MANAGUA—There is a small chance that the causes of peace, democracy, and hemispheric security could be advanced by the Arias plan signed by five Central American presidents in Guatemala on August 7. This could occur if democrats outside Nicaragua (especially Democrats in the U.S. Congress) are uncharacteristically shrewd and stalwart in forcing the Sandinistas to live up to the accord they signed. Timetables need to be drawn up for Sandinistas to meet, leading to full, representative democracy. The world’s democrats should resolve to monitor closely Nicaragua’s progress, and be ready with stiff sanctions if they renege. And the United States needs to keep the Nicaraguan contras alive until it’s clear that the progress toward democracy is irreversible. Major responsibility lies with House Speaker Jim Wright.
The more likely prospect arising from the Arias plan is a debacle—the dismantling of the contras in exchange for some token steps toward democracy, followed by consolidation of the Sandinista regime as a permanent dictatorship and partner in Cuban and Soviet efforts to undermine U.S. interests in the hemisphere. If this occurs, the United States will be seen as abandoning yet another force of indigenous fighters who depended upon us, following the Bay of Pigs Cubans, the Kurds in Iran, and the Hmong in Southeast Asia—and this just at a time when the contras are scoring military successes, hardening the Sandinistas’ economic crisis, and, apparently, beginning to develop a popular following inside Nicaragua. The United States will be the laughingstock of Latin America, having been utterly outfoxed by the puny Sandinistas, and the next president—Democrat or Republican—will have an incredibly weaker hand to play in conducting foreign policy against Mikhail Gorbachev.
There is a third possible outcome, which in Washington and all over Central America is held the likeliest: that the Guatemala plan could fall apart, either because the Sandinistas are unable and unwilling to allow “complete political pluralism” by November 7 or because one of the other signatories fails to comply—particularly Honduras, which is required to stop allowing its territory to be used to supply the contras.
The original author of the peace plan, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, made it clear in an interview that he does not think the Sandinistas will comply. “I know the nature of the Sandinista government,” he said, “so I am skeptical.” You mean, I asked him, because the Sandinistas are Marxist-Leninists? “Yes,” he said.
“The purpose of my initiative is to give the Sandinistas a chance, to get rid of the excuse that they won’t advance toward democracy because of the contras,” he said. “We will know by November 7 if they are complying or not.” He said the first signs were not good—meaning the arrests of the Nicaraguan human rights commission chairman Lino Hernandez and bar association president Alberto Saborio, and the appointment of a four-man National Reconciliation Commission in Nicaragua that contains only one proven independent. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.
Arias said that on November 7 he will “pass judgment” on whether the Sandinistas are complying. “We are not going to accept excuses or tricks,” he said, though he acknowledged that the Guatemala pact contains no penalties if the Sandinistas balk. Would he then favor aid to the contras, “I would never be in favor of it,” he said, “but it’s a decision to be taken by the United States Congress.” Does he favor putting military aid for the contras in escrow? “I would prefer waiting until after November 7,” he said.
Various U.S. officials insist that when Arias met with President Reagan on June 17, he said that if the Sandinistas failed to democratize, “you will be free to do your thing.” Arias denied this to me, but all over Latin America there is evidence that leaders and populations expect the United States to act like a great power and deal with the Sandinista threat.
And they do consider it a long-term threat. Arias said, “The Sandinistas are Marxists. They are expansionist.” In another interview, Costa Rican foreign minister Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto said that “today, they don’t represent a threat. I don’t think we’ll be invaded, even with their powerful army. But, they could destabilize our government.” One Nicaraguan democrat in exile in Costa Rica said he heard Venezuelan president Jaime Lusinchi tell a group of visitors in 1983 that “we all know that the only solution for Central America is a U.S. invasion. Of course, when they do it, we’ll all raise our hands and shout, ‘imperialist.’” Among Costa Rican conservatives and some democratic opponents of the Sandinista regime inside Nicaragua, a quick U.S. invasion is even favored as more moral and less bloody than a drawn-out contra war.
In the meantime, though, the contra policy has public support in Central America, and the Sandinistas do not, as evidenced by a poll conducted by the Costa Rican firm CID, an affiliate of Gallup International, whose results were published in Guatemala on August 7.
Asked whether they think the Sandinistas represent a majority or a minority in Nicaragua, the answer was “a minority”—from 79 percent of those polled in Costa Rica, 75 percent in Honduras, 64 percent in El Salvador, and 64 percent in Guatemala. Asked whether they think a majority of Nicaraguans support the contras or the Sandinistas, the Costa Ricans split 72 percent to 12 percent for the contras; the Hondurans, 75 to 15; the Salvadorans, 46 to 20; and the Guatemalans, 60 to 23.
Asked who treats civilians better in the war zone, Costa Ricans sided 72 percent to 6 percent with the contras over the Sandinistas; Hondurans, 74 to 6; Salvadorans, 45 to 10; and Guatemalans, 60 to 18. Asked if they approve or disapprove of U.S. military aid to the contras, Costa Ricans favored aid 70 to 21; Hondurans, 81 to 9; Salvadorans, 69 to 23; and Guatemalans, 68 to 28. No polling was done inside Nicaragua because it’s illegal.
The Sandinistas’ strategy for dealing with the Arias plan seems directed, as always, straight at the U.S. Congress. They want the contras off their backs at the cheapest possible price in terms of democratization—perhaps at no cost at all, if collapse of the Arias plan can be blamed on the Reagan administration and if Democrats in Congress then cut off contra aid in revenge. For example, any Honduran recalcitrance will be instantly pinned on the United States. A story circulating in Central America has it that when Honduran president Jose Simon Azcona returned home from signing the Guatemala pact, U.S. Ambassador Everett Briggs threatened him by saying, “So now I suppose you won’t want those F-5s,” the jets Hondurans expect from the United States. The U.S. version is that Briggs was making a joke about the possibility of peace breaking out in the region, and that Azcona laughed, but the story is being told to make Honduras seem a U.S. puppet.
The Guatemala agreement contains numerous ambiguities that the Sandinistas are free to exploit in order to torpedo the pact, avoid compliance with its democratization provisions, and focus blame elsewhere. The key ones are the provisions for a cease-fire and amnesty for the contras. The United States naturally wants any cease-fire to be in situ, so that the contras are able to resume fighting if the pact fails. The Sandinistas well may insist that by November 7 the contras must disarm themselves and surrender. They are likely to object if the United States tries to fly in food and medicine, and if Honduras provides facilities for transport and hospitals.
Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has repeatedly claimed that Nicaragua already has an amnesty program for individual contras who turn themselves in, and doesn’t need a new one. The civic opposition inside Nicaragua wants a full release of nearly 10,000 political prisoners, which the United States should support. The U.S. and contra leaders also want the Sandinistas to enter direct negotiations with the contras. The Sandinistas claim the contras are strictly “mercenaries” and want to negotiate only with Washington.
Meanwhile, the Sandinistas are spreading the word that they are entirely ready to comply with the Guatemala pact’s democratization requirements, and that they are beginning to take steps showing good faith in advance of November 7. Hernandez and Saborio were released, and the Sandinistas may permit the reopening of Radio Catolica and perhaps even the newspaper La Prensa. They tell U.S. congressmen and journalists that it’s simply an American slander that they are deep-dyed Marxist-Leninists, and that but for the contra war there would be no restrictions on free expression, the press, and political activity. They say they have no problem whatever with free and fair elections. To the contrary, they say, they won a 67 percent victory in 1984 and will win again because the Nicaraguan population supports the revolution and the land reform, literacy program, and health services it has brought with it.
With respect to the contras, the Sandinistas want it both ways: they say the force is less than a third as big as the United States claims (6,000 vs. 20,000), that it’s demoralized and having no success on the battlefield, yet also that it’s the cause of Nicaragua’s economic misery and suspension of the constitution under the state of emergency. The bottom line, as it’s been put out since even before the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 and as it’s being put out today, is that Sandinismo stands for political pluralism, a mixed economy, and a non-aligned foreign policy, and that only the enmity of the United States prevents its pacific success. The logical conclusion is that the United States should cut off the coniras and give peace a chance.
But by the evidence of history and the testimony of honest people who try to live under the Sandinistas— including many who helped bring them to power and now regret it—all of this is a colossal deception. The truth is that the Sandinistas are Marxist-Leninists, allies of the Soviet Union, and believers in world revolution. The contras have exacerbated the economic crisis in the country, but it is primarily the result of the Marxist system the Sandinistas imposed—which even the Soviet Union has criticized for inefficiency. Far from making life better for the Nicaraguan people, the Sandinistas have made it worse for everybody—except Sandinista Front insiders, who shop at special dollar stores and inhabit the residences of the Somocistas they replaced.
The best evidence of what the Sandinistas really are is contained in their own words and record of behavior. Their basic 1977 strategy document declared that they would join non-Marxist groups to overthrow Somoza, but “we will prevent the dissenting bourgeoisie from assuming political leadership” and “maintain political hegemony among our forces during this tactical and temporary alliance.” The document refers to capitalism as an “archaic, dependent system” and declares that “once the People’s Sandinista Revolution has achieved its purpose of ousting the dictatorship … we will be able to develop along progressive Marxist-Leninist lines. We will be a party of iron, forged and tempered in the same process to enable us to fully organize and mobilize the masses.”
Such pre-1979 documents are dismissed now as exuberant ideological rhetoric, but there are other examples, including the May 1984 closed-door speech of Sandinista Directorate member Bayardo Arce, in which he said that the principles of non-alignment, mixed economy, and pluralism were merely devices by which “we kept the international community from going along with American policy.” He said, “The important thing is that the entrepreneurial class no longer controls all the means to reproduce itself. . . . The bourgeoisie no longer invests—it subsists.”
Arce said that “[American] imperialism asks three things of us: to abandon interventionism, to abandon our strategic ties with the Soviet Union … and to be democratic. We cannot cease being internationalists unless we cease being revolutionaries. We cannot discontinue strategic relationships unless we cease being revolutionaries.” By holding elections, he said, “we are using an instrument claimed by the bourgeoisie, which disarms the bourgeoisie.”
Hiding behind a “democratic mask” (the term was coined by Douglas W. Payne of Freedom House, whose 1985 book by that name remains the best short history yet produced on Nicaraguan deception), the Sandinistas have acted like ruthless Communists—and began doing so long before Ronald Reagan launched the contra policy. They killed one president of COSEP, the private-sector coordinating group, jailed other leaders, and confiscated the property of the current president. They killed some 800 persons after taking power, and when the chairman of the independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights reported on that fact and on the holding of between 6,000 and 8,000 political prisoners, he was arrested. The current chairman, Lino Hernandez, was grabbed while standing outside the headquarters of the Coordinadora, the opposition umbrella group, watching a demonstration take shape to test the Arias plan.
Usually notables like Hernandez are not ill-treated by the security police. Peasants in the countryside suspected of collaborating with the contras are often jailed for years, tortured, and sometimes killed. During the 1984 elections, rallies and speeches of opposition candidates were broken up by Sandinista toughs referred to by Interior Minister Tomas Borge as “turbas divinas” (“divine mobs”). Borge’s ministry bears a sign in front declaring it “the Sentinel of the People’s Happiness.” Sister Mary Hartman, the American nun who is in charge of the government’s human rights commission, excuses turba violence against dissenters as directed “only at people who support the United States.” Censorship began in Nicaragua long before the contras took the field, and it was President Carter who cut off aid to Nicaragua because his administration developed conclusive evidence that the Sandinistas were supplying arms to Communist rebels in El Salvador.
It’s being argued on American op-ed pages that the United States should cut off aid to the contras if they subscribe to the “Mexican model” of government—a one-party system that permits “political space” to its opposition. It’s claimed that the Arias plan would set up such a system, but that’s far from automatically true. In Mexico, for example, the army exists to serve the nation; in Nicaragua the army and the security police officially serve the party. Nicaragua, in fact, is a military dictatorship in which members of the ruling Directorate are all called comandante. Mexico has the politics of a huge big-city machine, but one in which there is participation from constituent groups such as labor, peasants, and business. Nicaragua is a top-down dictatorial system. In Mexico the top leadership changes each six years; in Nicaragua, as in Cuba, the leadership could stay for decades. Mexico has a love-hate relationship with the United States. In Nicaragua the Sandinistas have a party-to-party relationship with the Soviet Union, and schoolchildren memorize the anthem, “Let us struggle against the Yanqui, Enemy of all Mankind.”
AMID ALL THIS, a visitor finds no joy in Managua, a city of dirt, broken pavement, uncertain water supplies and electric power, and wooden shacks. Honduras used to be poorer than Nicaragua, and El Salvador also was hit with a ruinous earthquake. Yet there is music and life in those countries. Managua is desperate and sad. Even on Sandinista television, farmers shown receiving inspirational lectures by government officials look glum and passive, as if being ordered to do things that are profoundly distasteful.
The Sandinistas blame their woes on the contras and America, but they have caused most of their economic problems themselves by confiscating land and turning most of it over to collectives, not individual farmers. The economy is ostensibly 50 percent in private hands, but the government tells businesses what to produce, what prices to charge, what to pay workers, and furnishes materials—which are almost always in shortage—on the basis of political loyalty. The annual inflation rate is more than 1,000 percent, and government officials admit they are using inflation as a tax (which hits the poorest hardest) to pay for the war. The lowest-paid worker’s monthly salary is not enough to buy a shirt. There is not enough food to go around. Milk rations are restricted to children under age 2, which the government advertises as a special program for the very young.
One gets the strong feeling—it’s impossible to prove in this secret society—that the Sandinistas signed on to the Arias plan out of desperation. Nicaragua’s external debt has risen from $1.6 billion in 1979 to $10 billion, and its export earnings have dropped from $650 million a year to $218 million. Its trade deficit is $500 million and its budget deficit is $260 million. The Soviet Union is supplying $300 million in economic aid and $600 million in military aid, but it is not increasing its dole as the Nicaraguan crisis deepens. The Soviets have pledged to increase oil supplies to Nicaragua to help it fight the war, and the Sandinistas announced that Ortega plans to be in Moscow on November 7, when his country is supposed to be a democracy.
There is no evidence whatever, as some optimists have claimed to see, that the Soviets are abandoning the Sandinistas as part of a new detente with the United States. They have just renewed party-to-party ties for the next five years. The Soviets are still building a long-runway airfield at Punta Huete and have the Bulgarians at work on a deepwater port at El Bluff. It’s true that the Soviets do not consider Nicaragua a socialist ally as they do Cuba. They also have publicly criticized the Nicaraguans for wasting money. Arce, in his 1984 speech, said, “Our strategic allies tell us not to declare ourselves Marxist-Leninists, not to declare socialism.... We’ve talked about this being the first experience of building socialism with the dollars of capitalism.”
What the Sandinistas apparently mean to do is get a respite from the contra struggle, which by their own accounts is costing the lives of 100 soldiers a month in more than 400 firefights, up from 300 a month in May, and driving the economy to the brink of ruin. The Sandinistas insist that the contras are detested on account of their brutality, but they cannot account for the fact that the contras survive without food drops. Non-violent opposition groups in Nicaragua claim that their informal polls indicate that peasants and the bourgeoisie in war regions do support the contras and that the Resistance’s Radio Liberacion, with increasingly appealing propaganda messages promising democracy, is widely listened to where it’s not jammed. All these claims are impossible to prove, of course, but as one opposition leader said, “If the Sandinistas want to prove how much people support them, why don’t they let pollsters in? If Gallup consistently showed the people approve of what they’re doing, they could say, ‘Reagan, you old cowboy, the people are against you.’”
The contras create leverage for the United States and other democracies—almost certainly there would be no Arias pact without them—and they provide the only hope there is of making the Sandinistas live up to the terms of the Guatemala agreement, which declares that “political groupings shall have broad access to communications media, full exercise of the right of association, and the right to manifest publicly the exercise of their right to free speech . .. as well as freedom of movement by members of political parties in order to proselytize.” The agreement also calls for the holding of “free, pluralist, and honest elections,” which could occur next year for municipal offices and for a Central American parliament.
TO MAKE THESE goals a reality requires determined action on the part of the world’s democrats. COSEP wants to open a private television station, and other oppositionists talk about a second independent newspaper besides La Prensa. These efforts need private financial and moral support. The fractured internal opposition needs to unify and it needs training that could come from the political parties in the United States—or, better yet, the democracies of Europe and Latin America.
Above all, the internal opposition, the contras, the Reagan administration, and the Latin American democracies need to develop lists and timetables spelling out standards of conduct that they expect the Sandinistas to meet. The most influential of these schedules is that of the Arias government, which Costa Rican foreign minister Madrigal Nieto promises to unveil on September 17. Watchdog groups, American and international, need to be formed to monitor Sandinista compliance, and groups such as the Organization of American States need to be ready to inflict strong sanctions against Nicaragua if they show signs of cheating.
For the world’s democrats to demand that Nicaragua live up to its pledge of 1987—as it did not to its pledge to the OAS in 1979—would be a far more humane and moral way to deal with Sandinismo than the military means employed by the Reagan administration. But until such a concerted effort is under way, the United States needs to maintain the military option. And this is where Democrats in Congress come in—House Speaker Wright in the forefront. Is Wright interested in leading the way toward democracy in Central America or merely following liberals in his House caucus?
Their attitude was displayed down here on August 31 by Representative Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania, who broke into a “debate” between Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and President Ortega (actually, it was a rout by Ortega over the ill-prepared Dole) to tell Ortega, “You have to do much less than you imagine to stop contra aid,” only “the relatively small steps” of opening Radio Catolica and La Prensa and freeing Lino Hernandez. Those steps could be easily reversed once the contras were disbanded. If Wright and the other Democrats are going to abandon Nicaragua, they had best get a plan ready to house the contras, their relatives, and hundreds of thousands of other refugees in the United States. The better plan is for Congress to re-fund the contras, put the military aid in escrow, and give peace a real chance.
This article originally ran in the September 28, 1987 issue of the magazine.