Commentary Magazine

The Deal in Central America

It has been a very long time since an important fight for democracy took place in a familiar, even heroic setting such as the channel coast of France. In what John F. Kennedy once called the “long twilight struggle” the locales have invariably been distant and unattractive, foreign jungles of the physical or political variety. Central America differs neither in climate nor in unfamiliarity, only in proximity. It is our own local “jungle,” and we have been enwrapped now for a decade in a seemingly endless, politically divisive battle over a region that until the late 1970′s was as remote from our politics as Quemoy and Matsu now are.

To be sure, the five nations of the region had previously had many, and very varied, ties to the United States. They exported everything from bananas to people—more of the latter—but they were accustomed only to fitful American attention when a crisis seemed to threaten. They were governed, as were most Latin nations, including the motherland in Spain, by military regimes more or less brutal; their economies were dominated by local elites whose attitudes were, to say the least, precapitalist. The exception was Costa Rica, democratic after 1948, its army disbanded, its economy more modern, its people regretful about their unfortunate location on the isthmus between Nicaragua and Panama.

This “backwater” came to America’s attention again in the late 1970′s, when violence increased greatly in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. In all three cases, insurgencies brought on by real injustices were fueled and exacerbated by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and led by guerrillas from the most fanatical Leninist fringes. The context, of course, was the Soviet expansionism of the 70′s, which had already extended to Angola and Afghanistan.

In Guatemala, the U.S. stood back, appalled by the bloody methods by which the local regime fought the Communist insurgency. The Guatemalan army had a simple, low-tech approach, using the most savage violence against the mostly Indian population to which the guerrillas were appealing. Despite great strains in relations with the U.S., and an arms embargo that stretched from the Carter to the Reagan administrations, the Guatemalans kept to their strategy. And it worked. After breaking the back of the insurgency, the army came around to permitting free elections; nor did it interfere when these resulted in a victory by the Center-Left Christian Democratic party. For the U.S., it was a convenient outcome: we had kept our hands clean during the “dirty war,” and, with the insurgency beaten, we were now free to help Gualemala in its transition to democracy.

In Nicaragua, by contrast, the hands-off policy that had worked in Guatemala to prevent a Communist victory failed dismally, weakening the Center and permitting the small Sandinista group to seize power after Somoza had been toppled in a revolution fought in the name of democracy. The Carter administration was divided on the question of whether to take action against the Sandinista coup, but despite pleas from Nicaraguans and some Americans, the decision was finally to do nothing. As Carter’s National Security Council specialist on Latin America described it: “I felt that Carter should not overthrow a government. I felt that we were in the business too long and it was time to get out of that business, regardless of what the circumstances were.”

Rather than trying to force the Sandinistas out, then, the Carter administration tried to bribe them into better behavior. Thus the U.S. became Sandinista Nicaragua’s largest foreign-aid donor in 1979 and 1980. But money failed, too, and by January 1981, his last month in office, Jimmy Carter faced facts. The Sandinistas were unquestionably fueling the increasingly dangerous Communist insurgency in El Salvador, and he could not get them to stop. At the same time, the U.S. arms embargo against El Salvador, which had been instituted in response to human-rights violations by the ruling junta, was weakening the Salvadoran army, and the call of the Communist guerrillas there for a “final offensive” showed their intentions clearly: to take power, as their allies in Nicaragua had done eighteen months before. In his last weeks as President, Carter, reversing his Central America policy, suspended all U.S. economic aid to Nicaragua, and reinstituted arms shipments to the government of El Salvador despite his distaste for the Salvadoran political structure and the military’s human-rights record.



Enter Ronald Reagan, with the task of preventing a repetition in El Salvador of what had happened in Nicaragua. The Reagan strategy was far from inevitable, and certainly was not the one predicted by his enemies on the Left or his friends on the Right. To avoid a “Guatemalan solution” in El Salvador or anywhere else, Reagan made the establishment of democratic institutions the centerpiece of his Central America policy. In El Salvador, in Guatemala, and in relatively peaceful Honduras, it became U.S. policy to push for transitions, via free elections, to democratic governments; and furthermore to encourage those countries to improve their judicial systems, reduce military violence, expand freedom of the press—in short, to build not only democratic governments but democratic societies as well.

This was the tacit agreement: the U.S. would protect Central America from Communism by bottling up and ultimately toppling the Sandinista regime if the Right—civilian and military—would throw its support to a process of democratization, which we for our part would help in every possible way.

Not everyone was automatically or immediately willing to accept this deal. The local militaries were suspicious, the local right-wing parties were hostile, and American conservatives were dubious. For each, the administration had an answer.

For American conservatives there was an appeal to principle: the goal was not to support one or another political party, but the democratic process itself. If non-Communist leftists like the Christian Democrats entered, and won, elections, so be it; parties of the Right, too, would have an equal chance to do the same.

For those Central American parties and their supporters in the military, there was a different offer. They well knew the peril they faced now that Nicaragua was Communist-ruled and actively engaged in subverting El Salvador and Guatemala. They also understood that ultimately, without U.S. help, the combination of Cuban and Soviet power, with a local operating base in Nicaragua, would overwhelm them. Therefore, except to some elements whose political views and conduct owed more to the Spanish Inquisition than to Locke, accepting a process of democratization did not seem too high a price to pay for large amounts of aid that would modernize their armies, sustain their economies, and eliminate the Communist challenge from Nicaragua.

The case of El Salvador was the purest model of this tacit deal, which for years guided both American policy and Salvadoran attitudes. The economic aid poured in, in the billions; the Salvadoran military grew from a small, primitive army into a modern, well-trained and -equipped 45,000-man force; and the society moved more and more toward open, competitive politics. The notorious death-squad killings declined from 800 a month when Reagan entered office to under 5 percent of that number by the mid-1980′s. One free election after another was held, in the course of which the AFL-CIO, employing AID funds made available for this purpose, waged vigorous “voter-education” campaigns benefiting the democratic Left. And the Democratic majority leader in the House, Jim Wright, voicing his own support for U.S. strategy, forged with Ronald Reagan an extraordinary bipartisan foreign policy for El Salvador. With the election in 1984 of José Napoleon Duarte, an honest, attractive, English-speaking progressive, as president, and a weakened insurgency, exiles who had left as recently as five years earlier returned to find a political debate far wider and more open than they had anticipated; indeed, where in the Third World was such a panoply of choices available? Given the centuries of dictatorship in El Salvador’s history, the progress toward a free political system in the 1980′s was startling.



As for the battle against Communism in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration, after a false start or two, had begun fulfilling its promise. The Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was by now presiding not over the ragtag band of 5,000 guerrillas from 1979 but rather a Soviet-built army of 75,000 and a militia of equal size, armed with hundreds of tanks, helicopter gunships, armored-personnel carriers, and other modern weapons. Nicaragua’s importance as a base of subversion in the region was also growing. Moreover, there was incontrovertible evidence, more each month, that the predictable brutalities of a consolidating Communist regime were being practiced internally: violence, repression, shutting of newspapers, assaults on the Church, and indeed murder.

In the meantime, however, armed resistance to this regime was growing as well. The so-called contras, who had originally consisted of a small number of anti-Communists largely led by former officers of Somoza’s National Guard, had matured into a broad-based popular force determined to reclaim the revolution against Somoza that had been stolen by the Sandinistas. Moreover, the U.S. had done its best to ensure that the civilian leadership of the contras would pass to those members of the exile community who were committed to the establishment of democracy in Nicaragua, and the U.S. had also worked to require fighters in the field to observe human-rights standards hitherto unknown in the annals of guerrilla warfare.

By mid-1987, there were 15,000 well-equipped contras in the field in Nicaragua, giving the Sandinistas real trouble and moving freely throughout the countryside. In particular, the contras’ American Redeye missiles rendered the Sandinistas’ Soviet-made helicopter gunships marginal to the struggle. Contrary to the claims of congressional liberals, the Sandinistas were very well aware of the wide support for the contras among the populace, and of the threat they constituted to the survival of the Communist regime.



It was at this promising point—when Communism was under effective assault in Nicaragua, and democracy was being built in the neighboring countries—that the Iran-contra affair erupted.

Thanks to the ensuing scandal, the liberal opponents of Reagan’s strategy of backing guerrilla wars against Communism were given a new, unexpected chance to teach once again their version of the “lessons of Vietnam”: that a policy of anti-Communism leads to crises, scandals, adventurism, and even threatens the very integrity of our political system. But instead of combining the admission of serious mistakes with a tough defense of itself and with a frank explanation to the American people of the aims of its Central American strategy, the Reagan administration spun into a panic. High officials were thrown overboard. Two separate investigations into official misconduct (one by the Tower Commission and one by Congress) were launched, and just as quickly overshadowed, as the President, appointing an “independent counsel” before either of these investigations had been concluded, permitted the issue to become one of criminality.

Until now, congressional votes on contra aid had always been won or lost by very slim margins. Even Reagan’s most important victory, the $100 million in military aid that had been authorized in the fall of 1986, had been wrung out of the Congress by a handful of votes. Now, as a result of the scandal, the tenuous majority that had backed contra aid was gone. Nevertheless Central America was still there, and the administration felt duty-bound to try to maintain its policy somehow.

In this weakened condition, the White House entered into negotiations in July 1987 with its former ally Jim Wright, now the Speaker of the House, a Texas Democrat with a pro-contra constituency. The product of these negotiations was the Wright-Reagan plan, under which Ronald Reagan agreed for the first time to link contra aid to Sandinista promises of reform, rather than to the contras’ real battlefield needs.

It is hard to blame Central American leaders too much for the panic which characterized their initial reaction to this plan. They represented small, weak nations whose internal peace and stability could be upset in a weekend by Castro or Ortega. And if they sat and faced the future much surer about Castro’s intentions and Ortega’s than about our own, then their panic was not unfounded.

But the particular form of panic to which they succumbed was a disastrous one. For in a single day, the four Central American democratic leaders swept away the foundations of the policy which had been sustaining them, and presented to Daniel Ortega a very great gift. This they did at a summit meeting in Esquipulas, Guatemala, when they adopted the “peace plan” set forth by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, under which the contras would be disarmed and disbanded in exchange for Ortega’s paper pledges of Jeffersonian democracy.

Now the road to democracy no longer required contras to eliminate Communists, but instead required agreements with Communists to eliminate the contras. Not even Iran-contra was so serious a blow to the Reagan administration’s Central America policy as this.

There were many forces at work in Esquipulas. Both President Duarte of El Salvador and President Cerezo of Guatemala faced Communist guerrilla movements, and though neither man was gullible enough to trust Sandinista promises for the long term, they both supported the Arias plan because in a fit of “moral equivalence” it called on all guerrilla groups (the Communists fighting democratic governments as well as the contras fighting Nicaragua’s Communist government) to lay down their arms. Perhaps, too, they believed that such an agreement might bring them further popularity among vocally anti-contra European nations, and thus more aid from that source.

So far as the Sandinistas were concerned, they understood that their new pledges of democracy were self-enforcing—meaning that they were unenforceable—while the Congress could be counted on to enforce an end to U.S. aid to the contras. Before and during Esquipulas their numerous private conversations with American legislators had given them great confidence in that prospect.

And as for the author of the plan himself, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, he was essentially a pacifist, schooled in the Fabian socialism of his English university days, opposed to any group using violence to come to power. Moreover, he held the typical Costa Rican view that in the end there was little risk in anything Central Americans did, for if all else failed, the U.S. would come to their rescue.

In fact, Arias expressed this view to President Reagan in a visit to the Oval Office in September 1987, just a few weeks after the adoption of his plan. He explained to Reagan that if the plan did not force the Sandinistas to democratize, it would remove their excuses for refusing to do so, thus “unmasking” them as Communists. And then what, Reagan asked, after they were unmasked? Then what would we do? Arias ducked the question twice. Asked a third time, he answered that he would invoke his moral authority and appeal to the Organization of American States (OAS) for “drastic sanctions” against the Sandinistas, including “collective action.” And what did “collective action” via the OAS really mean? Did it include military action? Yes, he replied; what the U.S. had done in the Dominican Republic in 1965 was “collective action,” and he would support it.

Itself “unmasked,” then, the Arias plan was revealed as an attempt to turn the region into one large Costa Rica—proudly, defiantly unwilling to defend itself. To Duarte and Cerezo it must have seemed no worse a bet than the one they were already making. Which was more likely: that the U.S. Congress would continue funding the contras, and their own militaries, for several more years, or that a frustrated Reagan might strike out, finally, and solve their problem? Henceforth, instead of engaging in a long, nasty guerrilla struggle, the four democracies would confront the Sandinistas less and less ardently, would endorse exclusively diplomatic pressure on Nicaragua, would undercut the contras’ struggle, and would back the U.S. into a corner: Washington’s only alternative to direct military action against the Sandinistas would be to acquiesce in their victory.



As these events unfolded, weakening the American strategy for fighting Communism by helping those threatened by or already living under it, the U.S. commitment to upholding democracy also seemed to fade. In March 1988, El Salvador held a free legislative election. The right-wing party, Arena (now with a broadened base and a new leader, Alfredo Cristiani, who had no connection to the death-squad killings of which his predecessor, Roberto d’Aubuisson, had been accused), beat the Christian Democrats behind Duarte. It was obvious that if Arena could win the parliamentary elections, it might also win the next presidential race, which in fact it went on to do in March 1989 by a decisive margin. Yet, having played by the rules of the democratic process for five years, the right-wing forces in El Salvador were now hearing serious discussion in Washington of changing those rules, just as they were about to assume power. And indeed, if aid were to be cut off in response to victory in a free election by the “wrong” party, what would remain of the U.S. commitment to the democratic process in Central America?

In trying to encourage that process, Ronald Reagan had understood that he could not prevail without enlisting the support of the Right and the military, traditionally among the enemies of democracy, by persuading them that the struggle for democracy was synonymous with the fight against Communism. This he managed to do. What he could not do was to enlist the Left at home in a battle for democracy when it required taking up arms against Communism.

With both the U.S. promise to protect the region from Communism and the U.S. commitment to the democratic process turning out to be unreliable, the Right—not only in El Salvador but in Guatemala and Honduras as well—is bound to have second thoughts about its willingness to abide by that process. If the Sandinistas are permitted to consolidate their hold on Nicaragua, while continuing to back Communist insurgencies in the neighboring countries—and there are no sanctions to prevent this in the plan for humanitarian aid to the contras agreed upon in March between the Bush administration and Congress—the military in those countries will be increasingly tempted to take matters into their own hands, just as they did in the past. Under such circumstances, the prospects for democracy in Central America—so recently bright—will once again grow distant and dim.



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