POLITICS NOVEMBER 9, 1987
The odds are still against it, but Costa Rican president Oscar Arias just might end up deserving his Nobel Peace Prize, He has given gratifying early indications that he will not rest on his laurels and settle for mere token moves toward democracy and stability in Central America, but will demand substantial action, especially from the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. However, Arias needs help from Washington, and he is getting all too little of it. Both the Reagan administration and Democratic leaders in Congress are giving verbal support to his peace plan but actually are engaging in their usual combat over aid for the Nicaraguan contras. What's needed is a bipartisan third force dedicated to seeing that the terms of the Arias plan are fulfilled--and willing to recommend sanctions if the Nicaraguans renege. If there is a better sanction than continued contra aid, perhaps the third force could devise it.
Cynics in Costa Rica and elsewhere thought that a Nobel Prize was the limit of Arias's ambitions. After he won it--"prematurely," they said (and so did I)--the cynics thought Arias would be so invested in the success of his initiative that he would declare victory no matter what Nicaragua did, and go home. Instead, Arias gave an interview to Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times on October 14, just hours after the award announcement, in which he urged the Sandinistas to negotiate directly with the contras about a cease-fire, which they adamantly have refused to do.
He said that if there is no cease-fire agreement, his peace plan would fail. In that case, he said, Honduras could not be expected to close down contra supply camps and stop clandestine supply flights. He urged Congress not to approve new contra aid while the peace plan is in effect (its deadline is November 7), but he did not make a point of barring it forever. Arias opposes contra aid on principle but usually acknowledges he has no power to decide what the United States should do.
In his interview. Arias made it clear in other ways that he was not settling for gestures from the Sandinistas, but wants real movement toward democracy. He urged the Sandinistas to institute a broad amnesty for opponents, including "the largest number of political prisoners," and said that "opening La Prensa and the Catholic radio station was important, but it is not enough. There should be other press outlets, and television should not be a government monopoly." So far, the Sandinistas have been unwilling to go beyond amnesty for individual contras or unit commanders who surrender. Opposition leaders say there are about 10,000 political prisoners in Nicaraguan jails. Meanwhile, opposition businessmen have applied for permission to open an independent television station, but the government has not responded.
Arias is going beyond interviews to advance his plan. When contra leaders shrewdly announced that they planned to fly to Managua to negotiate directly with the Sandinistas, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega declared that they would be arrested at the airport when they arrived. Arias reportedly has offered to allow the contras to depart from Costa Rica, to assign one of his ministers to accompany them, and to have the Costa Rican Embassy in Managua make arrangements for the contras' activities.
In Washington, the Reagan administration at first called the Arias plan "fatally flawed." Lately the administration seems resigned to the plan as a reality and pleasantly surprised that Arias is proving a tough peacemaker. But the administration is still anticipating Sandinista failure to comply and hoping to leverage that into renewed military aid for the contras. After November 7 the administration is planning a campaign for the contras that one official termed "hard hardball" against Democrats in Congress.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, were ecstatic at first about the Arias plan because at last it gave them a positive Central America policy to stand behind while they cut off aid to the contras. But now the Democrats are not backing Arias, as he insists on real Sandinista compliance with the plan. Nor are they joining him in criticizing the Sandinistas for half-measures. What the Democrats want from him is his opposition to contra aid—period. According to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, "a lot of people in Congress are more interested in killing off contra aid than in democracy. The Democrats are to the left of Arias. He's serious about the treaty. They are not."
Administration allies cite the case of Senator Christopher Dodd, who urged Daniel Ortega not to travel to Moscow on November 7, as planned, in order to deemphasize the Sandinistas' Communist identity. Ortega and Interior Minister Tomas Borge both told Dodd that the Soviet Union was a fraternal ally and aid donor that they did not intend to slight. Dodd also promoted with Nicaraguan leaders the idea of replacing Roman Catholic Cardinal Obando y Bravo, a Sandinista critic, as intermediary in talks with the contras. Dodd's candidate was former Venezuelan president Luis Herrera Campins. Dodd denied these ideas were intended to help the Sandinistas escape full compliance with the Arias plan. He said he privately urged the Sandinistas to offer a general amnesty and otherwise fulfill the Arias plan.
In a clearer case. Democratic Representative Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania assured Ortega that he need only open La Prensa and Radio Catolica to achieve a contra cutoff. Senator Tom Harkin urged Ortega to open La Prensa for similar reasons, and advised its publisher, Violeta Chamorro, to accept military censorship. (Harkin claims, though, that he conveyed her refusal to Sandinista officials and is responsible for getting them to allow the paper to open prior to November 7 and without censorship.) House Speaker Jim Wright makes it clear that no matter what the Sandinistas do, he does not favor renewed military funding of the contras, only humanitarian aid for their resettlement. He said that Arias believes the threat of economic boycotts and political disapproval by European and Latin countries is sufficient to compel the Sandinistas to behave, and he agrees.
At the same time there is total disbelief in Congress XM. that the Reagan administration has any interest in democracy in Nicaragua, and widespread conviction that its only genuine goal is a contra military victory. Administration officials insist they favor contra aid as an "insurance policy" in the event of Sandinista non-compliance, but as one moderate Democratic leader put it, "If we put military aid in escrow, the administration would cheat and play games in order to get the money released. I put no faith in the honesty of the administration."
Expecting no cooperation from Congress, -pro-contra activists in the administration are hoping that President Reagan will conduct an all-out campaign after November 7 for $270 million in military aid. If Democrats attach mere humanitarian assistance to a supposedly "non-vetoable" bill such as a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating, the activists hope that Reagan will veto it. They hope Reagan will go on national television and say that defeat for contra aid will doom infant democracies elsewhere in Central America, and make the Democrats responsible for it. "The clearer the choice," said one official, "the greater chance we have of winning. We want the Democrats to pull the plug and take the heat. We won't help them."
Will the White House go along with such maximum hardball, especially with the president weakened by the crashing stock market and the loss on the Bork nomination? "Robert Bork may be the salvation of the Nicaraguan contras," said one official. "Conservatives are so mad at Howard Baker for the Bork thing that he'll have to go all out for the contras."
Given the distrust between the administration and Democratic leaders, there needs to be a third force that will monitor the Arias plan, construct a checklist for compliance, visit the region repeatedly, and scour the private sector and the federal budget for money to aid democrats in the region. One such group actually does exist. Central American Peace and Democracy Watch, launched by a group of sometime contra supporters who think that the Arias plan might work to change the Nicaraguan government and save democracy in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
"The United States has given these democracies great moral authority," said one committee organizer, Penn Kemble of Prodemca. "Now that they've agreed to this peace plan, why should we treat them as though they lack the backbone to stand up to dictatorship?" The Watch group has collected a budget of $80,000 from private sources, has a letterhead of 60, topped by former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb and New York Mayor Ed Koch, is organizing several inspection trips to Central America, and plans to equip democratic opposition groups in Nicaragua with mimeograph machines, typewriters, tape recorders, cameras, and one or two cars. One Watch organizer, Nina Shea of the Puebla Institute, has drafted a 57-point list of steps that the Sandinistas should meet to comply with the Arias plan.
What no faction has done is to say what happens if the Sandinistas fail to live up to the Arias plan. Administration officials say that Arias tells them he would be willing to go to the Organization of American States and request sanctions under the Rio Treaty--that is, U.S. military intervention--which they say will never be approved. Democrats say Arias will merely denounce the Sandinistas and call for economic sanctions. Americans certainly ought to be clear about what Arias will do and what the United States will do. The administration answer is to hold the contras in reserve because that's a better alternative to direct U.S. military action. If that's not the best solution, what is?
By Morton M. Kondracke