Costa Rica's position during the last few months. On April 7-8, an official Costa Rican delegation visited Nicaragua to present the Arias plan to the Sandinista government. The delegation included Enrique Obregón, advisor to President Arias and member of the governing National Liberation Party; Abel Pachecho, presidential hopeful from the opposition Social Christian Unity Party; and Farib Ayales, who was received by the Nicaraguans as the new Costa Rican ambassador in Managua. Obregón and Pachecho have close ties to some Nicaraguan government officials. As a symbolic gesture, the delegation presented the Nicaraguan government with a pair of eyeglasses that had belonged to Carlos Fonseca, founding member of the FSLN and leading theoretician of early Sandinista political programs, killed in 1976.
Several days later, at the Socialist International meeting in Rome, Comandante Bayardo Arce met with Rolando Araya of the Costa Rican National Liberation Party. According to one news report, Nicaragua and Costa Rica were able to reach some important points of agreement regarding the border situation at this meeting. Although the agreement was verbal and unofficial, the Spanish news agency EFE reported that Nicaragua had promised to withdraw its complaint before the World Court concerning use of Costa Rican territory by the contra forces if an accord could be reached regulating the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border in such a way as to assure that the contra forces were not operating in Costa Rican territory. On his return to Nicaragua, Arce did not confirm the EFE version of the meeting, but said it was possible that Nicaragua would withdraw its World Court case if an accord of this type were reached.
Both the Costa Rican delegation's visit to Nicaragua and the meeting in Rome are evidence of improving relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua produced in the wake of the Arias initiative. To this easing of tensions should be added Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo's visit to Nicaragua at the end of March. During Cerezo's visit both countries reaffirmed their commitment to search for political solutions to the Central American crisis in the context of Contadora and especially using the Central American Presidents' meeting scheduled for June in Esquipulas, Guatemala.
The less than enthusiastic comments that Salvadoran President Duarte and Honduran President Azcona have made regarding the Arias Plan are another clear sign of the division among the region's countries as to what sort of solution they should seek. The visit to Costa Rica by US Special Envoy to Central America Philip Habib to discuss the Arias plan indicates US interest in revising the plan, eliminating any references to ending aid to the counterrevolutionary forces. For this reason, President Arias traveled to Europe, seeking support in other quarters. This month he stated that he was "profoundly disturbed" about the future of his plan, and said he doubts the Central American Presidents will approve it at the Esquipulas meeting.
Whether or not the Arias plan is approved, the current division among the Central American countries can be interpreted as a setback for the Reagan administration, which for a long time had been able to maintain a common front among four Central American countries against Nicaragua. It can also be viewed as an opening for the alternatives being sought by the Democrats. It remains to be seen how long Costa Rica and Guatemala can maintain this small show of autonomy vis-à-vis the Reagan administration. It should be pointed out that the large-scale maneuvers taking place in Honduras are also a warning to the other Central American countries and a reminder them that the economic aid the administration finally obtained for Central America in April ($160 million for El Salvador; $100 million for Costa Rica; $80 million for Guatemala; and $60 million for Honduras) has its price.
While there's division among the Central American countries, there is a great degree of cohesion among the Latin American Contadora and Support Group countries. The eight foreign ministers of these countries met in Argentina in mid-April. In their final statement, they emphasized that their "commitment to work for peace is strengthened by events like the upcoming Central American Presidents' meeting in Esquipulas." They underlined the importance of the Arias proposal, and praised his political will to renew the negotiations, saying they are "convinced that it is everyone's moral obligation to contribute to the creation of a political dialogue among Central Americans, to urge all countries directly or indirectly involved in the conflict to abstain from any demonstrations or actions of force or intimidation," in an implicit criticism of Reagan's tenaciously militaristic policy.
The backing that the Contadora and Support Group countries—whose governments represent 90% of the Latin American population—have given to a political solution to the Central American crisis was reinforced in their Argentina meeting. At that meeting, these countries began to discuss other important common issues including economic and technical cooperation, better integration of their telecommunications systems and, of course, the foreign debt. As it moves beyond the specific issue of Central America, thus initiating an independent Latin American forum for these discussions (a forum not offered, for example, by the OAS), Contadora is strengthened in the international arena. This strength makes it increasingly difficult for the Reagan administration to isolate Contadora from the Central American peace process.
The current political balance of forces does not favor Reagan. The Contadora and Support Group countries are moving to strengthen Central America, for by so doing they also strengthen themselves. They are acting in defense of Latin American interests. Their failure to achieve a peaceful solution to the Central American conflict, and Nicaragua's eventual defeat by the Reagan administration would also be a defeat in the wider battle for a unified and independent Latin American stance.
Contadora has received additional important international support in its search for a negotiated solution, support that expresses opposition to the Reagan administration policy. On April 26, the Group of 77—composed of 127 third world nations—met in Havana in preparation for the upcoming United Nations Development Organization (UNCTAD) meeting in Geneva. The Group of 77 condemned the US embargo against Nicaragua and demanded that the United States honor the World Court decision.
At the same time, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) held its 77th conference in Managua from April 27 to May 2. Delegates from 86 of the 107 countries that make up the IPU—a record attendance figure—came to Managua to discuss the topics agreed upon at an earlier meeting, including the Middle East conflicts and the international economic situation, and also added Central America to their working agenda by majority decision.
The meeting was an important political success for Nicaragua. Despite Managua's lack of infrastructure to handle such a large and complicated event, the various governmental institutions involved were able to respond with a great degree of efficiency. And although some observers had warned that meeting in Managua would result in a high level of tensions and unnecessary rhetoric, this wasn't the case. Instead, the Nicaraguan delegates demonstrated their ability and flexibility to act as mediators between countries in conflict, even proving capable of creative dialogue with the US delegation. And, finally, as the conference's resolution on Central America expressed support for Contadora and a "Latin American solution," among many other points, it represented one more expression of the political isolation in which the Reagan administration currently finds itself.
Politically disgraced by the Iran/Contragate scandal and by the poor performance of the contra forces in Nicaragua, Reagan is increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. Nicaragua continues to resist US pressures, with international opinion increasingly coming to its aid. Although recent events have shown growing opposition to Reagan's Nicaragua policy within different groups in the United States, a certain cautious resistance on the part of some Central American countries and renewed resistance among the eight Latin American countries representing the Contadora and Support Group process, Reagan's political isolation has not deterred him. His refusal to abandon a military solution leaves unanswered long-standing questions whose resolution could prove critical to the region's future.