88. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Mr. David Aaron, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Mr. David Newsom, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Amb. Viron Vaky, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs
  • Mr. Anthony Lake, Director of Policy Planning Department of State
  • Mr. James Siena, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, ISA (attended very brief part at the beginning of the meeting)
  • Mr. Michael Armacost, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, ISA
  • Mr. Robert Pastor, National Security Council


  • U.S. Policy to Nicaragua
[Page 237]

David Aaron began the meeting by saying that the President was deeply interested and concerned over recent developments in Nicaragua. Aaron understood that State had been preparing a paper on the subject, and asked Newsom to comment.

Newsom said that the conclusion of State’s internal discussions was that ultimately Somoza would have to go. However, our ability to deal with the evolving situation in Nicaragua will be extremely difficult if that objective becomes clear at the beginning of this exercise. Newsom said that State believes we should stimulate the Central Americans to promote mediation between Somoza and the moderate opposition as a first step in the political process.

Vaky then said that Carazo of Costa Rica had responded to the President’s request for an assessment of the situation by suggesting that Costa Rica take the lead in a mediation effort which involves the other Central Americans, and perhaps the OAS. Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Mexico and the United States could support these mediation efforts.2

Newsom said that we should redirect the requests from various individuals in Nicaragua and from people outside Nicaragua that the U.S. mediate by recommending that the Central Americans take the lead. It is our hope that Somoza will step aside along the lines of the Venezuelans’ formula. The transitional government which was set up after the overthrow of President Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, then set the stage for a genuinely democratic election.

Vaky said that he did not believe that a moderate solution will emerge on its own. He described the present political situation in Nicaragua. Somoza has apparently dug in his heels. The Sandinistas are extremists with Cuban connections, and we should avoid their gaining the upper hand. Everyone in Nicaragua is ready for a change. He argued that the best apparent solution was a transition formula in which Somoza might step aside and a person or a junta enjoying wide support could be formed and arrange for free elections later. He [Page 238] suggested that people of the stature of Galo Plaza or Lleras Camargo might help facilitate this transition process. Vaky concluded by saying that ultimately it would be our decision which would count.

Tony Lake said that he and Pastor had talked before of their common anxiety of going to a Chief of State and asking him to step down. He said that this would be tricky not only because of the international principle of non-intervention, but also because of reasons internal to the U.S. political process since Somoza has a number of very powerful political allies.

Pastor interjected that the influence of Rep. Charlie Wilson was brought home last week when in the middle of the Nicaraguan crisis, we were impelled to sign two AID loans to Nicaragua. Wilson’s importance stems from his position in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. His vote on foreign aid is pivotal.

Lake said that he pretty much agrees with Vaky’s diagnosis. Ultimately, we will have to tell Somoza where we come out on the question of his political future. However, we should not do that at the beginning. For now, we should only talk about a mediation effort and we could do so publicly. It is best to wait before we draw the ultimate conclusion, both for tactical purposes and also to give us time to test our analysis of the situation.

Vaky then said that it’s possible that Somoza might accept a mediation effort; we just don’t know. But he believed that we need to face the issue of the future of Somoza squarely. Vaky doesn’t see that there is anything that we can do other than that. Vaky also informed us that our Charge had been called in to see President Perez the day before, and he expects that Perez may be giving him a letter for President Carter.3

Lake and Vaky then talked about whether or not it should be the United States which ultimately goes to Somoza.

Aaron then asked about the nature of the opposition groups in Nicaragua and whether they will be able to organize themselves to formulate an alternative to Somoza.

Vaky said that the business groups had been trying to organize themselves for that purpose, but they are fragmented and it is unclear whether they will succeed.

[Page 239]

Pastor said that it looks as if Somoza has decided to take steps to break the general strike and the moderate opposition at the same time. If these steps are strong, the moderate opposition may drift back into an apolitical role once again.

Vaky said that the leaders of INDE, a prominent business group, recently saw our Ambassador and requested that the United States mediate.4

Aaron then shifted the conversation to the specific steps we should be taking.

Newsom said that we should start with Costa Rica. Carazo is the one leader in Central America that Somoza listens to the most, but Costa Rica also carries the most credibility. Vaky said that the Central Americans are the most legitimate ones for dealing with this problem.

Pastor said that an additional advantage of having the Central Americans take the lead is that they can define the issue as one related to their security concerns, rather than as a political succession issue. As a security issue, they are much better positioned to play the role of mediators and to raise the issue to the OAS. As a political succession issue, the military governments of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala would be very vulnerable to mediating in the Nicaraguan political crisis. The security angle also permits the OAS to address the issue in a relatively legitimate way; whereas the political succession issue is probably not a legitimate issue for the OAS to consider, particularly when about half of its membership are, in a sense, less legitimate than the Nicaraguan government.

Vaky then quoted from the cable we had received from our Ambassador in San Jose. Carazo had told our Ambassador that “Somoza has to be convinced.” Costa Rica would be willing to mediate within a joint approach taken by other Central Americans. All agreed that the USG should go to Carazo and inform him that we think his mediation effort is a good idea and that we support it.

Aaron then asked what our public posture should be during this period.

Vaky suggested that we should say that we have been informed that there is a mediation initiative underway, and we support it.

Pastor suggested that we shouldn’t say anything about the mediation effort until the Central Americans are unified on the effort and announce their initiative. This was agreed.

[Page 240]

Armacost asked what we should do when individuals in Nicaragua come to us and ask for our help or support. Whom shall they see? Vaky suggested they be referred to his office in State.

Aaron said that it was inevitable that we would be drawn into the political turmoil, and indeed we already have. Aaron said that if the mediation effort is launched successfully, we will have to go to Somoza to tell him that we support it. Aaron suggested that State and NSC draft a memo for the President which makes this point and lays out our recommendation for him to consider. The memo should also talk about the increasing polarization in Nicaragua, and that Somoza is taking steps to destroy the moderate opposition.

Vaky said that Somoza is trying to create a situation where we will have to choose between Somoza and chaos.

Lake said that one of the advantages of the mediation option is that it doesn’t require us to go to Somoza at the beginning to tell him that he has to leave.

Vaky informed the group that the Venezuelans had initially brought up the issue of Nicaragua before the UN Security Council this past weekend, but when it was learned that the OAS may take up the issue, we successfully deferred action by the UN Security Council while the OAS discussed it. However, the Soviets inserted in the language that the UN Security Council would not consider it “for the time being”, leaving the option to review the issue if the OAS doesn’t.

Newsom then said that the fact that the Central Americans are concerned with this issue adds to it a certain degree of legitimacy. Pastor asked whether or not we would be taking it to the OAS.

Lake said that the Central Americans apparently preferred not to work through the OAS, and that we should support this informal group of Central American presidents in their mediation effort outside the OAS. Vaky said that we could turn to the OAS for support of the Central American initiative after the Central Americans have launched it.

Newsom asked which Congressmen should be informed and what should we tell them. Tony Lake suggested that Newsom tell Charlie Wilson. Vaky and Newsom then agreed that Vaky should talk to Sarbanes and Yatron and provide them a diagnosis of the political situation, leaving them with the impression that the U.S. Government was on top of the issue. We should, however, not give them a sense of which option we have chosen. Newsom also suggested that we tell Sarbanes and Yatron that we have been in touch with key Latin American leaders as well as with President Somoza.

At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that State and NSC would prepare a decision memo for the President and an attached [Page 241] cable to be sent from the Secretary to our Ambassador in San Jose, instructing him to tell Carazo that we support Carazo’s plan for a Central American mediation initiative.5 Vaky said that the second step should be to ask Venezuela, Mexico, and Colombia to support the initiative. All agreed on the need for extreme confidentiality on this issue, and that it should proceed by NODIS Cherokee channel.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Presidential Advisory Board, Box 81, Sensitive XX: 9/1–19/78. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. According to Pastor’s September 5 covering memorandum to Aaron, under which Pastor sent the memorandum of conversation, Pastor drafted the memorandum. Inderfurth added the following handwritten notation on the covering memorandum: “If the memcon were leaked, it could undermine—perhaps permanently—our ability to work for a positive outcome in Nicaragua. I suggest, therefore, that you not send a copy to State and that it be held very closely within the NSC.” (Ibid.)
  2. In telegram 222951 to multiple posts, September 1, the Department instructed the Ambassadors or Chargés in Venezuela, Mexico, and Costa Rica to deliver immediately a message from Carter to Perez, Lopez Portillo, and Carazo which read: “I have been watching developments in Nicaragua very closely and am very concerned, as I’m sure you are. I would very much appreciate your personal assessment of this situation.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor Files, Country Files, Box 38, Nicaragua Cables: 9/1–9/10/78) In telegram 3750 from San José, September 1, the Embassy reported Carazo’s response. He felt that “the time may have passed for any Somoza-self-initiated transition of power,” and that he was considering the possibility of offering to mediate a solution in Nicaragua and enlisting the chiefs of state of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to join in the “broad effort to get Somoza to recognize that he should leave in favor of a transitional government.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840139–2539)
  3. In telegram 8293 from Caracas, September 2, the Embassy reported that Crowley had met with Perez who asked rhetorically “if we are all going to sit around while genocide is committed in Nicaragua?” Perez endorsed “Somozaism without Somoza” in which “Somoza would be given guarantees for his safety and property in return for stepping down voluntarily.” A “governing authority would then be vested in a body composed of members of the Group of 12 and of senior National Guard officers.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850101–1904)
  4. Telegram 4139 from Managua, September 3. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780360–0682)
  5. See Document 90.