The controversy over Nicaragua took a dramatic turn in early August. It had seemed as the Iran-contra hearings ended that the issue of aid to the Nicaraguan resistance would be the dominant debate after Labor Day, as the White House and Congress confronted the September 30 deadline when aid for the rebels would lapse. The Administration, exploiting the temporary increase in popular support for the rebels after the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, had planned to submit a request for $150 million over 18 months. A major showdown loomed.

Then, suddenly, the focus shifted to the diplomatic dimension with the surprise announcement by the White House on August 5 of a new American peace plan, drawn up by Speaker of the House James Wright (D-Tex.). Two days later, however, the five Central American presidents, meeting in Guatemala, in effect rejected the Wright proposal and signed a treaty of their own-a modified version of the initiative launched last February by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The Reagan Administration gave the initiative its tentative support, but it was clear that many serious questions would have to be addressed and resolved by the Central American signatories as well as by Washington.

From the outset the United States has maintained that its aim is a peaceful settlement, in a regional context, that advances the prospects for democracy and protects the interests of the Nicaraguan rebels as well as the strategic interests of the United States. The leverage to achieve these aims has been U.S. support for the Nicaraguan resistance movement and the determination of the Administration to resist a settlement that left the Sandinistas with undiminished political power.

Washington faces a potentially long and difficult process to achieve these goals. Peace in Central America is by no means assured; it will depend on the resolution of a number of significant ambiguities in the revised Arias plan. It will also depend on the political temper in the United States, and, in the end, on whether there are any alternatives to the new course that was inaugurated August 7 in Guatemala City.


The initiative of the five Central American countries is the culmination of over four years of efforts by Latin American governments to find a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict. During much of this period, a negotiated settlement was synonymous with the Contadora process led by Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama. A stalemate had developed after the last Contadora draft treaty, presented in June 1986, was rejected by the Central American countries. This draft had remedied some of the flaws of earlier Contadora proposals,1 but there were still many serious problems unresolved.

The 1986 Contadora draft contained detailed procedures for implementation and verification. But its main provisions did not take effect simultaneously; some entered into effect upon signature, others upon ratification (for which no time limit was set), and still others became effective upon implementation of the treaty or after negotiations for which no deadline was specified.

The Contadora treaty, for example, would have required the United States to stop funding the Nicaraguan resistance immediately and to remove its military installations from Honduras within weeks after the treaty was signed. But Nicaragua would not even have had to begin negotiating reductions in weapons and troop levels until after the treaty had been implemented. During this period, the Sandinistas could have further consolidated their hold over Nicaragua while the resistance, deprived of foreign support, would probably have found it difficult to survive.

The Contadora provisions dealing with political matters were totally open-ended. The parties to the treaty were called upon to adopt measures to establish or improve democracy, to promote national reconciliation and to guarantee full respect for human rights, but no time frame was established. Furthermore, national reconciliation and democratization were dealt with in far too general terms. A signatory, for example, could have construed Contadora's national reconciliation provision as requiring talks between incumbent governments and armed opposition movements or only between governments and unarmed opposition groups. Democratization could have meant "revolutionary democracy," the Sandinistas' definition of the current political situation in Nicaragua, or a parliamentary democracy.

The biggest problem with the 1986 draft treaty, however, was that it did not say what would happen if the parties to the treaty violated it. No sanctions-diplomatic, economic or military-were envisioned. This probably reflected the difficulty that most Latin American governments seem to have in siding with the United States against a Latin country, something they would have been obliged to do if Nicaragua violated the treaty.


As a result of these defects Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador refused to sign; the Guatemalan refusal was less categorical, in keeping with Guatemala's policy of "active neutrality." Nicaragua reacted more favorably, although making clear that it would never talk with the Nicaraguan rebels. It also insisted that the United States, but not the Soviet Union, Cuba or any other foreign power, sign a protocol agreeing to abide by the provisions of the treaty.


In general the Contadora draft treaty served the Sandinistas' interests well. The two biggest obstacles to their continued consolidation of power are the armed resistance movement and the United States. The 1986 draft would have neutralized both threats upon signature and would have asked little of Nicaragua until much later. At the same time it would have uncoupled the still politically fragile new democracies of Central America from the United States' security umbrella, leaving Nicaragua indefinitely as the strongest military power in Central America.


The stalemate over Contadora led to a new initiative by President Arias in February 1987. His plan was also prompted by uncertainty over the repercussions of the Iran-contra scandal on U.S. policy in the region, and by the continuing stream of Nicaraguan refugees into Costa Rica.

In contrast to the Contadora treaty, which consisted of nearly 50 single-spaced pages of provisions, the original Arias initiative was short. It provided for a general amnesty within 60 days of signing and for talks between incumbent governments and unarmed internal opposition groups. It called for a cease-fire upon initiation of such dialogues. Upon signature, the Central American countries were to request that foreign governments providing overt or covert military aid to irregular forces and insurgent groups operating in Central America suspend such aid. The Central American governments were also to request the irregular forces and insurgent groups operating in the region to refrain from receiving such aid.

The five Central American countries were to prohibit the use of their territory by persons or groups seeking to destabilize neighboring governments and to refuse to provide them with, or allow them to receive, military or logistical support. Within 60 days of signature, negotiations for the reduction of weapons were to begin. These negotiations were also to cover measures for the eventual disarming of irregular forces operating in Central America. A follow-up committee was to supervise and verify compliance. Finally, the Central American presidents were to meet in Guatemala within six months of signature to evaluate progress made under the initiative.

The real innovation of the original Arias plan was the priority given to democratization and the detailed provisions for its creation. The initiative called for the launching, upon signature, of "an authentic democratic process." Within 60 days of signature, freedom of television, radio and the press were to be established and censorship was to be removed. There was to be freedom of association, including the right to hold public demonstrations and to organize political parties. Freedom of expression, including the right to publicize ideas orally, in writing or on television, was also to be implemented.

There were several provisions concerning elections. During the first six months of 1988 members of a Central American parliament were to be elected. Elections for national and local officials, including each country's president, were to be held according to schedules established in the respective constitutions. In the case of Nicaraguan presidential elections, this would have been 1990 at the earliest.

The Arias initiative put considerably more emphasis than Contadora on the importance of democracy because the Central American governments believe (as does the United States) that their future security depends on Nicaragua's becoming democratic. This view is particularly true of Costa Rica, which is not only strongly democratic but militarily defenseless. But all also believe that a Nicaraguan Marxist-Leninist regime tied to the Soviet Union and Cuba will continue to threaten them with subversion. They further believe that the threat from such a regime will prevent them from attracting needed capital from abroad and achieving their economic development goals.

A recent survey conducted in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala by the Costa Rican affiliate of Gallup International provides more graphic detail of these countries' views:2 strong majorities in all four countries believe that the Sandinista government represents a minority of the Nicaraguan population. Most think a majority of Nicaraguans favor the Nicaraguan resistance. At least 75 percent of respondents in all four countries express unfavorable opinions of Nicaragua, while at least 70 percent in all four countries describe Nicaragua as an instrument of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Eighty percent see Nicaragua as a threat to the region. Seven in ten Costa Ricans and Hondurans believe Nicaragua is trying to weaken their respective governments, as do nearly two-thirds in El Salvador. Large majorities in all four countries claim it will be better for Nicaragua if the resistance wins and better for their own countries as well. More than two-thirds of the respondents in all four countries are aware of and approve of U.S. aid, both military and nonmilitary, to the Nicaraguan resistance. Finally, between 54 and 69 percent of those interviewed believe that if the resistance movement were to gain power, it would hold free elections in Nicaragua and establish a democratic government there.

A major problem with the original Arias proposal was its sacrifice of the Nicaraguan resistance to an open-ended process of negotiations. Aid to the rebels was to end immediately while Soviet-bloc aid to the Sandinistas could continue uninterrupted and unlimited. The rebels had to accept the terms of a cease-fire declared by the Sandinistas, not negotiated with the rebels or representatives designated by them. The Sandinistas, in contrast, would not have had to implement democratic reforms until 60 days later. And they might never have had to reduce their military buildup or dispense with foreign military advisers since the plan only specified when negotiations were to begin, not when they were to end. Procedures for verification were so lacking in detail that they were nonoperational. Finally, as with the Contadora plan, there were no provisions for sanctions if the agreement were violated.

President Arias had not consulted the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in drawing up his proposal. Their reactions were mixed. They liked the idea of a Central American peace plan; they felt that the Contadora countries, especially Mexico, the most active country of the group, did not take seriously the threat posed by the Sandinistas to the region. But they were unable to unite behind the vague security provisions of the Arias plan. El Salvador, which has a serious guerrilla threat, was most concerned, yet even it did not reject the plan. It insisted only on briefly postponing the meeting of the Central American presidents in order to allow time for the Central American foreign ministers to discuss the proposal first among themselves.

President Arias acknowledged that his plan needed work. He said that he had put it forward to get the peace process moving again, and to test once and for all the Sandinistas' willingness to democratize. When asked what would happen if the Sandinistas did not carry out democratic reforms, he replied that the world would then know what the Sandinistas were really like. President Arias' position was apparently not shared by his own foreign minister, Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto, who reportedly believed that the initiative aligned Costa Rica too much with Guatemala's posture of "active neutrality" toward Nicaragua, and that Costa Rica's interests were best served by siding with El Salvador and Honduras against Nicaragua.3

Even before seeing the original Arias proposal, Nicaragua labeled it an imperialistic ploy of the United States and "a direct act of sabotage against the Contadora negotiating process." Once the Sandinistas read the text and realized that the United States and some of the Central American countries had problems with it, they reversed their position and said they were willing to discuss it.


On August 5, the day before the five Central American presidents were scheduled to meet in Guatemala City to discuss the Arias proposal, President Reagan endorsed a new peace plan written by Speaker of the House Wright. It drew heavily upon the original Arias proposal in its emphasis on democratization, but it attempted to correct what the United States regarded as the weaknesses of the Arias initiative.

The U.S. plan provided for a negotiated rather than a declared cease-fire, to be verified by the Organization of American States or another international observer group. The Sandinistas would not have to negotiate directly with the rebels, only with "representatives" acceptable to them. During these negotiations, to be completed by September 30, the rebels could remain inside Nicaragua. Once a cease-fire was negotiated, however, the United States would have to suspend military but not humanitarian assistance to the rebels. The United States would also suspend its military maneuvers in Honduras, and Soviet-bloc military aid to the Sandinistas would be terminated at the same time.

Under the Reagan/Wright plan the Sandinistas would have to rescind the emergency law and restore civil rights. They would also have to establish a timetable for new elections, grant amnesty to the rebels and guarantee their right to take part in Nicaraguan politics. The United States would then lift its economic embargo of Nicaragua and allow Managua to participate in economic assistance and trade programs.

The Reagan/Wright plan differed from the Arias plan mainly in its desire to ensure that the Nicaraguan resistance survives intact in case negotiations fail. This explains the shortened deadline for completion of negotiations and the provision for a negotiated cease-fire acceptable to the rebels rather than one imposed by the Sandinistas. Finally, by requiring a cut-off in Soviet-bloc aid to the Sandinistas, the Reagan/Wright plan tried to maintain the existing military balance between the Sandinistas and the armed resistance, in contrast to the original Arias plan, which would have disarmed the rebels but not the Sandinistas.

President Reagan probably had several reasons for offering a U.S. peace plan when he did. In the wake of the Iran-contra hearings he had to rebuild his political position. Unless he did so, the chances of Congress' approving additional aid for the Nicaraguan rebels seemed slim. The fact that he was able to come to an agreement with the Democratic speaker of the House on a bipartisan plan that corrected most of the deficiencies of earlier diplomatic efforts made the endeavor all the more attractive. It must have seemed a no-lose situation. If the Sandinistas accepted his proposal, he would have moved toward a negotiated settlement that protected U.S. interests. If the Sandinistas rejected the U.S. proposal, which seemed probable since it required major concessions, Congress would find it more difficult to reject his request for additional aid for the rebels in the fall.

But the first reactions to the Reagan/Wright plan were mixed. American opponents of aid to the rebels called it a sham and a ploy aimed at trapping them into voting for aid to the resistance. The short deadline was criticized as highly unrealistic. The plan was also opposed from the right for abandoning the rebels, the feared outcome if no new aid was provided by the September 30 deadline; if this situation lasted long enough the resistance would cease to exist.

The Sandinistas, therefore, took great pains not to reject the plan and thereby play into President Reagan's hands. Instead, President Daniel Ortega said he was willing to discuss it, along with Managua's plan and those of Contadora and President Arias. He also reiterated his refusal to negotiate with the rebels and demanded bilateral negotiations with the United States. The rebels, in turn, said they supported the plan but had to be a party to any cease-fire negotiations. The presidents of El Salvador and Honduras reacted more warmly toward the plan than did their Costa Rican and Guatemalan counterparts.

Instead of working with the U.S. plan, however, the Central American presidents surprised the Administration by signing an amended version of the Arias plan. Like the original Arias initiative, the new plan provides for a cease-fire, talks between incumbent governments and the unarmed opposition only, an end to aid for the rebels, an amnesty, and steps for the democratization of Nicaragua. It does not call for new elections but allows each country to maintain its original electoral schedule-1990 for Nicaraguan presidential elections, as already noted. It also appears to ignore the principle of simultaneity by requiring an end to aid for the rebels before there is significant progress toward democratization. And, like the original Arias initiative, the new proposal does not provide for any penalties in the event of noncompliance.

The new plan differs slightly from the original Arias plan by providing for a 90-day, rather than a 60-day, deadline before the signatories judge how well the various provisions are being implemented. There are no details on the mechanism for concluding a cease-fire; these and other matters would be worked out at a meeting of the Central American foreign ministers in late August. Then, 90 days after this meeting, the ministers are to meet again to assess progress on the cease-fire, the amnesty and internal democratization. If a cease-fire is negotiated, at that time all aid to the rebels is to end, as well as the use of other countries as sanctuaries. An international verification commission would meet in 120 days, and the Central American presidents in 150 days, to assess the implementation of these measures. A key issue is turned over to the Contadora group: negotiations regarding limitations on military force levels and the disarmament of rebel forces. These talks have no deadline for reaching agreement.

In sum, the plan seems more favorable to the Sandinistas than the rebels. At the beginning of the process the rebels give up all leverage, cease fighting and stop receiving aid, and take their chances in the political arena, but full democratization is deferred and no sanctions are mandatory if the process collapses later.


Why were all the Central American countries willing to sign a peace plan containing key provisions that some had objected to in the earlier Arias plan?

There are several possible explanations. The most important involves the decline in the power and prestige of the United States in general and of President Reagan in particular in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. This decline heightened fears, mainly in El Salvador and Honduras, that the United States would not be able to carry through on its commitments to them or to the Nicaraguan rebels. The Iran-contra hearings also showed the risks of working behind the scenes with the United States; no one could be sure that such assistance would not come to light.

The Central American governments therefore decided to adopt a more neutral posture in order to avoid antagonizing the Sandinista government, which looked like it would remain firmly in power. At the same time, the Central American leaders resented the fact that they had not been consulted or even informed about the Reagan/Wright plan, which took them by surprise and threatened to derail their meeting in Guatemala City. They might have found a way to accommodate the U.S. president, had he been stronger domestically and internationally. But in the aftermath of the Iran-contra affair, they strongly doubted President Reagan's ability to implement the U.S. plan.

The Sandinistas had different reasons for signing on at this point, which they did not have earlier. In February, when the original Arias plan had been presented, nearly eight months remained before President Reagan would have to confront Congress again with a new request for aid to the rebels. Entering into negotiations over the February Arias plan, therefore, would not have deprived the resistance of U.S. aid. By August the situation was very different. U.S. aid was scheduled to end on September 30. At the same time, the new Central American plan provided 90 days (i.e., until November 7), instead of the 60 days in the February plan, before the Sandinistas would be required to start implementing democratic reforms. As long as negotiations were in progress there was little chance that the Congress would consider additional aid for the rebels after September 30, particularly in the aftermath of the Iran-contra scandal. In the meantime, the odds were good that negotiations could be extended well beyond the 90-day deadline.

Definitions of key concepts in the agreement remained vague, procedures for implementation were unspecified, and too many different interests, groups and countries were involved in monitoring and verification. And of course, there were no provisions for automatic penalties in the event of noncompliance.

This explanation of Sandinista motivations will seem very wrong to those who believe that the Nicaraguan armed resistance is small, ineffective, unpopular and unable to hold its own against the Sandinistas. That may have been partially true before late 1986, when the $100 million in aid began reaching the rebels. Since then, the situation on the ground in Nicaragua has changed considerably.


The Iran-contra scandal created the impression that the Nicaraguan resistance has been awash in dollars with little to show for the money. In fact, until recently, the rebels have received relatively little money and thus could point to only modest achievements. Since receiving better funding and training, their field performance has improved.

Legal U.S. government assistance equaled $24 million in 1983, $27 million in 1985 and $100 million in 1986. The 1985 funds could not be used for military purposes, while the 1983 and 1986 figures include both military and nonmilitary aid. Covert but legal funding was provided in 1981 and 1982. The exact amounts are not public knowledge, although the resistance had relatively few men at the time, making it doubtful that large amounts of money were involved. The illegal funds from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran that were the subject of the Iran-contra hearings totaled only $12 million. Evidence to date suggests that the funds mainly benefited middlemen, with no more than $4 million in supplies and services ever reaching the rebels. But another $30 million or so in secret funds from Saudi Arabia probably reached the rebels, as well as less than $4 million from private supporters.

Known aid to the resistance-totaling about $200 million since 1983-should be evaluated against the nearly $3 billion that the Soviet bloc started sending to the Sandinistas before the United States began its aid to the resistance. In 1986 the Soviet bloc provided the Sandinistas an estimated $850 million. The nearly $3 billion in Soviet-bloc aid has mainly been for military and military-related construction purposes. Soviet assistance to the Sandinistas has been uninterrupted and dependable,4 in contrast to U.S. aid to the resistance, which has been erratic and unreliable.

In part because of the small amount of U.S. aid, the rebels had few military accomplishments to their credit until 1984 and 1985, when they succeeded in penetrating areas deep in the interior of Nicaragua around Boaco and Juigalpa. They continued to operate in the north and in the eastern region known as the Atlantic coast, home of the Miskito and other Indian groups who resisted Sandinista attempts to interfere with their traditional way of life. The rebels were able to operate in those regions because of widespread popular disaffection with Sandinista rule, which took the form of peasant support for the rebels and desertions from the local Sandinista militias into which they were forcibly recruited.

The arrival of helicopter gunships and transport helicopters from the Soviet Union beginning in 1985 tipped the military balance overwhelmingly toward the Sandinistas. First, the Sandinistas removed tens of thousands of peasants and Indians from the north and east and transformed these areas into free-fire zones. They then used helicopters to rapidly bring in troops who had been drafted from other regions and to attack the rebels from the air. At this time the rebels' resources were also dwindling, compounding their difficulties. Deprived of their peasant supporters and lacking air defense weapons as well as food, ammunition and air resupply, the rebels were forced to spend increasing amounts of time in their Honduran sanctuaries.

Another problem faced by the resistance was that the rebels lacked training to transform them from an unprofessional peasant army into a coordinated and effective fighting force and to sensitize them to the importance of respecting human rights. Training was also needed to create middle-level leadership so the rebels could operate in smaller fighting units that would be more mobile and less vulnerable to Sandinista attacks. Finally, the resistance needed sophisticated communications equipment to coordinate its maneuvers and to offset the Sandinistas' access to such technology.

The $100 million in U.S. aid that began to reach the rebels in late 1986 eased some of these problems. The resistance obtained air defense and other weapons, as well as communications equipment and supplies. The money was also used to set up and operate an aerial resupply system that allowed the rebels to enter and remain in Nicaragua without having to depend exclusively on overland and in-country supplies. This was particularly important given the Sandinista regime's use of the state security apparatus and centralized control over production and distribution, which posed enormous problems for a guerrilla movement seeking to "operate in the sea of the people."

The disbursal of the $100 million in U.S. aid has already produced visible results. Most of the rebels have now left their Honduran sanctuaries to join the 3,000 or so who never left Nicaragua, though how long they can remain there is an open question. There is still disagreement on the actual numbers; the U.S. government claims that between 15,000 and 16,000 are in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas acknowledge only 6,000.5

That the Sandinistas admit that even 6,000 rebels are inside Nicaragua, however, is significant. While the rebels were in Honduras, the Sandinistas said they lacked the courage and ability to fight, and claimed they could keep the rebels out of Nicaragua indefinitely. After the rebels began receiving the new U.S. aid funds, they fought their way through and around Sandinista troops. Now the Sandinistas maintain that, while the rebels are inside Nicaragua, they do not constitute a threat.

But recent trends must be of some concern to the Sandinistas. Rebel forces are not only in Nicaragua; they are in most of the country. Sandinista efforts to disrupt their resupply network have proved ineffective; 98 percent of the resupply flights have reportedly reached their targets. In part this is because new training and communication systems allow the rebels to operate in small groups typical of guerrilla warfare. This enables smaller and quicker air resupply, making the rebels less vulnerable to Sandinista attack.

The rebels have also begun to put the Sandinistas on the defensive by launching hundreds of attacks each month. In June 1987 alone, the Nicaraguan government admitted to approximately 372 rebel attacks and engagements. In the past few months, rebel activities have been reported in more than two-thirds of Nicaraguan territory, including the Atlantic coast region, the Bocay River Valley and the area west of it, and the central region stretching from Jinotega to Nueva Guinea in the south.6 In fact, the only region where there have not been rebel attacks is the Pacific coast area immediately west and south of Managua. The resistance has also been dropping leaflets in areas around León and north of Chinandega, and pockets of resistance have been reported as close as a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Managua. Rebel forces also line both sides of the strategically important Rama Road, the main east-west artery for transporting arms and supplies arriving in Bluefields and nearby El Bluff from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The resistance has also increasingly targeted electrical power grids, bridges, communications networks, fuel depots, roads and the like. Recently the rebels blacked out the Pacific northwest, and even deprived Managua of electricity for several hours.

The increased rebel activity has strained the Sandinistas' logistical capability. They have had to keep their helicopters in the air almost constantly, transporting troops from one battle to the next. This increases the risk of mechanical failure, and the rebels have already shot down or damaged seven helicopters according to U.S. government sources, since U.S. aid began arriving in late 1986. (The total number of Sandinista helicopters was put at 40-50 as of this spring, according to diplomatic sources in Managua.)

The dispersal of the rebels throughout Nicaragua has also made it more difficult for the Sandinistas to secure areas against rebel penetration. In the May-June fighting in the lower Bocay Valley, for example, the Sandinistas could only keep the bulk of their troops there three days after forcing the rebels to withdraw to avoid helicopter assaults. Sandinista battalions lacked food and water, and also needed to move west to offset rebel attacks there against roads, infrastructure and electrical installations. Their rapid departure allowed the rebels then to continue building up their strength in that area. In earlier battles, by contrast, the Sandinistas had been able to keep several battalions in place for weeks. The Sandinistas have not been able to score any major military victories; nor have they taken many rebels captive or captured significant quantities of weapons or ammunition. Each side usually claims that the other has sustained more casualties; actual figures are difficult to ascertain because the Sandinistas have declared many war zones off limits to reporters.

Perhaps the best indication of the progress the rebels have made inside Nicaragua is the fact that the Sandinistas have had to remove forcibly over 100,000 peasants from areas where the rebels are operating in order to deprive the resistance of popular support. In the south, for example, where the conventional wisdom is that the rebels have not made much headway, the Sandinistas have forcibly removed over 6,500 peasants from the Nueva Guinea area. The head of the independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights estimates that about 160,000 individuals were moved by the government this year alone, a vast increase over the approximately 8,000 who were forcibly relocated in 1983 and 1984.7

Some of the popular support for the resistance is the result of Nicaragua's deteriorating economy. Inflation is expected to reach 1,000 percent by the end of this year. Basic consumer goods are unavailable to most people, who must endure severe rationing and endless lines to get the few items that are available. Unemployment is rising and the deteriorating situation in the countryside is forcing many peasants to move to Managua. In the capital, water is now available only every other day. The growing black market already accounts for approximately 60 percent of all economic activity, and the currency continues to depreciate. The official exchange rate in June, for example, was 70 cordobas to the dollar, but the black market rate was 7,500 to 8,000. Many of the economic problems result from government mistakes, such as economic policies that discourage peasants from producing.

The Sandinistas blame their economic problems on the fact that they must spend an estimated 40-50 percent of their budget on the war effort and to maintain Nicaragua's large military establishment. The latter includes an army of about 70,000 men and a militia of approximately the same size. Nicaragua's military buildup, however, began from the moment the Sandinistas and their Cuban military advisers entered Managua in 1979. It is intimately linked to the Soviet/Cuban kind of Marxist-Leninist dictatorship or "revolutionary democracy" that the Sandinistas, in their prerevolutionary writings, claimed they would set up once the revolution triumphed.8 Nevertheless, the increasing rebel threat has caused the Sandinistas to devote ever more resources to the fight.


The signing of the Central American agreement on August 7 produced an immediate euphoria. Four years of difficult negotiations had at last produced a diplomatic solution to an increasingly militarized conflict. Despite a growing realization that the road from signature to implementation is fraught with stumbling blocks, there is intense pressure to "give peace a chance." The United States, however, has to make some urgent decisions.

First, of course, it must decide whether to enter into and assist the process initiated at Guatemala City. This will involve repeated political interventions with all the parties, especially the rebels. Assuming that this broad decision is taken, the next issue is how to guarantee that the rebels are allowed to participate, not only in the negotiating process, but also finally in the Nicaraguan political process. And this, in turn, depends on the handling of the question of aid to the resistance during the lengthy process of negotiations that is now beginning.

The United States cannot really be a passive observer. To do nothing until the November 7 deadline (by which time a cease-fire is to be in place, aid to the Nicaraguan rebels is to be terminated and democratic reforms are to be implemented by the Sandinistas) would in fact be to make some important and irreversible decisions-decisions that could destroy the resistance movement and allow the further consolidation of Nicaragua's Marxist-Leninist regime.

The negotiation process now under way could play out in a variety of ways. The most optimistic scenario is that everything would go according to definition and on schedule. Thus, a genuine cease-fire would be in place by or even before the November 7 deadline, aid to the rebels would end and they would begin to transform themselves into players in the Nicaraguan political process. How they would fare as a political force is difficult to predict.

One disadvantage they would face is their counterrevolutionary image. The Sandinistas were astute in labeling the armed opposition "contras"; the pejorative name has stuck. Many Nicaraguans who oppose the Sandinistas still believe that a rebel victory would bring back Somocismo without Somoza. The reason for this perception is that some rebel military leaders are former members of the National Guard, although their numbers have been wildly exaggerated. Charges that the majority of the resistance movement's rank and file are former National Guardsmen are patently false, though they continue to be believed by many.9

The political directorate of the resistance also has had a negative image. In its early years, it was dominated by individuals identified either with the National Guard or with the Conservative Party. But its composition has steadily broadened and former supporters of the 1979 revolution now constitute the majority of the six civilians who form the directorate. These include Alfonso Robelo, a successful businessman who led an important civilian movement opposing Somoza; Alfredo César, a former Sandinista militant and head of the Nicaraguan Central Bank under the Sandinistas; Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, son of the slain editor of La Prensa who opposed Somoza; and María Azucena Ferrey, until recently a member of the opposition Social Christian Party inside Nicaragua and originally a collaborator with the Sandinista underground in the 1970s. The two more conservative members of the directorate are Adolfo Calero, a former opponent of Somoza who later became an opponent of the Sandinistas and the political head of the main resistance group, and Aristides Sánchez, a former member of Nicaragua's landholding elite who has spent a great deal of time with the rebel troops in Honduras and has gained support from some moderates. Whether they will be able to continue working together once they are allowed to enter the political process remains to be seen.

Another problem the rebels could face is the difficulty in convincing Nicaraguans of their nationalist credentials, given their close ties to the CIA and their dependence until now on continued U.S. support for their survival. The Sandinistas, although they are just as dependent on the Soviet Union and Cuba, have successfully managed to drape themselves in the Nicaraguan flag, as far as international opinion is concerned. Nicaraguans within Nicaragua, however, have not been so easily deceived. The rebels' CIA connection, therefore, may be offset by the Sandinistas' compromised nationalism.

It is impossible to know for certain what the Nicaraguan people really think about the Sandinistas or the resistance. Any opinions that have been expressed publicly to date are unreliable. They have been put forward in a political context of extreme repression characterized by a censored press, the suspension of basic democratic freedoms, the existence of thousands of political prisoners, and under the watchful eye of a Soviet/Cuban-style security apparatus. Only after a genuine democratic opening has begun will it be possible to get an accurate reading of public opinion.

What we do know is that there is tremendous latent discontent within Nicaragua. Some of it is due to the disastrous economic condition of the country, some of it is politically motivated. Whether such dissatisfaction would dissipate with the implementation of the kinds of domestic reforms envisioned in the Central American peace proposal cannot be decided by reference to precedents because none exists. Never before has a Marxist-Leninist regime agreed to institute truly democratic freedoms. And with good reason. The rulers of such regimes have feared the consequent loss of their monopoly of political power. This explains the strong pessimism of some observers regarding the likelihood that the Sandinistas will make the reforms called for in the Guatemala agreement. But it also explains the inability to predict with any confidence how the Nicaraguan people will respond to the participation of the rebels in a reformed political process.

What is clear, however, is that the treaty as written gives a big advantage to the Sandinistas. They do not have to hold presidential elections until 1990. The resistance must therefore sustain itself as an alternative political force for more than two years in a political system that will continue to be dominated by the Sandinistas.

The ultimate success or failure of the rebels will depend on what the United States is prepared to do on their behalf. The agreement is vague on the timetable for the implementation of democratic reforms. And there are already indications that "democracy" has a very different meaning for the Sandinistas. A high Sandinista official, for example, said on U.S. television soon after the agreement was signed that "democratization is the process that has been developing in Nicaragua since 1979."

Democracy admittedly is difficult to define precisely, but to paraphrase what a U.S. Supreme Court justice said of pornography, we know it when we see it. The United States must therefore make two things clear: the limits of its tolerance regarding definitions and implementation of democratic reforms, and its refusal to cut off aid to the Nicaraguan resistance until there are credible signs of a democratic opening in Nicaragua. Failure to take such a position would allow the resistance to be destroyed not only as a military force, but as a political force as well, thereby depriving the United States of leverage over the Sandinistas during the negotiating process and beyond.

There is a different scenario possible-that the peace process will break down before the November 7 deadline for a cease-fire. If that happens, the rebels must be in a position to resume their fight against the Sandinistas. For this to occur, the United States should ideally continue military and humanitarian assistance to the resistance until November 7, especially since the Sandinistas will be able to receive military and economic aid from the Soviet-bloc countries during that period and beyond. But the political reality is that the Sandinistas would break off negotiations if the United States continued to provide military assistance to the resistance. The United States would then be blamed for having sabotaged the agreement, thereby guaranteeing that Congress would refuse any additional military aid. A possible compromise would involve providing only humanitarian aid to sustain the rebels between the September 30 cutoff and the November 7 deadline. This would at least allow them to survive inside Nicaragua and preserve the option of resuming fighting in the event of a breakdown in negotiations.

The most likely scenario, however, is that there will be no clear-cut resolution by the November deadline. The main issues will probably still be under negotiation. Pressure on the United States would then be intense to extend the deadline and continue to postpone military aid to the rebels. This process, unfortunately, could drag on indefinitely. If so, it would ultimately destroy the resistance and leave the United States with little leverage to press Nicaragua to negotiate in good faith. The United States therefore needs to decide how to handle aid to the rebels even if negotiations are continuing, unless some tangible progress has been made by November 7 on the cease-fire and democratic reforms.

The United States thus must make some critical decisions, and soon. How they are made and implemented may well determine the fate of the new peace plan. The practical question facing the United States is how to preserve its commitment to the resistance as well as maintain its leverage during a negotiating process that may last six months or longer. This is an issue that cannot be left until November 7, when it will be too late.


2 The survey, sponsored by the USIA, was conducted in January 1987 by Consultoria Interdisciplinaria en Desarrollo, S.A. USIA, Office of Research, Research Memorandum, May 7, 1987.

4 Despite reports of a declining Soviet oil supply, the Soviets delivered 2.1-million barrels in 1986 and have promised to deliver the same amount in 1987, according to Henry Ruiz, the Nicaraguan cabinet minister who coordinates foreign aid. Moscow has, however, refused to provide additional oil to the Sandinistas to make up for a decrease in shipments from Eastern Europe. Western diplomats say Moscow is trying to force the Sandinistas to get oil from places like Venezuela and Mexico, but will ultimately supply more oil if the effort fails. The Washington Post, July 31, 1987, p. 18.

5 On a per capita basis the rebel movement in Nicaragua is larger than the insurgency in El Salvador. Nicaragua has a total population of under three million, while El Salvador's population exceeds five million. There are an estimated 4,000-6,000 guerrillas in El Salvador, according to The Washington Post, Aug. 9, 1987, p. 23.

7 The Nueva Guinea relocation figure is from The New York Times, June 13, 1987, p. 1. The commission's figures are from Ronald Radosh, "Nicaragua Revisited," The New Republic, Aug. 3, 1987, p. 22.


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  • Susan Kaufman Purcell is Senior Fellow and Director of the Latin American Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was a member of the Department of State's Policy Planning Staff, 1980-81, and a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, 1969-79.
  • More By Susan Kaufman Purcell