Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 69 | Marzo 1987



In Pursuit of Peace: New Victories, New Challenges

Nitlápan-Envío team

Last year saw intense confrontation between the Reagan administration and the Sandinista government, in which Nicaragua scored some important successes. Its key achievements were continued military gains over the contra forces and the historic diplomatic victory that came when the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled in favor of Nicaragua in its case against the United States.

Despite the US aggression and the virtual declaration of war against Nicaragua by the US Congress, the balance sheet looks positive. The blows that President Reagan's militaristic policies have suffered as a result of the Iran-Contragate scandal render it even more hopeful. In this context of ongoing military and diplomatic resistance, the Nicaraguan economic crisis continues to gain significance in the overall national situation.

The campaign for the $100 million

President Reagan began his offensive against Nicaragua in the first weeks of 1986, with his fight for $100 million for the contra forces. He used such strong rhetoric in his anti-Sandinista campaign that Democrat Tip O'Neill described his March 16 State of the Union message as a "virtual declaration of war" against Nicaragua.

Part of Reagan's campaign was to try to link Nicaragua with Libya and Daniel Ortega with Muammar Qaddafi. When Reagan bombed the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Bengasi in April he claimed that the Sandinistas were "building up another Libya in the shadow of the United States." And during the most serious moments of the battle between Congress and the White House over contra aid, Reagan declared during a meeting with contra leaders Arturo Cruz, Alfonso Robelo and Adolfo Calero, "I'm a contra, too."

This campaign against the Sandinistas followed logically from the previous year when Reagan began his second term in office. In his first press conference of 1985, Reagan outlined his Central American strategy by reiterating the assumptions and premises that characterize the 1983 Kissinger Commission report. Essentially the Kissinger proposals are the Central American expression of the strategy advocating low intensity warfare against revolutionary movements throughout the third world. On February 21, 1985, Reagan stated clearly that his goal was to "replace the present structure of the Sandinista government."

The different options offered by low-intensity warfare strategy for achieving this goal were underscored by Secretary of State George Shultz the following day. Schultz said that the method used to "replace" the Sandinistas could be the Contadora process and pressures it would bring to bear on Nicaragua, unilateral measures taken by the Sandinistas, a dialogue with the opposition or the "collapse" of the Sandinista government as a result of direct military intervention.

The administration, then, was looking to support counterrevolutionary guerrilla war with all possible diplomatic, economic and political measures to achieve its objective: to force the Sandinista government to "cry uncle" and surrender.

From this perspective, direct military intervention is not necessarily the preferred option. That does not mean, however, that the option is discarded even when favorable conditions are created through the course of the confrontation between the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. The strategic perspective outlined by the Kissinger Commission has as its focal point the contra forces' military actions, which proved key to the development of the counterrevolution from mid-1983 through 1984. (In 1984, material damage to Nicaragua caused by the counterrevolution was equivalent to 70% of the country's exports for that year. Some 1,500 armed encounters, an average of four a day, were reported in the year.)

The decision to go the route of low intensity warfare against Nicaragua was not a US government initiative but rather the path Nicaragua forced it to take. Given the political, economic and diplomatic maturing of the Sandinista revolution, the Reagan administration would have had to pay a high political price if it had chosen to intervene directly. This is useful background for understanding that, besides offering new military aid to the contra forces, the Reagan administration's 1986 campaign for the $100 million was also seeking a bipartisan seal of approval for its military option in Nicaragua.

In 1985, Reagan moved further away from any search for a negotiated solution with Nicaragua by breaking off the bilateral Manzanillo talks and refusing to recognize the World Court’s authority. Although he consolidated his administration's position and won the contra aid vote in the Senate by 53 to 47, his intense and lengthy campaign resulted in defeat in the House of Representatives on March 20 with 222 votes opposed, 210 in favor and 3 abstentions.

The numbers demonstrate no great margins of difference in either the victory or the defeat. The closeness of the votes was one more indicator that the battle would continue; the House—and especially the Democrats—would be obliged to formulate an alternative. The House Democrats had said no to Reagan's plan but still hadn't said yes to any plan that would end the conflict with Nicaragua. A concrete plan was necessary in order for the House to be able to later confront the Senate's approval of Reagan's proposal.

In this context, a group of House Democrats headed up by then-Speaker Tip O'Neill looked to Latin America and more specifically, the Contadora process, for help in forming an alternative position. Turning to Contadora represented a new step. Both the Kissinger Commission and the Reagan administration see the Contadora process as an expression of Latin American objectives, which they do not believe coincide with those of the United States. The very fact that Contadora advocates a negotiated solution to the conflict puts it at odds with the military option put forward by the United States. To date, it has been Nicaragua that has looked to Contadora as the best solution to the Central American conflict, while the Reagan administration continually closes off any possibility of using the process as a means of pressure against Nicaragua.

In 1985 two major proposals had been put forward to resolve the Central American crisis, particularly regarding Nicaragua. Reagan proposed his so-called Peace Plan which called for Nicaragua to dialogue with the contra forces, dissolve the National Assembly and call new national elections. In other words, it called for replacing the existing structure of the revolutionary government. Nicaragua responded by backing the Contadora proposal, which respected the 1984 elections, did not pressure its government to dialogue with the US-backed counterrevolutionaries, and sought some sort of international security for those countries involved in the Central American conflict. The advance made in 1986, then, was that this time the Democrats supported the Contadora option in opposition to Reagan's military strategy.

By the time the O'Neill Democrats turned to Contadora in the spring of 1986, however, they found it in a state of relative weakness, the product of wracking events in the previous several months. In November 1985, Nicaragua had refused to sign the second and as yet incomplete version of the Peace Act and had renewed its State of Emergency to assure a means by which to cope with both internal and international pressures. At that point, the Contadora negotiating process faced such a stalemate that a four-month recess was called.

Despite the recess, the Contadora countries met in Caraballeda, Venezuela, in January 1986. The proposal that came out of that meeting essentially accused the United States of lacking the political will to move towards peaceful resolution of the Central American crisis. The proposal was thanks both to the impulse given it by the Support Group, formed in Lima in 1985, and to the fact that Nicaragua's position had forced the Contadora and Support Group countries to clearly see the alternatives: either the death of the Latin American negotiating process or legitimacy to the Nicaraguan position that there can be no solution to the Central American crisis without the participation of the United States.

With the Caraballeda proposal in hand, the Contadora Group Foreign Ministers traveled to Washington. Reagan refused to meet with the eight ministers, insulting them further by meeting with members of the counterrevolutionary forces during the very same days. For his part, Schultz openly rejected Caraballeda, particularly the provision calling for no more aid to the counterrevolutionary forces.

Blocked by US opposition and looking for reinforcement, Contadora proposed the signing of a new, revised draft, one that did not include an explicit call for an end to US aid to the contra forces. That is to say, it opted for pressuring the weakest party, Nicaragua, as the way out of the impasse.

It was at this moment that O'Neill and his wing of the Democratic Party began to invoke Contadora as an alternative to Reagan's proposal, and Contadora representatives went to Congress to lobby for their new draft. Significantly, both Reagan and Nicaragua oposed this approach. Reagan opposed it because any significant Contadora-congressional relations could endanger his military plans against Nicaragua. The Sandinista government continued to insist that the future development of the revolutionary process hangs in the balance as long as there’s no guarantee from the United States that it will cease its aggression against Nicaragua.

The counterrevolution in defeat

In the midst of this diplomatic contradiction, the key factor to the conflict—in other words, the military one—was playing itself out inside Nicaragua. The tendency toward the strategic decline of the counterrevolutionary forces had begun to take shape from 1985 on, and in 1986 the tendency was confirmed. Militarily, the Sandinistas had won the war.

Clearly, the military balance of the conflict is crucial when the time comes to offer diplomatic alternatives to the regional crisis. While different positions and possibilities were being put forward in the diplomatic arena in the second half of March, a series of combats occurred that, along with those of November 1986, were probably the most intense of the entire war. In March, the Nicaraguan Army (EPS) announced that the contra forces had suffered 600 casualties, including 350 deaths. At the same time, it announced the destruction of a number of camps attached to the most important contra training base on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. The Nicaraguan Army suffered 40 deaths and 116 wounded.

These were the results of an offensive the contra forces had launched at the beginning of March. Most of the fighting took place in the zones along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, leading the Reagan administration to declare that the Sandinista Army was violating Honduran territory. The Hondurans initially said they had no information to that effect, but after a great deal of pressure from the United States, finally caved in. The head of the US Southern Command, General John Galvin, arrived in Honduras and members of the Honduran armed forces were flown in US helicopters to the border areas. But while the US spoke of the grave danger Honduras was facing with the supposed Nicaraguan "invasion," President Azcona took advantage of his Holy Week vacation to go to the beach. In the end, the conflict petered out with no direct clashes between Sandinista and Honduran troops.

These military events fundamentally demonstrate two facts. First, they clearly show the Honduran government's assessment of the counterrevolution; they also show that the contra forces are being hit hard in their own rearguard. The Hondurans' evaluation of the contra forces is similar to that of Nicaragua's other neighboring country, Costa Rica.

What caused the contras’ strategic decline?

It is worth looking a bit more closely at the three factors that brought about the strategic decline of the contra beginning in 1985 and lasting throughout 1986. The first is that the revolution has increasingly taken root among Nicaragua’s peasant population. The FSLN had seen some of its social base erode in the more remote areas in Regions I, V and VI (the northwest, central and north-central zones of the country, respectively). The key factor influencing this was the government's initially insufficient response to the peasants' demand for land, and was amplified by other political errors by the government. In 1985, the government did a turn-around in its understanding of the peasant world. At the beginning, the agrarian reform had been centered in state enterprises, understood as future centers of modern technology and organizations of production that would encourage a socialized proletarianization process. In the second phase, an advanced form of cooperativism was encouraged. Neither concept responded to the peasantry’s most deeply felt needs, they wanted to receive land in individual holdings and only later test the process of organizing one form or another of cooperative.

The November 1984 elections had showed that the government had less support among the rural population than in the cities, so it began to specifically address the peasants’ demand for land, granting it out in individual plots. The Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) incorporated this demand for land into its general claims and demonstrations. In 1986 about 300,000 hectares of land were handed over to smallholders. All this led to a greater rapprochement between the FSLN and the peasant population in Regions I, V, and VI, all war zones. At the same time, efforts were made to improve the provision and distribution of basic goods in the countryside. Little by little products essential to the peasant lifestyle arrived in the countryside. An important element in achieving this was the state consolidation that was taking place, especially in these difficult war zones. At the same time, the FSLN sent specially selected personnel to work in the conflictive zones.

The second factor is that the revolution has maintained a stronger and more constant presence in the countryside. One of the most serious problems in earlier years had been that while the army could push the contras out of certain regions, they returned as soon as it left. The peasants in these zones had to survive, in the best of circumstances, between two lines of fire. In order to assure the local population more security, and by doing so increase their level of political consciousness, the army formed permanent territorial units that assured a permanent military presence. This was reinforced by local armed self-defense militia groupings of the peasants themselves.

This new military structure meant that a whole series of social services—education, health, basic goods—now arrived in the war zones. The remote rural areas previously had poor access to those services, mainly due to counterrevolutionary threats or actions against people who were committed to carrying out these revolutionary tasks.

The third factor was a decisive push against the counterrevolution. Because the army was closer to the peasant population and able to effectively cover more territory, the contra forces were increasingly on the defensive. In fact one element—the resettlement areas—that had initially been considered very important to the strategic decline of the contra forces—was only carried out in the first of its planned phases. It became unnecessary to implement the following phases and thus significant expense in both human and economic resources was avoided.

The Nicaraguan Army's Irregular Warfare (BLI) and Light Attack (BLC) Battalions, aided by combat helicopters, put the contras on the defensive and allowed the Sandinistas to take the initiative in 90% of the combats during 1986. The army was thus able to reduce the contra forces from the approximately 15,000 they claimed at the end at 1984 to less than half that number two years later. This is evidence not only of the fierce blows that the contras suffered, but also that they can no longer recruit men to replenish their fallen ranks.

These strictly military factors combined with political factors in 1986 for a unique result: a more integral conception of the war. The draft, despite its costs, allowed the army to increase its military capabilities and potential. The new phase of the agrarian reform made it possible to effectively dissolve the nascent social base that the counterrevolution had been forming in the countryside. As the counterrevolution was strategically debilitated, desertions increased as more of its ranks took advantage of the amnesty law. (The amnesty has been effect in Nicaragua since 1983 and applies to anyone who leaves the contra forces, regardless of role or rank.)

At the same time, the Nicaraguans were able to detect and dismantle various contra support networks in the regional capitals as well as rural areas. Moreover, while Nicaraguans were perfecting and augmenting the mechanisms that were deepening the counterrevolution's strategic decline, they established reserve military service for all men between 25 and 40 years of age. The reserve is mainly intended to organize this sector to defend the cities, particularly Managua, against an eventual direct US military attack. The Nicaraguan military now has the capacity to respond to either of the two variants of Reagan's military plans.

Contradictions in Costa Rica

The tendency toward a strategic decline of the counterrevolution meant a change in attitude towards the contra forces by Nicaragua's neighbors. In October, discontent continued to grow among various sectors in Honduras with both the contras' permanent occupation of parts of Honduran territory and their treatment of the Honduran population. As a result of Sandinista Army activity on Nicaragua's southern border and lack of support from the United States, Eden Pastora's ARDE forces abandoned the armed struggle in 1986. Oscar Arias, who assumed the Costa Rican presidency in 1986, partially reshaped that country's policy towards Nicaragua. On the one hand, he had to fulfill the promises of peace that had helped him into office and were necessary to maintain Costa Rica's international status and image. On the other, this line had to be combined with some kind of response to US pressures for greater militarization of Costa Rica and increasing involvement in the war against the Sandinistas.

Arias tried to reconcile both tendencies into one political line. Going along with Reagan's objectives towards Nicaragua, he tried to give priority to political rather than military pressures. A good example of his attempt, and the resultant tension, is seen in his words and actions immediately following his inauguration. Arias spoke out against sending the $100 million to the contra forces, but at the same time pushed for the Contadora and Support Group ministers present at his inauguration to sign a document containing most of the points in Reagan's 1985 "Peace Plan." Although Arias failed in this effort, it is significant as one variation of the Costa Rican policy toward the counterrevolution. The Honduran government took a similar turn in 1986, but both are variations that severe US pressure could not allow to develop.

Contadora: Revived one more time

Despite the pressures brought to bear by the Contadora Group to sign the second draft treaty by June 6, a date they referred to as Contadora's "last chance," Nicaragua was able to maintain its principled position. The Sandinista government said it was ready to sign the minute the US agreed to stop its aggression. That is to say, it accepted a number of important limitations proposed in the draft, but with the condition that these concessions serve as a first step towards real peace in Central America. The treaty would also have meant significant concessions for the other governments in the area.

The most important, and as yet unelaborated, response to the proposed draft has to do with security and armament levels. Nicaragua proposed distinguishing between offensive and defensive weaponry, so that while all countries in the region would be permitted the means to defend themselves, offensive weaponry would be subject to negotiations regarding both definition and limitations. They thus hoped to significantly limit or even eliminate many of the strictly offensive armaments in the region. Contadora accepted this proposal on the grounds that it would strengthen regional peace once implemented, and thus the tension around the "last chance" date of June 6th was dissolved.

Contadora took the Nicaraguan proposal into account in its newest draft, the Third Peace Accord. This draft also incorporated the Caraballeda agreements, in other words demanding that the US commit itself to peace with Nicaragua. It was clear by then that this was not yet the final phase of Contadora, but rather a new phase in the continuation of a difficult negotiation process.

Although the Contadora process was going forward, the same could not be said for the House Democrats. They had postponed their vote on the $100 million awaiting the results of the Contadora process, but since Contadora did not produce any final results, the Democrats who had seized on the Contadora option as their only alternative to Reagan's policy found themselves in a difficult situation. In its current state, the Contadora alternative is not yet strong enough to successfully counter the Reagan administration plan. The third draft, which takes Nicaragua's proposals into account and puts less pressure on Nicaragua than the second version did, also means a bigger break with the Reagan position. The Democrats’ problems were compounded by the extreme pressure put on them by the Reagan administration and by their own lack of internal cohesion and vision of a clear policy towards Nicaragua.

All this coming right before the congressional elections put the Democrats in what is a rather sensitive position for them, afraid that Reagan could again accuse them of "being soft on communism." In this context the House vote took place. Two opposing positions faced off in the debate. One, the Hamilton proposal, essentially sought a political solution to the conflict; the other, the Skelton-Edwards proposal, opted for a military solution. The Hamilton proposal lost 245-183, making it clear that it was impossible to shape a coherent alternative to Reagan's policy in Central America and particularly in Nicaragua. The Skelton-Edwards proposal won on a 221-209 vote. Although lacking a comfortable margin, Reagan was able to move forward with his "bipartisan consensus." At the same time, the CIA's hands, allegedly tied after the mining of Nicaragua's harbors and publication of their terrorist manual, were once again freed to openly wage their ongoing war.

Ironically, the very day that Congress approved the $100 million, the Contadora Group delivered its Third Peace Accord to the general secretaries of the United Nations and the Organization of American States and the following day the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled in favor of Nicaragua and against the US administration. But neither the new Contadora agreement nor the World Court decision could change the internal political factors in the United States. International opinion and law held much less weight for the Democrats than their own political games.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the Democrats looked to Contadora when in one sense it was going through a very weak period vis-à-vis its positions on Latin American unity. It remains to be seen whether the Latin American position expressed in Contadora, which among other principles advocates self-determination and sovereignty for all nations of the continent, will find a more open ear among the Democrats as internal factors change in the United States.

Will the Democrats be able to come up with a more solid and consistent regional plan in the future that takes Contadora's Latin American position into account? Will they be willing to accept agreements that, in addition to guaranteeing the security of both the region's countries and the United States through regional democratization and demilitarization, also allow for national self-determination for the poor majorities in the Central American countries? Or are they only looking to Contadora for a possible ally in pressuring Nicaragua into a de facto surrender of its revolutionary principles?

Easing Church-State tensions

After the House vote in June, Senate approval in August and several short delays, Reagan signed the law appropriating $100 million for the contra forces in September. The approval of the $100 million was rightly seen by Nicaragua as a declaration of war. It was a triumph for the military option in the overall strategy of low intensity warfare for which the Reagan administration had been seeking legitimacy. As a consequence, the Nicaraguan government strengthened its measures to deal with those sectors within Nicaragua that had been defending the Reagan administration position. The daily newspaper La Prensa was suspended until such time as there was a change in the overall war situation or the newspaper decided to revise its pro-Reagan line. Shortly after this, Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega was expelled from the country after making a number of public declarations supporting the $100 million aid package to the contras and attacking the World Court decision.

Despite this, Church-State relations underwent some significant and tension-decreasing changes in 1986. In earlier years, the expulsion of Bishop Vega would have more severely affected these relations. But although there were formal protests from the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference and the Pope, the reaction was not extreme. Paolo Giglio, the new papal nuncio, arrived in Nicaragua with conciliatory statements three weeks after Vega's expulsion. Upon his arrival in Managua, he declared that "the mission of the Church is to develop good citizens, to teach our Catholics to love their country. What makes a good Christian? Doing one's duty, obeying the laws of one's country, loving God, loving your country, loving your neighbor, opening your heart to work and your conscience to accept the commandments of God and country."

Two months later, with the participation of the new nuncio, the dialogue between the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference and the revolutionary state was reopened. Despite its slow progress, the dialogue has produced a notable easing of tensions in Church-State relations. The best example of this was seen in the Eucharistic Congress celebrated in Nicaragua on November 16-23. With a theme of "Unity and Reconciliation," the Congress was attended by many foreign bishops and the Pope's personal representative, Cardinal Opilio Rossi. In large measure, the Congress stayed strictly within a religious context, uncommon for the Nicaraguan hierarchy, particularly in Managua, and the Nicaraguan government newspapers, radio and TV reported daily on its activities. President Daniel Ortega met with most of the visiting bishops and Pope John Paul II, in a letter to the Eucharistic Congress, made no criticisms (either implicit or explicit), as he had on other occasions, of the revolutionary government or the popular church. Another significant fact was the presence at the Mass closing the Congress of more than 40 priests who support the revolution. This easing of tensions could also lessen the tensions between the two political positions dividing the Nicaraguan Church.

The Church-State dialogue moved forward by means of commissions representing both the national government and the Church, which met in September and October 1986. The first meetings dealt largely with procedural issues. The government was seeking a general framework of understanding that would allow for the later solution of specific problems. A sector of the hierarchy wanted to focus on specific problems first and, once having received assurances of goodwill from the government, proceed to the more general framework. The dynamic of the dialogue, then, moved toward a combination of these two positions.

Notwithstanding its positive beginnings, the dialogue will still face difficulties as it unfolds, particularly as a number of interests are trying to block its progress. The change in the Vatican's positions could meet with resistance from those within the Nicaraguan Church who have been pushing for a direct confrontation with the revolutionary government. The outcome of this complex and delicate dialogue remains to be seen, but for the moment, the easing of tensions begun in 1986 seems to have gained ground.

Institutionalization of the process

In 1986, Nicaragua's new Constitution was debated and approved. All seven parties that participated in the 1984 presidential elections (in which 93% of the voters registered and 75% voted), and which represent all points on the ideological spectrum, took part in the constitutional debates. Sandinistas, Conservatives, Liberals, Popular Social Christians, Socialists, Communists and Marxist-Leninists (with 61, 14, 9, 6, 2, 2 and 2 National Assembly representatives, respectively) brought their seven years of experience in the revolutionary process to the weeks of lively and open debate in the Assembly. This means that the Constitution, without losing a strong theoretical foundation, carefully reflects the reality of the Nicaraguan process.

The Constitution is made up of 202 articles, 48 of which were approved unanimously, 127 with at least 80% approval, 19 with 70% and 18 with 60%. The experience of discussing and writing the Constitution was an important exercise for the shaping of Nicaraguan democracy. It has also underscored the error of those parties that buckled to pressure from the Reagan administration and refused to participate in the November 1984 elections. These pro-US parties, which never represented a significant political force in Nicaragua, have now practically disappeared from public memory. Their only influence comes from the support they receive from the Reagan administration and the official US delegations to whom they complain.

Another important experience has been the ongoing elaboration of the autonomy proposal for the multiethnic population of the Atlantic Coast. In December the process marked the end of its second year of study, many-faceted consultation with the peoples of the Coast, input from indigenous leaders and experts from abroad and debating of drafts. The key principles of the proposal—concerning land and resource rights, official use of coastal languages and bilingual education, full respect for the different cultures and their social expression and, most importantly, the creation of autonomous government in the region—have all been incorporated into and guaranteed by the Constitution.

The key to understanding the revolution's expectations in this process is the constitutional definition of Nicaragua as a multiethnic nation. This obvious and seemingly insignificant concept is unprecedented in Nicaraguan history and underlies the belief that full and active recognition of the diverse ethnic groups as first-class citizens through the autonomy process will ultimately strengthen the country’s unity rather than further divide it. That the dozen articles in the Constitution setting the basis for this recognition of diversity were passed with near unanimity is proof that historic, visceral fears of separation have been largely overcome by positive trends in the Atlantic Coast since the autonomy process began. In 1987 the autonomy statute will be submitted to representatives of the Coast communities for final approval, then submitted to the National Assembly for debate and ratification as the operative autonomy law.

And the war goes on

After the approval of the $100 million for the contra forces, the Reagan administration immediately went on the attack, but the low-intensity warfare strategy was failing it—militarily because the counterrevolution finds itself in a strategic and irreversible decline and politically because it was not fundamentally disrupting Nicaragua's democratization process internally.

Despite the difficult economic conditions facing Nicaragua, the diplomatic victory in the World Court and Nicaragua's decision to sign the last Contadora draft has given Nicaragua even more political space. In all the different fields of battle that comprise the low intensity arena, there have been no successes in general terms for the Reagan administration. But the path chosen for continuing the war against Nicaragua in the face of this clear reality seems to be one of intensifying the low intensity war.

As George Shultz pointed out, there are a number of possible ways to intensify the war. For example, US or Honduran forces could bomb Nicaraguan military or economic objectives from the air, or terrorist sabotage could be carried out against these same targets. Obviously, any intensification in military actions could set off a chain of events that could be used to justify a US military intervention, although this is not necessarily the Reagan administration’s preferred option. In any case, to do so Reagan would have to force the situation, given that the current correlation of forces at no level lends itself to an intervention.

For this reason Elliott Abrams and Philip Habib visited the Contadora, Support Group and Central American countries in November 1986 to let them know that Nicaragua’s survival is unacceptable to the Reagan administration. They also made it clear that the administration is determined to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution with whatever means necessary and that it would be unwise for the other Latin American countries to oppose this. Accompanying this rhetoric, US battleships anchored off the Nicaraguan coasts near the country's main ports, US spy flights over Nicaragua increased and the Costa Rican and Honduran areas bordering Nicaragua were "cleaned up" in anticipation of possible military action.

At the same time, State Department spokesperson William Walker called Carlos Tünnerman, Nicaraguan Ambassador to the US, to tell him that Washington had information concerning alleged Nicaraguan plans to attack US diplomats in Central America and the Caribbean. (In July 1985, after the administration's request for $27 million had been approved, Reagan accused Nicaragua of being part of a five-country, world-wide terrorist network. Reagan issued a statement blaming Nicaragua for any eventual attacks against US outposts in any part of the world.) A number of different factors seemed to have weakened the import of such an irrational position, however.

After the Abrams-Habib visits, the Central American governments stepped up their anti-Nicaragua rhetoric while Contadora and the Support Group countries began a new campaign to avoid a military escalation. All signs pointed to a significant escalation after the congressional elections in November.

The elections did not turn out well for the Republican administration, however, and soon after them the first revelations of the Contragate scandal came to light. In Nicaragua, the tip of the iceberg appeared with the Hasenfus case. Eugene Hasenfus, the only survivor of a contra supply plane shot down by the Sandinistas, revealed the names of highly placed US officials who later turned up as key actors in the Contragate drama. Both the Hasenfus case and the capture of another US citizen, Sam Hall, etched more deeply in the public consciousness the growing direct involvement of the US government in the destabilization effort against Nicaragua.

Contragate is a milestone. Although the scandal could limit the administration's aggressive options, statements by high-level US officials during the first critical moments of Contragate make clear that the administration has no intention of letting up its attacks against the Nicaraguan revolution. It remains to be seen what the real possibilities are in the context of the current internal political situation in the United States.

While Contragate slowed down the escalation that was clearly meant to follow on the heels of the US November elections, progress towards peace in the Central American region has been shaky for several reasons. In the diplomatic arena, Costa Rica and Honduras began a new boycott of the Contadora process, this time using Nicaragua's cases against their countries in the International Court of Justice as a pretext. Costa Rica and Honduras refused to attend another Contadora meeting until Nicaragua withdrew its cases. Nicaragua responded that the World Court is a legitimate and peaceful means to resolve conflicts and not in contradistinction to the Contadora process. Nicaragua said it would withdraw its case as soon as Honduras and Costa Rica stopped aiding the counterrevolutionary forces.

Militarily, the contras launched their second offensive of the year in November. Once again, they were turned back as the Sandinista Army hit them hard in the zones bordering Honduras. Once again, the US turned out to be more concerned for Honduran "sovereignty" in the face of the Sandinista attacks than the Honduran government itself. As happened in March, Honduras initially denied any Nicaraguan presence in its territory and only later, under pressure, formally protested to Nicaragua. The difference from the March events was that in November Honduras responded by carrying out air attacks against two Nicaraguan villages, reportedly with some direct US assistance.

Although nothing more came of these incidents, the current situation could pave the way for eventual Honduran bombings of strategic economic or military positions inside Nicaragua. This would be another way to rework the plan Reagan had intended to implement after the November elections. This element, together with the boycott of Contadora, leaves the possibility of a continuing offensive against Nicaragua wide open.

In such an offensive, Honduras would continue to be a military pawn of the United States, while Costa Rica, with the positions expressed by President Arias, would be the political pawn used to pressure for the "democratization" of Nicaragua.

We have arrived at the end of 1986 without encountering a short-term road to peace but at the same time seeing the increasing difficulty of a direct US military intervention. In 1987 Nicaragua will try to strengthen the Contadora process. The US Democrats, taking advantage of the Iran/Contragate scandal and the resulting weakening of the administration, may seek an election campaign position based on a just alternative for the region that might at least partially coincide with some of the Contadora positions. For its part, the Reagan administration will go forward with its low intensity war against Nicaragua, stepping it up if at all possible and using Honduras and Costa Rica as mediators in this process.

The conflict and the resolute struggle of the disputing parties will in all likelihood characterize the Nicaraguan balance of forces in the coming year. At the same time, the advances or setbacks in a greater economic consolidation of the Sandinista revolution will prove increasingly crucial.

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Nicaragua at a Glance

El Salvador
Shifting Weight at the Two Poles

Economic Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb

Chinks in the US Plan

Introductory Analysis: Central America's People Put to the Test

A Turn of the Kaleidoscope: Pieces in Motion

In Pursuit of Peace: New Victories, New Challenges
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