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Deeper into the Mire

Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

Macmillan, 158 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Central America: Anatomy of Conflict International Peace),

edited by Robert S. Leiken
Pergamon Press (in cooperation with the Carnegie Endowment for, 351 pp., $19.95


Toward Central America the United States has always asserted the prerogatives of a great power. The recent publication of a moving and comprehensive history of US involvement in Central America by Cornell’s distinguished diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber and the subsequent release of the Kissinger commission’s report on the region underscore the persistence of this behavior. Although the Kissinger report poses the problems of US policy toward Central America in their most acute form, it is far from being a historical examination of the situation in the region, and here is where LaFeber’s book is especially helpful.

LaFeber’s sad story of past US involvement in the region prefigures what seems to be the shape of its future. Despite reservations by some of those serving on the commission, the premises underlying the Kissinger report have led the commissioners largely to endorse Reagan’s policies. In view of the joint histories of North and Central America, how could anyone have expected anything much different? But the dangers to us—if not to the Central Americans—have grown, and that is why LaFeber’s book should be read along with the report.

Even during the first years of their independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, the five states of Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, sought the protection of the United States against the predatory ambitions of Mexico. This is one reason they formed the United Provinces of Central America in the 1820s. At one point, El Salvador’s legislative congress voted to annex the country to the United States; Mexico’s occupation of San Salvador blocked that from happening. Then, in 1849, the Nicaraguan minister in London asked whether Honduras, Salvador, and his own nation might be admitted to the Union; when nothing came of that, he requested that the United States at least defend their territorial integrity.

Although Washington rebuffed these initiatives, believing, in Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s words, that Latin American countries had “no prospect” of establishing “free or liberal institutions of government,” the United States feared Mexican and later British encroachment in the region. The British had, in any case, moved in quickly after the Latin American wars of liberation, and established their economic predominance by financing the railroads in Central America. Washington, as early as the 1840s, was apprehensive over British dominance. President Polk even tried to organize the five states to force the British out of the eastern part of Nicaragua, and later, in a treaty with Nicaragua, guaranteed Nicaragua’s territorial integrity; in 1850, the British finally did leave.

The pattern of US interference in Central America, as LaFeber sees it, has been based on two policies that are interrelated—the need for military security and the insistence on economic domination. LaFeber, who holds that practically every US maneuver in the region had an economic motive, believes that security and capitalism go “hand in hand.” But it is likely that for Washington, then as now, security considerations will always prevail.

Whatever economic system might have emerged in Central America, whatever the nature of the economy of the huge country to the north, that country would doubtless have tried to establish its military hegemony over the region. Today, the Reagan administration’s justification for US intervention in the region is the presumed threat to US security. In view of the small US economic stake in the region at the end of 1982—only 0.37 of one percent of direct US investment abroad is in Central America—such a rationale is not disingenuous. Nonetheless, the economic development of Central America has certainly made it dependent on the US market, and US military interventions in the past certainly sprang from Washington’s desire to protect US economic interests.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Central American states had succeeded in producing agricultural products for export, and were becoming closely tied to the North American market. In Guatemala, these products were coffee, bananas, and cotton; in Honduras, the quintessential “banana republic,” bananas and coffee; in Salvador, coffee; in Nicaragua, coffee, sugar, and cotton; and in Costa Rica, coffee, bananas, and sugar. The land became greatly concentrated in the hands of a few: since the demand for workers was seasonal, the large landowners became very powerful, in effect an oligarchy dominating the government, while the peasants or campesinos were never able to save enough money to own their own land. (Costa Rica’s relative scarcity of labor and the late emergence of its key export product, coffee, may help to explain its more egalitarian social structure and its healthy democracy.)1

The landed oligarchy, moreover, found it easy to incorporate newcomers, often by marriage. Banking and mercantile families decided it was desirable to own land; the rise of the military to power meant the creation of a military caste that soon acquired coffee fincas of its own. It was, in fact, economic catastrophe during the Depression of the 1930s that brought the professional military to political power; and it was at this point that the landowning oligarchy came under its protection. The landowners needed the soldiers to preserve order in the face of social chaos. Even though the oligarchs tended to view the new officers who came out of the military academies as parvenus, they had to tolerate them. But they tried to discard them when the military were no longer of any use to them. To guard against this the officers began to buy land of their own. By the middle of the twentieth century, the oligarchy and the military were closely linked; neither wanted to abandon the other if it meant surrendering power to the urban middle class, the group that usually supplied the organizers of a revolution.2

In its relations with Central America, Washington made alliances first with the oligarchy, then with the military, whenever it became necessary, in Washington’s view, to intervene to protect American lives or private property. By World War I Central America produced crops almost wholly for the North American market. In every country in Central America, LaFeber notes, North Americans had “at least doubled their markets” between 1913 and 1929. In El Salvador, they “quadrupled their market.” Except for Costa Rica and El Salvador, the United States was by far the leading market for the states of the region.

That economic considerations have determined American foreign policy in many parts of the world is doubtful, but it is not doubtful in Central America during this period. By 1914 Woodrow Wilson declared that “the germs of revolution and the cause of instability” in Central America were always “foreign interests, bondholders or concessionaries.” He warned the Kaiser not to invest in Haiti. As LaFeber puts it, Wilson “extended the Monroe Doctrine to European financial as well as political and military intervention.” After the Panama Canal opened, according to a British emissary who spoke with the president, Wilson maintained that

It is becoming increasingly important that the Government of the Central American Republics should improve…[for] bad government may lead to friction. The President is very anxious to provide against such contingencies by insisting that those Republics should have fairly decent rulers.

The British diplomat concluded that this policy “will lead to a ‘de facto’ American protectorate over the Central American Republics.”

It did. In Nicaragua, the United States had already supplanted Britain as the major foreign power. Under President Taft the marines landed on the Atlantic coast in order to support a rebellion against the brutal Nicaraguan dictator José Santos Zelaya. After some bargaining the US-backed candidate, Adolfo Díaz, was named president. The marines maintained order, while the country went into hock with US bankers. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox stated the US position succinctly in 1911:

We are in the eyes of the world, and because of the Monroe Doctrine, held responsible for the order of Central America, and its proximity to the Canal makes the preservation of peace in that neighborhood particularly necessary.

Wilson thought the same. In 1914 Díaz worked out a deal for the United States to receive exclusive rights to build and operate a canal across Nicaragua. In return, Washington was to guarantee Nicaragua’s stability. This proved to be an arduous task. During the Coolidge administration, the deposed vice-president of Nicaragua went to secure help to Mexico, which was undergoing its own revolution. This was too much for Washington. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg argued, LaFeber writes, that “Soviet Bolshevism was taking over the region with the help of the Mexican labor movement.” This claim, he notes, “leading Senators properly discounted as fantasy.”

The Coolidge administration temporarily solved the problem by sending more marines to Nicaragua while, at the same time, deciding it should find some way to get the troops out—its military policy had become increasingly unpopular with Congress. After using the troops to restore peace and rid the country of any Mexican influence, the State Department made their old ally Díaz president. The Nicaraguan officers then laid down their arms—except for one officer, Augusto Sandino, who vowed to rid the country of the US marines. After fighting a bloody battle with them in 1927, he disappeared into the hills. Declaring the country pacified, Washington decided that the American troops could be withdrawn and a new national police force, the Guardia Nacional, trained by US officers, could replace them. In this way the country would be quiet, revolutions stymied. But for this to work, US officials believed, the Guard and its commander must remain nonpolitical. As LaFeber comments, “Only later—too late—did these officials understand that in Central America such a force would not remain above politics, but single-handedly determine them.”

Even building up the National Guard took time, however. Sandino kept on fighting, more US marines were dispatched in 1928, and it took five more years before Washington decided that the Guard could handle things on its own, and the marines could leave. Secretary of State Henry Stimson was determined to avoid direct US intervention in Nicaragua and insisted on an open election. With the marines gone, Sandino was ready to negotiate. While on his way to negotiations, he was seized by Nicaraguan soldiers and shot. The commander of the National Guard who gave the order to kill Sandino was Anastasio Somoza. With the help of the Guard he soon took control of the country. For four decades the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua. No more US troops were sent to the unhappy country—or to any others in the region.


As World War II approached, US and Latin American military officers cooperated closely to prevent any intrusion into the hemisphere by German or Japanese forces. By 1940, the United States had replaced France and Britain as suppliers of military equipment and as instructors for Latin American armies. Relying on local military forces to keep order became US policy and has remained so to this day.

  1. 1

    See Isaac Cohen and Gert Rosenthal, “The Dimensions of Economic Policy Space in Central America,” in The Future of Central America: Policy Choices for the U.S. and Mexico, edited by Richard R. Fagen and Olga Pellicer (Stanford University Press, 1983).

  2. 2

    See Thomas P. Anderson, Politics in Central America (Praeger, 1982), chapter 1.

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