President Daniel Ortega's offer to end Nicaragua's state of emergency, negotiate a cease-fire directly with the armed resistance (the Contras) and release prisoners as part of an amnesty program is a welcome step, and yet it may also be somewhat beside the point.
The concessions announced by Ortega last weekend are an important advance in the Central American peace process initiated by Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias Sanchez and highlighted by last August's Guatemala accord among the five Central American presidents. Seven years of the Contra war had not achieved what diplomatic and political pressures have produced in five months: strong commitments by Nicaragua to expand domestic political space.
This progress is fragile and could be reversed, but it amounts to considerable movement in the desired direction. No one should expect instant and full-blown democracy in Nicaragua, a country that has never known truly free elections, but the conditions slowly being established should allow Nicaragua's democrats to gain important ground.
This progress is jeopardized, however, by the determination of some within the Reagan Administration to avoid peace with Nicaragua, almost at any price. They justify the request for further military aid to the Contras as necessary to keep the pressure on Nicaragua, despite appeals from all five Central American presidents as well as eight other Latin American nations to end outside support for the insurgents. But military force is useful as a negotiating instrument only if it is subordinated to clear political aims, not if it becomes a substitute for diplomacy.
The plain fact is that some within the Administration want to ensure that no agreements are reached with Nicaragua on this President's watch--that accommodation with the Sandinistas is left to the next Administration. Nothing that Ortega can do or offer, short of committing political suicide, will satisfy these officials. They still want to remove the Sandinistas, not deal with them.
That is why Ortega's new move, however welcome, is in one sense irrelevant. The struggle for Nicaragua that needs to be decided now is not so much the one between Sandinistas and Contras, however important that is, but rather between the true believers within the Administration and those who want to protect the interests of the United States pragmatically--balancing aims and resources, objectives and available instruments.
Despite the bitterly divisive debate about Nicaragua, there really is not much argument today about the correct objectives of our national policy. A broad spectrum of public and congressional opinion supports the aims that were stated cogently by President Reagan and House Speaker Jim Wright last August. As they put it at that time, the United States has three legitimate concerns: to ensure that no Soviet or Cuban military base is established in Nicaragua, that Nicaragua poses no military threat to its neighbors through invasion or subversion, and that Nicaragua's government respects the basic human rights of its people, established in the country's constitution. As the President and the Speaker underlined, "The United States has no right to influence or determine the identity of the political leadersof Nicaragua (or) the social and economic system of that country; those matters are for Nicaraguans to decide."
The unresolved debate in Washington, now heating up again as another vote on Contra aid looms, is whether these objectives can be achieved through agreement with the Sandinista government or whether they require removing the Sandinistas from power.
More aid will not resolve this question, for the Contra war amounts to taking pokes at the Sandinistas and bleeding them, but not dealing with them effectively. More U.S. aid will lead, as Arias has emphasized, to more Soviet and Cuban aid for the Sandinistas. It will fuel, not contain, a further Sandinista military buildup. It will tend to justify, not erode, Sandinista restrictions on the rights and activities of the Nicaraguan opposition. And it will surely destroy the Central American peace process, returning the locus of conflict from the political arena to the battlefield.
The real issue confronting Washington now is whether to join with its numerous friends in Latin America in a concerted effort to build on the momentum that is being generated by the peace process in order to contain the Sandinista government and to nudge it toward political opening and national reconciliation. If we want to grasp that opportunity, the next steps are to suspend aid to the Contras in order to keep the moral and political pressure on Nicaragua to comply with its commitments, and to open direct negotiations with Managua and Moscow on our prime security concerns.
The alternative course for the United States would be to go it alone, to make a unilateral and decisive move to oust the Sandinistas. That is the logic of the renewed attempt to push through more Contra aid, and Congress should be ready to face the implications of such a vote. If the Administration and Congress believe that no meaningful agreement can be reached with the Sandinistas, they should be ready to step up the war. If they are not willing to do that, and to take the risk of direct U.S. involvement, then it is time to take risks for peace.
No one can guarantee that the Central American peace process, if it is supported and encouraged, will be crowned with full success. What can be assured, however, is that if Washington sabotages the peace process now, it will have destroyed the best chance for achieving the U.S. goals. Then we might be left with the cruel choice between humiliation or outright military intervention.