The New Constitution: Revolutionary Realism
"Contragate"—or "Iranscam," as the Reagan administration scandal is increasingly being called in the United States—has suggested, among other possible outcomes, a major change in the US-Nicaragua conflict. This is as much due to the pivotal moment in which the scandal broke as to its dimensions. The effects of such a change, however, are not yet clear.
Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan situation continues to be punctuated by the progressive military defeat of the contras. From here on out, this defeat must be seen in conjunction with the international blow that "Contragate" represents for them.
The Nicaraguan government has tried to respond with both firmness and flexibility to a situation that is new, delicate and—because of the scandal—open to very different outcomes. It showed great flexibility in pardoning Eugene Hasenfus, and has used both prongs in its approach to the Honduran government during the most serious border tension since the start of the war.
The year-end balance is very positive for Nicaragua. It has survived the war forced upon it and has scored important national and international victories in the search for peace.
Progressive defeat of the contrasFor many months the important news in Nicaragua has been the advantage Nicaragua has enjoyed thanks to the progressive defeat of the contras.
The contras' two big offensives in 1986—the summer (dry season) offensive in March and the end-of-winter (rainy season) offensive during October and the beginning of November—were completely broken up by the Sandinista army and did not gain their objectives, particularly a massive penetration into Nicaragua from Honduras. Neutralizing these two offensives in the north-central zone along the Honduran border involved the fiercest combat of 1986, in terms of both casualties and the duration and extent of the fighting.
According to Nicaraguan government figures, the contras suffered 6,600 casualties in 1986, 4,000 of which were fatalities. Their forces are currently reduced to only 6,000, 80% of whom are stuck in their Honduran bases. (During the same period, 1,019 Sandinista army troops were killed and 1,798 wounded. Some 1,100 civilians were killed or wounded, victims of the contras.) US strategy for 1986 had contemplated building a contra army of 30,000. Reagan administration spokespeople have recently quoted that figure as if wishful thinking had become fact.
Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, in a recent analysis of Sandinista success against the contras, spoke of the "three-stick" strategy: stick to the people, stick to the land and stick to the contras.
The revolution has bonded more closely with the peasant farmers through renewed political work, centered on restructuring the agrarian reform and improving the rural supply networks. The result has been a considerable erosion of the real or potential social base the contras enjoyed in the isolated mountain zones where they preferred to operate. Since the end of 1983, when the amnesty law was decreed, 6,000 people have abandoned contra ranks to return to normal life and work in the communities they had been beguiled or forced to leave by the contras. In 1986 alone, 1,500 people put down their arms and deserted the contras.
The various defense forces have been sticking to every square inch of land, with a structure whose different elements have become more and more consolidated. This has meant a permanent presence of the border troops, territorial peasant militia, regular army, etc. in the zones infiltrated by the contras and the corridors they have traditionally used to come into the country from Honduras. The prolonged nature of the war has also given greater stability to the Nicaraguan army, a stability that includes the consolidation of the military draft and the decisive contribution to military victory by the young recruits organized into the Irregular Combat Battalions (BLIs), which are the spearhead of fighting against the contras.
They have also stuck to the contras, forcing them to withdraw to their bases in Honduras and effectively stopping new incursions into Nicaraguan territory. In 1986 there were 3,000 armed clashes; in 90% of these cases, the Sandinista army took the initiative, destroying several major contra encampments. This strategy of permanently sticking with the contras is at the heart of the heightened border tensions of the last months.
The latest Defense Ministry figures are eloquent testimony to the intensity of the war in recent months: from the last week of December to January 5th alone there were 103 armed confrontations between the Nicaraguan army and the contra forces. The result for the contras was 137 dead and 49 captured, and for the Nicaraguan army 18 dead and 63 wounded. During December, there were an average of seven contra deaths per day.
Eroding the Reagan administrationAs President Reagan enters into the second half of his final term, Contragate has contributed decisively to what would naturally be a downhill slide. It is eroding his domestic popularity and his international credibility. This erosion, brought about by a scandal that has within its core the contra cause, could also perhaps have a decisive influence on the Nicaraguan situation itself.
In any event Contragate is already an essential part of the "strategic defeat" of the contras with respect to their political projection and image. As one of the FDN spokespeople put it, "We are now seen as the pet project of a President in disgrace." The most important aspect of all this is that it has added a dimension to the contras' defeat at the key moment in which the Reagan administration, after getting its $100 million, was warming up for a big propaganda pitch for the FDN. Adolfo Calero, one of those most seriously implicated in the million-dollar benefits of Contragate, recognized this when he said, "Just when we thought we had won the battle, this falls on top of us."
The way the scandal has developed has shown, however, that President Reagan is not ready to take the slightest step to correct the ways of his Nicaragua policy. In spite of all the criticisms touched off by his policy, and at the very moment investigations were revealing the dirty strings attached to the Contragate package, the President spoke out again in favor of his "pet project": "In the midst of this situation we must not forget the freedom fighters." And he didn't: as Congress returned to session, Reagan included in his budget for 1987 another $105 million for the contras, and White House officials announced that $100 million per year was projected for the contras until 1992. There was also an announcement about the upcoming creation of the contra radio station "Liberation Radio" in Honduras, whose objective will be a propaganda campaign for the FDN as the alternative political force for Nicaragua.
The dimensions of the scandal, the monumental stubbornness of the Reagan administration in its weakened state, and the defeat of the contras are factors of an extremely dangerous situation, including the possibility of some direct military action—perhaps some kind of limited bombing—being touched off by a border incident with Honduras. There were sufficient indications during December that a border incident is one of the Reagan administration's favored approaches in this delicate situation.
Firmness and flexibility in the case of HondurasAs we have indicated in our analyses in previous issues, the military, social and economic tensions created in Honduras by the contras have been growing every year, and the Azcona government is finding them harder and harder to manage.
After years of denying the contras' presence, the Honduran government not only admits it today but also finds itself obliged to confront the growing anti-contra movement that is cutting across all levels of Honduran society. Along with proclaiming itself anti-Sandinista, the Honduran government is also compelled to proclaim that the contras are a problem and should leave the country soon. "Let them fight in Nicaragua and not here" has been the refrain, and the proposed solution, of high officials in the Azcona government. This month, the Honduran government has been playing with a supposed "deadline" of April 1987 for withdrawal of the contras from Honduras.
The main obstacle preventing the contras from attaining this objective is the Nicaraguan army, which is stopping them cold at the border, preventing infiltration into Nicaragua, as has been clearly evidenced by the fighting of the last two months.
During this past month the US army stationed in Honduras swung into action more directly than ever before to reinforce the Honduran-based contras in their attempts to penetrate into Nicaragua.
The border incidents in December have been very serious. On November 30 some 100 US troops, along with Honduran troops with helicopters and heavy artillery, began to move to about 15 kilometers from the border with Nicaragua and 40 kilometers from the zone where the Nicaraguan army was confronting some 1,500 contras attempting to enter the country. Moving the US troops to this critical zone was justified as part of some sudden joint maneuvers that were to last until December 13. The US-Honduran operation was supervised by none other than General John Galvin, chief of the US Southern Command headquartered in Panama.
In this situation it was clear that the US was pressuring Honduras to involve itself in support for the contras, facilitating their penetration into Nicaragua and thus a border incident. Faced with the extreme gravity of the situation, the Sandinista government sent a protest note to the Honduran government requesting "maturity and responsibility" to avoid letting itself be "dragged along" by US pressures.
The Nicaraguan army contained the contras and stopped them from getting into Nicaragua; in doing so it struck them hard and forced them to withdraw further into Honduras, even putting them on the defensive militarily and psychologically in their Honduran camps. (Between November 30 and December 8 in this sensitive zone, there were 28 armed clashes leaving 81 contras dead and 80 wounded and on the Sandinistas' side 16 dead and 35 wounded.)
This effective containment and attack by the Nicaraguan army on territory occupied by the contras, led the US to pressure Honduras to give a "response," potentially provoking an incident of the most serious consequences.
The "response" came on the afternoon of December 7, when throughout Nicaragua the Immaculate Conception of Mary was being celebrated with the traditional festivities. Five fighter planes coming from Honduras entered Nicaraguan territory and dropped several bombs—first near a small helicopter post at Wiwilí (population 15,000), 25 kilometers from the border, and second at a military camp in the Congojas Valley, 12 kilometers northeast of Murra, which is also a good distance from the border. Two little girls and three Sandinista soldiers were wounded in the attack on Wiwilí, while seven soldiers were killed and nine wounded in Congojas.
Since the attacks took place during the most deeply rooted religious celebration in Nicaragua, they had a profound impact on the Nicaraguan people and especially on those in the affected areas. At first the Voice of America and other US and Honduran media presented the bombing as if it had been carried out by Honduras on Honduran territory against thousands of Sandinista troops who had penetrated there. With this and other messages, the Reagan administration propaganda seems to be moving away from the line of presenting its conflict with Nicaragua as an internal "civil war" and toward presenting it as a "war between neighboring countries."
A few days later the international journalists who visited the bombed zone in Nicaragua—they had not been given access to the supposedly bombed zone in Honduras—helped clarify the facts. The best explanation lies in the pressures suffered more and more intensely by the Honduran government both to "defend" the contras from the Sandinistas and to attack the Sandinistas. (The Honduran President threatened: "Any time the Sandinistas come back, they will be bombed from our skies.") At the same time, it's clear that the contra presence in Honduras gives the Azcona government an important advantage in negotiations with the US.
Nicaragua informed the UN, the OAS, Contadora and the Support Group of what had happened, and in its firm protest to the Honduran government proposed that the UN Secretary General be invited to send an inspection commission to the area, with Contadora's participation, to determine the causes of the tension and recommend measures to resolve the problems.
The Honduran attack and US presence on the Nicaraguan border, at such a complex moment as the emerging Contragate scandal, sounded the alarm in several foreign ministries. In the first few days after the bombing, the Soviet Union warned Washington "not to enter Nicaragua by force as it did in Grenada.... It would be an unpardonable error." Meanwhile Pope John Paul II's delegate in Mexico, Bishop Girolamo Prigione, using unusual language for a Vatican representative, echoed that view: "The invasion of Nicaragua by US military forces would be a mistake, an act of madness." This finally led the US to withdraw its troops and to announce, on December 9, that it was winding up its maneuvers with Honduras "in order to avoid any international conflict."
Along with the Nicaraguan foreign ministry's protest to Honduras for the bombing and its proposal for international inspection, Nicaragua’s President strongly reaffirmed the line of action taken by the Nicaraguan army toward the contras from the start of 1986:
"We are fighting against the mercenary forces that the US government has installed in Honduran territory, against these criminals who are trying to invade our country to murder women and children and destroy schools, cooperatives and health centers. In this context, the problem isn't the false accusation that Nicaragua has invaded Honduras and is threatening Honduran sovereignty and dignity—Honduras' sovereignty and dignity is already being threatened by the US occupation, and by the mercenary force's occupation of its territory bordering Nicaragua.
"With just a little dignity, a little courage and a little of the spirit of Morazán, President Azcona has the keys to peace in his hands. It would be sufficient for President Azcona to decide to rid his country of these invading forces, these mercenary forces who are occupying his country in order to attack Nicaraguans; so that the border territory would no longer be a zone of conflicts.
"As long as the Honduran government maintains the mercenary forces in its territory, it stands to reason that the border zone will be one of conflict, and we won't give up one inch of our territorial integrity in defending ourselves from the mercenaries' entrance into our country."
(Excerpts from a speech given by Daniel Ortega on December 11, 1986, marking the 38th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
The Nicaraguan government's decision to fight the mercenary forces along the border with Honduras was bound to create a delicate situation. It is caused, above all, by the pressures put on the Honduran government by the US which, at this point, doesn't know quite what to do with the counterrevolutionary forces in Honduras.
On December 24, President Ortega, combining firmness with flexibility in this difficult question of what to do with the counterrevolution, sent a message to Honduran President Azcona in which he referred to the "problem" that the contra forces represent for Honduras and the "burden" of the Nicaraguan refugees. In order to resolve the border conflicts caused by this group, which Honduras clearly wants out of its territory, President Ortega proposed to Honduras:
1) that Nicaragua take back all those Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries who wish to return to Nicaragua taking advantage of the amnesty law;
2) that Nicaragua work with Honduras in seeking third countries that would take in those counterrevolutionaries who do not wish to take advantage of the amnesty;
3) that Nicaragua, in collaboration with Honduras and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, receive all Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras who wish to return (to date, some 10,300 Nicaraguan refugees have returned to the country).
Another firm response to the situation, which also served as preparation for any eventual direct military attacks, were the military maneuvers that the Nicaraguan army, in coordination with all Sandinista defense structures, conducted on December 16-18 in the western province of Chinandega, some 10 kilometers from the Honduran border. Some 6,500 troops participated in the "Subtiava 86" maneuvers, including soldiers from the regular army, standing militia units and reserve battalions. Tanks, helicopters and heavy armaments were used to turn back a simulated enemy invasion in this western region of the country, which is linked directly to Managua by a major highway.
Nicaragua invited representatives of other Central American armies to observe the maneuvers, the largest-scale exercises held to date by the Nicaraguan army. A high-level delegation from the Panamanian Armed Forces came to Nicaragua, and military attachés from the embassies of France, Venezuela and the US also participated as observers. The Honduran government—which has conducted seven mammoth joint maneuvers with the US since 1982 and this month initiated the eighth, scheduled to last four months—officially protested to Nicaragua, charging that the maneuvers were a "dangerous provocation" and a "threat" to Honduran security. The reaction from the Guatemalan government and army was very different; they recognized Nicaragua’s "sovereign right" to carry out military maneuvers in its own territory.
Upon completion of these maneuvers, others were carried out 55 kilometers from Managua on December 20, using 1,000 troops and tank and anti-air artillery. The area in which these second maneuvers were conducted would be decisive to the defense of Managua in any possible invasion. Defense Minister Humberto Ortega said, "We aren't carrying out maneuvers in order to create a conflict with Honduras, but rather to defend ourselves from a US invasion." Ortega added that the army would continue to engage in these types of maneuvers in order to be ready to defend Nicaragua from any direct US attack, particularly in this rather delicate situation created by the Contragate scandal.
Flexibility in the Hasenfus caseIn a great demonstration of flexibility, the Nicaraguan government this month pardoned US adviser Eugene Hasenfus, who was captured on October 6 after his plane was shot down while on a supply mission to contra forces inside Nicaragua.
Hasenfus was sentenced in November to 30 years, the maximum penalty provided for by Nicaraguan law, and the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals appeals court upheld the sentence.
Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd arrived in Nicaragua on December 16 as part of a 12-day tour of the Central American countries to feel out their positions given the new situation created in Congress by the democratic majority in both houses.
According to Dodd's own declarations, only 20 minutes of his four-hour meeting with President Daniel Ortega was devoted to discussion of the Hasenfus case.
On December 17, President Ortega called an unexpected press conference in which he announced that he was asking the National Assembly to pardon Hasenfus. He made reference to the "extremely dangerous" situation facing Nicaragua as a result of Reagan administration policy, which had not softened even in light of the Contragate scandal, and said that given the many requests from US political and religious leaders who oppose the US policy, the decision had been made to ask for a pardon. Among the leaders Ortega mentioned were Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl, Reverend Joseph Lowery and Archbishops Hickey and Law, of Washington and Boston respectively. "We are obliged to take these friends of ours into account," Ortega said. He noted ironically that no such request had emanated from the White House on behalf of Hasenfus, whom one administration official had termed a "patriot."
That same morning a heated debate was initiated in the National Assembly to discuss the proposed pardon. Of those deputies present during the debate, 70 voted in favor of the pardon, two against (from the Marxist-Leninist party), and two (from the Communist Party) abstained. The decision was justified by the urgency of Nicaragua's search for peace and the potential value of the gesture, part of the tradition of revolutionary Nicaraguan generosity. As President Ortega stated very clearly, Hasenfus was pardoned for the sake of peace and as a gesture to the US people at Christmas time:
"If we take this step, it's because we're convinced it will be matched by the nobility of the US people. We are handing Mr. Hasenfus over to the US people with the conviction and security that this will contribute to the struggle for peace that the US and Nicaraguan people are carrying out... that this will help the US government reflect a bit and that President Reagan and his advisers, who say they are Christians, don't commit the crazy and terrible action of invading us.... With this gesture, we are recognizing the US people’s struggle for peace, and are once again pricking the conscience of President Reagan to accept a peaceful solution, which the Nicaraguan people and government have always supported."
That same day Hasenfus left for the United States, accompanied by his wife, who told journalists that the 18th was her son's birthday and now he would have the gift of spending it with his father. "President Reagan should remember that Nicaragua’s children also have the right to celebrate their birthdays," President Ortega said as Hasenfus and his wife left Nicaragua.
The Hasenfus pardon took most Nicaraguans completely by surprise. The initial reaction was one of almost disbelieving anger. Hasenfus had been the principal symbol of real defeat inflicted on the US, and to hand him over so quickly was seen as a weakness. Another of the most sensitive criticisms that arose from the sudden measure was expressed this way: "Why didn't they check with us, why don't they tell us what Nicaragua is getting in exchange for this?" The rapidity of the decision also seemed to undo in a matter of hours the long judicial process against Hasenfus, which had helped to strengthen the image of Nicaragua's new revolutionary legal system.
If there was no attempt to prepare people for the pardon, the media gave wide coverage to the popular expressions of indignation and reflection regarding it after Hasenfus left the country. Once the initial, highly emotional reactions had tempered a bit, people saw the situation this way: We don't want him here, not even as a prisoner; if this contributes to peace, it's a good thing; the government knows what it's doing; maybe he'll feel remorse and talk to the US people; we can't bring our dead sons and daughters back by keeping him prisoner; keeping him in prison doesn't help us at all; by freeing him, we show the whole world what this revolution is about…
While the Hasenfus pardon was accepted with difficulty in Nicaragua, internationally it was seen as a demonstration of the strength of the revolution and as a concrete gesture of peace. In the US, along with the message of peace sent to the US people during the Christmas season, the political message carried back by Senator Dodd was clear: We can negotiate and talk to the Sandinistas, with results. This message sharply questions the public premise of the Reagan policy, i.e., that Sandinistas are intransigent and can’t be trusted. This is a particularly important message in these moments of weakness caused by the Contragate scandal.
A few days before Hasenfus left Nicaragua, another US citizen was captured, this time in entirely different circumstances. On December 12, Sam Hall was detained in a restricted military zone at the Punta Huete airstrip, not far from Managua. Initially, Hall said he was a writer interested in writing a book about Nicaragua, but his background was known by Nicaraguan security. Hall had worked as a mercenary in Angola and Mozambique, had trained Miskitus fighting with contra forces in Honduras, and was well known in the US as a self-declared anti-communist fighter. Maps and sketches of the Punta Huete air base, the port at Corinto and military installations at Tipitapa were found in Hall's socks. Hall told the Nicaraguan authorities and later the international press that he was working as part of a CIA/Pentagon plan and his job was to inform them of the type of construction at Punta Huete and the presence of Cuban advisers at the base (there to maintain the Soviet helicopters). He also had the mission of obtaining information on strategic points in the Atlantic Coast, including the city of Puerto Cabezas and the bridge at the Wawa River.
Sam Hall did not at first reveal that his brother, Anthony Hall, was a Democratic Representative from Ohio opposed to the Reagan policy towards Nicaragua. Later it came out that Sam Hall was known to be one of Lt. Col. Oliver North's "men," and had been part of a 1985 plot organized by drug traffickers linked to the FDN to kill then-US ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis Tambs. North is a principal player in the Contragate scandal. The Nicaraguan authorities have characterized Hall as an ultra-right fanatic and his case has publicly been treated in a much more low-key manner than that of Hasenfus.
As the US has an extremely sophisticated electronic espionage system and access to information about any part of Nicaraguan territory, obtained through hundreds of spy-flights over Nicaragua, the case of Sam Hall, with his socks full of maps and sketches, seems more than anything like the scenario for a grade-B spy movie. Nevertheless, the task directly inspecting a particular area does correspond perfectly to the final phase of ironing out and verifying details that would precede any direct military action. That suggests that the seriousness of this still little-known case should not be laughed away.
Contadora in the search for peaceIn the context of Contragate, the plan for a direct US attack seems to be postponed but not discarded, and it is possible that the scandal could actually escalate US action against Nicaragua. Given this dangerous context, the Contadora nations have launched a new peace initiative that goes beyond the treaty negotiations that deadlocked them throughout 1986.
In a Río de Janeiro meeting, the eight foreign ministers of the Contadora and Support Group countries decided to reactivate the negotiation process, with a new formula: send a high-level peace commission comprising the eight foreign ministers to all Central American countries in January, along with Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Joao Baena Soares, Secretaries General of the UN and the OAS respectively.
The United States received the plan for the Contadora peace mission reluctantly. "Pérez de Cuéllar can go wherever he wants..." was the initial reaction of Vernon Walters, US representative to the United Nations. In the following days, the US government asked Baena Soares to clarify his participation in the peace mission, as it is "outside his functions." This important Contadora initiative has sparked much hope in Nicaragua.
In the midst of the pain imposed by the war, 1986 ended with a positive balance for Nicaragua, in spite of the wear and tear of the economic crisis. Its strategic defeat of the counterrevolution, its diplomatic victory in the World Court, the new political space it has gained in the Non-Aligned Movement, the easing of tensions in its relations with the Catholic hierarchy, and its new Constitution are, in spite of their limitations and the fact that these gains are in an embryonic stage, important victories of the year just ended. They are all significant not only in their own right, but because they all coincide in the search for peace. "Nicaragua is going to survive," was the Nicaraguan people's message to the world at the end of 1985. The end of 1986 demonstrated that Nicaragua had fought to survive and had succeeded. Given that Nicaragua faces a US administration that bases its foreign policy in force and falsehoods, as Contragate shows, surviving has been no easy task. "Here nobody is surrendering" is the theme with which the revolution kicked off 1987, with the hopes that the Nicaraguan people’s tenacious resistance will make this year the one in which the daily reality of war and survival will begin to be transformed into a fuller, more peaceful life.