Arias Beats Around the Bush
The Central American presidential summit known as Esquipulas IV, scheduled for January 14-15, was cancelled for the fourth time since August 1988. In the first week of January, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica asked that the talks be delayed, saying that incoming President Bush should be given time to define his policy in the region.
President Ortega protested that "the summit postponement damages the credibility of the peace plan in the region" and "subordinates Esquipulas to the strategy drawn up by the State Department and the White House." Guatemalan Vice President Roberto Carpio concurred. "The summit shouldn't be influenced by Bush's inauguration," he said, because "the Central American countries should resolve our problems by ourselves."
One reason for holding the summit soon is the likelihood that the far-right ARENA party will win El Salvador's March presidential elections. As tepid as Duarte's support has been for the Esquipulas process, ARENA's support is even less assured.
Arias asked for the postponement after a meeting with US Ambassador to Costa Rica Deane Hinton. It came as a surprise that the original sponsor of the peace plan should call for postponement. Political observers note that Arias' weakening domestic support makes him more vulnerable to US pressure. His National Liberation Party is facing growing opposition. Arias himself has been increasingly criticized for focusing on international issues rather than concentrating on the economic crisis at home.
Costa Rican Foreign Minister Guido Fernandez's recent energetic denial that the United States exercised economic pressure on Costa Rica raises more doubts about such pressures than it settles. Declaring Costa Rica very grateful for US help, he said that the $83 million in aid budgeted for 1989-90, $7 million less than the previous year, was not cut as "a reprisal or a sanction for Costa Rican foreign policy...."
But an additional explanation for Arias' decision to postpone is the possibility that he may be waiting for Venezuelan President-elect Carlos Andrés Pérez to launch a campaign to support the Central American peace process. After his election in December, Pérez spoke to Bush about both the debt issue and Central America. The postponement would allow the summit to take place once both Bush and Pérez are sworn in. Pérez's involvement might take some of the heat off Arias, backing up his sponsorship of the peace process.
Pérez, the populist leader who was President of Venezuela from 1974 to 1979, has signaled his intention to play a leading role in Latin American regional politics on such issues as normalizing Latin American relations with Cuba, uniting Latin American debtor nations and uniting Third World oil producers. He has also stressed the importance of reaching peace in Central America. Since Alan García has become so bogged down in growing economic and political problems in Peru, Pérez may emerge as the Latin American President most able to play a regional leadership role.
Pérez’s long involvement with the Nicaraguan struggle makes him a particularly strong figure to push negotiations forward. He originally met La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro during the Somoza dictatorship when the two were in exile from their respective countries. When Somoza assassinated Chamorro, Pérez pledged to help the Sandinista Front overthrow the dictatorship. Since the triumph, he has played a more ambivalent role, opposing the contra war but trying to push the Sandinistas to seek accommodation with the internal opposition. He continues to be an intimate friend of the Chamorro family, including La Prensa’s current owner Violeta Chamorro, who visited Venezuela at Pérez’s invitation in early January.
A date of mid-February is being bandied about for the rescheduled summit.
On the AgendaHeading up the summit’s agenda is the creation of mechanisms for on-site verification of two security provisions specified by the Esquipulas II accords: 1) the end of aid to irregular forces in the region and 2) non-use of territory for destabilizing other governments in the region. Central to this discussion is a proposal by Honduras for a multinational peace force on its borders, a proposal originally suggested and later backed by Nicaragua. Canada, Spain and West Germany as well as the Secretary General of the OAS are expected to work with the United Nations in a team to verify these security provisions. US Special Envoy to Central America Morris Busby recently met with UN, Canadian, Spanish and West German representatives, asking them to postpone any decisions regarding these measures until Bush is inaugurated.
Honduran President José Azcona, in his trip to Washington, received only the promise that the US would “study” his proposal for a multinational peace force. Azcona stated that “a solution to the contra problem, which could happen in the short term, is not enough; a situation of peace is needed in the region.”
It is expected that Nicaragua will be pressured to release some prisoners and make other concessions in the meeting. Nicaragua has already complied with the bulk of the Esquipulas II provisions since the accords were signed a year and a half ago, taking such steps as expanding its already broad amnesty laws, allowing opposition daily La Prensa to reopen, lifting the state of emergency and forming a National Reconciliation Commission.
As it has traditionally tried to do, Nicaragua will press for the involvement of international organizations in verifying the fulfillment of democratization and reconciliation provisions as well as those regarding security. Such international involvement provides Nicaragua with its only guarantee in a peace plan that, while applying to all of Central America on paper, tends in practice to be applied only to Nicaragua. The Esquipulas IV meeting will be likely to follow along the lines of Esquipulas III in January 1988, rather than the original plan signed in Equipulas II, in the sense that the focus will be almost exclusively on Nicaragua.
Dueling ProposalsTo the great embarrassment of their US sponsors, the contras presented two different peace proposals to Managua in early January. Alfredo César's Center Democratic Coalition, based in Costa Rica, presented one proposal, while head contra leader Enrique Bermúdez presented another. Bermúdez stated that only his group had the authority to speak for the contras, and said César's proposal gave too much away. José Dávila, spokesman for the Center Democratic Coalition, in turn said of Bermédez's group: "We believe that they, the Right, don't have any proposal, that they're all washed up."
The US immediately summoned both factions to Washington. While waiting to be called on the carpet in Washington, contra leader Aristides Sánchez told press agency EFE: "We don't know anything, we don't know the reason why we're meeting, we don't know the agenda of the meeting, maybe it's to tell us it's all over." At the meeting, the two factions were apparently pressured to issue a single proposal. César told reporters after the meeting that he would draft a unified proposal, but Adolfo Calero denied that any agreement had been reached.
Three contra military leaders known as Toño, Fernando and Rigoberto sent a letter to Honduran President José Azcona and head of the Honduran Armed Forces Humberto Regalado, calling on them to pressure the contras to be less intransigent and dialogue with the Sandinista government. "We no longer represent a viable alternative for the Nicaraguan people," they wrote. Toño, Fernando and Rigoberto were leaders of a contra mutiny in May 1988 against the leadership of Enrique Bermúdez. As a result, they were expelled from the country by the Honduran army.
In another example of the contras' often violent internal disputes, Manuel Antonio Rugama Acevedo, a contra leader known as Comandante Aurelieno, was killed outside Tegucigalpa on January 7. Aureliano, Bermúdez's right-hand man, earned the enmity of some contras when he was sent on an offensive into San Andrés de Bocay in May 1987 and quickly retreated to Honduras, leaving his men to face the music alone. While contras claimed he was killed by Sandinista agents, Honduran army sources called Aureliano a victim of contra infighting. A Honduran military officer told Spanish news agency ACAN-EFE that "we will try at all costs to avoid a situation like Lebanon’s," reflecting Honduran concern that even if the war is settled, different contra factions will remain in the country, battling among themselves.
Bilateral Talks?With the contras divided, Nicaragua finds itself in a position of strength; the contras may find they have lost out by not going through with the Sapoá accords they signed in March 1988. President Ortega dismissed both contra proposals, emphasizing that Nicaragua cannot negotiate with different factions. "[The contras] launch one dying proposal over here, another over there, and we don't know which one is the US proposal."
Vice President Sergio Ramírez underscored the importance Nicaragua places on dealing directly with the US government. "The government that's about to take power in the United States will decide what its policy will be regarding the counterrevolution, which has been its instrument. If it's to be a policy of peace, of understanding, of dialogue with Nicaragua, we are ready to sit down to the negotiating table, to start up right away the Manzanillo dialogue once more." Manzanillo, Mexico, was the site of bilateral US-Nicaraguan talks initiated in 1985, which the US broke off after several sessions and never renewed.
A source close to Bush said that he was considering bilateral negotiations with Nicaragua, according to reports in The Baltimore Sun. This source said the Bush Administration would use a combination of pressure and negotiation, but would abandon the goal of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government.
Once again, Nicaragua was left waiting while other governments in the region arranged the summit schedule to suit the United States. A summit in February, however, will not be too late to revive the peace process.