The "peace plan" that President Reagan offered to the government of Nicaragua last week is a cynical ploy aimed at winning over not the Sandinistas but a few members of Congress who resist his Administration's belligerent policy toward that country.
Reagan announced his proposal with dramatic flair, calling a special news conference at which he asked Congress to approve $14 million in U.S. aid to anti-Sandinista rebels groups, the contras. The money has been held up since last year by congressmen who think that the contras, with their terrorist tactics and ties to former Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza, are not the kind of allies that U.S. taxpayers should be helping.
To make aid to the contras palatable to doubters on Capitol Hill, Reagan promised that for 60 days the money will be used to buy food, medicine and other kinds of humanitarian aid, but not arms. The catch is that the Sandinistas must begin peace negotiations with the contras in that time. If peace talks don't start, or make no progress, the contras will be free to use the money to buy arms.
The Sandinistas had said before that they will never negotiate with the contras, and, predictably, they rejected Reagan's proposal immediately. They regard rebels financed by the Central Intelligence Agency as a phony army that would not exist without U.S. aid. While there are significant opposition groups inside Nicaragua, with legitimate claims against the Sandinistas, the covert contra war makes it easy for the Sandinistas to discredit all opposition by linking it to the CIA's surrogate army.
Administration officials knew that Reagan's proposal would be turned down by the Nicaraguans, and apparently decided that the rejection would strengthen their hand even further on Capitol Hill. If Reagan can persuade enough congressmen to support contra aid under the pretense that they are voting for "peace," the Nicaraguan rebels can carry on with their campaign to overthrow the Sandinista government. Without some kind of parliamentary maneuver, aid to the contras was "dead in the water," according to Republican House leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois.
But aid to the contras, no matter what form it takes, will not bring peace to Nicaragua. It will only prolong the violence and bloodshed. A better way to find a peaceful solution to Nicaragua's problems, and those of the rest of Central America, is through the collective efforts of other Latin American nations bordering the region. They understand the problems better than the United States does, and have just as much interest in a peaceful, stable Central America.
That is why the efforts of the Contadora Group--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--are so important. Diplomats from those nations have been at work for two years, meeting with leaders of the five Central American countries to write a regional peace treaty for Nicaragua and its four neighbors. A draft treaty--under which the five Central American countries agree to stop acquiring armaments, rid themselves of foreign military advisers and not to interfere in each other's affairs--already exists. The main obstacle to finalizing that Contadora treaty is not Nicaragua--the Sandinistas accepted the draft right away--but the Reagan Administration.
Reagan and his aides refuse to face reality in Central America. They are wedded to an ideological wish-dream in which the Sandinistas are forced to reshape their revolution to meet Washington's terms simply because the United States insists on it. That is what Reagan meant when he used the revealing phrase "say uncle" in describing what he wanted from the Sandinistas. But making the Sandinistas say uncle will take far more pressure than the contras can bring to bear. It will require yet another U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua, and public opinion in this counry and around the world will no longer accept that.
If the President truly wants the crisis in Central America resolved peacefully, he will let the Contadora process work. If he refuses to do so, Congress must make him--by cutting off the aid that keeps his Administration's bloody surrogates in Nicaragua in business.