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Democracy in Nicaragua

On the day that the U.S. Senate voted to provide $38 million in “non-military” aid to Nicaraguan rebels, the foreign minister of Canada was in Managua to seal a deal with the Sandinistas worth $11 million, assistance designed to help Nicaragua develop its geothermal power. But this deal sustains Sandinista geopolitical power as well. The failure of the Reagan administration to persuade even the Conservative government in Ottawa of the importance of our interdict against Marxist-Leninists in Central America is symptomatic of our more general failure among our major allies, who treat American concern over Nicaragua as an overwrought obsession. 

Where the administration has failed most is in its effort to persuade the Congress and the American people. The public opinion polls on Nicaragua these days should be a lesson in humility to the Great Communicator.

Nonetheless, the White House is claiming the Senate vote as a victory. As the House passes comparable legislation, the jubilation will be boundless. Such a victory in Congress would not be entirely hollow. It would give Reagan something of what he wants, and probably enough finagling room to finesse actually getting even more, through various exercises of executive discretion bordering on deceit. But it is a humiliating victory nonetheless. Circumscribed by restrictions and caveats, the legislation is intended to appear to repudiate the president’s goal, which is to change the government in Managua by force of U.S.-supplied rebel arms and U.S.-trained rebels.

At the same time the “humanitarian package” provides those of his critics who voted “aye” with protective cover from the charge that they did nothing to stop the spread of Communism in our hemisphere. Yet no one will be able to accuse them of being prepared to risk what President Reagan wants us to risk. How statesmanlike. This aid legislation, then, is an expression of the hypocrisy in American politics that disguises itself as compromise.

The Senate did decisively reject three amendments—one each by Senators Kennedy, Hart, and Biden—flatly ruling out the American military option (which Reagan says he rules out anyway). For this rejection, The Boston Globe has stigmatized the upper house as “the blank-check Senate.” What the defeat o those amendments actually demonstrates is that even politicians who don’t share President Reagan’s pugnacious stand are not quite willing to endorse the illusions about the Sandinistas to which his critics, against the heavy weight of evidence, insist on clinging. These illusions now even carry the dubious cachet of McGeorge Bundy, who recently took to The New York Times Op-Ed page to argue against aiding the rebels, citing as analogies a variety of past disasters, many of which he himself was responsible for. 

No doubt inadvertently, Senator Chris Dodd has defined the issue clearly. He says that if a foreign (that is, Soviet) military base were to be established in Nicaragua, this would be an occasion requiring U.S. intervention. But such a policy virtually guarantees a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Is it not far less risky, far les threatening to the peace of the world, to pressure the Nicaraguans now in power to reach a compromise on sharing that power with Nicaraguan democrats who would never entertain the notion of a Russian military base in the first place?

After all, it is not our opposition that has led the Sandinista regime to embrace the Soviets, to subvert its neighbors, or to start down the road to tyranny. There is hardly any doubt that if the United States had been indifferent to what was happening in Nicaragua, the oppression now would be far harsher and the military buildup would be far more threatening to the peace of the region. If the Soviets and the Cubans now seem to be moving cautiously in Nicaragua, this is because they fear a clash with the U.S. To that extent, at least, Regan’s policy has been a success. The Sandinistas and their allies were more confidently provocative when the Carter administration gave them reason to think that “anything goes.”

Difficult as it is for many Americans to imagine, some revolutionaries are ruthless and aggressive out of true conviction. They do not require the inspiration of American hostility. There is no reason to think that the reversal or withdrawal of our hostility will change them. Why should it? On the contrary, the only hope for democracy in Nicaragua is to support those Nicaraguans who demand it. 

It does not follow that a U.S. invasion is a morally or politically justifiable response to the consolidation of such a tyranny as we now find in Sandinista Nicaragua. Every calculus, in fact, argues against it, including the calculus of our own military leaders, who don’t want to fight the war that would have to be fought. Still, that does not relieve us of responsibilities to the democratic resistance movement that has formed in Nicaragua and among Nicaraguan refugees and exiles.

President Reagan has confused this issue with his hyperbolic claims for some of those he proposes to help. To be credible and deserving, an insurgency against tyrants must itself be democratic, at least where there is the democratic option. The appellation “contras,” as in counterrevolutionaries, is an instance of semantic subversion that unjustly tars many in the resistance who fought bravely against the previous dictatorship. Their present struggle merit more than this historically inappropriate and dismissive nomenclature or the callous advice from friends of the Sandinista regime that they content themselves with resettlement anywhere but at home.

A genuinely democratic strategy for Nicaragua would make the democrats in the resistance the keystone of our policy. To this end, it would require U.S. efforts to reduce the sway of ex-Somocistas among the rebels. Then we would be able to support the resistance with a clear conscience, without which free societies are badly hobbled when engaged in difficult and otherwise ambiguous enterprises. 

Our goal should be to convince the Sandinistas that they would pay a high cost for not compromising with decent democrats like Arturo Cruz, Alfonso Rubelo, Pedro Joacquin Chamorro, and Eden Pastora. If we do not support these decent democrats in their struggle for justice, let’s not pretend that it’s so that the Sandinistas will come to democracy on their own. We will be turning our backs on deserving friends just for the sake of a quiet life.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.