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Reagan’s Dangerous Game in Nicaragua

By supporting the contras, the president is undermining democracy in Central America

Soldiers, Sandinista Popular Army, Nicaragua

Soldiers of the Sandinista Popular Army in Nicaragua in 1987.

Scott Wallace/Getty

Natividad Vargas shifted his weight from one foot to the other, awkwardly folding and refolding his arms as he answered questions from the visiting journalists. The Honduran peasant sounded confused and a little frightened. It is the way refugees always sound when war sweeps over the countryside and drives them from their homes. He did not understand, he said, why two foreign armies were fighting in his native land — Nicaragua’s Sandinista army and the American-backed contras.

“We campesinos don’t understand politics,” Vargas said. “I don’t know why they’re fighting. The contras say they are fighting communism. But I don’t understand that.”

Eight days earlier, Vargas and his family, along with scores of others, had abandoned their farm a few miles from the Nicaraguan border after the Sandinista army had attacked contra strongholds there. In all, at least 15,000 Hondurans, perhaps many more, have been displaced by the war and forced to find squatter homes in towns away from the fighting. Neither the Honduran government nor the United States has provided them with any help.

Another peasant, a gaunt old man with white stubble on his dark face, gave a vivid account of the bomb, mine and mortar explosions he had heard as the opposing forces fought across his fields. “I was really frightened,” he said. “I don’t want to go back as long as there is firing.”

“The Sandinistas only come in because the contras are here,” said Eldermarina Gonzales, a displaced mother with five small children. “If the contras were gone, the Sandinistas would not come.”

The refugees we talked with were living in Nueva Esperanza, a hillside barrio outside of Danli, a quiet little farm town about an hour’s drive from Tegucigalpa and only fifteen miles from the border and the fighting. The contras operate a small hospital in Danli to treat their sick and wounded.

The more the peasants talked about the contras, the angrier they became. They did not like having to live with a foreign army in their midst — men who are well armed and well financed by the United States. “Look around you — this is a very poor country,” Jose Amaya, a merchant, said. “If we had money, we would all go to the United States. I think the contras should get out. They have no business being here. These countries are sisters. We should find a way to exist in peace.”

“I’m going to tell the truth, even if I get in trouble,” Natividad Vargas declared. “The truth is the contras treat us very badly. Imagine. You’re going to town and the contras are guarding the road and they ask us for papers. What right does a foreigner have to ask us for papers in our own country? They accuse us of helping the Sandinistas. They killed one of my neighbors and they killed his son. We don’t know why. It’s not our land anymore. They do whatever they want.”

As we were touring the neighborhood, we could hear the distant clatter of helicopters. Children pointed knowingly to the north at a few small, dark specks that were passing above a far mountain ridge and moving down the valley. Soon the specks became a swarm as more than a dozen American helicopters, Cobras and Chinooks, crossed overhead and disappeared to the south. They were ferrying Honduran soldiers to the war.

“The people have become so used to it,” a woman said. “They don’t even get scared anymore.”

Later, we drove a few miles south from Danli to the site where the helicopters were landing. It was a small airstrip built by the United States in the valley of Jamastran. Honduran soldiers — some serious, some loose and joking — were disembarking in the swirls of dust and trotting off down the country lanes. They were pulling heavy mortars behind them as they fanned out to set up defensive positions on the surrounding farms. An American army lieutenant named Lappas stepped forward from a circle of Honduran officers and told us to get lost. He pretended to be puzzled by our questions.

“What war?” he asked blandly. “I didn’t know we were at war. What makes you think there’s a war here?”

The Reagan administration is playing a dangerous game in Honduras: intentionally flirting with war. While the White House continues to claim that its military buildup here is strictly for training exercises, the Sandinistas and most Hondurans believe that the administration is trying to push both sides toward war in order to justify American military intervention in Nicaragua.

As a result of the occasional border clashes with Honduran troops, the Sandinistas might be drawn into a larger war against Honduras or, alternatively, the Honduran military might be shamed into launching a full-scale attack against Nicaragua. In either event, the Reagan administration could claim that a valued ally was under assault and that it must provide support by bombing Managua or even landing American troops inside Nicaragua. Fortunately, neither Honduras nor Nicaragua intends to play along. “What the United States fears,” Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaragua’s foreign minister, told me in Managua, “is not that we will attack Honduras. What they fear is that we won’t. They would like nothing better than for us to do it. We would be serving them on a silver platter the pretext they are looking for to make a direct intervention. They are concerned, they are angry that we don’t fall into the trap.”

In Tegucigalpa, Honduran officials put the matter more obliquely, but they also do not intend to be drawn into a war. Even while Sandinista soldiers were fighting inside Honduran territory, and Honduras was responding with troop deployments and bombing, Honduran diplomat Roberto Suazo Tome, an adviser to the minister of foreign affairs, was emphasizing the peaceful relationship between the two nations. “The Sandinistas have penetrated our borders from time to time, and there has even been sporadic fighting between our troops and theirs,” Suazo said, “but the level of political and diplomatic relations are good. We’ve had many meetings with high-level Sandinista officials. Our economic minister has traveled three times to Nicaragua to increase trade between the countries. Honduran businessmen have traveled to Nicaragua, and we are planning a visit to Honduras by Nicaraguan industrialists. So we have many different forms of economic cooperation. Nicaragua is a sister country. We do not use aggressive rhetoric toward them. We can exist with them, and we have mutual respect between our two systems.”

In any case, the Hondurans do not believe America can defeat the Sandinistas, through either military conflict or political agitation. “The contras are already defeated,” Suazo said. “It’s only a question of time.”

Suazo has proposed a solution to the problem along his border: the United States should grant asylum to the 20,000 contras and get them out of Honduras. “Our government has declared on many occasions that the presence of the contras in our territory is neither desired nor authorized nor tolerated,” he insisted. “But it is beyond our capacity to impede their presence.”

The civil government is not in control of events here. The generals are. The Honduran constitution forbids the stationing of foreign military forces without congressional approval, but the Honduran congress was not consulted. It was the Honduran military that provided sanctuary for the contra army and allowed the deployment of American troops. In return, the generals received generous military aid from the United States.

“The contras are like an unwanted guest,” Honduran sociologist and journalist Victor Meza explained. “But they are tolerated by the military because they bring money, and it means money to the military. The contras are their blackmail — their card to blackmail Washington for more aid. It’s also their card with which they can negotiate with the Sandinistas, behind the backs of the contras. And the contras are good for business. They have made people rich here, civilians and military personnel.”

In Managua, Carlos Chamorro, editor of the Sandinista newspaper La Barricada, described the game being played by the Honduran generals. “They have to sell themselves to the U.S. to get the aid,” Chamorro said, “so they participate in actions against our army on the border, but they have been restrained. Why? Because they do not want to fall into a total death trap with Nicaragua.”

In the Honduran capital, Victor Meza offered a similar analysis. “The Honduran military,” he said, “knows that war should be avoided. Even if Honduras could win, they know that the real winner would be the United States and the contras, not Honduras. They know that if they were to win, this war, all the U.S. aid currently going to Honduras would then go to Nicaragua. So they know if they win, they lose. For that reason, they have done everything to avoid going to war.”

But if either the Honduran generals or the Sandinista leaders should miscalculate, then the Reagan administration may get what it wants — a regional war in Central America. American planes and troops could then be dispatched to fight another war in the name of freedom.

In Tegucigalpa, a city ringed by mountains, every window seems to have a spectacular view. Unlike Managua, the Honduran capital has a false glow of prosperity — downtown streets are clogged with traffic, store windows are filled with American toys and appliances. Militarization can be good for business without doing anything to improve a country’s basic economy; there was a similar bustle of commerce in Saigon at one time.

Honduras has been a passive nation for many decades, resigned to the dominance of military oligarchs and accustomed to blatant manipulation by American ambassadors. The country served as the staging area for the CIA’s overthrow of Guatemala’s elected government in 1954; now it has allowed itself to become the support base for America’s proxy war against Nicaragua. “The United States has a democracy inside,” said Efrain Diaz, a Christian Democrat in the national assembly, “but the U.S. acts as an empire in its relations with countries such as Honduras. We have let the United States do what it wants. We have been so easy.”

Popular dissent, nevertheless, is slowly finding its voice. Antiwar petitions proliferate as more and more organizations demand that the government stop America’s military adventure here. A blue and white peace poster proclaims, OUR COUNTRY — NOT FOR SALE, NOT FOR HIRE, NOT FOR LOAN … GRINGO TROOPS OUT … CONTRAS OUT.

“The worst problem this country has is that eighty percent of its people live in poverty,” Diaz explained. “Our main problem is development. It is not this problem with Nicaragua. But as long as we have this permanent conflict, I don’t think there is any way in which Honduras can really grow, no way Honduras can really develop. To me, that’s one of the consequences. The other is that we’re going to become a very polarized society. You cannot destabilize Nicaragua without destabilizing Honduras and the other countries in Central America.”

America’s Cold War-inspired foreign policy is creating some of the same problems in Central America that it produced twenty years ago in Indochina. While the Reagan administration claims to be defending the region’s democracies against Soviet domination, its military presence is actually undermining them. Anxious voices from the region plead futilely that East-West conflict is not the relevant issue. Poverty is the issue. So is the right of self-determination.

Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaragua’s foreign minister, has offered a powerful metaphor to explain why the American government cannot tolerate the revolutionary regime in his country. “We do not accept what the U.S. would like to impose — the status of a backyard nation,” he said. “The U.S. is afraid because it realizes that if Nicaragua is allowed to get away with this, then others will demand the same. The situation is like what you once had here in Nicaragua with the landowners. They related to peons in a very special way. The peon never entered the house. He came up to the front steps, he never sat down, he stood up. He took off his hat and he always addressed the señor as usted, the formal way of saying ‘you.’ Imagine the landowner’s reaction if one day, out of the blue, this peon walks right into the house, goes right into the living room and sits in the rocking chair. He folds his legs and calls the señor by the informal . He begins to relate as an equal. That’s what Nicaragua has done, too.”

Many citizens of Honduras would love to do the same someday.

America should realize that it has nothing to lose by abandoning its patronizing policies toward Central America’s small and struggling nations. Only then will the region be ensured of democractic and economic growth. As long as our government bullies, bribes and manipulates these countries, as it is now doing in Honduras, it can only expect that they will remain backward, cynical and utterly dependent.

Unfortunately, a new American perspective on Central America will have to wait until there is a new president in Washington. Even if Congress cuts off financing for the contras this year, the White House will not lose its hunger for conflict. The Sandinistas will continue to offer a mutual-security agreement for the region, but no one really expects Ronald Reagan to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The most we can hope for is to get through the last two years of this administration without stumbling — or being tricked — into a larger war.

Reagan’s final days will be a difficult period for all the players in Central America. The Sandinistas know that they are capable of defeating the contras in battle, even wiping them out, but they also know that a clear-cut victory would increase the risk of direct American intervention. The Reagan administration, mired in the contra-gate scandal, knows that it has little time left to defeat the Sandinistas. Will it simply walk away from a lost cause? Or will it launch a desperate strike against the Nicaraguan government? The recent announcement by the United States that it would be sending 3000 troops and 4500 national guardsmen from eight states and Puerto Rico to Honduras to participate in joint military exercises indicates that Reagan intends to raise the stakes in this dangerous game.

As for the contras, they may be pushed by the White House to go for quick victories inside Nicaragua this year in order to maintain political support in Congress. Given the Sandinistas’ superior forces, that could be a suicide mission. “I wouldn’t like to be with the contras right now,” said Victor Meza, “because I think everyone is trying to negotiate behind their backs. Possibly what will happen to them is that they’ll be forced into Nicaragua and they will be defeated by the Sandinistas.”

And if the United States finally abandons the struggle, as it did in Vietnam, a lot of Ronald Reagan’s “Freedom fighters” are going to be left behind when the last American helicopter departs.

Honduras, meanwhile, faces its own problems. Politicians here are beginning to wonder what will happen if Congress cuts off aid to the contras and Reagan abandons them. What will become of the occupying army that now virtually governs the southern flank of this country? Who will be able to control the contras?

“If the U.S. cuts off aid,” Roberto Suazo said, “the contras will need to eat. They’ll still need medicine. That could create very serious problems for Honduras…. What I mean to say is that a person with a gun will get what he needs. As we say in Central America, we need to feed our people today, not tomorrow. And the contras will do the same.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Politics, Ronald Reagan

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