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Bad Second Thoughts

May 05, 1985

Key members of Congress are having second thoughts about rejecting President Reagan's request for $14 million in so-called humanitarian aid to the contras in Nicaragua, but they must not compromise with the Administration now.

Some of the proposals being discussed on Capitol Hill are well-intentioned. Democrats want to send the Nicaraguan aid money to the International Red Cross rather than to the contras directly, to guarantee that it will be used for humanitarian aid rather than to buy guns and bullets. Republicans are drawing up resolutions that would allocate the $14 million to the contras but restrict its use to "non-lethal" or "non-military" purposes.

The principal reason for this change of heart is last week's visit by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to the Soviet Union. Many congressmen, especially Democrats from conservative states or districts who took a political risk by voting against Reagan and the contras, feel betrayed to see Ortega consorting with this country's chief military rival at a time when he should be making conciliatory gestures toward the United States.

The timing of Ortega's visit was outrageously clumsy. But only the most naive observers of the Nicaraguan situation can be surprised to see Ortega asking the Soviets to replace the military and economic aid that the United States has been cutting back since the Sandinistas came to power five years ago. And they must not forget that Nicaragua is an independent nation, free to engage in relations with any other country in the world.

It is on this point that the new proposals on aid to the contras share a fundamental flaw in the Reagan Administration's view of the Nicaraguan situation: the presumption that the United States has an inherent right to determine what happens in Nicaragua. It does not.

The only legitimate interest that this country has in Nicaragua is to assure that it does not become a base for hostile actions, by the Soviets or anyone else, against this country or against Nicaragua's neighbors. The best way to achieve that aim is not through unilateral action, be it a trade embargo or a covert war waged by surrogates like the contras, but through collective efforts with our allies in the Caribbean Basin.

A multilateral effort to deal with the challenge posed by the Sandinistas is already well under way: the peace negotiations sponsored by Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, acting as the Contadora Group. Those U.S. allies also want the Sandinista revolution to become more moderate, and they are in a far better position to bring that change about. But the Reagan Administration has not given the Contadora process a chance to work, and has even tried to sabotage it on occasion. By trying to compromise with Reagan on the contras, Congress will only seem to be an endorsing even more mucking about in Central America.

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