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Shabby Show

March 18, 1986

The White House performance on Nicaragua is near its climax--part hyperbole, part hysteria, and led by a ringmaster who would bring tears of envy to the eyes of P. T. Barnum, creator of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Before he turned to politics, President Reagan was a pitchman on television for companies that sell everything from soap to light bulbs. The speech that he made Sunday night on Nicaragua used all his old tricks of salesmanship. He painted the Sandinista government as a collection of drug pushers, a command post for international terrorism, a second Libya, harboring plotters from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Italy's Red Brigades, exporters of revolution. This of a country that can barely export enough coffee to pay its debts. While he talked, most of Latin America lit up bright red on maps.

For a mere $100 million, he said, Congress not only can help the Nicaraguan rebels whom he calls "democratic freedom fighters" lean on the Sandinista government, but also can strike a blow against everything that ails America, from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to international drug smugglers. If Congress does not approve the aid, Latin America will be in danger and the flow of "desperate Latin peoples" (read that illegal aliens ) to this country will be greater than ever. No frontier snake-oil salesman ever put on a better presentation. Few Presidents have put on a shabbier one.

The address was a 20-minute outpouring of smoke signals--drugs, cancer, Reds, Libya, chokepoints, Kadafi, Soviet Bear bombers, "hordes" of Central Americans fleeing north across the U.S. border--all designed to screen the fact that the Reagan Administration is not satisfied with negotiating a peaceable solution but is determined to bring down the Nicaragua government.

The United States has legitimate long-term interests in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America, and reason to be concerned about what happens there. But Reagan's analysis of the problems in Central America, focusing as it did on violence, using the word negotiations only in the past tense, was simplistic and directed to short-term, easy answers. Despite Reagan's rhetorical and financial backing, the Nicaragua rebels, the contras, do not have enough popular support in Nicaragua to be a threat to the Sandinistas. Most analysts agree that the Nicaraguan government will do what Reagan wants only if U.S. troops move against it. The fact that Reagan is unwilling even to contemplate such a dramatic commitment in public is the best evidence that the threat that Nicaragua poses to the United States is not as great as Reagan claims.

At one point Reagan went beyond mere overstatement and simply did not tell the truth about U.S.-Nicaraguan relations: when he claimed that the United States tried to negotiate with the Sandinistas 10 times, and was repudiated. Those bilateral meetings were not real negotiations, because U.S. representatives went into them with a pre-determined position that they knew Nicaragua could not accept.

Reagan did not mention the only negotiations that really have a chance in Central America. Those are the long, patient efforts by the Contadora Group--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--to draw up a peace treaty that would alleviate the tensions between Nicaragua and the other Central American nations.

Those friendly Latin American countries--supported by Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay--all agree that the Sandinistas are a problem. But they think that the Nicaraguan revolution can be contained without military force. They cite the example of other revolutions in Latin American history, like Mexico's in 1910, that became moderate and pro-American once securely in power.

It was revealing that Reagan did not even mention the Contadora Group in his speech. An experienced salesman does not mention a competitor's product. So we will: an end to the military buildup in Central America, the expulsion of foreign military advisers from the region, a mutual agreement by Central American governments to not interfere in each other's affairs, an agreement to open up the political process in every nation of the region to all political viewpoints. Such a result is in the long-range interest of the United States. Yet the Contadora process has never been given a chance to work because Reagan never lets up on Nicaragua long enough for the Latin Americans to persuade the Sandinistas to put their guard down.

Congress must resist Reagan's barrage of distorted facts and buzz words, and reject his request for more contra aid. Firm repudiation of Administration policy on Nicaragua would finally give the Contadora Group a free hand to try to make negotiations work in Central America.

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