Queen Victoria, receiving reports that the new British ambassador had been stripped, tarred and feathered by the emperor of Bolivia, indignantly commanded a British gunboat to make a punitive voyage. Upon being informed that Bolivia was landlocked, she sent for a map of the South American continent, took her pen, drew a large "X" across the appropriate patch of color and pronounced: "Bolivia no longer exists."
Among the many accomplishments of Victorian England that we inherited seems to be a Victorian attitude toward Latin America: Long periods of ignorant neglect followed by indignant reaction to a perceived crisis. The last two countries on which we tried to inscribe our "X" were Cuba and the Dominican Republic (the second with some success). Now it is Nicaragua.
Let me start with a conclusion: No matter how one views the Sandinistas, the policy of aiding the contras is nonsensical--bloody and futile. There is no way the contras (whether called "freedom fighters" or "cutthroat mercenaries") can defeat the rapidly modernizing armed forces of Nicaragua. In asserting otherwise, the CIA and/or Defense Department are indulging in the same kind of wishful thinking that led them to assure President John F. Kennedy that landing a 1,200-man force against a Cuban army of 200,000 would precipitate a popular insurrection against Fidel Castro. That result was the Bay of Pigs.
The United States is not very good at achieving its military objectives through surrogates. We failed in Cuba and again in Vietnam. Providing military aid to a feeble counterrevolutionary army such as the contras will only result in another failure. Surely one of the clearest lessons of recent decades is that the overthrow of established regimes requires direct military intervention by American forces. That's how we "won" Grenada, stopped a popular revolution in the Dominican Republic, and postponed defeat in Vietnam.
This is a truth of the most "tough-minded," "realistic" and "pragmatic" kind--terms that are used in Nicaragua, as elsewhere, to disguise a wistfully impotent foreign policy.
What is the American interest in Nicaragua? The answer is illusive for it must encompass the immediate "crisis" in that small country as well as our relationship to the future direction of the entire Hemisphere. First, and most immediate, our interest is to prevent the extension of Soviet power to Central America. Second, and more profoundly significant, is to stimulate and help reformist democratic forces throughout Latin America to create governments devoted to the popular well-being--the essential foundation of a Hemisphere whose ties to the United States would be maintained not by force, but by consistency with the values and beliefs of our own country. We once had such a policy. But it perished in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
In the long run these two objectives are totally consistent. They may also be in harmony in the short run--and in Nicaragua. Certainly it demands a try.
One should not underestimate the potential harm of a Soviet-dominated base in Central America. It would bring the cold war--in its hottest form--to the American mainland, aggravating the hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, feeding the sense of danger that fuels the growing militarization of American society and diverts our attention and resources from our own problems.
There are only two ways to prevent this unhappy outcome, neither of which the government is willing to take.
First is the traditional method--invasion and conquest. But military action undoubtedly would be prolonged, bloody and destructive of the very country we purport to rescue, and seriously damage our other relationships in Latin America. It is to be avoided, not at any cost, but at almost any cost.
The second route is negotiation. The premise of this position is to accept the fact that we are not injured by a government that calls itself Marxist or socialist. How the Nicaraguans choose to run their country is not our concern. The current leadership of that country does not wish to be anyone's puppet. Marxists they may be. Nationalists they most certainly are. Moreover the people of Nicaragua are Roman Catholic in faith and Western in culture. The United States, not the far-off Soviet Union, is their natural partner.
These "facts" provide the realistic terms of negotiation. We should demand an end to the Soviet-Cuban military presence in Nicaragua and to any Sandinista activity that helps or stimulates revolution in other countries. In return we would call off the contras and resume trade and assistance to build a truly independent Nicaragua.
An agreement such as this would not rest on blind trust. Violation would be impossible to conceal. It is in our self-interest. And it is in the interest of the Sandinistas whose only alternative is continued civil strife, and perhaps American invasion.