Courtesy Reuters

Contadora is the code word used to mean the pursuit of peace in Central America through negotiations. Its main alternatives are widely believed to be a U.S. invasion, a regional war or both. Like motherhood and apple pie, Contadora is liked and supported by everyone.

Why, then, has a negotiated settlement within the Contadora framework proved so elusive? Critics of U.S. Central American policy argue that a diplomatic solution requires support from Washington and that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, Washington opposes Contadora because a Contadora treaty would prohibit unilateral action by the United States in protection of its interests. The facts are more complex than this reasoning conveys. The U.S. government remains divided, with some saying that an imperfect treaty is better than no treaty and others arguing that no treaty is better. For their part, the countries of the Contadora group—Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama—are divided in their interests and strategies. Some of them share the fears and ambivalence of the United States, though they have taken great pains to conceal this fact; the domestic political costs of agreeing with the United States in Central American matters are not negligible.

The impression that the United States and the Contadora Four have few shared interests leads to two opposite conclusions: either the Contadora process is a waste of time, since the United States will ultimately impose its own solution on Central America, or Contadora still offers a good solution, if only the United States would support it. The reality is somewhere in between. Over the past two and a half years, the Contadora Four have been obliged to move beyond empty rhetoric to deal with the complexities of designing a treaty that takes account of the interests of the Central American countries and the United States. In the process, despite all the significant obstacles that remain, they have increased the possibility of a negotiated settlement in Central America.


Contadora refers to both a regional grouping and the negotiating process in which it is engaged. The Contadora group was originally created in January 1983, at the initiative of Colombian President Belisario Betancur, as a diplomatic alternative to the conflict escalating in the region. Nicaragua was aiding the Salvadoran guerrillas. In response, the United States organized the "contras," who were increasing their forays into Nicaragua from Honduras. The U.S. military presence and activities in the region were beginning to expand. The Contadora countries feared that the Sandinistas would retaliate against the contras and draw Honduras, and then the United States, into open armed conflict that might eventually spill over into the rest of Central America.

Contadora aimed to fill a diplomatic vacuum. The Sandinistas have preferred not to work with the Organization of American States (OAS) since they believe the United States still controls its members, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. They favor the United Nations, where the dominant Third World coalition is sure to favor Nicaragua over the United States. For this reason, the United Nations has been an unacceptable mediator for the United States, which strongly advocates hemispheric solutions to hemispheric problems.

By joining forces under the Contadora umbrella, the regional powers believed that they might be able to constrain the United States from its habitual unilateral actions and thereby enhance their own role. They also hoped to offer a different interpretation of events in Central America. They believed that the United States, as a global and non-Latin power, tended to impose an East-West perspective on conflicts that essentially involved such North-South issues as poverty, inequality and exploitation. Their de-emphasis of the Soviet threat was understandable, since the United States, not the Soviet Union, had traditionally been seen as the danger to the countries of the region.

Finally, the Contadora countries had a record of successful joint efforts. In 1976, Omar Torrijos of Panama had enlisted the support of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, as well as Costa Rica, to generate Latin American support for the Panama Canal treaties. Three years later, these same countries persuaded the not-yet-victorious Sandinistas to commit themselves to political pluralism, a mixed economy and international non-alignment in return for their support. In 1981, Torrijos again brought the group together, shortly before his death, to pressure the Sandinistas to abide by their commitment.

In January 1983, the presidents of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama met on the Panamanian island of Contadora to discuss the deteriorating situation in Central America. Their meeting marked the formal beginning of the Contadora group.

The Contadora Four were not interested in protecting U.S. security interests in Central America. On the contrary, they were reluctant to acknowledge publicly that the United States even had legitimate security interests in the region. They had no such qualms about speaking publicly of the legitimate security interests of Nicaragua. In fact, the regional powers had joined forces precisely to counter a real or imaginary U.S. military threat against Nicaragua.

Since then, observers have repeatedly pronounced the Contadora process dead or dying. They take at face value the frustration of the participants who keep encountering new, seemingly intractable problems each time they solve old ones. They fail to understand that Contadora’s mere existence is useful. It allows the four participating governments to affirm that they have kept the United States at bay and have avoided a regional war. This makes it difficult for any of them to desert the negotiating process. At the same time, the costs of failure are relatively low. If diplomacy leads nowhere, the Contadora countries can say that they did their best, but the hegemonic pretensions of the United States made their best not good enough.


The Contadora Four had first become active in Central America in the late 1970s. Venezuela, Colombia and Panama had helped arm Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza’s opponents and all four had worked hard to isolate Somoza internationally. Yet the Four’s familiarity with Central America remained limited. Contadora has helped teach them about Central America and about each other. It has also shown them that it is far easier to call for a diplomatic solution than to create one.

Contadora has forged a consensus around a number of objectives that could constitute the basis for a negotiated settlement. These are embodied in the 21 points of the Document of Objectives of September 1983, calling for democracy and national reconciliation, an end to support for paramilitary forces across borders, control of the regional arms race, reduction of foreign military advisers and troops, and prohibition of foreign military bases. These goals were incorporated into the draft treaty or "Acta" of September 7, 1984, which Nicaragua quickly accepted and the United States just as quickly rejected. These starkly different reactions created the impression that Nicaragua favored a negotiated settlement and the United States did not.

In fact, the United States rejected the Acta because it was a vague statement of goals without concrete limits on Nicaraguan action. Its provisions for verification and enforcement were totally inadequate, and it deferred negotiations on foreign military and security advisers and arms and troop reductions until after signature of the treaty. On the other hand, it required the United States upon signature to cease military exercises and support for the contras. Further military aid to El Salvador and Honduras was frozen, while Nicaragua was allowed to maintain its military advantage over these two countries. The provisions for democratization and internal reconciliation were hortatory and unenforceable as drafted. They would have allowed the Sandinistas to claim that the Nicaraguan elections scheduled for November 1984 were in compliance with the Acta despite charges by the democratic opposition, led by Arturo Cruz, that the electoral process was rigged.

Nicaragua accepted the Acta as a final document, not a draft for discussion, because it asked little of Nicaragua immediately and left no possibility for Nicaragua to be pressured in post-signature negotiations. Accepting the Acta also improved Nicaragua’s image internationally, just as the U.S. Congress was to vote on aid for the contras and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was to address the U.N. General Assembly.

When Nicaragua surprised U.S. friends in Central America by accepting the Acta, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica began drafting what became the Act of Tegucigalpa of October 1984—a substitute draft that sought to correct what they and the United States had seen as the main problems of the September 1984 Acta. The timetable for disarmament and demilitarization procedures was changed to produce more simultaneous action on these issues, and the role of the Central American governments in the verification and enforcement processes was enhanced. The Nicaraguans immediately rejected the October draft and repeated that they would not accept any substantive changes in the September Acta. That is still their position at this writing.

With the process at an impasse, the Contadora countries looked to the bilateral talks in Manzanillo, Mexico, between the United States and Nicaragua to achieve a breakthrough. In the penultimate round in late 1984, Nicaragua hinted that it was willing to be flexible on key security issues in a strictly bilateral agreement. The United States pointed out that Nicaragua logically could not enter into two contradictory agreements, and eventually concluded that Nicaragua was proposing at Manzanillo the substitution of a limited bilateral agreement on security issues for a comprehensive Contadora agreement. It therefore suspended the bilateral talks in January 1985 to emphasize multilateral discussions within Contadora.

This worked for a time. In April 1985 an agreement in principle was reached on revised verification procedures involving concessions by both Nicaragua and the Central American drafters of the Tegucigalpa Act. But the negotiations bogged down again in the summer of 1985, when Nicaragua once more tried to substitute a series of bilateral security agreements for Contadora’s comprehensive agenda. Nicaragua favors such an approach to avoid the issue of democratization and internal reconciliation, a shorthand term for talks between the Sandinistas and the armed and unarmed opponents (including the contras) leading to their eventual incorporation into a democratized political process.

Democratization and internal reconciliation may well be the most difficult issue of all, because it would, in the words of President Reagan, "overthrow the Nicaraguan government, in the sense of changing its structure." The Sandinistas, however, say it is a non-issue; they will not deal with the contras and Nicaragua is already democratic.

The democratization/internal reconciliation issue is also at the heart of the division within the U.S. government. While there is consensus that a more democratic Nicaragua would be more likely to abide by a negotiated settlement, the debate is over the more fundamental question of whether it is possible to democratize Nicaragua at all. Some argue that Nicaragua can be made to accept democratization and internal reconciliation under pressure and want the United States to hold firm for such an outcome. Others doubt that the Sandinistas will ever incorporate the rebels and democratize. They believe that the United States should therefore accept a treaty that deals with the conventional security issues but not with democratization and internal reconciliation.

The so-called Reagan Peace Plan of April 4, 1985, came out squarely in favor of continuing to press for democratization and internal reconciliation. President Reagan was not about to abandon the Nicaraguan "freedom fighters"; he called for a cease-fire and talks between the Nicaraguan government and the rebels. At the same time, he asked Congress to release an appropriation of $14 million in humanitarian aid for the rebels, which the United States would only make available if the talks did not succeed by June 1, 1985. The plan failed to obtain sufficient backing from Congress, which denied aid at that time, and from the Contadora Four, who wanted nothing to do with a plan that included aid for the contras. The Reagan Administration continues to emphasize the need to include democratization and internal reconciliation in any treaty. Progress thus depends on whether the Contadora process can devise such a treaty.


The Contadora Four enjoy an image of unity. They oppose a military solution and unilateral action by the United States. They seek a negotiated settlement to end the fighting. They also believe that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua is here to stay and that its future, particularly its international alignment, can be influenced by outside actors. Beyond this consensus, however, there are important differences among the Four, which reflect their particular historical experiences as well as the political constraints they face domestically.

Mexico. Mexico’s position has been most at odds with that of the United States. Although critical of Washington for supporting right-wing dictators in Central America and for failing to help eradicate poverty and injustice, in policy terms Mexico has not behaved very differently from the United States. Mexico has not actively supported right-wing dictators, but it did nothing to undermine their rule until the late 1970s, when it withdrew recognition from the disintegrating Somoza regime. Nor did Mexico pursue an active or generous aid program toward the area. In fact, Mexico "discovered" Central America at about the same time the United States did, belying the myth that Mexico knows and understands Central America better than the United States does.

Mexico’s policy toward the Sandinistas has been protective and empathetic. As a country that had experienced its own modern revolution, Mexico could not condemn other revolutions. Mexico had also suffered multiple U.S. interventions and lost half its territory to its northern neighbor. It therefore sympathized with the Sandinistas’ fear of a U.S. invasion or intervention in their affairs. Precisely because of its historical relationship with the United States, Mexico had earlier adopted a foreign policy based on the principles of nonintervention and self-determination. It applied them to the Nicaraguan revolution when it occurred in July 1979.

Mexico’s definition of nonintervention, however, was tailored to its policy preferences. Mexico did not consider itself to be intervening in Central American affairs when it withdrew recognition from Somoza or joined in the Franco-Mexican declaration of August 1981 that recognized the Salvadoran rebels as a "representative political force."

Mexico’s support of the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels reflected its belief that revolutionary governments in Central America, including communist ones, would not threaten Mexico’s interests. It felt confident that it could establish friendly relations with such governments, as it had done earlier with Cuba. Mexico might even gain influence if left-wing governments triumphed in Central America. The United States would have little, if any, influence over such governments; Mexico, in contrast, could work with them and possibly replace the United States as the most important power in the region.

Finally, Mexico rejected the theory that it was the "last domino" that would fall if Marxist revolutionaries were successful in Central America. Mexico correctly viewed itself as different from its southern neighbors, considerably larger and more developed, with a more differentiated social structure. And, with the exception of Costa Rica, its political system was more effective and responsive than those in Central America.

Mexico’s actions were, nevertheless, marked by a gap between rhetoric and reality. The Mexicans pursued a very different policy toward the right-wing military regime of Guatemala than toward other right-wing governments in the region. Mexico has neither broken with nor publicly criticized the government in Guatemala City; nor has it called Guatemala’s Marxist guerrillas "a representative political force." Also, despite Mexico’s rejection of the domino theory, it has reinforced its military presence along its southern border and implemented the so-called Plan Chiapas to help improve the standard of living of Mexican peasants in the lands bordering on Guatemala.

Over the past year, the perception has grown that Mexico’s policy toward both the Sandinistas and Central America in general has changed. The presence of Mexico’s foreign minister at the inauguration of President José Napoleón Duarte in El Salvador is often cited. The fact that Mexico no longer supplies petroleum to the Sandinistas on terms more favorable to Nicaragua than to other clients is another example. Mexico also has become less tolerant of the political representatives of the Salvadoran guerrillas operating in Mexico. President Miguel de la Madrid has also begun to balance references to U.S. intervention in Central America with references to Cuban intervention. And he seems less eager than his predecessor, José López Portillo, to engage in high-level meetings with Fidel Castro.

Mexico claims that its policy has not changed, but that circumstances in Central America and Mexico have changed. Yet the policy has also evolved. Under López Portillo, Mexico’s initial unquestioning support for the Sandinistas, as well as its de-emphasis of the need for political pluralism in Nicaragua, had made Mexico ever more isolated within the Contadora group. Also, as growing numbers of refugees crossed the border into Mexico, Central America increasingly became transformed from a foreign policy issue to a domestic one. Ministries other than the Foreign Ministry became involved, weakening the previous consensus behind the government’s approach and pushing it to adopt a more balanced policy toward Central America.

This shift does not mean that Mexico has abandoned the Sandinistas. Mexico does not want to drive the Sandinistas out of the negotiating process and into total isolation. Mexico was therefore critical of the October 1984 treaty drafted by the Central American allies of the United States because it feared that Nicaragua would abandon the Contadora process if it did not get favorable treatment. Mexico also supported the Sandinistas’ stress on the importance of having bilateral talks with the United States. The Manzanillo talks were in part the result of a personal initiative by President de la Madrid during his visit to Washington in May 1984. Mexico therefore continues to work for a balanced settlement in Central America.

Venezuela. The Contadora country whose position has been most at odds with that of Mexico, and closest to the United States, is Venezuela. Unlike Mexico, Venezuela does not consider itself a revolutionary country; instead, its sense of identity is strongly based on its evolution into one of the most important democracies of the hemisphere. Support for the principle of democratization has been considerably more important in Venezuela, therefore, than it has been in Mexico. Venezuela has also been much more distrustful of Marxist revolutionaries than Mexico, since for years Marxist guerrillas had threatened the survival of Venezuela’s democracy. Venezuela believed that democratic government could not develop in El Salvador if the guerrillas remained unchecked. Venezuela also has been wary of Cuba because of Havana’s earlier support of Venezuelan guerrillas.

Unlike Mexico, Venezuela admitted from the beginning that the Central American conflict had implications for Venezuelan security and required a strategic, as well as an economic, political and social, response. For this reason, Venezuela sent military advisers to El Salvador. (The decision was facilitated because Christian Democratic presidents were in power in both Venezuela and El Salvador.) This policy became politically unsustainable after the United States sided with Britain during the 1982 Falklands War. Nevertheless, even after the transfer of the presidency to a Social Democrat, Venezuela’s policy toward Central America did not change dramatically. Venezuela distanced itself initially from the interim government of Alvaro Magaña in El Salvador, when right-wing elements seemed ascendant. But once Christian Democrat Duarte was elected president, even Venezuela’s Social Democratic regime supported him.

Venezuela also favored the incorporation of the Salvadoran guerrillas into the electoral process and, like the United States, opposed negotiated power-sharing. Venezuela had, after all, successfully incorporated its own guerrillas into its electoral process, and some had even been elected to important public offices.

As the Sandinistas became more authoritarian and closely tied to Cuba and the Soviet Union, Venezuela became more openly critical of them. More recently, it has terminated shipments of subsidized petroleum to Nicaragua and has increased its assistance to democratic elements in the labor movement, the church, universities and the private sector in Nicaragua. Former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a prominent leader of the Latin American Social Democratic movement who has been highly critical of U.S. policy in the region, refused to attend Ortega’s inauguration as president of Nicaragua to express his displeasure with the path that the Sandinistas were taking. Still, Venezuela has not yet given up on the possibility of some degree of political pluralism in Nicaragua.

The dramatic differences between Venezuela and Mexico demonstrate the fallacy in the judgment that the Contadora Four are united in opposition to the U.S. approach to Central America. Venezuela, in fact, shares some of the basic premises that underlie U.S. policy toward Central America.

Yet neither Venezuela nor Mexico wishes to see the United States return to the highly interventionist role it played in Latin America in the past. Both would like a solution that would avoid U.S. military intervention or other forms of unilateral U.S. action. The main differences between the Venezuelan and Mexican positions is that Venezuela seems more willing and able to cooperate on military-security dimensions with the United States than is Mexico, and Caracas places more importance than does Mexico City on the need to democratize the Nicaraguan government. At the very least, Venezuelans are divided over whether a Marxist regime poses a security threat and if so, whether Venezuela should play a military role in changing or containing it.

Colombia. The country whose attitudes and behavior changed most substantially with a change of governments is Colombia. Under former Liberal Party President Julio César Turbay, Colombia was supportive of U.S. policy toward Central America. In part, this reflected a traditional tendency on the part of his party to work closely with the United States. Turbay himself distrusted the Sandinistas’ expansionist inclinations, particularly toward a number of Colombian islands claimed by Nicaragua. President Reagan backed Colombia in its conflict with Nicaragua, which reinforced cooperation between the two governments.

Colombia is the only Contadora country with an immediate guerrilla problem. Turbay had promulgated a National Security Statute less than one month after his inauguration in 1978. The attempted military solution to Colombia’s guerrilla problem failed and so Turbay’s successor, Belisario Betancur, tried a completely new tack when he took office in 1982.

Betancur’s goal was to negotiate amnesty for the guerrillas in return for their peaceful incorporation into the political system. The new president believed that such a deal would not be possible while Colombia continued to align itself with the United States, whose Central American policy seemed to emphasize defeat of guerrillas by military means. On his inauguration day, he distanced himself from the United States by announcing that Colombia would apply for admission to the Non-Aligned Movement, chaired at that time by Fidel Castro. He also called for the restructuring of the OAS so as to exclude the United States and include Cuba. These steps paved the way for a new strategy for dealing with the guerrillas at home.

In pursuit of his new domestic policy, Betancur successfully engaged the services of Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who was close to Castro as well as to the Sandinistas. The idea was to get Castro and the Sandinistas to encourage Colombia’s guerrillas to negotiate the terms of an amnesty with the Colombian government. If successful, the strategy would end Colombia’s guerrilla problem and neutralize Cuba and Nicaragua, in the sense of ensuring their noncooperation with guerrilla groups in Colombia.

Betancur was trying to "Mexicanize" Colombia’s foreign policy. By pursuing a "progressive" foreign policy that included friendly relations with Cuba and Nicaragua, Betancur hoped to discourage their support for the Colombian guerrillas and encourage them to cooperate with his government.

Betancur paralleled his domestic strategy toward the guerrillas with a more active role for Colombia within the Contadora group. Attracted to the role of international peacemaker, Betancur traveled incessantly throughout the region, engaging in marathon talks with governments and rebels, as well as with the other three Contadora countries and the United States. The last such effort ended in Washington, D.C., in April 1985, the same day President Reagan announced his peace plan. President Betancur endorsed the plan, but qualified (or some would say retracted) his endorsement several days later by stating that he could not side with the United States in supporting the contras. Since the plan clearly included a role for the contras from the beginning, Betancur had either endorsed it before reading it carefully or was persuaded to distance himself from the United States once the other Contadora countries objected to it.

Betancur’s domestic policies continue to be debated within Colombia. Critics contend that they are failing. Although Betancur succeeded in signing truces with Colombia’s two main guerrilla groups, one of them subsequently changed its mind. There is also evidence that some of the guerrilla groups used the amnesty to regroup and rearm. Betancur has so far rejected the use of force or pressure to achieve his objectives at home and abroad. The guerrillas, however, have not. Their use of force and negotiations has therefore put the Colombian government at a disadvantage.

Presidential elections are scheduled in Colombia for 1986. If guerrilla violence continues to increase, Colombia will probably return to a more hard-line policy toward the guerrillas after the election, whoever is elected. Colombia’s role and posture within Contadora would also probably change, toward a lower profile and a more centrist approach.

Panama. The fourth Contadora country, Panama, resembles the Central American countries themselves; it is small, poor and weak. Yet Panama has never regarded itself as part of Central America, and neither can it be considered a regional power like Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. Its membership in the Contadora group is mainly a reflection of the leadership qualities of Omar Torrijos, who regarded Panama as too small a stage for his ambitions and talents, and so played an active role in regional politics. Since his death, Panama has been governed by four different presidents, a symptom of the domestic political instability that has focused Panama’s attention inward.

Panama’s diminished role in Contadora also reflects ambivalence regarding developments in Central America and in its relationship with the United States. On the one hand, Panama does not wish to see the Sandinistas extend their influence in the region. The traits that Panama shares with its Central American neighbors, in addition to its geographical proximity, make it more immediately vulnerable than are its Contadora partners to the destabilizing impact of regional conflict. Furthermore, the Panamanian National Guard shares many of the anti-communist sentiments that underlie U.S. policy toward Central America.

On the other hand, Panama does not want to appear too closely aligned with the United States for fear of fanning domestic anti-U.S. sentiments. The United States has been a kind of colonial power in Panama, where its ownership of the canal gave it extraordinary influence, if not control, over the course of events. Despite a reduction in the U.S. role in Panama since the signing of the canal treaties, the United States remains very involved. The U.S. Southern Command is headquartered in Panama and has grown considerably during the course of the Central American conflict.

Panama has resolved these tensions by focusing within Contadora on getting an agreement that would increase Panama’s international prestige. Consistent with this goal, its position on specific issues has been flexible and pragmatic.

In view of these differences among the four Contadora countries, how could they claim to be united in support of the September 1984 Acta that the United States and the Central American countries found unacceptable? Mexico took the lead in pressing for a draft treaty prior to the U.S. presidential election. It hoped that if a draft treaty were in place prior to Ronald Reagan’s expected reelection, the chances for unilateral action by the United States would be diminished. Colombia agreed. Venezuela believed it important to have a treaty prior to the Nicaraguan elections, which were also scheduled for November 1984; after the elections it would be difficult to press Nicaragua to democratize. Nicaragua also wanted to move before its elections so the result would seem to be blessed by Contadora. There was no time to work out a perfect treaty before November. The decision was made, therefore, to leave the most difficult problems, such as arms negotiations, a timetable of withdrawal for security advisers, verification and processes for implementation, for later negotiations. Meanwhile, a treaty ending U.S. military exercises and support for the contras would protect Nicaragua and reduce the chances of direct intervention.

This strategy involved a decision to win Nicaragua’s support at the expense of that of the United States, a reasonable decision in view of the fact that there was considerable doubt among the Contadora Four that the United States would ever find any draft treaty acceptable. Obtaining Nicaragua’s acceptance of the draft, however, could probably be counted on to increase international pressure on the United States to go along as well. This is exactly what happened.

The Contadora Four did not accept the idea that an unenforceable treaty would threaten their security. This highlights a major problem that confronts the United States in the search for a negotiated settlement in Central America. Underlying any negotiations is the assumption on the part of the Contadora Four that if their security is really threatened, the United States will do something about it. Thus, they can take risks in the negotiating process that the United States is unwilling to take.


But there are, of course, players beyond the Contadora Four. Any negotiated settlement in Central America would have to win the approval of the Central American countries. Yet these countries do not see eye to eye with the Contadora countries, and the latter, especially Mexico, virtually ignore them in the mediating process. Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador are pitted against Nicaragua; Guatemala is also, but it seeks to project itself as more neutral than the other three.

Because the positions of Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador are congruent to the United States’ position, the conventional wisdom is that the United States has pressured these small, weak countries to do its bidding. This is, at the least, an oversimplification.

The views of the governments of Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador reflect the common reality they face. They all feel vulnerable to the activities of Marxist guerrillas operating in Central America and accept the much-maligned "domino theory." They do not trust the Sandinistas and, together with the United States, fear that Nicaragua will continue to support radical insurgents throughout the region. Their support of the contras is due to their belief that the Sandinistas will change only under outside pressure. A negotiated solution to the conflict that requires the United States to stop providing military assistance to them is unacceptable because they need U.S. military, economic and political support to survive. Thus, they agree with the United States on the root of the problem and its solution.

Nevertheless, these countries are ambivalent toward Washington. The United States cannot be too closely supported without undermining the still fragile domestic legitimacy of their governments. They also view U.S. policy toward the region as erratic and undependable. For these reasons, they need to hedge their bets in order not to irreparably damage their relations with the Sandinistas or the Contadora Four.

Toward the Contadora Four, their attitude is quite negative. Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama have little understanding of Central America, they feel, and are more interested in protecting their own interests and assuring the survival of the Sandinista government than in protecting them. Like the Contadora Four, these Central American countries want to avoid a regional war, but they doubt that the way to do it is by siding with the Sandinistas against the United States.

As the Contadora Four have become more involved with the specifics of a negotiated settlement, the Central American countries have become more resentful of what they regard as unwarranted intervention in their internal affairs. Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras believe that current trends are in their favor; Contadora, therefore, is seen as increasingly obstructionist. This resentment is directed most against Mexico, which is their "Colossus of the North."

Despite the general consensus that Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador share, there are some differences. As with the four Contadora countries, these variations grow out of the different historical experiences and current realities of each country.

Costa Rica. Costa Rica is unique in Central America as the only institutionalized democracy without a military establishment. Costa Rica also has a tradition of distrust of Nicaragua, stemming from Somoza’s repeated attempts to intervene in his neighbor’s internal affairs. Anti-Somoza sentiments ultimately led Costa Rica to join with Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Mexico to help oust the dictator. Costa Rica, however, soon found the Sandinistas to be authoritarian and interventionist as well.

Officially neutral toward the Central American conflict, Costa Rica is not ideologically neutral; it is profoundly anti-communist. This helps explain the unofficial support that Costa Rica has given to Edén Pastora, the former Sandinista and current leader of the Nicaraguan rebel group that operates in the border region between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Costa Rica also supports the need to democratize the Nicaraguan government and incorporate the rebels into the political system. It does not want a Contadora agreement that allows the further consolidation of a communist regime in Nicaragua. Costa Rica distrusts the ability of any treaty to contain the expansionist tendencies of the Sandinistas and believes, as does the United States, that democratization and internal reconciliation are the best guarantors against the export of revolution by the Sandinistas. Finally, without an agreement that integrates the contras into Nicaraguan politics, Costa Rica fears it will receive thousands of refugees in addition to the approximately 40,000 that it already hosts.

El Salvador. The government of El Salvador is engaged in a civil war and needs uninterrupted military assistance from the United States in order to hold its own against the guerrillas, let alone defeat them. The government also needs to prevent the Sandinistas, the Cubans and their other allies from supplying the rebels with training, munitions and other supplies. Therefore, the Salvadoran government is most concerned with the security-related issues of the Contadora process. It supports an end to arms trafficking and is against provisions that would limit military assistance from the United States to El Salvador.

El Salvador also supports the need for internal reconciliation and democratization in Nicaragua. It opposes a double standard implicit in much of the Contadora discussions: the belief that pressure is legitimate if used to get the Salvadoran government to democratize, but is interventionist and illegitimate if applied to the Nicaraguan government. Although the process has not yet gone far, the Duarte government has held talks with the Salvadoran guerrillas and sees no reason why the Sandinistas should not be required to do the same with their guerrillas.

Honduras. As the only immediate neighbor of Nicaragua with a military establishment, Honduras is the one most concerned with the strength and size of the Nicaraguan armed forces. Thus, Honduras took the lead in Central America in opposing the September 1984 Acta, which provided for a freeze of military force levels. Honduras does not want a freeze, since that would freeze Nicaragua’s military superiority over Honduras. It wants reduction.

A reduction would also assuage Honduran fears over the growing strength of the Salvadoran military. Although Honduras and El Salvador are currently cooperating with each other, they have traditionally been competitors, if not enemies. The perception of a common threat from the Sandinistas has enabled them to bury their differences for the moment. The Hondurans believe, however, that the chances of Honduran-Salvadoran cooperation enduring would be increased if El Salvador’s armed forces were not allowed to become vastly superior to those of Honduras. As the country from which most of the contras operate, Honduras is also strongly supportive of a treaty that does not abandon the Nicaraguan rebels. Like Costa Rica, it supports talks between the contras and the Sandinistas leading to the eventual incorporation of the former into the Nicaraguan political process.

Finally, like El Salvador, Honduras fears a treaty that would deprive it of U.S. military support, and has thus sought a bilateral military agreement with the United States. At the same time, Honduras does not wish to be taken for granted, and so periodically attempts to negotiate more favorable terms of cooperation with the United States.

Why had the Central American allies of the United States originally seemed willing to accept the September Acta that Washington opposed? In part, they were posturing. They had serious problems with the Acta, but they chose to adopt a positive stance in order to impress favorably a group of European foreign ministers scheduled to meet in San José, Costa Rica, on September 28, 1984, to discuss economic assistance for the region. They believed that their objections to the Acta could be concealed for the time being, since they were convinced that Nicaragua would reject it. They were wrong. Nicaragua’s unexpected acceptance of the Acta, on the condition that it not be changed in any way, led them to withdraw their support and to draft the Act of Tegucigalpa, which more accurately reflected their interests.

Guatemala. Since October 1984, when Honduras called together the other Central American governments to draft a substitute treaty, Guatemala has sought to distance itself from the others. Appearances are deceiving. The Guatemalan government is as anti-Sandinista as the other three Central American governments. It also does not want to freeze arms levels within Central America at current levels, thereby giving Nicaragua an advantage. It too wants an end to arms shipments to guerrilla movements, and it does not want the United States to withdraw from the region. Furthermore, although Guatemala sent only a vice minister to the October meeting of foreign ministers and failed to endorse the draft treaty publicly, the vice minister participated actively in its drafting.

Guatemala’s ambivalence is explained by its unique situation. It is the only Central American country that shares a border with Mexico, the country that has been most sympathetic to the Sandinistas. Relations between Guatemala and Mexico have never been easy. The Guatemalan government’s anti-guerrilla campaign created a serious refugee problem in southern Mexico. Because some refugee camps were used as safe havens for the Guatemalan guerrillas, Guatemala wanted the camps removed from the border. To achieve Mexico’s cooperation, Guatemala needed to improve its relations with its neighbor.

The Guatemalan government also had been upset with the United States for some time, largely because of U.S. criticism of its human rights performance and the related cutoff of economic and military assistance. Although Guatemala basically agrees with the United States on Nicaragua and its potential threat to the region, it wants the United States to pay a price for its cooperation with the other Central American countries.

Finally, the behavior of Guatemala’s military rulers has made the country a pariah within Latin America. The civilian governments of Latin America all publicly supported the efforts of the Contadora Four and regarded the opposition of Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador to the September Acta as an obstructionist move masterminded by the United States. By withholding public support from the October draft treaty, Guatemala could partially reintegrate itself into Latin America.


Nicaragua has consistently preferred bilateral over multilateral negotiations to resolve the conflict in Central America. It has believed it could better protect its interests by dealing with its neighbors individually and avoid the issues of democratization/national reconciliation and regional arms control. A series of bilateral agreements would also make it more difficult for the United States to coordinate its policies with its Central American allies. Facing a Central American refusal to accept bilateral negotiations, and therefore a choice between multilateral negotiations or nothing, Nicaragua reluctantly joined the Contadora process. Negotiations would help forestall a U.S. invasion, which the Sandinistas regarded as otherwise inevitable. And multilateral negotiations could possibly produce a treaty that would legitimize the Sandinista regime and formally circumscribe the U.S. military role in Central America.

The Nicaraguan government, however, does not have faith that a multilateral treaty would constrain Washington. It therefore demanded bilateral talks with the United States, toward the goal of a separate U.S.-Nicaragua treaty that would, among other things, prohibit the United States from invading Nicaragua. When these talks began in Manzanillo in June 1984, Nicaragua’s purpose was to preclude U.S. support for the contras. Nicaragua was willing to make a number of concessions to achieve that goal; it saw the contras as the main obstacle to the rapid consolidation of Sandinista rule. In the course of the talks, Nicaragua therefore agreed in principle to send home its Cuban advisers, refrain from supporting guerrilla movements in neighboring countries and prohibit the installation of foreign bases on its territory.

The issues of internal reconciliation and the democratization of the regime were raised by the United States in the first meeting. The Sandinista position, however, was that internal reconciliation between the government and unarmed opposition groups was already occurring, and that the government would never talk with the contras, who were traitors. They added later that there was no need to discuss democratization since Nicaragua already had a democratically elected president and a pluralistic political system. Finally, the Sandinista government argued that the current internal reconciliation and democratization demands went beyond those that former Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders had originally stated to the Sandinistas in August 1981. At that time, the United States had not insisted on talks between the Sandinistas and the rebels. Enders had demanded that the Sandinistas stop sending arms to El Salvador, cease their own military buildup, loosen their ties with Cuba and the Soviets, and generally increase political and economic pluralism. In exchange, the United States would resume economic aid and not help the rebels.

The United States ultimately suspended the Manzanillo talks in January 1985, after the ninth session. It argued that Nicaragua was using the talks to extricate itself from Contadora and was exploiting fears among Washington’s Central American friends of a separate deal between the United States and Nicaragua. Finally, the United States argued that it was demanding more from the Sandinistas than Assistant Secretary Enders had because Nicaragua had become more authoritarian and allied with the Soviet Union since 1981.

The Nicaraguans claimed that the United States suspended the Manzanillo talks because progress toward an acceptable treaty was being made, and the United States had no intention of negotiating a settlement of its conflict with Nicaragua. Since the suspension of the talks, Nicaragua ostentatiously sent 100 Cuban soldiers home and agreed to halt both the military draft and the acquisition of new weapons systems. It hoped that these gestures would keep the U.S. Congress from supporting the contras and pressure the United States to resume bilateral talks. President Ortega’s trip to Moscow undermined the strategy; Congress voted in favor of humanitarian aid for the contras, and Nicaragua then reversed its positions on the draft and the acquisition of new weapons systems.

Within Contadora, Nicaragua holds firm in its support for the September 1984 Acta, as originally drafted, and continues to press for a resumption of bilateral talks with the United States. In the meantime, it has intensified its military campaign against the Nicaraguan rebels. Nicaragua continues to refuse to talk with the contras or consider additional steps to democratize its political system. Instead, the Sandinistas have tightened their control over the country. They also continue to argue that they have the right to ally with the Soviet Union, Cuba or any other country and to take whatever steps are necessary to protect themselves against their enemies. Nicaragua has reversed its position before. Whether it will do so again will depend on internal and external pressures on the regime.


Contadora is stalemated once again. The immediate stumbling block concerns timing; Nicaragua first wants an end to U.S. support for the contras, and then it would be willing to negotiate both the terms and timetables of other issues such as a reduction in the number of military advisers, arms control and maneuvers.

The other Central American countries want "simultaneity." Agreement must first be reached on all outstanding issues and all should then enter into effect simultaneously. The Nicaraguans do not like the Tegucigalpa draft treaty because they do not want to negotiate under military pressure. The other Central American countries do not like the September Acta because they are convinced that the Sandinistas will not negotiate in good faith if the contras are first disbanded and the U.S. military presence in the region is reduced.

Even if the disagreement over timing could be resolved, much work remains to be done to convert agreement on principles into the detailed provisions of a negotiated settlement. To their credit, Contadora’s numerous working groups are already giving serious attention to the question of how to stop arms trafficking and outside support for so-called liberation movements of the right and left. The negotiators are also grappling with the problem of how to verify arms levels, military reductions and the like.

Even if these details are worked out, the problem of what happens if and when treaty provisions are violated still remains. None of the Contadora countries wants the United States to act unilaterally. On the other hand, the regional powers have traditionally been reluctant, if not opposed, to taking collective action, including military action. They cannot have it both ways.

If the Contadora Four want a negotiated settlement in Central America that will be more than cosmetic, they must be willing to take responsibility for assuring compliance with the treaty. They cannot continue to hide behind the principle of nonintervention. They must be prepared to intervene collectively, including militarily, against violators of the treaty.

Once a treaty draft is available that resolves the timing issue and deals adequately with the problems of verification and enforcement, the problems of internal reconciliation and democratization will remain. At that point, what happens at the negotiating table will depend on what is happening on the ground—and in Washington.

If the Sandinista government is able to resist pressure from the contras, either because it has won the timing issue or because of its own military capabilities, it will also be strong enough to maintain political control of Nicaragua and to refuse to sign a treaty providing for democratization and internal reconciliation. In such a situation, the U.S. government would be hard put to justify an invasion and the casualties and high political costs that it would entail. More likely, the United States would eventually decide to drop its demand for democratization and internal reconciliation and settle instead for the kinds of security arrangements that are currently being worked out by Contadora. It would not be an ideal solution. Contadora would have produced a negotiated settlement of the Central American conflict, but the United States would have accepted the consolidation of another communist regime in the Western hemisphere.

  • Susan Kaufman Purcell is Director of the Latin American Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was a member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff in 1980-81, after a decade as a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Keck Center for International Strategic Studies, Claremont-McKenna College, in December 1984.
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