Critics of Ronald Reagan argue that American influence is now on the wane in Latin America—as indeed it is—because the Reagan administration was too interventionist, too eager to apply American power unilaterally and to meddle in Latin American affairs, particularly in Nicaragua and Panama. Yet if ever there was a case where political decisions at home, and not “imperial overstretch,” undermined American power abroad, it is in Latin America.
The decisive battle of recent years over Latin American policy occurred on February 3, 1988. The vote in Congress that day against aid to the Nicaraguan resistance—the so-called contras— was more than just another in a series of close calls that might soon be reversed again. It was the first and greatest triumph scored by a newly powerful foreign-policy faction in the Congress—call it Left-liberal—which sought not just to defeat the Reagan administration’s policy toward Nicaragua in particular and Central America in general, but to replace it with a quite different policy of “nonintervention” and withdrawal.
But this noninterventionist approach represents more than a dramatic departure from Reagan’s policy. It is also a departure from what was once a notably Democratic and “liberal” policy toward Latin America—the policy that was most clearly articulated and most fully implemented during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Unlike the Eisenhower administration before it, which regarded the rightist regimes in Latin America as the most reliable bulwark against the spread of Communism there and which refused to take any action that might destabilize them, the Kennedy administration made an active effort to promote democracy in Latin America. To be sure, Kennedy’s goal was no different from Eisenhower’s: he too wanted to defeat Communism. Indeed, to understand his priorities one need only recall his statement to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. about the Dominican Republic in 1961:
There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo [dictatorship], or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.
Nevertheless, Kennedy and his advisers sought an approach that was more in keeping with American democratic ideals, that mirrored the image of progressivism in Kennedy’s domestic policies, and, most importantly, that could compete successfully (as Eisenhower’s policies had failed to do in Cuba) with what seemed to be the increasingly powerful attraction of Communism.
This approach was interventionist by design. Kennedy wanted to support democratic leaders like Betancourt in Venezuela and Figueres in Costa Rica, promote liberal reform where possible, and back up the policy with economic carrots and sticks. Thus, although occasionally tolerant of military or civilian dictators, he frequently severed diplomatic relations, withheld economic assistance, and publicly attacked countries where military coups had occurred, insisting on a rapid return to democratic government. And because, in the words of one key adviser, “good wishes and economic plans do not stop bullets or hand grenades or armed bands,” the Kennedy administration gave military assistance to friendly governments and used force and the threat of force against unfriendly ones.
In the most notorious case, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, Kennedy showed no hesitation in using force unilaterally against a Communist government.1 Kennedy also used force, even “gunboat diplomacy,” in the Dominican Republic. After the assassination of the Dominican dictator Trujillo, in 1961, Kennedy sent eight American ships with 1,800 Marines to sail off the coast of Santo Domingo, in an effort to support a transition to democracy and prevent the return of Trujillismo in the person of the late dictator’s son. As Schlesinger describes it:
Given the ingrained Latin American hatred of gunboat diplomacy, this course involved obvious risks. On the other hand, it would be, for once, Yankee intervention to sustain a democratic movement rather than to destroy it, and the President was prepared to take his chance.
And, as it turned out, the action led to a coup against the younger Trujillo, who fled the country.
The Kennedy administration, in short, employed all available means not only to fight Communism but—both as part of that fight and for its own sake—to support democracy; and except for the Bay of Pigs failure, it did so without apology. In the eyes of the administration, the belief that it was working on the side of democratic progress in Latin America justified widespread intervention, and so did the equally powerful belief that intervention on behalf of democracy was the best way to defeat Communism in the hemisphere.
But all this changed when Lyndon Johnson became President in 1963. As the principal Latin American policy-maker under Johnson stated the new policy:
We cannot put ourselves in a doctrinaire strait-jacket of automatic application of sanctions to every unconstitutional regime in the hemisphere with the obvious intention of dictating internal political developments in other countries.
In spite of the noninterventionist ring of this statement, however, the Johnson administration for all practical purposes did intervene in Latin America—on the side of the authoritarian Right. Thus Johnson did nothing to harass the increasing number of military dictatorships in Latin America, and when in 1964 there was a military coup against a Left-leaning President in Brazil, he recognized the new government within forty-eight hours. Then, a year later, in the Dominican Republic, Johnson intervened even more directly on the side of the Right.
After Kennedy’s successful use of “gunboat diplomacy” to oust Trujillo’s son, the transition to democracy in the Dominican Republic had culminated in the election of the leftist democrat, Juan Bosch, as president. But Bosch had then been overthrown by a military-backed junta. In April 1965, his supporters launched a military insurrection, the violence of which threatened the safety of Americans. Johnson responded by sending in the Marines, later claiming that he had also averted a Communist takeover in the Dominican Republic.
Johnson’s action set off a political explosion in the United States and particularly within the liberal wing of the Democratic party where it was believed that he had reversed Kennedy’s approach—though, ironically, in a little over a year, internationally-supervised elections returned the Dominican Republic to democratic rule, which it has maintained ever since.
If Johnson was not going to continue the Kennedy approach, his Republican successors certainly had no intention of doing so. Although they had a greater tolerance for new, Left-leaning goverments, and except for the special case of Chile from 1970 to 1973, Presidents Nixon and Ford pursued an Eisenhower-style policy of “nonintervention” in Latin America. As in the days of Eisenhower (and Roosevelt and Truman as well, for that matter), the United States wanted allies where it could find them, which meant good relationships with existing governments of whatever political stripe. As it happened, dictatorships were then in the ascendant in Latin America.
For this and other reasons, the anti-Americanism of the Latin Left grew during the Nixon and Ford years. Failed expectations after the Kennedy years, the rise of a “Third World” and “North-South” consciousness, the fall of Allende in Chile, and the obvious weakness of the United States as it painfully extricated itself from Vietnam—all contributed to a breakdown in the good relations that had been developed under Kennedy between the United States and the democratic Left throughout Latin America.
The hostility of Latin democrats, in turn, affected ideological and political struggles in the United States, convincing some Americans—mostly conservatives—that the Latin democratic Left could not be trusted, and others—mostly liberals—that the United States was once again on the wrong side of history.
By the early 1970’s, however, liberal perceptions of what it meant to be on the right side of history had changed dramatically. Kennedy’s policies had assumed that the United States had a necessary and beneficial role to play in advancing the cause of democracy in Latin America. Vietnam destroyed such confidence in American capabilities and intentions. When former Kennedy officials turned against the Vietnam war, many also turned against their own policy of American activism, in Latin America and elsewhere. Isolationism became an important ideological strain in the Democratic party; unlike the Republican isolationism of earlier days, which feared the United States would be sullied by involvement in the world, the new Democratic isolationists believed the world would be sullied by us.
By the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, there was little consensus within the Democratic party on Latin American policy other than a strong tendency toward a noninterventionist “multilateralism.” Of course Carter’s human-rights policies led to a unique form of interventionism that frequently contradicted his overall approach. Yet even while the United States under Carter attacked Latin dictators by reducing or cutting off aid, it did little to promote internal political reform. True, under pressure from the Carter administration one or two dictatorships promised to hold elections some time in the future. But by and large the pattern was that authoritarian allies under assault by Communist forces could expect criticism from the United States, but neither sufficient American opposition to topple them nor sufficient help to sustain them. As for the democratic Left in those countries, it could expect sympathy, but not actual support.
The contradictory impulses of Carter’s Latin America policy came to a head-on collision in Nicaragua. Nicaragua under Somoza posed the classic problem that the Kennedy approach had been designed to address. An unpopular right-wing dictator faced a broad political opposition including key figures of the democratic middle class and a Communist insurgency seeking an armed victory. It was Cuba all over again. Nor did most key Carter officals have any doubts either about the goals of the Sandinistas or the importance of stopping them. According to one of those officials, Robert Pastor:
The Carter administration had foreseen the possibility of a Sandinista victory about a year before it occurred. Viewing the key Sandinista military leaders as Marxist-Leninists who admired Cuba and despised the United States, the administration aimed to preclude a military victory by the Sandinistas but not to support Somoza, who was seen as indefensible.
Other Carter officials, like Assistant Secretary of State Viron Vaky, believed the United States should intervene in support of a non-Communist, democratic alternative to Somoza. Writes Pastor:
Vaky thought only the United States could solve the problem of Somoza, and that it should use whatever force necessary—barring assassination—to remove him. . . . Otherwise the situation would polarize even further, increasing the probability of a Marxist victory.
But Carter, says Pastor, “did not believe that the United States should engage in a policy of changing the governments of small nations”; instead, he sought a “multilateral” solution in which Latins would take the lead in brokering a negotiated settlement. Thus, throughout most of the growing crisis in Nicaragua, Carter opposed all practical forms of U.S. involvement beyond innocuous diplomatic mediation.
When the Carter administration would not move against Somoza, governments and parties of the Left throughout Latin America nevertheless went ahead and supported the Sandinistas, giving them not only guns and money but ultimately political legitimacy as well. In the end, they disregarded the United States and relegated it to the role of spectator to a wholly Latin solution of a Latin problem. As in Cuba two decades earlier, the Latins did their job in getting rid of the right-wing dictator and left it to the United States to worry about the Communists they had helped put in power.
And once again, a Communist victory forced a reevaluation of U.S. policy and the abandonment of noninterventionism. Like Eisenhower before him in Cuba, Carter scrambled to put together a non-Communist coalition in Nicaragua in the waning days before the Sandinista victory. His eleventh-hour intervention into Nicaraguan politics, however, was also too little and too late. At this point, Carter once again reversed course and began to provide support to the new Sandinista government.
What lay behind the reversal was both ideological conviction and electoral politics. Open hostility to the Sandinista government would have been an admission of defeat, not only for Carter, but for the Democratic party’s new noninterventionist, multilateralist policies. Left-liberal Democrats were not prepared to make such a concession. They had railed for years against America’s “inordinate fear of Communism.” Just a few years earlier, many of them had argued that a Communist victory would be better for the Vietnamese people than a victory by U.S.-backed forces. Now they hailed the Sandinista victory over Somoza as the just triumph of nationalists who would end social and economic inequities in Nicaragua and repair the damage done by more than a century of U.S. interventions. The Left-liberal Democrats considered the Sandinista victory their victory as well, and they did not want to see it undone, either ideologically or militarily.
The pervasiveness of the Left-liberal view on Nicaragua in the news media and in academia gave Carter a unique opportunity to try and limit the political damage. Eisenhower, after years of vitriolic anti-Communism, could not conceal his failure in Cuba. But Carter and the liberal Demmocrats, after years of dismissing the Communist threat, could try to change the perception of theirs.
Yet while their chief reason for pursuing the new policy was to avoid a loss in the political and ideological battle, they justified it as an effort to reform the Sandinistas. With economic aid and friendly relations, they said, they could cajole the victorious Sandinistas into acceptable international and internal behavior. Pastor has put it best: “Instead of trying to lift the ‘mask of democracy’ from the faces of the Sandinistas to show they were really Communists, it would be better to try to take the mask seriously—at face value, so to speak—and by doing so, try to graft the mask to their faces.”
The Sandinistas themselves, however, did not prove to be the best allies in executing the “mask of democracy” strategy. Not only did they continually speak of their commitment to Marxism-Leninism, but after their victory, they moved quickly in classic Marxist-Leninist fashion to consolidate power in Nicaragua, unifying the Sandinista party and the army, ensuring that party officials held most of the key positions of power, and shunting aside the “bourgeois” elements they had earlier embraced. When it was discovered that the Sandinistas were also bent on exporting their revolution by sending arms to the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas in El Salvador, Carter, in one of the final acts of his presidency, was forced to suspend aid to Nicaragua.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his top priority in Latin America was stopping Communism, and Reagan officials were determined to succeed where Carter had failed. Indeed, they had as much contempt for Carter’s policies as the Kennedy administration had felt for Eisenhower’s. But the Reagan administration was divided over the best strategy to use in Latin America, in part because contradictory lessons were drawn from Carter’s failures. One view was that the human-rights policy had weakened allied governments and opened the way to totalitarian forces, as had happened, some argued, in Iran as well as Nicaragua. For many conservatives, this pointed to the desirability of a return to Eisenhower’s policy of supporting anti-Communist regimes even if they were authoritarian and of refusing to intervene on the side of democracy. But for some others the lesson was that intervention to promote democratic change, in the Kennedy manner, was essential to prevent a Communist victory.
In the early years, the first view prevailed: the administration’s relationships with the military regimes in Argentina and Chile generally followed the Eisenhower tradition. At first, too, the policy of supporting the Nicaraguan contras against the Sandinistas also fit the same mold, as was evident in the rightist military orientation of the early contra leadership and the assistance then provided to it by the Argentineans.
The turning point came as a result of events in El Salvador, where, in the first great test of Reagan’s policies in Latin America, the Kennedy approach won out. The reason was that anti-Communist noninterventionism had been all but ruled out by events in El Salvador.
To fight Communism in El Salvador required American advisers, trainers, and military equipment. Yet Congress had not approved such an intervention since Vietnam. Even arguments on national-security grounds had not been enough to sustain anti-Communist policies in most areas of the Third World. But what the Reagan administration learned in the debate over El Salvador was that support for democracy could overcome congressional resistance. It was Reagan’s backing of the leftist Christian Democratic party headed by Jose Napoleón Duarte that succeeded in building a bipartisan coalition in favor of training, advising, and financing a war against the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador. In the House of Representatives, that coalition included almost the entire Republican membership and about 50 Democrats, mostly Southern conservatives, including Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas.
Thus, after a lapse of two decades, it was a conservative Republican President, Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in recreating at least a modicum of support within the Democratic party for John F. Kennedy’s abandoned approach to Latin America.
The new approach in El Salvador worked. It dealt a severe blow to the guerrillas while simultaneously allowing democratic reforms to go forward. It found and sustained that democratic Center which had been lost in Cuba and Nicaragua.
Thanks to this success, what began in El Salvador as an isolated strategy gradually came to dominate Reagan’s policy toward Latin America. To the surprise of many, Reagan did not abandon Carter’s emphasis on human rights, but eventually integrated it into his own Kennedyesque strategy. Carter had attacked human-rights violations only with words and gestures of dissociation; Reagan was willing to go further—to intervene, and to back efforts to defend human rights and democratic reforms with American influence, money, and arms.
Reagan, like Kennedy, took office at a time when the cycle in many Latin countries was turning back toward democracy. Military rulers were replaced by elected civilians in Ecuador (1979), Peru (1980), Bolivia and Honduras (1982), Argentina (1983), El Salvador (1984), Brazil and Uruguay (1985), and Guatemala (1986). Not even the heyday of democracy in the first two years of the Kennedy administration could compare either in breadth or longevity with the democratic trend of the 1980’s.
The spread of democracy itself reinforced the interventionist tendency in the Reagan administration, which in turn came to stake a great deal, politically and ideologically, on the continued success of democracy in the hemisphere. After Elliott Abrams became Assistant Secretary of State for the region in 1985, the administration took increasingly strong stances against the few remaining dictatorships in Chile, Paraguay, Haiti, and Panama. Conversely, when threats of military coups arose against democratically-elected presidents, the administration used its influence to protect the regime—even when, as in the case of Peru’s Alan Garcia, the president in question was outspokenly hostile to the United States. The Reagan administration also helped prevent coups against Guatemala’s President Cerezo in 1986 and Argentina’s President Alfonsín in 1987.
If, as some claim, there is a cyclical alternation between periods of dictatorship and periods of democracy in Latin America, it may well be that averting coups in these three countries disrupted the cycle. It is also possible that these American interventions deterred other would-be plotters in the region, since there has not been a single successful coup against a democratically-elected president in the Western hemisphere during the Reagan years. (Coups in Panama and Haiti were against regimes of dubious legality or legitimacy.)
The success of democracy in Latin America, however, did not solve the problem posed by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, which over time became the overriding preoccupation of the administration.
To begin with, Reagan pursued a tougher version of the Carter policy toward the Sandinistas. Thus in 1981 he sent Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders to Managua to offer an agreement under which the United States would pledge not to intervene in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, and would renew economic aid and expand cultural relations, in exchange for a Sandinista commitment to cease the military build-up and stop supporting foreign insurgencies. But when the Sandinistas rejected Enders’s offer, the Reagan administration decided that the only alternative was to support armed insurrection against them. The problem was how to win congressional support for such a policy.
In these early years a consensus in Congress could be achieved only in opposition to Sandinista support for the Salvadoran guerrillas, about which even the Carter administration had complained. The Reagan administration, therefore, limited its stated goals to the interdiction of arms shipments and pressure on the Sandinistas to stop meddling in El Salvador. The early Boland amendments, which forbade aiding the contras for any other purposes, reflected this political consensus.
But it was a consensus too fragile to survive its first test, the American mining of the Nicaraguan harbors. The mining was a political disaster. With its resonances of Nixon and Vietnam, it embarrassed many pro-contra Congressmen, and the tenuous coalition broke down in the spring of 1984. In an effort to maintain even minimal congressional support, the administration agreed to several rounds of talks with the Sandinistas in Manzanillo, Mexico, which, predictably, again produced no results.
In these early years, the Latin democratic Left was also trying to find a way to cope with the Sandinistas. Most of the Sandinistas’ former democratic allies were at least privately disenchanted. Some had even begun to help anti-Sandinista forces. Costa Rica once again served as a transshipment point for arms and as a strategic base, this time for anti-Sandinista forces on the southern front. Honduras provided even greater assistance to the U.S.-backed contras in the North. Duarte and the Salvadoran military also helped. Even Carlos Andrés Préz of Venezuela provided assistance to contra leader Edén Pastora, while continuing Venezuela’s own efforts to moderate Sandinista behavior.
At the same time, however, the Latin Left remained opposed to U.S. intervention. In January 1983, the Contadora Group of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama began its efforts to make peace in the region without U.S. involvement.
In tandem with the domestic political defeat it had suffered as a result of the mining scandal, opposition to its policy in Latin America itself gradually forced the Reagan administration to make an adjustment. Key Reagan officials now concluded that the only way to win support for the contras was to repeat the El Salvador strategy and make democracy in Nicaragua the goal of American policy. Accordingly, from the end of 1985 through 1987 the administration pressed the contras to reform, as it had earlier pressed the Salvadoran military, and sought to attract new elements from the Nicaraguan democratic Left to replace the military men and right-wingers who had formed the original core of the contra leadership. Arturo Cruz, Alfonso Robelo, and later Alfredo Cesar—all former allies of the Sandinistas—now joined the contras, enhancing their appeal to a broader spectrum of the Nicaraguan population. With the changes in leadership, the swelling numbers of peasants and former Sandinistas in the contra ranks, and the new democratic objectives of Reagan’s policy, the contras evolved from a purely military force into a broadening political movement.
While shifting its stated goals from interdiction to the establishment of democracy, the Reagan administration also stepped up its campaign to unmask the Sandinistas. Reagan officials attacked efforts by the liberal Left to portray the Sandinistas as democrats and took pains to document the expansionist character of the Sandinista regime.
Yet even as it worked at tearing away the “mask of democracy,” the administration continued to profess in public what most of its officials privately believed to be untrue—that there could be an acceptable negotiated settlement with the Sandinistas. That was the price the administration thought it had to pay for renewed congressional approval of humanitarian aid to the contras in 1985. Ultimately this would prove to be an even higher price than the administration had imagined.
In the meantime, however, the new strategy of the administration worked remarkably well. In 1986 Congress voted by a slender margin to provide $100 million in military assistance to the contras. Reagan had thus managed to win congressional support both for a defensive war against Communism in El Salvador and for an offensive war against Communism in Nicaragua.
Within a year of the vote on military aid, the contra policy had proved successful beyond most expectations, although the extent of the threat posed by the contras to the survival of the Sandinista regime is still the subject of hot debate. A well-informed Sandinista defector, Major Roger Miranda, believed at the end of 1987 that the war had reached a stalemate. But he also said that if the contras could open a front in the urban areas, the Sandinistas could eventually be defeated. If aid had been renewed, the contras could have tested that theory.
But it was not to be. By the beginning of 1987, the congressional coalition in support of the contras had once again begun to break apart. First came the 1986 congressional elections, when the Republicans lost five seats in the House, as well as control of the Senate. Then the Iran-contra scandal that broke in November 1986 covered the contra policy with opprobrium and gave the Democrats an opportunity to undermine the foreign policy of a Republican President as an election approached. More significantly, the scandal opened the door for the anti-interventionists in the Democratic party to undo their recent defeat and to launch a counterattack.
This counterattack put great pressure on centrist and conservative Democrats to abandon the pro-contra coalition. Yet the core of support for the contras within the conservative wing of the Democratic party remained surprisingly strong. By the summer of 1987, the contra policy was not nearly so dead as everyone had predicted it would be.
This placed the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, in a difficult position. He had been a leading member of the pro-democratic, anti-Communist coalition on El Salvador in 1984, and (as everyone, including the liberal wing of his own party, knew) only a pro-forma opponent of aid to the contras in 1986. But because of the scandal, the impending election, and the unprecedented opportunity to destroy the Republican hold on the presidency, Wright could not let the administration off the hook. Neither, however, could he altogether abandon his fellow Southern conservatives.
This conundrum probably explains why Wright made the deal he did with Reagan in the summer of 1987. Under that deal, Reagan agreed to forgo contra aid if the Sandinistas would agree to begin talks with the contras, end restrictions on freedoms in Nicaragua, and greatly reduce all ties with the Soviet Union; and Wright agreed implicitly to support contra aid if the Sandinistas rejected the deal.
At that point, however, Costa Rica’s new president, Oscar Arias, came along to provide Wright with a better answer to his problem. Arias, a committed anti-interventionist, wanted to end U.S. support for the contras. To remove the rationale for that intervention, he set out to restore the “mask of democracy” to the face of the Sandinistas. The Arias plan, taking the administration up on its expressed willingness to accept a negotiated settlement that would emphasize democratic reform in Nicaragua, called for such reform at the same time that it called for a cut-off of U.S. aid to the contras. But the timing and enforcement of the democratic provisions were vague, which made it easier for the Sandinistas to pretend to comply than the Wright-Reagan agreement did. The latter plan, moreover, had all but committed the Speaker personally to support contra aid if the Sandinistas failed to fulfill the terms, while under the Arias plan the only obligation for anyone in the U.S. was to cut off aid to the contras at the appropriate moment. Whether Left-liberal Democrats suggested this strategy to Arias, or he suggested it to them, the Arias plan was the best way to defeat Reagan and the contra policy without forcing Jim Wright to choose openly between the conservatives and the liberals in his own party. No wonder, then, that Wright abandoned his own peace plan in favor of Arias’s.
Yet, for all its attractions, the Arias plan was not easy for the Sandinistas to accept. The plan would require them to go through all the motions of reform in a repetition of the “tercerista” strategy that had helped bring them to power in 1979; but this time, fooling the international bourgeoisie would be more difficult than before. Moreover, to change course now might result in the establishment of the internal political opposition the Sandinistas most feared. And even then, how could they be sure that Reagan would not, after all, find a way to finance the war against them?
But the Democrats assured the Sandinistas that even a minimal compliance with the peace agreement would kill contra aid, end the war quickly, defeat Reagan, and banish the threat of U.S. intervention once and for all. Conversely, turning down the Arias plan would be the best way to help Reagan. And so the Sandinistas agreed to the Arias plan.
The other three Central American presidents—Duarte, Cerezo, and Azcona—also agreed to the plan, for a variety of somewhat confused reasons. In part, they believed that its democratic provisions satisfied U.S. demands; in part, they believed that the Reagan administration, because of Iran-contra, was giving up on the resistance and was now willing to negotiate with the Sandinistas; in part, they, like the pro-contra Democrats in Congress, had been embarrassed by the Iran-contra revelations and were looking for a way to avoid the international opprobrium of having participated not only in a U.S. intervention in Central America, but in an “illegal” one at that.
From the time the Arias plan was adopted, both the Left-liberal Democrats and Jim Wright refrained from criticizing the Sandinistas. Yet after signing the agreement, the Sandinistas violated it by arresting opposition leaders, violently breaking up meetings and rallies, and threatening the reopened newspaper La Prensa. At the end of 1987, the Defense Minister, Humberto Ortega, also confirmed Sandinista intentions to build a 600,000-man army, agreements with Cuba and the Soviet Union for future large arms transfers (including Soviet Mig fighters), and plans for the future training and supply of the Salvadoran guerrillas.
Nevertheless, whenever Sandinista behavior stirred efforts in Congress to renew contra aid, the Democrats and Arias called for further efforts at peace and argued that now was not the time for military assistance.
What, asked the Washington Post editorial page in response to this position, “is Mr. Wright really doing?”
Mr. Wright fashions himself as a disinterested arbiter, a super-diplomat. Actually, he is the leader of the political element that took the military card out of the hands of the contras, even while the Sandinistas’ military card remained very much available to them. In his advice to the two sides not to reopen the war, he speaks as one who has the power—and the demonstrated willingness to use it—to enforce his will on the rebels but who has not shown a similar power (or disposition?) to enforce his will on the regime.
The answer to the Post’s question was that Wright was doing what he had to, given the decision he had made a year earlier. He was acting as the point man for the liberal-Left faction of his party whose aim throughout the 1980’s was to defeat Reagan’s pro-democratic, anti-Communist interventionism in Central America and to withdraw U.S. influence from the region. By defeating aid to the contras, as he finally did on February 3, 1988, Wright accomplished that goal.
The saddest part of the whole story is that democracy had come so much farther in the 80’s than ever before. If the United States had maintained its support of democracy in Nicaragua, the momentum would have continued; perhaps the political cycle in Latin America might have been broken and democratic regimes might have been firmly established. As things now stand, however, the Communist guerrillas, the right-wing military, and the Noriegas have been given new reason for thinking that the United States is impotent and that the fragile democracies of Latin America are once again ripe for the picking.
For the truth is that few Latin American nations are strong enough to resist these evils without American assistance. That is why the only policy with any chance of success against them is the one that showed so much promise during the Kennedy administration and then under Ronald Reagan—the policy of vigorous intervention on behalf of democracy.
1 Schlesinger's opinion of the Bay of Pigs failure at the time is worth recalling in light of his very different position in today's debate over Central America. He had opposed the operation on the ground that the possible damage to the President outweighed the chances for success, but he did not believe “the notion of sponsoring an exile attempt to overthrow Castro [was] intolerable in itself. . . . The rigid nonintervention argument had never deeply impressed me. The United States had a proud tradition of supporting refugees against tyranny in their homelands. . . . Few of those who expressed indignation at aid to the opponents of Castro would have expressed equal indignation if in 1958 the American government had given identical aid to Castro against Batista; nor would they have objected in April 1961 to aid for the democratic Dominicans against Trujillo. Moreover, in a world shadowed by Communism, the pure theory of nonintervention had even less force.”