THE curtain appears once again to have closed on the contras; the stage is set for elections in Nicaragua next February; and the Bush administration is searching for a new script for its policy toward the Sandinistas as it sends out mixed signals. This seems an opportune moment for setting aside dug-in ideological positions. The US needs to assess objectively what national interests are at stake in Nicaragua. Assuming that Washington's primary concern is the risk the Sandinistas would pose to US national security if they win the February vote, it is important to determine in what ways, if any, Managua might threaten the US. No serious observer of the situation in Central America argues that Nicaragua - one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, with only 3 million citizens and no strategic weaponry - endangers the US directly. Instead, some analysts insist that if Daniel Ortega Saavedra is reelected, Managua would jeopardize US security in two ways.
First, they argue that the Sandinistas are attempting to subvert their neighbors and ultimately will threaten Mexico and the Panama Canal. Realistically, however, Managua can do little harm to giant Mexico. Moreover, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's regime demonstrates that even the most anti-US Panamanian government cannot afford to shut down the canal and lose crucial revenue while inviting US military intervention. Other specialists argue that the best way for Washington to prevent revolution in Central America is not to beat up on the Sandinistas but, in Alexander Haig's words, to ``go to the source.'' US policy toward Central America must sincerely seek to eliminate the widespread poverty and repression especially present in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras before the region can experience peace.
Far more serious is the second allegation, that the Sandinistas - being linked to Moscow - may someday offer the Soviet Union a military base from which it could attack the US. Such a facility would threaten US security. Fortunately, aside from the fact that the USSR is dismantling its empire rather than expanding it, military bases do not appear overnight and are easy to detect. In the unlikely event of such a challenge, the US would have plenty of time to react after the threat materialized. For Washington to react now to nonexistent military bases would be to tilt at windmills.
If the Bush administration comes to accept, however grudgingly, the premise that the US can live safely with a Sandinista government in Managua, US policy toward Nicaragua should encourage the advancement of democracy and national reconciliation. It has become axiomatic in the US that the Sandinista National Liberation Front leaders are not committed democrats. However, US policymakers often forget this does not necessarily mean the Sandinistas are incapable of overseeing Nicaragua's democratization.
The curtain is about to rise on a new act in Nicaragua's dramatic history. We can only hope the Bush administration comes up with a script for a program that does justice to US interests, to US democratic ideals, and to the Nicaraguan people. It is imperative that US policy toward Nicaragua respond to reality, not to unrealized fears based more on miscast ideology than on facts and genuine national interests.