On Nicaragua We Can Believe Reagan but Not His Policy

<i> David R. Ayon is a research associate at USC's School of International Relations. His commentary is from the Roosevelt Center for Policy Studies in Washington</i>

President Reagan has repeatedly protested that he has no intention of using U.S. troops in Nicaragua. He claims to know how damaging direct intervention would be to our relations with all Latin America. Should we believe him? Can we trust him? These are two very different questions.

We are a democracy, but, for all intent and purpose, we are at war. The government cannot be expected to speak truthfully of its adversary or its plans. We must take into account what the President says, but we cannot take his word at face value.

The Administration does seem to understand that, even under extraordinary conditions, direct intervention risks irreparable harm to our interests in Latin America and beyond. Its current policy may be seen by some as a pre-invasion strategy, but it is much more likely that any invasion will come only as a result of the failure of the Administration’s scenario for getting rid of the Sandinistas.

That scenario rests on the destabilization of the Sandinista government; the contra rebels are but a part of a comprehensive program intended to provoke mass insurrection.


The key point is that the overthrow of the Sandinistas should not look as if it were engineered in Washington. For maximum effect, the Sandinistas should fall as a communist regime overthrown by a great anti-communist uprising. This would be a devastating blow to the left throughout Latin America and to Cuba, and could even send shudders through the Soviet Bloc. A successful revolt by the Nicaraguan people would explode the Brezhnev Doctrine in ways that a U.S. invasion could not (and did not in Grenada).

According to that doctrine, a country once incorporated into the Soviet alliance is not allowed to defect. Never mind that Nicaragua has never entered a Soviet alliance; what matters to the policy strategists is that the Soviets cannot intervene to save Nicaragua for socialism as they “saved” Eastern Europe. The crumbling of the “evil empire” can begin in our backyard without spilling American blood.

This scenario requires propagation of the notion that Nicaragua has gone communist, hence the Administration’s torrential propaganda effort. Next there should be the appearance of a mass insurrection provoked by Sandinista misrule, not by U.S. subversion and destabilization. This is why the Administration prefers covert operations and avoided until last year the declaration of an economic embargo. The combination of pressures is intended to create a climate of such desperation in Nicaragua as to make it ungovernable. Negotiations with the Sandinistas do not fit into this strategy. Patience and sustained and increasing pressure do.

Almost all analysts of the situation agree that the contras by themselves have no hope of defeating the Sandinistas, or even of forcing negotiations. The actual strategy for the contra force corresponds to the methods employed by the Sandinistas against Anastasio Somoza in 1978-79. As devised by the present Sandinista defense minister, Humberto Ortega, guerrilla actions had the objective of sparking a mass uprising that would allow the insurgents to fight a vastly superior but overextended army on more equal terms.


But what if the Nicaraguan people do not rise up this time? What if they choose suffering over insurrection? The city of Managua already is in a desperate situation, for reasons not entirely due to U.S. policy. Basic staples--including bread, beans and cooking oil--have become unavailable for weeks at a time. If acute destabilization brings starvation, we could very well see the mobilization of international rescue efforts--a drama that would cast Uncle Sam as the villain, however unfairly.

What if, on the other hand, the people revolt but do not succeed? How long are we prepared to watch riots, repression and blood-letting in Nicaragua? Two weeks? Two months? More? At what point will the Reagan Administration have no cards left to play except direct intervention? If it appears that the Sandinista army cannot be overcome, will Reagan stand by as it crushes a rebellion? Hardly.

In one of the seminal events of the Cold War nearly 30 years ago, Hungary threw off Soviet domination--until the Soviets returned in Red Army tanks. After having implicitly encouraged Eastern Europeans to rebel, the United States did nothing. Conservatives have neither forgotten nor forgiven the Eisenhower Administration’s restraint. Reagan and his advisers would not shrink from the chance to replay the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in Nicaragua 1986--safely out of the Soviet bear’s reach.

In the debate over contra aid, we should be asking if we will take responsibility for fomenting a civil war, for if the contra strategy “succeeds” in igniting civil war, we will be compelled to intervene.


We can believe that the President has no intention of using U.S. troops in Nicaragua, but we cannot trust that his policy will conform to his intent.