WASHINGTON — The White House decision giving the Central Intelligence Agency control over the U.S. proxy war against Nicaragua means the United States will once again be trying to micromanage a Third World conflict. Once again, CIA-selected leaders will be presented as individuals the Nicaraguan people have chosen. Once again, U.S. technology will struggle against Third World nationalism, tarnishing the U.S. image throughout the world. And once again, the United States will probably lose.
There are at least three reasons why the new U.S. policy will probably fail: the demand for social peace, the need for social justice and the weight of history.
Although the Administration usually suggests that revolutions should only take place by majority vote at the ballot box, the truth is that most revolutions, including our own, have been the work of minorities. The majority turns to the revolutionaries after concluding that they are more likely than the authorities to provide order.
In many Central American countries the people rightly view the agents of government as the principal cause of social disorder. Efforts of the man at the top, however well intentioned, are discounted because he cannot control his own military, usually beholden to the extreme right. In Guatemala, for example, a courageous man, Vinicio Cerezo, was recently elected on a platform of democracy and social reform. But he has been unable to stop the killing--more than 700 since his inauguration on Jan. 14. In June, his personal pilot was kidnaped and killed.
Despite Washington's claims of progress in El Salvador, murders by groups associated with certain government agencies continue at a sickening rate--close to 2,000 a year. Meanwhile, after a careful investigation in Nicaragua, Americas Watch concluded in early 1986 that "we are unable to detect in Nicaragua a deliberate, centrally directed practice of 'disappearing' detainees as took place in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, in Guatemala from 1966 to the present and in El Salvador during the past six years."
The people of Nicaragua are distressed at many aspects of Sandinista misrule--the poor economy and the crackdowns on political freedom--but they know that the contras, whose use of terror as a political weapon is documented, threaten a return to the kind of social disorder that ravages neighboring states. It is probably for this reason that, despite a rising level of popular discontent, the contras have yet to take and hold a single town on Nicaraguan soil.
The need for more social justice in Central America is another reason why U.S. policy will probably fail. It is no accident that the conflict in Central America is now most acute in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In each, the poorest 20% of the population is much worse off than even in neighboring states like Honduras. In El Salvador the poorest 20% received only 2% of the national income in 1980. In Nicaragua, the figure was 3%. The average annual income for the poorest 20% in the two countries was about $50, compared with $111 in poor Guatemala.
It might be possible to deal with such misery short of revolution if the United States wholeheartedly backed democratic leaders pressing for radical change. But when one arises, like Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, the United States, for domestic reasons, cannot make it clear to the far right in the region that the United States stands categorically behind the call for drastic change. Hard pressed by the right, the Duartes of the region are forced to resort to half measures. Soon the options again appear starkly--either repression or revolution--but repression cannot work forever.
A final reason for potential U.S. failure involves our repeated inability to understand the dominant force of the age. It is not communism or capitalism but nationalism. The political movement that captures the national symbols prevails. And precisely because the status quo in Central America is too identified with Washington, it is vulnerable.
When the history of the American involvement with the Nicaraguan resistance is written, the single greatest mistake will turn out to be U.S. unwillingness to work with Eden Pastora, who maintains that he is a "democratic revolutionary," whereas those the United States supports are "counterrevolutionaries." Pastora perhaps exaggerates his differences with contra leaders. But is it an accident that all three of the top contra civilians come from Nicaragua's business or financial world? One is a former Coca-Cola executive, one a former banker and one a former president of the Chamber of Nicaraguan Industries. These are the people the CIA has selected to develop popular appeal among Nicaraguan peasants.
Because Pastora would not take orders from his CIA handlers, the United States dumped him. But it was precisely because he would not take orders that he had some chance of capturing the nationalist mantle from the Sandinistas.