Flashback

How to Keep Pressure on the Sandinistas: Jul. 1989

By From the July 1989 issue

Editor's Note: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is back in the news again as a possible “Establishment” candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But there was a time when he considered perhaps more Reaganite than his father, who had just been elected president. Consider the two un-ghosted columns he wrote for us in 1989. The first (republished last week) reveals him to be unabashedly Jack Kempian and supply-siderish, the second (below) solidly anti-Sandinista and pro-democratic regarding Nicaragua. Among conservatives in those days, he and not his brother George was regarded as the young Bush to watch. Perhaps today’s right is being too quick to dismiss him?

On March 24 President Bush, surrounded by the bipartisan leadership of Congress, announced the extension of humanitarian assistance to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance through February 1990. The agreement calls for support of the voluntary reintegration or relocation of the resistance in accordance with the 1987 Esquipulas II agreement and last February's El Salvador accord. Because military aid will not be provided this year, the outcome of the February 1990 election, announced by the Sandinistas as part of the El Salvador accord, will define U.S. policy in Central America in the 1990s.

The Bipartisan Accord on Central America is itself the product of Congress's failure to provide military aid over the last two years. To those who say that George Bush has sold out the democratic resistance (and there have been a few) I say it was sold out by Chris Dodd, John Kerry, Jim Wright, and a majority in Congress. Be that as it may, the point to remember is that the accord allows the military resistance to remain intact until the Sandinistas can live up to their promise to democratize Nicaragua.

No doubt, most congressional leaders and many in the administration have tired of the five-year battle over Nicaraguan policy. By taking Nicaragua off the foreign policy hot plate, the thinking goes, it might be possible to resurrect the tradition of a foreign policy consistently supported by both Democrats and Republicans. A bipartisan consensus on foreign policy is a worthy objective, to be sure, but the question to ask is, Will the new accord and the February 1990 election help bring about our government's expressed goal of freedom for the people of Nicaragua and peace in Central America? The answer will depend on the behavior of the Sandinistas, the civilian opposition, and the U.S. government between now and next February.

The Sandinistas will try to use the 1990 election to obtain greater economic and political support from European and Latin countries. As they showed in the 1984 election, this objective has nothing to do with support for free elections. In that year the Sandinistas suppressed the opposition's attempts to organize, denied it access to the media, sent in thugs to break up public rallies, and controlled all aspects of the voting from registration to vote counting. As Comandante Bayardo Arce, a member of the Sandinista National Directorate, said at the time, the Sandinistas considered the election a nuisance that would be manipulated for political gain. According to Arce, the elections would provide a framework to satisfy the international bourgeoisie on the surface and thus decrease outside pressure to provide democratic guarantees.

To date, it does not appear that the Sandinistas have changed their attitude toward elections. For instance, they have rejected the civic opposition's call that the all-important Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE) be made independent. The CSE appoints all official poll watchers and supervises voter registration and vote counting. Not only do the Sandinistas plan to keep the CSE under their control, but they have also stipulated that 50 percent of opposition funding raised outside Nicaragua is to go into the CSE's coffers. Naturally, they still retain exclusive rights to the millions in government money that can be spent on the election.

The hope for even relatively free elections resides in continued pressure from the civilian opposition, and from the United States, Latin America, and Europe. For example, the Sandinista proposal to give opposition groups one hour a day on government television should be expanded to eliminate censorship of Nicaragua's few remaining independent media outlets. In addition, pressure should be put on the Sandinistas to accept Pedro Joaquin Chamorro's proposal to create an independent television station. The Sandinistas released a large number of former Somoza national guardsmen from prison earlier this year. Pressure should now be exerted to bring about the release of the estimated 4,800 political prisoners still in jail. Given that the military resistance has been mothballed, obligatory service in the Sandinista army should be suspended. The existence of a 60,000-strong military force (with another 40,000 in reserves) tied to the ruling party is a most intimidating factor during an election period. Therefore, any diminution of the Sandinista armed forces— larger than all others in Central America combined—would be appropriate.

While the prospects for free elections in Nicaragua are in my opinion only slightly better than the chances of the Miami Heat becoming NBA champs in 1990, the election nonetheless has tremendous potential for mobilizing opposition to the Sandinista regime. As was the case in Panama, Chile, the Philippines, and even the Soviet Union, the purity of the process is not as important as the fact that elections allow for open expression of dissatisfaction.

In the case of Nicaragua, latent opposition to the government has increased as economic conditions have worsened. From February 1988 to February 1989, the Nicaraguan currency depreciated by 1.5 million percent—an amount worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records. Since imports account for 40 percent of Nicaragua's GNP, the currency's astronomical depreciation will be felt increasingly as the election approaches. The inflation rate in Nicaragua is running at over 33,000 percent. The unemployment rate in Managua is at 30 percent and industrial production during the last year has dropped in real terms by eight percent with no sign of improvement. In short, real income in dollar terms is lower today in Nicaragua than it was before World War II. The economic disaster should translate into significant support for the civic opposition, particularly among 16-to-28-year-olds who have been hardest hit and who make up more than 50 percent of the electorate. The opposition comprises diverse political parties, business organizations, labor unions, and religious groups. To use the election period effectively, it must unite behind one candidate and turn the election into a referendum on the Sandinista regime. The Sandinista leadership's opulent lifestyle (shades of Ferdinand and Imelda) in the face of the masses' abject poverty makes for an explosive environment detrimental to the stability of the regime.

What can the United States do? First, we need to keep calling attention to the Sandinistas' intransigence in fulfilling their commitment to hold free elections. Without a constant spotlight on Nicaragua, the Sandinistas will be in a position to replay the election farce of 1984. Second, the U.S. government must increase its efforts to cut the flow of Eastern bloc support to Nicaragua. There are signs that under Gorbachev the Soviet Union is re-evaluating its policy of $1 billion a year in military and economic aid to the Sandinistas. Secretary of State James Baker's calls for cuts in Soviet military aid to Nicaragua—which he regards as a key indicator of Soviet interest in improved relations with the U.S.—will achieve positive results if continued. Third, our allies in Western Europe must be encouraged to tie economic aid to Sandinista compliance with fair and free elections. It seems hypocritical for countries such as Sweden, West Germany, and France to provide unconditional economic support to Nicaragua while withholding aid to countries such as Chile, where broader freedoms exist and democracy is closer to being achieved. Fourth, the United States should guarantee that exiles who return to Nicaragua will receive political asylum as promised by the Sandinistas. We also need to provide safeguards that our support will continue for those in the democratic resistance wishing to return to Nicaragua. Fifth, using our response to the Panamanian election as a guide, we should lay the groundwork for a similar effort in Nicaragua. You can be sure the Sandinistas are watching very carefully what happens to Noriega.

The Bush Administration should persevere in its determination to support the cause of freedom in Nicaragua as the best way to securing a lasting peace in Central America. Strong support for legitimate elections in Nicaragua is essential if this goal is to be attained. If the Sandinistas allow free elections, it is likely they will be defeated. If they fail to hold free elections, the effort for freedom in Nicaragua will continue by other means and a renewal of military assistance to the resistance by Congress will be in order. Let's hope it doesn't have to come to that.

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About the Author

Jeb Bush is a former governor of Florida.