US must shift on Nicaragua to make friends, not enemies

NICARAGUA could yet turn into a long-term disaster for United States foreign policy. Having just completed my third trip to Central America, I am convinced the US policy toward the region is mistaken in several fundamental ways. Unless the US redirects its energy toward peace instead of war, it will one day look back on the mid-'80s as a time that the US misinterpreted the emerging spirit of nationalism for a communist conspiracy.

The region's militarization does virtually nothing to solve its real problems. Military aid exacerbates poverty, destabilizes the investment environment, and slows prospects for peace through such avenues as the Contadora process. Too often the result is more people killed, usually peasants; a further entrenched military class; and destruction of the social fabric.

The basic problem in Central America is poverty, not the threat of communism. By depicting all the problems in Latin America as East-West confrontations, the administration has to bend the facts to fit communist myths, especially with Nicaragua. To gain funding for the contras, continue our growing military presence in Honduras, and give military aid to any country that will take it, the administration has had to pretend that Nicaragua had no election, that its revolution has no religious or popular support, and that its large military force has not evolved from the fight for its survival against the world's greatest military power, which historically has invaded Latin American countries whenever it wished.

The administration's case against Nicaragua, aimed at depicting that country as a strategic threat to the US, has not convinced the United Nations, the World Court, or world opinion. Despite its success, the US economic boycott of Nicaragua lacks international support. Several Eastern and Western countries have actually increased their aid to Nicaragua to compensate for its loss of trade with the US. World opinion reflects the general belief that Nicaragua does not pose a threat to others and has the right to work out its own future.

Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, the US has sabotaged every attempt to settle the region's conflict through peaceful negotiation. Peace in the region would require the US to acknowledge Nicaragua's legitimate right to exist as an independent sovereign state. To do so would eliminate the need for the extensive US military presence in the region. The US government is apparently not prepared to grant Nicaragua that right, showing no intention of withdrawing its troops from the region.

Even though we have established an elaborate military outpost in Honduras and contra support bases in El Salvador, there is no popular support for direct US troop involvement. The contras have become surrogate warriors for the US. Their role is alien to the moral standards of US foreign policy. The contra war is slowly dragging the US into the same quagmire of national pride that got us stuck in Vietnam. The most serious problem is that we are supporting an armed force that has very little support in Nicaragua; civilians frequently bear the brunt of contra attacks. If by some remote chance the contras were to win, the US would be seen as having imposed a government from without, as it did in 1933 with the Somozas.

The Reagan administration and the political right are leading us toward a war we should not be fighting. It is a war with no objective except to maintain US hegemony over the region regardless of the wishes of the people.

Now is the time to bring fresh thinking into our foreign policy. It's the time to end our belligerence toward Central America before we make an enemy of all of Latin America. An ill-conceived war would cost us dearly; a policy based on mutual respect and a willingness to help poor, struggling nations meet economic needs and solve social problems can reap benefits far into the future by making them our trusted, interdependent friends.

The Rev. Paul B. Robinson is pastor of the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, Flagstaff, Ariz.

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