On the road to a new Vietnam?

MARCI McDONALD November 10 1986

On the road to a new Vietnam?

MARCI McDONALD November 10 1986

On the road to a new Vietnam?


The two bombs that exploded outside U.S. Army installations in Puerto Rico last week sparked only minor headlines in the American press. But their significance may have outweighed the damage they caused. When an anonymous caller from a radical Puerto Rican liberation group known as the Machete Wielders phoned news offices to claim responsibility, he listed a fresh grievance: anger over reports that the U.S. government was considering the island as one of three possible training sites for the Nicaraguan guerrillas known as contras.

Indeed, those bombings may mark the beginning of an explosive new era in U.S. politics. This week Washington began to send the first instalment of its official $100-million military aid package to the contras under provisions of a bill—stormily approved by Congress on June 25 and signed by President Ronald Reagan late last month—that will keep the entire operation classified. U.S. officials would give no details of the weapons to be sent or the training sites to be used, but showed no reluctance about publicizing recent Soviet shipments of arms to Nicaragua in preparation for the stepped-up conflict. According to Pentagon reports, a Soviet freighter two weeks ago unloaded at least six more powerful Mi-25 helicopter gunships, doubling the Sandinista government’s inventory of the so-called “flying tanks” to about 12.

With the influx of arms to both sides, observers agreed that the Nicaraguan conflict had moved to a new phase with ominous implications for the entire hemisphere, including Canada. “We are on an irreversible path to war,” said Laurence Birns, director of the liberal Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “The question is what kind of war: is it going to be a contained conflict or a region-wide conflict?” Birns added that escalating tensions could endanger the nearly $11 million in economic aid that the Cana-

That concern was echoed in Ottawa, where the external affairs department has quietly stepped up its efforts to warn all Canadian workers in Nicaragua to take extra security precautions. The department has alerted the left-wing Sandinista government in Managua to its concerns and is currently reviewing its procedures in case of a crisis. Said a spokesman for External Affairs Minister Joe Clark: “Obviously we are worried about Canadians being caught in the cross fire.”

That possibility could have a serious impact on the efforts of at least

dian government sends annually to Nicaragua, as well as the lives of the approximately 40 Canadian volunteers who administer a range of humanitarian projects there. “It will be a miracle,” said Birns, “if some foreign nationals, including Canadians, are not killed.”

30 Canadian charitable groups—from Canadian University Services Overseas to the Anglican Church of Canada—that have projects in Nicaragua. “If Canadians were killed, there would be repercussions—absolutely, undoubtedly,” said John Graham, director general of External’s Caribbe-

an and Central American affairs bureau. “How serious they would be and in what direction they would lead would depend on what happened.” But, Graham added, “the conclusion is that the situation is likely to become more violent, and there will be more blood.”

Foreign volunteers have already been caught up in Nicaragua’s war. This year John Harder and two other Mennonites of the Peace and Justice Working Group, based in Kitchener, Ont., witnessed the aftermath of crop and school burnings by the contras on Nicaraguan territory. In July

three Western European civilians were killed near the Honduran border during a contra mortar attack. And last May, eight West German volunteers working in the village of Jacinto Baca, 260 km southwest of Managua, were held hostage by the contras for nearly a month. At the time, retired U.S. Maj.-Gen. John Singlaub, who organized a private network to circumvent

a congressional ban on U.S. government aid to the contras, declared that the Germans were “not hostages—they are prisoners of war.” Singlaub told Maclean's that any foreign citizens working in Nicaragua would be considered in the same category, including Canadians.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has been discreet in opposing U.S. sponsorship of the contras. But in a September speech in Vancouver to the InterAmerican Press Association, he declared that his government was against any “third-party intervention” in Central America. For his part, Birns predicts that as tensions increase, they could widen the split between Washington and Ottawa—and America’s European allies—over Reagan’s Central American policy. Still, that prospect does not appear to concern the U.S. state department. Said one U.S. official: “Should we not supply the contras because there are a few people from allied countries who side with the Sandinistas?”

Some analysts predict that the current $100 million in contra aid is only a down payment on the administration’s determination to overthrow the Sandinistas. Observers say that the White House will ask for a large new injection of funds by next fall to institutionalize the war effort before the end of Reagan’s second term. Said John Burstein of the liberal Washington Office on Latin America: “We are developing stronger and deeper commitments to the contras, which makes it more difficult to extricate ourselves.”

Some analysts point I out that the military lt; ineptitude the contras I have so far demonstrated makes it unlikely that they will be able to capture and hold any Nicaraguan territory within the next year. The rebels still need training on the sophisticated weaponry being shipped to them. Meanwhile, Laurence Birns predicts, the U.S. administration will increasingly use “Latin American freelancers—former Argentine terrorists and Cuban-American pilots” to fill in while the contras

are being trained. The Sandinistas agree. Nicaraguan Vice-President Sergio Ramirez last week told Maclean's, “What we expect, under the cover of the $100 million, are CIA mercenary commando raids against important economic targets before the spring.” But he appeared to discount the effectiveness of the contras themselves. “We do not expect to see any great improvement in their capability,” said Ramirez.

A debate is currently raging within the U.S. administration between those who are urging a gradual buildup in Central America and others who want an all-out military effort. Birns says that if the militarist faction wins, it could mean a series of bombings using U.S.-supplied aircraft. Among the possible targets: Nicaragua’s only oil refinery and Sandino international airport, both near the capital, Managua. Birns argues that to convince Congress of the operation’s viability—and so ensure future funding for the contras— some “highly visible victories” are needed, and quickly.

In Central America, where prospects of heightened conflict have already increased tensions, the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras—currently the main contra staging ground—have refused permission for the Americans to train rebel commanders on their soil. But last week Elliott Abrams, undersecretary of state for inter-American affairs, toured the region in an effort to negotiate a change of mind. Meanwhile, alternative contra training sites are currently being considered on U.S. soil. Besides Puerto Rico, they include the Army Special Forces’ home base at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle. But the final site chosen will never be made public, in case that would provoke protest demonstrations. Said one state department official: “If you were a commander, how would you feel about a couple of thousand religious fanatics lying outside your gates?”

Indeed, Minnesota Republican Senator David Durenberger, chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, which will oversee aid to the contras, expressed concern that the Central American conflict could divide the American people in the same way that the Vietnam War did nearly two decades ago. Within two years, he said, “you will see more Americans involving themselves on the other side.” Added Durenberger: “That is what happened in Vietnam, and regardless of what anybody says, this is Vietnam.”


— MARCI McDONALD in Washington with PAUL GOEPFERT in Managua