Contadora: War by Other Means

September 25, 2007

FOR A YEAR AND A HALF, THE CONTA- 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. SINCE THE EARLY 1960S, THE UNITED 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. T HE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION, HOW- 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 government. 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 ONVINCED THAT THE REGIONAL "MID- 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/AUGUST45 Ili 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 0 ca 2 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 Salvador. * the absolute cessation of all military support (including the use of one's territory) for those who would attack a standing Central American govern- ment. * 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 MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE CONTADORA 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, JULY/AUGUST 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. WORKING FROM THE TEN-POINT AGREE- 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- visers; "* 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 America. 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." ATE 1983 AND EARLY 1984 BROUGHT 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 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS m L, 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." C ONTADORA HAS CONTINUED TO MEET, 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 C ONTADORA HIGHLIGHTS THE QUINTES- 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. CONTADORA: WAR BY OTHER MEANS 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, 1983. 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. 119. 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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