Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987
The Crash of '87: Opening of a New Period?
— The Editors
The Rainbow: Storm Clouds Ahead?
— Joanna Misnik
Vanunu and the Israeli Bomb
— Stanley Heller
Alan Garcia & the Crisis of Populist Rule in Peru
— Scott Malcomson
On Sendero Luminoso -- Shining Path
— Scott Malcomson
South Africa: The Black Unions & the State of Emergency
— Pippa Green & Alan Hirsch
South African Unionists Back Divestment
— John Gomomo
- Guidelines for Divestment
Of Scrooge, Bentham & Reagan
— Paul Siegel
Random Shots: Pat Robertson's Miracle
— R.F. Kampfer
- Auto Unionism in Crisis
It's Their Crisis -- But Our Jobs
— Robert Brenner interviews Eric Mann
New Speedup in Auto
— Kim Moody
- Central America
Central America's Peace Plan & the US. Solidarity Movement
— David Finkel
CISPES: Challenge of Solidarity
— David Finkel
Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast Dialogue: Autonomy & the Revolution
— Katherine Yih
The FSLN, Mass Organizations & the Socialist Transition
— Milton Fisk
- More Debate on Baby M
Debate on Baby M
— The Editors
Protecting the Mother's Right Is Critical
— Nancy Holmstrom
A Reply to Our Critics
— Johanna Brenner & Bill Resnick
- In Memoriam
Harvey Goldberg: An Appreciation
— Patrick M. Quinn
AN EXTRAORDINARY SERIES of events are unfolding around the Central American peace program “Esquipulas II,” known popularly as the Arias plan. The plan, in its various phases and applications, is likely to dominate the Central America debate well into 1988.
The real prospects for the Arias plan leading to a regional peace agreement are extremely slim. However, the purpose of this preliminary analysis is not an attempt to predict the outcome. Rather it is to highlight key factors that are shaping the process and to examine what this political reality means for the U.S. solidarity and antiintervention movement going into an election year.
The stunning political maneuvers that brought Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Jim Wright into a central role in the negotiations for a Nicaraguan ceasefire illustrate the spectacular collapse of the Reagan administration’s authority. After the stock market crash of October completed what the defeat of the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court had begun, it was clear that the administration and the right wing were no longer able to control U.S. economic or foreign policy.
With Reagan politically shredded, the contra aid monster could have been dead and buried by now. It remains alive because of the Democratic Party’s deliberate failure to kill it.d the Reaganites, Wright is also using the contras as his weapon to blackmail Nicaragua. The absence of any principled opposition to intervention in Central America at any level of the U.S. political establishment has never been more glaring.
This, in turn, is in large part why the chances for the Arias plan’s success are bleak. While the plan’s implementation for Nicaragua is a tenuous enough proposition, for El Salvador it is doubly so. Many observers feel a revolutionary crisis may come to a head there within the next one to two years. But as social crisis and repression escalate, U.S. war-related aid to the government of Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte multiplies, surpassing $700 million for 1988 alone.
Since there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States for maintaining the rotting Duarte administration, the Salvadoran civil war is certain to intensify even while most attention in North America goes to the debate over Nicaragua. But the social crisis is regional in character, and it is intensified by U.S. intervention.
In Honduras, nationalist opposition of both a rightist and leftist character has been on the rise as the contra presence devastates the southern part of the country. Both Honduras and Costa Rica are the launching pads from which the contra war is waged. As a result their economies have become even more dependent on the United States. Meanwhile, in Guatemala, both guerrilla activity and the urban labor movement are in the process of reviving. At the same time the Guatemalan army continues to incorporate large sectors of the rural population into concentration camp “model villages.”
And so more Central American lives will be lost while the cliques of imperialist politicians strike their ideological poses. Arias plan or not, the core question of self-determination remains the fundamental one: the right of the nations of the region to determine their political and social systems free of the dictates of the North American colossus.
Nicaragua & the Arias Peace Plan
The Central American peace plan came as a major blow to U.S. efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. This is a fact of critical importance that, from the Nicaraguans’ perspective, clearly overrides the plan’s many negative features.
The plan ecognizes the Nicaraguan government,a fact of considerable importance since on an earlier occasion the other four Central American states held a summit meeting without even inviting Nicaragua to attend! In essence the plan constitutes an acceptance, without Washington’s approval, of the fact that the Nicaraguan revolution has politically and strategically defeated the contras. It accepts as a consequence of this reality that peace requires an end to U.S. financing of the terrorist counterrevolutionary forces. Hence the plan forbids foreign support to “irregular armed groups.”
The government of Nicaragua immediately began implementing the plan’s key provisions: reopening La Prensa and the Catholic Church’s radio station, establishing a National Reconciliation Commission, instituting a unilateral cease-fire in designated areas and local peace commissions in the hopes of bringing contras home from Honduras, establishing a forum for dialogue with internal opposition groups. Nicaragua’s impressive peace initiative had a promising initial impact, both internally and internationally.
The more steps Nicaragua has taken to keep its promises for political pluralism and dialogue with the internal political opposition, the more hysterical the U.S. administration has become. The viciousness of the new propaganda war against Nicaragua is explained not by the fact the Nicaragua is ”breaking” its promises, but precisely by the fact that it is keeping them. The underlying U.S. demand, of course, is that Nicaragua “keep a promise” that Nicaragua never made: to surrender its national sovereignty and discontinue its revolutionary process.
The administration attempted to wreck the Central American presidents’ negotiations even before their pact was signed. The so-called Reagan-Wright plan, coauthored in August with House leader Jim Wright, called for Nicaragua to cancel the results of its 1984 election, give up its right to defend itself with weapons provided by the Soviet Union, and release imprisoned Somozist National Guardsmen. The administration embarrassed Wright by going even further to demand that the Nicaraguan government negotiate with the contra leadership. Having failed to prevent the Central American presidents from negotiating the Arias plan, the U.S. administration rushed to take credit for it. Reagan then immediately began campaigning to destroy the plan by demanding that Nicaragua negotiate with the contra leadership.
The political content of the U.S. administration’s demand is that Nicaragua put its popularly elected revolutionary government on the same footing as the U.S.created terrorist contra army. Since, Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams proclaimed on “Night Line,” President Duarte of El Salvador is conducting a dialogue with the armed opposition in that country, shouldn’t the Sandinistas also comply with the Arias plan by sitting down to work out a cessation of hostilities with the contras’ leaders?
In actual fact the Arias plan says no such thing, either about Nicaragua or El Salvador. The plan instructs the signatories to open up reconciliation talks with their internal, unarmed opposition. What is interesting is that Nicaragua complied immediately with the actual provisions of the plan, while Duarte agreed to resume the dialogue with the armed revolutionary forces but refused the demands of the popular organizations in El Salvador that they be allowed to participate.
Nicaragua would not have signed a treaty requiring it to negotiate politically with the contras, for the simple reason that in military and political terms the contras and their leaders have failed miserably. Duarte of El Salvador, in contrast, had no choice but to accept a resumption of the dialogue with the armed revolutionary opposition — not because the peace plan required him to, but because of the very great military and even greater political authority the FMLN-FDR (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front-Revolutionary Democratic Front) have established inside the country.
A huge weakness of the Arias plan, and a key reason why the revolutionary forces in Central America have given it only a qualified endorsement, lies less in what it says than what it fails to say. By treating the conflicts within each country only in abstract generalities-implying that the popular-based Salvadoran insurgency is comparable to the externally created contra war, in particular-the Central American presidents exposed their own peace process to the danger of destruction through cynical U.S. manipulation. The manipulation began immediately along a transmission belt reaching straight from Washington to San Jose and Managua.
In Nicaragua those parties and business associations that act under the guidance of the U.S. Embassy walked out of the first session of the reconciliation meetings organized by the government. Grouped in the so-called “Democratic Coordination,” these are pretty much the same organizations that boycotted the 1984 national elections at the Reagan administration’s behest. But those parties that participated, against Washington’s desires, in the election (Popular Social Christians, Democratic Conservatives and several left parties) remained in the current reconciliation talks.
This repeat performance of the 1984 split in the opposition illustrates the political dependence of much of the business opposition on U.S. tutelage. Ironically, the dependence that makes them a valuable propaganda asset for their North American masters only discredits and weakens them even further as a political force inside Nicaragua.
In announcing the reopening of La Prensa, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega explained that it represents the viewpoint of a sector of the society and that it is healthier for Nicaragua as a whole for that view to be expressed and openly confronted. In this writer’s opinion, not only is Ortega’s statement on this issue quite correct, but the Reagan administration from its own vantage point recognizes the same reality. The U.S. administration would prefer to see La Prensa closed, in order to poison political life in Nicaragua-exactly what the United States tried to accomplish with the 1984 election boycott.
Whether a political space exists in Nicaragua for an anti-revolutionary opposition depends fundamentally on whether political life in that country is freed from U.S.-sponsored terrorism. The closure of that space, by restricting democratic rights in general, would have longterm harmful implications for the flourishing of democracy within the revolutionary process. But it is precisely because the parties and business groups behind La Prensa lack support within the revolution’s mass-based institutions that they are largely irrelevant.
The crisis intensified when President Oscar Arias himself, within hours of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, added his voice to the clamor demanding that the Nicaraguan leadership open up direct negotiations with the contras, posing the danger that the whole peace process might collapse before even reaching its first hurdle.
Two obvious questions arise: Why did Nicaragua, which must have known the risks, sign an accord that was liable to this kind of manipulation? And why did President Arias, who must know that his new position risks destroying the entire project, violate his own commitments to Nicaragua and indeed to his own peace plan?
The answers bring us to the heart of the unfolding political struggle. For Nicaragua, what made it possible to obtain a regional peace agreement that is as good-on paper-as the Arias plan is the Sandinistas’ strategic military victory over the contras, achieved with great sacrifice and bloodshed, and their popular political strength. A government that can appoint its harshest internal critic, Cardinal Obando y Bravo, to head its National Reconciliation Commission is clearly confident of its own internal base.
At the same time, Nicaragua had no choice. It was forced to sign a flawed and dangerous agreement. First, the economy tends to dissolve into private parasitical activity under the impact of the contra war. Individual survival imposes individual solutions. For example, a worker will leave his job at the Victoria Brewery, and use his old car as a taxi. The result: he makes more in a day than he did in a month at the brewery. Or a middle-level official at the Ministry of Education finds that he or she can get the needed income by diverting part of a shipment of pencils for schoolchildren onto the black market. This has a corrosive effect on the revolution.
The acute regional economic crisis, in fact, is the key factor bringing all the Central American states to the negotiations, regardless of their political attitudes toward each other. For Nicaragua the benefits are probably the most apparent. If the war can be stopped then the road to possible economic recovery will be open.
Nicaragua Network coordinator Debra Reuben points out the regional context in which the plan was signed: “There are two factors bringing the other players to the table. The first is a spiral toward increasing war, both in their own countries and a regional escalation. But the other side of this is that every country in Central America needs economic development.”
The economic realities are also a crucial factor in the role of President Arias. Because of the peace plan, Arias has gained enormous moral strength throughout the region and all of Latin America. This, however, will not pay his country’s bills or replace the aid that the U.S. administration has been choking off. Arias needs regional peace and a close relationship with the U.S. government. Opting for the latter could wreck the chances for the former. Why did Arias feel compelled to make such a choice so soon? The answer, in a nutshell, is the cowardice of the U.S. Congress.
Arias and the Sandinistas, each from their own perspective, surely watched the spring and summer Contragate hearings in Washington. They cannot have failed to notice the spineless, gutless, and brainless performance of the Democrats on the investigating committees, who allowed the right wingers to fawn all over the terrorist leader Adolfo Calero and to heap praise on the “patriotism” of Oliver North. They must have seen how the congressional Democrats made not the slightest effort to discredit the contras, but concerned themselves only with the illegal methods by which they were financed during the since-rescinded legislative funding ban. They must also have noted how the Contragate scandal disappeared from the major media with scarcely a trace the day after the hearings gaveled down.
The moral collapse of the Democratic pseudo-opposition to Central America policy sent a signal to all parties in Central America. It was a particularly dangerous moment for Nicaragua. Despite the Iran arms fiasco, despite Oliver North’s slush funds and William Casey’s off-the-shelf covert operations network, despite Ronald Reagan’s blissful ignorance or (take your pick) criminal involvement, the right wing was allowed to carry on its ideological offensive. There was every reason to assume that another contra funding would be voted through Congress for yet another round.
The Sandinista leadership needed a regional peace agreement to block that momentum and take the initiative away from the U.S. right wing. That need was confirmed by the announcement of the Reagan-Wright plan, which set such unacceptable conditions for Nicaragua that it was clearly intended as a framework for bipartisan congressional agreement on further contra aid.
Fortunately for the Nicaraguan revolution the Sandinistas’ military and political strength enabled thein to negotiate, in the regional context, a relatively favorable deal.*
President Arias, a political “anti-communist,” has also taken the temperature of the U.S. Congress. He undoubtedly communicates with the top Democratic leadership. His demand that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega negotiate directly with the contras can be assumed to reflect the Democrats’, as well as Reagan’s, message. If the peace plan had collapsed on the issue of negotiations with the contra leadership, the blame would lie squarely with the congressional Democratic Party.
In early November a breakdown was what the Reagan administration wanted. Apparently to cut off possibilities for diplomatic mediation, someone in the U.S. administration seems to have proposed the public relations stunt of flying a contra delegation to Managua to demand a meeting with the government. When this idea was floated, the Nicaraguans warned that contra leaders who turned up without having applied for amnesty would be put in jail, which is where they belong.
At this critical juncture a brilliantly executed diplomatic move by the Nicaraguan leadership, combined with the deepening crises of the Reagan team saved the situation. President Ortega agreed to indirect cease-fire negotiations with the contra leaders. Not only that, but Jim Wright took on the role of a mediator, along with Cardinal Obando, catching the administration by surprise.
The risks in the Nicaraguan high-wire act are obvious. But what must not be overlooked is that Nicaragua has accomplished something much more than a simple compromise formula on cease-fire negotiations. For practical purposes, Nicaragua is engaging in political negotiations with the U.S. government — precisely what Nicaragua demanded and Reagan refused! This is the meaning of Jim Wright’s entry into the negotiations, a quite astonishing maneuver in which the congressional leadership has taken over the Central America portfolio to the howls of outrage from the White House.
Nicaragua gained much more than it lost in the exchange. This is not to suggest that there is anything remotely progressive about the intent or motivation of Jim Wright, for whom Nicaraguans are merely so many chips in a poker game of domestic political intrigue. The key fact remains: the Nicaraguan government’s political strength, and Reagan’s fully exposed weakness, made the peace plan possible in the first place, then saved it from immediate collapse.
El Salvador: Dialogue & the Crisis
The dialogue between the Duarte government and the revolutionary opposition, FMLN-FDR, resumed in San Salvador on October 4-5. Less than a month later, after a death squad murdered Herbert Anaya Sanabria, the head of the Non-Governmental Human Rights Commission (CDHES) in El Salvador, the FMLN-FDR declared it would not attend follow-up meetings scheduled for November. Anaya’s assassination was part of the spiral of terrorism continuing in El Salvador today. Since the peace accords were signed armed men raided the headquarters of the National Unity of Salvadoran Labor (UNTS); agricultural cooperative members and trade unionists continue to be murdered and disappeared.
While the dialogue between Duarte and the FMLNFDR was not a direct implementation of the Arias plan, the impetus for the resumption came in part from the popular hopes for peace stimulated by the plan. A poll conducted by the University of Central America showed 82 percent of the Salvadoran people favoring a negotiated settlement. Nonetheless, while the Nicaraguan government was pursuing negotiations with its internal political opponents, Duarte was rejecting participation of the popular organizations that have revived explosively since 1985.
Mike Zielinski, who edits the newspaper Alert published by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), told Against the Current:
“Duarte brought with him to the talks a representative of the UNOC (National Workers and Campesino Union), which was created by the government and the Christian Democrats right after the formation of UNTS. UNTS has a campesino union affiliated to it (UNC), and UNOC is really a government-sponsored rival. The popular movement spearheaded by UNTS has been demanding participation in its own right in the dialogue. So it is a real slap in the face of the movement to bring UNOC to the talks while refusing similar status to any other trade union or social group.”
Zielinski also noted the government provocations that threatened to derail the talks before they even began:
“Leading up to the talks the army militarized the area around San Fernando in Chalatenango province. Two of the FMLN representatives, Shafik Handal and Leonel Gonzalez, were coming from there into San Salvador. They had established an agreement that neither side would take advantage of the talks to move troops. The government deliberately violated this by moving its forces into Chalatenango. The FMLN leaders did come through with an escort from the International Red Cross.
“The government also violated the agreements with a heavy military presence in San Salvador-setting up barricades, screening people in the neighborhoods, and creating an atmosphere of intimidation.
The most important action took place outside the negotiations. Duarte organized a Festival for Peace with a carnival atmosphere to promote the government. The UNTS, in one of its best-sustained mobilizations, effectively took over the event with as many as 40,000 people. When Duarte’s Christian Democrats saw how badly they were outnumbered, they gave up and left. As many as 20,000 UNTS supporters were still present close to midnight on the third and final day of the talks to hear Guillermo Ungo, president of the FDR, and Shafik Handal speak.
The talks themselves left the two sides far apart. According to Zielinski:
“Duarte doesn’t use the word ‘surrender,’ but that’s his meaning. He says his government must be regarded as the only legitimate authority in any settlement. The FMLNFDR say that this doesn’t take into account the reality that they have such a presence in the country that there is basically a situation of dual power. The FMLN-FDR insist that there must be freedom of speech and organization and a transitional government that would be more representative, which would pave the way for democracy and elections.”
The two sides formed commissions, one for organizing a cease-fire and one for implementing such points of the peace plan as national reconciliation and amnesty. Then came the murder of Herbert Anaya, and the subsequent passage by the National Assembly of an amnesty that will protect all perpetrators of the more than 40,000 death-squad murders since 1980. With the death squads operating with impunity, the prognosis for future talks looks bleak indeed. Nonetheless Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora, leaders of the FDR, have chosen this moment to end their seven-year exile.
While the Sandinistas’ political position in Nicaragua is strong despite economic devastation, Duarte’s popularity in El Salvador has been steadily slipping. Some rightwing parties have expressed their contempt for Duarte by not only boycotting his delegation to the October dialogue, but actually opening up their own channels of communication with the FMLN-FDR.
Ramon Cardona, a representative of the FMLN-FDR in North America, presented an in-depth analysis of the pre sent situation in El Salvador to the Labor Day weekend convention of CISPES.
He reported that in the view of the Salvadoran revolutionary movement, the situation of stalemate or “deadlock” presented in the North American press is inaccurate. In fact, Cardona cited a few examples of recent articles in major U.S. papers as evidence that even the media is beginning to note the growing strength of the FMLN-FDR.**
The basic theme of Cardona’s report is that “the people are winning.” The Duarte government’s U.S.-inspired “United to Rebuild” program, which sought to combine a three-phase counterinsurgency strategy with social development programs, has failed. The power of the far right and the oligarchy make the institution of serious reforms impossible.
At the same time, the FMLN’s capacity has militarily blocked the army’s plan to cut off and annihilate the guerrilla forces. The FMLN’s response to the massive bombing of the countryside-a tactical breaking up of its forces into smaller units-ultimately resulted in more effective political organizing and in the development of FMLN activities throughout the countryside. Devastating FMLN attacks on bases at El Paraiso and San Francisco Gotera this year have demonstrated its military gains.
Nonetheless, the most important arena of struggle today is political. The revival of a diverse and militant popular movement-the trade unions of the UNTS, the revival of student struggle, growing organization and resistance by agricultural cooperativists, and, most recently, repopulation campaigns by peasant villagers displaced by the government bombing-is the new dynamic factor that has decisively changed the balance of forces against Duarte.
As Duartes credibility has declined, the demand for a resumption of the “dialogue”-negotiations between the regime and the political-military opposition-has spread beyond the organizations of the popular movement to several right-wing parties, which are communicating separately with the FMLN-FDR. At the same time, Cardona noted, growing divisions have appeared between U.S. military advisers and the Salvadoran military command, some of whom advocate a return to a massive free-fire tactic of depopulating the countryside. Meanwhile, the state apparatus is increasingly eroded by corruption.
Cardona indicated that with the United States entering an election year and given the lack of awareness within the U.S. public on the real state of the Salvadoran war, building understanding of the goals of the Salvadoran political-military revolutionary forces and opposing U.S. intervention have become tasks of key importance.
The FMLN-FDR regards the peace plan signed by all five Central American presidents in Guatemala City as “a positive framework within which to resolve the internal conflicts in each Central American country.” The plan is clearly deficient in failing to specify the need for the dialogue between the regime and the FMLN-FDR. However, the fact that Duarte was compelled to sign the agreement is a long-term strategic advantage to the revolutionary forces.
Among very broad sections of the Salvadoran population, both inside and beyond the organized popular movement, the revolutionary forces’ legitimacy derives from their proven and genuine interest in ending the war, which has deepened the misery of the Salvadoran people. As the reactionary forces become more divided, the FMLN-FDR’s unity in demanding a new political arrangement in which the Salvadoran people can organize for social justice without death squads and military repression becomes increasingly important.
The analysis developed by Cardona implies that the Salvadoran struggle is moving toward a confrontation between a growing popular movement and an increasingly isolated regime. The existence of an incipient revolutionary proletarian movement, allied to peasant and other popular struggles, seems clear. This is the kind of movement that can ultimately make the regime’s crisis irreversible, its defeat a certainty and social revolution a real possibility. At this point the movement is still in an early stage of development and faces enormous challenges to its survival and effectiveness.
This year, some groups of workers, such as the social security workers’ union STISS, have demonstrated a heroic combativity, directly confronting armed security police who shot up their workplace to break a strike. Militant student and worker demonstrations have spraypainted and thrown gasoline bottles into the grounds of the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy.
Nonetheless, the sectors willing to engage in this level of direct confrontation today represent a militant minority of the urban working class. Wider sectors remain more cautious, intimidated by very real repression, of which a murderous campaign to crush the telephone workers is a typical example, or have an ambivalent relationship to the pro-revolutionary currents in the workers’ movement. The UNTS, a crucial center of the popular movement and symbol of the revival of the labor movement in El Salvador over the past three years, includes many currents that embody its political diversity and complexity. The coming period will see an increase both in the activity of the popular movement and the level of violence directed against it. Anaya’s murder, during the very first phase of the Central American peace plan, is only the beginning. Additionally, the far right has the possibility of regaining control of the National Assembly in the March 1988 elections, an event that could unleash repression on the scale of the early 1980s all over again.
The FMLN-FDR, while using whatever political space is opened by the dialogue and the peace process, can also be expected to prepare military initiatives that put greater pressure on the regime and seek to widen the strategic divisions in the Salvadoran army.
Confronted with the choice of waging all-out repression against the popular movement to satisfy the right wing, or forcing through reforms in order to co-opt the unions and the popular sectors, President Duarte is in fact unable to do either. While enjoying every conceivable form of U.S. support and an open-ended bipartisan U.S. commitment to preserving him in office until 1989, Duarte is weakest precisely where the Sandinistas are strongest: in popular political support and confidence.
The result is that no peace plan, Esquipulas II or any other, can do for Duarte what he cannot do for himself. The Central American peace plan gave Duarte a certain tactical advantage but leaves him strategically weaker than ever. Nicaragua, on the other hand, is facing difficult tactical pressures but strategically the Nicaraguan revolution has gained enormously in legitimacy.
On balance, the Central American plan works to the detriment of the Reagan administration’s clients in both the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran conflicts. No wonder the administration’s number-one priority is to destroy it.
The U.S. Movement in 1988
A grassroots anti-intervention and solidarity movement for Central America is actually close to ten years old. Ever since the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua entered its genocidal death agony in 1977-78, a growing number of U.S. citizens have been at once horrified by what their government has inflicted on Central America and energized by the efforts of that region’s peoples to build new societies.
At its high points, this broad anti-intervention movement has spearheaded mobilizations that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. It has fought and won, then lost, then won and lost again, the political battle to stop funding of the U.S.-created contra war against the Nicaraguan people and their revolution. This movement has been a material obstacle to the ultimate Reaganite scenario: a military invasion to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution and terrorize the rest of the region into submission.
It has not yet, however, stopped the escalation of U.S. intervention in El Salvador. From 1980-82, when the suppression of the urban movement in El Salvador claimed 40,000 civilian lives, the death squads became objects of notoriety and a blot on the U.S. image. Because this massacre was, for a period of several years, successful, El Salvador faded from mass consciousness, and the central battles of the anti-intervention movement focused on Nicaragua almost entirely, even while the magnitude of U.S. intervention in El Salvador grew.
In 1988, both Central America and the movement in the United States will confront a dramatic turning point. The U.S. right wing, holding its death grip on the remains of the Reagan presidency, is desperately working to wreck the Central American peace accord. In the climate of an election year, the U.S. peace movement will face all the traditional pressures to dissolve into irrelevance in the name of “practical politics.”
But while the initiatives taken by the core of the Central America solidarity movement this year may not affect the results of congressional votes and will certainly not determine the election of the next U.S. president, they may have a great deal to do with whether the struggle against U.S. intervention in the entire region advances or stagnates at this crucial moment.
A meaningful anti-intervention struggle must confront all war-related U.S. aid to the region. Anything less means silent complicity with a level of killing and destruction even higher than the contra war itself has inflicted on the Nicaraguan people. A sole focus on the contra aid issue-as critical in its own right, and as symbolic as that fight is-could actually be a drawback in the broader battle against intervention.
This is not to suggest that the end of contra aid itself should be taken for granted. Quite the contrary: contra aid in various forms will continue to be an issue. Ironically, contra aid can now continue only with some form of Democratic leadership support.
For the Democrats, as well as for center-right pragmatic Republicans like George Shultz and Howard Baker, the contras are not the “freedom fighters” beloved by the ideological hard right. They are seen for what they are: cannon fodder to be expended in the service of thoroughly cynical power maneuvers to bring Nicaragua into the necessary degree of compliance with U.S. imperial interests.
This, of course, is Jim Wright’s game: exploiting Reagan’s failure to destroy Nicaragua militarily, shifting to more traditional political and economic methods of pressure and blackmail. True enough, Wright’s direct involvement in the negotiations with the Nicaraguan government would make it much more difficult for him to allow renewed military aid to the contras. Nonetheless, the contras in a new context are a component of his strategy.
While Reagan’s political authority remained high, contra aid served a policy that was ultimately pointing toward a direct U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. The Democratic leadership feared this policy and its probable consequences. With the Reaganites’ power shattered, a U.S. invasion has become highly improbable. But for that very reason, the Democrats who now have the unquestioned political power to terminate the contras as a fighting force may now decide to keep them going for more pragmatic mundane reasons.
The Democratic Party intends to occupy the political vacuum left by the failure of the right wing, especially with the spectacular panic of the world stock markets caused by Reagan’s runaway deficits and the falling dollar. But the Democrats intend to win by default. They do not want to organize a serious struggle to drive out the right — a struggle they see as risky and unnecessary. Why give the contras’ U.S. backers the opportunity to claim the Democrats “gave the communists a beachhead,” when the contra cause can be more or less appropriated for their own use?
It is, on the other hand, possible that the Democrats might ditch the contras altogether; they did, after all, marshal their forces to defeat the unspeakable Bork. In the case of the Robert Bork nomination, however, real political pressure from the grassroots, particularly the Black community, was brought to bear. Bork directly threatened both Black America and the gains of the women’s movement, and both segments of the population made it clear that putting him on the Supreme Court was unacceptable.
The Nicaraguan peasants who will die at the hands of contra terrorism do not vote in U.S. elections. The kind of pressure from below that unexpectedly tipped the scales against Bork can be created only by an antiintervention movement that is aggressive and capable of mobilizing on a sustained basis — not only for the first congressional vote. To carry out such ongoing mobilization in an election year, which traditionally drains energy away from rather than nourishes the peace movement, would be an accomplishment unprecedented since the height of the Vietnam War. It is not impossible, however.
In its final year, the Reagan administration has become fundamentally discredited. The fear of a severe recession or, worse still, the perception that the present political regime lacks even the understanding to do anything about it has terminated capital’s love affair with Ronbo. The wave of economic instability and deep fear of a major downturn will make popular opposition to a military adventure in Central America even stronger.
While the Democratic Party offers no principled opposition to intervention, a movement that speaks to the concerns of ordinary people in this country can do so. The anti-intervention movement cannot afford a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the prospects of peace in Central America, let alone the U.S. elections.
Contra aid will come up again and again in a wearying variety of guises: humanitarian aid, military-aid-in-escrow, compromise packages, continuing resolutions ad nauseam. Part of the purpose of the endless congressional maneuvers is to wear down the grassroots opposition. Meanwhile, with little or no debate, military and warrelated aid to the Salvadoran government will increase, even as unionists are disappeared and villagers coming home to repopulate their homes are bombed, kidnapped and assassinated.
Clearly, there must be a unified movement which stands together against all forms of U.S. intervention throughout the region. Yet no one organization has the political authority to set the movement’s agenda. Attempts to fuse anti-intervention and solidarity forces have not resulted in any on-going coalition-although it has resulted in holding important periodic demonstrations. One thing is clear: strong and well-rooted organizations building solidarity with each specific popular revolutionary struggle are essential to the development and sustenance of the anti-intervention movement as a whole.
Ronald Reagan’s Central American dream of imperial restoration has come unglued. That is grounds for celebration-but not complacency.
*An earlier version of the Arias plan, prior to February 1987, was considerably worse for Nicaragua, treating it as the obstacle to peace. See the analysis in Envio, July 1987.
**Activists who have visited the country in the past year on delegations to support the popular organizations make many similar observations. Some of my own observations from a visit in late April and early May appear in ATC #9 (May-June 1987).
November-December 1987, ATC 11