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White House: Gorbachev Acting Like a ‘Drugstore Cowboy’

May 16, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The White House said Tuesday it was ″very leery″ about a promised halt in Soviet weapons shipments to Nicaragua and accused Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of acting like a ″drugstore cowboy″ offering one arms control proposal after another.

Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater confirmed that Gorbachev had privately told the United States that Moscow was stopping its arms shipments to the leftist Sandinista government in Managua.

However, he said there was no evidence of any cutoff and that military supplies still were going into Nicaragua.

On the other hand, Fitzwater said the weapons being received now might simply have been in the pipeline when Gorbachev made his promise or might be coming in from another country, such as Cuba.

″I’m willing to leave the door open on the idea that maybe that evidence (of continuing military shipments) is misleading,″ Fitzwater said.

Other administration sources said later there was ″preliminary evidence″ that Nicaragua had received 17 shipments of military goods from the Soviet Union and its allies in the first four months of this year. The value was estimated at $80 million.

The officials, who insisted on anonymity, said they were unable to determine what the shipments contained and whether the source was the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or Cuba. The officials cautioned reporters against drawing conclusions.

Referring to the letter, one official said ″if implemented, this would be good news and an acknowledgement that the Soviets may be willing to support our diplomatic effort to bring democracy and peace to Nicaragua, and an end to subversion in the region.″

Emphasizing that the Soviet Union has not made any public statements to back up its private promises, Fitzwater said: ″We are very leery of their intentions. ... We’re reluctant to be positive about this because we didn’t receive the kinds of public commitments or the kinds of visual ones that we would like to see.″

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Latin American affairs, said it would be ″an extremely important breakthrough″ if Gorbachev was in fact ending military aid to Nicaragua.

″And that ought to be treated seriously and not treated as if it were humor,″ Dodd said.

House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, said, ″It’s high time that the Soviet Union does stop supplying military support to Nicaragua″

″It has to come,″ Wright said as he left a White House meeting with President Bush on the budget. ″If we’re really to demilitarize the zone we really do need to get foreign interests out of there.″

Rep. Tom Foley, D-Wash., the House majority leader, called it ″a very welcome decision.″

The promised cutoff in Soviet aid put new pressure on the Bush administration to counter a string of arms control proposals by Gorbachev, the most recent of which calls for the removal of 500 short-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

Fitzwater accused Gorbachev of playing a ″PR game″ in contrast to what he described as the ″very careful and methodical″ approach by the United States to examine its relationship with the Soviet Union.

″We contrast that - which is an admittedly cautious approach - to the one of throwing out in a kind of a drugstore cowboy fashion one arms control proposal after another,″ Fitzwater said.

He said the Soviet offers, upon examination, appear to be ″either very little change from the existing situation involving promises that have been made in the past, involving reductions that are not meaningful in terms of our strategic relationship with the Soviet Union or reductions that are not meaningful in terms of NATO.″

The Soviet offers have inflamed tensions within NATO over short-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Backed by other members of the Western Alliance, West Germany has called for East-West negotiations soon on reducing the weapons.

However, the United States, supported largely by England, has adamantly opposed such negotiations on grounds that nuclear weapons are needed to offset the big advantage in conventional forces enjoyed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

With the dispute threatening to mar the unity of a NATO summit May 29-30, Fitzwater said Bonn and Washington have not been able to reach an agreement.

″We have not reached a compromise at this point,″ he said. ″It’s difficult to say whether or not we will but we continue to discuss the matter with them.″

An administration official said the promise of a Soviet aid cutoff to Nicaragua was contained in a letter from Gorbachev to Bush. It arrived in Washington before Secretary of State James A. Baker III left for talks in Moscow early last week.

The United States estimates the Soviet Union gave Nicaragua $515 million in military aid last year, including attack helicopters and other weapons.

Fitzwater said preliminary estimates indicate the Sandinistas have received ″several shipments″ of military goods worth ″millions of dollars″ this year although he was unclear about the source of the aid.

U.S. intelligence shows that Nicaragua received 17 shipments of military goods from Soviet bloc sources since the beginning of the year, with a value estimated at $80 million, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That compares with some $130 million to $150 million worth received by the Sandinistas in the first half of last year, indicating a somewhat slower rate this year.

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