The gathering clouds of war

Val Ross August 1 1983

The gathering clouds of war

Val Ross August 1 1983

The gathering clouds of war


Val Ross

For the troubled nations of Central America, and for Washington, the week foreshadowed a showdown. Shooting broke out between patrol boats of U.S.-backed Honduras and leftist Nicaragua. Two U.S. frigates churned into waters off Nicaragua’s Pacific coast in a mute but eloquent threat of a potential U.S. blockade. Even the Israelis entered the fray, agreeing to ship arms captured from the PLO to anti-Sandinista counterrevolutionaries (contras) waging a bush war on Nicaragua from the Honduran border.

The only sign of hope was the emergence of three separate but similar peace proposals—one from Washington’s allies in Central America—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica; a second from the so-called Contadora group of neighboring Latin countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama), and the third from the Nicaraguan junta itself. But the jury was still out on whether or not another development would prove productive. The White House established a bipartisan commission under former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger to review Washington’s Central American

policies, but there was widespread skepticism over both the commission’s leadership and its real chance of success (page 16).

As the tensions rose, it was hardly surprising that the Contadora group described its own peacemaking proposals as “a last-ditch effort.” But while President Ronald Reagan’s administration professed to welcome the group’s call for the demilitarization of Central America—a demand echoed in the other two peace plans—the White House simultaneously dispatched an eight-warship task force to Nicaragua’s Pacific coast and announced plans for massive war games on its Caribbean flank next month. In a classified document “leaked” to the U.S. press, Reagan’s National Security Council (NSC) also warned that, unless the administration won its bid for a 40-per-cent increase in military aid to the volatile region, U.S. troops might be sent there.

Speaking last week to a Hollywood, Fla., audience of longshoremen, Reagan defended his campaign against the Sandinistas by linking them to the Salvadoran guerrillas and labelling both conflicts “the first real Communist aggression on the American mainland.” Nicaragua’s peace plan, proferred during celebrations marking the fourth an-

niversary of the ousting of U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, did not cause Reagan to modify his dim view of the Managua government. Despite its similarity to the Contadora proposals— Managua also called for regional demilitarization and the withdrawal of foreign advisers, arms and bases in the region—Reagan said that “it would be extremely difficult” for the United States to reach any negotiated settlement with Nicaragua’s present government.

By contrast, the Contadora group’s demilitarization proposal appeared to gain support from a surprising cross section of leaders: Daniel Ortega, coordinator of the ruling Sandinista junta; Cuban Vice-President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez; UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar and even, belatedly, the U.S. state department. Washington delayed its reaction for two days as a signal of its displeasure with the group’s analysis. The Contadora group had identified escalating U.S. military involvement as the largest threat to what remains of the region’s stability. The group also called on French President François Mitterrand, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau for support. All three countries have dissented from Washington’s hard-line views, and a 16member French delegation last week arrived in Managua for talks on increased economic and technical co-operation. The Contadora group’s intervention was also credited for a surprising reversal of policy by Nicaragua. Ortega announced that Managua would bow to Washington’s demand and take part in multilateral peace talks with its neighbors. The White House said that the move was “promising” although it still contained “serious shortcomings.” It did not deal with Nicaragua’s military buildup, the administration said, recommending that the proposal be referred along with the other peace plans to a forthcoming meeting of nine Latin American nations.

The White House’s cautious approbation reflected Washington’s hawkish image problem at home. For more than two years Congress has sought to limit U.S. involvement in Central America, while the White House has asked for ever-increasing amounts of economic and military aid. Last week, for only the fourth time in 153 years, the House of Representatives met in secret session to con-

sider intelligence documents relating to a bill to cut off covert CIA aid to antiSandinista forces by Sept. 30. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Edward Boland of Massachusetts and Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin, would provide $80 million for an overt program to help Nicaragua’s neighbors prevent it from supplying arms to El Salvador’s left-wing guerrillas.The Reagan administration has been lobbying hard for its concept of “symmetry”— that is, Washington proposed to terminate covert support of the contras if Nicaragua abandoned its alleged arms pipeline from Cuba to El Salvador. But

even after last week’s intelligence briefings many congressmen remained unconvinced that the pipeline existed. Instead, they suspected, the administration’s two-year-old covert action program is aimed at overthrowing the Sandinista government. Under the 1982 Boland amendment, that would represent an illegal use of funds.

Opponents of the covert action program noted that the contras themselves— Reagan refers to them as “freedom fighters”—have openly professed their intention to oust the Sandinistas. They also dismiss suggestions that Managua is supplying arms to El Salvador’s guerrillas. Senator David Durenberger (R-Minn.), who claimed that the covert action program has so far failed to turn up a single smuggled weapon, said: “They can’t show you what they are interdicting because the Nicaraguans are not shipping anything.”

At the same time, however, Congress has been alarmed by reports of the contras’ growing strength. From a 500man operation at the beginning of the Reagan administration, the covert operation in Honduras’ mountainous jungle overlooking Nicaragua has reportedly mustered 12,000 CIAtrained and equipped troops. Most are recruits from former dictator Gen. Somoza’s National Guard. Intelligence sources say the CIA plans to boost the contras’ strength to 15,000 and a major new thrust is expected this month. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who has just returned from the region, predicts “a big war.”

The administration’s military aid proposals for El Salvador are also meeting congressional opposition. A joint House and Senate budget committee agreed last week to limit additional military aid to El Salvador this year to $25 million, less than half the $60 million that the Reagan administration requested. Opponents of the president’s request said that the amount approved was sufficient to keep the San Salvador regime alive and to avoid administration charges that Central America is being handed to the Communists.

The White House is expected to increase its demands in the future, as the leaked NSC report indicated. But Congress will continue to tie approval of any aid request to improvements in the San Salvador regime’s lethargic military performance and poor human rights record. Political violence, in fact, is again on the increase. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, 1,054 civilians were murdered by government security forces in the first half of 1983, compared to 961 in the last half of 1982. Secretary of State George Shultz observed last week, in seeking congressional recertification for El Salvador under the military aid program, that the country’s human rights record “falls short of the broad and sustained progress” expected. But the Reagan administration claims that the increase in violence is too small to justify withholding funds. Washington also notes that there has been progress on land reform and an amnesty program that so far has released some 500 political prisoners.

But Congress is most concerned by the prospect that U.S. troops may be drawn directly into the Central American fighting—a fear which the new bipartisan commission on Central American policy may not be able to quell. As Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) put it, “Not only are we hearing the echoes of Vietnam, we are seeing the ghosts return to the scene—with Kissinger, the

architect of the secret bombing of Cambodia, leading the way.”

The unease about a possible drift of U.S. policy toward direct involvement is shared even by elements of the U.S. defence establishment. Last month Gen. Edward Meyer, the army’s retiring chief of staff, publicly opposed sending U.S. troops to Central America. “It would be wrong,” he told reporters, “to have soldiers at the end of the string without the support of the American people.”

The Pentagon lends credence to mili-

tary doubts about the White House policies. In a report last month the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. military aid is having a negligible impact in El Salvador. The report described the Salvadoran Army as demoralized by heavy losses. Only 15 per cent of the U.S.trained soldiers re-enlist after their two-year term of duty. The report also cited an open letter circulating in Salvadoran army barracks that criticized the conduct of the civil war. It is the third such letter in nine months to call for negotiations with the rebels and to oppose Washington’s increasing role in El Salvador. The letter was signed by The Blue and White Movement (the col-

ors of the Salvadoran flag). It is apparently the work of nationalist junior officers, like those who launched the 1979 coup that toppled the government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero.

Despite the Pentagon’s misgivings, 5,000 U.S. troops next month will participate in regional military exercises in and around Honduras. The war games will be twice as big as last summer’s Operation Big Pine, which included flights by U.S. helicopters carrying Honduran troops close to the volatile Nicaraguan border. Tomas Borge, the burly military leader of the Sandinist junta, claims that seven battalions of the Honduran army and a battalion of U.S. forces have already taken up positions alongside about 7,000 contra troops. The Nicaraguan army command last week dispatched a further 7,000 men to the Honduran frontier to meet what Nicaraguan officials said was the threat of a new invasion by contras. The reinforcements brought the total Nicaraguan forces in the area to more than 10,000.

Lacking popular support, the contras pose no real threat to the survival of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas—a lightning raid into the central Nicaraguan province of Matagalpa last week was the first major engagement in a month. But there is a very real danger that in opposing such incursions, Nicaraguan troops could unwittingly be drawn into combat with Honduran or even U.S. forces. With 10 battalions of Sandinista reservists heading into the region and the country’s 45,000-strong militia on alert, the risk increases each day.

For Nicaragua, a country with a population of 2.8 million, the toll of the CIA-backed border incursions has been grim. While Managua claims that 1,386 contras have been killed, it admits that 600 Nicaraguans have also died so far this year, including 250 soldiers. Moreover, the fighting has caused more than $200 million worth of damage to the struggling agricultural nation’s infrastructure. Nicaragua is still repairing the ravages of last winter’s drought and the floods that followed. In addition, last May Washington slashed imports of Nicaraguan sugar, the country’s thirdlargest export, from 58,000 to 6,000 tons. It also vetoed Nicaragua’s application for a $2.2-million loan from the InterAmerican Development Bank. Managua’s economy has shrunk 4.7 per cent and its foreign debt has tripled since the 1979 revolution. Staples are rationed, and doctors routinely write out prescriptions for half a dozen similar drugs in the hope that one may be found on ill-stocked pharmacy shelves.

Last week Reagan said that he assumed the military and economic squeeze on the Sandinista government caused Managua’s startling shift on regional peace negotiations. But critics of Reagan’s policies pointed out that the Sandinistas had been moving for some time to meet criticism where they felt vulnerable. For example, an electoral commission has been laboring for months to prepare for national elections that were first promised for 1982.

At his press conferences last week, Reagan accused Nicaragua of breaking original promises on providing “all the freedoms that we enjoy in this country.” However, that charge was rebutted later by the Organization of American States, to whom Reagan alleged the promises had been given. At the same time, the prospect of elections has receded in U.S.-backed El Salvador. Last week the government announced that the new constitution would be promulgated on Sept. 15—six months later than scheduled—making it almost impossible to hold elections in December as planned. From the ultra-right wing, Maj. Roberto d’Aubuisson said that the delay was a victory, because in El Salvador’s swiftly polarizing political situation time runs against d’Aubuisson’s chief foes, the centrist Christian Democrats. On the military front in the country’s four-year-old civil war, government troops have reoccupied most of the provinces of San Vicente and Morázan in the past month. That success has been tempered by the knowledge that the guerrillas usually melt away before an army assault, only to reappear later. And at week’s end they did just that, blowing up power lines and blacking out large areas of the country. As retiring U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton declared before leaving San Salvador last week: “Right now the army has it all its way, and that is damn good. But four months ago the guerrillas had it all their way. It’s all momentum—and momentum is a problem.”

This week, as Congress considers the appropriation vote, the question of who has the momentum in the policy debate will be answered. If the proponents of covert action manage another victory in face of the mounting criticism, the recent difficult weeks may merely be, in the words of Sandinista leader Borge, “the calm before the storm.”

Paul Ellman

William Orme

Michael Posner

With Paul Ellman in San Salvador, William Orme in Mexico City and Michael Posner in