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US and Nicaragua: getting off the down escalator

By Michael D. BarnesMichael D. Barnes is a Democratic representative from Maryland and chairman of the Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. / February 23, 1982

At the urging of the Nicaraguan Embassy I recently traveled to Managua, accompanied by Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, in an attempt to reopen channels of communication between Nicaragua and the United States, which are staring sullenly at each other across a chasm of hostility. My visit deepened my concern over the inability of the Reagan administration to see that its own actions are making the situation worse.

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Last August Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders visited Managua and proposed a deal. First, Nicaragua would cease all support for the Salvadoran left, halt its arms buildup, and guarantee political pluralism and a mixed economy. After Nicaragua had done all that, the US would pledge to enforce its own neutrality laws against the exile training camps in Florida, commit itself not to use or threaten force against Nicaragua, and consider resuming economic aid.

This proposal that the Nicaraguans entirely meet all US demands before the US would even make a beginning on Nicaragua's concerns was regarded by the Nicaraguans as having been designed to be rejected. Still, they viewed Mr. Enders's visit as a positive sign in itself and expressed a desire to keep talking. It was the US that, in October, declared negotiations at an end for lack of a positive Nicaraguan response. Since then, tough talk and refusal to disavow rumors of possible overt or covert military action against Nicaragua have constituted the Reagan administration's ''policy'' toward Nicaragua.

All of Mr. Enders's objectives are legitimate. But we will achieve none of them without a policy that understands Nicaragua's position and consists of something more than Secretary Haig's tough talk.

During their revolution against a dictatorship that was almost universally conceded to be brutal and corrupt, the Sandinistas received crucial help from the Salvadoran left. The Nicaraguans owe the Salvadorans a debt. We view their payment of that debt as incompatible with our interests, and that creates a serious issue between us. In fact, the arms flow to El Salvador through Nicaragua declined after the ''final offensive'' of January 1981. Then the US escalated its hostility toward Nicaragua, and now the arms flow is reportedly on the rise again.

Nicaragua's military buildup is a real problem. But El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all sworn enemies of the Sandinista regime, are also vastly increasing their military forces, and Nicaraguan exiles operate against Nicaragua from Honduras with foreign support. The Sandinistas declared to me that they re willing to engage in regional talks to halt the arms buildup. That is a reasonable proposal. One-sided demands will accomplish little.

The threats to pluralism and a mixed economy in Nicaragua are real and getting worse, and should not be minimized. My colleagues and I made it abundantly clear to the Sandinistas that we and all Americans consider their recent actions against the private sector and freedom of the press to be abhorrent, as well as a genuine impediment to improved relations. We met with and granted an exclusive interview to the editor of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, to show our support.