Is Ortega Containable? Elections Will Tell : Economic Chaos Opens Sandinistas to Pressures for Political Change

<i> Arturo J. Cruz, who held positions in the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime and later with the Contras, is now a researcher at the University of Miami's Institute of Interamerican Studies. </i>

The discouraging snags encountered by the Arias peace plan during its first 18 months emboldened critics with a dismal view to declare it a failure. However, the most recent Central American presidential summit may yet vindicate the plan.

Whoever has something at stake in Central America couldn’t help being stirred by Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte’s announcement of the five governments’ commitment to see the end of civil war and the celebration of elections in Nicaragua. All previous disappointments notwithstanding, this time the announcement didn’t sound like a platitude but more as if a deal had been made.

Admittedly, the collective decision reached on Feb. 13-14 by the five presidents to move toward ending the U.S.-backed insurgency in Nicaragua in exchange for an opening of democracy by the ruling Sandinistas represents basically a regional “best effort” assumption of responsibility. In reality, the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica lack sufficient strength to compel the Nicaraguan government to honor its pledge.

The plain truth is that any power to reward the Sandinistas for their compliance with the agreements, or to punish them for their violations, rests fundamentally in Washington. In short, this new accord by the Central American heads of state would have a small chance of success if the United States denies its support.


Therefore, the Arias peace plan should not be seen as a guarantor of solutions to the labyrinthine Central American crisis. It is, rather, a pathfinder in a tortuous escape.

It is a cumbersome process for five presidents representing conflicting interests to find a common point of agreement; it is only possible to untie one knot at a time. And that’s precisely what Jose Napoleon Duarte, Jose Azcona Hoyo, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo and Oscar Arias Sanchez did: come to an understanding with the Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega on the thorny issue of taking steps to dismantle the Contra forces within 90 days.

Understandably, few among non-Sandinista Nicaraguans will feel comfortable with the disappearance of the armed resistance. The majority of dissidents have come to regard the insurgents as indispensable for restraining the Sandinistas. Even moderate individuals who believe that a national solution should be with (not against) the Sandinistas prefer to see the rebel force kept, but in abeyance.

But one cannot pretend to have the best of both worlds. The existence of the Contras is an obstacle to the United States, developing a bipartisan foreign policy on Nicaragua. Without a bipartisan consensus, the Bush Administration would not have sufficient leverage to effectively pressure the Nicaraguan government to do its part of the quid pro quo. Even more, the support of Congress would be necessary for the Administration to forcefully express its displeasure in case the Sandinistas renege once more.


The Sandinista regime must provide guarantees for a safe repatriation of the rebels who choose to go back to Nicaragua. Ortega must also be held accountable for the restoration of civil rights and freedoms. His government must ensure free and fair participation of all Nicaraguans in the elections that he proposes to hold next February. However, due to the Sandinistas’ tarnished reputation, resulting from their deviousness and record of unkept promises, there is widespread skepticism.

Both in Nicaragua and in the United States, doubts prevail about Ortega’s new commitment to democracy. Most of all, everyone wonders what the Sandinistas are up to by showing eagerness for an electoral contest, since they would probably lose by a landslide. However, in spite of their disingenuous behavior, this time the Sandinistas, out of necessity, are likely to make good their word.

It is interesting to observe how the Nicaraguan regime desperately seeks the disintegration of the Contra force. One reason could be that Managua’s dividends from the “U.S. aggression” propaganda are diminishing substantially because of its decline in international prestige. The continuing loss of lives and material resources is now an unbearable political cost for the government.

At the same time, a painful economic chaos that victimizes the people threatens to devour, too, the new oligarchic clique. The Sandinista Front needs the cooperation of the private sector--heretofore its victim--which refuses to accede unless parallel democratization takes place.

Ortega craves a rapprochement with the United States that would reopen economic relations. The suspension of U.S. trade and aid has been a crippling factor for the Nicaraguan economy. As an alternative source of economic cooperation, the Western Europeans show less and less enthusiasm in assisting a repressive and incompetent government in Nicaragua. Latin America and the Socialist International exert more and more pressure on the Sandinistas for democratic reforms. Of great importance, with critical significance, the Soviets and the Cubans are finding their costs in the Nicaraguan venture much too heavy. The comandantes’ space for political maneuvering abroad and at home is narrowing. They are, no doubt, “crying uncle.”

By the same token, the opposition cannot count on the eradication of Sandinismo. The United States and Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors seem inclined to co-exist with a Sandinista Nicaragua as long as it doesn’t represent a threat to their security. However, all these countries are seriously concerned about the wave of Nicaraguan refugees crossing their borders. That phenomenon constitutes a vote of rejection by the Nicaraguan people against the Sandinista regime; it also enhances the will of the other nations in the region to find an accommodation with Managua that will stop the flow of refugees.

Nicaraguan democrats must demand that a strict balance be the hallmark of the implementation of the summit agreements. The Sandinistas should receive as much as they give, no more. Their first contribution to peace must be their granting freedom to several thousand men who have been prisoners for an entire decade. That by itself would be an enormously important advance toward national conciliation.

The anti-Sandinista groups should, in the political turf at home, take this opportunity to try to save Nicaragua from misery. After all, there is no alternative, as it appears that a military option is no longer feasible.