Calm on the killing fields

BOB LEVIN April 11 1988

Calm on the killing fields

BOB LEVIN April 11 1988

Calm on the killing fields


Outside Managua’s Zona Franca prison, Julio Cesar Cortés embraced his young wife and elderly mother—and wept openly. Jailed for three years for “counterrevolutionary activities,” the 30-yearold Cortés was one of 100 prisoners freed last week under a historic ceasefire accord between Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and the U.S.-supported contra rebels. “I want to go back to my land and be with my family,” said Cortés, a former contra. “I am thankful for my release and I want to work with the government to push the peace process forward.”

The next day, 140 km away in the southern border post of Sapoá,

Sandinista and contra negotiators continued that process around plain wooden tables.

Inside sources painted an almost comic picture of the two sides’ officers —armed only with pens and pencils— attacking a map of Nicaragua, crossing out each other’s boundaries and drawing new ones.

But after two days of talks they managed to agree on five of seven ceasefire zones, a vital step in the fragile pact aimed at ending the nation’s bloody six-year civil war.

The Sapoá accord, signed on March 23 amid widespread surprise, officially took effect on April 1. It commits the two sides—while negotiating toward a more permanent peace—to a 60-day ceasefire. During that period the Sandinistas have promised sweeping liberalization, including a release of half of the remaining political prisoners, estimated at 3,200. The contras are to withdraw to the designated ceasefire zones by April 15 and accept only humanitarian aid. In Washington, the

Reagan administration —although demonstrably cool to the Sapoá pactused it to secure congressional approval last week of just such a contra-aid package: $58 million in nonmilitary assistance over the next six months. But the White House also began a staged withdrawal of the

3,200-man force it had sent to Honduras on March 17 in a sabre-rattling display against the neighboring Sandinistas.

As war-weary Nicaraguans waited hopefully, the contras and Sandinistas returned to windswept Sapoá on March 28 to hammer out details of the temporary truce. Some contra leaders were clearly having second thoughts. According to sources close to their delegation, contra military commanders had expressed concern that rapidprogress in the negotiations could undermine Jfb the morale of their jp troops, sparking dis■ÏÏ cipline problems and

even outright desertions. And at a news conference, commander Diogenes Hernandez—known as Commandante Fernando—thundered that the rebels “will not lay down their arms until Nicaragua has become truly democratic.”

In addition, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the United States of pressuring the contras to employ delaying tactics, such as arriving late to the talks. “The contra delegation should not let itself be

carried away by President Reagan’s policies,” Ortega said. But contra leaders denied that Washington was influencing them. “The White House has its interests, and we have ours,” said Aristides Sanchez, head of the rebel delegation. “These are extremely delicate negotiations. We have to ensure the physical and moral wellbeing of our fighting men.” Eventually, the two sides agreed on the size and location of five of the ceasefire zones. They reflect the contras’ traditional areas of operation: remote mountains and jungle in the north, centre and southeast of the country, totalling about 7,000 square miles. Three of the zones border Honduras—where the rebels maintain bases—and no major towns are included. “It would have been absurd,” said one source close to the talks, “to concede to the contras at the negotiating table what they have failed to

win on the battlefield.” Under terms of the accord, the zones are to be occupied by the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 contras now operating inside Nicaragua; any rebels failing to comply would be subject to arrest as renegades. The negotiators agreed to resume talks on April 5 to define the remaining two ceasefire zones and to determine how nonmilitary aid would be delivered to contra forces within those areas.

In Washington, the contra-aid decision was reached after months of contentious debate. Rebuffed in his recent attempts to win new military assistance to the contras, Reagan last week insisted on a provision—attached to a humanitarian aid package—that would automatically send weapons should the peace talks collapse. Congressional Democrats rejected that motion. But in a closely fought compromise, House Speaker Jim Wright agreed to sign a letter to Reagan promising that, if the Sandinistas broke the ceasefire, he would not block efforts to pass emergency contra military aid. With that issue ironed out, congressional leaders agreed on the $58-million package of humanitarian assistance: $23 million for food and clothing, $23 million for Nicaraguan children wounded or left homeless in the fighting and $12 million for an international commission overseeing the ceasefire. Both the House and the Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly before the Easter recess. In Nicaragua itself, where lowlevel warfare has become a way of life, the apparent potential for peace has not eliminated skepticism. “The interests of a big power—the United States—are at stake,” said Marta Saavedra, a 22-year-old psychology student at Managua’s University of Central America. “And I can’t see them abandoning their policy and accepting our revolution.” Others lay the burden for a settlement on the Nicaraguan government. “It’s up to the Sandinistas,” said Alfredo Leiva, a 44-year-old Managua truck driver. “If they had kept their promises before, there would never have been a war.”

Still others point out that even a cessation of fighting, however welcome, will not end the problems of a country painfully divided and economically strapped. “Peace is not just the end of war,” cautioned Archbishop Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo in a sermon last week. “Peace is social harmony and prosperity.” For troubled Nicaragua—even in its hour of hope—true peace remained a long way off.