New steps to Central American peace

MARK NICHOLS August 17 1987

New steps to Central American peace

MARK NICHOLS August 17 1987

New steps to Central American peace


The president of Guatemala said that he feared a “trap,” while Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra was clearly skeptical of President Ronald Reagan’s proposals last week for ending the fighting in Nicaragua. Announced just as the leaders of five Central American nations prepared for peace talks of their own in Guatemala City, Reagan’s plan gave rise to suspicion among his opponents both in Latin America and at home. They speculated that the U.S. proposals were designed to prompt rejection by Nicaragua and thereby strengthen political support in Washington for the U.S.-backed contra rebels. If the Reagan plan was indeed a carefully crafted ploy, it backfired badly. Apparently pressured into action by the U.S. plan, the Central American leaders concluded two days of talks by agreeing on their own plan designed to bring about a ceasefire in the war-torn region within 90 days.

The 10-point agreement was worked out by the presidents of Costa Rica,

El Salvador, Guatemala,

Honduras and Nicaragua during a session that ended at 4 a.m. on Aug. 7 in Guatemala City’s luxurious Camino Real hotel. It appeared to offer the brightest hope for peace in the region since the pro-Marxist Sandinista movement toppled the right-wing Nicaraguan dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The agreement was a remarkable political achievement, involving concessions by Nicaragua, which agreed for the first time to implement democratic political reforms. As well, the summit participants had to set aside mutual suspicions over long-standing charges by Nicaragua that Honduras and Costa Rica were providing bases for contra rebels, while Nicaragua stood accused of backing leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala. Now the Guatemala City accord could lead to a negotiated ceasefire in the bloody six-year-old conflict between the Sandinistas and the contras—and end fighting elsewhere in the region as well.

What was equally remarkable was that the dramatic breakthrough in

Guatemala City might not have occurred without the stimulus provided by the U.S. proposals. The surprise American plan—announced on Aug. 5—called for a ceasefire in Nicaragua, the suspension of outside aid to both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war, internal political reform and a timetable for elections in that country to be agreed on by Sept. 30. Initially rejected by Nicaragua, the U.S. plan had a galvanic effect on the Central American leaders. According to sources close to several of the delegations, the presi-

dents resented Washington’s apparent attempt to undermine their deliberations by putting forward its own proposals. They also realized that unless some of Washington’s demands were met, Congress would almost certainly vote increased funding for the contras.

In fact, the 14-page accord worked out in Guatemala City contained many of the same measures called for by Reagan. Under the accord, the foreign ministers of the five signatory nations will meet later this month to work out the terms of a ceasefire to take effect in the region within 90 days. The accord also called for an end to outside aid for rebel groups in the areas—including U.S. support for the contras and Nicaraguan and Soviet-bloc aid for Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrillas. And it proposed an amnesty for rebels, democratic reforms and elec-

tions overseen by outside observers.

Still, the Guatemala City accord differed from Reagan’s in several key areas that were certain to displease the White House. While the Reagan administration plan called for democratic elections in Nicaragua in the near future, the Guatemala City plan would allow Ortega and his government to finish their term of office, thus allowing the Sandinistas to stay in power until at least 1990. As well, the accord—unlike the Reagan proposals— contained no provision for ending Sovi-

et or Cuban arms shipments to Nicaragua, or of U.S. arms to its allies in the region.

Despite that, initial reaction in Washington suggested that congressional leaders would likely turn down any proposed new aid for the contras— providing that Ortega’s governmment lived up to the terms of the accord. American response to the accord, predicted House of Representatives Speaker Jim Wright, “has to be affirmative” (page 20).

At the same time, the task of translating the Guatemala City peace scenario into reality will require a strength of purpose that has often been notably lacking in Central American affairs. Under a provision in the peace plan that forbids signatories from allowing their territory to be used for attacks on neighboring coun-

tries, Honduras will be required to evict some 12,000 contra rebels from their bases on its territory. Honduras will also be required to deny the use of its territory to U.S. forces, which have been conducting large-scale exercises there since 1983.

The prospect of peace in the region owed much to an apparently sudden and unexpected shift in Nicaraguan

policy. Under the terms of the Guatemala City accord, Managua will have to meet Washington’s demands for a more democratic style of government. To do that, the Sandinistas will have to lift the intermittent five-year-old state of emergency, which limits freedom of assembly and some other political rights, and permit opposition political parties to operate freely. As

well, Washington would expect the Sandinistas to allow resumed publication of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, which was shut down by government order a year ago.

Although the ultimate success of the peace plan devised in Guatemala City remained uncertain, it was bound to complicate the Reagan administration strategy of seeking the removal of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. At the same time, the Guatemala City proposals set the stage for difficult negotiations between governments in the region and the guerrillas they have been fighting. Political observers suggested that El Salvador’s President José Napoleón Duarte—a staunch ally of the United States—risked being ousted by his country’s military establishment if he entered into serious negotiations with the leftist rebels. At the same time, Ortega’s regime will have to negotiate with representatives of its deadly enemy, the contras. Asked if he thought that the Sandinistas would carry out promised reforms, contra leader Adolfo Calero replied, “I have hopes that they will, and I have doubts that they will”—an outlook that did not bode well for the tense times that lie ahead.