The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #372 on Latin America

August 6, 1984

August 6, 1984 | Backgrounder on Latin America

The U.S. and the Contadora Effort for Central American Peace


(Archived document, may contain errors)

August 6, 1984 THE U.S. AND THE CONTADORA EFFORT FOR CENTRAL AMERICAN PEACE INTRODUCTION I Like :the Chimera, the puzzling Greek mythological creatu re with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a dragon's tail, the Contadora peace initiative comprises an assortment of motives and expectations. Initiated in January 1983 by Mexico, Panama, Vene zuela and Colombia on the Panamanian island of Contadora, the n egotiations aim at bringing peace to Central America through a comprehensive regional settlement. This effort has been endorsed by just about every world leader from Ronald Reagan to Fidel Castro and the Kremlin chiefs A professed desire for peace seems t o account for the unanim ity; differences emerge when concrete discussion begins about the means and terms of peace. Thus Mexico views the negotiations as a way to forestall U.S. intervention in the region and to pressure Washington into accepting power-sh a ring in El Salvador. Nicaragua has agreed to such Contadora objectives as a reduction in its military force, but balks at verification measures. Nonetheless the Nicaraguan Sandinistas capitalize on the Contadora process to proclaim to the world their will i ngness to negotiate. Liberal groups in the U.S. and Europe welcome the process as a substitute for bringing political and economic pressure on Nicaragua to live up to its promises of democratic pluralism. And the Contadora countries believe that a negotia ted political solution is the only way to achieve Central American peace tiations on numerous occasions and by spokesmen at all levels.

The goals of the Contadora group are compatible with Reagan Ad ministration objectives in Central America. The chief dif ference between the two approaches is that U.S. policy stresses the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan opposition's demand for open elec tions and the need for realistic procedures to enforce the terms of an agreement The U.S. has reiterated its support for the Contadora nego 2 U.S. support for the Contadora negotiations, of course, does not exclude other policy initiatives for peace in the region.

The U.S. views the negotiations as complementary, rather than an alternative, to pressuring Nicaragua to fulfill co mmitments it already has made not to intervene in other nations' affairs, not to align with any superpower, and to guarantee internal democratic pluralism. Similarly, the Contadora talks do not require over turning the election results in El Salvador by f o rcing El Salvador's elected government to share power with the leftist insurgents A Contadora peace would be short-lived indeed were it based on a consolidation of the Sandinista dictatorship and an unconstrained Nicaraguan military build-up, strongly sup ported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and on power-sharing in El Salvador with the com munist guerrillas who abstained from the election process.

BACKGROUND What brought the foreign ministers of Mexico, Venezuela Colombia and Panama together on Contadora Is land in January 1983 was an effort to mediate the fighting in Nicaragua and, on its northern border with Honduras, between Sandinista army forces and anti-Sandinista rebels.

After a series of meetings that involved the Contadora coun tries and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, agreement was reached in September 1983 0n.a Ylocument of 0bjectives.I prehensive regional peace treaty. The key elements of t he Objectives are 1) the establishment of democratic systems of government 2) reduction of current inventories of arms and mili tary personnel 3) banning foreign military bases in Central America 4) an'end to support for subversion, and 5) reduction and e v entual elimination of foreign military advisers and troops approved a further agreement setting forth the IfPrinciples for the Implementation of the Commitments Undertaken in the Document of Objectives.Il They also established three working commissions on security, political and socioeconomic affairs. Their work was completed in May 1984 and their proposals were embodied in a draft peace treaty now under consideration by the five countries. The draft treaty reportedly contains many of the proposals articul a ted in earlier documents It would commit the parties to providing an inventory of their arms and of foreign military advisers, bases and equipment, to accepting verification from an independent four member commission appointed by the Contadora countries, a nd to halting hostile propaganda as well as arms flows to insurgent groups in neighboring countries. Whether these proposals will be accepted is undertain of such statements by Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge as: "To disarm for us is impossible n o w. To give information on the number and quality of our arms would be very sensitive.If1 This was considered a first step toward a com In January 1984, the five Central American governments jointly Prospects do not seem favorable in view 1 "Central Americ a ns Pessimistic on Outlook or Negotiated Peace The Washington Post, June 25, 1984. 3 CONTADORA POLICY OBJECTIVES Mexico and Venezuela were the initial force behind the Conta dora negotiations. For similar reasons, both had forged a more active foreign poli c y in Latin American affairs in the 1970s than they had had previously. First, the alienation of much of Latin America by the Carter Administration's human rights policy sub stantially diminished U.S. influence in the region. Second Mexico's and Venezuela' s new-found oil wealth and relative political stability afforded them the means and the opportunity to play a more assertive role in the region Of the four countries, Mexico has been the most outspoken advocate of the Contadora process and critic of U.S. p olicy.

Colombia and Panama have been reticent because their political systems are sharply divided between center-left and center-right parties, making bold pronouncements politically imprudent at home. Moreover, Panama recently has been too absorbed in its presidential elections, and Colombia in its ongoing cycle of war and truce with its communist guerrillasi to pursue vigorously an international agenda.

Venezuela has a strong democratic left that long has been active in promoting democracy in Latin Ameri ca support behind the anti-Somoza revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 as did several other countries in the region. Along with Mexico it sells subsidized oil to Nicaragua. Although Venezuela, like Mexico, welcomed the Contadora initiative as a means to forest a ll unilateral U.S. intervention in Central America, Caracas is far less sanguine than Mexico about the victory of the Cuban-supported Marxist governments in the region. Venezuela, however, has been discreet about its differences with the Mexican position, possibly to avoid being labelled a spoiler to an agreement.

As Mexico sees it, there are three elements in'the Central American crisis. First, economic backwardness and oppression rather than outside manipulation, account for the region's turbu lence and insurrections. Second, the revolutionary left is not dangerous, and can be coopted by sympathetic policies in which economic largesse is prominent. Third, elections and democracy are less essential to stability and development than Ilideological pluralism l'--power-sharing and tolerance of leftist dictatorships.

Specifically, these principles translate into a policy that centers on foreign economic aid and domestic power-sharing, precludes the use of military force, and accepts foreign-supported communist r egimes in Latin America It threw its Mexico has criticized such U.S. actions as covert support for the anti-Sandinista rebels contras'l) and military exercises with the Honduran army, as the obstacles to peace.in Central America. Yet Mexico remains silent on Nicaragua's support for the leftist insurgents in El Salvador and the substantial presence 4 of Soviet bloc personnel in Nicaragua.* During his May 1984 visit to Washington, Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid blamed 'Ithe almost total distrust" betw e en the U.S. and Nicaragua as a "funda mental" cause of lack of progress in the Contadora negotiation An anonymous Mexican official was quoted in the New York Times as saying that despite the Contadora group's request that military aid to Central America b e limited, there has been a "notable increase" in the U.S. military presence.4 The Mexicans said nothing about the much more substantial flow of Soviet and Cuban aid to Nicaragua and to the insurgents in El Salvador.

The likely outcome of a settlement alon g Mexican lines would be consolidation of the one-party dictatorship of the Sandinistas thereby denying Nicaragua's democratic opposition any hope of enjoying the rights and freedoms for which they fought the Somoza dictatorship. The stability and evoluti o n of the rest of Central America would be largely contingent upon Nicaraguan willingness to observe whatever agreement they sign. Given the covert nature of Nicaraguan (and Cuban) activities in organizing and supplying local surrogates devoted to communis t revolution, such a settle ment is unlikely to produce more than a temporary truce in the region.

NICARAGUA'S ROLE IN THE CONTADORA NEGOTIATIONS Nicaragua's behavior throughout the Contadora negotiations indicates that the Sandinista regime has no intenti on of making the accomodations needed for genuine regional peace. At the same time that the Sandinista regime has agreed in principle to the objectives most likely to allay the fears of its neighbors reduction of its armed forces, noninterference in other countries and establishment of democratic institutions--it has accelerated its arms buildup, expanded the draft of young men into the mili tary, tightened one-party control of the electoral process, and continued to supply the leftist insurgents in El Sal vador.

The Sandinista junta appears to view the Contadora negotia tions as a way to buy time to consolidate its grip on the country and to stave off what they fear may be a U.S. plan for direct intervention. Ten months after the process began, Sandinista C ommander Tomas Borge declared that "Contadora is a retaining wall and a pathway.'I5 According to Timothy Ashby in "Nicaragua July 1984, p. 51 The approximately 3,000 Nicaraguans working under Lenin Cerna de jure chief of the Sandinista Intelligence Securi ty Directorate are assisted by 400 Cubans 70 Soviets, 40 to 50 East Germans, and 20 to 25 Bulgarians.

Robert McCartney Mexico Says Peace Moves at Impasse The Washington Post, May 11, 1984 Obstruction of Contadora Efforts is Charged The New York Times, May 13 1984.

Christopher Dickey Quagmire to Cauldron Foreign Affairs, Vol. 62 No.3 (America and the World 1983 p. 687 Soviet Satrapy ,I' Proceedinc 4 5 Managua seemed to accept the basic principles of a settlement in September of 1983 when it agreed to the Do cument of Objectives prepared by the Contadora group. Then two weeks later it pro posed four substitute treaties that changed the terms of a settle ment substantially. The Sandinistas' proposals, for example disregarded the objective of restoring military balance, and con- tained no reference to establishing democratic institutions.6 In effect, the treaties would advance the objectives of Nicaragua's Marxist-Leninist regime at the expense of its neighbors' legitimate security concerns.

Nicaragua also has e xploited the negotiation process for its propaganda value In May 1983, Nicaragua went to the United Nations Security Council to protest aggression against its terri tory, and emerged with a resolution that commends the Contadora effort and 'Ireaffirms the right of Nicaragua and all of the other countries of the area to live in peace and security Ir7 Nicaragua again turned to the United Nations in October, breaking its explicit commitment to the Contadora group not to involve the U.N. Simi larly, by filing a claim with the International Court of Justice concerning U.S. support for anti-Sandinista rebels, Nicaragua presented itself to the world as an innocent, injured party diverting attention from its own arms build-up and program to destabilize El Salvador.

With a Contadora draft treaty now under consideration Nicaragua may be forced to reveal its real aims. Minister Paz Barnica reported that at a May meeting of Central American foreign ministers in Panama lit was Nicaragua that vetoed all decisions intended to secure an overall and re ional solution, in accordance with the Document of Objectives.'lI Ac cording to The Economist, Nicaragua has rejected verifiable arms controls and specific measures to ensure free elections.9 rejection of verification procedur e s sharply contrasts with the other Central American countries' offer to reveal details about their armed forces to the Inter-American Defense Board, a section of the Organization of American States Honduran Foreign Its PITFALLS IN THE CONTADORA APPROACH T h e major weakness of the Contadora prescription for peace in Central America is its reluctance to recognize the nature of the Nicaraguan regime and of Soviet-Cuban intervention in the 6 1s Peace Possible in Central America Department of State Bulletin Marc h 1984 p. 68 U.N. Security Council Resolution 530, May 19, 1983 E, May 18, 1984, P12 The Economist, May 19, 1984 6 area, and in its insistence that a iipolitical solutionif divorced from military power is possible, and even necessary. Instead the Contadora group has construed the Central America problem as a traditional political conflict among competing states to be resolved by diplomatic negotiations alone.

To be sure, the Contadora documents call for democratic representative and pluralistic governments that l'ensure that various currents of opinion have free access to fair and regular elections.1i Yet the thrust of public statements by the Contadora group, especially Mexico, has been to mute the issue of elections in Nicaragua, while pressuring El Salva d or's elected President Jos6 Napole6n Duarte, to negotiate with that country's leftist guerrillas. or sympathy for leftist dictatorships, it is not surprising that the Contadora group largely has ignored the probable impact on Central America of the Sandhi stas' continued undemocratic rule.

Not only will the Nicaraguan people continue to be poor and op pressed, perhaps leading to more violent confrontation between the Sandinista junta and the armed internal opposition, but Costa Rica and the rest of Central America will continue to be threat e ned by Nicaragua's dedication to communist revolution. Misery and oppression under a leftist, revolutionary dictatorship is no better a prescription for peace between Nicaragua and its neighbors than are the same conditions under a rightist dictatorship w ith Nicaragua is possible without reference to the traditional instruments of power politics is short-sighted and ignores history.

Nicaragua's intransigence on the question of control measures to ensure compliance with such elements of the draft agreement as a ban on foreign military bases and advisers and a restoration of military balance with its neighbors should suggest that Nicaragua is not willing to accommodate those countries' security concerns.

The Sandinistas are unlikely to accept realistic check s on ful fillment of their obligations or free elections, which they risk losing, if they are convinced that they can refuse such conditions with impunity. Diplomatic and economic isolation from the West fear of increased aid to its opposition, or militar y pressure may be necessary to persuade Nicaragua to negotiate seriously In light of Mexico's policy of ilideological pluralism,"

The Contadora group's insistence that political accommodation CONTADORA NEGOTIATIONS AND U.S. POLICY Charges that the Reagan A dministration is not backing the Contadora negotiations are puzzling. For one thing, the Adminis tration has expressed repeatedly its support for the regional peace initiative. This includes President Reagan's letter of July 1983 to the Contadora presiden t s; his May 9, 1984, address to the nation in which he said The United States fully supports the objectives of that [Contadora] processi1; his recent speech welcoming Mexican President de la Madrid to Washington; and numerous statements by top U.S. diploma t s at the United Nations and the Organization of American States. 7 For another thing, the Contadora initiative was hailed widely precisely because of its strictly regional origins. As such, the U.S. can do no more than give the process diplomatic backing.

Were the U.S. to play a direct role in the talks, the process would cease to be a Latin American initiative and would become dominated by the U.S. Washington has shown that it shares the concerns of the Contadora group by following many of the recom menda tions of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (the Kissinger Commission and by appointing a Special Ambassador to the region.

Criticism of tepid U.S. support for Contadora is yet more striking in light of the compatibility of U.S. policy objectives in Nicaragua and the objectives articulated by the Contadora group. What the U.S. seeks from Nicaragua is the establishment of a genuinely democratic government, an end to support for in surgencies and terrorism, severance of military ties with Cuba and the Soviet bloc, and reductions in its military forces to restore balance between Nicaragua and its neighbors. All of these desiderata are included in the Contadora Document of Objectives, which Nicaragua has formally accepted. Moreover they are entirely consistent with the Sandinista regime's public commitment in 1979 to a policy of nonalignment, nonintervention and democratic pluralism.

The emphasis of U.S. policy on democracy in Nicaragua is a necessary element of its efforts to promote peace a nd economic development in Central America. Nicaragua's conflict with its neighbors stems directly from the nature of its Marxist-Leninist regime. The Sandinistas for example, publicly proclaim a Ilrevo lution without frontiers." The record of Cuban invol v ement in other nations should be an unambiguous lesson that communist governments are not content with being left alone. Any peace settlement, therefore, that fails to take into account the nature of Nicaragua's political system would be no more than an u nstable truce. Only a democratic Nicaragua will be a peaceful Nicaragua.

The nature of the Sandinista regime is also the cause of confrontation with its own people, whose expectations of freedom and democracy have been dashed. Nicaragua's one-party dictato r ship has forced the opposition to take up arms in a guerrilla war that spills over its borders and causes tensions with its neighbors A principal source of Nicaragua's conflict with neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica would be removed if the rebels chal l enging the Sandinista Front were allowed to express their opposition through free elections. the U.S. should not press El Salvador's elected government to share power with the leftist insurgents. The Document of Objec tives states the need Ifto promote na t ional reconciliation on the basis of justice, freedom, and democracy,Il a goal that the U.:S endorses. El Salvador has held free and open elections, in which the insurgents refused'to.participate. The people of El Salvador Despite the urgings of the Conta d ora group, primarily Mexico 8 rejected the guerrillas' call to revolution by electing center left Jos6 Napole6n Duarte as president. National reconciliation cannot be achieved by arbitrarily reversing a mandate that repre sents a majority of voters. It re q uires free elections in Nicaragua, not power-sharing in El Salvador A crucial element of U.S. policy in Central America is economic and political pressure on Nicaragua to dissuade it from backing the leftist insurgents in El Salvador and to abandon its go a l of Ilrevolution without frontiers. The imbalance of military power among the Central American countries, caused by Nicaragua's explosive military build-up, makes it unlikely that Nicaragua would make significant concessions to its neighbors' legitimate s ecurity concerns unless pressured to do so. Diplomacy not backed by power can do little more than confirm the status quo, to be disrupted by Nicaragua, the only country in the region with the power to impose its terms. U.S. policy is based, rightly, on th e premise that only pressure will persuade Nicaragua to negotiate seriously and to accept realistic verification procedures. With out such control measures, a peace settlement will be an empty gesture.

CONCLUSION The Contadora countries are making a worthy effort to nego tiate a comprehensive Central American peace treaty. The U.S. shares the Contadora objectives of democratic pluralism in Nicaragua, military balance among the region's states, noninter ference, and a ban on foreign military advisers and ba ses. The U.S. has consistently expressed its support for the negotiations.

Lack of tangible progress toward peace is not due to insufficient U.S. backing, but to conflicting views among the negotiating countries and Nicaragua's refusal to accept'any verifi able checks on its military growth or support of anti-government insurgents in El Salvador.

The U.S. should continue to lend its firm support to these efforts to bring lasting peace to Central America. Its support for the Contadora process should also con tinue to stress the central importance of free and open elections in Nicaragua and of realistic verification'measures to monitor compliance with the terms of the peace treaty A regional peace agreement that does not include these realistic conditions will be merely a truce that confirms the status quo in the region. Diplomatic legerde main cannot substitute for concrete measures that give substance to the peace agreement.

Virginia Polk Policy Analyst

About the Author

Related Issues: Latin America