More Than a `Miracle' Needed in Nicaragua

IT would be a ``miracle,'' Vice-President Dan Quayle asserted during his recent visit to Central America, if Daniel Ortega Saavedra fulfilled his pledge to hold fair elections in Nicaragua next year. Vice-President Quayle is right. Armed with neither carrot nor stick, the Bush administration has little leverage over the Managua regime. Hoping to coerce the Sandinistas into fulfilling their pledge to democratize, the administration has again raised the specter of renewed military support to the Nicaraguan contras. But this ``stick'' falls short: The Sandinistas, aware of congressional lassitude, know better.

Under a regional agreement signed in February at Tesoro Beach, El Salvador, the five Central American presidents, including Mr. Ortega, pledged to implement ``authentic democratic reforms,'' guarantee ``total freedom for television, radio, and press,'' respect human rights, and ensure ``genuine freedom of electoral processes.''

Unaffected by US rhetoric, the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly approved a series of election and media ``reforms'' that make a mockery of the agreement. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez has called these ``a far cry from compliance'' because they virtually guarantee Sandinista dominance of the elections:

Under Nicaragua's new media law, the Interior Ministry can shut down publications for three editions and suspend radio broadcasts for up to four days if their content is deemed ``contrary to state security, national integrity, peace, or public order.'' In addition, opposition political parties will collectively be limited to 45 minutes a day on government-controlled radio and 30 minutes a day on state television. With the possibility of more than a dozen candidates, each may be limited to a mere two to three minutes of air time per day. Further, the new media law expressly prohibits the existence of privately-owned television stations.

The new election law gives the Sandinistas control over the Supreme Electoral Council, the body responsible for overseeing the election. Under the Tesoro Beach accord, the Council was supposed to include balanced participation and representation by opposition parties.

Nicaragua's new election law guarantees the Sandinistas superior campaign financing. For instance, opposition political parties must give half of all foreign funds they receive to the Sandinista-controlled electoral council. Meanwhile, no restrictions have been placed on the use of state funds for Sandinista campaign purposes.

Nearly one-third of all Nicaraguan citizens, mostly opponents of the regime, will not be permitted to vote. Over 1 million Nicaraguan exiles, many of whom have been forced to flee Sandinista persecution, will be excluded from the electoral process.

In May, the Sandinista-controlled National Council of Political Parties denied legal status to five parties. As one opponent explained, ``Legal status is granted to weak parties but not to the strong ones.''

Ortega has correctly concluded that Sandinista manipulation of the electoral process will draw little sanction from Washington. There is simply no consensus in Congress for rearming the contras.

If George Bush is serious about pressing Ortega to fulfill his pledge for democratic elections in 1990, he must develop a carrot and stick approach. For example, he might propose a substantial Nicaraguan aid package to Congress with the following provisos: (1) If the elections are deemed by his administration and/or Congress to be truly democratic, then the economic/developmental aid would be given to the newly-elected government. Such aid could be administered in installments over an 18-month period, with each installment conditioned on the new government's observance of democratic principles and respect for human rights. (2) If the elections are determined to be fraudulent, these funds would be used to resurrect the Nicaraguan resistance as a viable military force.

This would be far less controversial than previous contra-aid packages, since the Sandinistas, by pluralistic deeds and adherence to the Tesoro accord, could deliver the final blow to the resistance and, at the same time, save their failing economy with US aid. The Sandinistas themselves would be responsible for US policy.

Unless the Bush administration goes beyond shallow rhetoric and puts real pressure on the Sandinistas to comply with their democratic commitments, the US will merely be waiting and hoping for a miracle.

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