Courtesy Reuters

Demystifying Contadora

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.

II

Contadora refers to both a regional

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