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Would the election of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua on Nov 4 mean war or peace?




October 31, 2001

LONDON - At least ex-president Ronald Reagan is too ill to feel the pain. If Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his colleagues from the revolutionary Sandinista movement are swept back into power in the coming general election it won't be Reagan's feathers he ruffles. Still there are enough old Central American warriors in the top echelons of the Bush government- Elliott Abrams in the White House, for example- who perhaps will not be able to stop their pain reflexes working and once again there will be pressure for America to send in the CIA to head off an apparently unfriendly government.

How will they put it? "If we will ignore the malignancy of Nicaragua it will spread and become a mortal threat to the entire New World" to quote President Reagan. Or again, "The Sandinistas are just two days drive from Harlingen, Texas". Or, as his Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger boldly stated it, " Defending the mainland ranks above all other priorities".

Rhetoric like this cost Central America (there were also left/right civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) 200, 000 deaths and left whole villages and towns decimated. They were unnecessary wars and the U.S. had no business in fuelling them and supporting a small, unyielding land-owning class against a small minority of the underdog who dared to try and use violence against them. The history books have revealed what many of us suspected and argued at the time, that the reports of Soviet support for the rebellions were grossly misleading and those that spoke of Cuban aid were vastly exaggerated. We don't have the figures for Nicaragua but a UN commission (paid for by the U.S. and the European Union) in its report on the Guatemalan insurgency published two years ago found that only 3% of the deaths were caused by the rebels, but 97% were the work of government forces.

Five years ago when Ortega tried a run for the presidency I wrote that I didn't believe anyone but Senator Jesse Helms would be alarmed if he won (he lost), but then Bill Clinton was president. Now in the White House is George Bush who has dangerously re-ignited one Cold War cause after another and, to judge from his bombing of Afghanistan, believes that military might brings you what you want. We should watch this backwater of American humanity carefully, lest the same tragic sequence of events start up again. The unhappy experience of the last century and a half suggests an almost cyclical process that sucks in the heavy hand of the U.S. every 20 years or so. Inconsequential and small the Central American backyard may be, but America's back yard it will always be.

The way for Washington to look at Nicaragua is its potential, if given the right kind of help. At present, years of neglect, combined with drastically falling coffee prices, combined with a vicious drought have reduced many to penury, unable even to feed their families- all this is not in Africa but as Mr Reagan said only two days drive away from Texas.

The Central American countries have known better times. In the twenty years following World War 2, their export-led economies expanded at a handsome 6% a year. War and the collapse of commodity prices have sabotaged this growth.

The old development pattern was marred by fatal distortions. The benefits of growth were assumed by a small elite. Indeed the agricultural boom in the 1960s and 70s caused the increase in landlessness that has been a major contributing factor to the social unrest and the civil wars. Except in Costa Rica and Panama government policies were almost feudal.

To get the economies going again means, first, emergency help to ease the strain on the social fabric of these hard-wrought societies. The region is suffering once again from an acute food-supply shortage. The food aid Nicaragua receives today is paltry although some more is in the pipeline. Revolving funds and communal banks should be set up to finance the coming season's crops. Also urgently needed are health clinics capable of mounting mass inoculation campaigns and oral rehydration programs to eliminate the biggest killer among children, diarrhoea.

Add to this, emergency water supplies, latrine construction, temporary housing and school repairing and the cause of reconstruction would become like the kind of war that Nicaragua truly needs. Are there the inspiration, energy and money in Washington for that, or is it reserved for the clandestine services that can only dig Nicaragua's hellhole even deeper?

Reaching those in immediate need is only a first step. Beyond that is the job of restoring conditions for restarting economic growth- and that does not mean aid but, more important, applying those free market principles that Washington constantly lectures the world about- removing the protectionism that hurts the Nicaraguan textile, shoe, vegetable and flower industries. For Nicaragua it means investing in land reform, increasing popular education and diversifying exports.

Political memories are so short. All this was said in a report of a commission chaired by Henry Kissinger over a decade ago. No one took real notice. By the time the Sandinistas had given up the bullet in favour of the ballot the U.S. had lost interest.

But what goes around can come around. Does Bush want conflict on his Latin American flank too or can he let the vote in Nicaragua go whichever way its people want and meanwhile, before and after, give the country the basic help it more than deserves?


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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