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Stand Firm on Contra Aid

President Reagan clutches still another straw to promote his plan to give military aid to Nicaragua’s contra rebels. He now claims that the lack of progress in peace negotiations in Panama City this week proves that the “intransigent” Sandinistas respond only to force. Wrong again.

In fact, Reagan’s own stubbornness is equally responsible for the failure of the so-called Contadora Group to get any closer to a peace treaty for Central America during its meetings in Panama. That is also how a group of knowledgeable and responsible observers of the Latin American scene sees it, concluding that the United States, rather than Nicaragua, must take the next step if tensions between Washington and Managua are to be relaxed.

In its 1986 report, made public Wednesday, the Inter-American Dialogue warns that the United States must modify the stance that it has taken toward Nicaragua before the Contadora process will work. An important step in that direction is for the Reagan Administration to stop aiding the contras, according to the panel that is co-chaired by Sol M. Linowitz, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, and Galo Plaza, the former president of Uruguay and secretary general of the OAS.

The report is co-signed by 28 other Latin American leaders and a bipartisan group of 30 distinguished U.S. citizens. Like other analysts who have studied the Central American crisis without the ideological blinders worn by Reagan and his aides, members of the Dialogue conclude that while the United States’ goals in Nicaragua are valid, its strategy is doomed to failure.

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Reagan wants the Sandinista government to cut its ties with the Soviet Bloc and to give the people of Nicaragua more freedom. Those goals cannot be achieved simultaneously--at least not without greater sacrifice than most people in the United States are willing to accept. That public reluctance forces Reagan to rely on the contras as a surrogate army--and they cannot win.

The Dialogue suggests that Reagan instead approach his goals one at a time, giving priority to security issues before trying to pressure the Sandinistas into being more democratic. If that strategy is accepted, a way out of the deadlock in the Contadora process becomes obvious: In exchange for a guarantee by the Sandinistas not to threaten U.S. security--meaning no Soviet bases and no more Soviet Bloc advisers in Nicaragua-- the United States would guarantee Nicaragua’s security--meaning no more help for the contras.

This is the sound strategy that the Contadora Group has followed for the last three years, and one that the Sandinistas have been on the verge of accepting. What holds back the Nicaraguan government is a refusal by the United States to guarantee that country’s security. If the Sandinistas were stubborn at the last Contadora meeting, it was for what seems to them a logical reason. And that puts the burden on the Reagan Administration to change its strategy on Nicaragua.

“The Contadora peace effort cannot succeed,” the Inter-American Dialogue concluded, “as long as the United States insists on fundamental changes in the Sandinista regime as a prior condition for any agreement on security matters.” Reagan either cannot or will not understand that, so Congress must take the initiative. That is why the House of Representatives must stand firm on its decision of March 20 to send no more U.S. aid to the contras.

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