A World of Glass Houses : What State Can Demand Perfection of Nicaragua?

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, is the Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

Right after he awarded me the literary Order of Ruben Dario earlier this month, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega announced that he was inviting me and my friend, the novelist William Styron, along on his trip that night to the Central American presidents' meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica. Why were we going? To show that peace in Central America was a concern of citizens, not only of governments. Ortega would pick us up at 3 a.m.

The flight never took place. Nicaraguan intelligence reported that a Contra missile attack on the president's plane was highly probable. So the bus that was to have taken us to the airport instead rolled south toward Costa Rica.

Along the way Styron and I compared notes on our week's stay in Nicaragua. We had heard the criticism of right and left. To the right, the Sandinistas were Marxist Leninists; they were installing a totalitarian dictatorship with all the trappings--press censorship, harassment of political parties, religious persecution, vigilance committees. To the left, the Sandinistas were tepid bourgeois reformists who respected the private sector and gave dollar incentives to exporters; the people were hungry, but the businessmen were making more money than ever.

"What have you got to say about Sandinista persecution of Marxism in Nicaragua?" a fiery-eyed young man with a tape recorder asked me after the Ruben Dario ceremony. The Sandinistas were beginning to look to us like centrists in these tense political confrontations.

Were we simply witnessing the birth pangs of opposition politics in Nicaragua, where traditionally the only opposition has come out of the gun? Fourteen parties were breeding while I was there; the Sandinistas poll less than the government party in Mexico does, but the opposition had yet to present a program of national action comparable to the government's.

Nicaragua was in the initial, affirmative, even violent stages of revolution. I was reminded of the Obregon and Calles regimes in Mexico between 1920 and 1928: fighting opposition from church and business, foreign capitalists and the United States, while promoting basic programs in education, land reform and infrastructure. Mexico faced greater internal violence. There were no firing squads in Nicaragua; it was far safer than El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. But Nicaragua was suffering far greater external violence than Mexico ever did.

The striking thing about Nicaragua was that it has a social agenda that has gone on in spite of the Contra war and the destruction of lives, crops and buildings. We saw the new irrigation districts, the new dairy stations dotting central Nicaragua, the new schools. We also saw the mutilated kids in the hospitals, victims of the Contras. We heard workers in co-ops and factories criticize top government officials to their faces, protest inflation and propose different models of organization.

Were we witnessing an extremely dynamic social transformation, stalled during a "hundred years of solitude" and now carrying along everyone, beyond everyone's political dogmas and traditional class distinctions?

Nicaragua was not perfect. But it was creating an infrastructure in spite of war; it was betting on the future in spite of the strong external draw toward the past. The Nicaraguan Establishment and its U.S. sponsors had 150 years to do in Nicaragua what the Sandinistas have achieved in nine years. There was grumbling in Nicaragua, there was hardship, there were many mistakes being made, there were many authoritarian features derived from the state of emergency as well as from the classical Latin American war between tradition and modernization. But there was a national project as well, not a project for plunder nor simple inertia, as in the past, and it seemed creative and ample enough to embrace a majority of Nicaraguans, and permit them, once the war was over, to oppose the regime while participating in the social dynamics.

Nicaragua was not perfect, sure. But all the Central American countries have imperfections, and if they throw rocks at each other, as they started to do at the opening of the San Jose conference, many glass roofs are likely to be shattered. The report of the Arias plan's verification commission said as much.

Honduras was being judged by an inter-American tribunal on civil rights for using death squads, trained under U.S. auspices, to liquidate the opposition. Anyone who tried to be an opposition journalist in El Salvador would soon meet a violent deadline. And in Guatemala, human life was still cheap, especially if you were an Indian. Even the venerated Costa Rica has its flaws; why did this democracy outlaw parties on the left?

Yet in spite of all, the trial of political intentions against Nicaragua seems endless: It is asked for the moon, and when it gives it, it's not enough; Nicaragua must give us the sun now, or else. No other Central American nation is expected to do so much; the rest shy from their obligations without consequences; only Nicaragua has to pay. It pays in blood.

I don't know if Daniel Ortega's decisions in San Jose are the sun or not. They certainly met Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez's test of what was expected of Managua at the meeting if the peace process was to continue. These were not concessions to Contra pressure; they were simply part of Nicaragua's agreement with its none-too-perfect neighbors to press on toward peace.

Of course, suspending the state of emergency, declaring amnesty and talking to the Contras might also stop Contra aid in its tracks. But in both Managua and San Jose, we felt that such an achievement would be a defeat for no one. It was, rather, to be seen as a success for politics over war. Both were risky; but the risk of politics never maimed a beautiful girl of 13 lying dazed in a Managua hospital.

North Americans have a way of healing that girl; no one like her must suffer again.

The will of the Central American presidents, who preside over imperfect nations, must be respected, for there is a limit to what they can achieve. Even if Honduras, for example, banned the Contra camps on its territory, this would not matter as long as the United States continued to supply aid. It is the aid that must end. It is the dynamics of change in all Central America that must prevail. And it is in the interest of the United States to join that movement, not to blast it in the name of ideological obsession and ghostly fears of communism.

Seen from Central America, the United States is not acting out of a sense of national security. Central America is no longer the back yard of the United States, but it might be its glass roof. And through its panes one sees national insecurity, a pitiful regret that the Central America of Ronald Reagan is not the Central America of Teddy Roosevelt.

Insecurity, hypocrisy. . . . Whoever demanded democratization of Nicaragua when it was occupied by the Marines or ruled by the Somozas?

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