Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 34 | Abril 1984



New Regional Question Marks, New Military Offensive, New push for Contadora

Envío team

In the last month Nicaragua experienced a new military aggression—one of the strongest to date. All things considered, this external offensive outweighed the internal efforts in the institutionalization process. The “war of the ports,” the prime tactic in the offensive, is aimed at the very core of economic activity, seeking its rapid erosion and a corresponding cost in the well-being of Nicaragua's population. It indicates the ever increasing involvement of the Reagan administration, given the limits of counterrevolutionary activity, and also points to a certain “defensive fragility” on Nicaragua's part in confronting this qualitative advance in the US-supported war of attrition.

This situation, together with the new US military maneuvers in the region, prompted Nicaragua to undertake a diplomatic campaign in order to reinforce the Contadora initiative and strengthen international support, without renouncing its right as a sovereign country to request from peoples and governments of the world the technical and military resources necessary to confront the aggression.

“The elections are part of the defense of the revolution”, affirmed the Sandinista Assembly in a March 25 communiqué. In effect, the continuity of the electoral process, together with the international campaign and popular defense, all form part of Nicaragua's answer to the aggression. The new institutions (the National Assembly and National Council of Political Parties) that have begun to function, as well as the creation of the Supreme Electoral Council on April 4 as the fourth branch of the republic, were important advances. However, despite the seriousness of this process, the opposition forces continued to pressure the government with the threat of abstention.

The “Emergency Alert” US military maneuvers conducted during the days of the Salvadoran elections, “Granadero I”, which began on April I, and “Ocean Venture 84,” scheduled for the end of the month, ratified the bellicose strategic line of the Reagan administration. In the short run, the strategy is aimed at greater yield with less cost.

The Salvadoran elections and the surprising removal of Álvarez Martinez and his closest generals from the head of the Honduran armed forces fall within this framework. These two events could be highly significant for Nicaragua and might create new question marks and new regional hypotheses.

The new military offensive

In the third week of February, the anti-Sandinista groups, reorganized after the defeats of December and January, began an intensified military penetration into the country. One after another, high-level Sandinista military leaders announced this growing infiltration, as well as another reorganization of the task forces. The Nicaraguan press reported that, between March 5 and April 5, more than 45 Nicaraguans were killed, 25 wounded, and 15 kidnapped by the different attacking forces. Although managing to penetrate well into the interior of the country in some regions, the aggressors suffered no less than 160 casualties, according to official sources. There were five principal zones of action: the northwest, the northern strip of Nueva Segovia and Madriz, the northern section of Matagalpa and Jinotega, northern Zelaya, and different points along the southern border.

The announced organic unity of the FDN and ARDE did not take place. On the contrary, near the end of February, communiqués from both organizations appearing in Costa Rican newspapers demonstrated somewhat different positions. The FDN called for a radical change from the Sandinista government in the short term. ARDE, more cautiously, tried at least rhetorically not to shut the door on its participation in political life. The two coincided explicitly, however, in laying claim to the Ramiro Sacasa Democratic Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Democratica ) and its communiqué of December 28, 1983 (see January's envío ). In turn, the latter body continued via its various member parties to push for national dialogue with those “in armed revolt” without condemning their military actions. The objective coming together of FDN and ARDE has been verified anew in the recent offensive. In response, the Nicaraguan government offered a single answer: it has been hearings in absentia against the principal counterrevolutionary leaders. These hearings have eliminated any possibility of dialogue or “civil participation” for them and could lead to a request for their extradition. After this response, it’s not improbable that the unifying efforts of the two groups will intensify.

The “war of the ports”

Within the latest military offensive, one operation, though not new, stood out: the attack on the country's main ports. The same activities occurred in the September-October offensive, but at that time the principal objectives were to create publicity and prepare for intervention. The current military campaign, with its more systematized attempts, selected objectives and sophisticated technical measures, represents a qualitative leap in the ever-more-open war of attrition against the country. It has been conducted by combining different methods—“piranha” speed-boats, helicopters, planes and underwater mines.

Between February 24 and this writing, ships of different flags—Panamanian, Japanese, Dutch, Soviet and Liberian, as well as numerous Nicaraguan vessels, in particular, fishing boats—were damaged by what appear to be “sonar” mines, that is, those set off by the acoustic waves produced by approaching ships. The combined attacks are exemplified by that carried out against Corinto on March 29, involving five “Piranhas” and a plane. (The Piranhas, given their short range of movement, must operate from “mother ships.” According to official announcements, a US ship has been stationed for several months some 40 miles off the Nicaraguan coast, together with others that continually circulate in the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic.)

The defense minister announced on March 29 that the explosives used “are highly sophisticated, industrially manufactured mines from the arsenals of the U.S. Army” and that “they are being placed by CIA specialists through the use of modern surface and underwater naval technology.” Though the anti-Sandinista organizations claim responsibility for these mines, it is impossible to think that irregular organizations could produce such sophisticated material. This same argument was put forward by US newspapers. The March 27 issue of the FSLN newspaper Barricada cites The New York Times of March 23, in an editorial titled “The Handmade Blockade,” criticizing “the role of the US and the CIA in the mining of Nicaraguan ports.” Days later, other US news media backed this denunciation offering forceful proof.

In a certain sense, the impunity of this operation reflects the real limits of Nicaragua's ability to respond. In Corinto, for example, fishing boats with their deep-sea nets have been used to try to “sweep” the harbor channels. The international request by the Nicaraguan government on March 13 for technical means to confront this situation and the travels of several of its leaders to different countries—Libya, Iran, the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc.—are principally based on this weakness. France's offer to participate with other countries in clearing the mines from Nicaragua's ports took on unquestionable significance owing to its political and diplomatic value, as well as to the negative consequences that the war of the ports has had on Nicaragua's economic life.

Military blockade and economic suffocation?

Between 80% and 90% of all products entering and leaving the country in 1983 passed through Nicaragua's ports, according to ENAP (National Port Enterprise). This figure increases with the strangulation of road transport due to the military situation along the border. The approximately 600 ships that pass through Nicaragua each year leave US$18 million in foreign exchange from port duties. Just as important, they bring critical products for the health, food provisioning, and productive activity of the country and take away the agricultural exports that provide Nicaragua's major source of foreign exchange.

The ports most systematically attacked—Corinto and Sandino—are, not surprisingly, also the most important; 1,749,019 metric tons of products out of a total of 1,810,048 (93%) passed through them in 1983. Puerto Sandino is also key in that almost all petroleum used by Nicaragua enters there—629,612 liquid metric tons in 1983.

The importance of port activity, particularly now when the products harvested between November and March are being shipped out, demonstrates the long-term strategy behind this new tactic. The goal, particularly if the attacks expand to other areas, is to force an accelerated deterioration of the Nicaraguan economy with the corresponding consequence for the social base of the revolutionary process—the deprivation of many indispensable products that today are bought or donated from abroad.

The qualitative leap in military operations is reflected in the now-generalized combination of land, sea, and air attacks in the war of attrition that Nicaragua is suffering. These methods are part of an increasingly integrated strategy designed to undermine the country internally, not only weakening it economically but also diluting the progress and social improvements through scarcity of medicines, construction equipment, educational materials, etc.

Nicaragua's response to the increased aggression

Faced with the growth of military aggressiveness both on the part of the contras and through the regional military maneuvers, the Nicaraguan government intensified its efforts at different levels in order to counteract the attacks. To the military consolidation of its people—including the incorporation of new youth into the Patriotic Military Service starting in January 1984—Nicaragua added a recent diplomatic offensive, which has yielded impressive results. The advances in the electoral process, right on schedule, are also viewed as political answers to the aggression.

Pushing Contadora as a principal point of the new diplomatic initiative

On March 13, the Coordinator of the government junta (JGRN) turned to national and international public opinion, explaining once again the grave situation the region was experiencing. In his message, Daniel Ortega not only requested military resources for the country's defense, but also asked governments and international institutions such as the United Nations, the Nonaligned Nations and Contadora to request four points of the United States: 1) to withdraw its troops and weaponry from the region; 2) to suspend attacks against Nicaragua; 3) to seek political solutions to the Salvadoran crisis; and 4) to search for solutions to the problems outlined by Nicaragua. Days later, a new JGRN communiqué essentially reiterated these points and added that “the civil war of our sister Salvadoran nation has been unfortunately absent from the agenda of the Contadora peace process, weakening the chances that this initiative will reach the core of the regional crisis.” Nicaragua has once again brought up the Salvadoran issue for international discussion.

In the interval between these two presentations by the Nicaraguan government, Daniel Ortega traveled on March 20 to Mexico, where he met with President De la Madrid. Although there was no official confirmation, it is likely that Ortega arrived at this meeting with concrete proposals liable to recharge the Contadora initiative. Nicaragua had again selected Mexico as an efficient intermediary. Regional tensions, aggravated by accelerated US militarization, were clearly swamping Contadora efforts in favor of dialogue and peaceful solutions.

Days after Ortega's trip, vice-Foreign Minister Victor Tinoco declared: “The Nicaraguan demand that Contadora take more concrete initiatives does not imply a loss of confidence in its mission,” but rather that the Central American situation makes it possible to “lose the perspective of a solution.” Tinoco admitted that the process is “somewhat out of step” because of the geopolitical changes that have occurred since Contadora began its efforts, in particular, the growing militarization of Honduras in the last year. He further noted that Contadora did have one fault: “not having addressed itself to one of the main actors in the crisis, the United States—which has a very real presence in practice but none in the negotiations.”

After his return from Mexico, Daniel Ortega underscored “the necessity that Contadora make extraordinary efforts to contain the aggressive escalation of the United States and create the appropriate conditions to continue the process of dialogue and negotiation in Central America.” Similarly, junta member Sergio Ramírez, in a visit to Spain, appealed to that country to cooperate more strongly with the Contadora group in order to contain the terrorist escalation of the US government. Nicaragua also sent letters along the same lines to the principal European and Latin American leaders.

In less than 10 days, Nicaragua had developed the first phase of its diplomatic offensive. On the basis of first reactions, it appears that the results were positive. The secretary general of the United Nations had affirmed in Mexico the need to support the Contadora initiative with deeds—a direct reference to the US attitude, which supports it rhetorically but obstructs it in practice. Also very positive was the trip of Mexican President De la Madrid to the major Latin American countries—Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, etc.—where he introduced the Central American issue as a central element of his journey. The profound anti-intervention content and Latin Americanist sentiment of those meetings—exemplified by the recognition of the second anniversary of the Malvinas/ Falklands war in the De la Madrid-Alfonsín encounter—bode well for Contadora and for Nicaragua.

The second phase of the offensive was centered on calling an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. After four days of discussion, the United States was obliged to veto a resolution that condemned the mining of the ports and the attacks against Nicaragua, all countries were asked to support Contadora, and required to abstain from any acts that would obstruct its efforts. The resolution had been supported by 13 of the Council's 15 members, and Great Britain had abstained (although it generally supports US proposals without discussion). Despite the veto, the discussion, which centered on the regional situation and the total isolation of the United States in its policy of aggression, could be considered another diplomatic victory for Nicaragua. Nevertheless, one day later, the Reagan Administration gained a partial victory of its own inside the United States. The Senate, rejecting a series of amendments, approved US$21 million requested by the administration for the counterrevolutionaries and $61.7 million in emergency assistance for the Salvadoran regime.

In the framework of Nicaragua's diplomatic efforts, the document in support of the Nicaraguan electoral process signed by Europe's main social democratic leaders—Felipe González, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt and Fred Sinowats, among others—and presented on March 19 has enormous importance, especially analyzed in light of the abstentionist tendencies of the parties of the Coordinadora Democrática inside Nicaragua. The support and legitimization of the elections by important European democratic leaders weakens the efforts at sabotage and electoral abstention fostered by the US administration, the counterrevolutionary groups and—for the moment—some sectors of Nicaragua's internal opposition.

Once more, Nicaragua's diplomatic initiative—renewed by substantial international support—has become a forceful weapon of defense. The qualitative step forward requested of Contadora was its principal point, with Mexico playing the decisive role in this proposal. Central America again became an element of concern throughout the continent. The battle in the Security Council is another factor that stands out. The ratification of support for Nicaragua and Contadora and the international condemnation of the United States—demonstrated in its isolation at the time of the veto—are positive signs. To avoid over-optimism, however, it is important to consider how much international opinion influences Reagan administration policy. For this reason, despite the search for peaceful and negotiated solutions, Nicaragua is openly and straightforwardly continuing its efforts to consolidate its military defense in its travels to different countries as strategic insurance against a threatened regional peace.

Progress in the electoral process

This month's formation of the National Assembly of Political Parties and the National Council of Political Parties—pluralist bodies with representatives of different political forces—as well as the initiation of the work of the Supreme Electoral Council in accordance with the new Electoral Law (analyzed in greater detail in the second article of this Envío), are very concrete steps along Nicaragua's road to institutionalization. The three members of the Supreme Electoral Council, a fourth branch of government and the principal body of the electoral process, are Mariano Fiallos Oyanguren, former vice rector of the national university; Leonel Argüello Ramírez, a businessman who was a COSEP leader in 1979 and is currently an adviser to the Council of American Development Foundations; and Mrs. Amada Pineda, a peasant woman with a long anti-Somoza background, presently a member of the popular Anti-Somocista Court. The fact that these institutions have begun to operate on schedule clearly proves that there is a strong political will among the Nicaraguan leadership to move ahead with the institutionalization process, despite the military offensive.

Nonetheless, the Coordinadora Democrática continues to brandish the threat of electoral abstention. In this National Assembly, COSEP openly called for abstention. The other forces within the Coordinadora, though they have not yet made their ultimate decision, continue pressuring for the positions included in their December document. The final decision of the Coordinadora must be made soon, since the increasing military aggression continually reduces the “grey area”; participation in the elections or abstention will mean in clear political terms to opt either for an institutionalized Nicaragua or for the interventionist plans of the U.S. Administration.

New regional question marks

The elections in El Salvador and the surprising change of the head of the Honduran armed forces inspire new questioning and new regional hypotheses, particularly when analyzed from the perspectives of their relation to the Nicaraguan situation. First, however, it is necessary to take note of a region conditioned by a growing militarization.

With the end of the “Big Pine II” maneuvers, no less than 1,700 US soldiers stayed in Honduras. A month later, during the second week of March, the “Emergency Alert” maneuvers were announced. They were publicly justified as the means to control any actions the FMLN might carry out against the Salvadoran elections on March 25, even though the FMLN had announced that, while the war continued, it would not sabotage the elections. “Emergency Alert” involved the 82nd Airborne Division, which had invaded Granada, and two aircraft carriers—the New Jersey and the America. The latter, with a 79,000-ton capacity, carries dozens of planes and was escorted by a tanker and other warships.

Objectively, these maneuvers formed a kind of bridge between “Big Pine II” and “Granadero I,” which began days after the termination of “Emergency Alert.” On April 1, a month earlier than originally planned, the first phase got under way. This phase consists of constructing two landing strips for C-130 transport planes, one in Cucuyagua, near the border with El Salvador and Guatemala, and the other in Jamastrán, in the border region with Nicaragua.

“Ocean Venture 84” will have begun by April 20. During these maneuvers, the US armed forces will simulate the occupation of a Central American country—El Salvador or Nicaragua—using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as the setting. More than 30,000 US soldiers are scheduled to participate, including the 82nd Division, which in “Ocean Venture 81” simulated the occupation of Grenada, a dress rehearsal for the real thing in October 1983.

El Salvador’s Protracted Elections

This even produced many elements worthy of analysis. Around 1.4 million people voted on March 25, out of a potential of 2.6 million. Prior to any interpretation, it must be noted that this represents a drop of 20% from the number voting in the constituent elections of 1982. So, what does this electoral abundance mean? The Reagan administration and those who share its regional vision immediately labeled the turnout an electoral victory. Without probing deeper into the significance of the votes, this simplistic view proclaimed the results a condemnation of the guerrillas.

Others interpreted the event differently. Many of those who voted live in areas controlled by the army and, by voting, hoped to avoid possible reprisals. Furthermore, in the difficult situation Salvadorans are living through, the vote is a way of expressing a profound desire: “We want peace—no more war—so begin the negotiations.” The Salvadoran vote cannot be interpreted as representing the conviction that an election, in the middle of war, is a solution in itself.

The elections process itself was rife with irregularities. There were monumental delays at the voting tables, and even greater delays—up to a week in some places—in announcing the results. Many registered voters did not find their names on the registration lists; at various tables, the vote was not secret, but rather in full view of party representatives, and deposited in transparent ballot boxes; by late afternoon, in many places the registration lists were completely disregarded, and anyone who appeared was authorized to vote. All these are examples of excessive haste and of electoral techniques inappropriate to the Salvadoran level of development. The elections, “made to order for the Reagan Administration,” were regulated by an electoral law approved in the middle of the campaign, scarcely a month and a half before election day.

The second round of elections, scheduled for May, will be the culmination of a process of readjustment by the political parties. They are still hoping for approval of a proposal to modify the electoral law in order to permit the contending parties to change their candidates. Among other things, this would allow ARENA to replace D'Aubuisson, a clear irritant to US plans.

What will happen with regard to the FMLN if Duarte wins the elections? What if ARENA wins? These are key questions in evaluating any probable course of action. The Kissinger report contemplates the possibility of dialogue with the guerrillas. A Duarte victory could entail an attempt to initiate this dialogue, which, of course, would not put the power of the regime at risk, but could gain time. It would mean “sticking out” the period leading up to the US elections, giving the Reagan administration a “success” at the diplomatic level. To demonstrate this diplomatic success during his electoral campaign would be extremely important. Nevertheless, the internal dynamics of the war in El Salvador will have their own influence on future events, and all these hypotheses could be invalidated if the FMLN makes a qualitative advance in the coming months.

If D'Aubuisson (ARENA) were to win, any attempt at dialogue would be essentially discarded, forcing the Reagan administration to readapt its policy. Should this occur, there is even the possibility that Congress would cut all further military assistance to El Salvador.

The “Honduran Surprise”

The “resignation” or removal of General Álvarez Martínez and four other generals apparently came as a result of contradictions and discontent inside the armed forces. It stems all the way back to the appointment of Álvarez to the top military position, over the heads of more than 20 colonels with better professional credentials. With the consent of the US administration—which decorated him with the “Legion of Merit” as a commander in 1983—and the permission of Ambassador Negroponte, Álvarez increased his political power both internally and regionally and even tried to displace the Guatemalan military leaders in the reactivation of CONDECA. To achieve his domestic objective, he participated in and was designated president of APROH (Association for the Progress of Honduras). This organization, tied to the most reactionary Central American and Panamanian business sectors, proposed to the Kissinger Commission in November 1983 the immediate initiation of a war against Nicaragua, a position it reiterated in February 1984.

Álvarez's dictatorial command within the military institutions; his vocation to go to war with Nicaragua, based on visceral reactions and not on objective analysis; his rapprochement with the Salvadoran military, against which many Honduran officers harbor old resentments; and the escalation of repression—unnecessary even in the judgment of other Honduran officers—are some of the elements that led to the “coup” against him. The coup surprised everyone, but once accomplished, received the enthusiastic support of civilian politicians and the green light from the United States. Álvarez's aspirations to power, whether by coup or the 1985 presidential elections, put the democratic image of Honduras in jeopardy. Without doubt, this was what made the Reagan Administration go along. In light of the Salvadoran electoral efforts, the image of Álvarez as President of Honduras can only be seen as a major contradiction.

Furthermore, domestic challenges to the Reagan administration's unlimited support for the militarization of Honduras have grown in recent months. “Honduras, where democracy was once beginning to flower, has now been turned into an armed camp,” US Senator James Sasser argued in a report following his visit to Honduras. To confront Reagan on military assistance to El Salvador is very difficult, as the latest US Senate vote shows. There’s little room left to those who oppose Reagan between a position of continued military and economic support of El Salvador or “losing the country to communism.” With Honduras, the situation is qualitatively different. The gross militarization of that country cannot be claimed to “save it from communism”; it’s clearly designed to use the country as a base for launching regional interventions. This position can be more easily refuted by domestic opposition within the United States.

The change of Álvarez, then, permits Reagan a shot at his opposition, alleging the reinforcement of democracy in Honduras and the urgency of supporting it. It is even made easier by the fact that Alvarez' replacement, General López Reyes, head of the Honduran air force, is also a convinced pro-American, though his personal characteristics make him less problematic than Álvarez. This could open a period of greater political maneuverability—and of unpredictable duration—for the Honduran civil opposition. For Nicaragua, the essential aspect of the Honduran policy is unchanged; the Granero I maneuvers will go ahead as planned. However, the change could make way for the possibility of insisting on a proposal for dialogue with Honduras.


Neither the “protracted elections” in El Salvador nor the changes in Honduras constitute a step backward for the Reagan administration. It will continue playing the cards in its hand in the short run, and these two events are part of the game. At the same time, through the military reinforcement of the region, the administration will place its chips in the key squares. Between 1981 and now, the military maneuvers have continued consecutively, virtually without letup.

The electoral year demands careful decisions on Reagan's part. A defeat in El Salvador could mean his electoral defeat, but so could getting bogged down in Central America, should he decide to intervene in reaction to a deterioration in the Salvadoran situation.

Irresolvable problems are also presented by his overall policy of financially reinforcing the Nicaraguan contras and the Salvadoran regime; of militarily fortifying himself with regional troops; of tearing away at Nicaragua through new forms of military attacks, sabotage, and the delegitimizing of the upcoming Nicaraguan elections by pressuring the Coordinadora Democrática to abstain. The Nicaraguan diplomatic offensive is condemning Reagan at an international level; the debate about Central America, above all among the candidates in the Democratic primary, is reversing one of the main objectives of the Kissinger Commission—to close the Central America issue during the electoral year; the advance of the Salvadoran popular movement is narrowing the margin of options; and international solidarity with Nicaragua, by France for example, implies contradictions that the administration would prefer not to have to face.

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