Commentary Magazine

Can the Sandinistas Still Be Stopped?

Seen from the viewpoint of Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the war against U.S. “imperialism” is not going badly at all these days. It seems almost strange to recall, in the midst of the various investigations now in process, that current congressional policy still officially favors the anti-Sandinista forces. But the likelihood that Congress will provide further funds for the so-called contra war—actually, a protracted civil war in which both sides are heavily dependent on outside assistance—is rapidly approaching zero. More importantly, the cut-off of such funding—this time, anyway—would signal the likely end to political support for the peasant, worker, middle-class, Indian, and religious forces that have taken up arms against the Sandinistas.

If the cut-off of outside support for the anti-Sandinista forces threatens the collapse of their ability to wage war, it is even more true that the cut-off of outside support for the Sandinistas would mean the collapse of their regime. On a daily basis, the Nicaraguan people show every sign of being sick of the coercion, corruption, scarcity, and selective persecution that now afflict their country—every bit as sick of it all as they were of the preceding forty-seven-year Somoza family dictatorship. Indeed, to judge by the support that has swarmed to the anti-Sandinista rebels, Nicaragua is much more revolted by the Sandinistas than by their predecessors. But the idea enshrined in numerous peace plans for the region that Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the remainder of the Eastern bloc will give up supporting the Sandinistas is little more than a pious wish.

On the contrary, Soviet military support for the Sandinistas has been mounting in boldness, along with that from Cuba et al. What is striking about these efforts is their increasing overtness; they are becoming tacitly legitimized. The political right of such forces to be in Nicaragua, in other words, is more and more accepted. Meanwhile, the web of military, economic, political, and cultural agreements lashing Nicaragua to the mast of the Communist world grows steadily in density. As one example, discussions have taken place more or less openly about the advisability of upgrading Nicaragua’s status with COMECON, the Communist economic bloc, from observer to member.

Given these levels of external support (including help from some West European governments and private American citizens), Sandinista internal hegemony looks pretty solid, at least for the moment. Massive, forced relocations of peasants have created free-fire zones in the countryside for the Sandinista armed forces—and their Soviet Mi-24 helicopters—without much hue and cry from international human-rights organizations (although the same type of activity by the government in El Salvador has been exhaustively protested). Strategic hamlets manned by local militia have been established, in remarkable homage to U.S. defensive strategy in Vietnam. Thousands of willing so-called Sandalistas—U.S., Canadian, and West European successors to the Venceremos brigades that cut sugar cane in Cuba twenty-odd years ago—have swarmed into contested rural zones.

The Sandalistas have a dual place in the Sandinista order of things. One of their jobs is to contribute to local development projects in lieu of the resources that the regime is devoting to military purposes. The other, unmentioned, job is to get shot at by anti-Sandinista forces from time to time as a further means of undercutting support for the regime’s foes. Guerrillas themselves for decades, the Sandinistas are perfectly familiar with Mao’s dictum that the people are to guerrillas as the sea is to fish. To anyone who is not a guerrilla, the uncomfortable significance of that maxim is that revolutionaries consider sea water to be more plentiful and disposable than fish.

In Nicaragua’s cities, especially Managua, Sandinista security is basically unchallenged. Those faithful instruments of public safety, the Sandinista-controlled neighborhood defense committees, by and large see to that. The regime now operates from behind a dissembling framework of electoral legitimacy that was contested by American and West European observers, but not contested enough: President Ortega is President Ortega is President Ortega. A National Assembly along Cuban lines debates niceties determined by a Sandinista Speaker who just happens to be a member of the National Directorate. Nicaragua’s old-line, Soviet-leaning Marxist-Leninist party (known as the Nicaraguan Socialist party or PSN) is presented to the world as a case study in Nicaraguan political pluralism, even though in private top Sandinista officials have held discussions with the PSN about merging into a single Communist party. On global issues there are essentially no differences between the two organizations: vide Sandinista vocal support for the United Nations’ Zionism-is-racism resolution, and abstention from the UN vote condemning the invasion of Afghanistan. The Sandinistas began, after all, as the older party’s youth wing, advocating essentially a Guevarist strategy for armed Communist takeover.

Meanwhile, in a process unremarked on at most North American university campuses, the gutting of the remaining non-military opposition in Nicaragua continues. And the most important coercive tool in the hands of the Sandinistas continues to be wielded overtly, in what most North Americans apparently feel is innocuous fashion. That tool is, and always has been, the centralized economic planning mechanism of the state, which the Sandinistas have always viewed in orthodox Leninist fashion as the civil expression of the strategic aims of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Through the selective use of agricultural price controls and expropriation policies, for example, the Sandinistas have waged economic war against huge sectors of the rural population—thus in no small measure unintentionally feeding the insurrection of the anti-Sandinista rebels. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas are fully aware, price controls are an important means of class warfare. Petty commodity producers still exist, and even thrive, in the atmosphere of shortages created by Sandinista economics, but the paramount fact is that such activity is illegal: the force of the state can be used against it whenever the state chooses.



In the regional theater of warfare, things may also be looking up for the Sandinistas. The Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement in El Salvador, known formally as the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), whose leaders camp out in Nicaragua when not en route to Havana and elsewhere, is showing a resurgence of strength. The government of President José Napoleon Duarte is suffering from what all democratic governments endure with the passage of time, a measured erosion of popularity—except that in El Salvador, such an erosion is more hazardous than elsewhere. The Salvadoran economy is defunct, and the guerrillas intend to keep it that way. The country’s extreme right wing is becoming more restless; on the other hand, as the next U.S. presidential election approaches, the Salvadoran guerrillas can probably be expected to try a repeat of their disastrous 1980 bid to seize power by force of arms. This time, the possibility exists that such an assault would try to present Ronald Reagan’s successor—less popular, perhaps, with the American people, less hard-line in his anti-Communist views—with another fait accompli. Whatever happens, the bloodshed appears bound to get worse.

The Sandinistas, who fully back and abet their fellow Marxist-Leninists of the FMLN, do not find that prospect uncomfortable. In their own view, the only grave danger they face currently is direct U.S. military intervention. On the one hand, all Sandinista efforts seem bent on preventing intervention from occurring. Yet on the other hand, all Sandinista military thinking—and in a fundamental sense, there is no other kind—anticipates, strategizes, and organizes in anticipation of that confrontation.

Why so? For one thing, Sandinista thinking ordains it. Lenin danced for joy on the day that the Bolshevik government outlasted the Paris Commune; for him, the notion that world capitalism would allow a Communist government to survive had been well-nigh unthinkable. In this as in almost every other respect, Lenin was mightily influenced by the Prussian strategic thinker Carl von Clausewitz. For Clausewitz, warfare was profoundly political. Politics determines the depth and amplitude of the mobilization of resources for war. It also determines the aims: war, as he famously said, is the “continuation of politics by other means.” For Marxist-Leninists, politics is profoundly warlike: the existence of fundamentally antagonistic social classes linked in international relationships sets no limits of any kind on the means the proletariat and its “vanguard” may employ to achieve their political objectives. Hobbes, in Leviathan, proposed to end civil war; Lenin counted on and sought to organize it.

To say that the Sandinistas are devoted Marxist-Leninists is merely to give them their due. The appellation is one that they have loudly insisted upon. As Nicaragua’s Vice President, Sergio Ramirez, has put it: “We are perfectly clear in our minds about which currents of thought have moved history, and are committed to them.”

Those currents of history are outlined exhaustively, not to say turgidly, in a document known as the General Political-Military Platform of the FSLN, first published in 1977. Its principal author is believed to be the estimable Humberto Ortega, currently head of the Sandinista army and brother of the President, Daniel Ortega. It is no small coincidence that Humberto occupies the same relation to his sibling that Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, occupies as head of the Cuban army. Among other things, the General Political-Military Platform declares:

With the development of the Popular Sandinista Revolution, with the triumph over the dictatorship and the establishment of a revolutionary popular-democratic government, our present Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization will be able to develop to the maximum its organic structure until it becomes an iron-hard Leninist party, created and strengthened by the process itself and with the capacity for developing to the maximum the organization and mobilization of the masses. . . . The FSLN, the vanguard, should be the political and military General Staff of a militant people.

Not much doubt there, one would think, about where anybody stands in the Sandinista ranks. If there were, the Platform goes on to dispel it by affiliating itself with the “glorious October Revolution in Russia,” along with strands of Nicaraguan nationalism, invariably anti-Yankee, dating back to 1856.



Nor is there much doubt about long-term Sandinista aims. Ever since taking power in June 1979, the FSLN has been concerned not with political survival per se, but with the organization of the military stage known as the strategic offensive, the continuation on an international scale of the insurrectionary strategy the Sandinistas pioneered—well, actually, Fidel Castro pioneered it—on the way to victory in Managua. Like Clausewitz and Lenin, the Sandinistas conceive this strategic stage in both military and political terms. Here is how it was articulated at a secret conclave of Sandinista cadres in Managua, three months after the revolutionary triumph:

The goal of the FSLN’s foreign policy is to consolidate the Nicaraguan revolution, because this will help to strengthen the Central American, Latin American, and worldwide revolution.

Vice President Ramirez, one of whose chief responsibilities is to speak for the Sandinistas in a voice that Western liberals, social democrats, and even some conservatives can find acceptable, put it this way in a 1980 interview:

It must be admitted that deeper social change cannot take place in one country without a similar transformation in those that surround it. To be specific, a process of change in one Central American country requires that a similar process be in progress in the others. . . . We look upon [the Americas] as a totality of which we are still-scattered segments, but the first segments we must try to unify are those that compose Central America.

The Sandinistas’ position on the rest of Central America is perhaps revealing of some of the reasons behind their silence on Afghanistan. And at the same time, Ramirez puts the Sandinistas within the context of another grand idea, that of a unified Central American republic, which flickered briefly in and out of existence in the early 19th century. The Sandinistas are Clausewitzian in more ways than one. Their Pan-Latin model of revolution is explicitly interventionist and imperialistic along the lines of 19th-century Prussian nationalism, as updated by 20th-century Vietnam.

Thus, the first major Sandinista political program declared in the pages of Cuba’s Tricontinental revolutionary journal in 1969: “The people’s Sandinist revolution will struggle for the true union of the Central American peoples within one country.” Similarly, among the documents captured from Salvadoran guerrillas in late 1983 was a memorandum of a secret meeting between members of the FMLN and officials of the Sandinistas’ Department of International Relations (DRI), which is less a government body than the covert, guerrilla-sponsoring arm of the Marxist-Leninist party. There the Sandinistas are quoted as assuring the Salvadoran guerrillas: “You can count on us for assistance. We have always been inextricably linked.”



These and many other revealing insights are contained in The Central American Crisis Reader,1 one of a spate of valuable and less valuable books on the region currently crowding onto the literary market. The Crisis Reader is among the more valuable ones. Its editors, Robert S. Leiken and Barry Rubin, are both high-profile scholars. Leiken was until recently a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Soviet aims and policy in Latin America, while Rubin is a fellow of the Washington-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a chronicler of the Byzantine bureaucratic process of shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Leiken in particular is also a hardened veteran of the Central America policy wars. He has long been a behind-the-scenes adviser to, and sympathizer with, the social-democratic faction of anti-Sandinista rebels headed by Edén Pastöra (formerly the Sandinistas’ famous Comandante Zero) and, on the civilian side, by the Nicaraguan banker and former governing junta member Arturo Cruz, who recently bolted from the main ranks of the anti-Sandinista military coalition. Leiken has also been associated for years with the notion of a symmetrical political solution to the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador: roughly speaking, that in both countries negotiations should aim at reincorporating Communist and anti-Communist rebels into the normal political process. In El Salvador, as this volume shows, Leiken has had interesting contacts with the faction of the five-group Faribundo Marti Front known as the Armed Forces of National Resistance, or FARN, which he considers to be saliently nationalistic, i.e., anti-Cuban and not pro-Soviet, and therefore worthy of courting.

The Crisis Reader provides a gamut of information on Central America, ranging from meditations by conquistadores on the original Indian populations of Nicaragua, to gringo disquisitions on the reasons why Yankee freebooters taking over the government of Nicaragua, as they did in 1856, might not be such a bad thing, to Sandinista and Salvadoran guerrilla perspectives on their political and military situations.

Of particular interest is a so-called “Last Testament” by Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinistas, written just before his death in 1976. In a stolid, menacing style that recalls Fonseca’s formative experience as a young Nicaraguan Communist in Moscow, the document inveighs against the treacheries of other members of the “iron-hard” National Directorate as currently constituted, notably including some double-dealing by Humberto Ortega. Fonseca, now Nicaragua’s martyred Lenin, was, along with current Interior Minister Tomas Borge, murderously opposed to the strategy of the Ortega brothers that eventually became the FSLN’s General Political-Military Platform. Fonseca was eventually gunned down in the Nicaraguan mountains by the Somoza National Guard; one story, not included in the Crisis Reader, has it that the Ortegas themselves may have tipped off the Guard to his whereabouts. The book features similar tales of double-dealing and fratricide concerning the compañeros of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement, including excerpts from a masterly essay by the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid on how the movement constitutes a form of sinister upward mobility for the rebels, conducted upon the suffering of the masses.

Like all such anthologies, this one betrays the tastes and opinions of its editors. Thus, on the issue of Salvadoran elections, which have to date roundly endorsed both the democratic process and the Duarte government, the Crisis Reader includes the dismissive judgment of the leftist British peer, Lord Chitnis, that the country’s 1982 constituent elections were “so fundamentally flawed as to be invalid.” A major piece of reasoning in Chitnis’s assessment was that no party contesting the elections at the time supported a negotiated settlement with the guerrillas, a position favored both by the Salvadoran rebels and by Leiken. As it happens, two years later a democratically elected President Duarte held out that prospect to the guerrillas, and so far, nothing has come of it.

For all its many virtues—and they are very considerable, both in presenting previously unpublished guerrilla documents and in giving voice to intelligent, concerned Central Americans as they contemplate their plight—the Crisis Reader suffers from two flaws, unfortunately all too common in the thick soup of analytic prose now being ladled out on Central America. One of them is the common belief, to which Leiken and Rubin, alas, sometimes subscribe, that democratic political ideas and institutions apparently have no intrinsic value to the people of Central America themselves. What looms much larger in almost every analysis, including that of the Crisis Reader, are the huge income and landholding disparities of these tiny, turbulent republics. Those disparities are seen, in turn, as the dialectical basis for justifying armed revolution.

This tendency, particularly by U.S. partisans, has led to the systematic disparagement of authentic democrats in Central America. Time and again, the tremendous domestic support enjoyed, for example, by El Salvador’s Duarte has been discounted in the U.S., and the electoral process denigrated, until incredibly brave Salvadoran voters and office-seekers have proved the skeptics wrong.

On the other hand—and here we come to the second common flaw—the emphasis on economics has been used to obscure the pro-Soviet and Cuban lineage of most of the Central American guerrilla movements. As Pablo Antonio Cuadra, an eminent Nicaraguan historian and literary editor of the now-suppressed daily La Prensa, notes in the Crisis Reader, “at least in die prerevolutionary period we knew what it meant to surrender our sovereignty: now, however, we are not even permitted to call things by their proper name.”



If the Crisis Reader is an intelligent and carefully edited effort to educate, say, college sophomores and congressional staff aides on the complexities of the Central American crisis, Conflict in Nicaragua2 offers a more sophisticated and elaborate—and therefore, in places, even drier—effort at understanding. The book is the product of a three-day seminar held in London in April 1986 under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at the Universiy of Miami. The aim was to provide a wide range of differing points of view on Nicaragua, although only one Sandinista representative took part in the symposium. One sign of the seriousness of the Conflict effort is that the volume contains, in its turgid entirety, the text of the Sandinista Political-Military Platform; Leiken and Rubin present it in highly abridged form. Clearly, Conflict is intended for serious students of Nicaragua with a high tolerance for bureaucratic prose.

This book is also a harder-nosed assessment of the Nicaraguan condition under the Sandinistas. The distinguished Sovietologist Jiri Valenta, coeditor of the volume, with his wife Virginia describes the Leninist evolution of the Sandinistas in forthright terms. The Valentas also provide a much-needed morphology of the Sandinista National Directorate, which has mutated from a nine-member conclave of cornandantes into a multidepartmental bureaucracy reminiscent of Soviet and Cuban politburo models. There is pluralism of a sort within the Directorate; at various times before their victory, the three major factions of the Sandinistas took turns at expelling one another, sometimes with accompanying death sentences. Now the nine directors tend to balance one another in watchful triads on sensitive executive bodies. (Since Conflict went to press, however, this situation may be changing, with the Ortega faction gaining strength and the so-called Proletarian Tendency, most prominently represented by the now-demoted Agriculture Minister, Jaime Wheelock, on the wane.)

The Valentas methodically document the influence of Soviet and Cuban mentors on the security apparatus, and describe the use of “salami tactics”—the whittling away of opposition positions—on such bodies as the former junta of the Government of National Reconstruction (which imploded into the Ortega Presidency in 1985) and the Cuban-style Council of State. At every stage, the Sandinistas have carefully tried to preserve at least totemic or symbolic “bourgeois” support. When all else fails, there is coercion, either through the security apparatus or the “divine mobs” controlled by Interior Minister Borge, the glib and voluble revolutionary most often pointed out as the “hard-line” alternative to the “moderate” Ortega brothers. The Valentas also outline in exhaustive and sobering detail the expanding network of trade relations, training programs, and commissions of cultural and political cooperation that tie Nicaragua to the Communist bloc.

The Valentas’ conclusion is that although Nicaragua “has not yet evolved into a full-fledged Leninist state comparable to the countries of Eastern Europe, to Cuba, or to Vietnam,” nevertheless the FSLN “seems headed toward becoming a dictatorship of a Leninist-oriented party.”

How has that process been obscured? In the opinion of Arturo Cruz, Jr., son of the former Nicaraguan junta member, the answer lies in part in Sandinista manipulation of the Socialist International and other fonts of partisan opinion. Cruz argues that “as long as the Sandinistas are able to give the appearance of being a Central American David facing a North American Goliath, they can afford to be oppressors at home and heroes abroad.”



Conflict also gives the Sandinistas their say, or as much as they cared to have. Their demonological perspective on Central American history is provided by Francisco Lopez, director of a Sandinista think tank in Managua. Lopez appears to be a practitioner of the kind of phenomenology popular in various anti-American policy circles, whereby any act by a U.S. citizen in Latin America becomes the collective responsibility of the American people, known in shorthand as the CIA. Thus, Lopez hauls out the long-smoldering bones of William Walker, the American freebooter who briefly controlled Nicaragua in 1856—Sandinista historiography does not play up the fact that Walker accomplished this with a grand total of ten men—reestablished slavery, and was then dislodged with help from an embarrassed Washington and subsequently executed. In the Sandinista view, Walker is to U.S. imperialism what John the Baptist is to Christianity: he pointed the way. And as he went, so will go all subsequent U.S. adventures in the region.

The important thing about the Sandinista view of Nicaraguan history is that it puts their country at the center of the world-historical stage, while simultaneously absolving its residents of any responsibility for Nicaragua’s historical development. This makes for some interesting conceptual leaps. Lopez cites the ubiquitous Sergio Ramirez, this time in his role as editor of a book on the eponymous Augusto César Sandino, thusly:

When the Commune of Paris was defeated in 1870, world capitalism made a new push, which included more than ever before marginal countries, like Central America [sic], in the continuous production of raw materials for metropolitan industry.

This may be the first-ever discovery of the link between the defeat of the Paris Commune and the commercialization of the banana.

The millenarian sense of self which this passage evokes is one reason why the Sandinistas have proved so difficult to deal with, particularly when it comes to curtailing their international revolutionary activities. The irony is that if it were not for the Sandinistas’ own insistence on forging East-West links and undermining neighboring governments in the area, U.S. interest in Central America would probably be continuing the long decline epitomized by the give-back of the Panama Canal.

What should the U.S. be doing about the growing swamp that Nicaraguan obduracy has created? Conflict provides no easy answers and, indeed, suffers from a debilitating abstractness when it gets down to hard cases. “The United States should seek to change the existing perceptions not only of many Nicaraguans but also of other Central Americans about the lack of continuity in U.S. policy toward Central America,” the editors say. That includes consistent support for the anti-Sandinista forces. Well, to be sure, but at the moment it is not easy to see how. The editors also argue that “Above all, the U.S. government should insist on the elimination of Soviet-Nicaraguan security ties, even if this were to mean a U.S. acceptance of Nicaragua’s internal order.” But that would be something of a betrayal of the anti-Sandinista forces.

Finally, the editors recommend that if Nicaragua should refuse a deal, the U.S. should resort to unilateral measures like a naval blockade. But that would in turn imply a departure from the multilateral negotiating framework, including the Contadora negotiating process which all sides, including the U.S., claim to support (even though it has done no appreciable good so far).

In short, the editors see a resolution to the current impasse arising only from an even graver crisis of the same kind. And even then, Conflict’s editors are not optimistic. They end their ruminations with a slogan from the Sandinista youth movement: “To learn from the Soviet Union is to learn how to conquer. To learn from the United States is to learn how to retreat.”



That slogan, according to Lars Schoultz, the slightly less than fully articulate author of National Security and United States Policy Toiuard Latin America3 may be fine. It is, after all, only a perception, and Schoultz, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina, is, like many of his academic colleagues, one who believes that U.S. policy toward Latin America can best be divined through the discipline of cognitive psychology. As Schoultz puts it in explaining his enterprise, “What is preceived depends upon the perceptual apparatus, particularly the belief system, of the perceiver.” It is all in the mind, so to speak.

Or at least it is all in someone’s mind. In as close to plain English as he ever comes in this strange work, Schoultz puts forward the argument that “U.S. policy toward Latin America is largely determined by the manner in which one fact, instability, is simplified when it is perceived by U.S. policy-makers; this simplification, in turn, is governed by a series of beliefs about the causes of instability and its consequences for U.S. security.” Schoultz never really defines the term “instability” (at one point he indicates that it is associated with societal violence), but anyway that is not what his book is about. By and large, it is a convoluted attempt to argue the case for complete U.S. passivity.

How Schoultz arrives at this pass is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his enterprise. He claims to have built his picture of the ways in which U.S. policy-makers view the world through more than 200 interviews with such worthies. But it is never quite clear who Schoultz feels is a policy-maker. Sometimes he attributes opinions to anonymous State Department officials, or unnamed military officers at the Pentagon, or in Honduras. Sometimes the policy-makers include legislators such as Senators Edward Kennedy and Christopher Dodd, or Representative Gerry Studds of Massachusetts. They also include a “relatively large number of [congressional] staffers, some of whom occupy important positions in the policymaking process.” They are assuredly a variegated lot: in a single sentence, Schoultz strings together a retired U.S. Army colonel speaking in 1980; a senior State Department official speaking in 1982; a variety of conservative academics writing in the Washington Quarterly in 1980; and an Assistant Secretary of State speaking in 1984.

At one point, while diagramming the beliefs—more accurately, the alleged beliefs—of “liberal and moderate” policy-makers concerning poverty as a cause of instability, Schoultz asks a not unreasonable question:

How . . . is it possible to assert that [a diagram] exists in the minds of U.S. policy-makers if, for whatever reason, the officials themselves do not express the beliefs? The answer—and here is a warning—is that [the diagram] is a product of inference. I sat down with the interview responses and other data from the group of policymakers . . . and I pieced together a modal set of responses.

Another way to put that is to say that Schoultz made it up.

What are the policy responses that Schoultz is massaging in such outré fashion? He asserts that U.S. policy in Latin America has gone through a number of stages of simple binary fission. The first stage was one of cold-war consensus: instability (whatever it is) was the outgrowth of Communism. Then came an era in which policy-makers split on the issue of first causes: Communism or poverty? In Schoultz’s view, this produced an interesting situation in the Kennedy era, in which “one group of officials wanted to shoot the individuals responsible for instability because they were Communists; the other group wanted to provide these Latin Americans with a Food for Peace shipment.” Then, Schoultz avers, came a second mutation, roughly corresponding to the Carter era. A new rupture occurred, between policy-makers “who believe instability is a threat to U.S. security [and] those who believe it is not.” The latter group, Schoultz asserts, is often associated with the notion of “reform-motivated instability,” meaning “no broken eggs, no omelettes.” (Sadly, Schoultz does not give Lenin the credit that is his due for this last formulation.)

Finally, Schoultz arrives at the nub of his neutralist argument. In brisk order he asserts that U.S. concern about Latin America is primarily psychological, a function of geographical proximity that no longer has any meaning in the age of ballistic missiles. Latin America has little strategic significance, he says, and anyway, Latin American countries have never been very good U.S. allies. Soviet submarine bases in the Caribbean, like the one in Cuba, Schoultz states, would be no threat to the U.S., since long-range Soviet missile submarines based in the Soviet Arctic can destroy American targets just as easily.

Schoultz seems to have an answer for everything except why, under the circumstances, the Soviets themselves find it worthwhile to send military advisers to Central America, help to build airfields capable of handling long-range interceptors and medium-range bombers, or establish submarine and other naval facilities. What Schoultz is trying to ignore is the utility of the projection of power itself. It is harmless if the Soviet Union does it, and counterproductive if the U.S. does it: under those circumstances, it is unsurprising that Schoultz feels that what defines Latin American radicals is not their commitment to the East but their “commitment to independence.”



Why are Schoultz’s views worth taking seriously at all, in view of the massive evidence that refutes them? For one thing because, as he himself asserts, other putative policy-makers feel the same way he does. And in fact, a more sophisticated version of many of the same views has been published almost simultaneously with his book. It is called Partners in Conflict and is by Abraham F. Lowenthal,4 a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Southern California. Lowenthal has also been closely associated with the Inter-American dialogue, a private U.S.-Latin American group that serves as a forum and lobby on Latin American issues and which is headed by former U.S. Ambassador Sol M. Lino-witz, chief negotiator of the Panama Canal treaties.

As Lowenthal and Linowitz have done before, Partners in Conflict blames the U.S. for exercising what is usually called the “hegemonic presumption—the belief that Latin America is a rightful sphere of U.S. influence.” Lowenthal hauls out the usual litany of U.S. sins: meddling in Salvador Allende’s Chile; enthusiasm for the 1964 military coup in Brazil; the 1965 intervention in Santo Domingo (which, though Lowenthal does not stress it, has given that country more than twenty years of effective democracy). Then he points to a number of milestones indicating a decline in U.S. hemispheric power: our failure to organize a multilateral peacekeeping force to forestall the Sandinista takeover in Nicaragua; the refusal of fifteen Latin American nations to join the 1980 Olympics boycott in Moscow; Ronald Reagan’s inability to prevent the Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Maivinas islands and Alexander Haig’s humbling failure to rearrange a subsequent mediation.

Lowenthal’s list stops short before Grenada. Still, it is true enough, as he states, that “the decline of U.S. preponderance in the Western Hemisphere has been pervasive and fundamental.” Lowenthal hails that fact, and also pats the Carter administration on the back for its early attempts to go along with the trend (as on the Panama Canal). He also thinks that Carter’s proclaimed tolerance for “ideological pluralism” in the region was a sign of U.S. maturity. By contrast, Lowenthal is harshly critical of the Reagan administration’s harder line, particularly in Central America. And he goes after former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick who in her seminal article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (COMMENTARY, November 1979), castigated the Carterites for undercutting friendly autocratic regimes in Iran and Nicaragua. Says Lowenthal: “If the United States is to protect its interests in the Western Hemisphere on an enduring basis, it must accept the end of U.S. hegemony. The United States must move from a stance of dominance to one of cooperation.”

Unfortunately, Lowenthal’s arguments are filled with the kind of false dichotomies that are designed to fuel partisan debates in advance of U.S. presidential-election campaigns. Lowenthal’s general observations are, by and large, restatements of positions held by the left wing of the Democratic party during the Carter years. He drastically oversimplifies the Latin American policies of the Reagan administration which, after a bumbling start, staggered back toward the center line of traditional U.S. initiatives in the region. The dramatic exception has been policy toward Nicaragua, but the evidence is plentiful that the Carter administration’s pacific, even appeasing, approach to the Sandinistas did not work, and that the policy was already being jettisoned before Ronald Reagan took office.

Another false dichotomy is Lowenthal’s assertion that the U.S. should shrug off its “traditional” security concerns by taking the high road on issues of Latin American trade and development, debt management, the battle against protectionism, and other ills. The U.S. under Reagan is doing, and has done, all of these things: less than some critics would like, and more than others desire. There will always be room to battle over the exact blend. But by trying to argue such an abstract definition of U.S. interests in Latin America to the exclusion of real security concerns, Lowenthal brings the debate back to Clausewitz, and one of his most elegantly concise axioms: war, as he put it, is a “trial of moral and physical force by means of the latter.” And not, as Lowenthal would have it, by means of the former.

Nowhere is the paradoxical quality of Lowenthal’s line of reasoning better highlighted than in the area of human rights. The map of Latin America has drastically changed since the end of the 1970’s. The authoritarian regimes that dotted the map at that time have been replaced by (often shaky) civilian governments. Significantly, two of the major transformations, in Brazil and Argentina, owe little or nothing to U.S. influence. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that Jeane Kirkpatrick made famous proved to be generally valid. With the exceptions of Chile and Paraguay, the authoritarians have gone to ground. In Cuba, meanwhile, Stalinism of the economy is more in vogue than it is in Mikhail Gorbachev’s USSR.

Still another major problem with Lowenthal’s book is that it assumes, as most Latin American national lobbies try to do, that any important changes that are needed in U.S.-Latin relations must come from the U.S. side. The Reagan administration seems as well aware as any other in modern U.S. history that unilateral American power in the hemisphere is declining: that, after all, is what development policy is all about. Beyond Central America, and the Caribbean, cooperation, suasion, and hard-nosed bargaining are already the main U.S. instruments for seeking to further its interests. Unless cooperation means capitulating to Latin concerns, U.S. hegemonism, so-called, already does not exist. Even in Central America, the ultimate security question may well prove to be what the Latin American nations themselves are willing to do to preserve their own security interests.

In that regard, a word needs to be said about Mexican foreign policy. An often overlooked detail is that Mexican aspirations for hegemony in Central America run deep. In some Central American national circles, Mexico is about as popular as Turkey was once in the Balkans. The ways of those hegemonic aspirations are often convoluted: it is an interesting fact that one of the nine Sandinista comandantes, Victor Tirado, is a “naturalized” Nicaraguan, formerly a Mexican, and a former member of that country’s Moscow-line Communist party.



A final Clausewitzian dictum of which Nicaragua’s Sandinista rulers are fully aware is that the absence of war is not peace. As the Prussian strategist acridly observed, aggressors are the most peaceful people in the world: their desire is to take over your territory without firing a shot. Or with as few shots as possible.

John Norton Moore, director of the Center of Law and National Security at the University of Virginia School of Law, has now published a trenchant monograph5 on the use by Nicaragua of “revolutionary internationalism” as a means to subvert the prohibitions of the UN Charter against aggression, as well as of the Charter’s assertion that necessary and proportional force may be used to repel aggressive acts. Norton knows a lot about the topic: he helped to defend the Reagan administration against Nicaragua’s 1984 charge in the World Court that the mining of that country’s Pacific harbors by CIA-directed “assets” was an act of aggression. The U.S. suffered a major public-relations defeat when it suddently withdrew recognition of the Court’s right to rule on the case. The dispute went forward anyway; in 1986 the U.S. lost the case.

In Moore’s view, the U.S. lost a battle it should have won. More importantly, the West in general lost an interpretation of the United Nations Charter, and of the Western Hemisphere’s Rio Treaty of collective self-defense, that specifically covers indirect aggression of the “revolutionary internationalist” type. In his closely argued monograph, Moore asserts that “the insulation of attacking states from defensive response in such settings would be a formula for destruction of the [UN] Charter.” The right of proportional response against such aggressions, he maintains, include the right to launch covert actions against the aggressor. Among other examples he cites the case of Lawrence of Arabia, who in World War I created an insurgency inside the Ottoman empire as part of the Allies’ response to aggression by the Central Powers.

Moore’s main point is that the recent Hague contest was not a legal battle but a propaganda war. On the legal issue, the system of world order summed up in the Charter of the UN and the Organization of American States requires a revindication of the full right of nation-states to respond to covert attack, be it secret guerrilla war, terrorist attack, or externally sponsored insurgency. As he puts it, “world order—and the Charter system—is not an equilibrium mechanism like global climate. It can be preserved only if governments and international institutions, and the men and women behind them, have the vision to understand its importance and the courage and tenacity to fight for its survival.”

That theme is taken up vigorously in Central America and the Reagan Doctrine6 a series of meditations on covert force and counterforce that originally appeared as articles in Strategic Review, the quarterly journal of the Washington-based United States Strategic Institute. In a foreword to this collective effort, Jeane Kirkpatrick draws a distinction between the democratic revolution personified by El Salvador’s President José Napoleon Duarte and the Marxist-Leninist methods of his guerrilla opponents and of revolutionary Nicaragua. “What should we, who live on this continent, do in the face of the penetration of the hemisphere by Soviet imperialism?” she asks. The answer, she evidently feels, lies in the Reagan administration’s evolving support for pro-democratic resistance movements, including the anti-Sandinista rebels. But public understanding of the Reagan Doctrine, she admits presciently, “is still weak.”

An even darker view is presented by Angelo M. Codevilla, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. The Reagan Doctrine, he says, is

one more species of that present-day American phenomenon: the declaratory policy. In normal parlance, policy is the reasonable orchestration of action to achieve certain goals. The qualifier “declaratory” attached to so many U.S. policies, on matters ranging from nuclear targeting to liberation movements, reflects a widespread recognition that they are not policies at all, but rather rhetoric that satisfies some domestic political needs and may contribute to decisions regarding discrete actions in a particular field.

Codevilla thus warns that, particularly as an expression of U.S. national resolve, there may be less to the Reagan Doctrine than meets the eye.

That resolve of some kind is necessary is the thesis of The Bear in the Back Yard by Timothy Ashby,7 a policy analyst for Latin American affairs at Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation. Ashby argues that Soviet adventurism is both cautious and tenacious, but that it can also be reversed in the region if determined action is taken soon.

In Ashby’s view, continued support for the anti-Sandinista resistance forces is key. Actually, Ashby goes further: he calls for a generalized insurrection of anti-Sandinista forces along the lines of the 1979 revolt that brought the Sandinistas themselves to power. Ashby states baldly his belief that

the Sandinista regime can be removed by the force of arms of the Nicaraguan people if given U.S. military assistance. However, if the U.S. Congress is unwilling to commit itself to an unequivocal policy of rendering military and economic assistance to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance forces, direct U.S. military intervention will become inevitable.



Once again, Clausewitz: the point of war is always political, to make the enemy obey your will rather than his own. But first, that will must be known. On the Sandinista side, there is more than ample evidence to show that the regime’s aims are straightforward, and its strategic purpose clear. On the U.S. side, the picture is a great deal murkier. But there is no reason to think, even though some optimists do, that the challenge does not exist, or that it is about to go away.

It will not go away; which is why in the future, if all other means for blunting the Sandinista enthusiasm for hemispheric revolution are forestalled, Reagan’s successor as President—even if he should be a Democrat—may well find it necessary to forge his own military response to the Sandinista pursuit of Leninist “politics by other means.”




1 Edited by Robert S. Leiken and Barry Rubin, Summit Books, 718 pp., $12.95 (paper).

2 Edited by Jiri Valenta and Esperanza Durân, Allen & Unwin, 441 pp., $45.00.

3 Princeton University Press, 365 pp., $42.50.

4 Johns Hopkins University Press, 235 pp., $19.95.

5 The Secret War in Central America: Sandinista Assault on World Order, University Publications of America, 195 pp., $17.95.

6 Edited by Walter F. Hahn, University Press of America, 336 pp., $25.50.

7 Lexington Books, 240 pp., $22.95.

About the Author

George Russell is the executive editor of Fox New Channel.

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