UNITED States policy toward Nicaragua has reached a moment of truth. It is up to the Bush administration to decide how it wants to proceed. In recent weeks, Republican members of Congress, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, have asked the administration to stop the disbursal of $100 million in already-approved US economic assistance to Nicaragua.
Still fighting the cold war, Mr. Helms is miffed by President Violeta Chamorro's pursuit of policies of national reconciliation, particularly her decision to retain Sandinistas ("Communist Sandinistas" in Helms's letter to the administration) in leadership positions in Nicaragua's police and armed forces. The warning to Mrs. Chamorro is clear: Change your government, or risk losing US aid.
The administration should demonstrate its unequivocal support for the government it helped bring to power, and reject this heavy-handed maneuver. The aid suspension has the support of some Democrats in the House of Representatives, but their concerns are economic, not political. They believe aid should be channeled more heavily toward economic development projects.
State Department representatives say they agree with Helms's concerns, but object to using US aid for such political purposes. But skeptics on Capitol Hill believe the administration is playing a double game, stating publicly its support for a resumption of aid, while privately taking advantage of the situation to pressure the Chamorro government to make political changes.
The US equivocation could not come at a worse time for Nicaragua. The $100 million now on hold is money the Chamorro government desperately needs to control inflation, stabilize Nicaragua's failing economy, and provide some hope of a better standard of living for the 70 percent of Nicaraguans living in poverty. If the US falters in its commitment to Nicaragua, it will undermine US goals and credibility in all of Central America. The seven Central American heads of state wrote President Bush on June 5, ur ging him to take a strong stand against putting a hold on the aid, and warning that any delays in US aid to Nicaragua would endanger not only Nicaragua's prospects for economic and political stability, but those of the whole region.
Congress's sudden interest in Nicaragua was triggered by a May 12 op-ed in the Washington Post by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had just had a conversation in Washington with Nicaragua's National Assembly president, Alfredo Cesar. Mr. Cesar, a former contra political chief, has been engaged for over a year in a bitter political feud with President Chamorro and her right-hand man, Presidency Minister Antonio Lacayo. Late last year, Chamorro dealt Cesar a crushing blow on his own turf when, with the support of Sa ndanistas and moderate legislators from her own party, the National Assembly sustained Chamorro's veto of Cesar's controversial attempt to reverse Sandinista property reforms (and abuses).
Wounded at home, Cesar headed to Washington. He apparently touched all the right buttons with Ms. Kirkpatrick. Her inflammatory piece essentially portrayed Nicaragua as a hostage situation, in which the bad guys (gun-toting Sandinistas) hold the good guys (President Chamorro, her freely elected government, and everyone else) at bay. The solution: Get rid of the Sandinistas.
The essential point for US policymakers to grasp is that Cesar represents the far right within the coalition that brought Chamorro to power. Cesar and his US allies wrongly interpret the 1990 election as a mandate to purge Nicaragua of Sandinista influence, programs, and priorities. Chamorro has tried instead to use the elections to move Nicaragua's political system into the modern era. She and moderates within her coalition recognize the importance of working with the Sandinistas to achieve stability.
Chamorro's decision to keep Sandinistas in the police and armed forces reflected political agreements that made possible a peaceful transfer of power and an end to a brutal, decade-long civil war.
The history of US policy toward Nicaragua is replete with instances of US intervention on behalf of one political faction or another, in which Nicaraguans have masterfully played the US card in their own internecine squabbles.
Alfredo Cesar's gambit, and Republicans' sheep-like response adds a new chapter to this story, but one which is not yet complete. The Bush administration, by reversing course, can demonstrate its backing for the Chamorro government, and at the same time make a departure from the history of US complicity in keeping Nicaragua divided.