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Arias' Vision Takes a Beating : Nicaragua May Get Stuck With a Mutation of Democracy

December 11, 1987|ROBERT S. LEIKEN | Robert S. Leiken is a visiting scholar at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs

While Mikhail S. Gorbachev was visiting Washington, Oscar Arias Sanchez was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The Nobel committee probably made the right choice. The Central American peace process is certainly as much a breakthrough as the summit meeting, and Arias' idea of how to bring peace, democracy and development to Central America could start "new thinking" in much of the developing world.

The peace process that Costa Rica's president set in motion last summer has by now confounded almost everybody--the Reagan Administration, its congressional opponents, all the pundits, even Daniel Ortega. The Sandinistas looked like the easy winners when the Arias plan was approved by the five Central American presidents in Guatemala on Aug. 7. The Administration denounced it as "fatally flawed," and conservatives reviled Arias for delivering a stab in the back to the Contras. The Contras themselves were stunned. The expectation was that their army would fade away as the "peace process" unfolded, that the Sandinistas would exchange superficial and transient reforms for legitimacy and permanent power, and that President Arias, his ambitions focused on international opinion, would bless the foul transaction and collect the Nobel Prize.

But instead of resting on his laurels, Arias became more active, insisting that the Sandinistas had to find a way to talk with the Contras. At the same time, exuberant congressional liberals overplayed their hand by making it clear to everyone, including the Sandinistas, that their first concern was to quash President Reagan's pet program; their last, democracy in Nicaragua. Ignoring Arias' own recommendations, Reagan vowed to go to Congress for more Contra aid. Invited by House Speaker Jim Wright, Arias arrived first and got some key conservative congressmen to "give peace a chance." At length, seeing that it was stuck with Arias, the Administration shelved its aid request, letting public attention shift from Washington to Nicaragua.

There the Contras had refused to fold up their tents; instead, they had become a surprisingly active and effective performer, launching their most able diplomatic, political and military campaign of the six-year war. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, after having consistently outmaneuvered the Contras and the Administration for years, blustered, blundered and bullied their way into diplomatic isolation. Then, just when everyone was sure of Sandinista intransigence, Ortega made a startling about-face: He agreed to talks with the Contras (indirectly, through Nicaragua's cardinal), and flew to Washington for a word with Speaker Wright.

With a maneuver that the comandante believed "left the Administration totally isolated," Ortega got Wright to stray beyond the usual institutional boundaries and promote as a "step forward" a Sandinista cease-fire proposal, raising a hailstorm of protests from the State Department and even from staunchly liberal quarters like the Washington Post. Ortega was safely out of town by the time Wright realized that he had stepped into something soft and sticky.

Arias' peace process had proved to be a Tar Baby.

Earlier last summer the Sandinistas devoted their diplomatic energy to efforts to revive the Contadora initiative and pre-empt the Arias plan. They failed, and when the Reagan-Wright joint plan for Nicaragua was announced, the Sandinistas signed on the Arias plan as the lesser of two evils.

Arias' plan was a conceptual sea change from the tack that was followed by the four Contadora countries (Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama): achieving peace by assuring the security of sovereign states and getting them to negotiate; then economic development could be set in motion, which would lead to democracy. For Arias the relationship of sovereignty, peace, development and democracy is less lineal, more dialectical. "Without democracy, there can be no peace in Central America," Arias says frequently. No development either, because Arias stresses that development requires the active participation of all the economic agents of society--workers and peasants with the right to organize, professionals and entrepreneurs with autonomy, all represented in the political process. That would require compromise on a historic scale--not only among sovereign governments but also between those governments and their opposition.

For centuries Central America has been torn apart by militaristic factions under foreign patrons. In the colonial period, groups loyal to the French and the Dutch fought with the Spanish for power. After independence from Spain, the British and the Americans contended. Now the Russians have fielded a team. Arias believes that only by establishing democratic structures for resolving disputes can the region break the cycle of outside interference and internecine war.

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