• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Reagan’s Latin America

Some of President Reagan’s advisers believe that Jimmy Carter had a clear policy for dealing with Third World countries, and that it was wrong, above all in Latin America. Probably the most detailed and influential statement of their view is the article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” published last year by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the new ambassador to the UN.1 The central problem, according to Professor Kirkpatrick, is “that of formulating a morally and strategically acceptable, and politically realistic, program for dealing with nondemocratic governments who are threatened by Soviet-sponsored subversion.”

Drawing principally on Iran and Nicaragua, she describes what she takes to be a typical “non-democratic” government and the wrongheaded response to it she had come to expect from the Carter administration.

In such a government, a long-established autocrat is supported by a private army—which owes allegiance to him and his family rather than to some abstract idea of the state. The autocrat tolerates “limited opposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties.” But because he is “confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution,” he must sometimes invoke martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, “and occasionally, it was alleged” (Kirkpatrick says, referring to the specific cases of Iran and Nicaragua) “torture [his] opponents.” The autocrat enriches himself in large part by confusing his own resources with those of the state and makes no attempt “to alter significantly the distribution of goods, status, or power.”

In the past, this model autocrat was a good friend of the United States and successive American administrations gave him tangible and intangible support. But then came Jimmy Carter.

The pattern [of response] is familiar enough,” Kirkpatrick writes.

An established autocracy…is attacked by insurgents, some of whose leaders have long ties to the Communist movement, and most of whose arms are of Soviet, Chinese, or Czechoslovak origin. The “Marxist” presence is ignored and/ or minimized by American officials and by the elite’ media on the ground that US support for the dictator gives the rebels little choice but to seek aid “elsewhere.”

Kirkpatrick goes on to elaborate this scenario, which turns out to be a tendentious but not crazily distorted version of the Nicaraguan case, cobbled together with incidents from the Shah’s fall. As US aid is steadily withdrawn, there are rising expressions of concern about the dictator’s popular support and his failures in human rights, all echoed by “liberal columnists” and “returning missionaries.”

As the conflict worsens, the United States calls for the autocrat’s replacement by a broadly based coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime. To hasten the friendly old retainer on his way, Washington cuts off aid entirely so the legitimate government becomes weaker while the rebels continue to accumulate weapons and intensify hostilities. Finally, either the dictator, effectively disarmed by the perfidious Carter, is overwhelmed by the rebels or he dutifully abdicates to a moderate backed by the United States who is in turn replaced by radicals. In either case, Kirkpatrick argues, “the US will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world” and even more repressive than its predecessor.

Kirkpatrick’s remedies follow ineluctably from her diagnosis of Carter’s errors. The United States must not undermine friendly authoritarian governments. It may encourage a “process of liberalization and democratization, provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries, and that proposed reforms are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight.” When Marxists or other enemies of the United States seek violently to overthrow the traditional order, the United States should send aid, not excluding the Marines.

Of this proposal, it may be said, first, that it rests on an almost demented parody of Latin American2 political realities as well as on a grave misperception of Carter’s policies and achievements. On the most elementary facts Kirkpatrick is misinformed, for example when she claims that Carter “disarmed Somoza. Before the last round of the Nicaraguan conflict, Somoza’s National Guard bristled with weapons supplied by Argentina and Israel. Passing to more important misconceptions, dictatorial regimes of the Somoza type are far less common today than they were twenty or thirty years ago when Kirkpatrick’s views seem to have been formed. A few relics survive: Duvalier, Jr., in Haiti, Stroessner in Paraguay. But in number, population, resources, and strategic importance, such countries are inconsequential compared to the Hemisphere’s other nondemocratic, anticommunist governments, including those in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, and Uruguay. Nor, despite his success in eliminating all personal rivals, does her model apply to Pinochet’s Chile.

In these authoritarian countries, the names at the top can and generally do change without any shifts in the pattern of wealth and political power. Formidable institutions are in control, usually the armed forces, a notable exception being Mexico’s dominant political party, the PRI, and the huge state bureaucracy dependent on it. And these institutions work within a complicated setting of interest groups—including various sectors of the national business community, multinational corporations, the Catholic Church, professional’s guilds, the state bureaucracy, and occasionally (and in most cases marginally) trade unions—all struggling to influence the regime’s economic and social policies. It is a political world very different from the one conjured up by Kirkpatrick.3

While the eccentricity of Kirkpatrick’s account may raise doubts about her competence for public service, what matters more is the effect her account is likely to have on policy makers who confuse it with reality. Any political order sustained by little more than the force of a single autocrat’s or family’s prestige is bound to be precarious, especially where that prestige is linked to the ruler’s bestial behavior or his special relationship with a feared or admired great power. Regarding such cases as the norm, Kirkpatrick not surprisingly demands we form a circle of fire around our proteges as soon as reformers of any kind appear armed in the streets. What would she do about those missionaries (nuns?) and other “activists” as she calls them who get in the way of hard-nosed policy? One possible hint appears in an interview Kirkpatrick gave after the election. Commenting on the torture, mutilation, and summary execution of the civilian leaders of El Salvador’s left-wing coalition, she said that “people who choose to live by the sword can expect to die by it.”4 So apparently any form of association with rebels makes one fair game.

If we turn from Kirkpatrick’s model to the real world, we find instead of the old-style caudillos regimes of a very different character. Roughly half the members of the Organization of American States are recognizable democracies, including, for example, Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and most of the Angiophonic states of the Caribbean. Kirkpatrick has little to say about democracy in such Third World countries other than to doubt its existence when it elects leaders who practice socialism, criticize the United States, and talk with Castro. While castigating Carter for tolerating the Manley regime in Jamaica, she refers to it as a “so-called democracy.” One wonders whether the recent transfer of power there has shaken her implied assumption that socialism is totalitarianism aching to be born. For her, the heart of our Third World problem is the regime that is anticommunist, but authoritarian, brutal, poor, corrupt, and hence unloved by the liberals.

One redeeming feature of Kirkpatrick’s essay is its demonstration of how a distinction that could be useful, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, is being subverted by dogmatists who assign practically all rulers professing capitalism and trying to liquidate leftists to the category of “merely authoritarian” while coincidentally expelling every revolutionary government and movement into the outer darkness of totalitarianism. In this way the distinction has become simply a polemical weapon, useful for attacking Carter’s human rights policy and for countering criticism of regimes that brutally crush proponents of reform, liberals, socialists, and Marxists alike.

In order to maintain their Manichaean vision, former liberals like Kirkpatrick must practice a heroic indifference to detail. The revolutionary who haunts their hysterical prose never acquires a face. Neoconservatives ask no questions about the particulars of time and place and program, about why a man or woman has assumed the awful peril of rebellion; they never ask because, for their crabbed purposes, they have all the necessary answers. Having taken up arms—some of them Cuban or Russian or otherwise tainted—against an anticommunist government, the revolutionary is either a totalitarian communist or a foolish tool, not to mention a “terrorist.”

You find an equivalent coarseness of thought in the pages of Pravda, where the Soviet counterparts of our intellectual thugs ask not, “Who is Lech Walesa?” but rather, “Whom does Walesa consciously or unconsciously serve?” Since his opponent is a loyal communist government, for Pravda the only possible answer is “US Imperialism.”

Kirkpatrick herself admits that absolute monsters such as Hitler and Stalin or Pol Pot and Papa Doc Duvalier will occasionally appear at both ends of the imagined political spectrum. What concerns her, however, are the

systemic differences between traditional and revolutionary autocracies that have a predictable effect on their degree of repressiveness. Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.

Traditional autocrats…do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill.

The other presumed moral advantage of anticommunist autocracies is their capacity for evolution toward more humane societies.

Although there is no instance of a revolutionary “socialist” or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies—given time, propitious…circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government.

Nothing so well illustrates the stupefying power of dogma than this attribution of permanence to revolutionary regimes and of an always latent fluidity to most conservative ones. In any fair test of durability, the latter make an impressive showing. The Somoza family, for example, lasted forty-five years. By monopolizing so much of the nation’s economy, it had, by the time of its overthrow, actually reduced the possibility of democratic evolution.

Military rule in El Salvador, to take another current example, has endured since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first election. If we use a measure more relevant to human rights and equate the “regime” with a very rigid structure of power and wealth and opportunity, then El Salvador had a stable autocracy from its independence in the early nineteenth century at least until the armed forces coup of 1979. 5 What was characteristic of this period was not “evolution” toward democracy but prevention of that evolution. In Peru, one hundred and fifty years of oligarchic control ended in 1968 not through democratic evolution but by means of reforms imposed by the armed forces.

  1. 1

    Commentary, November 1979, p. 34.

  2. 2

    For the sake of brevity I will use “Latin America” to refer as well to English-speaking states of the Caribbean.

  3. 3

    Even outside Latin America, Kirkpatrick’s model fits reality poorly. While it covers the little states of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, and a few African states like Zaire and the Ivory Coast, it does not apply to such “Free World” allies as Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea.

  4. 4

    The New York Times, December 7, 1980, p.E3.

  5. 5

    As president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I cannot comment on post-coup developments in El Salvador and Nicaragua which we are now monitoring very closely.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print