Commentary Magazine


Losing Central America

One of the keys to the outcome of the Nicaraguan conflict is the anomalous reaction to it around the world. All it takes to appreciate that anomaly—which is “no accident” and is not generically unique to Nicaragua—is a brief rehearsal of the basic facts.

A civil war, then, is taking place in Nicaragua. On one side are the Sandinista party (FSLN) and the Nicaraguan government, which the FSLN acquired by fraud and holds by force. The FSLN is a Marxist-Leninist party closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba. It receives large amounts of Soviet aid which it is using to build the biggest armed forces in Central America. Since it seized power after the overthrow of Somoza in 1979, between five and ten thousand operatives have come from the Communist bloc and other states involved in international terrorism to help the Sandinistas set up their military and internal-security programs (about one foreigner for every 50 people in Nicaragua's non-farm labor force).

Externally, the Sandinistas have committed aggression by means of armed subversion against their three neighbors (El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica). At home, they have attacked the free trade unions and all other independent institutions; they are trying to replace the Catholic Church with an atheistic “church of the poor”; they have persecuted the black and Indian minority population; and they have undermined the economy. They have also established an elaborate secret-police apparatus which makes extensive use of torture and murder, and now holds 6,500 political prisoners in inhuman conditions (in addition to 2,500 of Somoza's National Guardsmen who have been held for more than seven years already).

The other side in the Nicaraguan civil war—usually called the “contras1—includes virtually the whole spectrum of Nicaraguan political life from Left to Right, all sectors of society, and the largest volunteer (unpaid) peasant army raised in Latin America in fifty years. The aims of this popular-resistance movement, whose leadership had been part of the fight against Somoza, are democracy, independence, and freedom of religion, plus some vague economic and social reforms.

Ranged on the side of the Sandinistas are Mexico, the major Latin American democracies, Canada, the European democracies (except Ger many), and the Socialist International. Some of their support—including hundreds of millions of dollars—goes directly to the Sandinistas. Some of it takes the form of backing the so-called Contadora process, the diplomatic effort organized by Mexico and aimed at a settlement which would destroy the contras in exchange for promises by the Sandinistas to refrain from external aggression and perhaps also to move toward internal pluralism.2

In the U.S. almost the entire Democratic party and most of the mainstream church organizations are also lined up behind the Sandinistas. On the other hand, the U.S. government, some private American citizens, and other countries acting in secret (probably including Israel and Taiwan) are on the side of the contras. A majority of the members of the Organization of American States (OAS), representing the whole of Latin America, also favors the contras, but the issue has not been brought up in the OAS and so this group has not played a prominent role in the debate over Nicaragua.

This description of the Nicaraguan conflict must sound like madness to anyone unfamiliar with the facts. In a civil war pitting a Communist tyranny supported by the Soviet Union and the terrorist powers against a popular, nationalist democratic group supported by the United States, why should most of the democracies side with the Communists? Why should the victims and potential victims of Sandinista aggression oppose the Sandinistas' enemies? Why should Christian organizations side with the party that persecutes the Christian faithful? Obviously most of the people in the democratic world who are lined up with the Communists must see the facts differently from the way they are summarized above.

Some, of course, do. But many of the key participants in the debate recognize, at least privately, the truth of some such description as I have just given. Others simply regard the truth about Nicaragua as irrelevant—their position is determined by other concerns.

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In trying to understand why the contras have so little political support from those who might have been expected to side with them, we can begin with Europe.

When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 they engaged the hopes and sympathy of people throughout Western Europe because they were part of a broad Nicaraguan coalition committed to democracy and national independence. The contras, on the other hand, had a dark birth—as a small-scale effort by the CIA, using former Somoza National Guard officers, to create a thorn in the side of the FSLN and to inhibit or serve as a bargaining chip in limiting Nicaraguan support of the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.

By now the Sandinistas have clearly betrayed the democratic promises they originally made. Conversely, as I have already noted, the contras have become a genuinely indigenous popular movement whose political leadership mainly consists not of former Somocistas but of former allies of the Sandinistas in the revolution that over threw Somoza. Nevertheless, the outdated perceptions of 1979 continue to influence opinion in Western Europe.

One reason for the persistence of these outdated perceptions is that Europeans tend to deal with Central America not on the merits but as an expression of their attitudes toward the United States. But an even more critical reason the Europeans have not realized what is happening is the con fusion of messages from Nicaragua's neighbors. There is a wolf among the sheep in Central America, but the sheep are not acting in the way an innocent observer would expect sheep to act when a wolf is in their midst. They are not uniting against the common danger, or crying together for outsiders to save them from the wolf. On the contrary, many Central American voices are going along with Mexico's program to protect the Sandinistas from the contras.

Of course the Contadora countries do not say that their aim is to protect the Sandinistas from the contras. They say that Central America should settle its disputes peacefully and without foreign interference. But the members of the Contadora group know that there is much more foreign interference on the side of the Sandinistas than on the side of the contras. They know that they will not be able substantially to reduce this foreign help to the Sandinistas. They know that the contras cannot survive against Soviet guns without U.S. aid. They know that the Sandinistas will never really share power with democratic elements in Nicaragua. Thus they are in effect working to eliminate the contras and leave the Sandinistas fully in power.

But why should they do this?

A large part of the answer has to do with the unresolved dependency relationships of these countries with the U.S.3

Dependency on the U.S. is a pervasive influence on events in Latin America, often serving as an excuse for passivity in the face of danger, frequently manifesting itself in ritualistic denial. For ex ample, some of the most sophisticated and “anti-American” Mexicans today think they can afford to oppose the U.S. (thereby demonstrating their supposed independence) and cooperate with the Sandinistas (thereby pacifying the Communists and other leftist elements within their own country) because if the worst were to come to the worst, the U.S. would never let Mexico fall into Communist hands.

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Costa Rica is another example. A solid majority of Costa Ricans and their political leaders know the facts about the conflict in Nicaragua. Accordingly, they oppose and are afraid of the Sandinistas and prefer the resistance. (They are also very pro-American.) The two major newspapers (La Nation and República) have strongly argued for some time that Costa Rica will be in grave danger if the Sandinistas are al lowed to consolidate their power. When Luis Alberto Monge was President of Costa Rica, he told many people, including the Kissinger Commission, that he thought so, too. There is every reason to believe that this was truly his view. Nevertheless Monge often made statements, and his government often took actions, that he knew would help the Sandinistas. Conversely, Costa Rica was rarely active in organized opposition to the Sandinistas.

Now Monge has been succeeded as President by Oscar Arias, a member of his own party, Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN). Before his election, Arias indicated both privately and publicly that he shared Monge's ideas about the Nicaraguan civil war. Yet Arias, together with the President of Guatemala, Mario Vinicio Cerezo, is moving toward the Mexican position.

Undoubtedly dependency is a major factor in this shift. Even apart from the use of force (and Costa Rica has no army), Costa Ricans are not accustomed to assuming responsibility for their own security. In general, their normal behavior is to wait and see what the U.S. is going to do before taking a position, and when they see how hard it is for the Reagan administration to get congressional approval for military aid to the contras, they begin to wonder whether the U.S. will stick with the Nicaraguan resistance.

But there are reasons that go beyond dependency. For one thing, important elements of the PLN, including such distinguished democratic figures as José Figueres and Daniel Oduber, are explicitly or in effect Sandinista supporters. Some are genuine believers; some (particularly among the younger men) think that if Costa Rica refrains from working against the Sandinistas, Nicaragua will refrain from threatening Costa Rica; some are being manipulated by personal and financial pressures; some fear retaliation of various kinds for anti-Sandinista activity (the Mexicans arranged to have a recent Costa Rican Foreign Minister—Fernando Volio—fired because he took strong anti-Sandinista positions); some think that the Sandinistas are going to win and that it is there fore useless and dangerous to act against them.

In each of the Contadora countries there are local circumstances that help explain why those governments, none of which is pro-Sandinista, are working to isolate the contras. And each of the Latin American governments realizes that it would not get any special advantage from saving Nicaragua from the Sandinistas, while any government that were to go out front to support the contras would certainly have to pay a special price. It would be jumped on not only by the Left but also by all those who have been led to believe that the only basis for supporting the contras is extreme conservatism or obeisance to the U.S. How could a government justify spending the political capital that would have to be committed to such an extraneous controversy—especially since U.S. sup port for the contras seems neither effective nor reliable?

The same pattern of incentives applies in Europe, and the stand of the European democracies thus reinforces the tendency of the Latin American countries to passivity.

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This failure of the democracies, both in Europe and in Latin America, to speak clearly against the Sandinistas and for the contras is bound to have a profound impact on the people of Nicaragua themselves.

There are several different “audiences” in Nicaragua, each of which has to try to figure out who is likely to end up in control of the country. The first audience is the general population who can in small ways help either the contras or the Sandinistas or can stay strictly neutral. Second is the part of the urban population that might try to start a clandestine resistance movement against the Sandinistas—despite the horror of such war fare and the difficulty of clandestine operations against the brutal, state-of-the-art security apparatus that East Germans and others have provided to the FSLN. Third are those who might in a crisis participate in a “general uprising.” Fourth are the troops of the Sandinista army who will fight either well or poorly when they get into heavy combat with the contras, depending to some extent on how they see the legitimacy and future of the Sandinista regime. (So far these Sandinista troops have mostly fought poorly.) Finally there are the Sandinistas themselves.

Most discussion of what will influence the actions of Nicaraguans has emphasized factors like Sandinista repression, living conditions, perceptions about contra leadership and policy, etc. But Nicaraguans would be superhuman if their actions were not also strongly influenced by who looks to them like the winner. Most people are reluctant to risk torture, death, or even loss of income, when there seems little chance of success.

How do prospects look today to those in Nicaragua who are deciding how to bet their lives and who know all too well that the contras will be defeated unless they get a continuous supply of military assistance from the U.S.?

Probably they can prudently bet that President Reagan will continue to believe in the contra cause. But from a distance the struggles in Congress over contra aid must have produced some doubt as to whether the President would have enough political capital to win a series of such battles. And the Nicaraguan trying to judge the reliability of U.S. aid cannot take much comfort from the tides of the debate in Congress or the country so far.

It is true that by 1985 congressional and much other influential opinion in the U.S. had clearly begun to recognize the truth about the Sandinista regime, and to turn away from supporting it. But this must be a very limited source of reassurance to someone who is wondering about the reliability of the U.S. First he must be concerned about the five-year period that elapsed before the U.S. policy debate caught up with the facts of the Nicaraguan conflict: safety requires a faster response. Second, it must worry him that many of those in the U.S. who have recently lost their illusions about the Sandinistas now have nearly equally false information about the contras—much of it from the same sources that propagated their former views.

Any Nicaraguan trying to judge the reliability of the U.S. commitment to the contras must be struck by how few of the Congressmen who have recently become disillusioned with the Sandinistas seem to have drawn any conclusions from their experience. They are not acting as if they were angry at having been deceived for years, or as if they were concerned about the continuing power and consequences of the system responsible for the long success of the Sandinista deception. And those who have been anxiously following our political struggle over contra aid must be frustrated by how much more the outcome is influenced by extraneous elements in U.S. politics than by the reality in Nicaragua.

As for the Sandinistas themselves, so far they have been able to have it both ways. They speak and act like Communists, brutally suppressing democratic organizations, but they are treated with great respect by most of the democratic world. They do not need to feel at all isolated, and they have not been forced to choose between Communism and the West. They must be greatly reassured by the steady stream of encouragement from all the democracies.

Think how different it is for an Afghan government official at an international conference. Un like the Sandinistas, who are regarded as heroes, Afghan officials are despised because they rep resent a brutal regime held in power by Soviet troops against a popular nationalist force. Of course there are no Soviet troops as such in Nicaragua, but there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Soviet arms and nearly half as many Communist-bloc foreigners (including East Germans and Bulgarians) per capita in Nicaragua supporting Sandinista repression as there are Soviets in Afghanistan supporting the Afghan Communist party. If this similarity between the two situations were reflected in the treatment of the Sandinistas—if, that is, they began to be greeted with the moral contempt that is generally directed by the democracies at the Afghan Communists—it is reasonable to wonder how many defections or other strains might materialize among them.

Think also how great a boost it would be for the morale of the contras if they were accorded the same kind of international respect and sympathy that the anti-Communist Afghan mujaheddin get from the democracies—even though, ironically, the commitment of the contras to democratic values is far greater than that of the mujaheddin.

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There is, however, little hope any longer that the democracies can be turned away from their support of the Communist side in the Nicaraguan civil war. The case is too hard to make without the Central Americans, especially Costa Rica.

Given this problem, and given all the opposition in Congress to the contras, President Reagan will find it hard, if not impossible, to dissuade those in Honduras who feel that their most prudent course is to limit contra use of Honduran territory. If the Hondurans were to take steps in this direction, the smell of defeat might begin to hang over the contras, and the resulting down ward momentum could destroy them faster than we could act to save them.

With this accomplished, the Sandinistas would be able to consolidate their power at home and would be ready to move in one of two directions abroad. They might decide to step up the guerrilla war in El Salvador and Guatemala, perhaps maneuvering so that the armies of those countries felt forced to take power again. The guerrillas, heavily supported from Nicaragua, including “disguised” Nicaraguan personnel, would be in a good position to defeat such politically isolated post-coup governments, in the kind of long drawn-out political-military struggle we have seen before.

Alternatively, the Sandinistas could first go after Costa Rica and Honduras. There the technique would probably be to use groups that were not themselves Communist but were sympathetic and vulnerable to Communist control, and which with Sandinista, Mexican, and Cuban help could obtain power without Nicaragua's army crossing the border. The majority of the people would want to resist, but they would be divided and sapped by doubt of their chances, and any cry to Washington would be drowned out by strong local voices telling us that our “help” was un wanted and unneeded.

Unless we were lucky, there would be no point in this process at which the U.S. could turn the tide, for we too would be divided and sapped by doubt—not so much of our chances as of whether the Sandinistas had “really” broken their agreement. Either way, thanks to a combination of European apathy, Mexican cynicism, Central American dependency, Communist skill and energy, and U.S. disunity, Central America would within five or ten years be as Communist as Eastern Europe. Not only would additional millions of poor souls be doomed to live under totalitarian tyranny, but a great opportunity would also have been lost to demonstrate that people willing to fight for their freedom can successfully resist the Communist coalition and the juggernaut of lies, deceit, and brutality it always sets in motion.


Footnotes

1 Often the name “contras” is used by their enemies as shorthand for “counterrevolutionary.” But here it is used the way Jeane J. Kirkpatrick uses it, to stand for “counter-tyranny.”

2 Originally the Contadora countries were Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. Recently Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay have been added as the “Contadora support group.” Five Central American countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala) have also been associated with the process.

3 For a fuller discussion of this issue, see “Mexico and Other Dominoes” by Carlos Rangel, COMMENTARY, June 1981 and “The Trouble With Latin America” by Jean-François Revel, COMMENTARY, February 1979.

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