THE recent accord among the five Central American presidents aimed at disbanding the contra forces - shared, significantly, by the Nicaraguan opposition parties - signals a unique opportunity to reverse a negative war trend in the Central American region. The thousands that have been killed and maimed for only modest political gains are enough evidence that the war waged by the contras has not attained its goals. Present conditions, however, offer the possibility of using idle contra forces for some positive ends.
According to the terms of the agreement, all contra forces should be disbanded by Dec. 8. The Nicaraguan government has promised an unconditional amnesty for all political prisoners, a suspension of the military draft during the election campaign, and free and fair elections on Feb. 25 without any restraints or censorship.
Although the war conducted by the contras has elicited some concessions from the Sandinistas, it has been at great human and political costs. The contra presence has had serious consequences, not only for the Nicaraguans but also for the Hondurans.
For Nicaragua, in addition to those killed and maimed, it has meant the destruction of its health infrastructure, as well as negative effects on national measles immunization and malaria eradication campaigns. Sixty-five health care units have been destroyed by the contras, and 37 have been closed due to the threat of contra attacks, thus eliminating health coverage for many people. Population displacements have led to increased malnutrition, especially noticeable among children below five years of age.
Honduras, although not directly involved in the conflict, also suffers the consequences of foreign military presence in its territory. These consequences include severe effects on the health status of the population, which is among the worst not only in Central America but in the rest of the hemisphere. A high level of prostitution near the military bases led to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Honduras has the highest rate of AIDS in Central America.
At this critical juncture, the United States could make a significant contribution to peace in the region. Although there is agreement that the contras should be disbanded, it is not clear what the future holds for these soldiers, many of whom are adolescents without marketable skills.
Through an intensive program of training, contra soldiers could participate in the construction of roads and health care units, repair the damaged health infrastructure, and collaborate on agricultural and reforestation projects. These actions would directly benefit the people in the areas affected by the conflict. Making them a force for development and peace would give the contra soldiers a role in society, and would facilitate their re-integration to civilian life. By fostering these initiatives, the US would extract a clear political victory out of a messy, difficult situation.