MANAGUA — The news of the congressional rejection of further funding for the Contras was received in Central America with relief and guarded optimism. Relief because the House of Representatives said no to more war, and guarded optimism because the door is now open for a full-fledged move toward peace. In short, for Central America, and most of all for Nicaragua, last Wednesday's vote represents a triumph of common sense and of pragmatism. Central America can breathe a sigh of relief in view of the symbolic setback that this vote represents for a policy based on a military solution, a policy that (in the words of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) is dead and should be left that way.
Neither Nobel Prize-winning Oscar Arias Sanchez nor any other Central American president was willing to yield in the face of U.S. pressure to scuttle the Guatemala accords and join Washington in its efforts to isolate Managua. The mid-January presidential summit took place as scheduled in San Jose and produced a declaration reaffirming the validity of the accords signed in August.
The fact is, the White House had become the last holdout for those opposed to a negotiated solution to the Central American crisis, even in the face of opposition from its European and Latin American allies. In this sense, President Reagan's speech on the eve of the congressional vote made few, if any, converts. The same arguments that had been heard many times before were invoked again as if nothing had changed, either in Central America or Washington.
Now, everyone has come out a winner--at least everyone who believes that peace must be based on mutual understanding and respect. Certainly the people of the United States, consistently opposed to Contra aid in the polls, are aware that this is their victory. By breaking the pattern of isolation, which was inherent in the policy based on a military solution, the United States has opened up the opportunity to join with Central and Latin America, and with the new interest of Europe in the region, in the search for a negotiated solution.
In the most immediate sense, Nicaragua is the party most benefited by the vote. Managua's intense diplomatic efforts of recent weeks had but one objective: to break the siege of war in order to open the possibility of democratic coexistence, both inside the country and with its neighbors, and ultimately with the United States. To this end, the Sandinistas put their political credibility on the line in exchange for the time and space, which has been denied by seven years of war, to show the progressive nature of their revolution. President Daniel Ortega's visit to the Pope and several European capitals, as well as Nicaragua's relations with Central and Latin America, came together to form a complex web of commitments that cannot be dismissed as "cosmetic," as some cynics would have it. In this light it is important to recognize that, even if Contra aid had been approved, Managua could not have responded with drastic measures without first consulting the Contadora countries and Nicaragua's principal allies in Western Europe, and even supporters of a normalization policy in Washington.
The House vote should serve now as the first step in a change in course in Washington, and as confirmation of Managua's efforts to move the peace process forward. Press freedom, amnesty, a negotiated cease fire, democratic reforms and internal dialogue have all been bolstered by this vote. They can be further strengthened if the will and conviction behind Congress' 219 no votes continues to develop. The MIGs are in Moscow, and they don't have to come to Managua; foreign military advisers will leave Nicaragua; in a few months the Nicaraguan people will elect local authorities in countrywide municipal elections. . . . All this is possible to the extent that Washington follows through on last Wednesday's vote.
The old dilemma, whether Nicaragua will democratize as a result of military pressure or as a result of space provided by negotiations, has temporarily been tilted in favor of the latter.
But the first warning signs of sliding back to military pressure have already appeared on the horizon: the Senate's resolution in favor of Contra aid; the declarations of Oliver North's cohorts in the private network that they are disposed to replace whatever aid Congress cuts off, and the CIA's plans for an emergency airlift to deliver what's left in the pipeline to the Contras before the Feb. 29 deadline.
Such contradictory signs from the north make it difficult for Central America to act decisively. And they pose difficulty for Nicaragua to follow through with confidence on the reforms that have been initiated.
Congress and the U.S. public must keep their intentions firm and clear. Washington and Managua can cease to be symbols of confrontation. The first steppingstone has been laid, bringing closer the day when the two countries can become friends. And--why not?--even allies.