The `democratization' trap. White House rhetoric and contra aid

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NICARAGUAN compliance with the major terms of the Arias peace plan should finally persuade wavering Democrats to throw their full support behind the United States obligation under the plan to cut contra aid. But many Democrats are still needlessly caught in the administration's skillfully built rhetorical trap designed to make aid critics take the fall for ``losing'' Nicaragua. Breaking out of the trap demands more than simply voting no: They must take the offensive against the administration's distorted rhetoric and dangerous principles. The administration has fashioned its trap by co-opting and twisting the Democrats' own advocacy of human rights and democracy in Central America.

First it defined democratization as the central issue, marginalizing other legitimate, and perhaps prior, concerns with security, peace, and development.

Then it distorted the language of democracy by calling the contras the ``democratic resistance,'' despite evidence of their brutal terror tactics, corruption, and authoritarian tendencies. Then it exaggerated the admittedly serious problems in Nicaragua (press censorship, people's courts) at the same time it played down the far more brutal actions (torture, disappearances, death squad killings) officially sanctioned in the military-dominated ``democratic regimes'' in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

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Finally, it baited the trap with the notion of guarantees: Will the Arias plan guarantee democracy in Nicaragua - or in more rhetorical terms, can Daniel Ortega Saavedra be trusted?

The Arias plan, of course, can offer no such guarantee - especially if the litmus test is the abdication of power by the Sandinistas. Nicaragua is undergoing a social revolution. The major reforms threaten historic privilege and property rights. There will continue to be reluctance to give opposition groups the power to block such reforms. No matter how much more humane and pluralistic the Nicaraguan government is relative to its three northern neighbors or compared with other leftist revolutionary regimes, the Sandinistas will always fail the administration's test.

When the Arias plan fails to guarantee ``democratization,'' the trap promises to spring shut, threatening Democrats who cut aid with the responsibility for having ``lost'' Nicaragua.

The Democrats can get out of the trap only if they redefine the agenda the administration has so carefully crafted.

The US ought to encourage, not impose, democracy, and do it across the left-right spectrum. The tools are diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, public condemnation. For gross and systematic violators of human rights we should simply apply US law: Cut off all aid and loans.

Such policies won't guarantee democracy in Nicaragua, the White House is quick to point out. That's why we need the contras. True, and false. True, they can't guarantee democracy in Nicaragua - or in South Africa, Haiti, Tawian, or Chile. But it is wrongheaded to think the contras make democracy more likely.

The contra threat does not encourage political freedom, any more than wartime threats encouraged democracy in the US. If the Japanese threat in World War II encouraged our government to intern more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans (with no due process and no proof of disloyalty), is it any wonder the contra threat tempts the suspension of civil liberties in Nicaragua, encourages the confusion of legitimate opposition with the armed opposition, and gives antidemocratic elements an excuse to clamp down?

And suppose the contras won. Even in the unlikely case that decent civilians and not authoritarian officers took power, they would be faced with a war-devastated economy and widespread protest by pro-Sandinista and anti-American groups, plus thousands of armed Sandinista guerrillas seeking to oust the contra government. Not even the best-intentioned democrats could avoid an authoritarian response to this situation.

The rhetorical flag of ``democratization'' waved by the administration is also dangerous. It has been used to lead a charge against the security agreements sought in every regional peace plan, from Contadora to Arias.

The Democrats must make clear they are for democracy. But they must also make clear a fundamental principle: The US uses force only as a last resort to protect its vital interests; it uses economic assistance and diplomacy to promote peace, development, and democracy.

Kenneth E. Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College. Morris J. Blachman is associate director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of South Carolina.

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