JOHN BIERMAN November 13 1989


JOHN BIERMAN November 13 1989




Despite numerous violations, the shaky ceasefire between Nicaragua’s contra rebels and its Sandinista government had held for 19 months. The contras were due to be disbanded next month as part of an overall peace plan, and in Washington legislators on both sides of the controversy over U.S. sponsorship of the rebels had reason to view the divisive issue as safely behind them. As well, the war-weary Nicaraguan people were clearly hoping that next February’s elections—rather than armed conflict—would determine the future of their country. But in recent weeks, the contras increased their infiltration of northern Nicaragua from bases in southern Honduras and stepped up their armed attacks against military and civilian targets. And last week, the Sandinistas struck back massively. As full-scale war broke out all over again, with government tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships pounding the rebels in nine northern and central provinces, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said, “Yes, it’s a big offensive—but a big offensive for peace.” And Sandinista battlefield commander Maj. Daniel Pozo declared: “We will hunt them, fight them and annihilate them.”

Still, the Marxist government in Managua paid a heavy political and diplomatic price for its decision. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for masterminding the Central American peace plan, joined a chorus of international criticism. In Washington, both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the termination of the ceasefire, the Senate unanimously, and the House of Representatives by 379 votes to 29. And President George Bush warned of a possible renewal of U.S. military assistance to the contras, who currently receive only non-lethal aid from Washington. “It is not clear how far Ortega intends to take his military and intimidation campaign,” said Bush last week. “Ac-

cordingly, we must and we will keep our options open.”

In the midst of the uproar over the renewed Sandinista offensive, a private organization normally critical of U.S. policy in Central America issued a report accusing the Nicaraguan government of human rights abuses. The New York City-based Americas Watch group blamed the Sandinistas for the deaths of 74 contra sympathizers and the disappearance of 14 others between 1987 and early 1989.

More recently, however, the Sandinistas have acted to halt the pattern of abuse, said Americas Watch. And, the group added, the U.S. state department’s claim that the Sandinistas were holding between 5,000 and 7,000

political prisoners was “patently false.”

Exactly why Ortega and his nine-man National Directorate decided to end their ceasefire remained uncertain. The contras, who had never formally declared a truce of their own, plainly provoked the Sandinistas by conducting sporadic operations against civilian and military targets. But many observers said that those operations appeared to be at a tolerable level. They calculated that the Sandinistas would consider the military advantages of resuming full-scale warfare to be outweighed by the diplomatic and political drawbacks.

The first indication that Managua would, in fact, rescind its month-to-month ceasefire came in a speech by Ortega that rocked the Oct. 27 to 28 hemispheric summit meeting in San José, Costa Rica. So negative was the response that for some days it seemed that Ortega might backtrack. Ending the ceasefire, critics argued, would put the entire Central American peace process, culminating in next February’s elections, at grave risk. But last Wednesday, after a reportedly stormy meeting of his National Directorate, Ortega made the decision final. Claiming that the contras had used the ceasefire as a screen behind which to carry out their attacks—killing 44 people in the previous 10 days—Ortega said that the 122,000-strong Sandinista armed forces would now use “all the force necessary” to strike at the rebels.

Western diplomats in Managua said that the decision to renew all-out warfare was a sign of the growing influence of the military. And sources close to the Sandinista National Liberation Front confirmed that, in closed sessions, Ortega had come under strong pressure from military commanders and his brother Humberto, the defence minister, to make good his threat to call off the ceasefire. But Ortega was clearly concerned about public relations implications. In numerous statements, and in a signed article in The New York Times last Thursday, he insisted that the elections would go ahead as scheduled, claiming that the Nicaraguan people would give the Sandinistas “a landslide victory.” Still, he appeared to hold out an olive branch to Bush. He allowed that the President “may mean well ” and added that Bush could demonstrate his good intentions by suspending the $57-million program of nonlethal aid—for food, clothing and medical supplies—to the contras and supporting their prompt demobilization, as called for under the Arias peace plan.

Inside observers said that there was little likelihood of Bush doing either. But the Sandinista action had clearly plunged him into a policy dilemma. If he failed to take strong action, such as renewing military assistance to

the contras, which Congress had ended in February, 1988, he would be open to accusations of weakness and indecision. But if he did move decisively, he might provoke a bruising battle with Congress and provide the Sandinistas with an excuse to cancel the elections.

It was during the month-long voter registration campaign, in preparation for those elections, that the contras stepped up their activities in northern and central Nicaragua. Accounts of the number and severity of such incidents vary. Witness for Peace, a U.S.based church group critical of administration policy, claimed last week to have documented 51 attacks against civilians during the registration period. The group said that the contras killed, wounded or kidnapped 49 people during October. And the similarly oriented Canadian Committee for Peace and Democracy in Nicaragua likewise identified contra attacks—and U.S. financial support for the Nicaraguan political opposition—as major obstacles to free and fair elections.

The Canadian group was also highly critical of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s failure to take the U.S. administration to task during the October hemispheric summit, where Mulroney announced that Canada was joining the Organization of American States (OAS). Said

committee spokesman Meyer Brown stone: “Going into the OAS and the Costa Rica summit, Canada offered to play the role of peacemaker. Yet when a concrete situation arose to take the initiative, we did not do so.” Even U.S. officials conceded that there was heavy contra infiltration of northern Nicaragua during October.

State department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said last Thursday that, in addition to the estimated 3,500 contras already inside the country, another 2,000 had crossed over from Honduras. But he insisted that the contras were only armed with light weapons and had infiltrated only in small groups—not to fight, but to encourage their supporters to register for the vote.

Some independent observers said that the contras’ intentions were not nearly so innocent. Claiming that 750 Nicaraguans had died in contra attacks in the past 19 months, Laurence Birns, director of the Washingtonbased Council on Hemispheric Affairs, told Maclean’s “The ceasefire has recently had no reality. Maybe the contras just want to remind the world that they still exist and that the United States doesn’t entirely control them. Or perhaps they are sending a message that, if the Sandinistas are elected, [the contras] will not just disappear, but will continue to fight.” During the registration campaign, the contras openly urged people to vote for the United

National Opposition (UNO), a 14-party coalition which is largely funded by the United States. Administration officials have suggested that the Sandinistas want an excuse to cancel the elections because they fear a UNO victory.

Estimates vary on the extent of U.S. financial aid to UNO. Congress has voted $10.5 million towards the electoral process, of which about $2.3 million would go to UNO and the rest to an independent electoral commission to defray overall election costs. But intelligence sources have reportedly said that the Central Intelligence Agency is covertly sending another $5.9 million to the opposition. Still, the UNO

offices in Managua show little evidence of financing on that scale. “Take a look around,” a party worker told a Maclean ’s correspondent who visited the sparsely furnished offices last week. “Does this look like millions of dollars to you?” In fact, UNO officials seemed vague about the source of their finances. In a recent interview, UNO campaign manager Antonio Lecayo said that he did not know exactly where the funds came from. “We collect it from the local people to pay for things like transport,” he said. But another UNO organizer, who did not wish to be identified, conceded that “taking money from the gringos could hurt us—it is a bit of a propaganda gift to the Sandinistas.”

Still, UNO’s presidential candidate, Violeta Chamorro, obviously believes that receiving “gringo money” is a 2 risk worth taking. And La s Prensa, the newspaper that G she owns, showed no sign last ^ week of being intimidated by I the Sandinista’s warlike response to the contras. An editorial even suggested that the government had itself staged the attacks on civilians as a pretext for ending the ceasefire. That comment demonstrated the latitude allowed to the media in Marxist Nicaragua—and the depths to which the election campaign is likely to sink.