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The Endless War

In 1983 Central America is a land ravaged by a war without any foreseeable end. While the fighting could be moderated, if not ended, by negotiations, the major power involved in the region, the United States, shows no real disposition to negotiate. Instead, Washington has chosen a military approach to the struggle between the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and their exile antagonists—the so-called contras, based in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica. In the same way, Washington has chosen to support the Salvadoran military in its war against the guerrillas, even though the armed forces demonstrate a wanton disregard for human rights, thus helping to prolong the very war the United States is committed to bringing to an end. The undeclared aim of the Reagan administration is to eradicate the existence of and possibility for “Marxist-Leninist” states in the region. By emphasizing ideological purity rather than the need for workable security guarantees, and by having abandoned diplomacy for military actions, the US has made it virtually impossible to disentangle itself militarily from the region. Even the best-intentioned administration—and there is no evidence that the Democrats offer a significant alternative to the strategy now pursued—will find the task of withdrawal and reconciliation enormously hard to accomplish.

A year and a half ago when I traveled through Central America, I returned believing that there was a reasonable chance for a series of negotiations—between Washington and Managua; between Washington and Havana; and between the contending forces in El Salvador—that could bring about an overall peace settlement.1 Since then, that opportunity has been effectively closed off by the Reagan administration’s single-minded devotion to military solutions.

This fall I again visited Mexico and Nicaragua, as well as traveling to Cuba, Honduras, and El Salvador, and before and during my trip again spoke with high officials both in and out of government. These included the Mexican foreign minister, Bernardo Sepulveda, Cuba’s vice-president and deputy prime minister, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, and deputy foreign minister Ricardo Alarcón, El Salvador’s president Alvaro Magaña, Honduras’s commander in chief General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, numerous Sandinista officials and military men, as well as leaders of the Nicaraguan exile forces located in Honduras. In addition, I had extensive conversations with US military and diplomatic representatives and visited the contested zones along the Nicaragua-Honduras border.


As the most important power in the region, Mexico is an invaluable starting point for any analysis of the turmoil in Central America. Fearing unrest that might spill over into a wider war, the Mexicans have taken the lead over the past two years in seeking negotiated solutions to the tensions between Washington and Managua and, more generally, in searching for an alternative to the militarization of the region. In particular, Mexico wants peace on its southern border where Guatemalan guerrillas are fighting against the regime and using Mexican territory as a haven. In any case, Mexican intellectuals and government officials—even those most hostile to Marxism—do not believe that Mexico will turn out to be “the last domino,” as the Reagan administration fears, even if Marxist-Leninist states come to power in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Ideology is not something Mexicans are much concerned about. Indeed, the ability of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party, to co-opt their opponents is a continuing wonder in Mexican political life. This has not been diminished by current economic adversity—the 80 percent inflation and high unemployment that have resulted from Mexico’s staggering external debt. As the Mexicans point out, the PRI was founded on the ideology of revolution and has become a party of the status quo, with an enormous bureaucracy to support the system of state capitalism that now exists. The Mexican experience at first persuaded the former president, José López Portillo, that the Sandinista revolution could take a non-Marxist path. Now the Mexican officials I talked to are not so sure. The Sandinistas, they observed, seem more strongly drawn to the Cuban model of a centralized Leninist state than to the Mexican political pattern.

Under the new administration of Miguel de la Madrid, the broad outlines of Mexican foreign policy remain largely unchanged, but there is a marked difference in emphasis. Whereas the previous administration seemed to want to displace US predominance in Central America, the new president stresses the traditional Mexican position of non-intervention. When asked, for example, why Mexico did not try to take the place of the Cubans in Nicaragua, many of whom (whatever their paramilitary duties may be) are teachers and medical personnel, the foreign minister said flatly that Mexico had no intention of sending any advisers there. Thus Mexico finds itself in a dilemma: it would very much like to see the Cubans go home, but it is unwilling to be directly involved, preferring to rest comfortably on its principles.

From intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, I heard the same note of caution sounded when we spoke of Mexican involvement in Central America. As Fuentes explains it, the anti-military tradition in Mexico means that it is unlikely that Mexico could ever send troops into Central America, even as part of a peace-keeping force. Paz agrees with Fuentes, but he regrets Mexico’s “isolationism” and the government’s refusal to see the danger to Central America, and even to Mexico itself, should there be a series of Soviet-aligned communist regimes in the region, something Paz frankly fears. By remaining aloof from the Nicaraguan revolution, Paz pointed out, Mexico did not help the non-Marxist democratic forces represented by such figures as Arturo Cruz, the former head of the Central Bank after the revolution. As Paz himself wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the Mexican is always remote from the world and from other people. And also from himself.”

Unable and certainly unwilling to act by itself, Mexico has sought support from the other powers of the region. Venezuela had already aligned its policy with Mexico’s in urging negotiations among the warring factions in El Salvador after the elections of the spring of 1982. Instead, Venezuela’s candidate, the Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte, was forced out of office. Soon Mexico looked for wider support and managed to get it earlier this year with the formation of the so-called Contadora group by the presidents of four nations—Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama. What the Contadora group initially proposed was to separate security issues in Central America from considerations of internal developments, such as the promotion of the democratic process; but now in its October 1983 21-point document of objectives the Contadora group urges governments “to adopt measures leading to the establishment or in some cases the perfecting of democratic, representative and pluralistic systems.”2

At first, the Reagan administration was hostile to the Contadora group, preferring that any mediation include other Latin American states that might not be so hostile to Washington’s emphasis on military solutions to political problems. But by the fall of 1983, Washington had rhetorically embraced Contadora in order to demonstrate its willingness to consider peaceful solutions to both the continuing war in El Salvador and Nicaragua’s support for leftist guerrilla movements. Moreover, as a senior American diplomat in Central America explained to me, Washington soon found Contadora useful as a way of avoiding negotiations: the administration could simply put aside any serious consideration of bilateral approaches that it did not want to pursue by insisting that they be submitted to Contadora. Like the United Nations in its early years, Contadora is universally praised but it is impotent, and it can become a useful mechanism for settling Central American disputes only if the United States is honestly prepared to employ it.


Unlike the Mexican officials, the Cuban leaders I talked to harbored no apparent doubts about their global vocation. Committed to “internationalism” and solidarity with revolutionary movements abroad, the Cuban leaders look to their foreign policy to provide them with successes that have been singularly lacking on the domestic front. By sending overseas about 35,000 troops (from its active-duty forces of 225,000), most of them to Angola and Ethiopia, as well as military advisers to Nicaragua, Grenada, and even as far as South Yemen, Cuba has extended its influence even though this costs the country dearly. Officially, Cuba’s overall debt, in both hard and soft currencies, reached more than $12 billion in 1982, and its imports regularly exceed its exports. Soviet economic aid helps to underwrite Cuba’s foreign involvements, though it is fair to point out that substantial Soviet economic help was forthcoming well before the Cubans sent troops overseas in the mid-1970s. Since 1961, Cuba has received more than $30 billion in economic aid from the USSR; in 1982, this aid came to more than 25 percent of Cuba’s gross national product—all this apart from any military assistance.3

Most Soviet assistance to Cuba is, of course, military aid, which increased after Reagan’s election and the subsequent sharpening of Washington’s anti-Cuban rhetoric. It is unclear, however, what share of such military equipment has been sent on to Central America. My conversations with Cuban leaders, and with diplomats who are in touch with them, suggested a deep reluctance on their part to become directly enmeshed in actual combat in the region. This attitude derives both from a realistic acceptance of the overwhelming US military strength in the region and continued awareness of Cuba’s vulnerability, and from a fear that the Reagan administration may seize any provocation to invade the island itself.

Cuban leaders insist that their military assistance to El Salvador has been significantly cut back. In our conversations they concentrated on possible political solutions, such as power sharing between the guerrillas and the Salvadoran armed forces and support for the Nicaraguan six-point program of July 1983. Castro himself characterized this as a “willingness to sign a nonaggression pact with Honduras and a willingness to reach an agreement on the issue of El Salvador based on an end to all provision of weapons to the contending parties.”4 The US invasion of Grenada is likely to strengthen Cuba’s desire for negotiations in Central America; indeed, Castro acknowledged after the Grenada episode that he could not help Nicaragua if it were attacked by US forces.5

As the Cuban leaders see it, the situation of the guerrillas has improved in El Salvador despite the failure of the “final offensive” in early 1981. In large part, they said, the reason for this improvement is that the five guerrilla organizations that make up the FMLN have finally coordinated their political and military tactics. They added that the guerrillas did so because they listened to Cuba’s advice and then followed it. This analysis of the FMLN was later confirmed by the American military and political officers I talked to in El Salvador.

The very success of the guerrillas, the Cubans told me, makes an arrangement for power sharing desirable, although this would necessarily retard the development of El Salvador into a Marxist-Leninist state; in El Salvador’s case, however, “radical socialism in the short term is impossible.” They point out that the proximity of Salvador to the United States, the existence of a middle class, and the difficult economic situation of the Soviet bloc call for different tactics for eventually converting Salvador into a communist state. The Cubans also reject any other way of allowing the guerrillas to participate in the existing government. They claim that the safety of the guerrillas could not be guaranteed if, as the US government has proposed, they were to participate in elections. Although the Cuban leaders had talked in 1982 of the possibility of introducing peace-keeping forces in El Salvador,6 they now dismiss as worthless the use of such forces, citing their impotence in the Congo in the mid-1960s when Patrice Lumumba was killed.

  1. 1

    See James Chace, “Getting Out of the Central American Maze,” The New York Review, June 24, 1982.

  2. 2

    Text in Spanish published in Granma (Havana), October 7, 1983.

  3. 3

    Figures from US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, “Background Notes: Cuba,” April 1983.

  4. 4

    Castro speech, broadcast in Spanish, Havana Domestic Service, July 26, 1983—FBIS.

  5. 5

    The New York Times, October 28, 1983.

  6. 6

    See Seweryn Bialer and Alfred Stepan, “Cuba, the US, and the Central American Mess,” The New York Review, May 27, 1982.

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