When Venezuela Spurred Peacemaking in Central America

Partially defeated by a hostile Reagan administration, the Contadora Group was a stepping stone to successful negotiations that followed. Now that intra-regional diplomacy might be back, we recollect a milestone where Venezuela played a leading role

Carlos Andrés Pérez, Felipe González, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Leonardo Callejas and Óscar Arias travel to Chile for Patricio Aylwin’s inauguration, March 1990

There was a time when hot issues in Latin America and the Caribbean, in the midst of the Cold War, were dealt with serious diplomacy and truly democratic commitment against pressures from Washington and Moscow—and Venezuelan presidents were involved with more than the contentious rhetoric of purported brokers like Petro and López Obrador.

It happened in the early 80s, around a peace talks initiative led by Venezuela: The Contadora Group. But the story began years before. 

François Mitterrand once said: when Sandinistas call for help, It would be great if Fidel Castro weren’t the only one who hears them. His concern was shared with the likes of Felipe González and other European social democrats, and notably Carlos Andrés Pérez—who feared that a radicalized Sandinista regime would end up “in the hands of the Soviet Union.”

Then leading the Socialist International, CAP had a degree of responsibility for fast evolving events in Managua, and thus their regional and geopolitical ramifications. His first administration—along with Mexico, Colombia and Panamá—armed and funded the Sandinista offensive in the late 1970s, and pressured Jimmy Carter to end the decades-old American support to the Somoza dynasty. Castro, on the other hand, acted as a unifier among the rebel factions of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) that later took power.

So the Sandinistas’ international allies were a mixed bag, but the view from Ronald Reagan’s office was that Managua had become the new gateway of Marxism-Leninism to Latin America. The Sandinista government, Reagan thought, had no right to exist, and the US would use a ton of energy in bringing it down. A familiar face to us Venezuelans was tasked with articulating Reagan’s policy in Central America, a 33-year-old Harvard Law graduate by the name of Elliott Abrams.

Contrary to what is often claimed, Nicaragua was not a mere client of Cuba or the Soviet Union after the Sandinistas ousted Somoza Jr in 1979. Venezuela and Mexico were sending subsidized oil and credits to Nicaragua, covering about half of the country’s energy needs. The share of Eastern Bloc assistance to the Nicaraguan economy was about 20%—Cuba’s support in terms of aid and personnel was even greater than the USSR’s until the Contra war escalated. For Moscow, non-communist help to Nicaragua was more than welcome: The Kremlin was undergoing a major rethink of its foreign policy after a decade supporting unstable and unproductive clients in the Third World.

Having inherited the Nicaraguan connection from CAP, the new COPEI leadership was distrustful of the Sandinistas and conditioned assistance to their commitment to democracy. The FSLN was funding the leftist rebels in El Salvador, and President Herrera Campíns was a personal friend and backer of José Napoleón Duarte, a fellow Christian Democrat in the Salvadoran junta. Venezuelan aid and discounted oil sales to Managua would cease in 1981.

The events of 1982—Reagan’s nod to Thatcher over the Malvinas invasion, and the escalation of fighting in Central America—catalyzed a consensus between AD and COPEI: A regional alliance was deemed necessary to end violence and contain the US, whose fear of communist uprising was feeding its interventionist impulses.

A good start

“Certainly the wars were having negative spillover effects on its neighbours: Mexico was dealing with thousands of refugees fleeing genocide in Guatemala,” says Mary K. Meyer, a political science professor who researched the Central American peace process in the 1990s. “Venezuela also had reputational interests over its commitment to democratic institutions back then, even if they weren’t perfect.”

By late 1982, Herrera Campíns and President López Portillo of Mexico were calling Reagan to stop supporting the Contra and to start talks with a young Daniel Ortega, then the head of Nicaragua’s junta. The initiative was joined by Colombia’s Belisario Betancur, who was interested in a future peace process on his own soil. Panama would host their first meeting in the Pacific island of Contadora, where the three countries had sponsored the Torrijos-Carter negotiations six years before. And so, the Contadora Process was born on the second weekend of 1983.

From left to right: Contadora Presidents Ricardo de la Espriella, Luis Herrera Campíns, Miguel de la Madrid and Belisario Betancur meet in Cancún, July 1983

“The Contadora Group was a milestone because it was the first regional and multilateral response to the civil wars in Central America,” says Orlando J. Pérez, a professor and expert on US-Latin American relations. “Above all they were worried by the United States’ hegemonic attitude, and in turn, Reagan was worried that he’d lose control of the situation by dealing with a new agenda and regional interests.”

“They created a space where the Central American countries could talk to each other,” says Professor Meyer. “For them it was very important to keep Cuba and the Soviet Union out so as not to give the US any further excuse to increase its military aid.”

Contadora gained early momentum throughout 1983, and got the US and Central American countries to agree to a set of “goals for peace.” Among them: to promote democracy and reconciliation, to halt the arms buildup in the region, and to get rid of foreign military bases and personnel. Verbal commitments were an easy job, as it turned out. The Reagan administration endorsed diplomacy on paper but actually undermined everything Contadora stood for.

Hawks and doves

The US responded to Contadora’s formation by asking Congress for a $400m emergency aid package to Central America and starting military exercises in the Honduran border. After the first peace proposal was approved and made public, the US sponsored talks with the foreign ministers of all Central American states (except Nicaragua) to revive a defunct military alliance called CONDECA. In October 1983, a US-led coalition invaded Grenada.

Contadora kept meeting, probably moved by, rather than in spite of US actions. Working commissions on regional security, political matters and economic cooperation were set up and processed feedback from the Central Americans. The mediators discussed timetables and implementation procedures for three years in a row—over having talks with the rebel groups and holding elections in each country, or over troop reduction. Herrera Campíns’ Foreign Minister Germán Nava Carrillo, Meyer wrote, was an active player in the Contadora technical group while other Venezuelan diplomats were described as “invaluable” by international observers. Timing was the big question: Who would do what first, and could the other be trusted to follow up with an agreed concession?

Watershed moments from the Contadora Process, however, were mostly symbolic and there weren’t many concrete results. “There wasn’t a lot to show for it, they had different versions and drafts of the peace agreement,” Meyer says. “But during those meetings, the negotiators from Central America were spending time together, the folks got to know each other and developed even a personal connection,” which would later turn out to be key.

The process was also invigorated by the wave of South American transitions in the 1980s. A new crop of democratic governments in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Peru emerged from military rule and formed the Contadora Support Group. Eight Latin American states—half of them “middle powers”—were soft balancing the US, and Abrams wasn’t too happy. “It’s necessary that we hinder the attempts at Latin American solidarity that could be directed against the United States and its allies, whether these efforts are initiated by the Support Group, Cuba or Nicaragua,” he told US diplomats.

The negotiations were finally deadlocked entering 1985. Ortega had agreed to sever ties with Cuba, the Russians and the Salvadoran guerrilla, and to sustain a multi-party system (the White House didn’t recognize the 1984 Nicaraguan elections as fair). The US still refused to endorse the Contadora Act, and accused the Sandinistas of tricking the world into thinking they would abide by the accords.

US obstruction also bore fruit when Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador—then known as the Tegucigalpa Group—were dissuaded from signing the act. Instead, they submitted a counterproposal with demands unacceptable to Managua, like deleting provisions for the removal of US bases.

Venezuela was appointed to the UN Security Council when the peace process was running out of steam, and the Lusinchi administration hosted the Contadora Eight in Caraballeda in January 1986. As Nicaragua was the most affected by the contra war and the US embargo, the Caraballeda Message called everyone to renew talks and rejected the conflicts’ Cold War framing.

The Road to Esquipulas

Diplomats and mediators worked on verification mechanisms in the following months but the stalemate persisted. Ortega wouldn’t release political prisoners or lift bans on freedom of speech, never mind disarm, unless the Contra retreated. In June 1986, the Tegucigalpa Group rejected the final draft, and a new $100m aid package for the Contra was greenlighted from Capitol Hill.

“Even then, the parties shared a critical incentive despite having so many disagreements throughout the negotiations: To end violence and lay weapons down,” says Pérez.

“Contadora was successful in creating a regional support network and a narrative of the value of negotiation,” says Meyer. “Ultimately, it was up to the Central Americans themselves to resolve their problems, and the Esquipulas Process only then created their space.”

Contadora’s demise saw a transformation of the peace process, stirred by major shifts in regional and great power politics. Newly elected presidents in Guatemala and Costa Rica tacked the Central Americans together and alone for once. A new phase, with Óscar Arias at the driver’s seat—and with Washington on the sidelines—began to emphasize “democracy as the condition for peace, and peace as the condition for development.”

When the infamous Iran-Contra affair deterred Abrams’ game in Nicaragua, Arias reportedly “forced” the Central American diplomats to stay in the room until a consensus was reached. This way, officials negotiating in Guatemala couldn’t consult with their home governments and the White House.

The tactics paid off. The parties finally agreed on a peace timetable at 4:00 AM on August 7, 1987.

Reagan and Gorbachev were also making strides in the nuclear arms negotiations, and eventually achieved a bilateral breakthrough over Central America. After the 1989 Malta Summit, Moscow promised to curb Castro and Ortega’s aid to the Salvadoran rebels so the State Department could recognize the upcoming elections in Nicaragua.

But Esquipulas couldn’t produce a ceasefire in El Salvador, and the Central Americans clashed over compliance with the accords (the Contra was still based in Honduras for instance). In this light, Contadora states were an anchor to the new process by promoting informal dialogue in outside events, like the inaugurations of Carlos Andrés and Salinas de Gortari (Mexico). Later, as the electoral contest between Ortega and Violeta Chamorro edged closer, Venezuela and Colombia sent peacekeeping troops to oversee the Contra’s demobilization.

The Contadora Group can pride itself on causing a ripple effect that helped recast the region’s political configuration for decades. First and obvious in Central America, where the surprise victory of Chamorro propelled a transition in Nicaragua, followed by further rounds of peacemaking in El Salvador and Guatemala. And however forgotten, the original vision outlived the war. The Group of Eight evolved into a vast fixture for Latin American integration and cooperation, now embodied by the CELAC.

In Venezuela, Contadora’s legacy has been buried. Its grave: A reminder of an era of bipartisan consensus and democratic activism in foreign policy—ironically left behind when Chávez was re-exporting dictatorship to Nicaragua during Ortega’s second coming. Now, one can’t help but wonder whether Contadora’s lessons can serve the ongoing negotiations, or if we’ll be trapped in a never-ending loop of unilateral time wasting, diplomatic mockery and flimsy mediation.


1979: The FSLN topples dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Pérez administration, among others, had helped the Sandinista guerrillas. In power since March 1979, COPEI’s Luis Herrera Campíns keeps Venezuela connected to the Nicaraguan dossier.

1980: After a military coup and the establishment of a US-backed junta in El Salvador, local guerrillas form the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) to battle the new regime. Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union support the rebels.

1981: Ronald Reagan takes office with a strong mandate and an aggressive anti-communist agenda in mind. The CIA secretly ramps up the Contra guerrilla operation from the Honduran border. Meanwhile, Venezuela stops selling cheap oil to the Sandinista government.

1982: The civil war in Guatemala sees intensified state terror after General Efraín Ríos Montt takes over. War begins in Nicaragua when the Contra blows up two bridges in the country’s north, and Ortega calls a state of emergency. The British invasion of the Malvinas raises more questions about Latin American self-determination.

1983: Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Colombia launch the Contadora Process to promote peace in Nicaragua and the region. The US boosts assistance to its Central American proxies and overthrows the Bishop government by invading Grenada.

1984: Venezuela and Mexico’s ability to leverage the Central Americans begins to wane as oil exports and prices decline from 1983. Ortega wins elections that Washington repudiates.

1985: The US imposes a full trade embargo on Nicaragua. Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil create the Contadora Support Group as the peace process gets bogged down.

1986: Venezuela and Colombia relaunch the initiative but the parties refuse to sign the peace act by June. Using the groundwork laid out by  Contadora, Óscar Arias and Vinicio Cerezo—new civilian leaders in Costa Rica and Guatemala—start the Esquipulas Process. The Iran-Contra scandal undermines Reagan’s hawkish approach to the region.

1987: The Central American presidents sign the Esquipulas II Procedures for peace and democracy. In the Washington Summit, Gorbachev and Reagan discuss deescalating the Nicaraguan conflict.

1988: Concerns over Esquipulas’ viability emerge, as violence persists in the region and governments struggle to stick to the accords.

1989: In a major victory for Esquipulas, El Salvador holds presidential elections. The country sees a democratic transfer of power for the first time in its history. The US and the USSR support the renewed peace process.

1990: Opposition leader Violeta Chamorro beats Ortega in presidential elections, and the Contra lays arms down. A democratic transition ensues in Nicaragua.

1992: The Salvadoran government and rebels sign the UN-sponsored Chapultepec Peace Accords. The civil war ends, and the FMLN enters the domestic party system.1996: The Guatemalan government and rebels sign the Peace Accords, ending 36 years of civil war.