The visit of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to the United States was bound to be a controversial event. On his last trip to Washington, in 1979, shortly after a leftist revolution overthrew Nicaraguan dictator Anastazio Somoza Debayle, the Sandinista leader received a warm welcome and offers of aid from then-president Jimmy Carter. But last week, amid the blustery winds of a snowstorm in the nation’s capital, Ortega got a cooler reception from the Reagan administration. With his country under siege by U.S.backed contra rebels, and its economy devastated by a U.S. trade embargo, Ortega came to Washington to talk peace.
Travelling to the capital principally to address the annual meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), Ortega had hoped for talks with high-ranking administration officials. But Reagan refused to meet him, and that forced Ortega to turn his attentions to other forums. In private talks with influential U.S. Speaker of the House James Wright and other congressmen, Ortega attempted to demonstrate that peace efforts in Central America were threatened by the United States, not Nicaragua. The Sandinista leader detailed the steps he had already taken to comply with a regional peace accord-signed on Aug. 7 by five Central American presidents—and un-
veiled a new proposal for a ceasefire. Said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a left-wing Washington think-tank: “This entire theatre is being played in front of the 40 to 50 members of Congress who are swing votes on contra aid. We are witnessing congressional government on this issue.”
Ortega began his three-day visit on Wednesday, Nov. 11, with his speech to the OAS. There, he combined a sharp attack on the United States with a renewed offer to negotiate directly with the Reagan administration to end Nicaragua’s six-year war with contra rebels. Later, the Sandinista leader held private talks with Wright that apparently set the stage for a dramatic proposal on Friday. At the Embassy of the Holy See—the Vatican’s mission in Washington— Ortega, accompanied by the Texas Democrat, presented visiting Nicaraguan mediator Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo with an 11-point proposal. Its most significant elements: a month-long ceasefire beginning on Dec. 5 that would have the contra rebels surrender their weapons in return for a political amnesty program.
Ortega left his two-hour session with Obando claiming that his proposal would greatly advance the Central America peace plan. But Wright was more cautious. Said the congressman: “Peace is not yet at hand, but movement continues in that di-
rection.” That caution was well-advised. The White House said that Wright could undermine peace efforts with his “personal negotiations.” And in Miami, where the cardinal briefed the rebels, contra leaders said that the proposal “sidesteps” the real issues and began work on a counterproposal.
Ortega failed in his attempts to draw the Reagan administration into the peace talks. In a speech to OAS ministers on Monday, Nov. 9, Reagan said that he was prepared to open talks
with Nicaragua — along with other Central American governments—provided that serious negotiations between the Sandinistas and the contras were well under way.
However, both state department and White House officials throughout the week downplayed any suggestion that U.S. participation would come about in the near future—and they criticized Wright for his personal involvement. The Reagan administration argues that U.S. participation in peace talks would only reinforce Ortega’s charges that the contras are little more than puppets controlled by
Many congressmen say that they have become disillusioned with the contras’ lack of military and political success, despite nearly $400 million in U.S. military and other aid. However, in the past they have been reluctant to reject the administration’s funding requests for fear of being labelled soft on communism.
Now, according to Birns and other Latin American observers, Ortega is attempting to win congressional support by offering a continuing series of concessions tied to the peace plan. The next big test of that effort will come in January, when the White House is expected to seek another $350 million in military aid for the contras. But unless Nicaragua’s halting steps toward peace take a dramatic turn for the worse before then, the White House may be disappointed by the vote. Said Birns: “The administration is being sucked unwillingly into the peace process by the momentum of events. The piece of ice they are standing on is melting by the minute as the peace process heats up.”
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