Published December 1, 1987
The Central American peace plan negotiated in August 1987 by the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua is certain to remain an object of debate in the new year. Yet the discussion over the past several months seems to have lacked the necessary specificity. What, concretely, would have to happen, were there to be peace with freedom in Central America?
The focus of that query must be Nicaragua. No doubt there are grave social, economic, and political problems in the other Central American republics. But as former Virginia governor Charles Robb put it this past fall, “the Nicaraguan government has singled itself out” for attention “by its refusal to grant democratic rights to its citizens.” In the first month after the Central American presidents’ plan was announced, some things did change in Nicaragua: the opposition paper La Prensa re-opened, and Radio Católica was allowed to broadcast again. Were these cosmetic gestures alone? The fact that censorship laws remain in force as this is written (in October) suggests reason for serious concern.
In any event, peace in Central America seems to depend on peace within Nicaragua—the kind of peace that is the fruit of a democratic society and polity that respects basic human rights. An impressive first cut at describing what the transition to democracy in Nicaragua would entail was published in September by the Puebla Institute, a lay Catholic human rights organization with offices in New York and Washington. At this season when “peace on earth” is more readily on the mind of our culture, the Puebla Institute booklet, “Necessary Steps,” offers an opportunity to think about peace in the concrete, historical sense of the term. These “necessary steps” to peace and freedom have salience, of course, in other societies traveling the hard road from left-wing or right-wing tyranny to that freedom which is an irreducible component of peace.
So what should happen? What are these “necessary steps?” Here is the Puebla Institute list, adapted:
Release everyone imprisoned without due process, including all those tried under vague political charges or tried in extraordinary tribunals or police courts.
Abolish the “Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals,” which operate outside the constitutional framework of Nicaragua.
Rescind the extraordinary powers given police forces to conduct trials, decide appeals, and sentence individuals.
Restore those constitutional rights to due process that were suspended by the Sandinistas’ state-of-emergency decree. These would include rights to habeas corpus, to be informed of charges on arrest, to appeal to a higher court, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to not testify against oneself, and to consult an attorney when arrested.
Permit the International Committee of the Red Cross, independent human rights observers, families, and lawyers to visit all detainees and prisoners and to inspect places of imprisonment.
Stop holding detainees and prisoners incommunicado—the situation in which torture is most likely to occur.
Abolish conditions of confinement that, in themselves, are forms of torture.
End all other forms of torture and punish the officials responsible for torture.
Allow the Catholic Church to reopen its social welfare and human rights offices. Restore freedom of the press to all Church-related communications media.
Restore the television broadcast of Cardinal Obando y Bravo’s Sunday Mass.
Permit all 20 priests expelled from Nicaragua to return.
Repeal Article 124 of the 1987 Nicaraguan constitution, the effect of which is to bar religion courses from the curriculum of even private religious schools.
Allow conscientious objection (with alternative service) for those opposed to conscription because of religious conviction.
Cease harassing Protestant evangelicals, who are often forbidden from holding or attending prayer meetings and from evangelizing and preaching.
End detention, intimidation, and other forms of coercion against religious believers.
Stop pressuring religious groups to incorporate Sandinista teachings into religious instruction and stop pressuring believers to join Sandinista-affiliated groups.
Ensure the right to strike, to bargain collectively, to demonstrate, to meet publicly, and to take other non-violent collective action on behalf of the claims of workers.
Release all trade unionists currently imprisoned in connection with nonviolent union activities.
End harassment of and pressure against independent unions (such pressures have included the withholding of food rations, cooking oil, bank loans, and fertilizers, as well as job dismissals and attacks from Sandinista mobs).
Give legal recognition to all democratic trade unions and reopen union publications.
Permit opposition political parties to hold marches and public, outdoor meetings, now restricted by the state-of-emergency.
Stop jailing opposition party activists and conscripting them or their children as a penalty for non-violent political activity.
End government infiltration of political party meetings; end efforts to get opposition party members to spy on party activities or incriminate party leaders.
Allow the democratic opposition free access to the media and permit the opposition to publish their own materials.
Permit opposition parties to publicize party meetings and to travel within the country to attend those meetings.
Permit all publications, including labor bulletins, Church newspapers and magazines, political party bulletins, and private newsletters to publish freely. End prepublication censorship.
End restrictions on newsprint.
End economic harassment of independent publishers (e.g., when La Prensa was closed, it faced bankruptcy due to a combination of state-imposed employee salary increases and state-imposed restrictions on the price of the newspaper).
Allow private television broadcasting.
Allow news broadcasts on private radio stations. Limit censorship to what is strictly necessary for “the protection of national security, or of public order or of public health and morals,” as provided under international human rights law.
End all arbitrary arrests and mob attacks against independent journalists, writers, and publishers.
Human Rights Activists
Stop all jailings, deprivation of food rations, threats of physical violence, and other pressures against independent human rights activists.
Allow independent human rights activists to hold public meetings and to travel freely throughout the country to monitor human rights conditions.
Give the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission for Human Rights, attorneys, and foreign human rights defenders access to all tribunals to observe proceedings and to all places of detention to inspect conditions and meet with prisoners.
Allow human rights defenders to report their findings freely in both their own publications and through the national and international media.
Indians and Creoles of the Atlantic Coast
Permit free access to and movement within the Atlantic Coast region for all indigenous peoples and for members of the press, independent human rights activists, church and labor leaders, and other humanitarian groups. Stop requiring Indians and other Atlantic Coast residents to carry special identification cards and permits to travel, fish, hunt, farm, and carry out commercial activities.
Permit freedom of assembly, speech, publishing, and broadcasting to Indians and other indigenous peoples. Negotiate with Indians and other indigenous peoples (including the armed opposition drawn from these sources) to redress past grievances and guarantee autonomy. Permit the return of indigenous civilian rule in all towns and villages of the Atlantic Coast region. End arbitrary arrest, detention, and threats against the residents of the Atlantic Coast.
Permit all Indian and Creole refugees and exiles to return to their homes. Provide compensation for reconstruction of homes and communities destroyed by the government. Grant amnesty to all returnees.
End forcible relocation of indigenous populations. Stop counterinsurgency aerial bombing and strafing against civilians and their villages, homes, and other property. Stop burning and destruction of Indian farms, livestock, and crops.
Permit Indians and Creoles to engage freely in farming, fishing, hunting, and commercial activities necessary for their subsistence. End restrictive licensing and marketing controls that deny basic necessities to the people.
Permit all independent Indian and Creole political, cultural, economic, and social organizations to operate freely in the Atlantic Coast region.
Campesinos (Peasant Fanners)
Abolish preventive detention of campesinos in areas of military conflict.
Release all campesinos imprisoned without due process.
Stop counterinsurgency aerial bombing and strafing attacks against campesino civilians, their villages, homes, and property.
Stop the counterinsurgency practice of burning and destroying campesino crops, livestock, and other food supplies.
End forced resettlement of campesino families to Sandinista-controlled camps; release and facilitate the return of campesinos to their homes.
End pressures against campesinos to join Sandinista farming cooperatives or to join and attend meetings of Sandinista political organizations such as the Sandinista Defense Committees.
Other Civil Liberties
Ensure all citizens the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement.
Restore the constitutional rights to security of person, the inviolability of the home, and freedom from warrantless arrest.
End coercive pressures to join Sandinista party groups, including the Defense Committees.
Cease applying conscription in a punitive or discriminatory fashion.
Ensure the right to academic freedom.
Allow all citizens, including refugees and exiles, the right to return to the country. Amnesty should extend to all political prisoners and to all resistance forces willing to lay down their arms.
Peace on earth, as we continually insist in these pages, has to do with institutions of freedom. That is not only true for Central America; it is true for South Africa, Korea, Chile, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Angola, Mozambique, Haiti, and Sri Lanka. The Puebia Institute’s “Necessary Steps” illustrate the incarnation, if you will, of what one hopes will someday be “peace on (at least a part of) earth.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.