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A Burning Desire for Peace : Central America Has Done Its Part, Now U.S. Must Back Off

November 27, 1987|MICHAEL D. BARNES | Michael D. Barnes, former chairman of the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, now practices law in Washington. He also is a member of the Inter-American Dialogue and the Commission on U.S.-Latin American Relations

I have just returned from a trip to Central America to evaluate progress under the Arias peace plan, and I am struck by three lingering impressions.

The first is that there is a vast difference between the hopefulness, the prayerfulness and the guarded optimism with which Central Americans view their peace process, and the attitude of sullen contempt of our own government--evidenced most recently by high-level attacks on House Speaker Jim Wright's constructive role.

There is in Nicaragua today a burning desire for peace, a yearning that is matched elsewhere in the region. Nicaraguans are sick of war, sick of death, sick of shortages, sick of the oppressive political environment that the war and the Sandinistas have created. Sandinista leaders see the goals of the revolution being overwhelmed by war and scarcity.

The Administration concludes from this state of affairs that its policy is working--that the Contras are forcing the Sandinistas to sue for peace, and that therefore more Contra aid will improve the terms. That is a dangerous delusion. What made the five-nation accord in Guatemala possible was not the Contra threat but the fact that the Central Americans made the Sandinistas an offer they could accept--that is, one that did not entail Sandinista suicide. Once such an offer was made, agreement was possible, and once agreement was struck, an astounding degree of positive movement was unleashed throughout Central America.

My second impression is that the Sandinistas have shown by their own positive steps that they are prepared to go the extra mile to make the process work. The most compelling evidence of that is their selection of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to head the National Reconciliation Commission and to be the intermediary for arranging a cease-fire with the Contras. No other Central American government has been prepared to grant such a role to a leading sympathizer with its armed opposition. The Sandinistas' absolute commitment to the peace process is demonstrated by their willingness to put their future in the hands of a person they consider to be an arch-enemy of the regime.

But that is not the only positive sign. In three short months a dramatic reversal has taken place in Nicaraguan politics. The Sandinistas have:

--Announced the imminent release of nearly 1,000 political prisoners.

--Announced legislation that would free the remaining 3,000 to 4,000 and lift the state of emergency on a determination by the accord's verification commission that U.S. and Honduran aid to the Contras had ceased.

--Offered, for the first time, indirect talks with the Contras to arrange a cease-fire.

--Permitted the opposition newspaper and the Catholic radio station to reopen, and halted prior censorship against them.

These are only partial responses. Much remains to be done, and the skepticism of Nicaragua's critics is well founded. But the fact remains that Nicaragua has done more to comply with the agreement than any other country. No one could have predicted--certainly, no one did predict--such progress at the time the agreement was signed. What a contrast with the attitude of the Contras, who have taken out full-page ads in Costa Rican newspapers--paid for, no doubt, by the U.S. taxpayers--urging Costa Ricans to oppose their president's peace plan.

The agreement that was drawn up by President Oscar Arias Sanchez asks so little of the United States, compared with the wrenching political and military steps that the Central Americans have required themselves to take. This country is asked only to stop funding a rebel movement that violates international law and that is completely unnecessary for our own security. Yet Central America is making the difficult choices necessary to retain the momentum toward peace while our own government haughtily swears never to take the one action that is required of it to nurture the region's hopes.

My third impression is that it would be a tragedy if the peace plan were to fail and the United States were perceived by the world to be responsible--as we surely would be. It would be scarcely less tragic if the plan were to succeed over U.S. opposition, not only because of the damage that would do to our image and our relations with Latin America, but also because the conditions to sustain peace in the area cannot be built without U.S. help. Central America cannot achieve lasting peace unless we help it to rectify existing conditions of economic stagnation, grinding poverty, vast social inequities, disrespect for human rights and weak civilian institutions confronted by strengthened and overbearing militaries.

Central America's governments and people have placed on the Guatemala agreement their hopes for better lives in a peaceful region. To support them, we should immediately announce two things: that we are totally in favor of Central America resolving its conflicts on its own terms, and that we will comply with Central America's request that we halt all aid to the Contras; then we should assure Central America that when its conflicts end, we will help with the reconstruction of the region.

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