• U.S.

Central America the Propaganda War

8 minute read
George Russell

For the citizens of Uruguay, the occasion was a civic triumph: the inauguration of Julio Maria Sanguinetti, 49, as the tiny South American country’s first democratically elected President in 13 years. But for much of the hemisphere, the spotlight in the capital of Montevideo was focused last week on two of the official guests at the ceremonies, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. The question: After days of high-profile posturing by their respective governments, would the two men agree to talk over their differences?

Ortega made the first move. While the inauguration was taking place, Nicaraguan representatives ascended from their third-floor quarters in Montevideo’s aging Victoria Plaza Hotel to the heavily guarded fifth floor. There, they formally asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Craig Johnstone for a meeting with Shultz. The U.S. had already decided to agree.

Thus, on Saturday morning, Shultz and Ortega closeted themselves for an hour. Following the session, however, the Secretary of State concluded that “it’s hard to know if anything was achieved.” Said Shultz: “Ortega reiterated the points he has stated publicly before, and I stated again the objectives the U.S. and our friends in the region have consistently advocated for several years.” For his part, Ortega said that Washington should “show greater maturity” in dealing with Nicaragua. Said he: “Instead of military solutions, let’s seek specific solutions.”

The Shultz-Ortega exchange was a brief respite from the heated propaganda battle that went on last week between the Reagan Administration and the Sandinistas. From Montevideo to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua to hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, the adversaries were engaged in rhetorical offensives to win the support, not so much of Central Americans, but of U.S. Congressmen. The hope on both sides: to sway U.S. legislators as they ponder the question of restoring aid to some 12,500 U.S.-backed contra rebels who are fighting the Nicaraguan regime. At week’s end the funding struggle remained deadlocked, and Congress seemed no more inclined than before to accede to the Administration’s aggressive efforts on behalf of the insurgents.

The latest campaign began two weeks ago with President Reagan’s televised assertion that he would like to see the “present structure” of the Sandinista regime removed. As he put it, Reagan wanted to make its leaders “say uncle” and include the contra opposition in their government. The President’s remarks represented his most forthright departure to date from his previous insistence that the purpose of U.S. support for the contras was to force Nicaragua to cut off, or at least reduce, support for insurgents in neighboring El Salvador. Reagan’s words seemed designed to jar Congress into releasing $14 million in contra aid. Congress had agreed to that allocation last October, but then held back for a second vote originally scheduled for this month.

Last week the Sandinistas responded with a well-orchestrated “peace offensive.” Speaking in Managua two days before the Montevideo meeting, Ortega declared that to “encourage the reduction of tensions” in Central America his government would send home 100 Cuban military advisers, with half of them leaving as early as May. Nicaragua would also observe an “indefinite moratorium” on the acquisition of new weapons systems and would take “practical steps” to revive the stalled regional peace talks, known as the Contadora process, among Central American countries.

Ortega called on the U.S. to return to bilateral talks at Manzanillo, Mexico, a dialogue broken off in January. He also indicated that the Administration should withdraw its request for contra funding. Finally, Ortega repeated an earlier invitation for a bipartisan delegation of U.S. Congressmen to inspect military installations in Nicaragua, in order to belie Administration arguments about the country’s militarization.

Ortega’s offer went part way toward answering some, but not all, of the Administration’s concerns. Washington believes, for example, that there are 8,000 Cuban advisers in Nicaragua and that anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 of them are military. The Sandinistas have maintained that there are only 2,000 advisers, of whom fewer than 250 are military. At his meeting with Shultz, however, Ortega allowed that the number of Cuban military advisers in Nicaragua is 800.

Nicaragua’s offer of a weapons moratorium included a reference to interceptor planes “needed for the completion of the country’s current antiaircraft system.” That presumably meant MiG-21s or other East-bloc jets. The U.S. has warned that it would consider the arrival of such aircraft a dangerous provocation. Ortega’s proffered moratorium, however, did nothing to ease the Administration’s abiding alarm about Nicaragua’s current arsenal. That includes, by U.S. estimates, 150 tanks, 200 antiaircraft guns and 300 missile launchers, as well as at least six MI-24 Hind-D attack helicopters. With 100,000 regulars and reservists under arms, Nicaragua’s military is larger than the forces of El Salvador and Honduras combined.

Ortega did not directly address two other key Administration demands: 1) that Nicaragua stop lending support to “insurgents and terrorists in the region,” meaning the guerrillas in El Salvador; and 2) that the Sandinistas give their political opposition a say in government.

Even before Ortega made his public offer, he shared it with some influential Americans. He first revealed the proposal at a meeting with five U.S. Roman Catholic bishops who were making a five-day fact-finding tour of the region. At the same time, in Washington, Nicaraguan officials were knocking on congressional doors, criticizing Reagan’s “uncle” comment and talking up the peace offer. Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco delivered copies of Ortega’s statement to selected legislators.

The Administration reacted with alternating doses of vehemence and guarded flexibility. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Affairs in Austin, Vice President George Bush declared that Ortega’s suggestions “do not appear to represent significant moves.” Bush warned that if the U.S. failed to aid the contras, “we run the risk of seeing another Libya develop, a warehouse of subversion and terrorism only two hours by air from the Texas border.” More concretely, U.S. concern was demonstrated by the presence of the battleship Iowa off the coast of Honduras. Shultz, on the other hand, adopted a less confrontational tone. On the way to Uruguay, he declared that he was “perfectly willing” to meet with Ortega during the inauguration visit.

Whatever the results of the Sandinista peace campaign, the Administration’s tough tone seemed to focus congressional opinion, but not necessarily in ways that the White House liked. Before Ortega’s statement, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, weighed in with a stern reply to Reagan’s “uncle” remark. Said O’Neill: “The U.S. has played ‘uncle’ in Latin America for far too long. It is time to play brother.” Speaking to a group of Canadian business executives during a Time Inc. news tour in Washington, Delaware’s Democratic Senator Joseph Biden charged that “we have simply been lied to” about the Administration’s aims in supporting the Nicaraguan rebels. Said Biden: “If (Reagan) wants to overthrow the government, make the case to overthrow the government.”

The harshest exchange of all preceded the Shultz trip to Montevideo, when the Secretary of State appeared briefly before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Democratic Congressman Ted Weiss of New York City took Shultz to task for mentioning a possible Cuban and Nicaraguan role in international drug trafficking. Then, in a classic case of overstatement, Weiss heatedly added that Shultz’s remarks “remind me of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.” Shultz reddened and replied angrily, “When you compare me to Senator (Joseph) McCarthy, I resent it deeply.” The Secretary refused to testify further until he received an apology. Weiss said that he had not meant to make a personal comparison of Shultz and McCarthy, to which Shultz replied, “Thank you.”

Moments later, Democratic Congressman Peter Kostmayer of Pennsylvania made his own overheated addition to the fray by charging that “there is a lot of Red-baiting going on” over Nicaragua. Snapped Shultz: “I am here at the invitation of the committee. If you want to withdraw the invitation, I have lots of other things I can do.”

At week’s end the contras and some of their Nicaraguan civilian allies weighed in, calling on Ortega to declare a cease-fire in the conflict between the two sides, guarantee civil liberties in Nicaragua and establish by March 20 a general amnesty for political crimes. The White House, for its part, seemed intent on soldiering on in the propaganda war over Nicaragua. Before Shultz and Ortega held their meeting, President Reagan extolled the contras to a group of U.S. conservatives meeting in Washington as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance.” He told the gathering, “We cannot turn away from them. For the struggle here is not right vs. left, but right vs. wrong.” However it is described, the struggle will be long: Administration officials consider it unlikely that the funding question will formally come in front of Congress before April, perhaps even as late as May.

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