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The Games of Central America : All Are Playing, but Lumbering Washington Slows the Action

December 24, 1987|RICHARD A. NUCCIO | Richard A. Nuccio is the director of Latin American and Caribbean programs at the Roosevelt Center in Washington. For the past year he has been traveling around the country conducting sessions of the center's educational (and apolitical) strategy "game" on Central America.

Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10--In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias Sanchez implores the superpowers to "let Central Americans decide the future of Central America."

Washington, Dec. 10--Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev suggests to President Reagan in a White House stroll that limits might be placed on Soviet military aid to Nicaragua if U.S. aid to the Contras is curtailed.

Washington, Dec. 10--Maj. Roger Miranda Bengoechea, former chief aide to Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, tells U.S. journalists in his first interview since defecting from the Sandinista Popular Army that Nicaragua plans a military buildup to 500,000 regular and reserve forces by 1995.

Washington, Dec. 10--Ambassador-designate Richard H. Melton testifies in Congress that the monitoring of Nicaraguan compliance with the regional peace plan authored by Arias will require a "strong U.S. Embassy" in Managua.

The competing and contrasting events of that one Thursday earlier this month reveal more transparently than usual the game of international politics that is being played out over Central America. Messages are sent out like so many billiard balls to ricochet off one another, and on occasion they obtain the desired result through a two- or even three-cushion shot.

Arias has been among the most adept, demonstrating that angle shots are crucial to any successful game. When the Sandinistas are proving difficult in negotiations, he discourages intractability by raising the specter of a U.S. invasion if the peace process fails. Sandinista supporters denounce him, but others get the message. In Oslo he condemns in the strongest terms the Reagan Administration's request for continued Contra aid. A certain U.S. assistant secretary of state will mumble epithets about the Costa Rican in private, but crucial European support will be solidified and House Democrats' opposition strengthened.

The tragic part of Washington's game is that it has more to do with domestic politics than with the dynamics of Central America. Jim Wright, the wily House majority leader, signed onto an Administration peace plan that he knew was close enough to a forthcoming Central American accord to be superseded by it. When the five Central American presidents signed the accord in August, Wright had what he needed: a real alternative to Contra aid that the Democrats might be able to ride into the 1988 elections.

El Savador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte, his eye on a possible Democratic succession in the White House, let himself be persuaded by congressional liberals to sign the accord in Guatemala City and to concede enough to keep the peace process going. The reward? Unrestricted aid for his failing government. While a good bargain for the peace process, this means that El Salvador can continue to ignore the need for dramatic reforms and alternatives to massive aid from the United States.

While most of the players plod along carefully, Nicaragua can be counted on for the break shots. The Sandinistas continually frustrate U.S. opponents of Administration policy by acting as if they are still running a guerrilla revolution instead of engaging in interest-group politics. If U.S. aid to the Contras can be a bargaining chip, so can Nicaraguan aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas. If the Soviets can concentrate the Sandinista mind with delayed oil shipments to encourage the signing of the Guatemala accord, the Sandinistas can make public secret plans for future Soviet aid that Moscow might be tempted to negotiate away in the interests of superpower rapprochement.

These games that nations play are as old as history, but the Central America contest has a new, added technology trap: All the players see one another's moves instantly, and the temptation is to react as quickly. Accustomed as it is to applying brawn rather than brains to foreign-policy problems, the United States is especially disadvantaged in the micropower politics of the region. While political spaces in Central America open and close with rapidity, Washington lumbers along, lacking the domestic consensus that is essential to political agility.

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