Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine


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.

By the end of the war, the US government believed that the danger now threatening Central and South America was no longer Britain, the Kaiser, or the Axis, but, in the words of Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edward Miller, “Communist political aggression against the hemisphere.” Thus the postwar emphasis on the need to contain communism provided the rationale for the continuation of US policy toward Central America. Much less was heard about the need for markets, though the North American companies were still important and their interests in Central America were close to those of the State Department. In 1950, State’s ranking Soviet expert, George Kennan, went to Rio de Janeiro to meet with US ambassadors in South America. His interpretation of how Latin America fit into US policy is still considered revealed truth by most policy makers more than thirty years later. As summarized by LaFeber, Kennan’s prescribed goals were: (1) protecting US raw materials; (2) preventing military exploitation of Latin America by the Soviet enemy; and (3) stopping psychological mobilization of Latin America against us.

Most important of all, as Kennan saw it, no communists must be allowed in power. “It is better,” he declared, “to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists.” LaFeber quotes Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, perhaps alarmed over the new reformist government in Guatemala, as warning a few years later: “Conditions in Latin America are somewhat comparable to conditions as they were in China in the mid-thirties when the Communist movement was getting started…. If we don’t look out, we will wake up some morning and read in the newspapers that there happened in South America the same kind of thing that happened in China in 1949.”

Nothing of the kind was going to happen under Dulles. In 1954, in a celebrated triumph of covert action, the CIA masterminded a coup that overturned the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who had legalized the Guatemalan Communist party. He had also instituted land reform and threatened to expropriate the holdings of the United Fruit Company. When he began importing weapons from the Soviet bloc, he was done for.

Initially, Dulles tried to get other Latin American nations to intervene in Guatemala because, he argued, Communist political power (and there were Communists in the Arbenz government) was “more dangerous than open physical aggression.” When almost no support was forthcoming from the surrounding countries the stage was set for covert action to bring down Arbenz. The countercoup went off smoothly, largely because the army was angry that Arbenz had armed a militia composed of workers and peasants. As the American ambassador on the scene proudly reported it, the coup had been only “forty-five minutes off schedule.”

The “success” of the coup, however, did not bring democracy to Guatemala. In their valuable study Bitter Fruit, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer recount the attempts of Washington’s agent of counterrevolution, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, to rule by bribery and decree until he was finally assassinated by a disaffected soldier. Castillo’s military clique maintained itself in power until, after a series of elections, a rightist exile military leader finally was elected in 1957 for six years. His policies, in turn, gave rise to guerrilla activity on the part of idealistic young officers; but with American help, their revolt was crushed in 1962.

A year later another coup took place and yet another Guatemalan dictatorship was installed. This time, Washington may not have been directly involved, but the Americans were aware of what was happening and at least tacitly encouraged it. The sorry story of Guatemala to this day is one of increasing military control of the entire society. As Schlesinger and Kinzer put it:

The intention of the military leaders was essentially to destroy the political center. Anyone not supporting the regime was almost by definition a leftist, and therefore an enemy. The military apparently believed that eliminating the center precluded the possibility of a moderate government, therefore leaving the country a sterile choice between a revolutionary Communist regime and the existing military dictatorship.3

Even during the Kennedy period, when the new president invented the reformist Alliance for Progress to forestall violent revolution, little was done to put any distance between the United States and the military in Central America. Somoza ruled comfortably in Nicaragua, while the armed forces consolidated their power in Guatemala. In Honduras and El Salvador, however, democratic forces were gaining strength—and Costa Rica, with no army since 1948, was creating a democracy. Kennedy apparently hoped that if democratic forces could be built up in some parts of Latin America, this would encourage the growth of democracy elsewhere in the region.

Unfortunately, the Alliance for Progress got off to a less than convincing start: a month after Kennedy announced that the United States would send $100 billion to Latin America during the next decade, Cuban exiles trained by the CIA suffered the humiliating disaster of the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, Kennedy’s rhetoric of revolutionary change awakened hopes that were never fulfilled. The Alliance for Progress had from the start concentrated as much on combating violent revolution as on granting economic aid for development. In Latin America this meant training the police and military for counterinsurgency campaigns. In Central America, in 1963, Washington helped to establish the Central America Defense Council, or CONDECA, for the region’s collective security. (Costa Rica remained outside it and repeatedly condemned it.) By now, the pattern was set of relying on the military to keep order, and even to be the agent of social change.

Under Lyndon Johnson the security aspect of the Alliance came to dominate policy, and the Johnson administration effectively shook off any remnants of the commitment Kennedy had made to counteract Castroism by offering economic aid designed to stimulate social reform. As LaFeber describes it, “half the Kennedy program was dismantled. Economic, but not military support dropped as the needs of the Vietnam war grew.” Washington may have had hopes for a professional and politically neutral military that would be open to more democracy; but it never posed firm conditions on the ruling groups it dealt with to stop military repression.

LBJ’s policies, based on the notion that constructive social change could come about almost solely through the actions of the military, remained largely in place during the Nixon years. In his report prepared for Congress in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller, whom Nixon had sent to Latin America to come up with a new policy, recommended a military solution to unrest in the region. He pointed out that since 1961, when Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress had begun, “There have been seventeen coups d’etat in the other American republics, much more than in any comparable period in the history of the Western Hemisphere.” LaFeber shows most of these had been caused by military factions, and Rockefeller might have denounced such behavior. But he went in the other direction. “Without some framework for order, no progress can be achieved.” It followed that an American policy to provide training and equipment for the police and military “will bring about the best long-term hope for the…improvement in the quality of life for the people.” Although Rockefeller made some economic recommendations, he concluded that “the essential force of constructive social change” was the military.

Meanwhile, foreign economic aid was being further reduced, in part as a response to the growing US balance-of-payments deficits; but military aid continued, and loans to allow Central American armed forces to buy more arms were plentiful. Between 1973 and 1980, according to LaFeber, the annual cost for Central America’s oil imports rose from $189 million to $1.5 billion. With huge military establishments to pay for, there was little extra to go around. The region was ripe for revolution—and revolution came.

Jimmy Carter wanted to shift Latin American policy from Nixon’s emphasis on power politics. He entered office stressing his commitment to human rights. In its contradictions and failings, his policy turned out to be the moral equivalent of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. In some South American countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, his pressure for human rights no doubt saved lives and freed political prisoners. In Central America, though more quixotic than Kennedy, Carter also wanted change without revolution—but Carter did not even pretend to offer economic incentives to prevent revolutionary situations from erupting.

The 1979 Nicaraguan revolution that finally brought down the Somozas cruelly heightened Carter’s dilemma. It was clear by the late 1970s that Somoza and his hated National Guard were losing control of the country. Greed had gone too far, along with torture and repression, culminating in the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the respected publisher of La Prensa. Most of the social and political groups in Nicaragua, including the leading businessmen and clergy, joined in the opposition to Somoza. The Carter administration was not unsympathetic to seeing the end of the Somoza dynasty, but feared any takeover by the left. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served further to strengthen the position of the hard-line, anticommunist forces in the administration.

Characteristically, Carter waffled. Hoping to mitigate the dictator’s excesses and to avoid a second Cuba in Central America, Carter sent a secret letter to Somoza congratulating him on improving his record on human rights and urging him to widen the political system. His entreaty was foolish and useless: within a few weeks Somoza embarked on a new round of massacres. Too late, the administration sought a middle ground where there was none. As LaFeber tells it, Carter tried to keep the National Guard in business until the Nicaraguan elections, which were scheduled for 1981. He wanted to avoid dealing with a takeover by the Sandinista front, which was dominated by Marxists, though it also includednon-Marxist business- and professional men. Carter clearly had no use for Somoza, but “order” had to be maintained even if Somoza had to go. The Carter administration called for a peace-keeping force made up of members of the Organization of American States, but got nowhere. Finally, the Sandinistas took over. They publicly promised to maintain political pluralism, a mixed economy, and a foreign policy of nonalignment.

Once again, Carter reversed his course. With the triumph of the revolution, Washington sent in nearly $20 million in aid. A few months later, in September 1979, Carter asked Congress to appropriate $75 million more in aid for Nicaragua. By this time Carter had lost any effective control over Congress—which had never been strong at its best. Congress did not even debate the request until January 1980, and only passed the aid measure six months later. By this time, Nicaragua, broke and deeply in debt, had concluded a series of trade agreements with the Soviet bloc. The Sandinistas had already postponed elections, and by the end of the year they had prohibited opposition political rallies and increased censorship.

Whether Carter and Congress, by giving too little too late, missed an opportunity to influence the Sandinistas to follow a more democratic path is questionable. But Reagan was certainly not disposed to give economic aid to a regime that showed signs of becoming a Marxist-Leninist state. Military threats and economic deprivation have been the chosen models of the Reagan administration in trying to bring about change in Nicaragua.


During the early 1970s there was in El Salvador, too, something like a democratic tendency. The results of the 1972 election were very much what the Reagan administration would probably settle for now: the Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte won the presidency and Guillermo Ungo, now a member of the FDR-FMLN guerrilla front, was named vice-president. But the military overturned the elected government, and the middle all but disappeared. Both Duarte and Ungo went into exile. Revolutionary bands grew stronger and terror from the extreme right became endemic. Finally, in 1979, a group of junior officers overthrew the corrupt military regime and announced a program of moderate reform, including some redistribution of wealth. It was also committed to eliminating the guerrilla movements.

The problem for the reform-minded officers was how to bring about land redistribution without destroying the army as an institution, when so many older officers were clearly tied in with the small group of rich landowners that had traditionally depended on the army for support. The new government included several prominent moderate politicians, including Guillermo Ungo; but cabinet members with close ties to the oligarchy were able to block all attempts at reform. (The police killed 160 people during the junta’s first week in power.) In December the cabinet issued an ultimatum to the armed forces to submit to the authority of the civilian government. When this was ignored, the cabinet resigned in January 1980. Unable to make any effect on the right-wing military establishment, five of the leading military reformers fled the country in 1980. A conservative military junta took over.

Once again, Washington relied on the military officers, many of whom had been trained in the US. The Carter administration asked Congress for $5.7 million in military supplies to “help strengthen the army’s key role in reforms.” As usual, the land reform program never got very far, and the Salvadoran army officers in charge showed little disposition to allow democratic political activity to take place.4

By the end of the Carter years, the various guerrilla movements had followed Havana’s advice and organized themselves into a broad coalition; the new revolutionary front now included moderates such as Ungo, and even some Christian Democrats. Was there any chance that the groups associated with the guerrillas could be split apart so that the more moderate among them would work with what remained of the Christian Democrats? This was not Carter’s approach. The danger, as Washington now saw it, was a victory for the revolutionaries.

To forestall that possibility, Carter ended his term by recommending that sizable military aid be given to the Salvadoran junta. This was one Carter policy that the Reagan administration could understand—and follow. In summing up the incoherence of the Carter years, LaFeber eloquently describes the larger dilemma the United States faces when it believes it can initiate democratic changes through the forces in power. “Carter,” LaFeber writes,

wanted it both ways: decrease governmental coercion and publicly attack (and hence de-legitimate) the military regimes, while at the same time urging those regimes to fight the revolutions…. Carter sought to keep Somoza in power until the 1981 elections (then attempted to maintain the National Guard’s blood-splattered authority); or poured arms into Salvador at the last minute to help the military junta, a junta whose security forces…had murdered North American nuns just weeks before Carter dispatched the aid.

Those killed also included six moderate political leaders of the FDR who were kidnapped from a public meeting in San Salvador by uniformed security forces in November 1980, and whose mutilated bodies were later found.

The Reagan administration inherited contrasting political situations in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were reneging on their earlier promises: to pursue a foreign policy of nonalignment, preserve a mixed economy, and ensure political pluralism. In fact, the Sandinistas had drawn closer to Cuba, importing some six thousand Cuban advisers. Many of them worked in health and education but were to have a growing influence in the grass-roots organizations and in training the new Nicaraguan army, which soon, with fifty thousand regulars, became the largest in Central America. Cubans were also helping to organize Nicaragua’s intelligence and internal security apparatus.

The Sandinistas were also aligning their foreign policy closer to that of the Soviet Union: for example, they refused to vote for a resolution in the UN condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And while claiming the need to preserve a mixed economy, they were tightening controls over business, obsessed as they were with the need for the state to control the means of production.5 As for political pluralism, the Sandinistas started to impose press censorship and prohibit opposition political rallies. They set up a so-called “popular church” composed of clergymen who supported the Sandinistas at the time when the official hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which had supported the revolution, was becoming increasingly critical of the Marxist-Leninist line the government espoused. In 1982, they also suspended the right of habeas corpus.

Although the regime officially recognized non-Sandinista trade unions, the Sandinistas also continued to bring these unions under their control. In 1980, they set up the Sandinist Workers Federation, which joined the Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions. Since then, the Sandinistas have repeatedly tried to intimidate leaders of the Social Democrats and church-backed unions; in June 1983, for example, leaders of the stevedores’ union were reportedly arrested while discussing a plan to leave the federation and join the Social Democratic group.

During this period the US government never seriously entertained the possibility that a different approach might produce a different result—for example, less dependence on Cuba. Instead Washington cut economic aid, eliminated the sugar quota, and finally mounted a “secret war” in which the CIA armed Nicaraguan exiles in neighboring Honduras to harass and, it was hoped, to overthrow the government in Managua. The “contras” were largely drawn from Somoza’s brutal National Guard, the least promising group to support if the US wanted to promote a democratic alternative to the Sandinistas. Alfonso Robelo, the leader of a competing exile group based in Costa Rica, pointed out that American pressure of this kind was increasing Sandinista support within the country.

In contrast to what was happening in Nicaragua, in 1981 El Salvador briefly appeared as a promising terrain for countering revolution through an enlargement of political participation. When a guerrilla offensive failed, however, the Reagan administration did not seize the opportunity for negotiations with the rebel front this development might have offered, but, instead, backed a policy of total military victory. Once again, a military rather than a diplomatic solution was chosen and when the Salvadoran army showed itself ill-suited to win any such victory, more training in the United States or by US officers based in Honduras was once again held to promise success. More money, too. US military aid to El Salvador came to $6 million in 1980; it reached $65 million in fiscal 1984.


Now more than ever, turmoil in Central America was viewed through the lens of the cold war. Reagan ran on a Republican platform that deplored “the Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua and the Marxist attempts to destabilize El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” This surely reflected the president’s own views. Trouble in the region, he declared three years later, could be ascribed to “revolution exported from the Soviet Union and from Cuba.” As he had pointed out time and again, “If you go to the source” of the trouble in the region (he might have said, “the world”), “I think you’re talking about the Soviet Union.”6 The Defense Department certainly shares this expansive view. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Nestor D. Sanchez has declared that “the Soviet Union is abetting an assault on the security of this hemisphere more dangerous than the postwar threat to Western Europe.”7

More significant were the remarks by Fred Iklé, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on September 12, 1983. Mr. Iklé saw Nicaragua as “more dangerous than Castro’s Cuba since it shares hard-to-find borders with Honduras and Costa Rica.” For this reason he urged Congress to endorse US support for the “democratic resistance forces in Nicaragua” that are trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Even if the guerrillas in El Salvador were brought under control, “the only way to help protect the democracies might be for the United States to place forward deployed forces in these countries, as in Korea or West Germany.” In short, if we cannot “prevent consolidation of a Sandinista regime in Nicaragua that would become an arsenal for insurgency, a safe haven for the export of violence…we have to anticipate the partition of Central America. Such a development would then force us to man a new military front-line of the East-West conflict right here on our continent.”

From this point of view, very little business can be usefully done with the Sandinistas—or with the guerrilla front in El Salvador. Nor, as it turns out, is there much to be gained from dealing with Cuba, “a Soviet surrogate.” To the Reagan administration, the path to negotiations has always seemed unpropitious, so that in October 1981, when the revolutionary spokesmen in El Salvador again offered to negotiate “without preconditions,” nothing came of it. So, too, when the Sandinistas responded positively to administration proposals in the spring of 1982, an administration official said they were merely “playing games.”8

The US concern now, as it was under Secretary of State Kellogg, is the “threat” to the countries in the “region.” One would suppose that the views of the countries themselves would be central in defining a policy. But these have largely been disregarded. For example, on July 17, 1983, the presidents of four Latin American countries—Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama, the so-called Contadora group—urged immediate negotiations to arrest “the rapid deterioration” of the situation in Central America. Included in their program was a call for the removal of all foreign military bases and advisers—and a trade-off between the withdrawal of Cubans in Nicaragua and the departure of US advisers in El Salvador and the US training units in Honduras. They also called for a freeze on arms shipments to and among the countries of the region and said they would require every Central American state not to interfere in the affairs of another. Presumably, this would mean that Nicaragua would have to cut off supplying arms to El Salvador while Honduras and Costa Rica would curb the activities of the counterrevolutionary groups operating from their territories.9 In response to the Contadora group’s proposals, which were further elaborated in a twenty-one point “Declaration of Objectives” in October 1983, Castro said that he could be counted on for “negotiable solutions.” He then stated publicly that Cuba would stop all military aid to Nicaragua if an agreement could be reached for “all countries not to send arms and advisers to Central America.”10

Finally, on July 19, 1983, the fourth anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, the Nicaraguan government also announced that it was willing to participate in international talks to achieve peace in the region, and called for an “absolute end to all arms supplies by any country to the parties in El Salvador”—a tacit recognition that Nicaragua had indeed been supplying the guerrillas there. The administration, in turn, claimed that it welcomed the Nicaraguan initiative. But nothing happened. The Contadora group’s proposals were overshadowed by Reagan’s decision to send the fleet to maneuver in waters off Central America. Moreover, the president declared that “all the American states” might provide a better forum for finding a negotiated settlement to the problems of Central America than the four nations making up the Contadora group.11

As 1983 came to an end, the Sandinistas came up with a new series of peace proposals in four draft treaties—nonaggression pacts between Nicaragua and Honduras, and between Nicaragua and the United States, a broader nonaggression treaty to be signed by all the Central American governments, and “a draft accord to contribute to the peaceful solution of the armed conflict in the Republic of El Salvador.” The Contadora countries were asked to act as guarantors of the treaties.

In the treaties Nicaragua proposed that military aid and “the supply and trafficking of arms, munitions and military equipment” to contending forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua be suspended. The treaties would also permit on-site inspections in Nicaragua and the other Central American countries. Washington refused to discuss the proposed accords.12

The Sandinistas then took some conciliatory steps. They asked Salvadoran rebel leaders to leave the country, eased press censorship, prepared a schedule for elections in 1985, offered guarantees to businessmen, and conferred with leaders of the Church who had been critical of the Leninist direction of the regime. Most significant of all from an international standpoint, they ordered one thousand Cuban military advisers to leave the country, in addition to a group of twelve hundred Cuban teachers and technicians. These moves were made as fears of a US invasion grew as a result of Washington’s intervention in Grenada. But the Sandinistas were also under pressure from the socialist governments of Western Europe, as well as from Mexico and Venezuela, to adopt more pluralistic policies.13

The Reagan administration showed no inclination to take the new approaches seriously. It appeared to see the concessions as purely tactical and temporary, to gain time in order to consolidate the revolution.14 As the United States entered its election year, it became clearer than ever that the administration would be satisfied with nothing less than a radical change of regime; its concern was not to quarantine Nicaragua but rather to eliminate the Marxist direction of the Sandinistas.

For the Reagan administration it is the situation in El Salvador that is the most perilous, and where the prospects for a peaceful settlement are dimmest. The US-sponsored election of March 1982 produced a grotesque outcome, with the extreme right holding the balance of power. Although Washington forced the military to install a moderate conservative as president, the longstanding realities of power in El Salvador meant that the United States has had to deal almost exclusively with the military forces in seeking any solution to the conflict. Indeed, the administration has chosen a strategy of training new cadres of young officers who will, it hopes, institute democratic reforms while fighting ever more vigorously to destroy the guerrillas. By expanding the officer corps from about four hundred in the 1970s to slightly more than two thousand, Washington hopes to break the intimate connection between the oligarchs and the officers. Without a new military caste, US military commanders doubt that the Salvadoran army can win.15 Meanwhile, Salvadoran soldiers were being trained by American officers in Honduras and at Fort Benning.

At the end of 1983, this program was not paying off. The guerrillas were on the offensive, and the American-trained soldiers were putting up a poor show, as the rebels greatly extended the contested zone. American military advisers admitted that the insurgents had met with little resistance from the army, which was hampered by low morale, poor logistical support, and lack of coordination among the “sector” commanders.16 There seemed little incentive for soldiers to fight a war once the guerrillas had adopted a policy of releasing prisoners; sons of the upper class do not serve in the army.

During most of 1983 the right-wing death squads killed civilians with the connivance of the armed forces. The Salvadoran Commission of Human Rights, which works under Church auspices, claimed that twenty-seven hundred civilians were killed by death squads during the first six months of 1983. With the Congress unwilling to vote more aid unless human rights improved, and with the Kissinger commission report due in early January, the administration put heavier pressure on the Salvadoran military to take action against those involved in the assassinations. Finally, the Salvadoran army transferred two former officers said to be connected with the killings abroad. Yet according to Robert White, the former US ambassador to El Salvador, “men responsible for civilian murders still staff intelligence sections, head military garrisons and lead American-trained units accused of massacres in rural regions.”17 Not a single member of the death squads has been convicted of any of the more than twenty thousand killings of civilians by right-wing groups that have taken place during the last few years.

In this situation, with a deteriorating military position in El Salvador, a Nicaraguan regime seeking regional accommodations, and with new military and economic appropriations for Central America pending in the next US budget, the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America released its report.


What is most striking about the report is its deep contradictions. On the one hand, the commission sets forth a brief and simplistic geopolitical analysis that sees Nicaragua as the implacably dangerous arm of Soviet and Cuban power and El Salvador as mainly threatened by outside forces. From this, one may conclude that negotiations with the Nicaraguan government or the Salvadoran opposition are doomed from the start and that only military pressure can work to advance American interests. On the other hand, the report recommends a series of negotiations with the Sandinistas that, if seriously, pursued, might help bring peace to the region.

The most grievous flaw of the report, however, is its insistence on staking the “credibility” of the US itself on a desirable outcome in two small, weak, and poor countries in Central America. If Washington should permit the existence of a Marxist regime, as in Nicaragua, or abandon El Salvador to its own devices, then, according to the report, the United States would be seen by enemy and ally alike as lacking the power to control its own sphere of influence, with accompanying grave consequences for the “global balance of power.” Here the report reflects the view of President Reagan in his address to a joint session of Congress, April 27, 1983: “If we cannot defend ourselves there [in Central America], we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble….” Perceptions of credibility depend on the subjective judgment of others. The Kissinger report ends by describing a situation in which US behavior will be seen by ourselves, and therefore others, as leading to a major victory or a major defeat—even though, as we shall see, it never makes clear what major US interests are directly at stake in Central America.

The tone of the report is remarkably similar to the Rockefeller report of 1969. It is as if those who drafted the recommendations have ignored the history of the region before, during, and after Rockefeller’s mission. Once again the United States depends on the Central American military to carry out its proposals; the officers we have backed are again seen as the engines of reform.18 The vast amount of economic aid suggested—$8.4 billion over five years—is to help promote democratic change in countries where democracy (except for Costa Rica which has no army) scarcely exists. In stressing the need to maintain the balance of power with the Soviet Union, the panel also urges a “significantly larger program of military assistance.” The Pentagon, the panel observes, has estimated that $400 million was needed for El Salvador in 1984 and 1985—more than triple the present level—in order to protect Central America from falling under the sway of the Soviet Union. The panel apparently accepts this estimate unquestioningly, without scrutinizing the military forces that will receive the money or asking how effectively it will be spent.

Much the same could be said for the recommendations to increase economic aid to the seven countries of the region—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—by adding $400 million to the already appropriated US funds for fiscal 1984 of $477 million. The $8 billion to be spent between 1985 and 1990 would be “a rough doubling of US economic assistance from the 1983 level.” Just how it should be used to relieve the poverty that continues to “plague most of the region’s people,” as the report puts it, is left unclear. The panel recommends that the United States “review non-tariff barriers to imports from Central America,” and “encourage the extension of duty-free trade to Central America by other major trading countries.” In a dissenting note, the economist Carlos Diaz-Alejandro criticized the report for its “timidity” in “recommending a further opening of the US market to Central American exports,” which “sharply contrasts with statements about the strategic importance of that region to the US.”

True, the report is careful to point out that “unless economic recovery is accompanied by social progress and political reform, additional financial support will ultimately be wasted. By the same token, without recovery, the political and security prospects will be grim.” But characteristically, it does not say how social progress and political reform can be expected to take place under a regime such as El Salvador’s, where progress on land reform has been halted by a rightist assembly, where labor leaders are threatened by death squads, and where the upper 20 percent of the population holds 66 percent of the total income and the bottom 50 percent of the population has only 12 percent—“the most skewed income distribution in all of Central America.”19

Moreover, in Salvador the government is controlled by the armed forces, in Honduras it is dominated by them, in Guatemala run by them. (Indeed the report charges that in Guatemala the security forces have, in the cities, “murdered those even suspected of dissent”; and in the countryside, “they have at times killed indiscriminately.”) If a country has democratic political processes, the money is more likely to be budgeted in response to the local needs as reflected in popular demands. Otherwise, there is every reason to expect a recurrence of the inequities of the 1960s when aid and a booming world economy did not, as the report makes clear, produce more equitable societies. Except for Costa Rica, there is no truly democratic government in Central America. Whether the money largely ends up in the hands of oligarchs or bureaucrats, it is unlikely to be of great benefit to the citizens of these unhappy countries; but it is very likely to reinforce the status quo. This probability is not confronted in the report.

The heart of the Kissinger report is the discussion of Central American security issues. The message here is clear: unless vigorous military measures are taken to prevent El Salvador from falling to the guerrillas and unless Nicaragua changes its internal structure, then economic and social progress there is doomed. Win the war, this time in El Salvador, the report argues, because democracy can only flourish in the absence of threat. “Unchecked, the insurgents can destroy faster than the reformers can build,” the panel declares, because “once the lines of external support are in place, [the insurgency] has a momentum which reforms alone cannot stop.”

Here again Latin American history could have been instructive. In Venezuela during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the guerrillas were beaten because a reformist government was in power. There is little hard evidence that a war can be won by repressive governments such as the one in El Salvador unless they embark on a Draconian course of extermination, something that the panel does not recommend and that would surely receive no support from the American public. And even then the “victory” is likely to be temporary while the insurgency continues, as has been the case in Guatemala.

The section on security issues describes an insurgency in El Salvador that “not only opposes democracy and is committed to the violent seizure of power, but also threatens US security interests because of its ties to Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union.” The report has much useful information on Cuba’s aid to the guerrillas, and no one can doubt that the Cubans have heavy influence among the Sandinista and FMLN leaders. But nowhere does the report say exactly how US security interests are threatened. At one point it specifically disavows any notion that a Soviet base would be “the sole, or even the major, threat to US interests.” The threat seems to derive mostly from the possibility that Washington will fail to show itself firmly in control of its sphere of influence.

“The ability of the United States to sustain a tolerable balance of power on the global scene,” the report argues, “depends on the inherent security of its land borders.” By feeling secure at home, the United States can afford to maintain its alliances in Europe and the Far East. Thus, if the Soviet Union and its ally Cuba advance their “power on the American mainland,” this

affects the global balance. To the extent that a further Marxist-Leninist advance in Central America…required us to defend against security threats near our borders, we would face a difficult choice between unpalatable alternatives. We would either have to assume a permanently increased defense burden, or see our capacity to defend distant trouble-spots reduced…. From the standpoint of the Soviet Union, it would be a major strategic coup to impose on the United States the burden of defending our southern approaches.

The panel goes on to cite the threat to the Panama Canal, and the danger of refugees, “perhaps millions of them, many of whom would seek entry into the United States.” In short, “the crisis is on our doorstep.” Then comes the telling phrase—“our credibility worldwide is engaged.” The “triumph of hostile forces in what the Soviets call the ‘strategic rear’ of the United States would be read as a sign of US impotence.” If America is perceived as a pitiful, helpless giant, as Richard Nixon once feared, then, the commission says, we would experience the “erosion of our power to influence events worldwide that would flow from the perception that we were unable to influence vital events close to home.” What, however, is the precise security threat “at our doorstep”? The commission does not say. Mexico, the most important domino, does not profess itself threatened by events in small Central American countries. The Soviets installed in Cuba can already threaten our sea lanes, as the panel points out, and we have been able to live with this for twenty years.

Here the recent study by the Carnegie “Endowment provides the careful analysis of Central American security issues that the Kissinger panel did not undertake. In his essay on the Salvadoran military, the historian Richard Millett reminds us that “security depends on the popular perception that the military serves national rather than class interests, that it defends rather than abuses individual rights.” This explains why many of El Salvador’s citizens do not feel protected by their own security forces. During the last three years Congress has made military aid to El Salvador contingent on the president’s certifying progress on human rights—which was done again and again with no discernible progress. Greater firepower resulted in no greater sense of civic responsibility.

As for Soviet behavior, the Carnegie study makes careful distinctions between actual and potential Soviet threats. It points out that “the real problem” is the possibility that Soviet “military facilities might be established in the wake of Soviet-aligned guerrilla victories.” Even though Nicaragua has expanded its army of fifty thousand (including twenty-five thousand reserves), its military capacities are largely defensive. Should the Sandinistas try to invade Honduras, for example, the odds heavily favor Honduras, whose air force could easily blunt any armored thrust through the flat land along the Gulf of Fonseca. Since Cuba already poses a threat to US sea lines of communication, then the serious additional threats in Central America would be the emplacement of Soviet offensive weapons such as MIG-23s or an invasion by Cuba or Nicaragua of its neighbors.

In both cases the United States could—and, in my view, should—make clear that it would respond with air power and combat troops if necessary; under these circumstances military action would be highly unlikely and would undoubtedly have support from the Congress and the public if US conditions were violated. In Nicaragua today, Joseph Cirincione and Leslie C. Hunter write in the study for the Carnegie Endowment, “the legitimate security concerns of both [the US and Nicaragua] might be addressed by a policy which combined a credible threat of US retaliation if Soviet offensive weapons were introduced, with a US pledge not to invade Nicaragua.” This suggests a negotiation that would be well worth considering. It is not brought up in the Kissinger report.

Instead of stressing the need to negotiate regional security guarantees with Nicaragua, the panel seems, in some of its language, simply to rule out tolerating a Marxist-Leninist regime there. This is so not only because “Nicaragua is tied into the Cuban, and thereby the Soviet, intelligence network,” but also because their neighbors expressed “deep foreboding about the impact of a militarized, totalitarian Nicaragua on the peace and security of the region.” But containment of Nicaragua is impossible: “To contain the export of revolution would require a level of vigilance and sustained effort that would be difficult for Nicaragua’s neighbors and even for the United States.” A long-term containment, the panel concludes, would require US military power backing up local forces of “stable allies.” Given these premises, Nicaraguan peace initiatives “have given little cause for optimism that we could move toward [the] objectives” of the Contadora group—which, let us remember, called for linking security in the region to the increase of democracy in its various countries.

Still, having described the Nicaraguan regime as menacing and implacable, in language close to that of the Reagan administration, the report—again somewhat contradictorily—recommends that

whatever the prospects seem to be for productive negotiations, the United States must spare no effort to pursue the diplomatic route. Nicaragua’s willingness to enter into a general agreement should be thoroughly tested through negotiations and actions…. Every avenue should be explored to see if the vague signals emanating from Managua in recent weeks can be translated into concrete progress.

Such exploration is precisely what the Reagan administration has refused to undertake; but nowhere does the report make a careful analysis of the Nicaraguan draft treaties I have already mentioned. It does not make clear what proposals could or could not be thoroughly tested.

As for US support for the Nicaraguan insurgents based in Honduras, a majority of the members of the commission are cited as believing that the covert war is “one of the incentives working in favor of a negotiated settlement.” But the commission makes no judgment “on whether, or how, the United States should provide support for these insurgent forces.” Moreover, two members, Henry Cisneros and Carlos Diaz-Alejandro, in dissenting notes are highly critical of the covert aid Washington gives to the contras. Far from being an incentive to democratization, the covert war, in Diaz-Alejandor’s words, “is more likely to strengthen the most extremist sectors of the Sandinista leadership.” The report itself does not consider or reply to this argument.

Toward El Salvador, too, the panel follows an inconsistent line. It rules out any explicit concept of power sharing between the government and guerrillas, or, what is more accurate, between the official Salvadoran armed forces and the guerrillas. The panel believes that any such notion would mean delivering the government over to the guerrillas. But, as things stand now, power sharing is, in any case, simply wishful thinking. The current military leaders would never agree to it, and it is hard to imagine any amount of US pressure that would force them to. It was quite clear in my own discussions with the military and other Salvadorans in October 1983 that both power sharing and serious reform were conceivable only if the upper ranks of the military were no longer in charge.20 As a “leading spokesman” for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in San Salvador put it on January 28, 1984, “to clean things up would require a total change in the military structure, which is something that neither the government or even the Americans are ready to do.”21

The commission, however, recommends that money be supplied only to shore up the existing military structure. The problem for the Salvadorans, it appears, lies both in the external support the rebels have received and in “the brutal methods practiced by certain reactionary forces in Central America,” i.e., the death squads. Curing Salvador’s ills therefore requires a new infusion of military aid as well as encouraging the government to curb the death squads. A successful counterinsurgency effort along American lines, which also means action on the “economic and social fronts,” is needed before anyone can seek a political solution. In the security section of the report, then, the panel is quite clear that victory comes first, negotiations later. The already mentioned $400 million in US military aid in 1984 and 1985 is needed just “to break the military stalemate.” (Within a week after the report was released, the administration was reported to be preparing to ask for just this amount. By the end of January, the Salvadoran army was reported planning to expand its overall troop strength by 20 percent.22 )

But here the panel runs into one of its deepest contradictions. It also insists that any military aid be contingent on “demonstrated progress” toward free elections, an effective judicial system, the ending of the activities of the death squads, and that these conditions be “seriously enforced.” It even states that elections cannot succeed unless the Salvadoran government provides “basic security for teachers, editors and writers, labor and religious opinion,” and a “secure environment” for all those who wish to take part in the elections, including “leftists” and “centrists.” The US government “must insist these conditions be met.” But what if the security forces themselves are not in the least interested in protecting such people and such political forces but, on the contrary, prefer to continue killing and terrorizing them as they have in the past? On this critical question the report is silent. Only Kissinger himself and two other commissioners answer it in a dissenting note, recording their “strong view that neither the Congress nor the Executive Branch interpret conditionality in a manner that leads to a Marxist-Leninist victory” in El Salvador. But the smallness of the dissenting group leaves both the report’s conditions for continuing military aid and its contradictions standing. The administration, we may expect, will try to use the report’s warnings on “security” to grind down support in the Congress for its stand on human rights.

What alternative might the commission have considered? If the United States were able to reorganize the armed forces by relieving the upper ranks of their commands, then, perhaps, the military might try to end the violence directed against any presumed opponents and so increase its support among the population. In this case, it might be possible to split the guerrilla fronts and form a government that would not only be able to share power but even find widespread popular backing. This possibility, an increasingly slim one, the commission never explores; indeed, the notion of looking for and exploiting different tendencies in the Salvadoran guerrilla front never comes up in the body of the report. It appears only in the dissent of Henry Cisneros, who recognizes that there are moderates in the FDR-FMLN guerrilla front who might be persuaded to take part in talks “to determine the extent to which meaningful dialogue on coalition approaches and structural reforms can proceed.”

Instead, the panel clings to its preference for elections and concentrates on urging that they be free, fair, and protected. It holds open the possibility of a kind of power sharing when it proposes that after the voting scheduled for March 25, the government invite the FDR-FMLN to take part in an elections commission to organize the elections of 1985. But the report does not say that the leading candidate of the far right in the March 25 election, Roberto D’Aubuisson, has been intimately linked to the activities of the death squads, and that another right-wing candidate, Francisco Guerrero, could well inherit his supporters in a runoff vote. Either might emerge as president in an election which may be “free” in the sense that people will be allowed to vote, but in which hardly anyone expects a “secure environment” and “free and secure expression of opinion” for “leftists” and “centrists.” Nor does it seem realistic to expect that such leaders will invite the insurgents to take part, as the panel recommends, in “security arrangements” for future elections. The commission seems to assume that the Salvadoran politicians and military men will act like well-intentioned democrats; little in their recent record bears out such hopes and a great deal contradicts them.

Much of the debate over what the United States should or should not do in Central America will center around the notion that the US will lose its “credibility” as a superpower if it cannot hold control there. The credibility argument, as former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Viron P. Vaky shows in his fine essay in the Carnegie study, easily leads to a conclusion “that the mere existence of a Marxist regime in Central America damages U.S. ‘credibility’ whether or not it is linked to Soviet power.” If this is so, then of course it is hard to see how we can negotiate security guarantees with the Sandinistas, in which case there will be no choice except to overthrow the Sandinista regime. If we can’t do it with our proxies, the contras, and it does not appear that we can, then we may have to use every form of pressure we can devise, from economic starvation to military intimidation. And if these don’t work, the logic of the position leads to US intervention. If we cannot get support at home for such a foreign adventure, then, so goes the argument, our “credibility” suffers.

So, too, with El Salvador. If the army does not reform itself, the process of political democratization will most likely go nowhere. We can exhort the military to change; but what if we do not have the means to do so unless we send in our own troops, a not very likely prospect under present political conditions? So far, warnings by the present American ambassador in San Salvador have had little effect on the behavior of the armed forces. Despite the Kissinger commission’s view that military aid must be contingent on significant improvement in human rights, the Salvadoran armed forces may continue to believe they can ignore Washington’s pleas because the administration believes US “credibility” will be gravely affected if a Marxist state comes into being in El Salvador. In these circumstances, the prospects are, as Vaky puts it, that

the situation will continue along its present course—with continued conflict and bloodshed; increasing American involvement in El Salvador’s national life, and growing temptation to become more deeply involved in the military conflict, either directly with advisers and special personnel or through…proxies.”

So far, the administration appears unwilling to contemplate negotiation seriously as a way of accommodating itself to situations that may prove beyond its control. It does not believe it can live with a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua. But it may have to. It does not believe it can tolerate a takeover by insurgents in El Salvador. But it may have to. Not so long ago an American administration was accused by another administration of having “lost” China to the communists. A couple of decades later Washington established relations with China and even saw it as a putative ally in its struggle against the Soviet Union. The opening to China was considered wise by American allies. By abandoning a mistaken policy in Vietnam, the Nixon administration was perceived as pursuing a mature and productive foreign policy.

Today America’s “credibility” is indeed in question because of the obtuseness of its foreign policy. By continuing a long history of relying on repressive local military forces to effect change in Central America, the Reagan administration does not appear to be planning for a future that will allow countries with fragile democracies to grow stronger and hardy democracies to flourish. If it were to do so, if it were to concentrate on negotiating security guarantees for the region, then it might find that its credibility was indeed improved because countries both friendly and unfriendly would recognize that America was acting with good sense. The exercise of American power should derive from an unblinkered assessment of American interests. To the extent that America is found wanting in this respect, then its alliances will suffer, and its enemies rejoice.

This Issue

March 1, 1984