Reagan’s Latin America

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

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…

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