While American attention in the past year has been focused on other matters, developments of great potential importance in Central…
While American attention in the past year has been focused on other matters, developments of great potential importance in Central America and the Caribbean have passed almost unnoticed. The deterioration of the U.S. position in the hemisphere has already created serious vulnerabilities where none previously existed, and threatens now to confront this country with the unprecedented need to defend itself against a ring of Soviet bases on and around our southern and eastern borders.
In the past four years, the Soviet Union has become a major military power within the Western hemisphere. In Cuba, the Soviets have full access to the naval facilities at Cienfuegos, nuclear submarines, airstrips that can accommodate Backfire bombers. From these, Soviet naval reconnaissance planes have on several occasions flown missions off the east coast of North America. They also have electronic-surveillance facilities that monitor American telephone and cable traffic and a network of intelligence activities under direct Soviet control. And, of course, a Soviet combat brigade.
During the same four-year period the Soviets have continued to finance, train, and staff a Cuban military establishment which has by now become a significant instrument of Soviet expansion in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia as well as throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. Today Cuba possesses a small navy; a sizable number of supersonic aircraft—including Il-14’s and MIG 21’s and 23’s—that can be quickly armed with nuclear weapons; modern transport planes capable of airlifting Cuban troops anywhere in the area; a huge army; and an estimated 144 SAM-2 anti-aircraft missile sites. The presence of more then 50,000 Cuban troops and military advisers in Africa and the Middle East provides one measure of the size and utility of Cuba’s armed forces. The Cuban role in training, supplying, and advising revolutionary groups throughout the Caribbean and Central America illustrates the hemispheric implications of this build-up.
The first fruits of these efforts are the new governments of Grenada and Nicaragua, whose commitment to Marxist-Leninist principles and solidarity with Soviet/Cuban policies led Castro to brag on returning from Managua, “Now there are three of us.” There may soon be four. El Salvador, having arrived now at the edge of anarchy, is threatened by progressively well-armed guerrillas whose fanaticism and violence remind some observers of Pol Pot. Meanwhile, the terrorism relied on by contemporary Leninists (and Castroites) to create a “revolutionary situation” has reappeared in Guatemala.
Slower but no less serious transformations are under way in Guyana, where ties to Castro have become extensive, tight, and complex, and in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where Castroite groups threaten existing governments. (In Dominica and Jamaica, the recent electoral victories of Eugenia Charles and Edward Seaga have for the moment reversed the Castroite tides there.) Fidel Castro is much clearer than we have been about his interests and intentions in the area, and frequently declares, as at last year’s meeting of the nonaligned in Havana, “I will pursue to the end the anti-imperialist struggles of the Caribbean peoples and especially those of Puerto Rico, Belize, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Guyana.”
American policies have not only proved incapable of dealing with the problems of Soviet/Cuban expansion in the area, they have positively contributed to them and to the alienation of major nations, the growth of neutralism, the destabilization of friendly governments, the spread of Cuban influence, and the decline of U.S. power in the region. Hence one of the first and most urgent tasks of the Reagan administration will be to review and revise the U.S. approach to Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Such a review should begin not just with the previous administration’s policy in the hemisphere, but with the quiet process by which new theories of hemispheric relations came to preempt discussion within that somewhat amorphous but very real group known as the foreign-policy establishment. For to an extent unusual in government, Carter administration policies toward Latin America and the Caribbean (as in the world more broadly) were derived from an ideology rather than from tradition, habit, or improvisation.
Indeed, nothing is as important as understanding the relationship between the recent failures of American policy—in Latin America and elsewhere—and the philosophy of foreign affairs that inspired and informed that policy. Such an effort of understanding requires, first, that we disregard the notion that the failure of the Carter policy was the personal failure of a man unskilled in the ways of diplomacy; and, second, that we look beyond superficial day-to-day policy changes to the stable orientations that reasserted themselves after each discrete crisis in world affairs.
Those orientation’s had their roots in the Vietnam experience, less as it was fought in Southeast Asia than as it was interpreted in Washington and New York. President Carter, after all, was not the only political leader in America to have lost his “inordinate” fear of Communism, lost his appetite for East-West competition, grown embarrassed by the uses of American power, become ashamed of past U.S. policies, and grown determined to make a fresh start. By the time Richard Nixon had left office, a large portion of the political elite in America, including a majority of the Congress, had drawn away not only from Vietnam but from what was more and more frequently called the cold war—the revisionists’ preferred term for U.S. determination to resist the expansion of Soviet power.
From these feelings were inferred the famous “lessons” of Vietnam—that the cold war was over, that concern with Communism should no longer “overwhelm” other issues, that forceful intervention in the affairs of another nation is impractical and immoral, that we must never again put ourselves on the “wrong side of history” by supporting a foreign autocrat against a “popular movement,” and that we must try to make amends for our deeply flawed national character by modesty and restraint in the arenas of power and the councils of the world. Underpinning these “lessons” was a new optimistic theory of historical development which came in the decade of the 70’s to focus the discussion of the future within the dominant foreign-policy elite.
No one expressed the new spirit better than Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose book, Between Two Ages (sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations), spelled out the implications of the new spirit for Latin American policy. Brzezinski argued that U.S. Latin American policies were inappropriate to the new realities of declining ideological competition, declining nationalism, increased global interdependence, and rising Third World expectations. The U.S. should therefore give up its historic hemispheric posture, which had postulated a “special relationship” with Latin America and emphasized hemispheric security and, since World War II, anti-Communism. We should, instead, make an explicit move to abandon the Monroe Doctrine, “concede that in the new global age, geographic or hemispheric contiguity no longer need be politically decisive,” adopt a “more detached attitude toward revolutionary processes,” demonstrate more “patience,” and take an “increasingly depoliticized” approach to aid and trade.
The views of hemispheric policy expressed in Between Two Ages were further elaborated in two other documents born in the bosom of the foreign-policy establishment: the reports issued in the name of the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations headed by Sol Linowitz and composed of “an independent, bipartisan group of private citizens from different sectors of U.S. society” funded by the Ford, Rockefeller, and Clark foundations. The intellectual framework and most of the specific recommendations of the two Linowitz reports were identical. Both affirmed that economic and technological developments had created new international problems, and that interdependence had generated a pressing need for a new global approach to those problems. U.S. policy toward Latin America, “from the Monroe Doctrine through the Good Neighbor Policy to the Alliance for Progress and its successor, the Mature Partnership,” was outmoded because based on assumptions which had been overtaken by history. Earmarked for the dustbin were the beliefs that the United States should have a special policy for Latin America; that Latin America constituted a “sphere of interest” in which the U.S. could or should intervene (overtly or covertly) to prevent the establishment of unpalatable governments; and that national security should be an important determinant of U.S. policy toward that area. Now, the first Linowitz report counseled:
It [U.S. policy] should be less concerned with security in the narrowly military sense than with shared interests and values that would be advanced by mutually satisfactory political relations.
The new approach was to be free of paternalism, “respectful of sovereignty,” tolerant of political and economic diversity. Above all, it was to be set in a consistent global framework.
Most of the specific recommendations of the two Linowitz reports—negotiating the Panama Canal treaties, “normalizing” relations with Cuba, “liberalizing” trade and “internationalizing” aid, promoting human rights, and never, ever, intervening militarily—flowed from these new assumptions. Given détente, the U.S. could and should “keep local and regional conflicts outside the context of the superpower relationship” and no longer “automatically” see “revolutions in other countries and intraregional conflicts . . . as battlefields of the cold war.” And given interdependence (manifested in global phenomena like inflation and multinational corporations), the U.S. should no longer hope for or seek “complete economic and political security . . .” but instead participate in the new international agenda.
Despite the commission’s determined globalism, it recognized that Cuba constituted a special case. Both reports recommended U.S. initiatives toward “normalization” of relations with Cuba and some acts (removing restrictions on travel, increasing scientific and cultural exchanges) regardless of overall progress on normalization. But the second report also noted Cuba’s military involvement in Africa and its support for “militant” and violence-prone Puerto Rican independistas, and concluded that full normalization of relations, however desirable, could take place only as Cuba gave assurances that its troops were being withdrawn from Angola and that it had no intention of intervening elsewhere.
The most striking characteristic of the Linowitz recommendations was their disinterested internationalist spirit. U.S. policy, it was assumed, should be based on an understanding of “changed realities” and guided by an enlightened confidence that what was good for the world was good for the United States. Power was to be used to advance moral goals, not strategic or economic ones. Thus sanctions could be employed to punish human-rights violations, but not to aid American business; power could be used “to the full extent permitted by law” to prevent terrorist actions against Cuba, but not to protect U.S. corporations against expropriation. Nor was power to be a factor in designing or implementing economic aid or trade programs except where these were intended to promote human rights, disarmament, and nuclear non-proliferation.
Like Brzezinski’s Between Two Ages, the Linowitz reports were, in the most fundamental sense, utopian. They assumed that technological change had so transformed human consciousness and behavior that it was no longer necessary for the United States to screen policies for their impact on national security. To be sure, neither argued that self-interest, conflict, or aggression had been entirely purged from the world. But Brzezinski asserted (and the Linowitz commission apparently believed) that only the Soviet Union was still engaged in truly “anachronistic” political behavior against which it was necessary to defend ourselves. Since no Latin American nation directly threatened the position of the United States, relations with them could be safely conducted without regard for national security.
Adopting the Linowitz commission’s recommendations thus required abandoning the strategic perspective which had shaped U.S. policy from the Monroe Doctrine down to the eve of the Carter administration, and at the center of which was a conception of the national interest and a belief in the moral legitimacy of its defense. In the Brzezinski-Linowitz approach, morality was decoupled from the national interest, much as the future was divorced from the past. The goals recommended for U.S. policy were all abstract and supranational—“human rights,” “development,” “fairness.”
Still, if the Linowitz reports redefined the national interest, they did not explicitly reject it as a guide to policy or name the U.S. as the enemy. This was left to the report of yet another self-appointed group whose recommendations bore an even closer resemblance to the actual policies of the Carter administration. This report, The Southern Connection, was issued by the Institute for Policy Studies Ad Hoc Working Group on Latin America. The group included key personnel of the Linowitz commission, and it endorsed most of the specific recommendations of the second Linowitz report—divestment of the Panama Canal, normalization of relations with Cuba, strict control of anti-Castro activists, aid through multilateral institutions, limitations on arms sales and nuclear proliferation, and systematic linkage of human-rights concerns to all other aspects of policy. But the IPS report went beyond these in various respects.
First, it not only proposed a break with the past, but contained a more sweeping indictment of past U.S. policy as reflecting an “unquestioned presumption of U.S. superiority” and an “official presumption of hegemony” which was not only outdated but also “morally unacceptable.”
Second, it went beyond the call for normalization of relations with Cuba to a demand that the U.S. “support the ideologically diverse and experimental approaches to development” (emphasis added), recognizing that “both the need for change and the forces propelling such change in the developing areas are powerful and urgent.” Latin America’s “most challenging development experiments” were identified as Cuba, Jamaica, and Guyana.
Third, the IPS report located the ground of human-rights violations and “institutionalized repression” throughout Latin America in U.S. interests, “virulent anti-Communism,” and “national development based on free play of market forces.” The remedy: “practical steps to reduce [socioeconomic] inequities are . . . steps toward the mitigation of the broader human-rights crisis of our times.” That is, fight for human rights with socialism.
The ease with which the Linowitz recommendations were incorporated into the IPS analysis and report demonstrated how strong had become the affinity between the views of the foreign-policy establishment and the New Left, how readily the categories of the new liberalism could be translated into those of revolutionary “socialism,” and how short a step it was from utopian globalism and the expectation of change to anti-American perspectives and revolutionary activism. And the impact of these ideas on the Carter administration was enhanced by the appointment of members and associates of the IPS group (such as Robert Pastor, Mark Schneider, and Guy Erb) to key Latin American policy positions. In the administration these officials joined others with like-minded approaches to the Third World, including Ambassador Andrew Young and his deputy Brady Tyson.
This whole cluster of ideas—of facing painful truths, making a fresh start, forswearing force, and pursuing universal moral goals—was enormously attractive to Jimmy Carter. No sooner was he elected than he set out to translate them into a new policy for dealing with the nations of the hemisphere.
The repudiation of our hegemonic past was symbolized by the Panama Canal Treaties, to which the Carter administration—from the President on down—attached great importance and of which it was inordinately proud. As Vice President Mondale put it in Panama City, the treaties symbolized “the commitment of the U.S. to the belief that fairness and not force should lie at the heart of our dealings with the nations of the world.”
Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua had the bad luck to become the second demonstration area for the “fresh start” in Latin America. Just because the regime had been so close and so loyal to the U.S., its elimination would, in exactly the same fashion as the Panama Canal Treaties, dramatize the passing of the old era of “hegemony” in Central America and the arrival of anew era of equity and justice. As the editor of Foreign Affairs, William Bundy, noted, “Somoza [was] as good a symbol as could have been found of past U.S. policies in Latin America.”
The “global” approach adopted by the Carter administration constituted another sharp break with past U.S. practice. The “special relationship” with Latin America was gone. In speech after speech, the President, the Vice President, Secretary of State Vance, and Assistant Secretaries for Inter-American Affairs Terrance Todman and Viron Vaky explained that henceforth there would not be a U.S. policy toward Latin America. Instead, hemispheric policy would be incorporated into a global framework and Latin America would be treated in the context of the “North-South” dialogue. “What we do in Latin America,” Vaky asserted, “must be a consistent part of our global policies.”
Incorporating the nations of Latin America into a “global framework” meant deemphasizing U.S. relations with them. Especially, it meant reducing U.S. assistance to the area, since from the perspective of North-South relations, Latin America’s claim to assistance was not nearly as impressive as that of most other nations of the so-called Third World. And, once the strategic perspective was abandoned, there was no reason at all for military assistance.
Not surprisingly, therefore, U.S. assistance to the countries of Latin America declined steadily during the Carter years. By 1980, the administration was requesting only half as much economic aid for Latin America as a decade earlier. Military assistance declined even more drastically—both quantitatively and qualitatively. Fewer countries were slated to receive military assistance and more strings were attached to how they could use the amounts received. No new weapons systems could be purchased; instead, everyone was to be encouraged to acquire non-lethal weapons. Assistance in military training (which had produced many personal and professional ties between U.S. and Latin American officers) was cut sharply.
The “global” approach also encouraged the imposition of unprecedented curbs on the sale of arms. By 1978, the U.S., long the most important supplier to Latin America, accounted for only 10 percent of arms sales. President Carter bragged to the OAS, “We have a better record in this hemisphere than is generally recognized. Four other nations of the world sell more weapons to Latin America than does the United States.”
The impact of the global approach was felt beyond arms sales. Although the nations of Latin America are major trading partners of the United States, and in 1979 accounted for one-sixth of total U.S. exports, and 80 percent of U.S. private investment in the developing world, the Carter administration’s manifest unconcern for hemispheric economic ties (as recommended in the Linowitz and IPS reports) resulted in a steady loss of ground to European and Asian competitors, all of whom enjoyed heavy support from their governments.
The global approach involved deemphasizing Latin American relations, not destabilizing governments. But other aspects of the Carter doctrine committed the administration to promoting “change.” “Change,” indeed, was the favorite word of administration policy-makers. In speeches with titles like “Currents of Change in Latin America,” Carter, Vance, and their associates reiterated their conviction that the world was in the grip of an extraordinary process of transformation which was deep, irresistible, systematic, and desirable. Administration spokesmen reiterated in the fashion of a credo that “our national interests align us naturally and inescapably with the forces of change, of democracy, of human rights, and of equitable development” (Philip Habib). And the belief that the whole world was caught up in a process of modernization moving it toward greater democracy and equality subtly transformed itself into an imperative: the U.S. should throw its power behind the “progressive” forces seeking change, even if they “seemed” anti-American or pro-Soviet.
If commitment to “change” was the rock on which Carter’s Latin American policy was built, his human-rights policy was the lever to get change started. Two aspects of the Carter approach to human rights are noteworthy. First, concern was limited to violations of human rights by governments. By definition, activities of terrorists and guerrillas could not qualify as violations of human rights, whereas a government’s efforts to repress terrorism would quickly run afoul of Carter human-rights standards.
Secondly, human rights were defined not in terms of personal and legal rights—freedom from torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and arrest, as in the usage of Amnesty International and the U.S. Foreign Assistance Acts of 1961 and 1975—but in accordance with a much broader conception which included the political “rights” available only in democracies and the economic “rights” promised by socialism (shelter, food, health, education). It may be that no country in the world meets these standards; certainly no country in the Third World does. The very broadness of the definition invited an arbitrary and capricious policy of implementation. Panama, for instance, was rather mysteriously exempt from meeting the expansive criteria of the State Department’s human-rights office, while at the same time the other major nations of Central America were being censored (and undermined) for violations.
Why Panama, a dictatorship with a higher percapita income than Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Guatemala, did not qualify as a gross violator of human rights while the latter countries did; why and how an administration committed to nonintervention in the internal affairs of nations could try to replace an unacceptable government in Nicaragua with one more palatable to it; why such an administration should attempt not only to “normalize” relations with Cuba but also to destabilize the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala—to answer these questions required on the part of policy-makers an intuitive understanding of which governments were outmoded and which reflected the wave of the future. What was not required was an ability to distinguish between which were Communist and which non-Communist. The President and other members of his administration apparently believed with Brzezinski that in most of the world ideological thinking had already given way to pragmatism and problem-solving, and that a concern with Communist ideology was therefore just another artifact of a past epoch, “the era of the cold war.”
Ignoring the role of ideology had powerful effects on the administration’s perception of conflicts and on its ability to make accurate predictions. Although Fidel Castro has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed his revolutionary mission, and backed his stated intentions by training insurgents and providing weapons and advisers, Carter’s Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, William Bowdler, described Cuba as “an inefficient and shabby dictatorship”—a description more appropriate to, say, Paraguay, than to an expansionist Soviet client state with troops scattered throughout the world. The refusal to take seriously, or even to take into account, the commitment of Fidel Castro or Nicaragua’s Sandinista leadership to Marxist-Leninist goals and expansionist policies made it impossible to distinguish them either from traditional authoritarians or from democratic reformers, impossible to predict their likely attitudes toward the United States and the Soviet Union, impossible to understand why in their view Costa Rica and Mexico as well as Guatemala and Honduras constituted inviting targets. Ignoring the force of ideology—and its powerful contemporary embodiments—fatally distorted the Carter administration’s view of politics in Central America and elsewhere.
The policies which grew out of these expectations have had a large impact on U.S. relations with most nations of South America. In Central America in particular, the direction of administration policy interacted with the presence there of weak regimes and Cuban-supported insurgents to transform the region into a battleground in an ideological war that the administration did not understand and could not acknowledge.
Except for Mexico, the nations of Central America are quite small, and, by North American standards, quite poor. There are significant social and economic differences among them. Guatemala’s large traditionalist Indian population and multiple linguistic groups are unique in the region, and bring with them special problems of economic, social, and political integration. El Salvador’s overcrowding places especially heavy strains on its institutions. Revenues from the Canal and the Canal Zone give Panama a higher per-capita income than any of its neighbors except Costa Rica and about twice that of the sparse, scattered people of Honduras.
Despite their differences, these countries also share a good many social and economic characteristics. All are “modernizing” nations in the sense that in each, urban, industrial, mobile, “modern” sectors coexist with traditional patterns of life. In each, a large portion of the population is still engaged in agriculture—most often employed as landless laborers on large estates and plantations that have long since made the transition to commercial agriculture. Economic growth rates in Central America have been above the Latin American average and per-capita income is high enough to rank these nations among the “middle-income” countries of the world. But in all of them wealth is heavily concentrated in a small upper class and a thin but growing middle class, and large numbers live as they have always lived—in deep poverty, ill-nourished, ill-housed, illiterate.
Things have been getting better for the people of Central America—infant mortality rates have dropped, years in school have increased—but they have been getting better slowly. It has been easier to break down the myths justifying the old distribution of values in society than to improve access to education, medical care, decent housing, good food, respect, and political power.
There are also political differences among the small nations of Central America. Costa Rica has managed to develop and maintain (since 1948) a genuine democracy. Honduran politics have been especially violent, while Nicaragua (under the Somozas) was the most stable political regime. But again despite differences, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama (like Costa Rica before 1948) share several characteristics with one another and with most of the nations of Latin America. These include a continuing disagreement about the legitimate ends and means of government, a pervasive distrust of authority, a broad ideological spectrum, a low level of participation in voluntary associations, a preference for hierarchical modes of association (church, bureaucracy, army), a history of military participation in politics, and a tradition of personalismo.
The boundaries between the political system, the economy, the military establishment, and the Church are often unclear and unreliable. Weak governments confront strong social groups, and no institution is able to establish its authority over the whole. Economic, ecclesiastical, and social groups influence but do not control the government; the government influences but does not control the economy, the military, the Church, and so on.
A democratic façade—elections, political parties, and fairly broad participation—is a feature of these systems. But the impact of democratic forms is modified by varying degrees of fraud, intimidation, and restrictions on who may participate. Corruption (the appropriation of public resources for private use) is endemic. Political institutions are not strong enough to channel and contain the claims of various groups to use public power to enforce preferred policies. No procedure is recognized as the legitimate route to power. Competition for influence proceeds by whatever means are at hand: the Church manipulates symbols of rectitude; workers resort to strikes; businessmen use bribery; political parties use campaigns and votes; politicians employ persuasion, organization, and demagoguery; military officers use force. Lack of consensus permits political competition of various kinds in various arenas, and gives the last word to those who dispose of the greatest force. That usually turns out to be the leaders of the armed forces; most rulers in the area are generals.
Violence or the threat of violence is an integral, regular, predictable part of these political systems—a fact which is obscured by our way of describing military “interventions” in Latin political systems as if the system were normally peaceable. Coups, demonstrations, political strikes, plots, and counterplots are, in fact, the norm.
Traditionally, however, actual violence has been limited by the need to draw support from diverse sectors of the society and by the fact that politics has not been viewed as involving ultimate stakes. The various competitors for power have sought control of government to increase their wealth and prestige, not for the “higher” and more dangerous purpose of restructuring society. In traditional Latin politics, competitors do not normally destroy each other. They suffer limited defeats and win limited victories. The habit of permitting opponents to survive to fight another day is reflected in the tendency of Latin regimes to instability. In such a system a government normally lasts as long as it is able to prevent a coalition from forming among its opponents. Because there is no consensus on what makes government itself legitimate, successive regimes remain vulnerable to attacks on their legitimacy. They are also especially vulnerable to attacks on public order, which tends to be tenuous and to lack a firm base in tradition, habit, and affection.
To these patterns of political interaction there has been added in recent years the unfamiliar guerrilla violence of revolutionaries linked to Cuba by ideology, training, and the need for support, and through Cuba to the Soviet Union. Such groups rely on terrorism to destroy public order, to disrupt the economy and make normal life impossible, to demoralize the police, and mortally wound the government by demonstrating its inability to protect personal security and maintain public authority. As Robert Chapman has emphasized, with the advent of terrorism as a form of revolution, a revolutionary situation can be created in any country whose government is weak or whose economy is vulnerable or dependent, with or without the participation of the masses.1
The nations of Central America (including Mexico) and the Caribbean suffer from some form of institutional weakness—because significant portions of the population have not been incorporated into the political system, and/or because political action is not fully institutionalized, and/or because the legitimacy of the government is in doubt, and/or because there is no consensus concerning legitirriacy within the political elite, and/or because the economy is vulnerable to shifts in the international market, and/or because regular infusions of aid are required, and/or because rising expectations have outstripped capacities. All are vulnerable to disruption, and must rely on force to put down challenges to authority.
It is at this point that the roles of Cuba on the one hand, and the U.S. on the other hand, become crucial. Cuba stands ready to succor, bolster, train, equip, and advise revolutionaries produced within these societies and to supply weapons for a general insurgency when that is created. The U.S. is important as a source of economic aid and moral and military support. Traditionally it has also exercised a veto power over governments in the area and reinforced acceptable governments with its tacit approval. Thus, to the objective economic and political dependency of nations in the area has been added a widespread sense of psychological dependency. When aid and comfort from the U.S. in the form of money, arms, logistical support, and the services of counterinsurgency experts are no longer available, governments like those of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala are weakened. And when it finally sinks in that the U.S. desires their elimination and prefers insurgents to incumbents, the blow to the morale and confidence of such weak traditional regimes is devastating.
The case of Nicaragua illustrates to perfection what happens when “affirmative pressures for change” on the part of the U.S. interact with Cuban-backed insurgency and a government especially vulnerable to shifts in U.S. policy.
The Nicaraguan political tradition combined participatory and autocratic elements in a characteristic Latin mix. Personalismo, popular sovereignty, and brute force were present in the politics of Nicaragua from its founding as a separate nation in 1938 to the Sandinista triumph in July 1979. Throughout the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th, geographically-based political factions representing a single, small ruling class competed under a symbolic two-party system in elections in which neither contender was willing to accept an unfavorable outcome. Frequently victory was obtained by enlisting the help of foreign governments and/or financial interests.
The United States was repeatedly called on by incumbent governments for assistance in maintaining peace. In 1910 it was the Conservatives who requested financial assistance and advice, and in 1912, again at their request, the U.S. posted a 100-man legation guard to Nicaragua. From then until 1933 an American military presence was a regular feature of the Nicaraguan political system. These U.S. troops (who at their height numbered about 2,700) supervised presidential elections and organized a National Guard which was conceived as a professional national police force that would remain aloof from politics. In 1936, less than three years after American military forces had withdrawn, the leader of this “non-political army,” Colonel Anastasio Somoza Garcia, ousted the Liberal president, Juan B. Sacasa. In this manner began the more than four decades of Nicaraguan politics dominated by the Somoza family.
Somocismo was based in the first instance on the military power of the National Guard. Its durability, however, also owed much to the political skills of the successive Somozas who ruled the country and headed its armed forces. These skills were reflected in the construction of an organizational base to support their personal power, long-standing success in exploiting divisions among their opponents, and the ability to retain U.S. support. The organizational basis of the Somozas’ power is the most interesting factor because, like that of Juan Perón, it was largely created rather than captured.
The Somoza organization rested on four pillars: a hierarchically structured national party forged on the base of the traditional Liberal party; an expanded bureaucracy whose members also served as party workers; a national federation of trade unions created by the Somozas; and the National Guard. The whole operated rather like an efficient urban political machine, oiled by jobs, pensions, profits, and status, and perquisites of various kinds. Most urban machines, however, do not have a private army. The loyalty of the National Guard is the most powerful testimony to the Somozas’ political skill, for in Latin America armed forces are more easily won than retained. Nicaragua’s National Guard remained loyal until after the last Somoza had fled.
Nicaraguan politics in the Somoza period featured limited repression and limited opposition. Criticism was permitted and, in fact, carried on day after day in the pages of La Prensa (whose editor was an opposition leader). Although the Somozas had large landholdings, the government enjoyed no monopoly of economic power, and made no serious effort to absorb or control the Church, education, or the culture. The government was moderately competent in encouraging economic development, moderately oppressive, and moderately corrupt. It was also an utter failure at delivering those social services American and Europeans have come since the Depression to regard as the responsibility of government.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate with an American wife and an expansive appetite for women and alcohol, had accommodated successive American administrations and received aid from successive Congresses. He had every reason to suppose that his regime would continue to enjoy U.S. favor, and no reason to suppose that his power could be brought down by the small group of Cuban-backed terrorists who periodically disturbed the peace with their violence.
Three things seem to have disturbed these calculations. One was the progressive alienation of certain members of the country’s oligarchia and business class when, after the earthquake of 1973, Somocistas raked off too large a share of the international relief; a second factor was Somoza’s heart attack; the third and most important factor was the election of Jimmy Carter and the adoption of an all-new Latin American policy.
At the time the Carter administration was inaugurated in January 1977, three groups of unequal strength competed for power in Nicaragua: the President and his loyal lieutenants—who enjoyed the advantages of incumbency, a degree of legitimacy, a nationwide organization, and the unwavering support of the National Guard; the legal opposition parties which had been gathered into a loose coalition headed by Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa; and several small revolutionary groups whose Cuban-trained leaders had finally forged a loose alliance, the FSLN (Sandinist National Liberation Front).
From the moment the FSLN adopted the tactics of a broad alliance, the offensive against Somoza was carried out on a variety of fronts. There was violence in the form of assassinations and assaults on army barracks. When the government reacted, the U.S. condemned it for violations of human rights. The legal opposition put forward demands for greater democracy which had the endorsement of the FSLN, thus making it appear that democracy was the goal of the insurgency.
Violence and counterviolence weakened the regime by demonstrating that it could not maintain order. The combination of impotence and repression in turn emboldened opponents in and out of the country, provoking more reprisals and more hostility in a vicious circle that culminated finally in the departure of Somoza and the collapse of the National Guard.
What did the Carter administration do in Nicaragua? It brought down the Somoza regime. The Carter administration did not “lose” Nicaragua in the sense in which it was once charged Harry Truman had “lost” China, or Eisenhower Cuba, by failing to prevent a given outcome. In the case of Nicaragua, the State Department acted repeatedly and at critical junctures to weaken the government of Anastasio Somoza and to strengthen his opponents.
First, it declared “open season” on the Somoza regime. When in the spring of 1977 the State Department announced that shipments of U.S. arms would be halted for human-rights violations, and followed this with announcements in June and October that economic aid would be withheld, it not only deprived the Somoza regime of needed economic and military support but served notice that the regime no longer enjoyed the approval of the United States and could no longer count on its protection. This impression was strongly reinforced when after February 1978 Jimmy Carter treated the two sides in the conflict as more or less equally legitimate contenders—offering repeatedly to help “both sides” find a “peaceful solution.”
Second, the Carter administration’s policies inhibited the Somoza regime in dealing with its opponents while they were weak enough to be dealt with. Fearful of U.S. reproaches and reprisals, Somoza fluctuated between repression and indulgence in his response to FSLN violence. The rules of the Carter human-rights policy made it impossible for Somoza to resist his opponents effectively. As Viron Vaky remarked about the breakdown in negotiations between Somoza and the armed opposition: “. . . when the mediation was suspended we announced that the failure of the mediation had created a situation in which it was clear violence was going to continue, that it would result in repressive measures and therefore our relationships could not continue on the same basis as in the past.” When the National Palace was attacked and hostages were taken, Somoza’s capitulation to FSLN demands enhanced the impression that he could not control the situation and almost certainly stimulated the spread of resistance.
Third, by its “mediation” efforts and its initiatives in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Carter administration encouraged the internationalization of the opposition. Further, it demoralized Somoza and his supporters by insisting that Somoza’s continuation in power was the principal obstacle to a viable, centrist, democratic government. Finally, the State Department deprived the Somoza regime of legitimacy not only by repeated condemnations for human-rights violations but also by publishing a demand for Somoza’s resignation and by negotiating with the opposition.
Without these “affirmative pressures,” William Bundy concluded in Foreign Affairs:
It seems a safe bet that Tacho Somoza would still be in charge in Nicaragua and his amiable brother-in-law still extending abrazzos to all and sundry in Washington as dean of the diplomatic corps.
Why did the Carter administration do these things? Because it thought the fall of Somoza would bring progress to Nicaragua. Viron Vaky put it this way:
Nicaragua’s tragedy stems from dynastic rule. Times have changed. Nicaragua has changed, but the government of Nicaragua has not.
History was against Somoza. He was an obstacle to progress. He should relinquish power to make room for “change.” When he declined to do so, the Carter administration accused him of “polarizing” the situation. When the National Guard responded to FSLN violence with violence, the State Department said that the National Guard had “radicalized the opposition.”
On the other hand the fact that Cubans were supplying arms to the FSLN was not regarded as being of much importance. Brandon Grove, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, explained to the Committee of the House (June 7, 1979):
The flow of such supplies is a symptom of the deeper problem in Nicaragua: polarization and its attendant violence that day by day are contributing to the growing alienation of the Nicaraguan government from its people. . . .
The real cause for concern today should be the breakdown . . . of trust between government and people essential for the democratic process to function.
Since the “real” problem was not Cuban arms but Somoza, obviously the U.S. should not act to reinforce the regime that had proved its political and moral failure by becoming the object of attack. Because the State Department desired not to “add to the partisan factionalism,” it declined to supply arms to the regime. “The supplying of arms in a war situation we feel only adds to the suffering. We have urged others not to do that.”
In the event, the Carter administration did a good deal more than “urge.” In June 1979, after the U.S. and the OAS had called for Somoza’s resignation, and U.S. representatives William Bowdler and Lawrence Pezzulo had met with the FSLN, the State Department undertook to apply the final squeeze to the Somoza regime—putting pressure on Israel to end arms sales, and working out an oil embargo to speed the capitulation of Somoza’s forces. They were so successful that for the second time in a decade an American ally ran out of gas and ammunition while confronting an opponent well armed by the Soviet bloc.
The FSLN were not the State Department’s preferred replacement for Somoza. Nevertheless, from spring 1977, when the State Department announced that it was halting a promised arms shipment to Somoza’s government, through the summer of 1980, when the administration secured congressional approval of a $75-million aid package for Nicaragua, U.S. policy under Jimmy Carter was vastly more supportive of the Sandinistas than it was of the Somoza regime, despite the fact that Somoza and his government were as doggedly friendly and responsive to U.S. interests and desires as the Sandinistas have been hostile and non-responsive.
The Carter administration expected that democracy would emerge in Nicaragua. Their scenario prescribed that the winds of change should blow the outmoded dictator out of office and replace him with a popular government. Even after it had become clear that the FSLN, which was known to harbor powerful anti-democratic tendencies, was the dominant force in the new regime, U.S. spokesmen continued to speak of the events in Nicaragua as a democratic revolution. In December 1979, for example, Warren Christopher attempted to reassure doubting members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the driving consensus among Nicaraguans” was “to build a new Nicaragua through popular participation that is capable of meeting basic human needs.”
The expectation that change would produce progress and that socialism equaled social justice made it difficult for Carter policy-makers to assess Nicaragua’s new rulers realistically, even though grounds for concern about their intentions, already numerous before the triumph, continued to multiply in its aftermath.
Revolution begins with destruction. The first fruit of the destabilization of Somoza and the reinforcement of his opponents was a civil war in which some 40,000 Nicaraguans lost their most basic human right (life), another 100,000 were left homeless, and some $2-billion worth of destruction was wrought. Nicaragua was left in a shambles.
Where did the expectations, the hopes, the intentions of the Carter administration then lead us, and the Nicaraguans who took the consequences? Although the FSLN had solemnly committed itself to hold free elections, its leaders have shown no disposition to share the power they seized in July 1979. To the contrary, the consolidation and centralization of power have moved steadily forward. Despite the strenuous opposition of the two non-FSLN junta members, the Sandinista directorate which has effectively ruled Nicaragua since the fall of Somoza moved in the spring of 1980 to institutionalize its control of Nicaragua’s Council of State by expanding and “restructuring” it to insure the Sandinistas a permanent majority. (Under the reform they would be assured of 24 of 47 seats where previously they had been entitled to only 13 of 33.)
Meanwhile, the election to which the FSLN had committed itself has been pushed further and further into a receding future, even though the new rulers, who need all the help they can get, have been under heavy pressure from the governments of Venezuela, Costa Rica, and the United States to set a date. Sandinista leaders have made no secret of their opinion that competitive elections are an unsatisfactory and unnecessary mechanism for choosing rulers. Junta members have asserted that the people spoke through the revolution—“with their blood and with the guns in their hands the people have cast their votes” (as a junta member told the Economist)—and that anyway, having been brainwashed by forty years of Somoza rule, they are not capable of choosing among candidates—at least not until they have been “reeducated.”
In the last days of August 1980, the restructured Council of State announced that elections will not be held before 1985. And those elections, declared Humberto Ortega Saavedra (Minister of Defense), “will serve to reinforce and improve the revolution and not to give just anyone more power, which belongs to the people.” Meanwhile, no “proselytizing activities” on behalf of any candidate will be permitted before candidates are officially designated by an electoral agency which itself will be created in 1984 (and violations will be punished by terms of three months to three years in jail).
Decrees accompanying these decisions have underscored the junta’s distaste for criticism. Henceforth, dissemination of news concerning scarcities of food and other consumer goods is prohibited on pain of imprisonment (from two months to two years), as is “unconfirmed” information concerning armed encounters or attacks on government personnel.
These restrictions constitute one more significant step in the Sandinistas’ gradual campaign to control the climate of opinion. The television and radios had already been brought under control. Among opposition newspapers, only La Prensa remains; it has already come under pressures more harsh than those applied to the media during the Somoza era, and its continuation as an independent critical voice is at best uncertain. The requirement that all professional journalists join a new government-sponsored union as a condition of employment represents yet another move to bring the press under control. The literacy campaign has extended the junta’s reach further into the minds of Nicaragua’s people as well as into the countryside. Every lesson in the literacy textbooks instructs students (and teachers) in the prescribed interpretation of Nicaragua’s past, present, and future.
Parallel efforts to organize and coordinate other traditionally non-governmental associations reflect the characteristic totalitarian desire to absorb the society into the state, to transform social groups into agencies and instruments of the government. This has required taking over some existing institutions (banking, industries, television and radio, trade unions), coopting and/or intimidating others (the private sector, trade unions, the educational establishment, portions of the press), and forcibly eliminating still others—such as the National Guard, whose members have either fled into exile or remain in prison with little prospect of ever being tried, much less released.
When, in early November 1980, representatives of the private sector (COSEP) and the labor federation (CUS) withdrew from the State Council to protest the Sandinistas’ ever-tightening grip on all aspects of the economy, no concessions were forthcoming. Instead, the offices of the leading opposition party, the social-democratic MND, were sacked, and an unarmed leader of the private sector, Jorge Salazar, was gunned down by Sandinista police.
Among the traditional pillars of Nicaraguan society only the Church remains relatively intact. While the presence of priests in prominent roles in the Sandinista directorate has facilitated communications between the two groups, this has not been translated into political domination of the Church hierarchy.
But the Sandinistas do not rely on control of these agencies or rules to preserve their power. To accomplish that task new institutions have been forged, the most important of which are an enormous, all-new revolutionary army whose training (military and political) and equipment have been provided by Cubans, and a new internal police force which is already more extensive and effective than Somoza’s.
Other institutions developed to support the new government include the “block” committees which were found to be so useful in Cuba (and in Nazi Germany), and the revolutionary brigades initially assigned to the literacy campaign.
The most telling indicator of Sandinista intentions and commitments is their unambiguous identification of Nicaragua with the foreign policy and perspectives of the Soviet Union. The first step was somewhat tentative: Nicaragua only “abstained” on the UN resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Subsequent moves have left less room for doubt. At the Havana conference for the nonaligned nations, Nicaragua became one of the few countries in the world to recognize Kampuchea (the regime imposed by North Vietnam on Cambodia), an act which Foreign Minister Miguel d’Escoto explained as “a consequence of our revolutionary responsibility as Sandinistas to recognize the right of the peoples of Kampuchea to be free.” In Pyongyang, another Sandinista leader, Tomás Borge, assured the North Koreans of Nicaraguan solidarity, and promised, “The Nicaraguan Revolution will not be content until the imperialists have been overthrown in all parts of the world.”
In March 1980 the Sandinista directorate offered a public demonstration that its ties extended beyond Cuba to the Socialist Fatherland itself when four top leaders—Moises Morales Hassan, Tomas Borge, Henry Hernandez Ruiz, and Humberto Ortega Saavedra—paid an official visit to the Soviet Union. A joint comminiqué formalized the attachment of Nicaragua to Soviet global policy. In addition to signing multiple agreements concerning trade and cooperation, condemning South Africa and Chile, applauding Zimbabwe, Khomeini’s Iran, and the “legitimate national rights of the Arab people of Palestine,” the “two sides” strongly attacked the NATO decision to deploy medium-range nuclear missile weapons and condemned the “mounting international tension in connection with the events in Afghanistan, which has been launched by the imperialist and reactionary forces aimed at subverting the inalienable rights of the people of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and of other peoples . . . to follow a path of progressive transformation.”
Since “Zionism’s loss of a bastion in Nicaragua” (Moises Hassan), the ties with the “Palestinian people” have become not closer, but more public. The PLO and the Sandinistas have long enjoyed a relationship of mutual support, we are now told. Sandinistas trained in Palestinian camps, and participated in PLO raids; the PLO reciprocated by ferrying arms to the Sandinistas in their hour of need. Yasir Arafat received high honors when in July 1980 he opened a PLO embassy in Managua where he assured the “workers” that “the triumph of the Nicaraguans is the PLO’s triumph.”
“We have emerged from one dictatorship and entered another,” asserted MND leader Alfonso Robelo recently. “Nicaragua has become a satellite of a satellite of the Soviet Union.”
Nothing that happened in Nicaragua seemed able to dampen the Carter people’s enthusiasm for “change” in Central America. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, and wherever else the opportunity presented itself, the administration aligned the United States with the “forces of change.” “The fundamental problem we share with our neighbors,” Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained, “is not that of defending stability in the face of revolution. Rather, it is to build a more stable, equitable, and pluralistic order. That is the challenge of Nicaragua in the present day and that is the challenge of the whole region.”
To meet the challenge the administration welcomed with enthusiasm a military coup in El Salvador which, in October 1979, overthrew President Carlos Humberto Romero, an event the State Department described as a “watershed date” on which “young officers broke with the old repressive order” and along with “progressive civilians” formed a government committed to “profound social and economic reforms, respect for human rights and democracy.”
Until the violent events of November-December 1980, which also saw the suspension of U.S. aid, the Carter administration backed the new Salvadoran junta in the only way it knew how: by helping it to bring about “profound social and economic reforms.” In the effort to preempt the revolution and expedite the achievements of “social justice,” the administration supplied experts who have planned the most thoroughgoing land reform in the Western hemisphere. To encourage and finance these and related reforms, the U.S. embassy provided nearly $20 million in long-term loans at very low interest. Under the direction of the American Institute for Free Labor Development, an AFL-CIO-sponsored group, a plan was drafted to transfer to some 250,000 of El Salvador’s 300,000 peasants ownership of the land they work.
So far, not all the land has been transferred, and titles have not been delivered for much of what has been transferred. Few of the former owners have yet received any significant compensation. In theory, the reforms will vaccinate the masses against Communism by giving them a stake in the society. In practice, as was made dramatically clear by the murder of three American nuns and a social worker in early December, continuing violence from Communists, anti-Communists, and simple criminals has brought death and destruction to El Salvador. Under the pressure of that violence, the society has begun to come apart. “There is no name for what exists in my country,” commented a Salvadoran, describing the almost random murder, intimidation, and looting. But there is a name; it is anarchy.
The U.S. under Carter was more eager to impose land reform than elections in El Salvador. Although claims and counterclaims have been exchanged, there is no way of knowing whether the junta (in any of its manifestations) has enjoyed much popular support. It combines Christian Democrats, committed to finding a middle way of “true democracy” between capitalism and Communism, with representatives of various tendencies within the armed forces. It is chronically threatened with schism from within and coup from without. Though its civilian members and their State Department supporters have consistently emphasized the danger from the Right—that is, from authoritarian, intensely anti-Communist defenders of the status quo—El Salvador is more likely in the long run to fall to a coalition of revolutionaries trained, armed, and advised by Cuba and others. The cycle of escalating terror and repression is already far advanced. By failing to offer the junta the arms and advice required to turn back the well-equipped insurgency, the Carter administration undermined the junta’s ability to survive and encouraged the insurgents in their conviction of ultimate victory.
Central America was not the only target of the Carter administration’s restless search for “constructive change” in the hemisphere. Pressures were applied, and resisted, in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Bolivia. In Bolivia, the State Department withdrew our ambassador, “drew down” the embassy staff to approximately half its normal size, cancelled U.S. aid, terminated the Drug Enforcement Agency’s program that aimed at reducing the production of coca (and cocaine), and indicated in a dozen other ways its determination not to accept the military junta whose seizure of power prevented the inaguration of Hernan Siles Zuazo as President.
Why did the U.S. work so hard to undo a coup which had prevented the accession to power of a man whose vice president had strong Castroite leanings and ties, whose coalition included the Communist party of Bolivia and the Castroite MIR, and whose elevation had been strongly supported by the Soviet Union? When Siles Zuazo polled 38 percent of the vote in a race against moderate socialist. Victor Paz Estensorro, and the more conservative Hugo Banzer Suarez, the selection of the President was left to the Congress. No legal or conventional niceties required that U.S. influence be exerted on behalf of the selection of Siles Zuazo rather than one of the other candidates. Yet Siles Zuazo became “the American candidate” even though the military had made clear that his selection would not be tolerated. After conversations with the U.S. ambassador that included both threats and promises of aid, Paz Estenssoro withdrew and Siles’s selection was insured. The predictable coup occurred.
Even five years ago, the U.S. would have welcomed a coup that blocked a government with a significant Communist/Castroite component. Ten years ago the U.S. would have sponsored it, fifteen years ago we would have conducted it. This time, however, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia and the State Department lobbied hard in Washington and with the press against the new military rulers, insisting that what had occurred was not a coup like the two hundred previous ones, but a singularly objectionable coup marked by unique violence, engineered by foreigners, and led by drug traffickers. The State Department’s campaign coincided with a Soviet press offensive, resulting in a sustained international campaign bent on bringing Siles to power.
One understands the desire to see constitutional democracy replace authoritarian governments in Bolivia. Despite a good deal of recent myth-making to the contrary, Americans have always believed that democracy is the best government for everyone. What was unusual about the Carter policy was the intensity of the expressed disapproval and of the administration’s preference for a government that included in its leadership persons effectively attached to Soviet policies and hostile to the United States. The decision to throw its weight behind Siles reflected the characteristic predilections of the Carter administration in Latin America, including its indifference to strategic concerns and its tendency to believe that leftists were more likely than any other group to bring democracy and social justice to the area. Supporting Siles seemed to offer the Carter administration an opportunity to assume its preferred role: trying to “moderate,” by its good will and friendship, the “extreme” elements in a governing coalition committed to “basic” social change.
Because it failed to take account of basic characteristics of Latin political systems, the Carter administration underestimated the fragility of order in these societies and overestimated the ease with which authority, once undermined, can be restored. Because it regarded revolutionaries as beneficent agents of change, it mistook their goals and motives and could not grasp the problem of governments which become the object of revolutionary violence. Because it misunderstood the relations between economics and politics, it wrongly assumed (as in El Salvador) that economic reforms would necessarily and promptly produce positive political results. Because it misunderstood the relations between “social justice” and authority, it assumed that only “just” governments can survive. Finally, because it misunderstood the relations between justice and violence, the Carter administration fell (and pushed its allies) into an effort to fight howitzers with land reform and urban guerrillas with improved fertilizers.
Above all, the Carter administration failed to understand politics. Politics is conducted by persons who by various means, including propaganda and violence, seek to realize some vision of the public good. Those visions may be beneficent or diabolic. But they constitute the real motives of real political actors. When men are treated like “forces” (or the agents of forces), their intentions, values, and world view tend to be ignored. But in Nicaragua the intentions and ideology of the Sandinistas have already shaped the outcome of the revolution, as in El Salvador the intentions and ideology of the leading revolutionaries create intransigence where there might have been willingness to cooperate and compromise, nihilism where there might have been reform.
The first step in the reconstruction of U.S. policy for Latin America is intellectual. It requires thinking more realistically about the politics of Latin America, about the alternatives to existing governments, and about the amounts and kinds of aid and time that would be required to improve the lives and expand the liberties of the people of the area. The choices are frequently unattractive.
The second step toward a more adequate policy is to assess realistically the impact of various alternatives on the security of the United States and on the safety and autonomy of the other nations of the hemisphere.
The third step is to abandon the globalist approach which denies the realities of culture, character, geography, economics, and history in favor of a vague, abstract, universalism “stripped,” in Edmund Burke’s words, “of every relation,” standing “in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” What must replace it is a foreign policy that builds (again Burke) on the “concrete circumstances” which “give . . . to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.”
Once the intellectual debris has been cleared away, it should become possible to construct a Latin American policy that will protect U.S. security interests and make the actual lives of actual people in Latin America somewhat better and somewhat freer.
1 Other new participants in the traditional pattern of political competition include the Socialist International and the Catholic Left. A number of socialist leaders (Willy Brandt, Olof Palme, François Mitterrand, Michael Manley), unable to win popular support for peaceful revolution in their own countries, have grown progressively enthusiastic about revolution elsewhere and less fastidious about the company they keep and the methods utilized. As for the Catholic Left, its interest in revolution on this earth has waxed as its concern with salvation in heaven has waned. Both the Socialist International and the radical Catholics conceive themselves as specialists in political rectitude, and their participation in Central American politics has enhanced its moralistic content at the same time that Cuban/Soviet participation has enhanced its violence.
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U.S. Security & Latin America
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.