The collapse of peace talks this week between the Contra rebels and the Sandinista regime to end the 6-year civil war in Nicaragua is disappointing, but not surprising. The Sandinistas have nothing to lose by playing hardball.
Failure of the negotiations is blamed by the U.S. on refusal of the Sandinistas to implement democratic reforms. No new meetings are scheduled and the 60-day temporary cease-fire elapsed 10 days ago. However, neither side appears anxious to resume fighting.One Contra leader says he will ask the U.S. to resume military aid for the rebels, but the chances of that are remote. House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, said the question of renewed aid can be taken up "some other time" - which is an evasive way of saying "never."
When Congress cut off military aid to the Contras - over the objections of the Reagan administration - it left the rebels with little bargaining power. The subsequent peace talks under the plan proposed by Costa Rica offered little to the Contras except a chance to surrender.
The Sandinistas made some gestures of reform, including allowing certain newspapers and radio stations to resume operation, and the release of political prisoners.
But those moves may have been more for appearance than anything else. The Marxist government reportedly has since harassed political opponents and has refused to make any significant democratic reforms.
The Sandinistas have time on their side. They clearly don't want to resume fighting, but the Contras, with no military help from the U.S., are in no condition to wage war anyway.
The best option, of course, is to try to make the negotiations work, somehow. Yet the Contra leadership is divided on this question. Instead of a clearly-defined end, the civil war may just fade away with a few final sputters.
The defeat of the Contras, either at the bargaining table or simply through the disappearance of their ability to resist, becomes more obvious each passing week. Elimination of military aid made that inevitable.
Peace has come to Nicaragua, but it is a peace that leaves the Marxist government in full command - without being forced to make any of the democratic reforms that outsiders say they wanted.