The agreement signed by the five Central American presidents at Tela, Honduras, will shortly bring to an end the use of Honduran territory as a sanctuary for the Nicaraguan resistance.
Both the United Nations and the Honduran army have clearly stated that they will not use force to disarm the Contras. But the resistance will not ignore what has been agreed to at Tela. To do so would only risk the few months of humanitarian assistance that the Contras have left. And the resistance has no desire to enter into conflicts with the government and armed forces of Honduras.
For the Bush Administration, it will now be more difficult to sidestep congressional calls for the cutoff of humanitarian aid. The Sandinistas have succeeded in ridding themselves of the responsibility to prove that they really are taking the steps toward democracy to which they committed themselves in several regional treaties. The American government is the one that now has to show that it is innocent of any attempt to place obstacles in the way of the Tela agreement.
Yet despite the gloomy outlook, there is no panic in the Contra camps. Instead, there is an impatience to show the world that the Contras compose a legitimate and nationalistic force. Thanks to their existence, subversive expansion in the rest of Central America has been restrained. And only by waging an armed fight could the resistance have obtained the concessions, however minimal, from the Sandinistas in favor of the internal Nicaraguan opposition.
Publicly and privately, the military leaders of the Nicaraguan resistance say that it is feasible for the Contras to survive as a viable military force within Nicaraguan territory. Even before the Tela meetings, Contra commanders were discussing different long-term strategies to continue as an armed force until international conditions change or the Sandinista regime is reformed.
Nobody ignores the Sandinista wish to annihilate every ex-Contra captured within Nicaragua. The examples are numerous, documented both by international human rights organizations as well as through intercepted Sandinista military communications. The campaign of Sandinista counterinsurgency against the resistance and its social base in the Nicaraguan countryside is relentless. Collaborators, couriers, guides, relatives of combatants and others are systematically killed. Even so, the military units of the resistance, once installed in their operative areas, have repeatedly shown a great capacity to survive--a phenomenon that can only be explained by the considerable popular help that the resistance has among the Nicaraguan rural people.
If something worries the Contra combatants, it is the fate of their more than 2,000 disabled companions and more than 45,000 relatives who they will have to leave behind in Honduras. Possibly the only thing they now expect from Washington is for America to help take care of these people, and that's what Contra leaders have told President Bush in person.
The Tela agreement, conceived as a means to achieve the democratization of Central America, starts from a hoax. Nicaragua, the country that has imposed its will on the other countries of Central America for the demobilization of the Contras, has at the same time made itself into a sanctuary for the other insurgent group of the region. The call for voluntary demobilization of the Salvadoran guerrillas, contained in the agreement, has no legal force or other mechanisms to make it stick. The Contra sanctuary in Honduras has been limited to the Yamales Valley and its outskirts--a place of easy access, controlled by a Honduran military border. The sanctuary of the Salvadoran guerrillas, on the other hand, embraces the whole territory of Nicaragua. It includes refugee shelters, safe houses provided by the Sandinista government, communications and commando installations, clandestine and public hospitals, landing strips and even the Sandinista Popular Army to train the Salvadoran guerrillas.
For the present, the winds of normalization and voluntary cohabitation with the Sandinistas are blowing through Central American capitals. In spite of this wish, stepped-up shipments of arms make their way over sea routes from Nicaragua to El Salvador; the uninterrupted wave of Nicaraguan refugees creates instability and tensions in the nearby countries, and capital flight, distrust of democratic institutions and a lack of foreign investment intensify the regional crisis.
The stability of Central America does not rest on the demobilization of the Contras, but on the democratization of Nicaragua. If the Sandinistas renounce their repressive internal policy and their monopoly on power, history will demonstrate that the long-run strategy of the resistance was wrong. The popular support that keeps the resistance alive within Nicaragua would fade away. Central America would not feel threatened any more. And the last Contra would die as an old man without there arising any necessity for the U.S. Congress to once again help the Nicaraguan resistance.
But then, not only the Sandinistas will have won, but all Nicaraguans.