The convoy that couldn't

A CONVOY carrying humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Nicaragua might have rated only a day or two in the sunshine of media attention if the United States government had not stopped it at the Mexican border on dubious legal grounds. The fitful process of no-yes-no from the US Customs Service for the more than 100 Vietnam veterans and peace activists taking 30 tons of food, clothing, and medicine overland to Managua has propelled the event into a continuing news story and given the group strong grounds for a lawsuit.

The administration's prime concern has been the 38 small trucks and school buses carrying the supplies; the Americans intended to donate them to Nicaraguan social service agencies, not drive them home.

A new administration ruling, drawn up when plans for the convoy became known, specifically limits the humanitarian aid exemption in the 1985 export embargo against Nicaragua to food, clothing, and medicine. The Customs Service thus challenged the convoy, impounding four of its vehicles, on grounds it included illegal exports.

The convoy lawsuit argues that Congress intended no such narrow definition of humanitarian aid in the embargo legislation and that Customs wrongly impounded their vehicles.

This week the group returned to Washington to build support for its suit and a new try at a return trip.

A few recollections are in order here. Earlier this year the administration itself tried to prod Congress into accepting a broad definition of humanitarian aid for the contras, one that included money to lease aircraft and buy communications gear for field troops. Also, during the Iran-contra affair the administration proved its skill in getting around a congressional ban on military aid to the contras by actively encouraging private aid of all kinds, including helicopters.

If Managua has been getting the vast amounts of aid from Moscow which the administration and its congressional allies contend, a rickety truck convoy would add little to the strength of its military arsenal. Instead of giving the veterans and peace activists a new cause c'el`ebre, the administration might have gained a broader following for its own views by seizing the moment rather than the vehicles for a gesture of goodwill.

Here was an opportunity to show that the US is committed, not just to ending the war, but to helping ease the suffering and to reviving the Nicaraguan economy. Winning wars for hearts and minds is not just a matter of wielding sticks but of offering an occasional carrot.

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