Steps on the Road to Peace
The unequal confrontation between the Sandinista revolution and the Reagan Administration has had two distinct periods. From 1981 to 1984, the US government was on the offensive on several fronts: the armed counterrevolution was making its biggest advance; the ethnic problems in the Atlantic Coast took on an anti-Sandinista coloration; and the political opposition—with a religious component—sought to build an internal front within the bigger cities.
Since 1985, the revolution has been reversing those tendencies little by little: some of the more important indicators of these changes are the development of the autonomy project for the Atlantic Coast, the institutionalization of the revolution through elections, the signing of the Constitution and the improvement in Church-State relations.
This past year, 1987, itself divides clearly into two stages: before and after the Central American peace accords known as Esquipulas II, which were signed in August. Our analysis examines the factors in the first half of the year that moved events toward the signing of these important peace accords as well as the effects of those accords in the second half.
Moving toward Esquipulas II:The counterrevolution, promoted by the Reagan government since 1981, grew from some 5,000 men in 1982 to 15,000 in 1984. Sometimes coordinating their activities with ARDE, the group led by Edén Pastora, the FDN succeeded in moving the war from Nicaragua's borders to quite deep into Nicaraguan territory. Misura and Misurasata, the armed Miskito groups respectively allied with the FDN and ARDE, also extended these activities throughout the Atlantic Coast. In 1984, some 1,500 armed encounters were recorded, about four a day.
Counterrevolution declines and economy deteriorates
The counterrevolutionaries have a certain peasant social base, which resulted from errors in the government's agrarian reform policies, religious manipulation and the contras' forced recruitment of local people. But starting in 1985, the revolution put in motion a three-part integrated response: "latch on to the peasants, latch on to the territory and latch on to the counterrevolution." The revolution latched itself to the peasants in the war zones with a new agrarian reform policy, in which land was handed over to both peasant collectives and individuals. In 1986 and 1987, over 438,000 hectares of land were handed over to peasants in Regions I, V and VI.
The revolution's military forces latched themselves to the territory through the formation of permanent territorial companies, assuring a constant Nicaraguan army presence, and strengthened it with territorial and self-defense militias. This also meant that a series of social services could be delivered to the war zones.
The army also latched on tight to the counterrevolution. In other words, the revolutionary forces put the contras on the defensive, permanently pursuing them and obliging them to search for bases in Honduras. This strategy effectively increased the number of available soldiers and improved the technological capacity of the country's armed forces, which was further aided by increased weapons and more sophisticated air resources (MI-17 and MI-25 helicopters) and artillery (BM-21).
The coming together of these political and military factors—the establishment in late 1983 of the "Patriotic Military Service," or draft, was particularly important to the latter two—made possible a real blow to the contra forces. The Reserve Military Service was later established to defend the cities in case of a direct US invasion. All these advances, leading to more peasant involvement, better territorial coverage and consolidation of the revolution's defense system, led to the beginning of the contras' strategic decline in 1985 and the consequent reduction of their manpower to only about 6,500 by the end of 1986. In 1987, the contras suffered 6,322 casualties, 4,813 of them deaths.
Due to a variety of factors, however, the counterrevolution did not disappear from the scene. The first factor was the recruitment—voluntary or enforced—of peasants, permitting the contras to maintain their current level of about 6,000 men. Their heavy-handed recruitment to replace casualties is clearly visible in the number of adolescent contra fighters killed in 1987. Many were between l2 and l5 years of age, which means the contras are plundering the last human resources in their camps.
Second was the contras' technological improvement, with the arrival of a massive number of portable surface-to-air missiles. At the beginning of 1987, for example, small groups of 20 or 30 men received 300 Red-Eye surface-to-air missiles, a strategic weapon against the military helicopters, which in turn are strategic to pursuit of the counterrevolutionaries. In 1987, these missiles downed five Nicaraguan helicopters (nine during the entire war).
Third has been the improved quantity and quality of aerial supply drops to the contra tactical units and detachments, due to increased nighttime flights, the use of parachutes to deliver supplies and the special devices provided to the tactical units to make it easier for the supply planes to locate them. Fourth is a better intelligence-gathering and communication system, making the information from the US spy planes more exact, in turn allowing the contras to move more surely.
These factors slowed down the contra decline somewhat in 1987, but since they could not fully replace their casualties, the decline continued. Last year shows that technological resources are not enough to stop the decline, although the army had to improve its techniques to adequately combat the small units into which the contras had broken. A repetition in 1988 of casualties similar to those of 1987 would almost certainly be a final blow to the contra forces. If to these military realities one adds the effects of Congress' decision not to continue financing the counterrevolutionary war, some of those technological resources could be substantially diminished, also affecting contra morale.
For Nicaragua, the cost of maintaining the decline of the counterrevolution has been growing economic deterioration. One indicator that clearly shows this is the rate of inflation: in 1984 it was 33%, in 1985 it was 220%, in 1986 it was up to 657%, and in 1987 it had reached about l,200%. Another indicator is the drop in foreign currency from exports: in 1984 exports brought in $385 million; in 1985, $294; in 1986, only $218; and in 1987, $260. As a consequence of the economic crisis, the fall in production and other factors, it is estimated that 50% of the economically-active population has moved into the economy’s informal sector. Without hard currency to import production inputs, and with difficulties in improving labor stability, the specter of an ever worsening spiral of scarcities and high inflation looms.
To those concrete reflections of the crisis must be added the war’s direct effects on the economy. In 1987 alone, the economic impact of the destruction totaled $376.7 million. In April 1987, the US government renewed the economic embargo it had imposed on Nicaragua in May 1985 and continued to pressure international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank not to provide loans to Nicaragua.
The structural adjustments to the economy made by the Nicaraguan government in 1988 must be seen against this backdrop. This sort of readjustment, made without international reserves or liquid foreign exchange—such as the IMF offers to countries in crises less severe than Nicaragua's—is like major surgery without anesthetic.
The Reagan Administration intended Nicaragua's economic deterioration to amplify the effects of the military aggression, thus making it possible to wrest political concessions on matters of principle. But the grave economic deterioration has not automatically provoked a political crisis, and the counterrevolutionaries have been unable to exploit the economic crisis. This is not to deny some wear and tear in Sandinista support over the years of their administration, but it has never reached anywhere near threatening proportions. The unhappiness of Nicaraguans with the economic limitations and their strongly voiced demands co-exist with an awareness among the vast majority that US policy and the war—its manifestation—are at the root of the nation's problems.
The Nicaraguan people have not forgotten the urban reforms, which between 1979 and 1983 benefited a third of the urban population by giving them access to their own homes. They have not forgotten that the agrarian reform has helped 57% of the rural population. The successes of the literacy campaign and several ground-breaking health campaigns were achieved, in large measure, before the Reagan Administration unleashed direct aggression against Nicaragua. All these improvements have left their imprint on the nation's consciousness, helping people recognize that the cause of the economic crisis is the administration in Washington, not the one in Managua. This is why the economic crisis does not mechanically turn into a political/ideological one.
Gains in Political StabilityThe reality of an economic crisis that the counterrevolution could not turn into one of its weapons and the realization that the Sandinista revolution was a fact of life helped stabilize the pluralist system in early 1987, improve relations between the government and the Catholic Church hierarchy, and progressively demilitarize the Atlantic Coast.
After approving the Constitution, the political parties represented in the National Assembly set themselves a list of tasks which included reforming the Assembly's own statute and operating rules, the law of amparo and the emergency and electoral laws. They also proposed to discuss and approve a foreign investment law, an autonomy statute for the Atlantic Coast and the rules for divorce. In spite of the war and its high economic and human cost, the institutionalizing of the revolution has continued.
Meanwhile, the pro-Reagan Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Body, or "Coordinadora," which remained outside of the institutionalization process because it did not participate in the 1984 elections, was facing its own disappearance from national political life. In short, there were two unshifting dynamics among the opposition parties: one group involved in the institutionalization process and the other outside of it, disqualified by its own choice.
On the other side of the country, the population of the Atlantic Coast culminated its grassroots consultation on autonomy, started in December 1984, with a three-day "multiethnic assembly" in April 1987 to debate the draft autonomy statute. The approved draft then went to the National Assembly, where it was made into law by a nearly unanimous vote in September.
The autonomy statute recognizes the historic legal rights of the peoples of the Atlantic Coast, expresses the logic from which these rights arise and reaffirms unity within the diversity of the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts in the forging of a new Nicaragua. The statute includes the creation of a government (Regional Council) in each of the two Atlantic Coast regions, headed up by a coordinator and an executive committee chosen from among the directly elected Council members, that will include at least one representative from each of the ethnic groups in that region. The Councils will oversee the execution of the statute's provisions in each region, control their own budget and design and execute a tax system.
Recognition of indigenous claims through the autonomy project took away the indigenous armed struggle's reason for being, and made it possible—with the help of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees—for thousands of Miskitus to return home from Honduras. The eighth anniversary of the Agrarian Reform was celebrated in the small Atlantic Coast settlement of Kukra Hill north of Bluefields in July 1987, with the handing over of nearly 8,000 hectares to 1,200 individual families and five cooperatives that are cultivating African Palm there to supply cooking oil to the region and the country as a whole.
Finally, to the growing stability of the pluralistic democratic system and the approval of the autonomy law must be added the improvement in relations between the government and the Catholic hierarchy. After the tense period peaking with the expulsion of Bishop Vega in July 1986, the Church-State dialogue was reopened with the help of the new Vatican representative, Paolo Giglio.
In 1987 there were more meetings in February, March and April, where both parties brought items for discussion. The dialogue hit difficult waters when Newsweek magazine linked Cardinal Obando with the Iran-Contragate scandal, but despite this and other problems, it did not break down, and Esquipulas II gave it new impetus from a different direction.
With the stability of political pluralism, Atlantic Coast autonomy and improved church-state relations, the revolution had a solid political shield. From this base of strength, unchallenged by the economic crisis, Nicaragua continued to propose a political solution to the conflict: bilateral negotiations with the government of the United States.
Reagan: Down but Not OutWhile his policies are hitting problems in Nicaragua with the decline in the contras’ military strength and the Sandinistas' skillful handling of the political situation, in the United States Reagan was suffering from revelations about the extent of illegality involved in carrying out his policies. The Iran-Contragate scandal and growing problems with bipartisan support for his policies since the Republican electoral rout in November 1986 represent a political decline of important proportions for Reagan, corresponding to the military decline within Nicaragua of his "freedom fighters."
Despite these weaknesses, Reagan has not retreated an inch from his preference for the military option. One sign of this was that in spite of the difficulties he faced in Congress, he began delivery of the other $40 million to the contras—the remainder of the $100 million passed in July 1986—and reorganized the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), which began calling itself the Nicaraguan Resistance, with a seven-member directorate and a "plenary assembly" of 54. In April and May, as a show of force, the United States carried out the biggest military maneuvers the area had ever seen, called "Solid Shield," in which 50,000 US soldiers participated. On April 21, Reagan renewed the two-year-old economic embargo against Nicaragua.
"Some in this Congress may choose to separate themselves from their historic commitment to block the spread of communism in the Western hemisphere, but I will not do so. The freedom fighters will never ask us to fight their battles, but I am going to fight any move to cut their vital supplies, condemning them to death, to failure, or to a life without freedom." President Reagan maintained this position, signaled in his State of the Union message in January, throughout 1987.
Contadora to Esquipulas II: The same roadIn the face of the regional conflict, and particularly the confrontation between the United States and Nicaragua, the Contadora and Support Group nations have tenaciously sought a political solution to the region's crisis, instead of the military solution that Reagan stubbornly prefers.
In January 1987, representatives of the Contadora and Support Group nations toured Central America with the Secretaries General of the United Nations and Organization of American States, Pérez de Cuellar and Baena Soares, trying to support steps toward peace in the region. In February 1987, the Third Ministerial Conference was held with participants from the European Economic Community and the countries of Central America, Contadora and the Support Group. They concluded that in spite of the reticence of the Tegucigalpa Group (Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador), Contadora continued to be "the only viable body to accede to a political solution" for the region. Despite all Contadora's efforts, however, the pressure from Reagan and the positions of some Central American countries blocked the full development of their efforts.
One sector of the US Democrats, recognizing the Sandinistas’ solid position within Nicaragua and Reagan's own weakness, saw the 1988 US presidential elections looming and took advantage of the elections of Oscar Arias and Vinicio Cerezo to the presidencies of Costa Rica and Guatemala to begin developing an alternative policy for Central America. Their alternative would safeguard continued US interests in the region but would not be based primarily on military force.
Oscar Arias won the Costa Rican presidency in 1986 with a promise of peace, but then had to balance this dream of the Costa Rican people against US pressure to "change the structure of power" in Nicaragua. Because of these competing pressures, Arias sought at the start of his term to unite the three other Central American governments against Nicaragua, taking up the US objective of making the Sandinista revolution yield politically from Reagan's 1985 Peace Plan.
With the impasse in the Contadora negotiations, Arias decided to press his goal further. At the end of November 1986, he designed the first version of his plan, which had the support of Honduras, El Salvador and the United States. Arias stated that the stumbling block to peace in the region was Nicaragua, and that the remaining four countries would be able to reach an agreement that might push the stalled regional negotiations toward US interests or justify isolating Nicaragua and thus lead to the Sandinista government's eventual overthrow.
Arias soon found it convenient to change his plan. The Reagan Administration's policy toward Nicaragua was unraveling and the Democrats, gaining strength, were following a different policy. This was Senator Christopher Dodd's message to President Arias when he visited Costa Rica on February 13, 1987. Arias understood it was time to take his money off a losing horse and place his efforts within the spirit of Contadora, which had unanimous international backing. Guatemalan President Cerezo's backing of the new Arias Plan and his willingness to attend the San José presidential summit on February 15, even though Nicaragua was invited, can be understood in the same light.
In its second version, then, the Arias Plan no longer counted on the support of the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras, let alone of the Reagan Administration. The government of Guatemala, aware that the new version did not jeopardize its proclaimed neutrality, also backed it. In reality, the Arias Plan had been transformed from a variant on the Reagan Plan to a variant on the Contadora position.
Esquipulas II and beyond:"We know there will be many claims, that this accord is going to unleash pressure and discord, but we claim respect for our desire to build peace" said President Cerezo, in his host speech closing the meeting of Central American leaders on August 7, 1987. The peace accords were signed in the midst of the Reagan era, yet the Bolivarian banner of nationalism that the Contadora and Support Group had been waving for more than four years had finally received Central American support based on the modified version of the Arias Plan.
Hope for Peace in the Region
The Contadora peace process, born in 1983 to seek a Latin American political solution as an alternative to the Reagan Administration's military one, had culminated with all the Central American presidents signing the "Procedures For Establishing a Firm and Durable Peace in Central America"—although they signed it for different reasons. The act was an expression of Central American unity unprecedented in this century. For Nicaragua, it meant recognition and legitimization of its revolution by all the Presidents of Central America.
The Esquipulas II document was a harmonious and indivisible whole, which would start to apply simultaneously in all Central American countries 90 days from its signing—on November 5, 1987. In January 1988, the Central American Presidents would meet again in San José to evaluate the 150 days following its signing at the presidential summit in Guatemala.
The objective of the Esquipulas II accords was that the social forces battling in Latin America, be they regional or extra-regional, should replace their military struggle with political struggle. As a necessary counterpoint, Central American governments had to widen the internal political space to allow democracy to grow. This meant that the accords are in essence both peace accords and democratic accords, and both should happen simultaneously if either is to succeed.
The Central American presidents decided that their actions to achieve peace and democracy would be carried out within the constitutional framework of each country; they set deadlines for simultaneous fulfillment of the commitments; they mandated that each country create a National Reconciliation Commission to certify its government's compliance on amnesty, democratization, cease-fires and free elections; and they set up an International Commission to verify and follow up on the signed accords, with an Executive Commission made up of their countries' foreign ministers.
Fulfilling the peace plan meant facing obstacles put in its path by the Reagan Administration, beginning on the eve of the summit itself with a US presentation of its own new plan. Written by Reagan and Democratic Congressman Jim Wright (D-TX), it was intended to substitute the Arias Plan or at least introduce a divisive parallel discussion.
Nicaragua's immediate response—to suggest a bilateral dialogue with the United States to discuss the proposal—as well as rejection by the Presidents of Guatemala and Costa Rica of any consideration of the new proposal within the summit, meant the plan's failure. Because of this, the signing of Esquipulas II happened without White House permission and even with its opposition, making it thus an expression of regional autonomy.
The Reagan-Wright Plan became a boomerang for US plans. The ultra-conservatives in the United States, who opposed it, compared its results to the military failure of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 196l. For their part, liberal Congressional representatives described the Reagan-Wright Plan as "an effort to rehabilitate a failed policy" and Wright himself ended up supporting the Esquipulas II plan, forgetting the one signed with Reagan only days before.
Central American envoy Philip Habib tried to carry on with the Reagan-Wright plan, even including Nicaragua in the next negotiations, but in the face of Reagan's intransigence on this point, he finally abandoned it. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams picked up the initiative, returning to familiar US aims in the region: break up the tenuous Central American unity by putting heavy pressure on Honduras and El Salvador; make the democratization of Nicaragua more difficult by encouraging some political parties to refuse to work within the constitutional framework; and get Congress' help to continue giving military assistance to the contras. After a difficult period of readjustment to the new situation, this was the Administration's response to the Central American government's peace efforts, expressed in Esquipulas II.
Nicaragua's ComplianceNicaragua's response to the accords signed in Guatemala was to move in two complementary directions: it sought mechanisms to strengthen democracy and, at the same time, to end the war. We’ll look at the principle steps taken before the 90-day deadline, and afterwards.
Four days after the summit, the government invited Cardinal Obando and the opposition parties to present their list of nominees for the National Reconciliation Commission and invited the opposition political parties to participate in a national dialogue. On August 25th, the government named its choices of candidates to the reconciliation commission: For the Bishop's Conference, Cardinal Obando y Bravo; for the opposition parties, Mauricio Díaz, director of the Popular Social Christian Party; as notable citizen, Reverend Gustavo Parajón, president of the Protestant development coalition, CEPAD; and for the government, Vice President Sergio Ramírez. Cardinal Obando was named president of the commission.
In order to keep moving forward on the democratic path, several more steps were taken: Radio Católica and the newspaper La Prensa were allowed to reopen; censorship of any kind was lifted; Bishop Vega and Fathers Bismark Carballo and Benito Pitito, all expelled in July 1986, were allowed to return; the "absentee law" was annulled; 17 Central Americans who had been jailed for counterrevolutionary activities were freed; and 985 prisoners were pardoned. These steps, taken in the spirit and letter of Esquipulas II, widened the political space and freedom of expression, contributed to deepening democracy and brought closer a return to peace.
To deepen pluralism, the government convened a National Dialogue with the opposition parties in October. This forum ultimately included the participation of 15 opposition parties and party factions, with their respective representatives and advisers. The government's proposal was that the discussion begin with the upcoming municipal elections specified in the constitution.
As to the cease-fire, the government first declared a unilateral 30-day cease-fire (from October 7 to November 7) in a 1,450-square-kilometer area in the central part of the country, and another 400-square-kilometer area in the northern Atlantic Coast. To ease the contras’ laying down of arms, Peace Commissions were also formed in the war zones at local, departmental and regional levels, all linked to the National Reconciliation Commission. The local peace commissions sent representatives into the cease-fire zones to provide communication channels with the contras and receive any who took up the offer of amnesty. Members and leaders of the commissions included Catholic bishops, Protestant ministers, Red Cross members, opposition party members and other community leaders.
In the 90-day period following Esquipulas II, 600 counterrevolutionaries took advantage of the amnesty law, including Emilio Ramírez Medina, known as "Cain" and chief of a detachment in the Quilalí Regional Command, and Denis Loáisiga, alias "El Coral" and second in charge of the Jorge Salazar Command. On the Atlantic coast, the cease-fire opened the space for reconciliation with an Operational Command of 400 men from the Miskitu group Yatama, headed up by Uriel Vanegas.
On November 5, the date on which simultaneous compliance was to begin, the government announced its intention to open a dialogue with the contra leadership, through an intermediary, in order to arrange a cease-fire. The "arrangement" of a cease-fire, according to Esquipulas II, deals with the technical aspects—times, procedures, guarantees—of disarming the contras and their integration into the national reconciliation process. "Political dialogue" with the contras would be quite another matter since that implies negotiating over present-day power in Nicaragua and is not required by Esquipulas II.
The government asked Cardinal Obando to be the intermediary for the talks with the contras, and once approved by the Bishop's Conference and the contras themselves, Obando accepted. On November 11, the government delivered its cease-fire proposal to Cardinal Obando in Washington and he in turn handed it on to the contras two days later in Miami.
Two rounds of meetings with the contras were held in the Dominican Republic. In the first (December 3-4), the contras presented a counterproposal, setting out their conditions for a cease-fire: a virtual dismantling of the institutions, organizations, laws and gains of the revolution achieved since July l979. In the second, the contras refused to talk with the Sandinista government's team of experts, Hans Jurgen Wischnewski of West Germany and Paul Reichler, Roger Fischer and Max Gordon of the United States, citing nationalism as their reason.
In the context of these negotiations, and in order to comply with Esquipulas II in moving toward full democratic development and peace, the Nicaraguan government announced the lifting of the state of emergency and a pardon for all those sentenced to jail since 1981 for counterrevolutionary activities. The two decrees were to automatically take effect upon certification by the International Verification and Follow-Up Commission (CIVS) that there had been compliance by the other countries with the sections of Esquipulas II requiring a halt to military aggression against Nicaragua.
In addition to these measures, Nicaragua sought direct talks with the United States as a key complement to the Esquipulas II agreements. The government did this when Esquipulas II was signed in August 1987, again when President Daniel Ortega spoke at the United Nations in October and again at the Organization of American States in November. On the last occasion, the government also made direct approaches to Washington.
Evaluating all these steps, the CIVS report, written just before the third presidential summit in mid-January 1988, said, "In the case of Nicaragua, the CIVS has been able to verify that in spite of the seriousness of the war this country is suffering, they have taken concrete steps to put democratic processes in place."
The sabotage of EsquipulasThe steps that Nicaragua took for democracy and peace, as set out in Esquipulas II, did not succeed in winning a single real change in the Reagan Administration's policy of aggression. Elliott Abrams' job was to kill the peace accords, impede the democratization process in Nicaragua and get more funding for the counterrevolution. President Reagan's was to press ahead with his request that Congress approve another $270 million for the contras, saying to the OAS on October 7th, "I have made a personal commitment to them—and I will not walk away. They are fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua not only for their own freedom—but for your freedom and mine. And I make a solemn vow—as long as there is breath in my body I will speak and work, strive and struggle, for the cause of the Nicaraguan freedom fighters."
The peaceful alternative, signed by the Central Americans, was rejected, as was the call of President Daniel Ortega at the United Nations a few days earlier: "The people do not want more Rambos, they want men of peace. Before responding to my proposal for bilateral talks, don't be precipitous, President Reagan; reflect. And may God give you light, so that you take the road of peace and stop harming the people of Nicaragua."
But the United States continued down the road of war. In the 90 days after the signing of Esquipulas II, the Reagan Administration increased military and logistics supply flights to the contras, as well as the spy flights over Nicaragua that provide information about Nicaraguan troop movements to the contras. According to The Miami Herald, the contras received 250,000 pounds of supplies each month, where before the presidential summit the average was 130,000 pounds per month. To that must be added the continuation of US military maneuvers in Honduras, involving some 15,000 US troops. In response to Reagan's desire for $270 million in contra aid over an 18-month period, Congress approved three smaller, monthly emergency sums ($3.5, $3.2 and $8.1 million), plus $250,000 for Nicaragua's opposition political parties.
Because of the US decision to continue the war, the contras put impossible demands on the table in the cease-fire talks, with the clear aim of blocking a cease-fire and removing from the Nicaraguan government the legitimacy which was the starting point of Esquipulas II. As part of this same US-directed policy of sabotaging Esquipulas II, the National Dialogue with the opposition parties moved to threats of walkouts and to ultimatums. The ultra-rightwing Coordinadora coalition, rescued from complete irrelevance by the National Dialogue, sought to block it, claiming that all 14 organizations under its umbrella (political parties, business associations and unions) should have their own delegations in addition to the Coordinadora delegation. (The Coordinadora per se was only invited out of political generosity to begin with, since the three small registered parties that belong to it received their own invitations.) It was clear that this demand had only one aim: block the democratic opening in Nicaragua to justify more financing of the counterrevolution.
The first three sessions of the National Dialogue were devoted solely to an inter-party debate about the list of participants, followed by nine more to discuss and approve the ground rules and reach agreement on the agenda. Finally arriving at the first substantive discussion on December 4, 14 of the 15 parties immediately presented an ultimatum to the government demanding changes to 17 articles of the widely-discussed and recently-approved Constitution. All this exacerbated already-existing frictions within several of the parties as well as between them. The pro-Reagan position of the Coordinadora—itself operating outside normal parliamentary political channels—succeeded in disrupting the dialogue with the parliamentary opposition parties.
At the same time, the Coordinadora orchestrated disruptive and sometimes illegal street demonstrations by women in the "January 22 Movement" (an organization of mothers of contra prisoners), and its political parties and unions, demanding amnesty for all Somoza National Guardsmen still in jail—independent of the heinous crimes they had committed.
In the region as a whole, US pressure to stall the moves toward peace centered on El Salvador and Honduras—the nations most dependent upon the US—and to a lesser extent on Costa Rica and Guatemala. Signs of the results could be seen in the fact that Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica did not stop their support to the counterrevolutionary forces attacking Nicaragua. President Azcona refused to allow on-site inspection in Honduras by the CIVS, at the same time that he and President Duarte directed a constant stream of accusations at Nicaragua, becoming judges themselves instead of leaving it to the body they had set up. Their position at the Esquipulas III meeting in January 1988 was to make unilateral demands on Nicaragua, hoping to eliminate the requirement for simultaneous compliance, and thus eliminate the Contadora and Support Group countries from any role in verifying compliance.
In summary, while the commitments signed by the Central American Presidents sought peaceful policies, not military solutions, the Reagan Administration responded with the "Abrams Project," aimed at breaking up Central American unity, blocking democratic reform in Nicaragua and continuing support for the counterrevolution.
The Nicaraguan government immediately took on Esquipulas II as its own political program, taking all steps called for in the accords and seeking direct talks with the United States. The US remained intransigent, continuing to finance the counterrevolution, delivering outrageous and unacceptable ultimatums through the opposition political parties and in the talks with the contras, and, of course, rejecting any direct dialogue with the Nicaraguan government.
A three-way dialogueThe need for bilateral Nicaragua-US talks has been recognized for many years, and was consistently promoted by the Contadora Group. Talks were actually initiated in 1984 in Manzanillo, Mexico, motivated by the Reagan Administration’s electoral concerns (and abruptly called off as soon as the US elections had been held). With the achievements of the presidential summit in Guatemala, the US launching of the Reagan-Wright plan and Nicaragua's quick response that this plan should be discussed in bilateral talks with the United States, hope for dialogue was renewed as a complement to Esquipulas II. While the Reagan Administration rejected the Nicaraguan proposal, refusing to talk, an indirect dialogue was begun between Nicaragua and congressional Republicans and Democrats through Wright's increasing involvement in the Esquipulas II accords.
This triangular dialogue, working within the Esquipulas II framework, assumed in the first place that any demands made on Nicaragua would have to respect Nicaragua's own Constitution. Second, the dialogue was only possible because of the relative power shift in the United States, with the Democrats gaining more clout than they have had since Reagan first assumed the presidency in 1981. Given that both Reagan and Wright subscribed to an alternative solution to the regional conflict that expressed principles regarding Nicaragua on which Nicaragua could come to concrete agreement, the path to indirect and three-party dialogue remains open.
The first such principle is that "there be no bases of the Soviet Union, Cuba or other communist-bloc countries established in Nicaragua that could pose a threat to the United States of America and other democratic countries in the hemisphere." Nicaragua, as a nonaligned nation, has declared to both the Contadora Group and the United States since 1983 that, in conformity with international law, "The exercise of its sovereign rights does not constitute any threat to United States' security, and [we] will not permit Nicaraguan territory to be used to damage or threaten the security of the United States of America or to attack any other state." At the same time, Nicaragua demanded that the United States comply with international law by respecting Nicaragua's independence and self-determination as a sovereign country.
The plan's second principle was that Nicaragua not constitute a "military threat to its neighboring countries, or provide a base for subversion or destabilization of the other governments in the hemisphere." This principle also appears in the agreement already signed by all the Central American Presidents. Additionally, the government of Nicaragua had already indicated to the Contadora Group its willingness to negotiate an agreement to regulate, limit or exclude all offensive weapons, maintaining only defensive ones to guarantee the defense of national sovereignty.
The Reagan-Wright plan's third principle required the Nicaraguan government to "respect the fundamental rights of its people, including the political rights guaranteed in the Nicaraguan Constitution and the promises made to the Organization of American States—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and an established system of regular free and orderly elections." Although Nicaragua does not intend to negotiate internal matters with the United States, these points are all part of the Nicaraguan Constitution and were ratified in the Esquipulas II document. They present no problems for Nicaragua.
The tripartite indirect discussions were the basis of the trip by President Ortega and Cardinal Obando to Washington, where the Nicaraguan government delivered its first cease-fire proposal, using Obando as intermediary. The proposal was discussed with Congressman Jim Wright, who by his actions endorsed the cease-fire efforts. Wright's participation was evidence of his decision to seek a political, not military, solution and as such contradicted the White House's plans. The expressions of "concern" conveyed to Wright by the White House and his response—"I want to think that the President and the Secretary of State want peace in Central America as much as I do"—showed that a new political stage had begun.
At almost the same time, Congress approved an amendment establishing the criteria for Nicaragua’s "democratization" and rejected a proposal that those criteria be applied to the other Central American countries as well, thus showing the problems inherent in this three-way dialogue as long as imperialistic and interventionist mentalities prevail.
Thanks to Nicaragua's flexibility, the San José summit of January 1988 succeeded in ratifying the Esquipulas II accords—although with substantial modifications—in spite of the intentions of Honduras and El Salvador, and the weakness of President Arias, who was at times incapable of holding a firm position. This itself contributed to the continuation of the three-way dialogue.
Another response to the dialogue was Congress' February 3 vote on contra aid. Reagan lost, although the margin of only eight votes was evidence that the road to understanding is not a smooth one, even among the Democrats; the alternative package of "humanitarian" aid put forward by the Democrats still violates the Esquipulas II accords. Despite everything, however, a new dialogue is slowly opening and moving forward.
The road to peace, traveled by Nicaragua on its national soil and internationally, explains certain important factors that made the peace accords of Esquipulas II possible. This central event, without precedent in modern Central American history, gave renewed vigor to the possibility of peace with dignity, especially with the opening of the three-way talks between Nicaragua, the Republicans and the Democrats. Esquipulas III buttressed that dialogue, and continues to do so. While that dialogue is advancing with great difficulty, it goes on, gaining strength step by step, opening the doors to peace.