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Central Americans Call a U.S. Bluff

August 23, 1987|Jorge Castaneda | Jorge Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — Beyond the recent confusion, splits and flip-flops in Reagan Administration Central American policy, lies a reality the White House would rather not admit. A bluff was called. And a policy of "symmetry" was proved asymmetrical. The disarray--an improvised "Reagan peace plan," Special Envoy Philip C. Habib's resignation and the divided, ambiguous response to the agreement reached in Guatemala by the five Central American presidents--stems from the same cause: The military impotence shown by Ronald Reagan's cherished "freedom fighters" on the ground in Nicaragua is increasingly expressing itself in diplomatic and political defeats for the United States. This has left the United States with few, if any, options; in the twilight year of his term, Ronald Reagan is playing his last cards in Central America.

It came as little surprise that the Reagan Administration hardly welcomed the agreement signed earlier this month by Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Almost under any possible interpretation, the document agreed to in Guatemala City represents a major setback for U.S. policy in the region. The reasons are simple, and were quickly grasped by hard-liners at the State Department and the National Security Council.

First, the agreement legitimizes the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Contrasting with previous Central America meetings, when Costa Rica President Oscar Arias himself questioned Daniel Ortega's credentials as leader of his country, and insisted on discussing the "democratic nature" of each government represented in conference, the Guatemala agreement bestowed on the Sandinistas the mantle of legitimacy they had always sought.

By signing an agreement with Ortega, by negotiating with him in (relatively) good faith, by not questioning his status or the way he reached power as president of Nicaragua, the other Central American nations finally came around to considering the Nicaraguan revolution as an irreversible, although amendable, fact of regional life. Only Reagan continues to live by the fiction that the regime in Nicaragua can be overthrown or otherwise done away with.

Second, and perhaps more concretely, the Central American peace agreement is indeed, as the Administration has hinted, one-sided or unbalanced. The demands it makes of the Sandinistas are either irrelevant or open-ended, difficult if not impossible to verify and exceedingly tough to enforce: national reconciliation, "best efforts for a cease-fire" and an end to possible Sandinista support for insurgents in El Salvador. But the concession the United States is called on to implement is simple and precise: a halt in aid to the contras. So while the Sandinistas can remain in a relative limbo, carrying out some of their obligations little by little, but not all of them at once, thus complying with the agreement but not satisfying Reagan Administration demands, the United States either ceases aid to the contras or doesn't.

If it does, the contras are through, and the White House dream of ousting Ortega before Reagan leaves office is shattered. If aid continues, however, the United States appears as the party responsible for the failure of the peace agreement and the breakdown of further negotiations. While President Reagan may think this is not too great a price to pay for efforts to unseat the Sandinistas, Congress probably will.

The broader impact of the Guatemala document formalizes the most important diplomatic event to take place in Central America in recent years: Costa Rica's, and to a lesser extent Guatemala's changing of sides in the region's confrontations. Instead of constantly supporting U.S. diplomatic and military efforts against the Sandinistas--by tolerating the presence of anti-Sandinista rebels operating in its territory and opposing other peace initiatives--Costa Rica has now openly defied the United States. Although not directly siding with Nicaragua, it has emphasized its opposition to continued U.S. aid to the contras over any other aspect of the regional conflict. Reagan is left with Honduras and El Salvador as his only allies in Central America, outvoted and outmaneuvered by their three neighbors.

Finally, the document took the United States at its word--and called its bluff. By tacitly accepting the symmetry which the Reagan Administration has always tried to establish between Nicaragua and El Salvador, between Salvador's insurgents and the Nicaraguan contras , between U.S. aid to the latter and Nicaragua support for the former, the Central American Peace Initiative underlined the weakest plank in the U.S. platform.

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