Contadora: War by Other Means

September 25, 2007

dora peace process has been the most popular
game on the block. Contadora is an unwieldy animal,
with four very different Latin American nations seek-
ing a complex peace formula for five Central Ameri-
can countries under the nose of a very concerned
superpower. Publicly, Contadora's efforts are praised
by all concerned; yet the group's importance in solv-
ing the Central American crisis is also dismissed in private.
Even if Contadora does not attain its ultimate ob- jective, it should not be dismissed out of hand, for it still raises a series of difficult questions. Why did the process begin? Is it a true search for peace or a cover for U.S. diplomacy? What are the internal contradic- tions among the Contadorans themselves? Has the United States been able to play the diplomatic game of Contadora with finesse?
Ultimately, however, the dilemma posed by Con- tadora is the age-old question of the relation between
diplomacy and war. War may be diplomacy carried on by other means, but the Contadora nations are not parties to the war in Central America. None of the member countries has the military muscle to demand
or enforce a solution to the current crisis; none can realistically challenge U.S. domination in the region.
Yet the Contadora nations stand with their fingers in the dike, hoping not only to hold back the floodwaters
of war but somehow also to build a more sturdy dam.
States has been able to count on a number of
regional forums to represent its interests in Central America. The Central American Common Market
(CACM) and the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA) were two of the better known mech- anisms for transforming the international aspirations
of the U.S. government into an acceptable multi- lateral framework. ("When we are not perceived as imposing regional goals," the Kissinger Commis-
sion observed, "the prospects" for achieving "shared
purposes" will increase.)'
But the war between Honduras and El Salvador in
1969 disrupted the Common Market; more important,
the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua ten years later
sounded the deathknell for CONDECA. The United
States found itself abruptly without a reliable regional
voice for its interests. This vacuum was increasingly
felt as the war heated up in El Salvador and the
Reagan Administration decided that it could not co-
exist with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The first U.S. attempt to resolve this problem came
in January 1982, with the formation of the Central
American Democratic Community (CADC), a body
which in truth was neither democratic nor representa-
tive of the Central American community. Initially
composed of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras
(Guatemala was admitted in July 1982 when it, too,
was deemed to have become "democratic"), the
CADC was an expression of the U.S. desire to isolate
Nicaragua diplomatically from its neighbors and to
ostracize the FDR-FMLN in El Salvador.
In September 1982, Mexico and Venezuela re-
sponded to the challenge of the CADC by presenting
President Reagan with a proposal for negotiations in
Central America. For the first time, the two major oil
producers in Latin America had joined together to
propose a sophisticated diplomatic alternative to
U.S. desires in the region. Unlike the Franco-Mexi-
can initiative of the previous year, this new joint
endeavor stressed that bilateral negotiations between
Honduras and Nicaragua were imperative if a regional
war were to be averted.
ever, was still not listening. President Reagan
dismissed the idea of bilateral talks, arguing that
"any significant efforts to meet the problem of Cen-
tral America have to be done (sic) in a regional
context."'2 Privately, Administration spokespersons
admitted that Washington stood a much better chance
of isolating Nicaragua or forcing it to "modify its
behavior" by cleaving to regional forums where U.S.
allies were numerically superior. This strategy was
put into practice in October, when nine Latin Ameri-
can and Caribbean nations met--ostensibly at Costa
Rican urging-to propose what the U.S. Administra-
tion would later refer to as the "democratic initia-
tive" for peace in the region.
The San Jose conference-known as the "Forum
for Peace and Democracy''--was attended by Costa
Rica, Belize, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras,
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 44Guatemala: haggard, repressive oligarchies
Jamaica and the United States. Panama and the
Dominican Republic came as observers. Four coun-
tries were conspicuous by their absence, however:
Venezuela and Mexico both refused to come, while
Nicaragua and Guatemala were not invited since, in
the logic of the convenors, neither had an elected
On October 4, 1982, the conference issued the
"Declaration of San Jose." It bore a striking re-
semblance to a speech which Assistant Secretary of
State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders
had delivered to the Commonwealth Club in San
Francisco, California on August 20.
The San Jose Proposal called for an
... end to support, supply, training or com- mand of terrorist or subversive elements oper- ating against other states in the region; an end to arms trafficking in the region; a ban on importing offensive heavy weapons; and a regional limit on armaments to legitimate de- fense needs of the countries in the region. 3
These, fundamentally, were the demands that the
United States had for some time been directing at
Nicaragua and the FDR-FMLN.
In fact, the "Declaration of San Jos 0 " was undone
by its uncritical acceptance of the U.S. position. Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge was later to admit that it had been a mistake to invite the United
States to attend the San Jose meetings. Panama, an observer at the conference, refused to sign the decla- ration, adhering instead to the undertaking "so nobly
expressed by the initiative of the presidents of Mexi-
co and Venezuela." 4
dle powers" could and should play a more
active role in Central American affairs, Mexico and
Venezuela pressed on. On January 8 and 9, 1983, the first meeting of the so-called Contadora Group was
held. Joining Mexico and Venezuela were Panama and Colombia.
While this collection of four countries was no
match for the United States in terms of military might or economic strength, it was a highly significant
grouping to be presenting a regional initiative inde- pendent of Washington. Mexico's ability to combine
a conservative domestic policy with a progressive, in- dependent foreign policy posture was already legen-
dary. But the participation of the other three countries
was more remarkable. Venezuela's presence signalled
a move away from Herrera Campins' staunch support
JULY/AUGUST 45Oil on Troubled Waters
for the Christian Democrats in El Salvador; Colom-
bia, which had slavishly followed the U.S. lead in
regional matters under President Turbay Ayala, served
notice that this would no longer be the case under
President Belisario Betancur; and the presence of
Panama underlined its continuing independence from
Washington after the U.S. failure to put its own
supporter in office following the removal of Aristides
Royo in 1982.
The basis of the Contadora approach was neither
complex nor revolutionary, except in so far as the
United States was concerned. Instead of fighting,
Contadora proposed negotiations; instead of foreign
intervention, it suggested that "autochthonous"
measures be applied; and probably most critically,
instead of demanding that Cuba and Nicaragua retreat
on every point, it based its hopes for success on
getting both sides to yield some ground.
Contadora's desire was less to present finished
regional peace proposals than to reach a regional
starting point. It stressed that the origins of the Cen-
tral American crisis lay not in an East-West matrix,
but rather in the
complex, profound and painful structural trans-
formations of this part of the world . . in the
injustice of [current] economic and social re-
lations, in the long-term exploitation of our
workers and peasants, and in the authoritarian
repression by many political regimes. 5
For the past year and a half, the Contadora foreign
ministers and presidents have shuttled between the
capitals of Central America trying to reconcile the
opposing views of the United States and its allies with
those of Nicaragua and its supporters. From the out-
set there was conflict between the "patchwork" and
the "whole-cloth" approaches to negotiations. The
first began by taking up the most urgent and apparent-
ly tractable issues--pressing, for example, for an
immediate withdrawal of forces from the Honduran-
Nicaraguan border-and then moving on to the sticki-
er issues. This position originally took shape in the
Mexican-Venezuelan initiative of 1982.
The second approach, demanded by the United
States, insisted that the peace process could only
begin with the penning of a comprehensive treaty
dealing with all the issues at once. To the extent that
the Contadora process has been forced to accept a
shift from the patchwork to the whole-cloth approach,
it has gained everyone's verbal support and lost the
real possibility of achieving its goals before a military
debacle makes the whole issue moot.
Honduras: grossly unequal contestantsC 0
B Y MID-1983, NICARAGUA WAS SIGNAL- ling its willingness to go along with the multi-
lateral approach. In his keynote address to the fourth
anniversary celebrations of the revolution, Junta co-
ordinator Daniel Ortega presented a new peace pro-
posal. The Nicaraguan plan dealt almost exclusively
with the region's military problems. It proposed:
* an immediate pact of non-aggression between
Honduras and Nicaragua.
* the immediate cessation of weapons deliveries
from any country to any of the combatants in El
* the absolute cessation of all military support
(including the use of one's territory) for those who
would attack a standing Central American govern-
* no installation of foreign military bases in Cen-
tral America.
* the suspension of military maneuvers with for-
eign armies.
Finally, Nicaragua called for absolute respect for
the right of self-determination for the peoples of
Central America and for non-intervention in the inter-
nal affairs of each country. 6
The other four Central American countries, mean-
while, had shifted their bargaining positions accord-
ingly. Now, military non-aggression and a de-esca-
lation of the arms buildup was no longer enough.
New proposals put forward by Guatemala, El Sal-
vador, Honduras and Costa Rica in July 1983 stressed
the importance of "creating, promoting and fortify-
ing democratic, pluralist, representative and partici-
patory institutions based on popular sovereignty,
through elections," in all the countries of Central
America. On military and security issues, these coun-
tries' approach was studiedly vague, arguing for a
reduction of weapons in the area and the pullout--
"or at least the reduction" in numbers-of foreign
military advisers. Finally, they wanted to "suppress
logistical and other kinds of support directed at pro-
moting, facilitating or supporting terrorism and sub-
version" in the region. 7
It would seem at first blush that after only seven
months of negotiations, Contadora had worked a
miracle: not only getting the warring parties to sit
down at the same table, but standing their former
positions on their heads. After all, Nicaragua's moral
and alleged material support to the Salvadorean rebels
was given precisely because they supported the strug-
gle for democratic, participatory institutions against
the region's haggard, repressive oligarchies. Now,
Guatemala and El Salvador, two of the region's worst
and most persistent offenders against democratic
norms, were voicing their support for just such a
program of democratization.
Similarly, the United States and its Central Ameri-
can allies had at first castigated Nicaragua for its
clandestine arms shipments to the Salvadorean rebels.
Now, Nicaragua was on record as supporting the
"immediate cessation of delivery of weapons" to El
Salvador and the end of all military support to "ag-
gressors" against Central American governments.
Why could Contadora not now move to the full
resolution of the country's problems? In the first
place, because neither side trusted the other one whit.
When Honduran foreign minister Edgardo Paz Bar-
nica charged that Nicaragua was "occupied" by 15-
17,000 foreign advisers, his Nicaraguan counterpart,
Miguel D'Escoto, suggested that perhaps he should
take up residence in a "psychiatric clinic." 8 Costa
Rican foreign minister Fernando Volio returned the
compliment in kind: "Never believe. Marxists who
say they are looking for peace," he cautioned. 9
process had itself shifted. Contadora had
inexorably become not a search for peace but a cover
for war. This is not a critique of the four Contadora
member nations, whose many internal differences are
beyond the scope of this brief essay, but rather a
recognition of the abject limitations of diplomacy
alone to force the Reagan Administration to de-esca-
late the regional crisis.
The U.S. manipulation of the Contadora process
has two components. The first has been to throw new,
substantively different issues on to the bargaining
table whenever Nicaragua has given ground on an
original point of contention. Thus, in mid-1983,
CIA targets: no complaint from Caracas
47ROil on Troubled AWaters
Oil on Troubled Waters
when the Nicaraguans presented their comprehensive
plan for ending any material support for the Salvado-
rean rebels, the United States began to attack Nicara-
gua for exporting "revolution" through means other
than weapons.'" Instead of dealing with the pacifica-
tion of the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, the new
U.S. proposals to Contadora required that the Nicara-
guan government itself be changed.
Second, whenever Contadora managed to nail down
a set of agreements among the five Central American
countries-agreements which always seemed, inci-
dentally, to be more numerous, complex and vague-
the United Staes would choose that precise moment
to thumb its nose at the entire process. Two cases
illustrate this clearly.
ment hammered out between the Contadora
convenors and the five Central American nations at
the Cancun summit in July 1983, an 18-point "con-
solidated proposal" was approved in principle on
September 10, 1983. This agreement discussed the
military, security, political, economic and social
steps to be taken to ease the crisis in the region. It
evolved in turn into the final 21-point package cur-
rently under discussion. The signatories promised to:
"* end the arms race;
"* ban the presence of foreign forces, bases or
installations on their territory;
* reduce and then eliminate foreign military ad-
"* halt arms trafficking in the region;
"* oppose the use of one's own territory for mili-
tary or logistical support of groups intent on over-
throwing other Central American governments;
* oppose acts of terrorism and sabotage in Central
The agreements also committed the region's gov-
ernments to promoting national reconciliation through
the establishment of representative and pluralist in-
stitutions. In short, the September 10 plan combined
most of the elements of both the Nicaraguan plan of
July 19 and the joint Guatemalan-Honduran-Salva-
dorean-Costa Rican plan of the same time. By Sep-
tember 27, all the countries had ratified the proposal--
technically a "document of objectives," not a peace
treaty, and both D'Escoto and Volio were speaking
highly of it.
On September 8, however, as the Contadora Group
was meeting in Panama, two Cessna 404 aircraft
bombed Sandino International Airport in Managua.
The Same day, contra frogmen damaged an under-
water oil pipeline in Puerto Sandino. On September
0 0
Nlcaragua: anoaner ooraer runeral
9, T-28 fighters attacked Nicaragua's main Pacific
port of Corinto. In short, the CIA had chosen the very
moment when Contadora was drawing closer to a
definitive treaty to escalate its covert war on Nicaragua.
Just three days after Washington's Central Ameri-
can allies had expressed their approval of a call for
self-determination for the region, Under Secretary of
Defense for Policy Fred Ikl6 told the Baltimore Coun-
cil on Foreign Relations that the United States "must
prevent consolidation of a Sandinista regime in Nica-
ragua. "" On the same day, in the United Nations,
Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick reiterated her belief
that the United States would have to achieve a mili-
tary triumph in Central America in order to stop the
advance of "international communism." 1 2 So much
for Contadora and its resolutions to "end conflicts
through political negotiations and resolve controver-
sies through peaceful means."
Contadora a second slap in the face as it con-
fronted Washington's determination to have its own
way with Central America. In a meeting on December
16, 1983 with U.S. Special Ambassador Richard
Stone, Colombian President Betancur demanded that
the United States modify its bellicose stance on the
region. Colombia's foreign minister then softened
this posture to say only that there had been "exhorta-
tions that the United States cooperate" with Conta-
dora. A week later, he declared openly that the United
States must cease its military pressure on Central
America and withdraw its flotilla to a "reasonable
distance" as a "precondition for the alleviation of
tensions in the area."' 3
On January 8, 1984, the five Central American
countries unanimously approved a 21-point document
with the cumbersome title of "Norms for Effecting
48the Agreements Reached in the Document of Objec-
tives'"-the document in question being the Septem-
ber 10, 1983 accords which Washington had attempted
to subvert by stepping up its war against Nicaragua.
While Contadora saw the 21-point plan as a supple-
ment to its September document, it was weighted more
heavily toward discussions of establishing "plural-
istic" participaton in the region's governments, and
is less specific about measures designed to limit
foreign military bases, advisers and installations. In
fact, the only point specifically rejected from the
September document was a measure designed to im-
pose a moratorium on arms purchases after February
29, 1984.14
Yet, like the September document, the January 8
plan was to die on the delivery table. On the very day
of its release, Henry Kissinger presented the findings
of his National Bipartisan Commission on Central
America. One of the notable features of the Kissinger
Commission Report is that, while it praises the efforts
of the Contadora Group, it also makes it quite clear
that Contadora will be ignored if the group's evolving
policies do not coincide with Washington's interests.
"In the final analysis," the commissioners observe,
"for any regional arrangement to be lasting it must be
able to count on U.S. support."" Should anyone
have missed the point, the report continues, "Experi-
ence has shown that the [Contadora] process works
most effectively when the United States acts purpose-
fully. . . . When we are decisive, the Contadora pro-
cess gathers momentum. " 1 6
By January 1984, as the Contadora nations again
reached a watershed, the United States was certainly
acting "purposefully." The CIA began to mine
Nicaraguan harbors that same month; in early Feb-
ruary, it carried out air strikes on targets in Nicara-
gua. By May, 33,000 U.S. troops were deployed in
exercises in Central America and aboard U.S. ships
off both coasts of the isthmus.
The Administration saw this escalation of military
power in the region as quite consistent with Con-
tadora's search for peace. "We have the obligation to
provide military and economic assistance to U.S.
allies in Central America," according to Deputy As-
sistant Secretary of State Steven Bosworth, "in order
that they don't feel subordinated to Nicaragua" in the
Contadora process."
although pessimism now rules the day. In late
April, the Venezuelan foreign minister told U.S.
Special Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman that "there
don't exist the factors'--pres mably a U.S. willing-
ness to let its Central American allies reach a nego-
tiated settlement-which would permit Contadora to
formulate a regional peace accord.'" At the same
time, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica have
begun to argue that Contadora "wasn't the only al-
ternative" for peace in the region. Again following
the U.S. lead, they pressured for greater OAS partici-
pation and the use of the U.S.-controlled Inter-Ameri-
can Defense Board as the "only supervisor in [what-
ever] security measures" are arrived at.19
While a negotiating text for a final draft treaty is
expected to be ready in mid-July, few expect it to
bring about any real change in the situation. Accord-
ing to one Senate aide, "If the Contadorans really get
to the point of a treaty, you can expect the Adminis-
tration to focus on the difficulties of verification [of
the treaties] and on Nicaragua's poor progress toward
pluralism. "2
sential problem of diplomacy in this or any other
age. This search for peace in Central America brings
together two grossly unequal contestants. On one side
stand the four Contadora nations, all relatively under-
developed, heavily indebted and, for all their many
and growing diplomatic skills, unable to back up their
diplomacy with any punch. Contadora has only one
card to play, and that is its moral position that talking is
better than fighting.
On the other side of the divide is the United States,
with an entire deck up its sleeve. It can deal out cards at
will: covert war, overt war, economic war, diplomatic
war, verbal war. And all of these can-indeed, do-
go forward beneath the covers of the Contadora pro-
cess. It is hardly surprising that this should be so: after
all, history is hardly rife with examples of countries
that have willingly relinquished military victory in
favor of an unappetizing diplomatic compromise.
For the United States, Contador.'s real success will
lie in its eventual-and drawn out-failure. As one
State Department official recently remarked, "The
United States would like to go on supporting Conta-
dora as long as nothing happens."21 This was not
always the case. The Reagan Administration at first
openly opposed the Contadora effort. Only after the
four nations had demonstrated their resolve to play a
role in settling their own region's problems did the
United States determine to play along, changing its
demands when resolution seemed near and stepping up
the war when peace threatened to break out. Ulti-
mately, Contadora is an object lesson in how the strong
deal cynically with the weak, and further confuse the
bewildered in the process.
1. Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on
Central America (U.S. Government Printing Office, Wash-
ington, D.C., 1984), p. 119.
2. Latinamerica Press (Lima, Peru), October 21, 1982.
3. Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1982.
4. Latin America Weekly Report, March 18, 1983;
Latinamerica Press, October 21, 1982.
5. Carlos Faxio, "Ratifica el gobierno mexicano su soli-
daridad con Cuba y Nicaragua," Proceso, January 17,
6. Central America Report, July 29, 1983.
7. Ibid.
8. Unomnsuno (Mexico City), April 11, 1983.
9. Central America Report, August 19, 1983.
10. See, for example, The Washington Post, Septemberl
21 and September 22, 1983.
11. Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1983.
12. Cited in Anne Marie Mergier, "Mientras hablan de
paz en Contadora, los Estados Unidos impulsan la agre-
si6n," Proceso, September 19, 1983.
13. Central America Report, January 6, 1984.
14. Excelsior (Mexico City), January 9, 1984.
15. Report of the National Bipartisan Commission, p.
16. Ibid., p. 120.
17. Central America Report, January 6, 1984.
18. Inforpress Centroamericana, May 3, 1984.
19. Unomdsuno, April 27, 1984.
20. Business Week, May 21, 1984.
21. Ibid.

Tags: Contadora, Central America, peace process, diplomacy, US influence

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