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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 32 | Febrero 1984



Between Kissinger and Contadora

Envío team

News on Central America this month was dominated by two quite distinct efforts to deal with the regional situation. One was the Contadora process, which made some progress in the January 7-9 meeting of the Contadora and Central American foreign ministers. The other was the report of the Kissinger commission, presented in Washington on January 11 and officially supported by President Ronald Reagan on February 3. During the month, the ongoing pressure on Nicaragua was expressed primarily in discussions of the electoral process and in military attacks. Part of the large-scale private sector and the rightwing opposition parties seemed to be moving towards boycotting the electoral process by imposing conditions on that process that would violate the principle of national self-determination. At the same time, the contras, in coordination with Honduran forces, began to develop a new military strategy.

Meanwhile, the situation in El Salvador continued to suggest the possibility of a direct US intervention in that country. The FMLN continued its strong offensive, exacerbating the unraveling of government forces. Henry Kissinger and the Salvadoran revolutionaries agree on at least one point: a “sudden collapse” of the government army, if not probable in the short term, is nonetheless possible. Furthermore, the Salvadoran panorama will grow more complicated as the March elections approach and tensions within the power bloc intensify. Duarte and D'Aubuisson, the preferred candidates of the US embassy and the Salvadoran oligarchy, respectively, represent the choice that voters in El Salvador will face.

Thus, while US strategy in Central America would appear to call for growing pressure on Nicaragua through 1984 and the propping up of the Salvadoran army and economy, thereby avoiding direct intervention during an American electoral year, events in El Salvador could well preclude such an attempt to put Central America “ on hold.”


Negotiations inch forward

On January 9, the first anniversary of the initiation of the Contadora process, the Central American governments signed three accords concerning military, political and socioeconomic matters. The agreements emerged from three distinct negotiating proposals presented by Nicaragua, the Contadora Group and the Honduras-El Salvador-Costa Rica bloc (Guatemala being notably absent from the third proposal).

Nicaragua, while moving ahead domestically in its own electoral process, focused its proposal on a number of immediate measures dealing with regional security, including a call for the withdrawal of foreign military advisers, an arms freeze and non-aggression pacts. Opposition to these proposals was apparently spearheaded by Honduras, which, while unable to oppose openly the Nicaraguan measures, sought to delay their implementation. While Nicaragua’s far-reaching security proposals obviously contribute to regional peace, they just as obviously contradict the Reagan administration's objectives in Central America, insofar as the withdrawal of foreign advisers and an arms freeze would inhibit efforts to prop up the Salvadoran government and to overthrow the Sandinistas.

The Contadora Group's proposal adopted some of the Nicaraguan proposals, while delaying their implementation so as to gain Honduran-American support. Other Nicaraguan measures are to be discussed later. For example, the Contadora nations proposed a regional moratorium on arms acquisitions to begin February 29, the development of a timetable for the gradual reduction of foreign military advisers and support for legislation that would strengthen national electoral processes.

These proposals, however, did not gain unanimous support from the Central American nations, the prerequisite for inclusion in any regional agreement. The moratorium on arms acquisitions, in particular, was opposed by all the nations in the region, save Nicaragua.

Nevertheless, some progress was made. There was agreement on the taking of a regional inventory of military installations, weapons and supplies as a prelude to an eventual agreement on arms control and reduction. The Central American governments also committed themselves to establishing a timetable for the reduction of foreign military advisers and to identifying and eventually eradicating irregular military forces seeking to destabilize governments in the region. On political matters, all participants in the negotiations agreed to promote national reconciliation processes based upon the principles of justice, freedom and democracy. With respect to economic concerns, the regional governments agreed to step up aid to Central American refugees, coordinate their search for foreign credit and promote regional trade.

Commissions were set up with members from the governments of the region and Contadora observers in each of the three areas of concern—military, political and socioeconomic. These commissions will oversee the implementation of the January 9 agreements and will report back to the full Contadora group on February 29.

Though progress at the January meeting was relative, it at least helps to prevent the deterioration of relations within the region in the short run. January’s agreements, on the other hand, do not represent a real qualitative advance in the Contadora efforts, and the establishment of commissions could easily lead to long, drawn-out discussions. Such a drawing-out of the Contadora process would give the Reagan administration more time to implement its own agenda for the region.

Kissinger proposes two-track aggression

The Kissinger Commission report yields some insight into at least the public policy to be pursued by the US government. With respect to Nicaragua, the commission presents a two-track policy. On the one hand, economic, military and political pressure will be maintained with the goal of forcing the Nicaraguan government to abandon some of the basic goals of the revolution: “We do not believe that it would be wise to dismantle existing incentives (sic) and pressures on the Managua regime except in conjunction with demonstrable progress on the negotiating front” (p.116). On the other hand, direct military intervention could become politically viable if Reagan is reelected or if the Salvadoran situation changes notably: “As part of the backdrop to diplomacy, Nicaragua must be aware that force remains an ultimate recourse. The United States and the countries of the region retain this option” (p.119). The Kissinger Commission report obviously embodies the true Reagan administration “solution” for Central America, one that the Contadora process has been able to fend off until now. As Panamanian President De la Espriella and Mexican Foreign Minister Sepúlveda have stated, the Contadora process managed twice in 1983 to forestall armed conflicts “ that were already planned.” In response to this mediating role, the Kissinger Commission's position on Contadora is quite clear: “The united States cannot use the Contadora process as a substitute for its own policies,” because “the interests and attitudes of these four countries are not identical, nor do they always comport with our own” (p.120). Such a position does not rule out continued rhetorical support for Contadora and the use of that process to pressure Nicaragua via the proposals of US regional allies while the Reagan administration itself continues in practice to ignore Contadora's pleas not to fan the flames of war in Central America.

The Kissinger Commission was also eloquent in expressing the Reagan Administration’s attitude towards its Western European allies: “We should seek their political and diplomatic support where this is possible, and their restraint where it is not. We should strongly discourage their aiding the Sandinista regime, until it fundamentally changes course” (p.124). Serious respect for the views of those allies is not necessary, as they have only “modest economic concerns” and “occasional residual involvements” in the region, along with an “inadequate” grasp of the great questions of world security at stake (pp.123-24).


The electoral process

The Kissinger Commission expresses two main positions with respect to Nicaragua's upcoming elections. The first is a basic lack of trust in the Nicaraguan government’s good faith: “The Commission is not in a position to judge the sincerity and significance of these various signals. But clearly they would require extensive elaboration and more concrete expression before they could give solid grounds for hope” (p.116). The commission's second concern is that the counterrevolutionaries be included in any electoral process (p.118). Both of these positions had already been put forward by itinerant US ambassador Richard Stone.

Whether through coincidence or not, these two positions are essential components of proposals made by a part of the right wing in Nicaragua. Throughout January, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and representatives of some of the rightist opposition parties (the Social Christians, the Social Democrats and the “democratic faction” of the Conservative Party) reiterated proposals made in December for a “national dialogue including all political parties and movements, including those that have taken up arms, under the auspices of the Contadora group. This dialogue would determine the form and content of elections for the formation of a Constituent Assembly, elections that would be supervised by the Contadora group or by the OAS.”

The agreement with Kissinger and Stone is clear: “those who have taken up arms” are the Somocista counterrevolutionaries trained and financed by the US government, while supervised elections (as opposed to elections with international observers, as proposed by other parties, including the FSLN) give a foreign nation or nations ultimate authority over the electoral process, handing over functions normally undertaken by the national government. (The expression used by the rightists in their proposal is “elecciones super-vigiladas,” an expression that has only been used once before in Nicaraguan history: to refer to the US-run elections of 1928. (See “US Intervention and Election in Nicaragua” in this issue.) Thus the US government and a sector of the domestic opposition coincide in seeking the return of the Somocistas to Nicaragua and foreign intervention under the guise of “electoral supervision” as guarantees of the sincerity of the Nicaraguan government. The opposition has also begun to issue barely veiled threats to boycott the elections if these conditions are not met. Such a boycott could help the Reagan administration argue that any direct intervention occurring after the US and Nicaraguan elections would not be seeking the overthrow of a “democratically elected government.”

Other rightwing political parties (the Constitutionalist Liberal Party and the “legitimist faction” of the Conservative Party) and more progressive groups (the Independent Liberal, Popular Social Christian and Socialist parties) have taken a different tack and have not adopted the Kissinger-Stone conditions for the electoral process. With different emphases, these parties have called for conditions that should exist in any honest electoral process (freedom of expression, access to the mass media, freedom to move about throughout the country, the presence of international observers, etc.). These parties disagree to a certain extent as to whether there should be a directly elected executive or an executive appointed by the National Assembly, whether the minimum voting age should be 18 or 21, and whether members of the armed forces should be allowed to vote.

These proposals were presented to the Electoral Commission of the Council of State, which has been developing a draft of the electoral law based upon the recommendations of the various political parties. On December 4, the FSLN presented its party proposals to the Electoral Commission. The FSLN called for the election of a President, Vice President and National Assembly, all for a period of six years. The National Assembly would draft a Constitution in its first two years and would continue to function as a legislative body for the remaining four years of its term. The Assembly would have 90 members, one for each 20,000 voters. The minimum voting age, suggested the FSLN, should be 18 years, and members of both the armed forces and religious orders should be allowed to vote, though members of the armed forces wishing to run for office would have to resign from their positions first. Those tried and convicted of counterrevolutionary or other crimes would not be allowed to vote. The state would devote 0.5% of its budget to finance the electoral campaigns of the different political parties, though the parties would also be allowed to obtain additional financing.

The FSLN also proposed the passing of an electoral ethics law that would prohibit tactics used in past Nicaraguan elections such as bribing voters or using offensive publicity. A Media Law would also be implemented, guaranteeing all parties access to the electronic and print media once the campaign is underway. Finally, the FSLN proposed inviting international observers from organizations such as the Contadora Group; the Socialist, Liberal and Christian Democratic Internationals; the United Nations and the Movement of Nonaligned Nations.

Thus the electoral process is proceeding according to schedule. The exact date of the elections will be announced on February 21, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Sandino. Government leaders have stated that only extreme military pressure from the US would delay the holding of elections.

Aerial attacks stepped up

Throughout January, Nicaraguan forces delivered heavy blows against counterrevolutionary forces seeking to penetrate the Jinotega-Matagalpa coffee region. Though there is still some contra activity in that region and sporadic contra attacks in North Zelaya and Rio San Juan, the theater of military operations has shifted. The main counterrevolutionary offensive is now centered on the departments of Nueva Segovia, particularly around the Jalapa area, and Chinandega, particularly near Point Cosiguina, the extreme northwest tip of Nicaragua, on the Gulf of Fonseca. This new strategy has been called the “Sierra Plan.”

On January 6 and 8, Port Potosi, on Point Cosiguina, was attacked by sea and air. The attack led to the evacuation of the port town's inhabitants. The heaviest fighting in the Jalapa area took place from January 8 to 11. During those days, there were more than 17 flights over the area by planes and helicopters supporting the contra infantry. On January 11, a military helicopter flying over the area was hit by Nicaraguan fire and had to make a forced landing just inside Honduras. It was later discovered that the unmarked helicopter belonged to the US army and that its dead pilot was an American.

Despite the concerns of some of its members, the Kissinger Commission took the position that the counterrevolutionary actions are an acceptable “backdrop” for regional “diplomacy”: “the majority of the members of the Commission, in their respective individual judgments, believe that the efforts of the Nicaraguan insurgents represent one of the incentives working in favor of a negotiated settlement” (p.116).

It would appear that the Commission also appreciated the support given by Honduras to the contras and to the Salvadoran army, recommending that Honduras' air force, already the strongest in Central America, be beefed up further. The Commission recognized that “it is questionable whether Nicaragua as yet has the logistical and other capabilities needed to mount a conventional cross-border attack.” Why then does Nicaragua represent a threat to Honduras? Because its military “buildup points in the direction of their acquiring such capabilities” (p.100). But if Nicaragua is not presently a threat, why does the Commission not advocate the acceptance of Nicaragua's proposal for a moratorium on regional arms acquisition, which would freeze Nicaragua's military capability at its present level? Obviously, the Honduran military buildup serves purposes of a non-defensive nature.

On February 2, six military planes (push and pulls and A-37 fighter-bombers) attacked a Nicaraguan military unit and a civil communications center 30 miles inside Nicaragua, in the department of Chinandega. On the following day, four push and pull planes attacked another military unit in the same department. The attacks represented an escalation of the aerial war against Nicaragua, as the planes used were not the small ones hitherto used by the FDN and ARDE. The Honduran Air Force is the only known owner of the A-37 planes used in the first attack. In addition, the nature of the aerial attacks suggested, in the view of Nicaragua's Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, that the pilots were highly skilled. Could operations such as these possibly be the purpose of the Honduran Air Force buildup sought by Mr. Kissinger?

The escalation of aerial attacks is in part a response to the difficulties being experienced by the contras' ground forces. The FDN and ARDE suffered approximately 200 casualties during the month, according to Nicaraguan estimates. The use of increasingly sophisticated war planes and the presence—for as yet unknown reasons—of a US helicopter in a Nicaraguan war zone point ominously to an increasingly direct US- Honduran involvement in the aerial war, which could eventually threaten targets deep inside Nicaragua.

The new military strategy could pave the way for direct intervention. The upcoming Big Pine III maneuvers will be held in the southern corner of Honduras, conveniently close to El Salvador and Nicaragua. Hence, the maneuvers could be the launching pad for an invasion of El Salvador's northern departments, where the guerrillas have broad zones of control. They could also lead to an attack in Nicaragua's key Pacific region. Chinandega would be the point of entry for such an attack. Such speculation does not rule out, of course, the possibility of another attempt to establish a “liberated territory” around Jalapa.

While the Kissinger Commission offered no new information on the situation in El Salvador, public recognition of that situation by the Commission was significant. The Commission's report states that El Salvador's Gross National product has fallen 25% in real terms since 1978, that GDP per capita has fallen to the early 1960s levels, and that the direct cost of the war has reached $600 million.

Obviously seeking to marshal political support in the US for increased military aid to El Salvador, the Kissinger Commission basically shares the evaluation of the military situation put forward by the FMLN several months ago: “The war is at a stalemate—a condition that in the long term favors the guerrillas” (p.97). (More recently, the FMLN has stated that this stalemate has been broken in its favor.) The Commission notes that the guerrillas “can now put perhaps as many as 12,000 trained and armed fighters in the field,” a figure that includes 6,000 “front-line guerrillas” an about the same number of “increasingly well armed” militia members (p.98). This expansion in guerrilla forces, calculated at around 6,000 in early 1983, has been made possible by the acquisition of more weapons. The Kissinger report states that “there are reports that the Sandinistas have cut back on their support for insurgency in the region, although the evidence is far from clear. One explanation for the increased arms supply of the FMLN may be that the Salvadoran guerrillas have been able to obtain ample arms within El Salvador” (p.27). The 12,000 FMLN combatants are facing 37,500 government troops, up from 24,000 in January 1983. Hence, the Kissinger report notes, the government has “less than a 4 to 1 advantage over the insurgents. A ratio of 10 to 1 has generally been considered necessary for successful counterinsurgency” (p.98).

A high official of the Salvadoran government forces recently admitted that these forces had suffered 18,000 casualties over the last three years. The government has hence had to resort to forced recruitment of workers, peasants, students and even children. These recruits obviously lack the military and ideological preparation of professional troops. The guerrillas, on the other hand, are growing more experienced. According to the Kissinger Commission: “The guerrillas after four years of experience in the field demonstrate an increasing capacity to maneuver, concentrate their forces and attack selected targets” (p.28).

The commission notes that “the severity of guerrilla attacks on the transportation and electrical network in the eastern departments has resulted in the effective isolation of much of that area,” leading to the possibility of “the establishment of a ‘liberated’ zone, as a prelude to the extension of the war into the central departments” (p.98). Though the guerrillas’ base of support in San Vicente has been disorganized and the FMLN has lost its infrastructure in western El Salvador without being able to rebuild its urban base of support, the government’s military situation is critical. The Kissinger report admits that “given the increasing damage—both physical and political—being inflicted on the economy and government of El Salvador by the guerrillas, who are maintaining their strength, a collapse is not inconceivable” (p.101). If the situation is so critical, will the Reagan administration await a “collapse” before intervening? Does the present balance of power make such an intervention viable? Would the need for a “preemptive” invasion have led Mr. Kissinger to recommend immediate action against Nicaragua and El Salvador in a secret report to President Reagan, as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has charged?

In any case, El Salvador's situation is complicated still further by tensions within the power bloc. Duarte and D' Aubuisson, two men who have presided over the death of more than 30,000 civilians since 1979, will face off in the March 25 election, an election that will not be “supervised.” In his February 1-2 visit to El Salvador, US Secretary of State Shultz said that his government would accept the results of the election. At the same time, a joint US-El Salvador statement was issued, rejecting the FMLN-FDR's call for dialogue unless the opposition “lays down its weapons.” The statement also called for increased military aid to El Salvador, alleging, as did the Kissinger Report, that US-Salvadoran interests can “only be satisfied once communist subversion has ended.”

The situation in El Salvador will play a key role in the unfolding of events in Central America in 1984. Only time will tell whether increased US support for Salvadoran government forces will be enough to contain the guerrillas. If not, the Reagan administration will have to turn to direct intervention with some regional support. Such intervention would be politically costly for Reagan, but probably less costly than the “loss” of El Salvador during an election year. Meanwhile, pressure upon Nicaragua will increase. One can expect that pressure to remain a combination of military aggression and internal attempts to demonstrate the “antidemocratic” nature of the Nicaraguan government and the “illegitimacy” of the electoral process.

The FMLN will continue its offensive. Though this may increase the possibility of intervention, it will also give the guerrillas better strategic positions from which to combat that intervention. At the same time, the FMLN-FDR continues to call for a political solution to the Salvadoran situation. The Nicaraguan FSLN has also called for negotiated solutions to the various Central American conflicts within the Contadora process. Yet the Sandinistas have served notice repeatedly that, in the process of negotiation, they will not yield on the basic goals of the revolution. Sandinista leaders have also promised to “follow in the footsteps of Sandino” in the event of an intervention, warning the US government once again that it would face a protracted guerrilla struggle if it invaded. Finally, the FSLN has reiterated its moral support “for the just struggle of the Salvadoran people,” suggesting that US intervention in Central America could well lead to a regional war.

It is clear that the Central American situation, the crisis in Lebanon and the ongoing US-Soviet nuclear arms competition present a complex world situation, which could easily be aggravated if dialogues based upon respect for international law do not take place. It is thus significant that the Kissinger Commission Report does not refer to international law, respect for which has been a basic goal of the Contadora group.

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