Recent anti-American rhetoric by Sandinista leaders and revelations by a Nicaraguan military defector have fanned the flames for more U.S. military aid to the Contras. However, these statements come as no surprise, and should not be allowed to cloud the focus of current efforts to strike a Central American peace agreement.
Statements by Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega seemed to confirm reports by his former aide, Maj. Roger Miranda Bengoechea, when he defected to the United States. Both men claim that Nicaragua is in the midst of a major armed-forces buildup to have one-fifth of its population armed by 1995.
The Reagan Administration was quick to point to these developments as conclusive evidence that Nicaragua's government poses a direct threat to its Central American neighbors. If so, it is evidence that can be stacked on the piles of evidence supporting the same conclusion that already exists in Washington. To use Ortega's speech and Miranda's claims as impetus for renewed U.S. military aid to the Contras is to turn our back on the peace process. (The aid approved by Congress in the closing hours before its holiday recess is for humanitarian purposes.)
The issue is not the credibility of the Sandinistas. Instead, what is the best way to bring about change in Nicaragua?
The real significance of Miranda's defection is that he may provide Washington with new insight to the internal machinations of the Sandinista regime in Managua.
Humberto Ortega's bellicose remarks are damaging, but not fatal, to prospects for a regional peace settlement. Just as his brother, President Daniel Ortega, did with a 1985 trip to Moscow on the eve of a crucial congressional vote on Contra aid, Humberto Ortega has offered the United States an excuse to escalate the fighting in Nicaragua.
Over the years the Nicaraguan government has made no secret of its plans for a huge armed-forces expansion. The Reagan Administration responded by promising U.S. support to a loosely organized band of rebels who today, after substantial U.S. military and humanitarian aid, have yet to develop a clear political agenda. They have failed to emerge as an attractive political alternative to the Sandinistas.
Sandinista militarization can be most effectively addressed by the United States in concert with our allies in the region, not by a proxy force.
Trips to Moscow and military defectors do not change the basic equation: The Sandinistas are in power; they can rely on more support from the Soviets than the Contras can count on from the United States, and Washington appears out of options short of direct intervention.
Rather than come as a surprise, events of the last few days should do nothing more than make the Central American peace agreement of last August more significant.
Signed by all five Central American presidents, the regional peace treaty advanced by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez stands as the best means to achieve U.S. objectives in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. If implemented, the treaty would require the Sandinistas to open the country's political process to dissidents, release political prisoners and agree to a cease-fire as well as an amnesty for the Contras. In return, Washington must cease its support of the Contras, and Honduras could no longer allow its territory to be used as a rebel base.
Unfortunately, we are not a party to the treaty, which may be the plan's greatest weakness. The Central American accord does not take into account security concerns of the United States and our Central American allies. These include the limitation or elimination of Soviet and Soviet Bloc military and security advisers, a substantial reduction in the size of Nicaragua's armed forces and guarantees against Soviet or Cuban military bases and the introduction of new weapon systems.
These issues should be addressed in direct bilateral negotiations between Nicaragua and the United States in consultation with our Central American allies. The failure to pursue these negotiations seriously has prevented the development of a bipartisan consensus in this country and kept us out of active engagement in the peace process.
The modest amount of U.S. humanitarian aid to the Contras does not tilt the balance in the region or give the Ortegas an excuse to refuse to comply with the treaty. It sends a clear message to Nicaraguan leaders that tactics aimed at stalling the Central American peace process could be met by continued support of the Contras.
At this time, however, Washington should not obstruct the continuing negotiation process by seeking further military aid for the Contras.
Regarding continued Soviet aid to the Nicaraguan government, I am intrigued by Mikhail S. Gorbachev's indication during the Washington summit that the Soviets would abide by the spirit of the Central American peace agreement by discontinuing military aid to Nicaragua if the United States would halt aid to the Contras. The Reagan Administration should aggressively seek an agreement based on the Gorbachev formula.