Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega could not have chosen a worse time and place to announce that his government will not renew a cease-fire with the Contra rebels. The Contras have violated the accord recently, killing many people. But by making his announcement at a Costa Rican summit meeting, Ortega put the onus for renewed fighting squarely on himself.
Ever since they helped overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, the Sandinistas have shown a knack for tactless diplomacy stemming mostly from political immaturity. But with 10 years experience in power, Ortega should know better.
Ortega's announcement coincided with the biggest gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders in 22 years--a meeting of 14 democratically elected presidents and prime ministers, including President Bush, to celebrate 100 years of Costa Rican democracy. With no army and a long tradition of elected civilian governments, Costa Rica is often cited by the Sandinistas' critics as a model of everything its neighbor Nicaragua should be but isn't. The meeting was organized by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has done more than anyone to promote peace in Central America. Finally, it was an opportunity for both Ortega and Arias to share the stage with Bush, who has resisted their pleas to redirect U.S. financial aid for the Contras, but who at least has been less rigid towards Nicaragua than his predecessor. The setting was ideal for the sort of dialogue that Arias used to get the peace process going. It was an opportunity to move the United States and Nicaragua closer together, as geography dictates they must be. So Ortega blew the chances of both.
Perhaps he thought the high profile of the summit would allow him to publicize recent Contra attacks in the international media, shaming Bush into reducing aid to the rebels. Or perhaps Ortega acted for domestic political reasons. There is growing anger among Sandinista loyalists over the renewed Contra war and Ortega, who is up for reelection next February, may have just wanted to look tough and resolute. No matter what his reasons, the stunned reaction of his fellow presidents should have made it immediately clear that he had committed a gross error.
The only way for Ortega to rectify matters now is to renew the cease-fire, no matter how painful that may be at home. Given the attention his faux pas in Costa Rica generated, the world will pay even closer attention to Nicaragua between now and next year's voting. And that will mean the Contras, and their U.S. sponsors, will also face international opprobrium if the bloodshed in Nicaragua goes on any longer.