Insider's insights on what led to the US-Sandinista impasse

Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua, by Robert A. Pastor, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 392 pp. $24.95. ``The reason your country has trouble in Latin America,'' a Nicaraguan recently told me, ``can be summed up in one sentence: North Americans have come very late to recognizing original sin.'' He believes that because the United States is a democracy and has escaped the world's worst cruelty, its citizens have been slow to accept a belief in man's sinfulness. Americans might reply that Latin America, because of its Roman Catholic brooding on original sin, has suffered 400 years of revolution and dictatorship and cannot kick its addiction to moral and political tyrants.

These differences have profoundly affected events and lives. Ample proof lies in Robert Pastor's meticulously documented story of Anastasio Somoza's fall and the Sandinistas' rise in Nicaragua. Pastor served as director of Latin American affairs on the National Security Council from 1977 to 1981, and he has used a wealth of insider contacts and personal materials to reveal who did and said what during those critical years, and how the US was ``condemned to repetition'' by its different national experiences.

Slowly unwinding a dense braid of small and often unpublished details, he shows how all of the actors, from Cuba and Nicaragua to the US and its Latin allies, acted in ways that made their nightmares come true.

This multinational disappointment suggests how important it is to set aside the old myths. This is where Pastor begins. People who like their politics simple and who believe that the US has been Latin America's greatest problem will be disappointed by the convincing evidence that the US tried hard to get rid of Somoza and that Washington's influence over Latin America's dictators has often (certainly not always) been limited by its commitment to democratic principles and an unwillingness to intervene directly in the affairs of other countries.

So it was that Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Panama thought the US must be lying about wanting to remove Somoza, since Washington proposed only negotiation and a referendum to fight the clear evil of his regime. Ironically, here was a situation in which almost all Latin American countries wanted the US to intervene and it would not, even though it shared the same goals: to get rid of a dictator and to prevent a takeover by a minority force that gave strong signals of Marxist ideology. A multinational solution failed, Pastor says, because the various countries' cultural and political histories drove Americans to embrace conflicting actions to achieve the same goal.

The Nicaraguan moderates, whose protests, strikes, intelligence gathering, supply lines, and military recruiting ultimately made the revolution successful, suffered most from the lack of unity. The Sandinistas had long realized that Somoza's refusal to leave as the US demanded helped to swing opponents their way. Somoza became a plus for them. By placing their people in leadership roles in organizations opposing Somoza, a small number of Sandinistas built a large base.

Somoza, in turn, recognized that by jailing moderates and destroying that third force, he could leave the US and other countries with a choice between himself and the Sandinistas with their Marxist slogans.

The moderate coalition fell apart. America's Latin allies threw their decisive support to the Sandinistas and funneled critical Cuban arms to them, Pastor says, because they considered the Sandinistas the lesser of two evils and Somoza's defeat as morally right whatever might follow.

If worse came to worst, its neighbors also believed that the US would never allow the Sandinistas to consolidate themselves as a Marxist regime.

Just as the US has not understood the dark side of Latin American politics, Pastor makes it clear that Latin Americans have failed to understand the difficulty of making decisions in a divided and publicity-sensitive democracy. Among the problems President Carter faced in trying to get rid of Somoza were threats by powerful Somoza allies in Congress to sabotage the Panama Canal Treaty.

The goal of Pastor's painstaking documentary is to define patterns of past behavior and build a basis of fact that will suggest prescriptions for the future. His analysis of the US situation through 1981, when he left the National Security Council, is more useful and better informed than his treatment of present US policy. After 1981, he relies more heavily on public documents, newspapers, and magazines.

The book's most serious flaw is that, in its effort to explain the complexity of foreign relations, it dismisses simple truth when it does appear. One does not have to approve the legality or the morality of the contra war to recognize its results. Its ability to consume more than 40 percent of the Nicaraguan budget has contributed in large measure to the Sandinistas' apparent willingness to negotiate democratic reforms they rejected under Contadora proposals. Yet Pastor calls the goal of pressuring the Sandinistas ``unattainable.''

Any serious observer of Nicaragua today will also be puzzled by Pastor's belief in the capacity of the Sandinistas to motivate ``the young and the government to a higher level of dedication and hard work.'' Corruption in the food rationing system grows in proportion to shortages. Sandinistas with their government salaries are heavy supporters of a huge black market. Tens of thousands of youths have fled the country to avoid the draft.

Pastor is an optimist, but his book contains enough solid insight and information on how the situation reached this point to help readers understand what worked, what failed, and why.

Wallace Kaufman is a free-lance writer on Latin America.

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