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Central America's Untried Answer: Why a Contadora Treaty Will Work

March 16, 1986|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is associate editor of the New Republic

WASHINGTON — Contadora. In these four syllables supporters of U.S. military aid to the anti-Sandinista contra rebels in Nicaragua hear the echo of Neville Chamberlain's umbrella tapping on the flagstones of Munich. Contra opponents hear the whisper of hope for peace and democratic progress in Central America. Many Americans though, hear nothing. For them the word "Contadora" is another baffling bit of media jargon, much repeated but little understood.

This fuzziness is unfortunate, not only obscuring any clear understanding of how Contadora can work but also contributing to the public impression, fostered by the Reagan Administration, that Contadora is the last refuge of the appeaser. In fact the proposed Contadora treaty is the prudent policy most likely to lead to the triumph of democracy and American values in Central America.

Senior diplomats from Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and Colombia met on Contadora, a resort island off the coast of Panama, in January, 1983. There, they devised a plan to democratize and demilitarize Central America. There were four major points to the proposed treaty: 1) removal of all foreign military personnel from the region; 2) strict border supervision to protect the sovereignty of states; 3) phased reductions in military forces, and 4) democratic pluralism in free elections in each counrty. Recently foreign ministers from eight Latin American countries reaffirmed their commitment to the Contadora process and expressed opposition to the Reagan Administration plan to give the contras $100 million in military and non-lethal aid.

Contra supporters are ruling out the possibility of applying the Contadora process in Nicaragua. No communist government has ever gone democratic, they note, citing former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Thus, they say, Nicaragua will always remain an aggressive Marxist-Leninist state, ready to export revolution to other countries in the region.

Contadora doesn't depend on denying this idea but does note its most important nuance, what might be called the "Draper Corollary." Historian Theodore Draper, in a critique of Kirkpatrick's thinking, said it is not quite accurate to say that a communist state cannot evolve into a democracy. In the Prague Spring of 1968, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was undergoing a profound process of liberalization from within; only the intervention of the Soviet army killed it. In Poland during the Solidarity period, the Communist Party liberalized from without. Again, only the threat of Soviet intervention strangled the democratic movement. Democratic ideas can grow in communist soil.

The Draper Corollary recommends putting a priority on removing all Soviet Bloc military presence from Nicaragua. This would greatly improve the chance that the Sandinistas might eventually become more democratic. (The emphatic declaration of various Sandinista leaders about their life-long devotion to orthodox Marxist-Leninism doesn't disprove this case; such declarations were also heard from various Czech communists in the 1960s.) The hope in the intermediate term is for a Marxist-Leninist Nicaragua similar to Yugoslavia: relatively open in political terms, domestically, and nonaligned, internationally.

But is that hope an illusion? The Sandinistas, after all, could have settled for that in 1979, when they took power, but did not. As contra supporters point out, President Jimmy Carter tried friendship and aid to the Sandinistas for 18 months. That aid failed to change the Sandinistas' communist course. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan has tried military pressure for 61 months and that hasn't changed Sandinista behavior either. More important, without the assistance of Soviet Bloc advisers, the Sandinistas cannot sustain power in the face of the massive popular opposition that they now face.

And the reason is the second principle of Contadora, which we might call the "Aquino Effect." As the triumph in the Philippines of Corazon Aquino shows, democratic forces can peacefully overcome enormous odds and enormously better-armed opponents. One key is American identification with the democratic forces--the longer the better.

The Administration claims to be doing this by aiding the contras, but its case is weak. Contra leadership is drawn from the wealthy elite that supported former dictator Anastasio Somoza. They received early training from Argentine military officers, whose leaders were convicted in December of running an anti-democratic reign of terror in Argentina that killed at least 9,000 people. And while the contras have drawn much democratic support, none of the democrats have much authority in the movement.

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