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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 68 | Febrero 1987



Players Test New Positions in the Contragate Board Game

In Nicaragua the month was once again characterized by the dynamic of the war and the consequences, both actual and potential, of the Iran/Contragate scandal for the Reagan administration's policy toward Nicaragua.

Envío team

January was particularly rich in relevant events. It was like a board game in which all players involved in the scandal in any way had moved into position and were already testing their strategies for 1987. It was evident that the scandal has created new space for negotiations, while at the same time revealing with surprising clarity Reagan's unbending determination to intervene in Nicaragua. In the midst of these political tests of strength, a whole series of new questions have been posed, which should be resolved in the short run, thus decisively influencing the outcome of the conflict.

Contragate: A new combination of factors

Due to its characteristics and duration, the Iran/Contragate scandal has combined two decisive factors in the US-Nicaragua conflict. For the first time, the military weakness of the counterrevolutionary forces is matched by the political weakness of the Reagan administration.

During 1983-84, the contra forces were able to bring a great deal of military pressure to bear on the Sandinistas, without Reagan being able to get the political go-ahead he wanted for them in Washington. A disjuncture existed in which the military strength of the contras in Nicaragua did not correspond to the political weakness of their counterrevolutionary project in Washington.

In 1985-86, when the contras began their military decline—discussed at length in this issue of envío—Reagan stepped up his campaign in Washington to gain political acceptance for the anti-Sandinista effort: he got $27 million in 1985, followed by $100 million in 1986 and he got his bipartisan consensus, although just barely. Another disjuncture existed, although it was the opposite of earlier years: now the political advances made by the counterrevolutionary project in Washington did not correspond to the military weakness of the contras in Nicaragua.

At the end of 1986—and this situation is predicted to continue throughout 1987—Contragate began changing the correlation of forces: the military crisis of the counterrevolutionaries now corresponds exactly to the political crisis of their patrons in the Reagan administration.

Well-publicized new revelations in January have further muddied the Contragate waters, adding to the political weakness of the Reagan administration and of the President himself. At the same time, last month also saw the continued undermining of the contras' military forces.

The Nicaraguan Ministry of Defense reports that the contras suffered 670 casualties, including 398 dead, in 350 military actions between January 5 and February 5 of this year. If this continues throughout 1987, the contras will have been completely wiped out by the end of the year, according to Ministry of Defense statistics that estimate the total contra forces at 6,000 men.

To this military crisis must be added the political crisis of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), which now appears, even in public, to be less united than ever. The resignation of Arturo Cruz from UNO's ruling triumvirate, together with the defection of some of the contra leaders in Costa Rica, are only symptoms of the disintegration of the contra forces' political facade. Behind these symptoms is all the infighting for the secret funds that the Reagan administration is now known to have turned over to the contras in recent months.

Although Reagan's political weakness is closely tied to the ups and downs of the Contragate investigation, the contras' weakness is definitive and now recognized by everyone: Central and Latin Americans, Europeans and many different interests in the United States. All are now taking this into account as they search for a way to resolve the conflict, whether or not in a manner favorable to the Sandinista revolution.

Even retired General Paul Gorman, former head of the Southern Command in Panama, expressed this general conviction in his declarations this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "The counterrevolutionaries are totally incapable of achieving a military victory. They won't be able to destroy the Sandinistas in one, two or three years. They won't be able to do it with the $100 million we gave them last year or with the $105 million the President is asking for now."

New negotiating space, anti-Contadora positions

The damage to Reagan's popularity (although perhaps a new phenomenon only inside the United States) had to have immediate repercussions for the counterrevolutionary project, since this very popularity has been the project's main political card. And immediate political repercussions there were; at an international level, they could be described as opening the way to possible negotiations to resolve the conflict.

The clearest sign of this opening was seen in Contadora's Central American tour on January 19 and 20. The decision to visit the region’s countries was made at a Contadora meeting in mid-December, when the Contragate crisis, accompanied by Reagan's political weakness and the irreversible defeat of the contra forces, had already shown that new political space might be opened. The eight foreign ministers from Latin America's Contadora and Support Group countries, along with the general secretaries of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, took part in the tour.

Contadora, paralyzed since last June with a draft treaty whose basic security issues have still not been approved, decided to take advantage of the "opportunity" provided by Contragate. Working from the assumption that Contragate had weakened not only Reagan but also his Central American allies, Contadora looked for support from the latter governments—not so much for the complex document as for concrete security mechanisms that would ensure an easing of military tensions. For example, one of the mechanisms would be the presence of international observers along Nicaragua's borders with Honduras and Costa Rica.

Contadora's renewed political boldness as a result of Contragate was expressed by its initiative to involve the UN and OAS in its efforts. This boldness had a precedent in the joint statement of November 18, which informed the five Central American countries of a range of services that the eight countries and two international institutions were offering to help relieve tensions in the region. The statement was issued just after the Contragate scandal came to light and owes its publication to the Reagan administration’s crisis brought about by that scandal.

The United States: Not to weak to twist arms

The Reagan administration had never before reacted with the verbal explicitness against Contadora that it employed when the Central American tour was announced. To this reaction must be added the military and diplomatic force it displayed to express its complete rejection of any negotiated solution that would legitimate the Sandinista government.

As the dates for the tour neared, Eliott Abrams, Under Secretary for Inter-American Affairs and the administration's political director of the counterrevolutionary project since the approval of the $100 million, made various offensive references to the Contadora process, accusing it of "producing false treaties" and "bothering the democracies" of Central America. A faithful mouthpiece for the administration's anti-Contadora positions, Abrams presented the counterrevolutionary alternative as a "perfectly democratic phenomenon," announcing that aid to the contras "will be prolonged indefinitely." After the Contadora tour, he reiterated his accusation of "false" negotiations, disqualifying Mexico and Peru as "leftist forces" and accusing them of being too "vociferous and influential" in the process. The presence of Peruvian President Alan Garcia at the January 9th signing of the Nicaraguan Constitution seems to have particularly rankled the US government.

Reagan's own statements were on a par with those of Abrams. In his State of the Union Message on January 27, Reagan, pitting himself against all of Contadora's Latin America-backed efforts at negotiation, again insisted upon interpreting the Central American conflict as an East-West issue requiring a military solution through the use of the counterrevolutionary forces. Some days earlier, Reagan had requested $105 million more for the contras in fiscal year 1988, announcing at the same time that the administration would set aside $110 million annually for this war effort between 1989 and 1992. As always, Reagan justified his request by claiming that the money is "crucial to the maintenance of our national security."

It is significant that even in the heat of the Contragate scandal neither the US government's options nor the arguments used to justify them have changed. Typically, it was not only a question of rhetoric; intense diplomatic pressure was also used by the administration. Before the Contadora tour, Abrams himself flooded the Western European countries with the message that "there will be no peace in Central America as long as there is no democracy in Nicaragua." More or less at the same time, Philip Habib, Reagan's special envoy to Central America, visited four of the more malleable Contadora and Support Group countries: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela. Habib, harbinger of a plan worked out by the US and Costa Rica, carried the message conditioning peace in the region on the "democratization" of Nicaragua.

Finally, some 11 days before the tour, the US Ambassador to the OAS took OAS Secretary General Joao Baena Soares to task for his participation in the Contadora effort. "We don't want the OAS to be converted into the caboose on a train, when we don't know where that train is going," the US representative said, justifying his public scolding of Baena Soares, a Brazilian. Although the Latin American countries had unanimously supported Baena Soares' participation in the tour, the US pressure transformed the sense of it to that of mere observer, in which his presence was only symbolic. Pérez de Cuéllar's experience was very similar; the Peruvian UN Secretary General had also been subject to questioning—although more discreet—by the US.

To this policy of wielding a diplomatic "big stick," the US added "gunboat diplomacy." It positioned some of its battleships, including the Iowa, off Nicaragua’s coasts. Known as the "messenger of death," the Iowa is equipped with nuclear rockets and remote control-piloted planes. According to the US government, the battleships came "to demonstrate US interests in the region," positioning themselves scarcely 100 kilometers from Nicaragua’s eastern coast.

The US also began a new series of large-scale military maneuvers. On January 9, the "General Terencio Sierra 87" maneuvers began in the north-central region of Honduras. The second stage of maneuvers that began last year, these are scheduled to last five months, during which yet more roads and airstrips will be constructed. Participating in the maneuvers are 4,500 US soldiers and 150 Hondurans. The following day, a new round of "Big Pine 87" maneuvers began, 20 kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. Some 1,100 US soldiers will take part in these maneuvers, which will continue through April.

In addition to these now traditional maneuvers going on in Honduras, the "Kindle Liberty 87" maneuvers began in Chiriquí, Panama, on the Costa Rican border. These maneuvers, which will last until February 25 and in which 7,000 Panamanian and 4,000 US soldiers will take part, are the largest military exercises to take place in Panama since the Torrijos-Carter treaties were signed in 1977. At the same time, US military engineers began to arrive in Costa Rica to construct bridges at seven strategic points along the border. These so-called "Peace Bridges" will facilitate troop and equipment movement from Costa Rica to Nicaragua.

Central America: Divergences

The high-level diplomats from the eight Contadora and Support Group countries, the UN and the OAS traveled through Central America from south to north. After their departure from Costa Rica, President Oscar Arias declared that he had told Contadora that to achieve peace it was necessary to demand the "democratization" of Nicaragua with new elections. That was the first indication of the upcoming ploy, which would materialize only a few days later with the so-called "San José Plan."

The ten Latin American mediators spent six hours in Nicaragua, the second country on their itinerary. On the way from the airport to the site of their conversations with the Sandinista government, they were greeted by thousands of Nicaraguans lining the streets. One of the signs held up stated: "We don't want Contadora to keep counting the dead in Central America." Nicaragua was the only country where the visitors were received by the President at the airport itself. In the other countries, especially in Honduras and El Salvador, the reception was reportedly cold.

Nicaragua presented the delegation with an eight-point proposal:

1. Immediate start of a bilateral dialogue with the US to agree on a) the regulation of international military maneuvers in the area; b) the proscription of foreign military bases, installations or schools in Central America; and c) regulation of the presence of military advisers in the area.

2. Immediate resumption of the discussion of security issues still pending in the Contadora Document of June 1986, at the start of which Nicaragua would present an inventory of weapons subject to limitation, reduction or elimination.

3. A call to Costa Rica to go forward in concretizing the bilateral agreements signed some years ago, along with a proposal to Honduras to achieve an immediate agreement that would guarantee border security. Were these bilateral accords to be reached, Nicaragua would be able to discontinue its case against Honduras and Costa Rica in the World Court.

4. Support for the creation of the Central American Parliament and a proposal for an agreement among the five Central American governments that would include commitments regarding international law (non-intervention, inviolability of borders, etc.).

5. Support for the document presented on November 18 in the name of Contadora, the Support Group, the UN and the OAS concerning the "range of services" offered to the Central Americans, underscoring the point about international observers on the borders.

6. Reiteration of Nicaragua's position that the reestablishment of constitutional safeguards suspended by the State of Emergency, in effect because of the aggression, depends on US acceptance of the World Court decision.

7. Readiness to receive all counterrevolutionaries who accept amnesty as well as refugees who wish to return, along with an offer to work with Honduras to find placement in other countries for contras who do not wish to accept amnesty.

8. Signaling of the need to concretize proposals for economic cooperation in order to strengthen peace in the region.

The Hondurans, for their part, presented 25 points, 13 of which are accusations directed against the Nicaraguan government, calling it anti-democratic, the only obstacle to peace, an exporter of subversion, etc.

The Salvadorans mentioned eight points, the three main ones of which were the democratization of Nicaragua, multilateral negotiations and the withdrawal of Nicaragua's suit in the World Court.

At the end of the diplomatic journey, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodrigo Madrigal set out on a trip through the countries of Western Europe, whose foreign ministers are meeting in Guatemala in February with their counterparts from the Central American and Latin American Contadora countries. The purpose of Madrigal's trip was to present to the Europeans two initiatives put forth by Costa Rica at the end of the Contadora journey that have the support of the US government and of the UNO-FDN contras.

One is the so-called San José Peace Plan based on the following points: a cease-fire in Nicaragua and an end to US aid to the contras, dialogue between the Sandinista government and the contras and new elections in Nicaragua. The second initiative was for a meeting on February 15 in San José of all Central American Presidents with the exception of Nicaragua’s, in which the peace plan would be discussed. In Strasburg the Costa Rican foreign minister stated that these two initiatives by his government were motivated "by Contadora's lack of realism."

At the beginning it appeared that Guatemala's President Vinicio Cerezo would stick to his proclaimed "active neutrality" and thus not take part in this exclusionary meeting. He later confirmed his attendance, however, with the justification that it is not for making decisions but rather for listening to proposals.

With these initiatives, Costa Rica, supported by its traditional democratic image and with its nominally social democratic government, is clearly confirming its role as the ideological/diplomatic standard bearer for US policy—one obviously directed at this moment toward putting an end to the Contadora initiative. The US is making use of the cooperation of all of the Central American countries toward this goal.

Contadora: Pessimism

On their journey "the ten" did not miss the contradictions between the positions taken by Nicaragua and those taken by the rest of the Central American countries. In Mexico at the end of the journey and again in a document of January 21, they referred to the two kinds of obstacles they had found: "serious differences of a political nature" and "persistence in acts that violate international law." The most important thing about the document is one detail: for the first time in its history, Contadora mentions the United States by name in a text of this importance:

"Conscious of the nature of our mission, we reiterate the determination to maintain dialogue with all countries directly or indirectly involved in the conflict—among them the United States, whose government publicly expresses its support for the Contadora process and whose contribution is necessary to achieve a peaceful solution of the regional conflict."

It is obvious that the US pressure tactics, perhaps more intense or more coordinated than on other occasions, bore fruit. The Contadora journey—a major initiative from which could have issued forth smaller concrete ones for an easing of tensions—thus amounted to nothing more than a major symbol of Contadora’s reactivation. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar expressed this sense in opinions that would later be seen to characterize the overall results of the journey. In Mexico the UN Secretary General said, "We believe that nothing can be obtained in the short run," adding that "we have not found the political will or the desire to sacrifice positions."

With its tour, Contadora sought to redefine a space for its policy of mediation and to oblige the Reagan administration to back off from its militaristic policy. On balance, it can be said that the Latin American foreign ministers overestimated their own powers or underestimated the Reagan administration's militarist will and aggressiveness in reacting to the audacity of the initiative.

This is a very difficult moment for Contadora. The Nicaraguan government's January 30 statement concerning the San José meeting expresses in an unusually hard tone the danger in which Contadora finds itself as a result of the Costa Rican initiative, designed to remove Contadora from the negotiating scene or eventually reduce it to a mere symbol. The statement describes Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica as countries reduced by the United States to "the status of backyard nation with limited sovereignty." It further adds that "it makes no sense for the neo-colonies of the United States in Central America to pass their time singing the virtues of a democracy they will never be able to have until they manage to regain their sovereignty."

New spaces in Nicaragua

Two important events in Nicaragua’s political life also constitute new arenas for the interplay of forces. The promulgation of the new Constitution and the launching of Economic Plan 87 open up new arenas in the struggle to end the war (the real problem) and to express democracy (the camouflage in which the US seeks to cloak the problem).

The new Constitution—the contents of which were amply described in the previous issue of envío—was promulgated on January 9 in a formal event in Managua's Plaza of the Revolution. It was signed by the presidents of the four branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial and electoral) and endorsed by the presence of thousands of Nicaraguans at the event.

The most outstanding aspect of the event was the participation of Peru’s President Alan García. García, who came to Nicaragua accompanied by his main opponent, mayor of Lima and leader of the United Left Alfonso Barrantes, captivated the audience by his brilliant oratory. Above all they applauded his anti-imperialist statements. Before leaving Peru, García had said that the new Nicaraguan Constitution expresses "an institutionalization that we Latin American democrats should salute, support and applaud." His trip fits within the third-world and non-aligned positions that the present APRA government of Peru has sought to spearhead in Latin America.

One outstanding point in the Peruvian President's speech had to do with economic aid from Latin America to Central America: "I am certain that if the eight countries of Contadora and the Support Group devoted barely one percent of our military expenditures for peace and reconstruction for the Central American peoples, we would have much more than the $100 million that others have put at the service of death and discord."

The promulgation of the Constitution opens a new political space for Nicaragua to show the world the democracy it wants to build. From January 9 on, calling into question the Nicaraguan government is also to call into question the validity of the program expressed in this text.

Two hours after the signing of the Constitution, some of its articles were suspended by the extension of the State of Emergency for another year, required by the ongoing war of aggression. The State of Emergency involves total suspension of seven constitutional articles and partial suspension of six others. It affects the rights of inviolability of domicile and correspondence, of mobility, expression, organization, demonstrations, habeas corpus and amparo (a form of legal protection to review administrative acts that functions similarly to habeas corpus). The flexible application of the emergency provisions for the past several years takes quite a bit of the edge off this decision, which in fact was expected by everyone as the US has given no indication that it is going to stop its war of aggression.

The other new arena opened for Nicaragua has to do with Economic Plan 87, presented by the Nicaraguan government this month. (envío will present a summary and analysis of the plan in an upcoming issue.) The plan tackles the country's economic situation systematically and with abundant data, and explains the main economic achievement of 1986: stopping the decline of the past several years and finally moving the economy from the negative column to the zero position. The plan predicts a 2% growth in 1987. Throughout this year and even in coming years the Sandinista government and the entire people will be put to the test by the plan's challenges: substantial increases in production and in the export of new and traditional products, a redefinition of the economic role of state enterprises, strengthening of the cooperative movement, small short-term investments, food self-sufficiency, etc. There is no doubt that the ability to meet these challenges will be a determining factor in the greater consolidation of the revolution in times as crucial as the waning years of the Reagan era.

Redefining and measuring forces

It was evident this month that while Contadora sought to redefine its policy of mediation, the Reagan administration reaffirmed its militaristic policy and now wants to replace the past, present and future Contadora plans with the Costa Rican plan. The Contragate scandal does not seem to have changed the direction of the administration's Nicaragua policy in the least. Rather, that policy seems to have become hardened.

However, the weakness of the counterrevolution once again obliges the US to look for a political facade to disguise the military solutions on which it continues to put its money. That is why the argument about the "democratization" of Nicaragua is making a forceful comeback. This card is being played yet again because of general consensus that the contras have been defeated as an effective instrument to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Important questions open up on this threshold of decisions and in the face of this struggle of unbending wills between the US and Nicaragua, where the only point of agreement is that “the contras are no longer useful.” The first arises from the still embryonic but novel proposal by US Senators Lowell Weicker and Christopher Dodd. "To avoid another Cuba and another Vietnam," these two Democrats launched a proposal in January based on suspending US aid to the contras and signing a security agreement between the US and Nicaragua.

This proposal can be seen as the first fruits of Contragate, opening a new space to imagine solutions to the conflict. For the moment, it seems to be the most significant variable in the present situation. It is still not clear, however, how this first political initiative is seen. How will the Democrats link it to Contadora's proposal? Will this link neutralize or reinforce Contadora's Latin Americanist proposal? More concretely, will the Democrats include in their proposal the dismantling of military bases and the elimination of foreign troops and advisers in the area, as Contadora proposes—and not only in Nicaragua? Will Sandinista Nicaragua be accepted only in exchange for the permanent US militarization of the region, or will the liberals have a true regional vision of the crisis? These questions that arise in the heat of the present internal political fights in the US are key for Central America.

Other questions have this same basic framework:

- What role will Contadora play in this difficult situation? What new alternative will it put forth after its symbolic journey? Will the Latin American positions find an opening in Congress, now controlled by the Democrats?

- What mediating role will Europe be able to play between Contadora and the Central Americans after Contragate? (The European Economic Community’s February meeting with the Central Americans in Guatemala will be one indication.)

- What role will Guatemala play in the San José meeting with regard to the Costa Rican peace proposal? And what degree of international acceptance will this proposal get?

It is still too soon to sketch the answers. Nicaragua continues to demonstrate the contras’ profound weakness on the battlefield, which makes it more imperative to find answers to these questions. Nicaragua is also deepening its political and economic democracy with the Constitution and Economic Plan 87, seeking similar results: a way out of the crisis and an end to the aggression. Meanwhile, Contragate could still put some new and decisive elements on the game board.

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Players Test New Positions in the Contragate Board Game

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