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Arms from the U.S.S.R. - or from nobody; Sandinistas' no-win choice.

When Anastasio Somoza Debayle flew out of Managua at dawn on July 17, 1979, for his home in Sunset Island, Florida, he left behind an elaborate political deal. It details had been worked out in the preceding weeks by Carter Administration negotiators, Somoza's nationalist Liberal Party and the incoming Sandinista-led junta. At the urging of the United States, the National Guard was to remain intact as a guarantee against Sandinista domination of the post-somoza order. But the deal fell apart when Francisco Urcuyo, designated by Somoza as his successor, demanded that the "irregular" Sandinista forces disarm. The cease-fire broke down, and faced with heavy fighting, the National Guard, whose senior officer had gone with Somoza, collapsed in forty-eight hours. Three thousand Guardsmen fled to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in fishing boats or aboard hijacked aircraft, many taking their weapons with them.

The Sandinistas found themselves presiding over what they had least expected: an outright military victory. Like Cuba in 1959, revolutionary Nicaragua had no army. Attacks out of Honduras began in a matter of weeks, and by the fall there were rumors of war between the two countries. Right-wing terrorists and splinter groups of extreme leftists kept Managua on edge with ambushes and holdups.

In late 1978 the number of Sandinista fighters was fewer than 1,200, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. The nonuniformed militias that provided defense in the anarchic early days of the revolution were mostly made up of kids carrying U.S.-supplied M-1s and M-16s, Belgian FALs and Israeli Galil rifles. Most of them had no stocks of ammunition.

The notion that the victorious Sandinistas could have secured a hands-off pledge by the United States if they had forsworn all military ties to the Soviet Union initially sounds plausible, but Washington made that impossible. Building an army required cash, and fleeing Somoza supporters had looted the treasury of all but $3.5 million. "We refuse to spend a single dollar on arms,c declared one comandante, "because our country is too poor." Not many weapons suppliers offer generous credit. Within two months of their victory, in September 1979, Nicaraguan junta leaders surprised Carter Administration officials by appealing to the President for arms during a visit to Washington.

In December, when the Sandinistas took U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Larry Pezzullo on a tour of their army facilities, he was aghast at the extent of their needs. "They want uniforms and ... everything from coffee cups for the troops to sophisticated wheeled vehicles," he explained. "Their armored batallion was enough to give an American Legion type an orgasmic heart attack." The State Department and the Pentagon made a similar assessment in a joint presentation to Congress in early 1980. "The Nicaraguan defense establishment was swept away," they reported.

The issue of military aid to the Sandinistas set off a fierce battle in Washington. Administration conservatives, clawing back the ground they had lost in two years under Carter, warned that U.S. weapons sent to Nicaragua would be "trans-shipped" to guerrillas fighting in El Salvador. Their arguments were buttressed by a C.I.A. analysis of August 1979 which concluded that Nicaragua's coalition government was a temporary facade for "an authoritarian Marxis government," which would reveal itself only after Washington was "lulled." Carter, facing an uphill battle to persuade Congress to approve his $75 million package of economic aid, had little stomach for a fight over the controversial military aid request. The final military package was purely symbolic: $3,000 for binoculars and compasses, and $20,000 for senior Sandinista People's Army officers to visit Fort Stewart, For Benning and Fort Jackson on an "orientation tour." In effect the issue was dead by December 1979.

Nonetheless, Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge Martinez pointed out that a U.S. refusal would not drive the Sandinistas to ask for Soviet military aid. "We prefer the U.S. market," said Borge, "but if it is closed to us then we will have to seek another, possibly the European, market." Soviet-bloc military deliveries to this point had been limited. U.S. intelligence figures show that no more than $12 million worth of Soviet-bloc weaponry arrived in Nicaragua in 1979 and 1980, all of it defensive in character: ZPU light antiaircraft guns, SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, antitank grenades and East German trucks. There was little increase in 1981, when Nicaragua received 937 tons of Soviet materiel. Almost all of this was accounted for by twenty-five or more secondhand Soviet T-55 tanks from Algeria. The 1948-vintage machines, of doubtful value in Nicaragua's hilly terrain, weigh thirty-five tons each.

The world arms market is highly concentrated. The "Big Six" countries--the Soviet Union, the United States, France, West Germany, Italy and Britain--control 88 percent of sales to the Third World. Each of the Western members of that elite group posed problems for Nicaragua. West Germany had decided in 1977 not to export arms to "areas of tension." Italy, always extremely vulnerable to U.S. pressure, was in a revolving-door government crisis. France was under the conservative rule of Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Britain's Labor government might have been willing to help, but in May 1979 it fell to Margaret Thatcher's Tories.

Sandinista emissaries traveled to West Germany and to many second-tier Western suppliers like Belgium, Spain, Mexico and Brazil, to no avail. They continued to look for arms on the U.S. open market in 1981. But on January 18, two days before Ronald Reagan's inauguration, two Sandinista Air Force officers were arrested in Texas trying to export two Huey helicopters, items on the U.S. Munitions Control List. An exasperated Eden Pastora Gomez, then Nicaragua's Deputy Defense Minister, complained in April 1981 that Nicaragua had been driven to buy from the Mafia in Miami after refusals from U.S. commercial arms dealers.

In May, however, a door opened. Francois Mitterrand's French Socialist Party came to power, and within a month Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escote Brockmann was in Paris asking for help. The French recognized that, as one official put it, "The Managua government has no desire to count entirely on Cuba and the Soviet Union to supply its defense needs." The French sales agreement, signed that December, was modest: two Alouette-3 helicopters, two coastal patrol boats, forty-five troop transport trucks, one hundred STRIM-89 helicopter-mounted rocket launchers and 7,000 rocket rounds. It also offered training for ten Nicaraguan pilots and ten naval officers. The materiel, the French stressed, was purely defensive, and none of it could be transferred to a third party. All told, the package was worth $15.8 million.

Washington's reaction was fierce and immediate. Secretary of State Alexander Haig told French Foreign Minister Claude Cheyssonn that he regarded the deal as "a stab in the back." Another official charged that the arms would further "militarize the Nicaraguan regime, helpiing it export revolution and destabilize the region." One French high-technology export firm complained that its markets in at least three countries had been cut off as a result of the sale. Under intense pressure, Mitterrand caved in and told Reagan in a private meeting in April 1982 that delivery of the helicopoters would face "indefinitely delays." The French ruled out any future sales to Nicaragua.

The Reagan Administration had based its policy on the assertion that the Sandinistas wanted to ally themselves with the Soviet bloc. With the French capitulation Washington had demonstrated its ability to subvert any initiative from a Western ally that might undermine that claim. Not even France, with a popular new socialist government and the world's third-largest arms export industry, could take the heat. Nicaragua was left with no military supply line outside the Soviet bloc. However, Nicaraguans argued that their enforced dependence on Soviet military aid did not mean political alliance. Borge pointed out that many nonsocialist countries have imported large amounts of Soviet weaponry.

Peru may be the best example. Since 1973 its nationalist military regime and its elected successors have built a Soviet arsenal much more advanced that Nicaragua's. First came 200 T-55 tanks, the same model that caused such a flap when it arrived in Nicaragua in 1981. Next came radar systems, surface-to-air missiles, transport planes and helicopters. The most dramatic acquisition, in 1976, was forty-eight Sukhoi SU-22 fighter bombers, incomparably superior to the MIG-21s, whose arrival in Nicaragua both parties in Congress agree, would justify a U.S. air strike.

In the wake of the Sukhoi deal came training programs and military advisers--more than 150 by 1984, ninety of them with the army. One of their main tasks is explaining the complex electronic gear aboard the sixteen Mi-24 Hind-D helicopoter gunships, which Peru obtained in 1983. Nicaragua has from five to twelve of the slightly less potent hind-A model, and the Administration points to them as the most sophisticated addition to "an arsenal that dismays and alarms its neighbors."

Yet the Administration appears unconcerned about the Peruvian buildup. A secrete Defense Intelligence Agency report concluded that Peru's turn to the Russians was logical because of "Moscow's massive offerings of military equipment not readily available elsewhere, at extremely generous terms." A State Department official told us: "We accept the Peruvians' claim that large-scale Soviet military supplies will not affect their independence. It is essentially the Peruvians' business." The best response to Soviet military influence, the official said, is to compete for the Peruvians' loyalty. U.S. military aid requested for Peru in fiscal 1986 aims "to increase their range of options when they look at military procurement," he said. The official claims that this attitude is unaffected by the election of Alan Garcia's left-leaning APRA government, which he described as "radical nationalist and nonaligned."

But radical nationalism, nonalignment and heavy Soviet weaponry are one thing in the Andes, quite another in the Centra American backyard. The sad fact is that the United States presented the Sandinistas with a Catch-22. They could accept military dependence on the Soviet bloc as the price of national survival, or they could surrender the right to acquire any arms at all--with the exception, perhaps, of just enough guns to shoot themselves.
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Author:Black, George; Matthews, Robert
Publication:The Nation
Date:Aug 31, 1985
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