President Reagan is trying to rekindle his war against Nicaragua, undeterred by the failure of six years of U.S.-sponsored violence in that small country to improve an already miserable situation. With only six months left of the Reagan presidency, Congress must keep him in check to prevent further damage to U.S. relations with Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America.
Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has introduced a bill to renew military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras. Congress wisely terminated lethal aid to them in February, providing instead $48 million worth of "humanitarian" aid--food, clothing and medical supplies. Dole, whose proposal could be voted on this week, wants to give the Contras another $47 million--with $27 million for humanitarian aid and $20 million to purchase ammunition so that the rebels could renew their futile but bloody war to topple the Sandinista regime.
As expected, Dole and Reagan's other allies on Capitol Hill point to a recent Sandinista crackdown on opposition groups inside Nicaragua, like the independent newspaper La Prensa, and the ouster of U.S. Ambassador Richard H. Melton to justify renewed Contra aid. As Contra military pressure relaxes, they say, the Sandinistas are showing their true colors and totalitarian tendencies.
But the Contras also are showing their true colors. At a recent meeting of top Contras, Col. Enrique Bermudez--an unrepentant backer of the hated Somoza dictatorship that the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979--was elected their chief military and political leader. To make room at the top for this military thug, the Contras ousted one of the few genuine democrats in their ranks, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, former editor of La Prensa.
No realistic critic of Reagan's obsessive campaign against Nicaragua has ever doubted the Sandinistas' latent totalitarianism. The question has been how best to contain it so that Nicaraguans can have a measure of freedom and Sandinista neighbors can have a measure of security. Dole and others--including Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), now Michael S. Dukakis' running mate--have argued in the past that even if the Contras cannot win they keep pressure on Managua to negotiate seriously both with its neighbors and with its internal opposition. But the principal peacemaker in Central America, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, has repeatedly said that financing the Contras is a bad idea. Instead of making the Sandinistas more malleable, Arias warns, the Contra war makes them more harsh, defensive and inflexible.
There is only one cynical political reason to try to renew aid to the Contras now: to put congressional Democrats, particularly Bentsen, on the spot before the November election. Reagan and other right-wing Republicans are so convinced that the Sandinistas are a profound threat to U.S. security that they want to use the Nicaraguan crisis as a campaign issue. They want to accuse anyone who votes against Contra aid, Democrat or Republican, of having "lost" Nicaragua.
Congress should not allow itself to be intimidated. Congressmen must remember that throughout this tragic farce of a Central American policy, the greatest foreign-policy failure of the Reagan years, the American people have never allowed themselves to be buffaloed by Reagan's dark warnings about the Sandinistas. They are sensible enough to know that a tiny, backward nation like Nicaragua is no threat to the United States. That explains why opinion polls consistently show minimal support for Reagan's dirty little war. Congress showed courage and foresight in ending Contra aid earlier this year, and it must maintain that position now. That is the only way to give the next President a fair chance to deal with Nicaragua peace-fully and more constructively than Reagan has.