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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 39 | Septiembre 1984



The Contadora Negotiations: Expectation and Reality

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In the weeks leading up to the Contadora meeting of Central American deputy foreign ministers (August 25-28), the news media gave the impression that the signing of a peace treaty was imminent. Described as the fruit of Contadora’s 20-month efforts, the proposed treaty bears the title: Act of Contadora for Peace and Cooperation in Central America. Some observers even thought the treaty could be signed and then formally presented during the opening sessions of the United Nation’s 39th General Assembly in late September. Unfortunately, such expectations were unrealistic. This article is a synthesis of the main factors blocking the signature of a Central American peace treaty, as well as an attempt to situate the present state of the Contadora negotiations in a realistic framework.

The facet of the Central American crisis that Contadora is trying to resolve peacefully is fundamentally conditioned by the US use of Honduras as a base for counterrevolutionary attacks on Nicaragua. Contadora’s treatment of the Salvadoran problem is only indirect; it deals exclusively with the fact that the US attempts to justify its backing for the anti-Sandinista counterrevolutionaries by accusing the Nicaraguan government of trafficking arms to the Salvadoran rebels, although this charge has never been credibly proven.

The weakness of this accusation indicates that the bottom line in the Central American crisis is the US administration’s intolerance of the Nicaraguan revolution. This explains why the Nicaraguan government has continually supported Contadora and why Contadora has tried to obtain strong international support, while attempting to complement its efforts with bilateral negotiations between the two main adversaries in the region: Nicaragua and the US. Therefore, an article on the expectations and realities surrounding the Contadora negotiations must center on the viewpoint of the Nicaraguan government, which has committed itself to proving that the revolution is not submerging Central America in the East-West conflict, as the Reagan Administration insists.

High expectations are shattered

The Contadora Act for Peace and Cooperation in Central America was drawn up by the foreign ministers of the four Contadora countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama). It was delivered to the five Central American governments in July 1984.

Agreement on two other documents was reached before the Act was written: the Document of Objectives with 21 points (September 1983) and the so-called Norms for the Immediate Execution of the Document of Objectives (December 1983). In the interval between the two documents, Nicaragua was the only Central American country to offer concrete proposals (October 15, 1984) for application of the Document of Objectives.

Following the agreement on the Norms, experts on legal and international matters from the different foreign ministries formed three work commissions. The first began to study security issues, especially in the military field. The second concentrated on political affairs. The third examined economic and social questions. These commissions were to arrive at consensus on certain matters and pass their findings on to the ministries of the Contadora countries so the latter could prepare a peace treaty based on the different points of consensus.

In the early months of 1984, there was a clear lack of correlation between Contadora’s diplomatic efforts and the military activity in the region. Whereas the Contadora negotiations seemed to be moving ahead rather efficiently, military attacks on Nicaragua were escalating. Attacks carried out with increasingly sophisticated means (armed speedboats, air raids, the mining of Nicaragua’s ports) were combined in March and April with a stronger and better-organized offensive by Honduran-based counterrevolutionaries and more frequent use of Costa Rican territory for military activity aimed at Nicaragua. The escalation of US aggression against Nicaragua undermined all attempts at negotiation, although the US Administration continued to cloak its strategy in pro-Contadora rhetoric.

Of course, many other international negotiating processes have dragged on for years with continuing armed fighting. The Vietnam War provides a clear example of this. However, in the majority of such cases, the countries involved have had long negotiating experience and, more importantly, have been direct protagonists in the conflicts. The Contadora negotiations are quite different in these respects. The four governments leading the negotiations are not direct protagonists in the conflict, and their diplomatic influence (as representatives of Latin America confronted with the power of the US) is yet to be proven. The most crucial difference is the absence of one of the principal protagonists—the US government—at the negotiating table.

Despite such enormous obstacles, the work commissions succeeded in reaching consensus on several points and came close to it on others. Although the results did not encompass all 21 points included in the Document of Objectives, they were sent to the Contadora foreign ministers for the drafting of the proposed peace treaty. Because of the limitations with regard to a total consensus, this treaty could only be partial.

Serious disagreements emerged from the August meeting of deputy ministers in Panama. These disagreements can be attributed to the fact that the Contadora ministers wanted to go well beyond the results obtained in the work commissions. The true differences between the protagonists in these difficult negotiations were thus revealed, perhaps more clearly than ever before.

Contradicting objectives

Contadora has acted as a sieve for the different and sometimes contradictory objectives that have been presented in the search for a solution to the Central American conflict. On the one hand, Contadora has fundamentally tried to create conditions conducive to respect for the Central American government’ ideological diversity. On the other, the US Administration has used all means at its disposal to attempt to reverse the Nicaraguan revolutionary process. The majority of the Central American diplomats who were consulted informally stated that the US government seemed interested only in ensuring that, once the Contadora negotiations were finished, all of Central America would once again fall under US control.

This strong conflict of interest has been reflected in the different stages of the Contadora negotiations. At certain stages, Contadora has supported the Nicaraguan position of demanding respect for the reconstruction of its country within a context of nonalignment. This support has been based on universally acknowledged principles of self-determination and nonintervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. At other stages, the US has heavily pressured the Contadora countries with the intent of forcing them to emphasize the acceptation of one sole model of political democracy for the Central American area. The US has even insisted that such acceptance should be the primary requisite for regional peace. From this standpoint, seeing that Central America has been its traditional zone of influence, the US would seem to be the one defining what is politically permissible in its “back yard.”

The contradiction with respect to fundamental objectives has also had an impact on the form of the Contadora negotiations. Emphasis has shifted from a determination to achieve agreements by consensus to a method not far from majority rule, which, given the present balance of power, can only be harmful to Nicaragua. The consensus formula implies respect for ideological heterogeneity, whereas majority rule means a move toward ideological uniformity.

Even the contents of the negotiations differ remarkably, in accordance with the diverging objectives. At times when US influence is at its peak, Contadora tends to emphasize a need to reach agreements that might jeopardize the sovereignty of individual states and that would not normally fall within the realm of international treaties. Basically, such agreements would include conditions governing the internal politics of sovereign countries. When US influence ebbs, as was the case in the weeks subsequent to the Grenada invasion or following the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors and the resulting resolution from the International Court at The Hague, Contadora begins to stress regional security or economic and social cooperation.

Despite all its difficulties, Contadora has received strong international support and has so far helped discourage direct and massive US intervention in Central America and prevent the hostilities from spreading over the entire region. While this is an enormous achievement, the absence of the US at the negotiating table and the decisive influence of its interests on four of the five Central American governments are factors that cast a permanent cloud of languor and uncertainty over the negotiations.

An all-or-nothing approach as opposed to partial negotiations

The Contadora initiative in January 1983 represented an initial barrier to US intervention in Nicaragua or El Salvador. In April 1983, the Reagan Administration attempted to counteract this initiative by resorting to the jurisdiction of the Organization of American States (OAS), over which the US has greater control. A quick reaction in Latin American diplomatic circles defused the US maneuver; thanks to a mere three-hour meeting of the OAS, the Contadora countries were given a renewed vote of confidence regarding their role as mediators.

In September 1983, substantial progress in the negotiations enabled Contadora to reach agreement on the part of the five Central American countries and formulate the 21 points contained in the Document of Objectives. In the political section of this document, reference is made to the democratization process in each country and to the reconciliation of forces in conflict. Obviously, although all five countries accepted these general principles, each one had its own interpretation of how they would be implemented. For instance, the Salvadoran government assumed that it would be complying with these principles by holding elections in which the revolutionary organizations could participate if they first laid down their arms. The Nicaraguan government considered that democratization would be achieved by starting the electoral process and that the amnesty decrees would be a concrete form of reconciliation. The Contadora representatives were aware of the differences in interpretation, but at the time they preferred not to press prematurely for greater precision.

In October 1983, when regulations for applying the Document of Objectives were not yet formulated, Nicaragua decided to present four documents containing concrete suggestions: two proposed bilateral treaties for peace and cooperation (with the US and Honduras); one proposed bilateral agreement with the US intended as a contribution to solving the Salvadoran conflict; and a proposed treaty for peace, security and cooperation among the five Central American nations. All four documents emphasized regional security. Copies were delivered to the US State Department and the Contadora countries. US government Spokespeople immediately declared that the documents were insufficient and that the State Department was not the right place for presenting such proposals. This reaction clearly contradicted US omnipresence in Central America.

However, the Nicaraguan initiative had positive effects on Contadora, which responded by setting December 1, 1983, as the deadline for the other Central American government to present concrete proposals for the implementation of the Document of Objectives. On December 1, Nicaragua remained the only country to have presented proposals. Moreover, Nicaragua added three documents to the four it had drafted in October; its new proposals were designed to respond to what the US Administration had termed insufficiencies. One was a proposed compromise concerning military affairs, another a proposed political statement and the third a proposed agreement aimed at promoting economic and social development in Central America.

This was one of Contadora’s most critical periods. Important circumstances influencing the negotiations were the invasion of Grenada, an escalation of aggression against Nicaragua and the urgency to move ahead with the negotiations before events became entirely unmanageable. This situation produced a procedural change of considerable consequence.

The Contadora foreign ministers convened a joint meeting with the Central American foreign ministers for December 14-15, but Honduras’ foreign minister replied that he would be unable to attend. This left Contadora with two possibilities. One was to extend the deadline for presenting alternative proposals to the Nicaraguan document or, if none were presented, to ask the other countries to use the Nicaraguan proposals as a basis that could be substantially expanded and modified. By choosing the first course of action, the Contadora nations would have continued to pursue the difficult goal of reaching agreements by consensus. However, they opted for the second possibility. The meeting was postponed until December 20-21, and only Contadora foreign ministers were to participate. At the meeting, they formulated the Norms for the Immediate Execution of the Document of Objectives, heeding a previous Honduran suggestion that called for a continual drafting of proposals.

By selecting this alternatives, Contadora departed from its attempt to elicit mutual concessions aimed at reconciliation, thereby embarking on a process in which decisions are made by the majority and not by consensus. This new procedure caused Nicaragua to lose the ground it had gained with its proposed treaties and agreements. Efforts would now be concentrated on solving the Central American crisis without immediately facing the fundamental problem. In this way, the Nicaraguan government would be forced to accept proposals for an overall settlement or appear to be guilty of obstructing the negotiations.

Between January and April 1984, the contradiction between progress in the negotiations and escalation of the war against Nicaragua became increasingly blatant. Nevertheless, the work commissions managed to formulate a number of points based on consensus or near consensus. Regarding security, the Central American countries agreed to prohibit arms traffic and the use of their territories for subversion against other countries in the region, to eliminate foreign military basses and installations and to guarantee the departure of all foreign military advisers. With respect to economic and social cooperation, the Central American governments agreed that there should be no discrimination on ideological grounds. Moreover, it was proposed that the five countries work to strengthen the different regional organizations created to support the Central American Common Market.

As far as Nicaragua was concerned, these agreements, combined with already-approved means for ensuring international control over security matters, represented at least a temporary solution for the region’s most serious problem. Thus the Nicaraguan negotiators were expecting the Contadora foreign ministers to draft a document encompassing the points of consensus established by the work commissions and to present these first results to the Central American ministers for their eventual signature.

The expectations were in vain. During May and June, the Contadora ministers drew up the Act for Peace and Cooperation in Central America, which, instead of aiming at immediate partial results based on consensus, proposed an overall approach to negotiations. Two points were problematic for Nicaragua: 1) arms and troop reductions; and 2) binding agreements related to internal political matters. With its emphasis on the overall approach, the Act was likely to widen the gap between the majority and the minority, thus paving the way for stepped-up military confrontation.

In the present situation, the Contadora foreign ministers still seem to favor the overall approach, possibly realizing that any feasible negotiated solution must be at least somewhat representative of the Reagan Administration’s interests. However, Contadora observers point out that no international treaty has ever contained stipulations concerning a particular nation’s from of government and that acceptance of such stipulations would amount to relinquishment of national sovereignty.

The Nicaraguan government maintains that the imposition of a specific kind of democratization via binding agreements contradicts international law. According to the Nicaraguan position, governments are fundamentally transitory and therefore cannot take precedence over their people’s sovereignty. In 1983, Nicaragua went as far as to propose a joint declaration in which each Central American government would clearly state its commitments to its own people regarding democratization. In this way, the Nicaraguan government was committing itself to democratization but not to a specific form of democracy.

As regards the reduction of arms and troops (in both the army and militia), Nicaragua would be willing to comply if suitable security conditions were established beforehand. Reference had been made to such conditions in the points of consensus defined previously. Nicaragua’s acceptance of a treaty without prior guarantees regarding security would imply exposing the country’s project for a new society to the threat of armed intervention.

These profoundly different viewpoints brought Contadora to a “dead end” in late August. As was to be expected, both the US State Department and spokespeople for the Central American governments have blamed Nicaragua for the standstill. Nevertheless, the foreign ministers of Panama, Mexico and Colombia declared that the August meeting served to clarify the differences among the Central American nations and to reaffirm their confidence in Contadora’s efforts.

The Costa Rican government also voiced radically different opinions concerning Contadora. On one hand, its foreign minister supported the statements made by the ministers of the three Contadora countries mentioned above. On the other hand, the news media have reported statements by President Monge to the effect that Contadora is “exhausted” and that the OAS should take up the Central American negotiations. The Costa Rican government remains a clear showcase for the contradictory objectives that divide the US and Latin America.

Bilateral negotiations between the US and Nicaragua

The initiative promoted by Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid during his visit with President Reagan in May resulted in George Shultz’s trip to Managua on June 1. Three other meetings have transpired since the first encounter: one in Atlanta and two in Manzanilli, Mexico. Without assuming the status of an observer or mediator, Mexico is lending its territory for the talks, and its Foreign Affairs Minister initiates the meetings and remains nearby to receive reports from both sides. In this way, Mexico is clearly demonstrating its role as the informal promoter of the conversations.

Nicaraguan sources emphasize the importance of these talks. After an agreement was reached on procedural methods, the next step was to propose issues for the agenda. The discussion of these issues will be the real test. Only if the discussions address the deeper problems of the conflict will the talks prove to be something more than just an electoral propaganda ploy by President Reagan. The Contadora governments could apply subtle pressure on these bilateral talks in an attempt to break the present deadlock and thereby help the Contadora process advance.

The bilateral negotiations may help demonstrate that the possible installation of Soviet military bases in Nicaragua is not the key to the Central American crisis, as the Reagan Administration’s rhetoric would have us believe. In addition, the talks may shed light on the fact that the military and financial aid provided by the US to the contras is vital for their continued operations, while the alleged arms traffic from Nicaragua to the Salvadoran insurgents—if indeed it exists—is irrelevant to the continuation of the war in El Salvador.

The bilateral talks will expose the fundamental contradiction between the US government’s traditional control and influence over the region and Nicaragua’s right, as a sovereign nation, to revolutionary change. They are a test in which the US attitude toward El Salvador will play a telling role. If the US considers that an end to Nicaraguan support for the Salvadoran rebels is vital to the consolidation of the Salvadoran government, then it would appear logical to accept a compromise: Nicaragua would cease all support for the Salvadoran guerrillas in exchange for an end to US support for the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries. Nicaragua has already agreed to as much via its proposals to Contadora.

These talks will possibly reveal that the US is presently trying to achieve with military pressure what it failed to achieve in 1979 through political and diplomatic pressure: the prevention of structural transformation in a Central American country. Nevertheless, for the first time since the counterrevolutionary attacks began, the principal contenders in this regional drama are engaging in dialogue. With this, the Contadora negotiating process takes on added significance.

Further pressure in the near future

While Contadora tries to break out of its deadlock and the US negotiates with Nicaragua, the pressures continue. Contadora will only reach effective solutions by consensus, which might be reached freely or under pressure. Various events in the near future may seriously alter the intensity and focus of such pressure.

For Contadora, the present situation represents a challenge to produce results and to maintain the traditionally open foreign policies of its four members. In this sense, there has been much speculation as to whether Mexico is softening its foreign policy toward the US. Two factors seem to indicate a change in the Mexican government attitude: 1) its acceptance of the Contadora Act; and 2) the firmness with which it has begun to move the Guatemalan refugees, against their will, from Chiapas to Campeche. However, on the other side of the coin, we have: 1) Mexico’s successful initiative to bring about bilateral talks between the US and Nicaragua; 2) the reiteration of its recognition of the Salvadoran rebels as a representative force in their country, in keeping with the joint Mexican and French statement of 1981: and 3) its continued supply of oil, which is vital to Nicaragua’s economy. With regard to Venezuela, the four-hour conversation between President Lusinchi and Dr. Sergio Ramírez in July is assumed to have resulted in a greater understanding of Nicaragua’s positions. In Panama, the President-Elect pledged to keep his country’s presence alive in Contadora.

Another factor to consider is the Conference of Foreign Ministers from the European Common Market and Central America. Scheduled to take place in San José, Costa Rica, in late September and early October, the event will be held in the framework of the inauguration of the 39th United Nations General Assembly (September 25, 1984). The task of organizing the conference was delegated to President Monge by the other Central American governments. When Monge traveled to Europe, the original plans underwent a series of modifications whereby invitations were extended to the governments of Portugal and Spain and to the Contadora representatives. Considering the reticence toward Nicaragua demonstrated by Prime Minister Soares of Portugal and the change in Felipe Gonzalez’ position—as evidenced by his meeting with Edén Pastora—as well as the global nature of the negotiations called for in the current draft of the Contadora document, it would not be surprising if the conference were to broaden its original agenda concerning economic cooperation to include Central American political issues such as internal democratization and conditioned economic aid. Two other factors are worth mentioning in the context of this upcoming conference: 1) Genscher, the German Liberal ally of the governing Christian Democrats, has replaced the French Socialist Cheysson in the leadership of the European Common Market; and 2) it can be assumed that during his recent visit with President Reagan in Los Angeles Italy’s Foreign Minister Andreotti, a Christian Democrat, attempted to calm fears that Nicaragua would receive economic support without making political concessions in exchange.

The Central American governments are now at a crossroads. The fact that Guatemala, which has always been suspicious of what it perceives as “interference” from Contadora, has not totally accepted the Act indicates a subtle shift toward the US position. The precedent for possible bilateral agreements between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, evidenced by both countries’ acceptance of a joint commission to resolve their differences within the framework of the regional crisis, has not been followed by Honduras, despite the dismissal of General Alvarez. However, the change in leadership in the Honduran Armed Forces has led to a toning down of statements regarding Nicaragua and a possible war. More significant has been the Honduran government’s move to eliminate some of the counterrevolutionary supply and training camps in the north, as well as certain safe houses and command centers in Tegucigalpa. After the first 100 days of the Duarte government in El Salvador, human rights violations have still not been brought entirely under control. Nor has the Duarte administration succeeded in containing the guerrillas. The Salvadoran situation is key to the developments in this regional conflict, and no solution is yet in sight.

In another vein, the government of El Salvador has accused Nicaragua of trafficking arms to the FMLN and has presented those charges to the International Court at The Hague. Nicaragua’s charges against the US argued that the Salvadoran government itself had never accused Nicaragua of arms traffic. Although the Salvadoran claim has little chance of changing what seems to be shaping up as an unfavorable verdict for the US, it may very well delay this final verdict until after the November 6 US elections.

Finally, the key element for Contadora is the political and military situation inside Nicaragua. Militarily, the government is not about to capitulate. Nor does it feel defeated or demoralized in the face of continued aggression and pressure. Despite the tremendous impact the war has had on the economy and on human lives, the electoral process is moving forward. The abstention of a sector of the opposition—the parties forming the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee—has not succeeded in influencing any other party running in the elections to abstain. The Independent Liberal Party (PLI), the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) and the Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC) clearly consider themselves legitimate alternatives, with positions ranging from center right to center left.

The stepped-up activity of the counterrevolutionaries has failed so far to hamper the electoral process, particularly the essential stage of voter registration. The greatest boost to the Contadora negotiating process would be for Nicaragua to hold free elections with international observers during the height of the UN General Assembly meetings.

Over this panorama of conflict, with its few glimmers of hope, hangs the likely reelection of President Reagan and with it, the preponderance of irrational policies like those contained in the recently approved Republican Platform.

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Offensive against Nicaragua and its Elections: On the Way to Invasion?

Nicaraguan Political Parties and Movements (Part II)

The Contadora Negotiations: Expectation and Reality
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