Like two punched-out prizefighters staggering in a clinch, the Democratic Congress and the Republican Administration embraced last week, agreeing to end their eight-year fight over aid to the Contras. As much out of exhaustion as conviction, they decided to call it a draw.
Unable to persuade Congress to resume military aid, the White House had to give up former President Ronald Reagan's quest for a Contra victory. But as their part of the bipartisan bargain, congressional Democrats agreed to continue non-military aid to the Contras, thereby keeping them together, "body and soul" as Reagan used to say, in case the Nicaraguan elections next February go awry.
The Bush Administration has by no means abandoned its hope of ousting the Sandinistas; it will now simply shift its efforts from the battlefield to the electoral arena. U.S. officials are advising Contra leaders to return to Nicaragua and "think political."
The last time Nicaragua held elections, in 1984, the outcome was not in doubt. Virtually everyone, including U.S. officials and opposition leaders, conceded that the Sandinistas would win a fair contest. At Washington's behest, most of the opposition boycotted the election so that the Sandinistas would gain no stature from it.
Five years later, life in Nicaragua is much harder. The mantle of legitimacy that the Sandinistas won by ousting Anastasio Somoza has been tarnished by the collapse of the economy. Nearly a decade of war, combined with incessant conflict between a socialist-minded government and a capitalist private sector, has driven Nicaragua's standard of living below pre-revolutionary levels.
Economic privation has badly eroded the Sandinistas' popular support. An independent public opinion poll taken last year by the Catholic University in Managua found that only 42% of respondents approved of Daniel Ortega's performance as president and only 28% identified with the Sandinista party. If the internal opposition could unify behind a single candidate and put forward a credible political program, it would stand an excellent chance of winning next February.
But thus far the opposition has proven utterly unable to take advantage of the public's disaffection with the Sandinistas. Only 9% of respondents identify with the opposition; the vast majority (63%) said they identified with no one. The opposition remains splintered in more than a dozen mini-parties. The return of various Contra leaders from exile will probably aggravate these divisions. The Contras, after all, bickered constantly, uniting only under orders from Washington.
Will the United States, so accustomed to directing every facet of the armed opposition, stand idly by while the civic opposition squanders an opportunity to drive the Sandinistas from office by the ballot? Not likely. The Bush Administration will be sorely tempted to save the opposition from its own liabilities with large-scale covert assistance. In Nicaragua's depressed economy, a few million would weigh heavily in the electoral balance.
Covert involvement in foreign elections is a well-established technique in the CIA's repertoire. Moreover, covert aid has been flowing to Nicaragua's civic opposition for over a decade. Jimmy Carter initiated the program and Reagan expanded it until the recipients of CIA largess included the press, private sector, opposition political parties, trade unions and the Catholic Church. Expanding this aid as the election approaches will not seem like a radical new departure in policy. Nor is it likely to provoke much complaint from congressional Democrats, who, despite their opposition to paramilitary aid for the Contras, never raised serious objections to aiding the civic opposition.
Yet a major CIA campaign to influence the Nicaraguan election has several major drawbacks. When it is disclosed, as it inevitably will be, the recipients of CIA aid will be branded as disloyal agents of a foreign power. No candidate's campaign could benefit from such a stigma.
Moreover, if the opposition appears to have a real chance of winning, Sandinista hard-liners will argue for halting the election process rather than risking defeat. If they can make a convincing case that the election is being distorted by U.S. interference, they are likely to prevail. That would destroy hopes for democracy in Nicaragua, demolish the Central American peace accords and probably lead to a resumption of the Contra war.
If we believe that the merit of free elections is to let people decide their own fate, covert foreign interference negates their raison d'etre . The Bush Administration justified its neutrality in the recent elections in El Salvador by arguing that the integrity of the democratic process was more important than who won, even if the winner was not Washington's preferred candidate. That is a good maxim to abide by in Nicaragua as well.