At least former President Reagan is too ill to feel the pain. If Daniel Ortega and his colleagues from the revolutionary Sandinista movement are swept back into power in Sunday's general election in Nicaragua, it won't be Reagan's feathers he ruffles.
Still, there are enough old Central American warriors in the Bush administration--Elliott Abrams, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for example--that there could be pressure for the U.S. to send in the CIA to head off an apparently unfriendly government. How will they put it? Perhaps as Reagan did: "If we ignore the malignancy of Nicaragua, it will spread and become a mortal threat to the entire New World." Or again, "The Sandinistas are just two days' drive from Harlingen, Texas."
Rhetoric like this cost Central America--there also were left/right civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras--thousands of lives and left villages and towns decimated. They were unnecessary wars and the U.S. had no business supporting a small, unyielding land-owning class against a small minority of the underdogs who dared to use violence against them. The history books have revealed what many of us suspected at the time, that the reports of Soviet or Cuban support for the rebellions were misleading or exaggerated. In Guatemala, a U.N. commission found that only 3% of the deaths were caused by the rebels and 97% by government forces.
The way for Washington to look at Nicaragua is for its potential, if given the right kind of help. Now years of neglect combined with drastically falling coffee prices and a vicious drought have reduced many to penury, unable even to feed their families--all this, as Reagan said, only two days' drive from Texas.
Central America has known better times. In the 20 years following World War II, export-led economies expanded at a handsome 6% a year. War and the collapse of commodity prices have sabotaged this growth. The old development pattern was marred by fatal distortions. The benefits of growth were assumed by a small elite. The agricultural boom in the 1960s and '70s caused the increase in landlessness that has been a major contributor to social unrest and civil wars. Except in Costa Rica and Panama, government policies were almost feudal.
To get the economies going again means, first, emergency help. The food aid Nicaragua receives today is paltry, although more is in the pipeline. Revolving funds and communal banks should be set up to finance crops. Also urgently needed are clinics capable of mounting mass inoculation campaigns and oral rehydration programs to eliminate the biggest killer among children, diarrhea.
Add to this emergency water supplies, latrine construction, temporary housing and school repairs. Does Washington have the inspiration, energy and money for that or just for the clandestine services that can only dig Nicaragua's hellhole even deeper?
Reaching those in immediate need is only a first step. Beyond that is the job of restoring economic growth--and that does not mean aid but applying free-market principles that Washington lectures the world about: removing the protectionism that hurts the Nicaraguan textile, shoe, vegetable and flower industries. For Nicaragua, it means investing in land reform, increasing popular education and diversifying exports.
All this was said in a report of a commission chaired by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger more than a decade ago. No one took real notice. By the time the Sandinistas had given up the bullet in favor of the ballot, the U.S. had lost interest.
But what goes around can come around. Does Bush want conflict on his Latin American flank? Or can he let the vote in Nicaragua go whichever way its people want and give the country the help it deserves?