Offensive against Nicaragua and its Elections: On the Way to Invasion?
Escalating aggression against Nicaragua over the last month continues to be the focus of attention in this country’s national affairs. The direct participation of US citizens in the latest military attacks has heightened Nicaragua’s concerns.
In the short run, the stepped-up aggression is intended to hamper the last stage of the electoral process, currently less than two months away from the November 4 voting day. The crux of this strategy is to rob the elections of their legitimacy and delay them. In the long run, it is part of the overarching strategy designed to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution. To achieve this, the US Administration is juggling a range of elements including: a) subjecting the FSLN to US pressure; b) preventing the elections or discrediting them; c) gradually creating discontent within Nicaragua through the continued war of attrition; d) intervening in different ways in Nicaraguan affairs; and e) imposing unfavorable conditions on the terms of negotiations in an attempt to push the revolution toward political suicide.
The parties making up the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee (CDN) launched a domestic and international campaign to discredit the elections. Internationally, they sought to influence the Contadora countries by presenting themselves as victims of an “undemocratic” electoral process, their exclusion from which, they claim, violates the Contadora accords. The attempt to identify the CDN with Contadora distorts the purpose of the latter, which, since its inception, has been to promote peace and negotiations among the Central American governments. In addition, this political move by the CDN provokes internal tensions within Contadora at a time when that group is already undergoing difficulties, as our second article in this issue describes.
Given the present context of increasing US military activity in the region, the combined strategies of foreign aggression and abstention from participation in the elections paint a grim picture of intervention in Central America, exacerbated by the approval of a belligerent Republican platform and Ronald Reagan’s probable reelection.
The attack on Santa Clara The downing of the UH-500-D helicopter over Nicaraguan territory is a key event with which to analyze the intensifying military offensive against the country. Only days earlier, the Nicaraguan army had shot down a C-47 plane that was transporting supplies to counterrevolutionaries in Pantasma, Jinotega. Within a week, it again became evident that the frequent use of sophisticated resources cannot be considered part of the contras’ guerrilla warfare. Rather, it represents a tactic for large-scale, direct intervention. Past examples of this have been the attacks launched against Nicaragua from Piranha speedboats, the mining of Nicaraguan harbors and aerial attacks on Managua with small aircraft. Today, however, the aggression has reached a new dimension. Two of the three crew members killed in the helicopter were US citizens. One of them, Dana Parker, was a Huntsville, Alabama, police investigator. Both were Vietnam veterans and members of the Alabama-based “Civilian Military Assistance” (CMA), a militantly anticommunist group that has sent material aid to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries with the silent approval of the US government.
The following elements related to the helicopter shot down in Santa Clara, Nueva Segovia, 10 kilometers inside Nicaraguan territory illustrate the extent of military escalation against Nicaragua.
* The helicopter’s flight route, which was recovered from the wreckage, shows that the crew took off from one of the many Honduran airports recently built for joint US-Honduran military maneuvers.
* Despite the Reagan Administration’s denial of any official connection with the US crew members, it is highly unlikely that civilians could set foot on a military base in Honduras and use a military helicopter for an air operation.
* The helicopter was accompanied by three “Push and Pull” planes that also penetrated Nicaraguan air space. According to eyewitnesses, the planes flew in combat formation, indicating that the mission was not a simple supply run, but an attack.
* The target of the attack was the military training school in Santa Clara, part of whose installations were destroyed. The aggression was also intended to produce ideological repercussion within Nicaragua by killing recently drafted young soldiers. It is no coincidence that the Nicaraguan opposition political parties focus their antigovernment campaigns on the obligatory military service.
* The fact that the strafing was aimed at a sight well within Nicaraguan territory, as opposed to a border post, heightens the significance of the act. Nicaraguan authorities called an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to protest the offensive and point out the increasingly serious threat posed by the US administration’s decision to attack their country.
The participation of US citizens suggests two hypotheses: 1) increased direct participation of US personnel will speed up the process of destabilizing the Nicaragua government; 2) the contras are taking such heavy blows that the direct use of US personnel is the only sure way of getting the job done.
The US Administration needs a quick military victory, leaving wide open the possibility of large-scale, direct military intervention. The infeasibility of effectively organizing the CONDECA forces leaves the US with no other regional alternative with which to replace the contras. The helicopter incident could thus set a precedent for further attacks of a similar nature.
Official reports estimate that the contras suffered 500 casualties during June and July, while Sandinistas casualties were 103 dead and 96 wounded during the same period. This latter number does not include casualties among Nicaragua’s civilian population. In more than 100 battles during the month of August, the contras suffered approximately 150 casualties in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, Matagalpa and Zelaya. Toward the end of the month, the attacking forces concentrated on the civilian population, massacring peasant families in Rama Kay and Matazano, assaulting the Miskitu resettlement village of Sumubila and ambushing civilian technicians in La Quebrada.
According to reports issued on August 30 by the Nicaraguan Defense Department, the Sandinista counteroffensive initiated August 1 has so far been successful in halting the counterrevolutionary plan known as “Luna Negra” (Black Moon), designed to sabotage the upcoming elections. As a result of this counteroffensive, the counterrevolutionary regional commands “Diriangen,” “Jorge Salazar” and “Segovia” have been unable to regroup or coordinate their operations, much less establish a base.
Before departing for Libya on August 28, Tomás Borge stated that “the counterrevolutionaries are facing serious clothing and munitions shortages,” adding that the “Somocistas depend exclusively on outside logistical support.” He announced that “Nicaragua will improve its detection capabilities in order to neutralize the enemy’s logistical support.”
Some days earlier, Daniel Ortega had announced the concentration of joint ARDE and FDN forces in Costa Rica’s northern Guanacaste province. He also warned of possible combined attacks from the north and south in the following days.
The military pressure by FDN and ARDE forces continued throughout August, although official estimates reveal that the blows dealt to the contras are undermining their ability to carry out significant offensives on their own. This does not mean, however, that their forces have been disarticulated. On the contrary, the military aggression is expected to intensify as the election date approaches. Consequently, the Nicaraguan government will have to invest greater amounts of human and technical resources to confront this. The more than 100 battles recognized by the Nicaraguan government in August alone suggest that, while Luna Negra was contained, the Sandinistas still have not achieved total control over important zones of the country where the civilian population often bears the consequences of contra attacks.
Despite public warnings by US government officials, Sandinista leaders ratified their decision to strengthen Nicaragua’s air force—to date, the weakest in Central America—and publicly stated that they were building a new air strip in Punta Huete, 20 kilometers from Managua.
Abstention: The political offensive The talks begun by the registered parties on August 17 were resumed on September 7 at the first evaluative meeting of the electoral process. Both meetings reinforced the pluralistic nature of the current pre-electoral stage, as did the designation of two additional members to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE): Carlos García Caracas, from the Popular Social Christian (PCD). The appointment of these individuals to the fourth branch of state resulted from reforms in the electoral law intended to broaden the representation of the CSE executive to five members.
During August, the party Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML) and its labor union, the Worker’s Front, were given representation in the Council of State. In addition, 39 decrees of pardon were issued by that legislative body to citizens accused of counterrevolutionary activities. Among the freed prisoners was the La Prensa reporter, Luis Mora. Both events helped improve the political climate necessary for the electoral process. Throughout the first month of the campaign, several opposition parties harshly criticized the manner in which the Sandinistas were conducting their campaign. During that time, La Prensa took advantage of the notable reduction in press censorship. It even attacked individual candidates, thereby violating the electoral law.
Despite ample opportunities to contend for power, the three CDN parties have chosen to refrain from taking part in the elections. On August 22, the National Council of Political Parties (CNPP) revoked the right of these three organizations—the Social Christian Party (PSC), Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC)—to continue functioning as political parties. The three have appealed the decision and are currently awaiting a final verdict from the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding the measure taken against them, the three groups have not lost their representation in the Council of State.
The abstentionist parties have desperate proposals to avoid further isolation and the costly domestic repercussions resulting from their decision not to participate in the elections. In mid August, they withdrew the principal and most controversial of the nine points they had presented as conditions for their participation in the elections: a national dialogue including the armed counterrevolutionaries.
A few days later, Adolfo Calero of the FDN stated that his organization had no intention of participating in talks with the Sandinista government. In their document of unity, the FDN and ARDE attempt to distinguish their ideological orientation from that of “Somocismo” (despite a heavy composition of ex-Somoza guardsmen in their troops) while demonstrating their full support for the political opposition within Nicaragua (the CDN).
The abstentionist coalition was late in changing its position. The three-month period established for candidates to register had already expired, as had the successive extended deadlines for registered parties to form alliances. Moreover, the CDN leadership continued to clamor for a boycott of the elections. The political flexibility demonstrated by the other political parties and by the government was interpreted by the CDN as “weakness.” Nonetheless, it led the abstentionist coalition to believe that, without its participation, there would be no elections. Its appraisal of the situation was not accurate, and its tardy attempt to rectify the situation by presenting “more-flexible positions” went unheeded. Even the representative of the center-right Independent Liberal Party (PLI) voted in favor of the CNPP’s decision to remove the three parties’ legal status.
The CDN’s unsuccessful attempt to influence the other parties to abstain—presenting itself as a flexible political force willing to make concessions, while depicting the government as rigid, punitive and unwilling to negotiate—has evolved into a broader campaign to question the revolution and discredit the elections.
* On the economic level: The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP)—a CDN member although not a political party—launched a series of attacks against the government’s economic policies. In the section “Ideas For All,” La Prensa published a COSEP article on August 25 titled: “The Unfeasibility of the Current Nicaraguan Economic System.” A week later, following several rebuttals by international press agencies, La Prensa ran an excerpt of the article, this time calling it “a new COSEP document.” The article superficially claims that the government has tried to reconcile two incompatible and contradictory plans: a “centralized economy with collectivization” and free market supply and demand.
The article continues: “The free market system is inherent in the Nicaraguan people. It is a product of their idiosyncrasy. As individualists, Nicaraguans are greatly attached to private property, however large or small it may be.”
The superficial identification of psychological elements with national economic systems deprives this analysis of any merit. COSEP curiously fails to mention the lack of productive investment by the private sector and the systematic decapitalization and speculation practiced by many in that category. Nor do the authors include an explanation of the international price drop of Nicaraguan export products (and those of the third world in general), which has caused a negative balance of foreign exchange; the financial blockade against the country; or the consequences of production and supply problems resulting from Nicaragua’s mined harbors. Through their analysis, COSEP members have attempted to provide an “economic program” for the abstentionist political sector. By distorting the current political situation, they promote an image of an unresolvable crisis in which they are the defenders of the small merchants, artisans, and small landowners.
* On the labor level: The labor unions belonging to the CDN have tried to regain lost ground and to show that the revolution’s social base has eroded. Contradictorily, however, they have manipulated the portrayal of several labor disputes headed by unions affiliated with the Sandinista Workers’ Confederation (CST) since the right to strike was restored in July to give the image of chaos and social disorder and ultimately to disrupt the electoral climate. On August 28, La Prensa’s front-page headline read: “Labor insurrection!” in the Julio Martínez automobile plant. Only a detailed reading of the article on the inside pages would clarify that there was tension between the plant’s 600 union members (affiliated to the CST) and the company’s owners.
Undoubtedly, workers are facing enormous problems given the present economic situation. Together, various labor organizations and the government are exploring effective mechanisms to confront those problems. On September 9 and 10, the CST will hold a special national assembly. The dynamics of labor-union activity may shift now that the right to strike, withdrawn for two years, has been restored. However, sectors aligned with an abstentionist posture have clearly used these labor disputes to bolster their positions, even when the conflicts had nothing to do with their political goals.
Internal contention among members of the Confederation for Labor Unification (CUS) was manipulated to appear as government repression. The conflict broke out when various members of the CUS occupied their organization’s main Managua headquarters to protest their leadership’s alignment with the CDN. The CDN and La Prensa presented this internal dispute as a case of Sandinista aggression, an image projected abroad by various international news agencies.
* On the political level: La Prensa and the organizations comprising the CDN have devoted their efforts to systematically attacking the political forces running in the elections. The Nicaraguan Worker’s Confederation (CTN), an opposition labor union, has targeted former minister of labor and current presidential candidate for the PLI, Virgilio Godoy. Almost daily, La Prensa attacks the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD), charging its leadership with a lack of representativity. Both La Prensa and the CDN have sought to point out the “sparse pluralist participation in the electoral spectrum.” The second article of this issue on Nicaragua’s political parties attests to the fallacious nature of that charge.
* On the international level: The CDN has campaigned vigorously. During August, Arturo Cruz headed a tour of CDN leaders through five Latin American countries. PSD leader and coeditor of La Prensa, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr., is scheduled to visit three European countries in October. Through these trips, the CDN seeks to bolster its image as a flexible organization, open to dialogue—but shunned by the FSLN—and desirous of participating in the elections, which it would win if the process were only democratic.
The CDN began its international offensive by targeting three Contadora countries—Columbia, Venezuela, and Panama—as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador. The attempt to influence the Contadora countries is clear. Just prior to the decision to revoke the legal status of the abstentionist parties, PSC leader Julio Ramón García Vílchez referred to this possibility in the August 21 issue of La Prensa, concluding: “[that type of action] would obstruct the implementation of many aspects of the Contadora resolution.” Some days later, La Prensa’s front-page coverage of Arturo Cruz’s trip to Columbia read: “…[Cruz] requested Contadora’s intervention to help solve the internal political crisis in his country and in Central America as a whole.”
Many observers consider that the CDN’s visits to the Contadora nations are part of an attempt to gain international recognition as a respectable political force dedicated to achieving peaceful, negotiated solutions to the crisis that the Sandinista government has so far been unable to resolve. The success of the abstentionist coalition’s campaign to discredit Nicaragua’s November 4 elections will depend a great deal on the extent of its own recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Given its almost total loss of political influence inside Nicaragua, the abstentionist opposition group’s only hope of survival lies in gaining some measure of international acknowledgment.
While Arturo Cruz’s delegation was received by the Presidents of all countries visited, the absence of positive conclusions or important press statements suggests that the visits remained at a level of protocol. After a meeting with Costa Rican Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos José Gutiérrez on August 23, the Costa Rican diplomat stated: “Cruz and other Nicaraguan opposition leaders came to request our President’s support for dialogue in Nicaragua.” According to Gutiérrez, President Monge agreed on the need for talks as part of the peace-seeking process but warned of his country’s unwillingness to interfere in Nicaragua’s domestic affairs.
US intervention in Central America: In contrast to the Democratic platform, which proposes an end to covert activities against Nicaragua, the Republican platform, by explicitly announcing its support for the “freedom fighters,” tacitly approves of all available means for destroying the Nicaraguan model. This difference between the two platforms’ positions on Central America is significant in that successive covert action is virtually indispensable to a low-intensity war of the kind being designed by important sectors of the Pentagon and CIA.
From the Republican platform to regional military consolidation
The aggressive nature of the Republican Party’s platform reflects the strong influence within the party of Senator Jesse Helms, US Ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Reverend Jerry Falwell. The platform provides total support for the current administration’s bellicose policies, designed to eliminate “communism from America’s backyard.” This would mean more aid to the repressive regimes of Guatemala and El Salvador, stepped-up militarization in Honduras and Costa Rica and additional support for the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries and their plan to destabilize that country.
The August 23 issue of La Prensa quoted the following extract from Senator Paul Laxalt’s speech at the National Republican Convention: “I hope they hear me in Managua, La Habana and Moscow: regardless of what the liberal Democrats want to do, our President and our party will not abandon the freedom fighters in Nicaragua’s hills.”
Key elements of the May 1980 Santa FE document concerning Nicaragua“Panama is under the control of a leftwing military regime which, according to the CIA, was the intermediary in the transfer of Cuban and US arms to the Sandinistas in the Marxist takeover of Nicaragua in July 1979.”
“The Nicaraguan base on the American continent will now facilitate a repeat of the new Nicaraguan revolutionary model. Already US arms previously sold to Nicaragua have been sent to guerrillas in Guatemala.”
“An ideologically motivated and selectively applied human rights policy is detrimental to human rights properly conceived. It has cost the United States friends and allies and lost us influence in important Latin American countries. It has even contributed to the destabilization and loss or prospective loss of countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica.”
Points set forth in the August 1984 Republican platform with regard to Nicaragua “Today democracy is under assault throughout the hemisphere. Marxist Nicaragua threatens not only Costa Rica and Honduras, but also El Salvador and Guatemala.”
“The Sandinista regime is building the largest military force in Central America, importing Soviet equipment, Eastern bloc and PLO advisers and thousands of Cuban mercenaries. We support the democratic freedom fighters in Nicaragua.”
“Nicaragua cannot be allowed to remain a Communist sanctuary, exporting terror and arms throughout the region.”
Comparatively, the Republican platform goes beyond the Santa Fe document in addressing the fundamental ideological concept of US hegemony. While both Republican positions agree in characterizing the Nicaraguan government as “Marxist,” the notion of intervention as a solution and the open support for the contras represent a significant intensification in aggressive anti-Nicaraguan rhetoric. The platform is the written expression of the sharply escalating war that has cost Nicaragua more than 7,300 lives over the last three years.
Speaking of Ronald Regan’s 1980 presidential victory, Senator Laxalt was quoted in the same August 23 La Prensa article as saying: “We can say, thank God, that he won that election…. Four years ago, the United States was a humiliated nation…. After an unprecedented series of failures in both foreign and domestic policies, President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale put this nation on its knees.”
The contrast between the Republican and Democratic platforms with regard to Central America, could provoke the Democrats to opt for a stronger, more critical position toward Nicaragua to defend themselves from harsh Republican criticism.
On August 8, the US battleship Iowa arrived in Central American waters of the Pacific, accompanied by the destroyer Cunningham, the frigate Steven Groves, and the vessels Hercules and Aries. A floating military barracks with 2,100 Marines on board, the Iowa is equipped with Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, nine 14-inch cannons and four Phalanx machineguns capable of firing 3,000 127-mm bullets per minute. The ship’s 406-mm missiles can hit a target up to 37 km away. In a direct line, Managua is situated only 40 km from the coast. In the event of a naval attack, the “Iowa” could strike areas adjacent to the capital by moving only slightly closer to the coast. The Iowa’s captain, Gerald Gnockow, has stated: “The vessel’s presence demonstrates that the US is clearly interested in protecting its Central American allies.” Days later, in statements to the Guatemalan press, he added: “If my government orders me to intervene in any Central American country, I am capable of doing so.” According to Inforpress Centroamericana, No.605, the modernization of the Iowa cost $385 million, plus $17 million more to have it ready in only 90 days.
On August 12, coinciding with the Iowa’s arrival, General John Wickman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff met with top-ranking officials of the Honduran army in Palmerola. By August 21, 26 helicopters had arrived at that military base: 20 UH-1Hs, 4 TH-47s and 2 UH-1Vs. The helicopters will provide logistical support for some 700 US troops permanently stationed at that base, 250 of whom comprise the 24th Air Force Intelligence Battalion, which has been in Honduras since mid-August.
In August, the US government approved a supplementary military aid package for El Salvador. As part of that aid, an undetermined number of AC-47 planes, 12 UH-1H helicopters, military trucks, arms and munitions will arrive in El Salvador shortly. Speaking before Congress at the beginning of last month, General Paul Gorman, Chief of the US Southern Command, demonstrated the need to double the number of US advisers in El Salvador to reach a total of 125, owing to increased troops in both that country’s army and guerrilla forces.
The US government’s hasty response to reports such as General Gorman’s exemplifies its decision to strengthen all aspects of logistics and infrastructure necessary to invade El Salvador or Nicaragua at any time. Despite rhetorical support for the Contadora negotiations and bilateral talks with Nicaragua in Manzanillo, this shoring up of military strength in the region expresses an objective show of force intended to alert the insurgent movements in El Salvador and threaten Nicaragua.
A sharp increase in bombings of El Salvador’s civilian population and stepped-up human and technical aid to Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries do not exclude the possibility of direct invasion with joint US-CONDECA troops. Equally conceivable would be an attempt to continue the covert war against Nicaragua, the objective of which would still be to weaken, destabilize and eventually overthrow the Sandinista government.
Conclusions The attack on Santa Clara, the bombings of the civilian population in El Salvador—combined with steadily increasing military support for that government—and the strengthening of military positions in Central American waters and Honduran territory indicate that the Republican platform is more than just rhetoric.
The US Administration’s determination to regain control and influence over Central America has not yet been daunted by the cost and consequences of such an undertaking. The cost of restoring the battleship Iowa equaled Nicaragua’s yearly export earnings. The Reagan Administration is determined to defeat by means of war the reconstruction and liberation efforts being carried out by Central America’s peoples.
The danger of a direct US invasion of Central America is becoming increasingly acute and resonating in sectors that are abstaining from the Nicaraguan elections. Having isolated themselves domestically and therefore narrowed their possibilities, these groups seek to discredit the elections internationally. Furthermore, they are attempting to win over the Contadora governments and create tensions between them and the Nicaragua government. The overall plan for intervention is dependent on two simultaneous strategies: incessant military aggression from the outside and continual wearing away at the social fabric within Nicaragua.
It is possible that a full-scale invasion is being delayed in part by the Nicaraguan people’s determination to defend themselves and rebuild their country. Another advantage in Nicaragua’s favor is the maturity with which Nicaraguans are facing the deepening problems around them: bureaucracy, worsening economic crisis, salary readjustments, shortages of important consumer supplies, etc.
The next two months will be particularly trying for the region. While the threat of direct invasion remains, the undeclared war will undoubtedly take many more Central American lives, possibly with planes and helicopters piloted by US personnel.