HILARY MACKENZIE November 6 1989


HILARY MACKENZIE November 6 1989



It was supposed to be a celebration of 100 years of democracy in the tiny, tropical republic of Costa Rica. Sixteen heads of government descended on San José, the Costa Rican capital, for the hemispheric summit, and the agenda included discussions of debt, development and drug trafficking. It was also supposed to be Brian Mulroney's hour in the southern sun. With no major news develop ments expected from the two-day meeting on Oct. 27 and 28, the Canadian Prime Minister plainly anticipated maximum exposure for his expected announcement that Canada was re versing a 79-year-old policy and joining the Organization of American States (0As). But while delegates roundly applauded Mulroney's move, he was quickly overshadowed by the only leader to come dressed not in a business suit, but in military garb. Speaking to a student meeting in San José, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega abruptly announced that he was cancelling the 19-month-old ceasefire between his Sandinista army and the U.S.-backed contra

rebels. “We have to find a way to protect the lives of Nicaraguans,” said Ortega. “This means the ceasefire has to end The Ortega bombshell shattered the summit’s peaceful atmosphere and threatened to derail Nicaragua’s presidential elections, scheduled for Feb. 25.

Wearing army olive drab with a red bandana tied around his neck,

Ortega said that the Sandinistas would launch an anti-contra offensive on Nov. 1. That would end a ceasefire that began on April 1,1988, and resume a war that has killed some 25,000 people since 1981. Ortega blamed the change in policy on a recent “terrorist offensive” by contra forces that he claimed had killed

not only Sandinista soldiers, but peasants registering to vote. “With this ceasefire,” he said, “we have tied our hands.”

Ortega insisted that the election—essentially a contest between him and the main opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro—would go ahead. U.S. officials claimed that the Nicara-


guans might use renewed fighting as a pretext to cancel the vote. And at a news conference the following day, U.S. President George Bush, repeatedly dismissing Ortega as “that little man,” called his announcement a “shameful blow to democracy.”

In Miami, contra director Aristides Sánchez denied Ortega’s charges of a rebel offensive,

and he asked for renewed U.S. military aid, which was suspended in February, 1988. But in Ottawa last week, an unofficial Canadian observer team, just back from Nicaragua, released a report that told a different story. After watching voter registration in Nicaragua over the past month, the observers alleged that, in

violation of the ceasefire, the contras had stepped up attacks aimed at disrupting the election. In the Matagalpa region on Oct. 15, said the observers, contras carried out eight separate attacks within two kilometres of a polling station. “The contra war,” they claimed, “is escalating at an alarming rate.” The group—two members of Oxfam Canada, a Jesuit priest from Winnipeg and a Canadian resident of Nicaragua—also pointed out that the U.S. government was funding and otherwise assisting Chamorro’s candidacy. Bush has signed a bill earmarking about $10.5 million towards the cost of the Nicaraguan election, $2.3 million of which will go directly to the United National Opposition (UNO), a 13party alliance whose nominee is Chamorro.

The Canadian observer team, which was sponsored by church and human-rights groups and led by Oxfam Canada chairman Meyer Brownstone, called the U.S. action an “intrusion on Nicaraguan sovereignty.” It added, “American intervention continues as the main obstacle to the attainment of free and fair elections.”

Even before the hemispheric leaders left for security-blanketed San José, Ortega’s plans to attend created consternation in Washington. According to diplomats in San José, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the host of the meeting and an architect of the Central American peace plan that resulted in the Nicaraguan

ceasefire, had planned to conclude the summit by issuing a 16-nation joint communiqué. But that notion was scrapped after U.S. officials said Bush would sign no document that bore Ortega’s signature as well. “Oscar had big plans and wanted a big declaration,” said one senior Canadian official. “But the Americans

said, ‘If you do, then we won’t come.’ ”

Bush also refused to hold private talks with Ortega. However, the two leaders did meet briefly—and shake hands—on their way to the opening session. But U.S. officials refused to issue a photograph of Bush and Ortega together. Complained Bush: “He’s always sidling up to me looking for some kind of photo op.” Bush, meanwhile, held a 45-minute meeting with Chamorro and opposition leaders from Panama.

For Canadian officials, the flare-up in U.S.Nicaraguan hostilities was a crash course in the diplomatic difficulties of OAS membership. Just hours after Ortega announced that he planned

to break the ceasefire, he sat down with the other delegates to a dinner of medaillons of stuffed chicken at the National Theatre. There, he talked at length with Mulroney, seated one place away. The next day, when Mulroney posed for a photo opportunity with Colombian President Virgilio Barco beside the swimming pool at the country club where the summit was held, reporters asked him to comment on Ortega’s announcement. Replied Mulroney: “I haven’t seen it.” Afterward, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that, although he had not been briefed on remarks made by Ortega and Bush earlier that day, “we are naturally concerned about any development” that would undermine peace in Central America.

Canadian participation took place against a background of criticism over Ottawa’s decision to join the OAS. For years, Canadian governments argued that the OAS was little more than an instrument of U.S. policy—and that joining would silence Canada’s inde-

pendent voice in the region. Since 1910, when an ornate mahogany chair bearing Canada’s coat of arms was set in the Washington meeting room of the Union of American Republics—renamed the OAS in 1948—Canada has refused to take a place at the table. In the past, Canadian officials criticized OAS members for caving in under American pressure to expel Cuba in 1962 and to applaud the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. And although Canada has held observer status at the OAS since 1972, it has opposed some U.S. policies in the region, including the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

But after an eight-month review of Canada’s

policies in Latin America and the Caribbean, Mulroney concluded that the time had at last come to join the regional club. “Canada’s presence here today signals a new departure in our relations with Latin America,” he said in his summit speech last week. “We recognize that our interests are directly engaged here. We will no longer stand apart.” In an attempt to answer his critics, Mulroney said that Canada would work to reform the debt-ridden organization, and he insisted that the OAS had begun to play a more constructive role in regional development dispute-settling efforts. “Canada,” he declared, “is encouraged by the efforts made to revitalize and restructure the OAS.” Mulroney also said that Canada would seek to increase its profile in Latin America with a package of new initiatives. Those are expected to include the dispatch of high-level trade missions to the area, an increase in aid programs for the poorest Central American and South American countries, and further cooperation in the war against drugs.

The leaders of OAS countries were quick to embrace their new member. Colombia’s Barco said that Canada “will bring hope and tranquility to Latin America,” and Argentina’s President Carlos Menem told Maclean ’s, “This is a very important move for the OAS.” Nicaragua’s Ortega welcomed Canada as a political counterweight to the United States. Said Ortega: “Canada has signalled that she will fight within the OAS for the rights of the small countries.” OAS secretary general Joäo Soares rejected the idea that Canada would be forced to support the Americans against the Latins. “I don’t see this as a soccer game,” he said.

Still, in Canada, the critics remained as vociferous as ever. Stephen Lewis, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations between 1984 and 1988, said that Canada appeared to be joining only to compensate for its lack of policies on major issues affecting the alliance, including debt management and U.S. interventionism. “Why go into an alliance when you don’t have any policies,” asked Lewis. “You risk being seen even more as an American adjunct.” Some critics also questioned Mulroney’s plans to increase trade in the region. Speaking in Singapore two weeks ago—a speech billed by his advisers as a major statement of Canadian trade policy—Mulroney said that Ottawa would concentrate resources on increasing trade in three areas: Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific region. He made no mention then of Latin America.

In Costa Rica last week, while leaders discussed issues that ranged from regional trade to Panama’s dictatorship, Ortega’s announcement—and the U.S. reaction to it—overshadowed the formal agenda. Host Arias called Ortega’s decision “regrettable,” and added, “The ball is and should be in the political court, not the military court.” For Mulroney and the other summit leaders, the pressure to choose sides seemed bound to increase.