Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on Announcing the Appointment of Philip C. Habib as Special Envoy for Central America
The President. Well, good morning. Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce this morning the appointment of Philip Habib as a Special Envoy for Central America, succeeding Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman. And I want to make it clear that in this change of assignments we're trading strength for strength. Ambassador Shlaudeman has combined his knowledge of Latin America with his extraordinary skills as a diplomat and has performed outstanding service for this nation. And Harry Shlaudeman has worked closely with Secretary [of State] Shultz and Assistant Secretary [of State] Abrams in this mission, and so will Phil Habib. I'm personally grateful for Harry's efforts and look forward to announcing very soon a new and important position for him.
Ambassador Habib has just returned to Washington this morning after his successful mission to the Philippines. He is still in a different time zone, I'm sure. He played a key role in maintaining effective communications between the United States and the Philippines at a critical turning point in Philippine history. Phil, as many of you know, is wise and patient and shrewd.
Now there's another difficult job before us. We believe that the Nicaraguan people, just like the Filipino people, have the right to self-determination through democracy. And we in this administration and in Congress must now decide whether Nicaragua is to be the next staging ground for subversion, terrorism, and Soviet Communist expansion on our doorstep. And I want to emphasize today that there can be a diplomatic solution for Central America. It is the solution that will come when the Nicaraguan Communists finally agree to sit down and talk with their opposition, both armed and unarmed, to bring an end to the strife and the repression in their country.
Three days ago, President Duarte of El Salvador came forward with a bold and promising new proposal. In a letter to Daniel Ortega, President Duarte offered to resume talks with the guerrillas in El Salvador if the Nicaraguan Communist regime will begin simultaneous talks with the democratic resistance in that country. Yesterday, the three leaders of the united Nicaraguan opposition gave their full endorsement to this proposal. They are ready and willing to seek a political solution; so is the United States. On February 10th I sent a letter to the eight heads of state of the Contadora support group nations. In that letter I said that the United States is prepared to begin simultaneous talks with the regime in Nicaragua when that regime sits down with the democratic resistance.
I'm asking Ambassador Habib to meet next week with President Duarte to discuss his peace initiative. And our task is to ensure that democracy can succeed. We will continue to make every effort, as we have in the past, to pursue change through diplomatic means. But let there be no misunderstanding; Ambassador Habib's efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution must be accompanied by an increasing level of pressure on the Nicaraguan Communists.
The legislative proposal for aid to the unified Nicaraguan democratic opposition must be approved. What we're asking Congress for is the tools so that Ambassador Habib can do the job.
Reporter. Mr. President, do you still believe that those who oppose you and oppose this on the Hill are supporting Communists?
The President. I have never believed that, if you're meaning that I was assigning any motive to them. I was only talking facts as to what would be the inevitable result. Either we do what I've just talked about doing or we have a Communist state here on the mainland.
Q. But, sir, isn't that getting close to what some of the people in your own party, such as Senator Kassebaum, believe is red-baiting?
The President. There's no intent on my part to do that at all. I have not assailed anyone's motives in this, and again, as I say, simply stating facts.
Q. Well, by implication you are, aren't you—by saying that they're dupes of the Communists?
The President. No, I'm simply stating a fact.
Q. Is it unpatriotic to vote against your plan, Mr. President?
The President. No. Once again, you ask a question that I'm sure the answer could be taken any way the questioners want to take it. But the simple answer is, as I say, we're faced with a choice. We're either going to keep on bringing along the wave of democracy that has been sweeping over Latin America, or we're going to sit back and allow a Communist base to be established here on the mainland.
Q. Mr. President, would you go along with Marcos' efforts to become an American citizen? Would you aid and abet him in that respect? Do you think he should be?
The President. I hadn't heard anything about that. I didn't know that there was any thought on his part on that; so, I haven't had any time to think about it. But I'm going to—
Q. How about all the money he brought out of the Philippines?
The President. I want you to meet Ambassador Habib. What?
Q. How about all the money he brought out of the Philippines? Were we aware of that?
The President. No. What?
Ambassador Habib. I can talk about that later. It's a very simple question.
The President. I'm going to leave that to Ambassador Habib. [Laughter]
Ambassador Habib. Thank you, Mr. President. I returned to Washington just this morning, and I have given the President my report on the current situation in the Philippines.
I'm honored that the President has asked me to take this new assignment. I have no substantial statement on Central America at this time except to note that the President and the Secretary of State have emphasized to me their commitment to seeking a negotiated settlement in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America. They've asked me to meet with President Duarte to discuss his peace initiative. I have no illusions about the complexity of the issues in Central America and the difficulties in reaching a negotiated solution. Nevertheless, I pledge my efforts to work with our democratic friends and neighbors in the region toward a peaceful and democratic outcome. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you very much.
The President. Thank you.
Ambassador Habib. I think he's going to leave me to—
The President. That's right. That's my reward to you. I'm leaving you here with these nice people.
Q. Mr. President, Mr. President—
Ambassador Habib. They want something from you yet.
Q. Are you embarrassed by—
Q. Mr. President, there's a proposal to put some of the money in escrow rather than put it out directly. Mr. President, would you go along with a plan to put the contra aid money into escrow for 6 months, and then if they didn't come to the negotiating table, release it?
The President. No, I think 6 months is too long a time with what we're facing down there.
Q. But is compromise possible, Mr. President?
The President. I think so, yes.
Q. On your legislation?
The President. What?
Q. On the package? Compromise on the package?
The President. Oh, no. I was talking about compromise between the contras and the Sandinista government.
Q. But compromise on the 6-month period that you said is too long?
The President. It is too long.
Q. Are you—
The President. The time is now.
Q. Are you shocked by 7.3-percent unemployment? Are we going to have to start talking about Reaganomics again?
The President. 7.2 if you count everybody. [Laughter]
Q. Well, either way, it's a big jump.
The President. No, I think the analysis that was given is true—that the great part of this is due to the weather that we've had. You notice that two-thirds of this has occurred in just Texas, Illinois, and California. The flood damage and all this has temporarily put people out of work and businesses out of operation.
Q. So will it go back down again, the unemployment rate?
The President. Sure.
Q. Next month?
The President. Well, I don't know whether next month. We're not that volatile in these things.
The gentleman came all the way from Manila, all overnight to see you.
Q. Mr. Ambassador—
Q. When do you go back to the Middle East? [Laughter]
Ambassador Habib. I've got a shorter trip and within fairly limited time zones this time, which is going to be an improvement over the last trip.
Q. Mr. Ambassador, what about Marcos' status now and our involvement in having helped load these pesos? What is the American responsibility for the money that left?
Ambassador Habib. As I understand it, you're going to get sort of the technical answers on the question of status. His present status is he's been paroled in. That's a 6-month affair, but it can be renewed at the discretion of the relevant authorities. So, I think the question of status will be resolved over time and, as of the moment, that is the fact. There's probably going to be a more detailed discussion of some of the technical questions involving ex-President Marcos and—
Q. When and where?
Ambassador Habib. Well, I think somebody's working on it. You know, that's not the sort of thing that I get involved in.
Q. Did we help him take that money out, though? The second part of that question—
Ambassador Habib. It was on the same airplane. It was on one of our airplanes, yes. There were two airplanes.
Q. Were we aware of it? Did we help load those pesos?
Ambassador Habib. I don't know whether the people were aware of what was there or wasn't there. There was a lot of baggage, came in two different pieces—one of them up at Clark Field, one of them down on the dock—and then they sorted them out, and they didn't sort them out. Some of them were opened; some of them were not.
Q. Was it all legitimate—to bring all that stuff out?
Ambassador Habib. That's a question that's going to have to be decided. Because, as you know, there are claims and counterclaims. And I think the position we have taken, which the President has taken and we've taken, is that these are matters to be settled in accordance with the law. And when we say "law," we mean U.S. law, Philippine law, and international law. And that's the way it's going to be approached. I don't see it as a very complicated matter, and that's what I told the appropriate officials of the Philippine Government when I was there and they questioned me about this.
Q. May I ask you about this opening up of the murder investigation of Mrs. Aquino's husband?
Ambassador Habib. That's a Philippine matter. I don't know anything about that.
That's a purely Philippine question.
Q. You didn't talk about it?
Ambassador Habib. No, it didn't come up in my conversation.
Q. Did you give the President any recommendation about what the United States should do now to help the [Corazon] Aquino government?
Ambassador Habib. I discussed that with him. And as you may or may not know, there's a small team going out from here headed by Peter McPherson of AID, including people from some of the relevant departments, to go out there and discuss that in some detail with the new officials in the Philippine Government. I, obviously, am not going to tell you what I recommended to the President. I don't think that'd be appropriate. But I can assure you that, generally speaking, we're following the President's earlier dictums of wanting to be useful and helpful to the Philippine Government.
Q. Well, was she invited here?
Q. Mr. Habib, this analogy that's been made between Central America and the Philippines, do you see that as a workable analogy? It seems to me there's some problems—
Ambassador Habib. There are aspects of it—yes—I think there is. One can draw analogies.
Q. Well, what do you see—
Ambassador Habib. For example, I don't think there's any question that you can draw a difference, say, from the shift from Somoza to the Sandinistas as compared to the shift from Marcos to what is obviously not only a widely popular and probably successful in an electoral-process administration, and also I think—I wouldn't say center or center left—but in the middle of the body politic of the Philippines, with wide enthusiastic support generated both during the campaign and after the campaign. Whereas in the other place, you know, it just didn't work that way. You went from Somoza right to—almost quickly to the Sandinista junta.
Q. Yes, but the task you—
Ambassador Habib. And, will, beyond that, I would say that in both cases I think it's fair to say that one can pursue a different course. That is to say, you can pursue a course which could and should bring about a democratic solution, one in which whatever compromises are made between the contending forces are done peacefully and are done through negotiation and discussion. That hasn't been possible as of this stage, as I understand it.
Ambassador Habib. Yes.
Q. Are you going to try to get a free election in Nicaragua in which the—
Ambassador Habib. I don't know. No, look, at this stage, those are the kind of questions I'd be a fool to answer. I've just—
Q. But this would be a solution though, wouldn't it?
Ambassador Habib. No, let's just wait a while, and let's see what comes out. Right now we're working on this proposal that President Duarte has made. I'm going to go down there, and I'm going to discuss it with him. And we'll look at that; we'll see where it leads us and then from there, well, you know, we'll see. There's no point in going after me too hard on Central America. You want to really get on Central America, you got to get Harry—or the Secretary, not me.
Q. That's your goal?
Ambassador Habib. That's a little later you get me on that one. Give me a little bit of time.
Q. Should the President meet with Mrs. Aquino?
Ambassador Habib. Pardon?
Q. Should the President meet with her? Ambassador Habib. Well, that will be something to be decided at the appropriate time. I.—
Q. Mr. Ambassador, do you think it was a good idea—
Q. Is the United States—
Q. —do you think it was a good idea for Mrs. Aquino to release the Communist insurgents from prison?
Ambassador Habib. That was Mrs. Aquino and her advisers' decision. Let me say that I think that her purpose is quite clear. She wanted to sweep that board clear and start all over from the question of people that had been put in prison by the previous regime. Now, she has made it very clear, however, where she stands on her view of these people resorting, once again, to the kind of activities they were engaged in before. And her people have made it clear that, if they do, then they'll be dealt with in accordance with their law and be dealt with severely, I take it.
Q. Mr. Ambassador, why not go back to Manzanillo?
Mr. Speakes. Let's do this. He's on his 24th hour. Andrea, Sheila, and Drake close. That all right? Three more?
Ambassador Habib. Anything you say.
Mr. Speakes. All right.
Ambassador Habib. Provided it's something that I can answer.
Q. But why not go back to—why not have bilateral talks between us and Nicaragua without
Ambassador Habib. As I understand it
Q. —without demanding the simultaneity?
Ambassador Habib. As I understand it, what President Duarte has proposed, and which we agree with at the moment, is that there would be talks between himself and the guerrillas in El Salvador and that he would hope that at the same time there could be discussions between the opposition and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And we have stated all along, it is my understanding—and this is the last thing I'm going to say about my understanding of Central America—we've said all along that talks between the opposition and the Sandinistas are necessary if there are to be any discussions between ourselves and the Sandinistas. That's the position as I understand it, and that's as far as I can go at the moment. There's no point in trying to pursue me, Andrea. There is no point in pursuing me further on that at this time; maybe sometime in the future.
Who else did you say, Larry?
Q. Is the United States sharing in detail with the Philippine Government an inventory of what was brought out? And what did you tell the Philippine Government would be our approach to having it?
Ambassador Habib. I told the Philippine Government that as far as the United States was concerned, we would be cooperative and that the matter would be dealt with in accordance with law—U.S. law, Philippine law, and international law. That is the exact phrase that I used in talking to the commissioner who has been charged—there's a commission that's been charged with looking into these matters.
Q. But in terms of them making a claim, are we letting them know what is available to be claimed?
Ambassador Habib. They will be made well aware of the inventory of what there is there, yes.
Mr. Speakes. Okay, Drake [Bruce Drake, New York Daily News], and then that's the last.
Q. In your pursuit of a negotiated settlement in Central America, are there any plans now for meetings on your part with officials of the Nicaraguan Government?
Ambassador Habib. No, there are no such plans at this time. No.
Thank you very much.
Q. How do you like retirement? [Laughter]
Reporters. Thank you.
Note: The President spoke to reporters at 11:22 a.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House. Larry M. Speakes was Principal Deputy Press Secretary to the President.
Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on Announcing the Appointment of Philip C. Habib as Special Envoy for Central America Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/258281