US and Nicaragua: getting off the down escalator

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.

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.

But US threats and intimidation do not further the values we purport to espouse. We treat as friends other Latin American countries with far worse human rights records and less freedom of the press. (Uruguay's opposition newspaper was recently closed for eight weeks, and the administration never said a word about it.) This is a time for the Reagan administration to practice the quiet diplomacy it preaches.

The hard-liners in Nicaragua and the US are feeding on each other. Against the opposition of more moderate elements in the government, hard-liners in Nicaragua last October jailed leading businessmen who they thought were encouraging sabotage of the revolution. Hard-liners in the administration seized on this event as an excuse for further escalating hostility. The Nicaraguans told me they wanted to free the prisoners for Christmas but felt they couldn't because it would have been interpreted as a sign of weakness in the face of threats. So the prisoners remain in jail, our relations go from bad to worse, and everyone loses.

How do we get off the down escalator? How do we effectively pursue our interest in keeping Nicaragua from becoming a totalitarian, Cuban/Soviet satellite? The only way is to stop treating Nicaragua as if it were already a totalitarian, Cuban/Soviet satellite.

The first thing we should do, on both sides, is to stop the rhetoric. At a reception, the head of Nicaragua's ruling junta, Daniel Ortega, was complaining to me about Haig's hostile rhetoric. My response was that I agreed and felt both sides should tone down their public remarks.

The Nicaraguan opposition leaders I met on my visit, who daily put their lives on the line to try to salvage the revolution, view Mr. Haig's rhetoric as unhelpful. US hostility, they told me, fortifies the position of the more radical elements in Nicaragua, fosters a seige mentality that is used to justify repression of dissidents and diversion of scarce resources into a military buildup, and makes opposition seem like disunity in the face of an external threat.

I believe the Reagan administration should immediately and unconditionally pledge not to undermine or destabilize the Nicaraguan government; declare unequivocally that the US is not engaging and will not engage in military or covert action against Nicaragua, or support anyone who does; move as forcefully as US laws allow against the exile training camps in the US, and demonstrate by word and deed that the US government is not aiding exiles in Honduras or elsewhere; propose to work with Nicaragua and the other Central American countries to dampen tensions and control the arms race in the region; and state US willingness to help reconstruct Nicaragua's economy. These declarations would cost us nothing and would only reaffirm our own stated principles of international behavior.

I believe Nicaragua should immediately and unconditionally release the imprisoned private sector leaders and stop its attacks on freedom of the press. Nicaragua should take further steps to reach agreements with its neighbors on the arms buildup and support of insurgencies.

Above all, we should start talking with each other about how to salvage our relationship, and we should not stop until we succeed. The hour is late, and the time for changing counterproductive policies is short. But failure is only inevitable if we keep on our present course.

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