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Arias' Prize May Serve U.S. Goals : It Can Be a Lever to Open Nicaragua to Democracy

October 16, 1987|SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL | Susan Kaufman Purcell is director of the Latin American project at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The conventional wisdom regarding Oscar Arias Sanchez's Nobel Peace Prize is that it dooms Ronald Reagan's Nicaragua policy. Perhaps, but not necessarily. It does guarantee congressional disapproval of renewed funding for the so-called contras, at least until after the Nov. 7 deadline for complying with Arias' peace plan. But that has been true since August, when the peace process began. On the other hand, President Arias' enhanced international stature will now allow him to push harder for democratization in Nicaragua. This is the key innovation of his peace plan and a goal strongly supported by the Reagan Administration.

Arias believes, as the Reagan Administration does, that peace without democracy in Nicaragua will be ephemeral. As long as the Sandinistas remain committed Marxist-Leninists, Nicaragua will continue to be the source of refugees as well as of revolutionaries intent on creating like-minded regimes in neighboring countries. At best, this will provoke a creeping militarization of the new and still weak Central American democracies. At worst, it will result in communist regimes allied with Nicaragua, Cuba and the Soviet Union.

President Arias admits that there is no precedent for the voluntary democratization of a Marxist-Leninist regime that his peace plan requires. He himself initially expressed doubts regarding the Sandinistas' stated commitment to democratize. But he decided that it was worth taking a risk to "give peace a chance."

This implied a halt to further funding of the contras while the peace process was unfolding. The Sandinistas have long used U.S. support for the Nicaraguan resistance as an excuse for their creation of a heavily militarized, dictatorial regime. Arias wanted to remove this excuse and see what happened.

Here is where the Costa Rican president and the Reagan Administration disagree. U.S. government officials argue that continued aid to the contras is necessary to keep pressure on the Sandinistas. Without such aid, the Nicaraguan resistance will collapse, allowing the Sandinistas to nullify whatever democratic reforms they have made. Arias, in contrast, believes that diplomacy is a more rapid route to democratization. If negotiations fail, he argues, the world will know what the Sandinistas are really like and be more willing to apply heavy pressure on them to democratize.

This was always the weakest part of Arias' argument. Countries have behaved far worse than the Sandinistas without provoking the rest of the world to act. Realizing this, Arias made a personal commitment to take the issue to the Organization of American States if the Sandinistas break their word.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Costa Rican president strengthens his hand in his democratic quest. He can now use his enhanced stature to play more of a mediating role between the United States and Nicaragua, as well as to pass judgment on the behavior of both. This means not only continuing to resist renewed aid for the Nicaraguan resistance during the peace process; it also involves giving the Sandinistas credit for what they have done to move Nicaragua toward democracy, as well as criticizing them for what they have so far refused to do.

To date, the Sandinistas have allowed the newspaper La Prensa to reopen and the Catholic radio station to resume its broadcasts. They have declared an amnesty and a cease-fire and have set up a commission of national reconciliation. They also have allowed some exiles to return and have released a number of prisoners.

But the peace plan calls for complete freedom of the press and access to the media. It provides for freedom of association and a negotiated, not declared, cease-fire and amnesty. It also requires a lifting of the state of emergency.

Allowing one newspaper and one radio station to reopen is progress, but it does not constitute freedom of the press or free access to the media. Furthermore, all television stations remain in the hands of the government. And a unilaterally declared cease-fire is not a negotiated cease-fire; it is a call for surrender on terms imposed by the Sandinista government.

Nicaragua is not being asked to do more than its neighbors, nor has it done so. In fact, in some cases the reverse is true. The governments of El Salvador and Guatemala have engaged in direct talks with their armed opposition movements, unlike the Sandinistas.

Whether the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Oscar Arias is good or bad for U.S. interests therefore depends on how the Costa Rican president chooses to use his enhanced prestige. If it strengthens his resolve to press for continuing democratic reform in Nicaragua, and there are already signs that this will be the case, it will serve the interests of both the United States and its democratic friends in Central America.

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