The road to serfdom is paved with promises to hold elections. Once again the people of Nicaragua have been promised that their Sandinista rulers will hold free and fair elections. A new agreement reached among the presidents of the four Central American democracies and Daniel Ortega provides that democratic elections will be held in Nicaragua next February. But this agreement also mandates that a plan be formulated first for disbanding and dispersing all the Contras--the armed resistance forces who have long fought for democratic elections.
The first time the Nicaraguan communists promised free elections was in July, 1979, even before they had achieved full control of the country. That promise was rewarded by the Organization of American States' recognition U.S. financial support. A more recent promise of elections was made a year and a half ago as part of the so-called Arias plan, and it provided the rationale for Congress to refuse further military assistance to the Contras.
At that time, the Contras were still in a strong position. If they had received but a fraction of the military and moral support that Congress generously gave the Afghan freedom fighters, they could have rallied and mobilized the strong resentment of the Nicaraguan population against the communist government. This, in turn, might have forced the Nicaraguan rulers some time ago to hold free elections. Thus, as we watched the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, we might also have seen the withdrawal from Nicaragua of Cuban military advisers and secret-police experts--together with the departure of the Sandinista junta for a long holiday in Havana. Such a turn of events would have given heart to the Christian Democrats in El Salvador and helped their president win over more of the insurgents for a fair political contest, free of terrorism and violence.
This is what might have been. In the 1980s we traveled on a fast road toward a democratic order for all of Central America. First, democracy came to El Salvador and Honduras, then to Guatemala. By mid-1987, Nicaragua seemed to be next. But at that point, the Reagan Administration's policy failed disastrously--not in Nicaragua, but on Capitol Hill.
That disaster now imposes a heavy burden on the Bush Administration. It would be futile, though, to try to revive the Reagan Administration policy. Given today's majority view in Congress, President Bush is right in shelving the idea for renewed military assistance for the Contras.
Central America is no longer on the fast road toward a democratic order.
In El Salvador, the communist insurgents gained enormous encouragement from the United States' abandonment of the Contras--and gained steadier sources for arms supplies as well. The Salvadoran government forces and people begin to despair. This despair almost certainly will deepen in the coming months when Congress addresses the question of next year's aid for El Salvador. Already, various organizations in the United States are hard at work on an agenda to pressure Congress to terminate military aid for El Salvador, or at least to cut it drastically. The arguments will be familiar: human-rights violations committed by the government forces, the need for reaching a political compromise with the insurgents (note, the Sandinistas did not have to negotiate with the Contras!) and that Central America should be left to sort out its own problems without Yankee intervention.
In Guatemala the communist forces will want to imitate the successes of their comrades in Nicaragua and El Salvador. At the same time, the autocratic elements in the Guatemalan army will become increasingly restive. Not a good prospect for Guatemala's fragile democracy.
Honduras, finally, will feel hopelessly squeezed between the successful insurgents in El Salvador and the huge Sandinista army in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, more and more Central Americans will seek to escape repression and misery by fleeing to the United States. Our state and local governments should get ready to receive new waves of immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The problems of Central America will thus again land in the lap of Congress. Angry constituents from Miami to Los Angeles will demand that their representatives in Washington "do something." Alas, our options will be very limited.
Some Americans propose that negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev could solve our problems in Central America. But cutting off Soviet military aid wouldn't help much; with the Contras no longer fighting, the Nicaraguan arsenals now hold enough supplies to support all the insurgencies in Central America for many years. As for the refugee problem--surely we can't ask Gorbachev to solve that; we wouldn't want him to imprison Central Americans behind barbed wire and minefields like the East Germans.
Congress will soon wake to the fact that its own writ has shaped a new order for Central America, based on four precepts: (1) Anti-communist resistance forces will be denied U.S. military aid. (2) Communist governments and resistance forces can receive Soviet military aid (although we will complain about it). (3) Democratic governments must negotiate with totalitarian insurgent forces (for example, El Salvador), but totalitarian regimes need not negotiate with democratic resistance movements (for example, Nicaragua). (4) We will cut our military and economic aid to democratic governments if they don't abide by the preceding three rules.