Commentary Magazine

Making Central America Safe for Communism

The decision of the U.S. Congress on February 3, 1988 to suspend military aid to the Nicaraguan resistance closes an entire episode in the history of American foreign policy. Without doubt, it effectively buries what some have called the Reagan Doctrine, and suggests that, whatever lasting changes may have been wrought by Reaganism in the domestic-policy environment these last eight years, the left wing of the Democratic party has finally succeeded in imposing—once and for all—its own foreign-policy agenda on Central America, with potentially broad implications for other areas of the Third World.

A different reading of these events might lead, of course, to a more optimistic conclusion. The congressional vote was followed almost immediately by a cease-fire and negotiations between the two parties to the Nicaraguan civil war, something to which the Sandinistas had long insisted they would never agree. This would seem to be a triumph for multilateral diplomacy, since the impending settlement was designed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, on the basis of consultation with the leaders of four other Central American nations.

The Arias plan essentially seeks to end a regional civil war; to resolve peacefully political conflicts within individual Central American countries; and to end the intervention of the superpowers in the isthmus. It very specifically calls for national reconciliation, amnesty for rebels, and the establishment of democratic institutions. This is a tall order for one diplomatic instrument, sponsored by the chief of state of a country without an army, and therefore—as Arias himself has acknowledged—wholly dependent upon “world opinion.”

History is littered with diplomatic documents which purport to reconcile conflict among nations, or among peoples who would become nations. But the Arias plan pretends to do something even more: to rearrange the political order within countries. For that reason alone, it invites skepticism. For if settlements between contending parties are to take hold, they must be enforced—not merely by control commissions or border forces but by a broader consensus on the desired outcome. This is precisely what is lacking in Nicaragua, and indeed in Central America as a whole. Instead, we have a diplomatic plan underpinned only by a convergence of a single momentary need—to end U.S. support for the Nicaraguan resistance. Beyond that, the partners in this peculiar coalition fall apart. And so do the realities which the Arias plan purports to shape.




Let us begin with the U.S. Congress. It is true, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, that some members of that body are ardent supporters of the Sandinista dictatorship in Managua. But they are few in number; they make no effort to disguise their views; their names are well known to the public. Alone they could never have accomplished their task—to facilitate the consolidation of the second Communist government in the Western hemisphere, and to open the way for the advent of a third. Indeed, Speaker Jim Wright, one of the principal architects of the congressional understanding with President Arias, is on most issues slightly to the Right of Center, at least within his own party. And many of his colleagues who joined with him to terminate further military assistance to the so-called “contras1 have often supported the Reagan administration on military aid to El Salvador in the past, at times—as in the case of Speaker Wright—making a crucial difference.

This suggests that other dynamics are at work, which have little or nothing to do with Central America. The most obvious of these is partisan politics, and in truth the Nicaraguan issue has been a marvelous stick with which to beat the Reagan administration. Repeated polls have shown over several years now that most Americans oppose military aid to the Nicaraguan resistance by majorities running between two and three to one. (They also oppose economic and military aid to El Salvador, and indeed almost every other country, by equally impressive figures.) By presenting Reagan’s policies exclusively in terms of means—that is, weapons and ammunition—as opposed to ends, the Democrats have been able to confuse the public as to the real issues at stake, to exploit strong undercurrents of isolationism, and to seize and hold what passes for the moral high ground.

Moreover, there are active constituencies working for the Sandinistas in almost every congressional district in the country—often operating out of churches or church-related organizations—and they have not been slow to make their influence felt in Washington and in the state capitals, where many legislatures have moved to forbid the participation of U.S. National Guard units in Honduras or anywhere else in Central America.

By way of contrast, there has been no grassroots movement on behalf of the resistance, and hardly any public support of any kind for it. It would be surprising if there were. Americans have no stomach for other people’s civil wars; most still know little or nothing about Nicaragua (or any other country); and what they have been told by the media—particularly the electronic media—is that the resistance is nothing but a bunch of cutthroats, drug dealers, and holdovers from the Somoza regime. Hence, to support it carries a very high price with key Democratic constituencies, as more than one member of Congress has discovered. For example, Representative Les Aspin (D.-Wis.) almost lost his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee over one vote, and it is rumored that partly for the same reason Senator Bill Bradley (D.-N.J.) chose not to enter the 1988 presidential race. Even the Democrats’ putative “centrist” candidate, Senator Albert Gore, Jr., has consistently voted against military aid.



But the Democrats’ approach to Nicaragua also bespeaks a particular cast of mind—a temperament, if you will, clearly shaped by the Vietnam experience and by what some read as the realities of U.S. politics. The operative assumptions are as follows. Foreigners do a better job than we do of defining U.S. security interests, at least when Republicans control the White House. All revolutions are caused by poverty, disease, and hunger. Political forces in other countries which openly espouse Marxism-Leninism will not necessarily impose their ideology if they come to power. Totalitarian governments over time mellow and become tractable and less threatening to their own people and the United States, whereas authoritarian governments do not. Third World governments which ally themselves to the Soviet Union do so because of our policies, which alienate them needlessly. Nonintervention is always the best policy when dealing with hostile Third World states, regardless of the costs and consequences. Conversely, intervention leads to “another Vietnam.” Finally, the victory of “our side” in Third World conflicts (whether in Angola or Nicaragua) is bound to be the worst possible outcome, in moral if not in strategic terms.2

These are positions which are easier to take in opposition than when one is charged with full responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy. Thus they are ready-made for congressional posturing, and also for the political culture of a party which has lost four of the last five presidential elections, bids fair to lose yet another, but continues to be strong at the local level. On the other hand, public opinion in the United States can change rapidly—as the Carter administration learned to its dismay in 1979-80—and throughout 1987 many Democrats were fearful of an up-or-down vote on aid to the resistance, just in case the chickens should come home to roost.

To avoid this eventuality, the Democrats in Congress have long been searching for a deus ex machina. Between 1983 and 1986 it was the Contadora initiative, an omnibus peace proposal sponsored jointly by Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela. Contadora was an undifferentiated laundry list of 21 points, from nonintervention on the one hand to the implementation of democratic practices on the other (as if the two were not contradictory). It held out no possibilities of enforcement, particularly when the sponsoring states were so politically diverse (two of them by no stretch of the imagination democracies in their own right). Above all, the Central American states most immediately concerned with the outcome of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars were reluctant to allow their future to be brokered by the Contadora Four, especially Mexico, which, contrary to what many American liberals have claimed, is heartily distrusted in the isthmus.3

The particular charm of the Arias plan was that it was a Central American document, proposed by the president of the oldest and firmest democracy in the region. Moreover, after much arm-twisting, threats, and blandishments, it was accepted even by the Sandinistas, who could not possibly have liked its provisions for democracy and national reconciliation but who were finally persuaded by their friends in the United States that this was the only way to defeat the Reagan administration. By the time the White House was ready to ask for a vote on new aid to the resistance, Arias had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the congressional Democrats had a ready-made alternative in place. A grand alliance among them, the Sandinistas, the president of Costa Rica, and the Nobel academy was simply too sophisticated a formula to fail. Beyond that, the decision of the resistance leadership to sit down with the Sandinistas seemed to ratify Arias’s vision; if it was good enough for the likes of Adolfo Calero, how could it be bad, even for Ronald Reagan?

Then, in one of the more cynical ploys in the history of congressional politics and foreign policy, 67 members of the House—including such key figures as Representatives Thomas Foley, Tony Coelho, David Bonior, and Dave McCurdy—sent President Reagan a letter urging him to “initiate negotiations with the Soviet Union and the government of Nicaragua leading to the exodus of military personnel, facilities, and materiel from Nicaragua.” Why General Secretary Gorbachev would feel particularly pressed to do this when the United States Congress had just voted that anything—including the presence of Soviet and Eastern-bloc advisers and weaponry in Nicaragua—was more acceptable than pressures to overthrow the government which had invited them in, is one of the major mysteries of the age.4

But the responsibility for the national security of the United States still remains with the White House; apparently Congress has now covered its flank. We now know that it does not favor Soviet expansion in Central America (it has told us!), and if—thanks to President Arias—this nonetheless occurs, failure will be multilateralized, and blame dispersed. This is a new variation on the “decent interval” strategy supposedly practiced in Vietnam, with the very important difference—soon to become apparent—that Central America is two hours’ flying time to the United States.




Though the Arias plan has provisions which apply to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, everyone knows that its real test will be in Nicaragua. There, the fundamental issue is how far the Sandinista regime will go toward permitting pluralism and a semblance of democratic institutions. This outcome and the country’s international alignment are closely related; nobody who knows Nicaragua (or for that matter, any other Latin American country) thinks that its people, even if only narrowly represented through a congress, press, and legal system, would favor joining the Soviet bloc. Thus, from the very beginning of the Sandinista decade, pluralism and nonalignment were seen by the United States under both the Carter and Reagan administrations as more or less mutually reinforcing.

In the worst of cases, this would allow Nicaragua to become “another Mexico”—a shorthand term for a country with a quasi-hegemonic party which permits significant space for opposition publications and movements to operate (though not to challenge its ultimate hold on power), as well as a vigorous private sector. The idea appeals not unnaturally to the Mexican government, but also to other Latin American states and to many U.S. critics of the Reagan administration as well. These include people who periodically (and rightly) express concern over the lack of democratic perfection in El Salvador, but who, when the subject suddenly turns to Nicaragua, lecture us on the burden of history and the lack of a civic tradition such as our own.

The trouble is, the Mexican model appeals to everyone except the Nicaraguans—be they the Sandinistas, the civic opposition, or the armed resistance. The Sandinistas have never been anything but Marxist-Leninists, and cannot imagine any form of “nonalignment” other than that practiced by countries like Cuba, Angola, or the German Democratic Republic. They combine the authoritarianism of traditional Nicaraguan political culture with the ideological certitudes of a victorious revolutionary movement. They suffer from an acute penchant for martyrdom, and in fact derive much of their international importance from baiting the United States. Since they alone cannot threaten us, they must seek an alliance with those who can. To do “business as usual” with Washington as a post-revolutionary regime would undermine their hold on parties, churches, and individuals in Western Europe, Latin America, and (why not say it?) the United States itself—sources from which they have received very considerable amounts of financial and political assistance. It would also force them to justify to their own people the maintenance of an army bigger than all of the other Central American countries combined, and a system of regimentation far more extreme than any ever experienced during more than thirty years of rule by the Somoza dynasty.

But the most important reason the Sandinistas cannot change their stripes is that they have so misgoverned Nicaragua these past nine years that they cannot afford to be challenged even at the margins. This explains why they closed the opposition newspaper La Prensa (as well as Radio Católica) in 1986, and long refused to reopen it even when members of Congress assured them that doing so was the only way to defeat President Reagan’s 1986 aid request. Now that Arias has succeeded where others have failed, one has the right to ask whether a new and sobering pragmatism has finally taken hold in Managua.

There is precious little evidence that it has. True, some political prisoners have been released. However, according to Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights, of the 985 put at liberty last August, 50 were members of the Sandinista military and 200 were prisoners whose sentences were already completed or nearly so. Some 8,000 prisoners remain in confinement. President Ortega has offered to release 3,000 more, provided that they leave the country if a cease-fire is not in effect. As several of the Nicaraguan bishops have pointedly observed, forced exile should not be confused with an amnesty. Meanwhile, the lifting of the emergency decree imposed in March 1982 does not affect such matters as arbitrary arrest and persecution of political defendants, press censorship, or the right to strike.



On March 3—that is, one month to the day after the cutoff of U.S. aid to the resistance—President Ortega announced that the Ministry of Justice would be closed and its functions assumed by the Ministry of Interior. This is the internal-security arm of the government, run by Tomás Borge, generally regarded as the most sinister of the nine-man ruling council. In effect, the last vestiges of judicial independence have been eliminated, and the functions of investigation and punishment collapsed into one.

How this will affect the civic opposition is already apparent in the coarsened texture of Nicaraguan public life. What censorship, exile, and imprisonment have not accomplished these past nine years has been turned over to the so-called turbas—that is, mobs, used brutally to break up opposition gatherings and intimidate anyone who dares to exercise his civic rights. Two particular targets of the turbas have been the January 22 Movement of Mothers of Political Prisoners and the Permanent Commission on Human Rights. But they have also been employed recently to break up opposition demonstrations, including one called by liberal and Communist trade unions protesting wage controls, the military draft, and the closing of factories due to Nicaragua’s increasingly tentative electrical system.5 On March 6, about 100 women marching peacefully to protest the draft were met by 150 club-swinging members of a turba—an incident described by the Washington Post (March 8, 1988) as “the most aggressive use of Sandinista mob violence against the opposition in years.”

Since then a document has come to light enumerating a list of Sandinista objectives for 1988—including the use of “revolutionary terror.” It warns that the prisoner releases in compliance with the Arias plan have created “an explosive potential that is highly dangerous for revolutionary power,” and recommends a policy of firmness, with the army remaining in control of the Sandinista party. “What we cannot permit,” it continues, “is that the true structures of power pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie.” To this end it calls for “all available measures to divide and splinter” the opposition. “At these moments, we cannot renounce the use of revolutionary terror.”

Though the Nicaraguan government immediately disavowed its authenticity, this document, far from being a “crude falsification,” closely resembles in spirit and letter what many Sandinista leaders have said publicly and privately since at least 1979, and is wholly consistent with their actual conduct since then. Indeed, one Sandinista official who reviewed the document told Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times (April 7, 1988) that it looked real enough to him.

At the same time, the interstices of press freedom, which widened to permit the U.S. Congress to vote down aid to the resistance, are closing once again. After fourteen months of silence, La Prensa reopened in September 1987. But by the following April it suddenly and mysteriously ran out of newsprint, which is obtainable in Nicaragua only from the government. The latter’s excuse was that a Soviet ship bringing paper shipments was delayed in arrival at the Pacific port of Corinto, but this did not prevent the two pro-government dailies, Barricada and El Nuevo Diario, from appearing on schedule. Meanwhile, in February and March, meetings of striking workers were broken up by turbas; according to the New York Times (April 14, 1988), one confrontation left two labor organizers dead. Collective bargaining is no longer legal in the newest socialist utopia.

In a climate of this sort, one might well ask why the resistance leaders have nonetheless taken the Sandinistas at their word and chosen to sit down at the conference table with them. The answer is that, having been abandoned by their U.S. allies, they had no choice but to surrender and hope for the best. Those opponents of the regime, old and new, who have never taken up arms against it are less optimistic. A state prosecutor and UN human-rights delegate from Nicaragua, both of whom defected on March 2, accused the Sandinistas of torture, keeping political prisoners, and rigging the judiciary. One even suggested that Nicaragua was at present undergoing a “Stalinist social drama.”

It would be helpful if the Sandinistas would stop acting this way and settle down to becoming the backsliding revolutionary pragmatists that American liberals, congressional Democrats, and President Arias need them to be. It would certainly be therapeutic for the long-suffering Nicaraguan people. But having eliminated the resistance as a military factor, the Arias plan ensures that if the Sandinistas choose to continue on their present course, nothing can be done about it.




Even before the congressional vote in February, it was obvious that once Nicaragua was consigned to its fate, El Salvador would again become a bone of contention in the United States. For one thing, though the Salvadoran armed forces have made important progress in many areas since 1981, they have not liquidated the FDR-FMLN guerrilla movement; for another, though the insurgents are no longer able to mount the kind of offensives that threatened the very existence of the government six years ago, they have reverted to kidnappings, assassinations, and the destruction of productive facilities with considerable celerity and verve. In 1986 alone they inflicted a billion dollars’ worth of damage on the infrastructure; the same year, U.S. aid to the government of El Salvador amounted to about $536 million, mostly for balance-of-payments assistance. Thus, while the government of President José Napoleon Duarte continued to gain ground militarily, it was running fast not even to stand still, but to keep its rate of economic decline from reaching catastrophic dimensions.

The political price fell due on March 20, 1988 when the right-wing Arena party won the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, suggesting that if present trends continue, the next President in 1989 might not be a Christian Democrat like Duarte, but someone drawn from the Right. The party’s best-known personality is Roberto D’Aubuisson, a retired army major frequently and authoritatively accused of involvement with the infamous death squads. He is not, however, the party’s only leader or its most representative member, which suggests that Arena expresses something worthy of serious attention.

This is difficult for many Americans to imagine, since their knowledge of El Salvador, as of most Latin American countries, remains at folkloric levels. Even now, after seven years of extensive reporting on Salvadoran politics in the American media, one can still hear references at public forums in Washington and elsewhere to that country’s “oligarchy” or “sixty families,” as if an entire society could consist only of a handful of haves and an ocean of have-nots. Yet El Salvador possesses a large middle stratum—poor by American standards, but not by its own—which has some stake in the security of property. In no other way could a figure as unappetizing as D’Aubuisson win 44 percent of the vote—as he did in the 1983 presidential election.6

In some ways the Arena party’s advance is in line with the general trend of redemocratization in Latin America—which means not merely that democrats win elections, but that they are challenged effectively by an opposition in subsequent races. Everywhere in the region dissatisfaction with the economic situation has tended to favor the “outs”—even in Argentina, where the Peronists are now poised to recapture the presidency in 1989. El Salvador, of course, is not merely suffering from inflation or unemployment, but is at war; somebody must bear the responsibility for the costs. In addition, the Christian Democrats have imposed land and tax reforms which—whatever their intrinsic moral and political worth—have generated something of a backlash. If El Salvador is to grow as a democracy, it must have the right to sort out its economic and social priorities by deliberation and consensus. Unfortunately, as things stand now, an Arena victory may deprive it of that chance.

The reason is simple. While the political spectrum in El Salvador ranges from violent Left to violent Right, most people are clustered about the immediate suburbs of the Center. But in the U.S. Congress the acceptable alternatives for that country are limited from center Left to far Left. If Arena wins the next election and overturns Duarte’s reforms, it risks losing U.S. military and economic assistance; if the party is artless enough to advance D’Aubuisson as its presidential candidate, loss of American assistance is a virtual certainty.

As with the Left, the Right in El Salvador is divided into political and “anti-political” (or peaceful and violent) communities. It would seem to be in the interests of the United States to see the most civilized elements on both sides prevail within their respective camps. The truth is, however, that even if someone far more respectable than D’Aubuisson—say, Alfredo Cristiani, a prominent businessman and civic leader—should win the presidency on the Arena ticket, he will labor under extraordinary burdens. Yet if it is punished for winning honest elections, Arena will conclude that its efforts to become a serious political force were not worth the candle. And those elements of the Right that believe in participation will lose the upper hand to those preaching and practicing violence.

Even if the Christian Democrats remain in power, El Salvador’s problems with the United States will be far from over. In an environment of growing budgetary stringency in Washington, El Salvador’s huge share of the American foreign-aid budget is bound to be examined critically. Paradoxically, the very policies of populist redistribution by which the Christian Democrats earn respectability in Congress tend to undermine their economic performance at home. At present, U.S. aid policies in El Salvador are mortgaged to politico-military imperatives. As long as the war continues, they cannot be changed, even if they do not work. But given the destruction purposely inflicted by the guerrillas, it is hard to see how there will ever be enough U.S. aid to make a crucial difference.

Consequently, a new Christian Democratic government in 1989 might well be under pressure to negotiate a settlement with the FDR-FMLN, particularly if the Democrats recover the White House. And even if they do not, Congress might tighten economic and military aid in meaningful ways. The term “power-sharing”—the buzzword of the 1981 political season—may regain currency in Washington, apparently offering a cheap exit from an intractable situation.

Certainly the guerrillas would have no incentive not to hold out for the ultimate prize. They have a victorious ally next door who has proved that it is possible to defeat the United States with its own weapons. As Joaquin Villalobos, one of the five guerrilla commanders, told a television reporter on March 8, “The Reagan administration is becoming weaker.” Consequently, he warned, Duarte and his generals “should think things over. Not everything is in their favor. Things are going to change, and there is still time for them to adopt an independent position”—that is, to sever their relationship with the United States.

As for the U.S. policy community, at this point the major reason it sees for remaining in El Salvador is the vast material and moral investment which has already been made. But in the post-Arias era, there will be new and compelling temptations to abandon what many would regard as a lost cause. If, in the eyes of this community, any course of action is better than trying to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, does it not logically follow that anything is also better than trying to prevent the FDR-FMLN from coming to power in El Salvador? At a minimum, someone is going to have to explain why that prospect is enough of a threat to justify at least a half-billion dollars of aid a year, while Nicaragua—armed and trained by the Soviet bloc—is not.




Some of the same questions will have to be asked with regard to Guatemala, where a Christian Democratic government is struggling to carve out a space between a guerrilla movement on the Left and a death-squad Right. It is no secret that one of the main reasons the Guatemalan military finally decided two years ago to convoke elections was the clear understanding that under no other circumstances could the country expect assistance from the U.S. Congress, or for that matter, even from the Reagan administration. But there were positive incentives as well. U.S. officials have long argued that there are better ways to fight Communism than brutality and the wholesale violation of human rights. Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan settlement allows the Guatemalan Right to interpret U.S. policy as a sudden acceptance of the doctrine of “ideological pluralism”—that is, indifference to the internal nature of regimes. If Washington can live with Communism in Nicaragua—some are bound to ask—why should it resent a “strong” government in Guatemala, particularly one aligned with the United States? But if that happens, what will happen to the leverage over Guatemala that two administrations have worked so hard to attain?

In Honduras matters are somewhat different. Central America’s poorest and most backward republic—though Nicaragua under Sandinista leadership may soon compete for the honor—Honduras has never been a major focus of U.S. strategic interest. Its current claim to attention is its geographical location, and its willingness—despite official disclaimers—to allow the resistance fighters to operate from within its borders. The new relationship has by no means been one-sided; Honduras has received far greater prominence in our foreign-aid budget than ever before, and the evident need for political coherence in our Central American policy has made U.S. officials far more interested in the growth of democratic institutions there.

This is no small thing for a country whose history of military rule is as lengthy—though marginally less brutal—than that of Guatemala or El Salvador, The recent outbreak of anti-U.S. rioting in Tegucigalpa can be read in several ways, not the least of which is anger at the prospect of abandonment to the tender mercies of a neighbor heavily armed by another superpower, and naturally thirsting for revenge. It would seem that the United States owes Honduras some security assurances for the role it has played in the past. Since those now seeking to “correct” the policy believe it was wrong and even immoral, why should they wish to reward a co-transgressor? By the same token, however, if U.S. policy is henceforth to be grounded in respect for local political preferences, however undemocratic, why should the Honduran military remain in the barracks?




It is authoritatively reported that Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias fears Ronald Reagan more than he does Daniel Ortega. If that is so, his apprehensions are about to be put sternly to the test, since one of the two will soon leave office while the other decidedly will not. Costa Rica is in many ways an admirable democracy, but one which, like other Central American states, has been steadly losing economic viability. As elsewhere in the region, in the 1970’s it borrowed heavily from private and public capital markets; its public sector is large and often unproductive; it has developed an overblown welfare state based on clientistic and party networks; it suffers from low prices on its exports (coffee, sugar, cotton) and high prices on some vital imports, particularly oil and other raw materials.

The Nicaraguan revolution has only complicated this picture, by breaking up the minimal systemic coherence which made possible the Central American Common Market, and by frightening the private sector, which has shipped massive amounts of capital abroad since 1979. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, Costa Rica has survived for nearly a decade now on international charity, in which the principal donor has been the United States.

In some ways this is logical: the Costa Rican people are the firmest friends the United States possesses in the region, ones of whom we can be proud. Moreover, Costa Rica is the model toward which the United States is trying to build in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a remote eventuality, perhaps, but one worth pursuing. The very existence of a democratic—in fact, social-democratic—commonwealth just across the border from Nicaragua is a terrible threat to the Sandinistas, since it gives the lie to their notion that their own synthesis of perverted nationalism and totalitarianism is the only alternative to death squads and oligarchs.

In addition, Costa Rica is profoundly affected by the course of Nicaragua’s internal life. As former President Daniel Oduber has said, “Whoever loses the civil war in Nicaragua will move to Costa Rica.” If that someone is the Sandinista Directorate, however, Costa Rica is not likely to be the country of choice. As it is, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, a tenth of the population, have already crossed the border. If the Arias plan fails to open up the political system next door, many more will do so.

Unfortunately, President Arias’s approach to the Nicaraguan problem has been to divide the economic and security imperatives as if they had nothing whatever to do with each other. To paraphrase his views and those of his diplomats, it is the obligation of the United States and other Western countries to help make Costa Rica a “zone of peace,” and to provide it with all of the material resources necessary to counteract the effects of a revolutionary threat next door. That threat is serious enough to justify more than $250 million a year in U.S. aid, but not, apparently, to address effectively the root causes of the problem. The European Economic Community has been sufficiently taken by this approach to add its own financial contributions: in the short run, Arias’s tropical Wilsonianism has been quite productive.

This is an act, however, which cannot continue indefinitely. Arias’s chief utility to the Western Europeans—and particularly to the Scandinavian Social Democrats who brokered his premature Nobel Prize—lies in his opposition to President Reagan and the Nicaraguan resistance. Once both have disappeared from the scene, the attention of the Western Europeans is bound to wander. At any rate, their own interests in the region are exceedingly limited, and unlikely to grow. This will be particularly true if the U.S. policy community becomes firmly convinced that Central America is irrelevant to our security—a position already embraced by the two remaining presidential candidates of the Democratic party.

Costa Rica thus faces the possibility that in the fairly near future it will find its share of the U.S. foreign-aid budget reduced, not out of pique over the Arias plan, but simply because all such appropriations are inevitably security-driven. Arias’s ultimate legacy to his country may be not a generous American pension but geopolitical irrelevance and, with it, a reduced relationship with the United States. This prospect is more serious than Arias knows: Nicaragua’s dictatorship—like its model in Cuba—can survive indefinitely on guns and police technology alone; Costa Rica’s democracy must do better by its own people.




Finally, something must be said about the Reagan administration’s mishandling of Central American issues. From the very beginning it should have explained to the public the interconnected nature of the region—that what happens in Nicaragua cannot but affect El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras. Instead, it backed into Nicaragua via El Salvador. The Sandinistas having revealed their true colors, diplomatic relations should have been broken and a trade embargo established early on.

Above all, the geopolitical factors should have been clearly explained. Since 1979, the Soviets have delivered over $2.5 billion in military aid to Nicaragua, more than half since 1985—a huge investment from a country which we are continually assured is heavily overextended internationally and, above all, “not interested” in Central America. But putting these facts clearly on the table might have interrupted progress toward a summit, and so they were relegated to a minor role. This made it possible for others to represent the U.S.-Nicaraguan imbroglio as nothing more than a spat—as one veteran journalist put it piquantly—between “gringos and spics,” or between a declining superpower and a petulant former client state, when it was really between the United States and the countries whose support the Sandinistas have enlisted—the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Libya, as well as quasi-political communities like the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Central Intelligence Agency under the late William Casey failed to take Congress into its confidence, and in so failing, made it impossible to coopt Senators and Congressmen who might have listened to reason. Then, by going through the back door—a procedure which, given the stakes and also the number of intermediaries through which covert aid would have to pass, was bound to be discovered—the administration gave its opponents an issue with which to distract public attention for the whole 1987 legislative year.7

In addition to all this, the President’s overheated rhetoric made it difficult to convince the public. It should not have been necessary to attribute to the resistance leaders the virtues of the American Founding Fathers; they should simply have been defended on their own merits, and as compared with the people they were fighting (and their allies). Characteristically, the best speech the President ever made appealing for aid to the resistance was drafted by a dissident Democrat who formerly ghosted for Vice President Walter Mondale. The Democrats in general have behaved with near-criminal irresponsibility; but with better policy management in the White House, they would have been less tempted to do so, and some of the more serious figures in the party might have been brought on board.




When ABC’s Ted Koppel asked President Arias what he would recommend if the Sandinistas did not abide by the cease-fire agreements, he responded, “Well, let us hope that that does not happen.” Clearly, President Arias cannot contemplate the possibility, for where would that leave him? In the new context of a multilateral settlement, any finding that the Sandinistas were guilty of serious violations (including with respect to their promises for internal pluralism) would have such far-reaching political implications as to be inadmissible. The evidence would have to be fudged, or denied, or questioned in such a way that nothing could be done about it. According to some administration insiders, President Arias harbors hopes that in such an eventuality the United States would rescue him from his dilemma by defining matters clearly and taking action; he may be in for a shock.

And this brings us back to our initial point. If the Reagan Doctrine is dead, then apparently the purpose of American foreign policy is to avoid involvement in conflict in the Third World. Under the new dispensation the promotion of democracy remains desirable, but only in countries allied to the United States; in the event that they pass into the Soviet orbit, nothing must be done to disturb the new status quo, however regrettable it might be—not only nothing involving American troops, but not even anything involving proxy forces or local allies.

This would seem to be a recipe for making the world safe for Communism. It is unclear how long such a policy can continue without exacting sharp, even catastrophic political costs both at home and abroad. But the stage is now set for us to find out.




1 This term, drawn from the word “counterrevolutionary,” is accurate only if one believes that the Sandinistas have the exclusive right to be called revolutionaries in Nicaragua. It suggests, among other things, that the resistance fighters are trying to restore an old order—somewhat similar to the Somoza regime. This is surely not possible, even were the resistance fighters to wish it. But more to the point, it links forces (as opposed to individual personalities) with the Somoza dictatorship which either had no political existence in that era, or were actually opposed to the status quo.

2 The only exception has been support for the Afghan guerrillas, partly no doubt because it is not possible to deny the nature of Soviet involvement in that country, and partly, too, because no one thinks that if the rebels had failed, the United States would have been inclined to send its own men in after them.

3 One of the more dishonest (or perhaps ignorant) assertions of critics of the Reagan administration during the early 1980's was that Mexico somehow knew the region better than we, and had the right to replace the United States as the major external player there. Mexico's interventionist pretensions are strongly resented in Guatemala, and its efforts along with France to recognize the Salvadoran guerrillas as a “representative political force” in 1982 drew a vehement response not only in Central America but throughout the Latin American continent.

4 See Joshua Muravchik, “How Not to Drive a Hard Bargain on Nicaragua,” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 1988.

5 As in Nasser's Egypt, the Soviets have chosen to sacrifice their local affiliate—the Nicaraguan Socialist party—for an alliance with a more successful revolutionary leadership.

6 He might have won even more had the United States (or rather, the Central Intelligence Agency) not covertly invested $1 million in Duarte's campaign, a fact somewhat inopportunely revealed by Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) shortly afterward.

7 An entire book needs to be written about the way some senatorial staffers worked hand-in-glove with leftist journalists in Costa Rica and elsewhere to inflate the “Contragate” scandal far beyond its merits. The point is that the Reagan administration should have realized long ago that there are too many forces arrayed against covert action to enter into it without a minimum of congressional support.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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