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Nicaragua’s Next Decade

A poor nation even by Central American standards, Nicaragua might be just another banana republic except that its powerful neighbor to the north has kept inventing other roles for it.

The most recent example was former President Reagan’s notion that U.S.-Nicaragua relations should be a highly charged political issue. Despite Reagan’s scary rhetoric, this country’s problems with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government were never that serious. But he was not the first U.S. leader to make Nicaragua sound more important than it was.

Before the Civil War, Southerners coveted Nicaragua and other Central American nations as potential slave states in an expanded United States. Later in the 19th Century, U.S. business leaders saw Nicaragua as a potential site for a transoceanic canal across the Central American isthmus. Between 1909 and 1933, U.S. Marines intervened several times to protect U.S. interests in Nicaragua during periods of instability. When the Marines departed for the last time in 1933, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, they left behind a freshly trained professional military to serve as the nation’s National Guard. They chose Anastasio Somoza Garcia to command it, but underestimated Somoza’s ambition and capacity for corruption. Within a few years, he ousted the nation’s civilian leaders and installed himself as dictator.

Perceived national security interests, first during World War II and later during the Cold War, led Washington to tolerate the Somoza dynasty until it was toppled in 1979. Many Nicaraguans have yet to forgive the United States for propping up Somoza, among them the young leaders of the Sandinista rebel movement that helped bring the last Somoza down.

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Somoza’s son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, fled Nicaragua 10 years ago this month, ending a popular uprising that had been building for years. The immediate aftermath of what Nicaraguan’s still refer to as el triunfo (the triumph) was a time of great hope in Nicaragua. Sadly, those hopes remain largely unfulfilled. And the blame for that lies not just in Washington but in Managua.

Today, even Sandinista loyalists concede serious mistakes were made in the years just after the revolution. The Sandinistas moved too fast and too hard to turn Nicaragua into the first Marxist-Leninist state on the mainland of the Americas. In the process they dismantled a reasonably sound economy and alienated many groups that had helped bring about their victory, not least among them the nation’s business class and the Roman Catholic Church. But the Sandinistas’ worst mistake was injecting their small nation into superpower politics. By soliciting aid from Castro’s Cuba and other Soviet Bloc countries, the Sandinistas convinced many in the United States that the Nicaraguan revolution, which otherwise posed no threat to this country, must be reversed. That was the policy Reagan and the rightist ideologues he brought into government pursued for eight years.

Clearly there is a need for a new U.S. policy towards Nicaragua if the next decade is to be more peaceful and productive than the last 10 years have been. The Bush Administration has taken tentative steps in the direction of more balanced relations with Nicaragua, reigning in the U.S.-supported Contra guerrillas and allowing the Central American peace process to proceed. But, despite the fact that the Soviets have said they will no longer aid the Sandinistas, Bush has taken no affirmative steps that might start healing the rift between Washington and Managua.

One small gesture Bush could make on the 10th anniversary of Somoza’s ouster would be to lift the trade embargo that Reagan imposed on Nicaragua as part of his anti-Sandinista campaign. Normalized commercial relations could make it easier for the United States to exert positive influence on the elections that Nicaragua will hold in early 1990, to assure they will be openly and honestly conducted. But open and honest elections are all the United States should expect from the balloting.

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While it is likely many will vote for opposition parties that blame the Sandinistas for squandering the hope that existed 10 years ago, others may still opt for the ruling party. If so, then the United States must not interfere. Washington’s interest is in a stable, peaceful Nicaragua, not necessarily a friendly one. But if a mature and confident United States helps contribute to peace and stability in Nicaragua, rather than the chaos the Reaganites helped cause for most of the last decade, it is not unreasonable to hope that friendly relations will follow.


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