Breakthrough For Peace
The five Central American Presidents signed an accord in an advance towards peace on February 14 that could prove as dramatic and significant as the initial launching of the Esquipulas II plan in Guatemala over a year and a half ago. The accord calls for the dismantling and repatriation of the contra forces in Honduras and allows Nicaragua to puts its Constitution completely into effect and develop its program of political pluralism, mixed economy and nonalignment—a dream deferred by so many years of war.
The impasse that has blocked the peace process since the Sapoá accords fell apart in June was broken primarily by two factors: a series of initiatives and often unilateral agreements by the Nicaraguan government, and the changeover from a US administration bent on military solutions to one that appears to be open to a negotiated alternative.
The accords signed in El Salvador, known as Esquipulas IV, contain the following agreements (see full text in this issue):
1) The commitments made in Esquipulas II and III are still binding on each country in the region;
2) Nicaragua will advance the date some months for its municipal, presidential and Central American Parliament elections, to take place at the latest on February 25, 1990, unless government and opposition parties mutually agree on another date;
3) Nicaragua will carry out reforms in electoral legislation and laws regulating the media to assure free and fair elections. The integrity of the electoral process will be verified by international observers, including delegates of the secretaries general of the United Nations and Organization of American States;
4) Nicaragua will release prisoners in accordance with their classification by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States;
5) Within 90 days, the Central American Presidents will draw up a plan for the demobilization and repatriation or relocation in third countries of the contra forces and their families currently in Honduras;
6) In establishing verification mechanisms for this and other security issues, the Central American foreign ministers will receive technical assistance from the United Nations, in accordance with talks recently held with UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in New York;
7) The Central American Presidents firmly repeated the request originally stated in Esquipulas II that all regional and extra-regional governments immediately stop supplying aid, be it covert or open, to irregular forces or insurrectional movements in the area, with the exception of humanitarian aid that contributes to the goals of Esquipulas IV;
8) The verification role of the National Reconciliation Commission in each country as outlined by Esquipulas II and III is reconfirmed;
9) An appeal is made to the international community to support the socioeconomic recovery of the Central American nations;
10) The presidents agree to create a Central American Commission on the Environment and Development to protect the environment and assure rational use of natural resources;
11) At Nicaragua’s suggestion, the Central American nations agree to joint action to halt drug trafficking within the region;
12) The presidents will meet again at an unspecified date in Honduras.
Behind the scenes at the Salvador summitWhy did the Central American Presidents sign? Given that the burden of internal reforms falls on Nicaragua, with the democratization and reconciliation of the other countries—part of the Esquipulas II accords—only vaguely and almost virtually referred to, there is a low cost in compliance for the other countries. Presidents Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, José Napoleón Duarte of El Salvador and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica are in weak positions domestically, and could use a foreign policy coup to boost their sagging popularity, while Honduran President José Azcona is facing increasing pressures from all sectors of Honduran society to get rid of the contra forces. It was particularly important for him to act at this moment because national elections are scheduled for late this year, and the contra presence would surely be a hot issue for the opposition. Finally, all of the Central American nations, not just Nicaragua, face a severe economic crisis. Aid packages pending for the region will be more likely to come through if the peace process seems to be marching ahead.
Nicaragua, on the other hand, did make a series of strong commitments at Esquipulas IV. But the general context of opening democratic space is what the Nicaraguan government planned to do in any case, once peace arrived. An agreement right now allows Nicaragua to get on with the more urgent task at hand: reviving its devastated economy. And Esquipulas IV, while it asks little of the rest of Central America, does give Nicaragua the assurance it most needed to go forward with its part of the bargain: removing the contra forces from Honduras.
In the foreign ministers’ preparatory meeting in New York and in the summit itself, Nicaragua pushed for strong verification mechanisms for the political aspects of the accords. Nicaragua contended that the best, least biased verification would be carried out by independent international organizations. Other Central American countries, notably El Salvador but Costa Rica as well, rejected this, saying that a specially created panel of Central Americans would be more appropriate. Due to this disagreement, the political aspects of the accords are essentially left without specific verification measures, except in the case of Nicaragua’s elections. In view of the fact that it was Nicaragua that insisted on independent international organizations to oversee political aspects, including human rights issues, criticism by US officials and media that there are insufficient guarantees that Nicaragua will comply are particularly inappropriate.
The agreement to take joint action against drug trafficking comes from a Nicaraguan proposal. Nicaragua actually proposed that the United States be invited to join this effort, an idea rejected by Presidents Azcona and Arias. Honduras and Costa Rica are precisely the two nations involved in drug trafficking, through the drugs-for-arms flights that made up one of the seamier sides of the Iran Contra scandal.
Was Bush asleep at the wheel, or trying out new policy?The Bush Administration’s reaction to the summit results has so far been noncommittal. “We will be interested in consulting with the Central American democracies about it,” said US State Department spokesman Charles Redman. The plan has “some positive” but “some troublesome” elements, said Bush.
Washington sources say the Bush Administration was caught off guard by the five President’s agreement. As Washington analysts put it, the Bush Administration has “hit the ground walking,” bogged down in controversies over the confirmation of John Tower as Defense Secretary and with the key Latin American State Department post still vacant. The Central American Presidents and foreign ministers did not receive briefings on summit strategy by Secretary of State James Baker or other administration officials. This would have been unheard of under Reagan, where whirlwind tours by Morris Busby or Elliott Abrams always preceded any kinds of negotiations.
But there is another, more likely interpretation of why the Bush Administration allowed its Central American allies more margin than usual. Any accord that emerged could allow Bush the option of a negotiated solution without seeming to push directly for this himself. This would shield the administration from its more conservative critics. Although Bush has no greater appreciation for the Sandinistas than did Reagan, he appears to be considering a negotiated solution as the more pragmatic route for the United States at this point. It would allow his administration to shift from an obsessive and exclusively military focus on Central America to a policy designed for Latin America as a whole, one that would widen Reagan’s narrowly geopolitical focus to emphasize more pressing “geo-economic” issues: debt, drugs and trade. (See our January issue, “Bush and Latin America: A Nicaragua Perspective,” for an analysis of what the new administration’s policy is likely to be in the region.)
The key factor remaining to be worked out is exactly how the dismantling of the contra bases and relocation of their forces will be achieved. Although verification mechanisms were hammered out in the foreign ministers’ meeting in New York, the actual process of implementation was not mentioned in the accords. Obviously, the attitude of the United States towards this part of the agreement will be crucial.
Administration sources have suggested that while Bush will not risk directly attacking the accords, he might pressure Honduras to allow the contras to remain another year, to keep up pressure on Nicaragua. From Nicaragua's point of view, of course, such an action would undermine the accords.
Bush has already stated that he will not rule out renewed "humanitarian" aid to the contras. Those who want to make these peace accords work should insist that any aid to the contras be aimed solely at demobilizing and relocating their forces, as the Central American Presidents agreed.
A thorny issue in relocating the contras is which country will accept them. The plan allows them to return to Nicaragua, and Nicaragua has made it clear it will accept them with or without taking amnesty, even offering land to those who wish to farm. But it is likely that many will not choose to return. And neither other Central American countries nor the United States will welcome contra refugees with open arms.
Where were the contras?In failing to carry through the Sapoá accords signed last March, the contras lost their best chance for orchestrating conditions for their return to civilian life, although the door to participation in the political arena remains open to them as part of Esquipulas IV. Despite contra claims of victory, the accords contain no major concessions on Nicaragua's part, beyond the agreement to advance the date of elections, that had not already been achieved at Sapoá. The contras were banished to the corridors of the Salvadoran summit and played no direct role in the agreements worked out by the Presidents. "Everyone's tired of hearing about the contras," said one political observer; "the Latin Americans, the US Congress, even the Central American Presidents." While the United States may insist that Nicaragua negotiate directly with the contra leadership, the contras would come to the negotiating table with far fewer bargaining chips than they had at Sapoá.
The Nicaraguan papers were full of stories about contra leader Azucena Ferrey being seen in tears after the summit. But more to the point, contra leaders Alfredo César and Adolfo Calero issued favorable statements on the accords, and César said he may return to Nicaragua to enter the political scene. Other leaders from the FDN, the main contra grouping, had a less favorable response, declaring that Nicaragua would have to carry out its elections before the contras would disband, thus completely scuttling the 90-day timetable. In fact, little alternative is left to the contras, short of accepting the terms offered in Esquipulas IV to return peacefully to Nicaragua or live out their lives in exile.
The Esquipulas IV accords provide for the Nicaraguan opposition and the US administration precisely what they have been demanding for so many years: guarantees that the opposition and the contras themselves can participate in free, fair and internationally supervised elections. As the 1984 elections— which received a clean bill of health from international poll watchers—showed, these results could have been achieved without a war that has claimed over 50,000 Nicaraguan victims on both sides. It remains to be seen whether the United States will now allow Nicaragua to carry out elections in peace.
The roots of Esquipulas IV:The conditions for Esquipulas IV were created by the nearly ten years in which Nicaragua has sought, at enormous cost, to defend its national sovereignty. Only the military defeat of the contras, begun when the tide turned in 1985 and nearly accomplished today, allowed Nicaragua to achieve peace without giving up its dream of national liberation. The antecedents of Esquipulas IV go back to the Contadora process, a Latin America-wide effort to negotiate peace in Central America. But the signing of the Esquipulas II accords and the events that followed suit set the specific context of Esquipulas IV. Let's look back at how the peace process developed from that day until the present.
From Esquipulas II to Esquipulas III
The Esquipulas II plan signed in August 1987 by the five Central American Presidents had as its goals the achievement of peace, democratization and national reconciliation in each country. But the United States had another plan designed to undermine it: to turn a document created to solve problems in the region into one aimed solely at Nicaragua; and to push the most right-wing sector of the Nicaraguan opposition confrontationally into the democratic space opening up in Nicaragua, with the aim of provoking a crackdown by the government, thus justifying further US intervention. The United States also ignored the appeal within Esquipulas II for an end to aid to irregular forces in the region, continuing to approve very lethal “non-lethal” aid to the contras after the accords were signed.
Central America obstructs. The United States and its Central American allies worked to weaken the aspects of the accord that dealt with verification mechanisms and the concept of simultaneity, namely that all signatories should advance at the same time with the accords’ provisions. Honduras objected to on-site inspection of the security provisions, to protect the contras in their bases in Honduras. In the January 1988 meeting in San José known as Esquipulas III, the original verification commission, which included the secretaries general of the Organization of American States and the United Nations and the foreign ministers of the Latin American Group of Eight (those involved in the Contadora process), was reduced to the five foreign ministers of the Central American countries, against the wishes of Nicaragua. This was a little like letting the fox guard the chicken coop. In this meeting, the simultaneity provision was also thrown out the window. Nicaragua was forced to comply unilaterally, lifting its state of emergency and taking other steps without any of the other countries being obliged to live up to their promises. But Nicaragua managed to keep alive the most essential point of Esquipulas II: shifting the struggle from the military to the political arena, replacing guns with negotiations.
Nicaragua constructs. From the signing of the accords in August 1987 to the Esquipulas III summit in January 1988, Nicaraguan took dramatic steps to open up democratic space. The government set up the National Reconciliation Commission, naming Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to head it and including, among others, two representatives of opposition political parties—one that participated in the 1984 elections and one that did not. The government reopened La Prensa and Radio Católica and lifted prior censorship. The amnesty law was broadened and 985 prisoners, including some National Guard members, were released. In January 1988, the state of emergency was lifted. Political parties were invited to join a National Dialogue and the basis was laid for municipal and Central American Parliament elections.
SapoáOngoing negotiations between the contras and the Nicaraguan government culminated in the Sapoá accords. In the weeks leading up to Sapoá, from March 3 to 20, 1988, the Sandinista army launched its biggest offensive in the whole war: Operation Danto, in which 4,200 troops participated. The offensive left the contras with about 1,000 casualties, more than 15% of its remaining troops. A day later, the Sapoá dialogue began.
Meanwhile, the contras were beginning to see that their support in the US Congress was shaky at best. Reagan had delayed presenting a military aid package to Congress in late 1987, waiting for an opportune moment. When the aid package finally was presented to Congress in February 1988, the $270 million originally budgeted was reduced to $36 million, of which only $3.6 million was designated as military aid. After ten hours of heated debate, this package was voted down, 210-211. A month later the compromise package of humanitarian aid proposed by House Speaker Jin Wright was also voted down, by an unusual alliance of Democrats who opposed all aid and Republicans who would only vote for military aid.
The contras arrived at Sapoá, then, with diminishing prospects of US support and still reeling from the effects of Operation Danto. The impetus of the peace plan, still alive after Esquipulas III in January, the political (if not economic) impact of the monetary reform in February, the opening of democratic political space within Nicaragua and improved relations with the Catholic hierarchy following the appointment of Cardinal Obando to the National Reconciliation Commission were other factors favoring a negotiated accord.
The contras, internally divided, signed the accords. The Nicaragua government declared a unilateral cease-fire that it has extended each month up to the present date.
From Sapoá to Esquipulas IVThe period between the signing of Sapoá and Esquipulas IV was the most dangerous one for Nicaragua. The outgoing Reagan Administration stepped up its efforts to break apart the peace process, inciting the internal opposition, backing the contra leader who would reject the Sapoá accord and putting pressure on its Central American allies to isolate Nicaragua. Nicaragua, meanwhile, could not postpone any longer carrying out urgent economic reforms.
Tackling the economy. Despite the war and the ongoing negotiations to end it, Nicaragua took harsh steps in 1988 to shore up its deteriorating economy. Even with drastic measures to combat inflation and reduce state spending, inflation reached 22,000% in 1988; Nicaragua's trade deficit was $610 million; the fiscal deficit continued to loom. Without such measures, the situation would have been even more bleak. Yet to take what amounted to severe austerity measures at this delicate moment was a politically risky choice.
Tackling the internal front. The democratization measures taken by Nicaragua to comply with Esquipulas were essentially what the government planned to do anyway once peace arrived. But to keep the momentum of the accords going, Nicaragua had to take these steps while the war still lingered on and while the US was actively pushing the opposition to take a confrontational stance. The US Congress overtly funded opposition parties and opposition daily La Prensa with $250,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, but much more money was filtered covertly through CIA channels. Rightwing opposition parties and unions tied to the Coordinadora demanded 17 immediate reforms of the already approved Nicaraguan Constitution and a series of economic demands impossible to carry out given the country’s precarious economic situation.
The April 1988 appointment of Richard Melton as US ambassador to Nicaragua marked a turn towards increasing confrontation, in a series of actions that included violent attacks on state institutions and burning of government cars, and street demonstrations that culminated in the July 10th clash between police and demonstrators in Nandaime. Also in July, the Coordinadora and the businessmen's association COSEP, with Melton actively participating, declared the formation of a "Government of National Salvation" and called for the dismantling of Nicaragua's legally elected government. The aim of all these actions was to provoke a government crackdown, create martyrs, isolate Nicaragua internationally and derail the Esquipulas peace process.
Not all opposition parties wanted to follow Melton blindly, but between the two opposing forces— Reagan and his internal allies, and the Sandinistas— these parties were able to do little. They were thus left at the margin of events, vulnerable to their own internal squabbling, Sandinista errors in dealing with them and the strong temptation to become another tool of US policy.
In the aftermath of Nandaime, Nicaragua took steps to bring the escalating situation under control. In an unprecedented act of bravura for a Central American nation, Nicaragua expelled Ambassador Melton. Four leaders of the Coordinadora were among those jailed for their role in the demonstration, and La Prensa and Radio Católica were again temporarily shut down. Shortly afterwards, the government suspended the sessions of the National Reconciliation Commission until its role could be redefined in the Esquipulas IV summit.
On an international plane, Nicaragua also came down hard, hosting solidarity meetings with the FMLN in Managua, and Fidel Castro awarded President Ortega the José Marti medal. The message was there for the United States to read: negotiate with us or risk that we will finally do what you have long accused us of doing—support the FMLN, "export revolution" and regionalize the war.
While these steps entailed the risk of losing international support, in fact they proved successful. The internal opposition, even more divided than usual, was intimidated by the government's response and became more cautious, staying within legal and nonviolent bounds. Their principal demand became a much more attainable one: the release of the Nandaime prisoners—the last of whom were in fact released in early December 1988. While the expulsion of Melton resulted in the expulsion of Ambassador Tünnermann and other Nicaraguan diplomats, it did not cause as much backlash in the United States as might have been expected. Congress, at any rate, seemed aware that Melton's activities had gone far beyond the bounds of acceptable diplomatic behavior.
Leaning on the contras.. The Reagan Administration took advantage of deep divisions within the contra leadership to break apart the Sapoá accords. The US threw its weight behind the FDN’s Enrique Bermúdez—the ex-National Guard colonel and number one contra military officer feared by his own troops for his brutal methods of crushing dissent. This isolated the more moderate Alfredo César, chief contra negotiator at Sapoá. As the US pressured the divided contras to accept Bermúdez as the political as well as military head of their forces, the Sapoá accords became a dead letter. César turned up in Costa Rica forming a separate “Democratic center Coalition” with some opposition leaders long in exile.
But the Reagan Administration’s tactic effectively undermined the contras’ bargaining power at the last moment when it could have been considerable. By the end of 1988, the Nicaraguan government could afford to ignore the divided and barely active contras and call instead for direct bilateral talks with the US.
Leaning on Central America. The Reagan Administration consigned to pressure the other Central American countries to use Esquipulas to back Nicaragua into a corner with a series of unacceptable demands Nicaragua would be forced to reject, thus showing its “intransigence.” The administration did not hesitate to use economic blackmail, even more effective than usual given the growing regional economic crisis. The Central American leaders also found them selves in difficult political positions: Duarte, facing the ascendance of ARENA in municipal and legislative elections and a series of overwhelming military victories by the FMLN; Azcona, dealing with a division in the armed forces, growing popular rejection of the contra presence in Honduras and an outbreak against the US Embassy when the US tried to extradite drug trafficker Juan Ramón Matta; Cerezo facing growing opposition from the Guatemalan business sector headed by CACIF; and Arias, increasingly isolated as Costa Rica demanded to know why he emphasized international overtures rather than dealing with the country’s worsening economic situation. Arias’ increasing reluctance to push forward the peace process had a particularly debilitating effect, given that he is viewed internationally as its author and chief interpreter.
By mid 1988, it was clear to the Nicaragua government, which had repeatedly tried to open bilateral talks with the United States throughout this period, that negotiating with Reagan was simply out of the question. Any negotiations would have to take place with the next administration. Given that reality, Nicaragua had to ensure that the next President would face a situation in which the contras were so thoroughly defeated that a military option was not feasible. This strategy was favored by the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to bring up the unpopular issue of the contras before the elections, preferring to leave them unfunded through out this period.
It is interesting to note that the day after the Esquipulas IV summit, the Soviets pulled their last troops out of Afghanistan. While not suggesting any false parallels between two such different countries as Nicaragua and Afghanistan, both situations reveal the way in which the two superpowers are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to impose their will on third world nations. Gorbachev has recognized this; the United States, so far, has sought to deny it. The way the United States responds to the recent FMLN proposal for elections in El Salvador will be a good test of whether the Bush Administration plans to move in a new, more pragmatic direction.
What next for Nicaragua?Whether or not the definitive fate of the contras is settled through the Esquipulas IV accord, Nicaragua is already laying the basis for political and economic reconstruction. The government’s recent appeal for national unity—“national concertation”—is central to that effort. The concertation is described in the article, “Ortega Spells Out New Economic Measures” in the next issue and will be analyzed in these pages in future editions. It raises a series of critical questions: How will the private sector and opposition respond? Will they be willing to participate by reinvesting politically and economically in Nicaragua, rather than abroad? And even more pressingly: as the FSLN reaches out to the private sector and rightwing opposition and carries out the compromises necessary to leave the negotiating table with the Esquipulas IV accord, at the same time carrying out harsh austerity measures, will it lose some of the allegiance of the workers and peasants, state employees and students who are its base of support? The concertation, the austerity measures and the democratic opening as peace nears are triggering an increasingly heated debate among the revolution's supporters about the meaning of democracy, socialism and the very nature of the Nicaraguan model.
Prophetic wordsIn 1933, like today, Nicaragua was worn down by war and economic crisis. After years of waging a war for national liberation, General Augusto César Sandino sought a negotiated political solution. Although the age of gunboat diplomacy was nearing an end, the political parties of Nicaragua did not want to give up US tutelage and stand on their own.
Sandino's following message to his compatriots has much to say to Nicaraguans today, as he himself eerily seemed to know it would. Contained within it is also a message to the international solidarity movement, which may be tempted by the promise of peace to turn its attention elsewhere.
"Heed me well, young people, listen to these words because they may well prove prophetic... Although without a doubt it is the [US] Marines who have caused all the damage and destruction..., all of us, as Nicaraguans, must share the responsibility for reconstruction. The expulsion of the Marines from Nicaragua does not mean that the nation's problems are at an end. There are many dangers, from without and within. Although the United States is clever enough to turn defeat into an advantage by recognizing its error and withdrawing its troops, it still lacks the freedom of spirit to overcome its economic ambitions and will not stop its intrigues and manipulations aimed at replacing armed intervention with another kind of intervention, so subtle it can't be fought with arms, but only with the dignity and honesty of our statesmen, a quality that barely exists at this moment.... This is the main danger from within that we will be able to overcome only with much time and great sacrifice. At least I leave a seed planted...and someday it will bear fruit... I don't have the slightest doubt that the Nicaraguan people are fertile and generous soil, although that soil will have to be watered by the blood and copious tears of out people. One perhaps far-off day, that seed will unexpectedly and irresistibly flourish and bear fruit, and the long process of gestation will make the fruit all the more beautiful. Don't lose faith. You’ll see!"