Biden Doesn’t Need a New Middle East Policy
The Trump Administration Got the Region Right
A few days after Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Lawrence Pezzullo gave a long interview in his Managua office. "It's going to be our ideological blinders that may cause us to make mistakes," Pezzullo said, as he considered Central America policy under the new President. "This is a new Administration, there are going to be tradeoffs, and you've got to feed your right-wing somewhere. Maybe you'll just let them eat up Latin America. It's cheaper than some other places like the Middle East, the Soviet Union or China, where no president is going to have much room for radical policy changes." He paused and reflected for a moment. "That's the way I tend to think things will go," he said, "just feed it to the lions."1
The process was perhaps more gradual than Pezzullo would have anticipated, but by 1983 it was well on its way. The little countries of Central America and the tiny ones of the Caribbean-void of intrinsic economic importance, their individual strategic value debatable, their political constituency in the United States virtually nonexistent-became for the Reagan White House a crucible in which to prove not only the resolve of the United States, but to test the conservative credentials of the men and women making policy inside the Administration. The Reagan Administration saw itself as eyeball-to-eyeball with unprecedented Soviet-Cuban expansionism in its own backyard and, against such a threat, no one on the Reagan team could afford to blink. Even the discussion of options to deal with the ongoing and escalating Central America crisis became a test of toughness in which only the most conservative voices in the Administration were found to measure up.
By the end of the year, U.S. warships were deployed off the coasts of Central America. A covertly funded guerrilla war against the Marxist-led government of Nicaragua was overtly endorsed by the Reagan Administration and an army of as many as 15,000 men and women trained to fight it. U.S. military maneuvers of an unprecedented scale for Central America rapidly converted Honduras, best known for its ruins and its bananas, into a virtual bivouac. U.S. Marines stormed the Eastern Caribbean island of Grenada and converted it from a friend of Moscow into a quasi-colony of Washington.
Yet as the Reagan Administration sought to reassert unequivocal American dominance over the area, it faced two persistent and potentially decisive constraints. The first was the recalcitrance of a Congress unconvinced that the kind of toughness the Administration displayed was well-advised, and worried that it would lead not to a resolution of the region's problems, but to increased and fruitless entanglement in them, possibly including the commitment of U.S. troops to a long and politically thankless war. The second, which fueled the first, was the persistently disappointing performance of the Central American armies on which Washington relied, whether supporting the government in El Salvador or subverting the government in Nicaragua.
While everyone in the Administration in a position to make policy had solid conservative credentials and was firmly persuaded of the communist threat, a major public rift developed in early 1983 over the question, not of what was desirable, but of what was possible. Intense internal debates and furious bureaucratic intrigues finally led, on May 27, to the ouster of Thomas O. Enders as Assistant Secretary of State and chief policymaker for Latin America.
Enders, a career diplomat whose professional background was in Southeast Asia and among the North Atlantic powers, represented the view that there were practical limits to the resources the United States could or should commit to Central America and the Caribbean, and that these limits were fairly narrow. Accordingly, the policies he advocated aimed to defeat Marxist-led insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala, but, barring what was described in one policy paper as an unforeseen "opportunity" to take more dramatic action,2 essentially accepted the existence of a Marxist-dominated regime in Nicaragua. The Enders policy's bottom line was isolation and containment of Nicaragua's four-year-old revolution and various measures both coercive and cooperative to guarantee that it would not become a Soviet-Cuban base either politically or militarily. The Sandinistas' internal politics and policies were of relatively little interest.
But pitted against Enders' views were those of U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and then National Security Advisor William P. Clark. Kirkpatrick had a passionate interest and an extensive academic background in Latin American-though not Central American-affairs. She felt the importance of the region was inadequately understood by the Enders group at the State Department. Her consistent message to Reagan had been that Central America was not just a region of grubby little wars which might be put on the back burner; that a little nation like El Salvador "can matter to us." Clark's interest in Central America appeared less a result of his appreciation for the culture and history of the region than of a deep-seated Ventura County, California, conservatism. Visions of "foot-people" fleeing Stalinist tyranny dominated his perceptions. Communists, including Sandinistas, were viewed as so inherently deceitful that no agreement with them was worth the paper on which it was written. The only thing they really understood was force. (Reinforcing this view was the failure, after a few months, of secret talks with the Sandinistas begun by Enders on his August 1981 visit to Managua. He made his views clear and the Nicaraguans remained unwilling to bend or, by some accounts, to deal frankly with the central question of support to other insurgencies.) Unless the Sandinistas were to make major changes in their internal system, rejecting their Marxist views and establishing a conventional North American or parliamentary democracy, they could never be trusted. The President appeared to share these basic instincts, moreover, and Clark was the principal advocate of "letting Reagan be Reagan" in foreign affairs. Where better to be himself than in his own backyard?
The basic logic of the Enders approach tended toward some sort of negotiated settlement to the region's difficulties. The logic of the Kirkpatrick-Clark line headed toward more open-ended military commitments. But neither avenue entirely precluded the other and at a practical level they were sometimes indistinguishable.
The most militant hard-liners, after all, had been brought up short in the earliest days of the Reagan presidency when the problems of attacking what was called "the source"-Havana-were examined. There was little or no talk in 1983, as there had been under Secretary of State Alexander Haig two years before, of directly blockading or attacking Cuba, with its 153,000-man army.3
Nicaragua, however, with at least 50,000 people in its armed forces and many more in its militias, appeared a possible target though not an easy one. Should the aim of policy, therefore, be the negotiated containment of the Sandinistas or their elimination? The Administration seemed never to have decided in 1983, and perhaps not to have known, toward which goal it was embarked. Instead it pushed forward, steadily tightening the screws on the Sandinistas, escalating its involvement with the rebels fighting them, committing ever greater military resources of its own to the surrounding countries, in the hopes that something-it was never clear exactly what-would give. This obviously dangerous lack of definition was exacerbated by the assumption shared on all sides of the debate inside the Administration that what had to be done to get the Sandinistas to negotiate seriously was at any rate exactly what had to be done if one were indeed setting the stage for an invasion. In such circumstances it was impossible to be sure which course one was on until the negotiations succeeded or the war had begun, but up to a point policy was able to move forward aggressively, even violently, despite the uncertainty about where it was headed.
When 1983 began the Reagan Administration was running out of money for Central America. Congress, through the legislative procrastination of a continuing resolution, had frozen aid at 1982 levels and the overall assessment of events in Central America was increasingly gloomy. When Congress came back into session there was strong sentiment for some sort of settlement, at least in El Salvador, and at least for serious "dialogue"-unacceptable as that might be to the White House ideologues, impractical as it might prove on the ground in Central America.
In a working paper put together after extensive consultations with U.S. ambassadors in Central America in January 1983, Enders therefore proposed what came to be known as a "two-track" policy. One track would embrace negotiations with the Salvadoran left, while the other would continue funding and reenforcing the forces fighting against it, both directly in the form of government troops and indirectly in the form of anti-Sandinista rebels.
The goal of this two-track approach was less to move toward the bargaining table at that moment than to get the money from Congress needed to move at all. What Enders in effect proposed to do, and what the Reagan Administration in fact did, was to use the offer of negotiations as a carrot held before Congress so it would pay for the stick Reagan, and also Enders, felt the Administration should be wielding at that time. But almost as soon as the working paper reached the hands of Enders' bureaucratic enemies at the White House in early February they leaked some of its contents to The Washington Post.4 They did this in such a way as to make it seem, in the heavily ideological ambiance of the Reagan Administration, that the normally hard-line Enders was somehow preparing to capitulate to Central American communists.
Soon afterward, Kirkpatrick returned from a ten-day tour of the region that reinforced her opinions about the misdirection of policy under Enders. These misgivings were quickly conveyed to President Reagan. Aid requests, both economic and military, were insufficient in Kirkpatrick's opinion. The implementation of Central American policy, as she saw it, was lacking in vigor. Enders acted as if he were pursuing a stalemate rather than a victory. Moreover, the message Kirkpatrick brought back to Reagan was that the region's leaders were personally suspicious and resentful of Enders. This picture of Enders spawning resentment in Latin America struck a sympathetic chord in a White House already suspicious of an ambitious patrician seen as patronizing and arrogant. Enders rapidly lost what had been almost a monopoly over Central America policy, and by May he lost his job.
But when President Reagan addressed a joint session of Congress on April 27, the four points of the policy he laid out were little more than a refinement of the "two-track" approach, and they remained the basis for policy throughout the year. On the one hand he called for increased economic and military aid to "bolster humane democratic systems" and respond to "the military challenge from Cuba and Nicaragua, to their deliberate use of force to spread tyranny." On the other he announced that "we will support dialogue and negotiations-both among the countries of the region and within each country."5
The immediate objective of the President's speech was to win more aid for the region from Congress. But what he got came only gradually and grudgingly. The lawmakers were willing to supply economic assistance. But military aid was a much touchier question. The Administration asked for a modest $10 million to restore a military link with the Guatemalan government. Congress decided, after some deliberation, to allow none of it. The continuing resolution had allotted El Salvador only about $26 million in military aid for fiscal year 1983. The President asked for $50 million more and got only $25 million. He then moved to divert $60 million to El Salvador from aid originally slated for other countries, and Congress cut him back to $30 million. Of $86 million in military aid to El Salvador requested for FY 1984, the Administration got about $65 million. And at every step of the road there were conditions, first through a requirement that the President certify improvements in El Salvador's record on human rights and reforms every six months in 1982 and 1983, then with even more specific ad hoc demands, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners in El Salvador and a requirement that the International Red Cross be allowed to visit the jails there.
Reagan's response to such domestic political pressures was skillful. Throughout the spring and summer military escalation was accompanied by gestures of conciliation-if not exactly toward the Sandinistas or Salvadoran rebels, certainly toward Congress. In one particularly adroit maneuver during March 1983, the Administration accepted the demand of Representative Clarence D. Long, the Maryland Democrat who headed the decisive subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the House Appropriations Committee, that it appoint a special negotiator for the fast-deteriorating Salvadoran conflict. It even named a Democrat, former Florida Senator Richard Stone, to the post in April. But Stone, closely tied to the far right of Florida's Cuban community, was as conservative as any Republican on Central American issues. The Reagan Administration expanded his brief to include all of Central America. But his initiatives, including one meeting in San José, Costa Rica, with representatives of the Salvadoran guerrilla front in August, served mainly to underscore the intransigence on all sides.
In July the Administration announced large-scale joint military maneuvers with Honduras. American personnel would be stationed in several locations around the country, including the narrow strip of land near the Gulf of Fonseca that separates El Salvador and Nicaragua. Thousands of personnel became involved, including Marines staging a practice amphibious landing. Unlike earlier exercises, including one called Big Pine near the eastern Nicaraguan border in February, these were not meant to last days or weeks, but months. U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, were also assigned off the coasts of Nicaragua.
Central America was no longer a place for quiet diplomacy. Some of the most highly regarded U.S. professional diplomats it had ever seen were dismissed from their jobs amid unflattering leaks from the White House, in the same public housecleaning that removed Enders. The republics of the isthmus became once again, as they had been for a time in the earliest days of the Administration, a place for big shows of commitment and big Washington names.
To balance the weight of military hardware and men thrown at the region in July, the President named former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head a bipartisan commission studying unified national approaches to U.S. policies in Central America; a prestigious figure might be seen to consider long-term policy goals with cool deliberation in the company of responsible public figures from both parties and therefore build vital political consensus.
Through such maneuvers the Reagan Administration succeeded, by and large, in setting the terms of domestic debate over Central America and the Caribbean and co-opting opposition to its policies even among its influential European allies. It might not offer workable solutions, but it could claim with some confidence that it had tried a variety of approaches and no one else had anything better to suggest. Meanwhile, hope for other alternatives, from the miraculous to the mundane, was steadily fading away.
The Pope's visit to Haiti and the seven nations of the isthmus for a week in March brought nothing resembling the peace, justice and love for which he prayed, nor even the rigid obedience from his clerics that he demanded. Instead it served to deepen the already profound and deeply political divisions among the faithful: in Nicaragua between revolutionary priests and their more tradition-minded hierarchy; in El Salvador between bishops who wanted a dialogue with the left, and a government that wanted the left eliminated; in Guatemala between the Catholic Church and its Protestant evangelical rivals, who were then in power.
The initiative of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, which seemed promising as an alternative to the imposition of solutions "made in the U.S.A." when they first came together as the so-called "Contadora group" in January 1983, and which continued to be relied on as the main framework for negotiations throughout the year, finally succeeded in little more than the articulation of 21 bland premises for peace that all sides could endorse while making no movement whatsoever toward resolving their fundamental hostilities. The Reagan Administration and the forces it backed on the ground in Central America lent their support to Contadora in direct proportion to its ineffectiveness.
By the fall, the White House could point to signs that its policies were working as well or better than expected. The government of Nicaragua was making conciliatory gestures on virtually every point raised by the Reagan Administration, from the removal of Cuban advisers to lightened censorship of the press and positive statements about the electoral process. Each time the Sandinistas moderated their initial negotiating stance, each time they made proposals or submitted draft treaties, the specific offers were rejected, but the fact they were made was viewed as a sign they were buckling under, and therefore a reason to increase the pressure. And each time the Sandinistas backed down just a little bit further.
Then the unexpected gambit played out in Grenada showed that the hard-line policy was capable of intimidating not only Nicaraguans, but Cubans. The invasion of Grenada seemed to strip Cuban President Fidel Castro of an ally and protegé. Not only did Castro make no move to come to its rescue, he seemed to back away from the Sandinistas as well, noting that "we do not have the means" to give direct military assistance to allies attacked by the United States.
The Administration's skillful tactics, its apparent advances and the Democrats' fears of being branded the people who "lost" some part of Central America or the Caribbean in the 1984 election campaigns, combined to temper congressional opposition to Reagan's policies. But still gnawing at the roots of the Administration's successes were the unreliability, the incompetence, even the hostility of its own key clients and supposed allies in the region.
Throughout the year the Reagan Administration described the Central American situation in terms that suggested, but never quite stated, that it was ready to go to war to protect what it considered U.S. interests there. These were described as questions of proximity, tradition, freedom, and democracy, and, most importantly and universally within the Administration, as questions of U.S. prestige and credibility. The more involved the United States became, of course, the more its prestige was on the line and the greater the need to become involved even further.
Reagan, in his April 27 address to Congress, raised the specter of Nazi U-boats sinking allied shipping in the Caribbean of 1942, the threat of the Soviet combat brigade still on Cuba, the menace of a Libyan arms shipment to Nicaragua. But the greatest threat of all was that Washington generally, and his Administration particularly, having put American prestige on the line there, would suffer a serious loss of face if the line were not held.
If Central America were to fall, what would the consequences be for our position in Asia, Europe, and for alliances such as NATO? If the United States cannot respond to a threat near our own border, why should Europeans or Asians believe that we are seriously concerned about threats to them? If the Soviets can assume that nothing short of an actual attack on the United States will provoke an American response, which ally, which friend will trust us then?6
By September, Under Secretary of Defense Fred C. Iklé was warning unequivocally in a White House-approved speech that in El Salvador, "We do not seek a military defeat for our friends. We do not seek a military stalemate. We seek victory for the forces of democracy." Iklé was even more forceful in appraising the threat from Nicaragua. "We must prevent consolidation of a Sandinista regime in Nicaragua that would become an arsenal for insurgency, a safe haven for the export of violence. If we cannot prevent that, we have to anticipate the partition of Central America. Such a development would then force us to man a new military front line of the East-West conflict, right here on our continent."7
At first the Administration could sidestep the obvious fact that such fighting words, to be credible, must be backed by a willingness to commit U.S. forces. "Now, before I go any further, let me say to those who invoke the memory of Vietnam," Reagan said in April, "there is no thought of sending American combat troops to Central America; they are not needed-indeed they have not been requested there."8 In November, Iklé made the same argument: "No need for U.S. combat forces exists; there are no intentions, no requirements, for American soldiers to get involved in fighting."9
But by year's end this was an increasingly tenuous assumption. The anti-Sandinista rebels showed signs of serious weakening as their war went on, and increasingly they came to depend on American advice and technology. Worse still from the Administration's point of view, the armed forces in El Salvador proved as impervious to the Reagan Administration's attempts to make them more efficient fighters as they were to congressional demands that they observe basic human rights. As the "freedom fighters" of Nicaragua and the defenders of "democracy" in El Salvador proved unable to do the job the United States was paying for, whether to roll back or to contain Marxist advances, the logic of the Reagan Administration's hard-line policies inexorably raised the possibility that the United States would have to do the job itself.
In the spring of 1983, the most famous field commander in the CIA-spawned Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) fighting the Sandinista government was a former sergeant in the defunct Nicaraguan National Guard named Pedro Pablo Ortiz Centeno. He called himself "Commmander Suicide" and behind his wispy beard, combat fatigues and gold chains he saw himself as a kind of communist-killing Pancho Villa. For a few months he was the blood-and-guts incarnation of a tactic developed in Washington and its embassies in Central America: the notion most often described, with appropriate striped-pants sterility, as "symmetry."
In its most basic form, symmetry was aptly summed up by a senior U.S. diplomat in Central America as "trading one little war for another little war." If Nicaraguan-backed guerrillas in El Salvador attacked the bases of the Salvadoran economy, then the United States would support guerrillas in Nicaragua attacking the bases of the Nicaraguan economy. An eye for an eye, an oil storage depot for an oil storage depot, as it were. If the Salvadoran guerrillas demanded that negotiations lead to their participation as equal partners in the Salvadoran government, then the Nicaraguan guerrillas, or "counterrevolutionaries" or "contras," as they were called, made the same demand on the Sandinistas.
One of the greatest bureaucratic virtues of this approach was that it had no real bottom line. It was purely a reactive mechanism, or at least it could be portrayed that way. In December 1982 Congress had publicly approved a measure passed in secret four months before. Known as the Boland Amendment, after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Edward P. Boland (D.-Mass.), it specifically prohibited the Reagan Administration from funding the contras with the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua. The notion of symmetry allowed the Administration to argue, however, that it was only doing unto Nicaragua what Nicaragua was doing unto others, even though the rebels Reagan funded in Nicaragua said openly that their goal was to overthrow the Sandinistas.
This approach also allowed the Reagan Administration to work out of the corner into which it had painted itself with its original justifications for funding anti-Sandinista rebels. The $19.5-million program of covert activities in Central America initially approved by President Reagan in March 1981 had the narrow goal of stopping Nicaraguan arms shipments to Salvadoran and other Central American rebels. But by November of that year a more ambitious plan was under way, to create a force that might attack the "Cuban support structure" in Nicaragua. With the size of the anti-Sandinista force growing by leaps and bounds through 1982 and the beginning of 1983, however, the earlier rationales gave way to the broader, more indirect concept of quid pro quo coercion.
Moreover, as the Administration moved away from the narrow question of Sandinista interference in its neighbors' affairs and began insisting on major changes in the basic nature of the Sandinista regime itself, symmetry became a part of that argument too. If El Salvador were having elections, then Nicaragua must have elections. As Jeane Kirkpatrick had argued in the 1979 essay that won her her job, "Dictatorships and Double Standards,"10 why should Washington demand of its friends what it was unwilling to demand of its self-declared enemies? Congress was sufficiently mollified by such reasoning to acquiesce in the steady build-up of anti-Sandinista forces from 500 in December 1981 to a projected 15,000 in late 1983.
But the tactic was founded on assumptions that did not hold up. Despite extensive training by both Argentine and U.S. advisers beginning in 1981,11 the contras working out of Honduras proved unable to operate effectively as a guerrilla army. Popular antipathy toward the Sandinistas did not translate into active support for the anti-Sandinistas even in the countryside, and much less in the cities. Contra efforts to establish urban bases were unavailing. After some initial successes in a concerted offensive beginning in late March, the contras' activities steadily were pared back to a fringe of territory within two or three days' march of their camps along the Honduran border. Whereas guerrillas in El Salvador posed a serious threat to the government with only 7,000 or 8,000 combatants in a nation of almost five million, a force of anti-Sandinista rebels building to twice that size in a country with only half that population made barely a dent in the Nicaraguan power structure.
In May, Suicide personally commanded almost half of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force then in the field. His common-law wife, known as "La Negra," oversaw his logistical support. For months the two of them had worked toward a single strategic goal: to capture the garrison town of Jalapa in Nueva Segovia province. This isolated community in a narrow, fertile valley only a few miles from the Honduran border could then be declared the capital of a new liberated zone and support brought to it in quantity by both air and land links to the Honduran base camps. It was said subsequently that the FDN high command and its CIA advisers (referred to by some FDN members as "the blue eyes" or "E.T., the Extraterrestrial") would not approve such an operation. But when La Negra was killed by a Sandinista ambush in May, Suicide went after Jalapa, literally, with a vengeance. But he was unable to take the town and in the process of trying his forces were cut to pieces. At CIA urging, Suicide was steadily but slowly stripped of his remaining units and finally detained by his superiors.
The incident underscored a major concern among even those congressmen who supported the funding of the contras. Once they were turned on, how could they be turned off? For the concept of symmetry to be credible, there must be a way of effectively cutting back the contra activity should the Sandinistas decide to come to terms. The forces backed by Washington must be under tight control. But the actions of Suicide suggested they were under little or no control.
By late summer a major reorientation of the contras' activities was under way. They were provided with several light airplanes and a new emphasis was put on commando sabotage operations deeper inside Nicaragua, supported by flights from airstrips in Honduras and El Salvador. Their most spectacular operation, the destruction of oil storage facilities in the port of Corinto the night of October 10, reportedly was carried out from a high-speed patrol boat similar to those provided by the CIA to the navies of El Salvador and Honduras.
"We should not-and we will not-protect the Nicaraguan Government from its own people," Reagan had said in April.12 But we would protect the people fighting against the Nicaraguan government, and the radically increased U.S. military presence in the region was at least partly intended to serve this purpose. Stepped-up raids on Nicaragua were bound to increase the risk that the Sandinistas would try to wipe out the contras' Honduran base camps. The joint maneuvers with Honduras announced in July served to deter such a threat. Hastily planned and haphazardly implemented in August and September, they appeared to have no end as their termination date was pushed ever further into 1984.
U.S. officials in Honduras argued that, in addition to deterrence, these "Big Pine II" maneuvers served to improve the quality of the Honduran troops and control some of the rashness of leading Honduran officers. As such, the diplomats argued, the maneuvers contained the threat of a spreading war.
But as early as July some FDN leaders also were calling openly for a direct U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, in tacit recognition of the fact that they were making few real inroads against the Sandinistas on their own.
At least as damaging to the Sandinistas as acts of sabotage committed by the contras were their own political blunders.
From the first days after their 1979 triumph at the head of a popular insurrection against the Somoza family's 43-year dictatorship, the Sandinistas moved to consolidate their position as the "vanguard" of a socialist revolution quite different from what many Nicaraguans had expected and many moderate governments had endorsed. With Cuban, East German and other Soviet bloc advisers, the Sandinistas rapidly established a state security organization and system of neighborhood surveillance closely modeled on that of Cuba. Havana's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) became Managua's Sandinista Defense Committees (CDSs). Nicaraguan society was progressively militarized and organized. Organs of the government and the party, which were increasingly indistinguishable, systematically harassed any institution that might provide a focus for organized opposition: the independent newspaper La Prensa, the relatively conservative Catholic hierarchy and the intensely evangelical Protestant churches, opposition political parties, labor unions not under Sandinista control, an independent human rights group, and organizations of businessmen.
The structure of a totalitarian system was firmly in place within a year after the end of the insurrection, and by 1982 most of those voices within the original government that were fundamentally opposed to notions of "democratic centralism" and variations on the theme of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" were out of the country, in many cases having chosen self-imposed exile. These included many of the nation's most capable technocrats, political leaders, even heroes of the revolution: the famous Commander Zero, Edén Pastora; former Sandinista Junta members Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz; former director of the Central Bank and member of the elite Sandinista Party itself, Alfredo César.13
Many moderate exiles coalesced around Pastora and Robelo in active political opposition to the Sandinista leadership. For a year they eschewed military action in the hopes that they could win international political support and tap into domestic Nicaraguan dissension sufficiently to moderate the Sandinista leadership. Unable to achieve either of these goals, and concerned that he was overshadowed by the burgeoning strength the FDN showed at the time, Pastora took up arms against his former comrades in the Sandinista government in April 1983. With a force of only a few hundred armed men, he began fighting out of bases in the Costa Rican jungle near the San Juan River. Within a few months he acknowledged at least indirect financial assistance and some light airplanes from the CIA, but he continued steadfastly refusing to join forces with the much larger and better equipped FDN.
Despite advice from Robelo and the others that such an alliance would be prudent, Pastora nurtured a long-standing hatred for the officers of the late dictatorship's National Guard. He blamed them for killing his father. He had fought them for more than two decades. And with such men composing the entire general staff of the FDN, Pastora refused to compromise. Moreover, he was convinced that the taint of the Guardia would preclude his ever garnering the popular support needed to wage a successful guerrilla war.
Yet, notwithstanding the mounting pressure from their enemies and the bitter disillusionment of their former friends, four years after the Sandinistas seized power the totalitarian structure they created had yet to be implemented with anything like the pervasiveness or force that one sees in Cuba or the Soviet bloc. The power of opposition figures and organizations might be circumscribed, but they continued to exist; roughly half of the gross national product was still produced by private enterprise.14
In 1982 the Sandinistas had vastly overreacted to the initial inroads of the contras. In the remote jungles of the Atlantic Coast, where a special force of the native Miskito Indians had been trained to fight them as part of the covert war, the Sandinistas forcibly evicted tens of thousands of other Miskitos from their villages along the Coco River bordering eastern Honduras and relocated them, in many cases after brutal marches, to internment camps. In the northwestern provinces where the FDN was most active, the Sandinistas made many random arrests and in several cases confiscated lands belonging to suspected contra sympathizers. The effect was to create among fiercely independent-minded small landholders-whether the Miskitos in the east or the cowboys of Nueva Segovia in the west-an intense hatred for the new regime in Managua where previously there was nothing worse than apathy toward it.
When the contras blew up two major bridges in the north of the country in March 1982, the Sandinistas declared a state of emergency and moved the implementation of their totalitarian system up a couple of notches. Harassment of La Prensa was replaced by overt censorship. More and more pretexts were found for expropriating private lands and companies. Despite cosmetic gestures toward a dialogue, political activities by such opposition parties as remained were increasingly circumscribed. The influential and respected Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, who rarely hesitated to confront the Sandinistas on broad questions of political rights or the narrow but vital one of control over the Church and its schools, was the focus of ever more virulent denunciations by the Sandinista press and officials.
All this lost the Sandinistas both domestic and international capital. West European nations that had once given the new Nicaraguan government enthusiastic support, including the socialist governments of Spain and France, now quietly distanced themselves from it.
A low point along this self-destructive path for the Sandinistas came on March 4, 1983, a few minutes after sunset, during the homily of Pope John Paul II. The Pontiffs one-day visit to Nicaragua threatened the Sandinista leadership because he reinforced the stand of the hostile Archbishop, criticized the revolutionary priests who served as active members of the Sandinista government, and undermined the rationale of a "people's church" that provided the Sandinistas with vital ties to the nation's intensely Catholic society. But the Sandinistas apparently believed that they could persuade the Pope to lend them some much-needed support in their fight against the contras, or, failing that, make it appear that he had done so. The front ranks of the crowd massed in July 19 Plaza were packed with Sandinista partisans. As the Pope spoke, they shouted "We want peace." The mothers of Sandinistas killed fighting in the northern provinces pleaded that the Pontiff say something about their children. Chants were led by the police holding back the crowd and at one point eight of the nine top Sandinista commanders were standing, clapping and shouting along with the mobs trying to drown out the Pope's calls for clerical discipline. It was an ugly scene and it was broadcast all over Central America and the world. In one dazzling display of the callowness and arrogance that had cursed their regime since its inception, the Sandinistas handed their opponents a propaganda goldmine.15
In June they made another major miscalculation. In what a defector subsequently described as an elaborately planned effort to discredit those political opponents who remained active in the country, the Sandinistas filmed and photographed several of their meetings with U.S. Embassy personnel. State Security then released excerpts of these films in the form of a short documentary showing various encounters complete with background music appropriate for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The pièce de resistance was the allegation that the chief political officer of the Embassy had plotted to kill Sandinista Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto, an American-educated Maryknoll priest, with a bottle of poisoned Benedictine liqueur. When the political chief and two other members of the U.S. Embassy staff were expelled, Washington retaliated with the expulsion of 21 Nicaraguan diplomats and the closing of all six Nicaraguan consulates in the United States.
On July 19, the fourth anniversary of their triumph, however, the Sandinistas unveiled a new multi-track policy of their own in response to their growing isolation and the mounting pressure orchestrated by the United States. They tried to revive the image of moderation and flexibility, both domestically and internationally, they had cultivated in the first days of their regime. Junta Coordinator Daniel Ortega, the de facto president of the country, emphasized the continued role of the private sector in the economy and the continued existence of pluralistic institutions, and reiterated promises to hold elections in 1985. Ortega also offered to address several issues raised by the United States and by the Contadora talks, including arms trafficking, in a multilateral framework. Nicaragua previously had insisted on bilateral negotiations with Honduras.
In October and November the Sandinistas moved further still in the direction of political moderation, offering a partial amnesty to anti-Sandinista guerrillas, somewhat relaxing their pressure on La Prensa, talking to the Catholic hierarchy and promising more details on the kind of elections they planned for 1985. Reports in January 1984 suggested these would follow the conventional Western pattern, with a vote by secret ballot first for a constitutional assembly, then subsequently for president and vice president.
But just as the United States and its allies proffered an olive branch with one hand and put brass knuckles on the other, the Sandinistas combined their conciliatory gestures with a major reinforcement and reorganization of their military machine. They instituted a draft. They reintegrated highly trained reservists, many of whom were veteran combatants, into the militia organizations of their home towns. Every hamlet and village was to become an armed camp with its people expected to defend their own homes in the event of an invasion.
These last moves toward ever more pervasive militarization in a highly individualistic society were not popular. But neither did they provoke anything like the animosity for which the anti-Sandinista rebels and their backers hoped. However much the government in Managua might have cried wolf in the past, a great many Nicaraguans were convinced by the end of 1983 that the war was real, that it was basically an invasion and not an insurrection, and that like it or not they would have to fight.
When the Reagan Administration first drew the line against communist advances in El Salvador, in February 1981, there was reason to think that the government forces there could hold off the guerrillas with minimal U.S. support and encouragement. The rebels had just staged a disastrous "final offensive" that revealed a striking paucity of popular commitment to their military ventures. They were unable to capture a single government garrison, much less spark the long-feared insurrection. The Salvadoran armed forces had held the line, as their commanders put it, "without a single cartridge" from the United States. Presumably once those cartridges were provided, along with some M-16s to fire them, some helicopters to carry soldiers around, some advisers to make everybody more efficient, the guerrilla threat could be pushed back in relatively short order.
But after that first blush of apparent success, the army of El Salvador demonstrated such a remarkable capacity for failure that by 1983 some of its officers wondered publicly if a plot were afoot in their own ranks to prolong the war. On the ground in El Salvador, senior U.S. diplomats and military advisers worried about the combination of inefficiency and brutality that were the trademarks of the country's army and security forces. An officer corps ambitious not to command but to do business, trained not for war but for repression, was an inherently unreliable collection of men on which to stake the security of the hemisphere and in which to confide the prestige of a world power.
Deane R. Hinton, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from June 1981 until August 1983, reached the conclusion that only what he called "generational change" could begin to reform seriously the Salvadoran military hierarchy. It was not only because they were needed in the field that the Administration funded the training of about 1,000 young Salvadoran cadets and second-lieutenants in 1982 and 1983, more than doubling the size of the officer corps; it was not only to reward capable captains and majors that it pressed the Salvadoran high command to revise its entire system of promotions, which is rigidly based on time served rather than distinguished service: it was in the hope that somehow the young Salvadoran officers emerging from Fort Benning, Georgia, could begin quickly to squeeze out the collection of incompetents (and worse) who ran the armed forces.
The Reagan Administration, however, found such misgivings difficult to acknowledge publicly. Instead, it emphasized a Nicaraguan and Cuban role in the rebels' success at regrouping, rearming and redeploying after the January 1981 debacle. This line reinforced the idea of Soviet-inspired tentacles relentlessly probing the weak underbelly of America's defenses, and the Cubans and Nicaraguans and a variety of other "internationalists" probably did provide important advice and support to the Salvadoran rebels at this stage of their conflict. There was ample evidence of such assistance before 1981, even if it was tainted by the exaggerations of the March 1981 "White Paper" on the subject. There is no question that supply operations and planning generally were facilitated by the Salvadoran rebels' ability to maintain offices, residences and perhaps training facilities in Nicaragua. The Cubans subsequently admitted funneling arms to the Salvadorans during the last months of 1980 and Sandinista leaders made no secret of their "solidarity" with the Salvadoran insurgents. But if arms shipments did continue in 1983 they proved impossible to intercept. The Reagan Administration cited no solid examples of supposed "major arms shipments" to the Salvadorans after early 1981.
As the conflict dragged on, the opinion grew among a concerned minority of American diplomats and military advisers that the emphasis on Nicaragua's role in El Salvador was misleading and potentially damaging to the war effort there. Even the "command and control" from Nicaragua was less important to the outcome than the relative performance, in combat in El Salvador, of the troops in the field. And on that score, though about 9,000 of them had received U.S. training in one form or another, the government forces were sadly lacking. Moreover, many of them simply declined to reenlist after two years of service, and some went over to the side of the guerrillas.
To suggest, as was sometimes done by both the Salvadoran and the American administrations, that the rebels were somehow better armed and supplied and trained than the government forces, rather than better led and more committed to the fight, was a dangerous misconstruction of the situation. Some Salvadoran commanders used the Nicaraguan-Cuban-Soviet connection as an excuse for their own incompetence, arguing that they could hardly be expected to wage war against the assembled forces of the East and openly asking why Washington didn't do the job itself. Many more officers tended to wage a "nine to five" war, taking weekends off and closing themselves up in their garrisons after normal working hours; conscripts were slow to enter combat and increasingly quick to surrender if the battle turned against them.
The lenient prisoner policy first implemented and publicized by the rebels in mid-1982 became a key factor in their 1983 successes, and it was vitally linked to their ever-improving supply situation. Captured government soldiers, especially those who surrendered with their arms, were often held only a matter of hours before being released. Small concentrations of government troops, particularly the little garrisons that used to be stationed in rural villages, were attacked systematically with overwhelming concentrations of rebel forces. Those who surrendered were spared and, given the uncertainty of reinforcement in many areas, there was little incentive to stand and fight. Throughout 1983 the guerrillas could make credible claims that most of their weapons, including even mortars and artillery pieces, came from the United States by way of captured government troops. By contrast, a May to August amnesty offered by the government to the guerrillas appeared to have little impact.
The Salvadoran military has always suffered from bitter infighting. After the reformist coup in October 1979 three fairly distinct groupings of officers became discernible: the leftists who were disposed to talk to and possibly even collaborate with some of the insurgent factions; the rightists, whose vision of what their country needed was not just anti-communist, but actively Fascist in the tradition of Argentine, Spanish and Italian Fascism dating back to the 1930s; and a third, ideologically ill-defined group that was characterized mainly by opportunism. With the acquiescence of the U.S. embassy, most of the left wing was forced out of command and in many cases out of the country in 1980. The power of the rightists also was circumscribed to some extent, and faith was put in the opportunists, led by the defense minister, General José Guillermo García. But this last group proved singularly inept and, it was frequently alleged, corrupt even by Salvadoran standards.
On January 7, 1983, rightist Lt. Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa, who had made his reputation as a uniquely successful provincial commander in the mountain province of Cabanas, refused to obey orders from García transferring him to Uruguay as a military attaché. He put his troops on alert and declared himself "in rebellion." Not a shot was fired in the six-day mutiny, but it effectively broke the power of the long-standing defense minister and a secret agreement was made for García to resign after three months. In April, under threat of a second mutiny by the Air Force, the agreement was kept. The new defense minister, former National Guard commander General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, opened the way for a major resurgence of the ultra-right in the military by appointing that faction's most senior officer as head of the elite and secretive Treasury Police at the end of May.
These right-wing officers were tied to a civilian power base through retired Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, elected president of the constituent assembly and very nearly president of the country in March 1982. But it was only in 1983 that they were able to assert themselves as a major force in the army command structure. The issue they used was the conduct of the war, and the increasingly frustrated U.S. advisers went along with them. Members of the rightist faction were given key commands in the general staff and major provincial garrisons in hopes that they would prosecute the fight against the communists more effectively than their less ideological predecessors.
Despite much tough talk, most of the ultra-rightists were slow to prove their worth on the battlefield. Several of the newly ascendant commanders were also linked to the resurgence of a phenomenon abhorrent to American values and potentially disastrous for American support: the self-styled "death squads" that capture, torture, terrify and kill anyone even suspected of "subversive" activities. Among their victims were American nuns and labor advisers. Iklé, among others, called these groups "fascist" and said they were as dangerous to American goals in El Salvador as the rebels.16
But any serious effort to eliminate the death squads immediately ran up against the problem that a large segment of the officer corps was likely to be implicated, including especially that group on which the conduct of the war now reposed. Vice President George Bush paid a special visit to El Salvador in December to demand that these groups be cleaned up immediately and that at least some of the officers associated with them be forced into "diplomatic" exile. But the Salvadoran government was slow and less than enthusiastic about acting on the demands. In practical terms, it was difficult to see how it could.
The Salvadoran war is a cyclical affair. Guerrilla activity normally peaks around January and February, in the middle of the dry season, then subsides from late spring to early fall during the rains. It took the rebels a year to regroup effectively after the abortive offensive at the beginning of 1981, but in the winter of 1982-83 and again in the early winter of 1983-84 they not only seized the initiative, they made major advances.
At the end of January 1983, the guerrillas struck the important coffee town of Berlin in the center of the country and held it for three days during government bombing attacks that killed scores of civilians. Throughout the dry season the insurgents steadily won control over large villages and towns where they did not previously have significant support. Salvadoran army commanders simply decided to abandon these population centers rather than risk having their men captured and their weapons taken, but in many cases all non-military government services, including schools and various public works projects, continued to function intact. Commerce went on more or less normally even though the men in uniform strolling the streets of La Palma in Chalatenango province or of Corinto in Morazan were members of the rebel army rather than the government's.
Much of the rebel doctrine about popular support was, until this new phase of the war, a matter of theory. After the destruction of their urban bases through massive repression and death squad activity in 1980, they had lived and fought in thinly populated mountain regions essentially isolated from the Salvadoran majority. But as village after village came into their hands, they now had a chance to come down from the mountains, to make contact with civilians who were apathetic or even hostile to their cause, and to begin once again their practical efforts to build broader political foundations.
Many Salvadorans were weary of the rebels' relentless attacks on the country's economic infrastructure as a means of weakening the government. The guerrilla sabotage-blowing up power lines and bridges, burning trucks and buses, torching crops and factories-caused an estimated $600-million damage to the Salvadoran economy in four years. Combined with the massive flight of capital scared out of the country by the war, and the more generalized ills provoked by the sluggish world economy and low commodity prices for Salvadoran exports, the impact was devastating. Real per capita income plunged by 35 percent from 1978 through 1983 despite hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. economic assistance over the same period.
The much-publicized agrarian reform program, hastily created in 1980, contributed to a major decline in production of export crops, and while it may have helped diminish support for the insurgency during its first few months of promises, as it was implemented it had little of the sweeping social and political effect for which it was designed. It initially redistributed about 20 percent of El Salvador's arable land and broke the hold the old agrarian oligarchy had over farm production. But instead of expanding as originally planned, the reform program was undermined by the right-wing leadership elected to the constitutional assembly in March 1982, by insufficient funds, lack of expertise, and of course by the fighting. The agrarian reform clauses in the draft constitution were the focus of fierce debate and kept that document from being concluded until late in 1983. As finally approved, they severely limited the prospects for any further attempts at sweeping redistribution of land.
As bad as the military and economic fronts appeared, the political one looked little better. In early March the Reagan Administration pressed the Salvadorans to push the date for presidential elections up from the spring of 1984 to late 1983. In the wake of Berlin and the Ochoa mutiny the government was seen as weak and ineffective, with the question of who was in charge in serious doubt since the end of Defense Minister García's clearcut authority. Parliamentary maneuvering by members of the old "official" Salvadoran government party had cost right-wing extremist Roberto D'Aubuisson his clearcut majority coalition in the constitutional assembly in January, but he remained its president. Meanwhile, interim President of El Salvador Alvaro Magaña had no clear constituency at all; he had been appointed in April 1982 at the insistence of García and the U.S. Embassy in order to thwart D'Aubuisson's bid for the top job. Although Magaña eventually gained widespread respect for his efforts to forge compromises among the participants in the government, given his interim status he was never able to push hard or far enough on the nation's toughest problems to lead. It was all he could do to survive.
In mid-1983, as the new constitution remained unfinished month after month, the date for elections was once again pushed back to March 25, 1984. The two main candidates emerged as D'Aubuisson and the Christian Democrats' José Napoleón Duarte, president of the military-civilian government junta until the March 1982 elections, although there were some slim hopes that other names might surface later in the campaign. The growing strength of D'Aubuisson's faction in the military raised fears among some diplomats that the extreme right would take radical action if he did not win at the polls-and that Congress would cut off all aid if he did.
Fortunately for the shaky Salvadoran regime, its rebel adversaries had their own serious problems in 1983. Salvadoran Marxists had fought among themselves for almost as long as they had fought against the government. Intense rivalries among the rebels led to multiple schisms and several intramural murders in the 1970s. After the five different Salvadoran guerrilla organizations pulled together into the coalition known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in 1980, they tried to patch over their differences publicly. But serious antagonisms remained behind the scenes. When the war entered crucial stages in 1983, those differences erupted with extraordinary brutality.
On April 6, Melida Anaya Montes, the second-in-command of the oldest and most dogmatic of the Salvadoran rebel organizations, was murdered in her Managua, Nicaragua, residence, stabbed scores of times with an awl by people who hoped to blame the murder on the CIA. But Sandinista police soon discovered that the killing was the work of other top commanders in her organization and had been ordered by its founder, Salvador Cayetano Carpio. Confronted with this information by his erstwhile friends among the Sandinistas, Cayetano committed suicide.
The rebels and their political spokesmen in the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) could no longer credibly deny their extensive presence in Managua, and the bloodletting evinced intense hatreds within their organizations that could not bode well for El Salvador should they win the war there. But the spokesmen insisted that the April killings were the end of a schism rather than the beginning of one. Anaya Montes was said to have represented the part of her organization that favored greater cooperation with the other rebel factions and more rapid accommodation and compromise with the Salvadoran government should the occasion arise. Cayetano Carpio, 63, steadfastly refused to dilute his dogma of "prolonged popular war."
Although both were now dead, guerrilla spokesmen insisted that the pragmatic, "moderate" line had won out. But control over the most intransigent elements of Cayetano's forces remained tenuous for months after his death. On May 25 an urban "commando" group from his faction-in effect a left-wing death squad-murdered Navy Lt. Commander Albert Schaufelberger III, the second highest ranking officer in the U.S. military group in San Salvador, the first U.S. adviser to be killed in El Salvador. The act was of dubious benefit to an organization desperately interested in maintaining a favorable image before the eyes of the American public. The same day, other members of Cayetano's faction murdered as many as 30 captured soldiers at a bridge on the Pan-American Highway, seriously damaging for several months the carefully laid strategy of encouraging surrender.
It was precisely at this juncture that the government began a much-publicized pilot project aimed at rolling back the military initiatives of the guerrillas, reactivating the economy and restoring the political image of the government at local levels. An ambitious "National Plan" was begun in two strategically located central provinces during the traditional pullback of the guerrillas, the rainy season when crops are planted. Mostly drawn up by Americans and modelled on the lines of the CORDS program used in Vietnam, the plan was to combine a pervasive military presence with extensive aid and "civic action" programs intended to convince the local population that the government would offer it concrete benefits while the guerrillas offered nothing but death and destruction. But many of the Salvadoran officers running the project had little faith in its efficacy. They were, not unwisely, concerned about the concentration of resources in two central provinces that left the rebels virtually complete freedom in four or five others.
By the end of the rainy season in September, the rebels had reshuffled the command of the old Cayetano organization once again and began to demonstrated widespread military cooperation among their factions. They started their new series of dry-season offensives by briefly but completely overrunning San Miguel, the third largest city in the nation. When fighting intensified month after month, interest in the National Plan on the part of the government and claims for it by the embassy subsided quickly.
And the rebels made striking gains at the end of the year. On December 30, the Salvadoran army allowed the most modern U.S.-designed garrison in the nation to be overrun by a guerrilla force that it had not even known was in the area. Two days later, in the first hours of 1984, the rebels blew up the largest, and supposedly the most heavily guarded, bridge in the country.
While North Americans conjured images of falling dominoes when they talked of rebel victories in Central America, the people of the nations neighboring war-torn Nicaragua and El Salvador talked of a spreading "cancer." Like the Reagan Administration, the governments of Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama were persuaded that the burgeoning military strength of Nicaragua was a potent threat to their own security and that a rebel victory in El Salvador, establishing a second expansionist revolutionary regime in the area, would be a disaster. But there was little consensus among them on what concrete steps they might take to eliminate the threat. And there were persistent worries among political moderates that the suggested cures, especially the ever-increasing militarization underwritten by Washington, could prove as dangerous as the disease.
Nowhere was this debate more intense, open and complex than in Costa Rica, sandwiched between revolutionary Nicaragua and strategic Panama. It is the region's only well-established Western democracy, but it gained that status, most Costa Ricans believe, by abolishing its armed forces in 1948 and establishing an extensive social welfare system. Few Costa Ricans have any desire to revive their army, given the penchant of Latin American military men to tolerate civilian democracies only reluctantly and eliminate them quite readily. But at the same time few Costa Ricans could be comfortable with the unprecedented build-up of the Sandinistas' military machine to their north. Having provided the Sandinistas with asylum and a staging area in their wars against the Somozas, Costa Ricans viewed the ominous new regime in Managua with something of the loathing and mistrust that Dr. Frankenstein felt for his monster.
When the government of President Luis Alberto Monge was elected in 1982 it quickly staked out a pro-American, anti-Sandinista stand. But it argued consistently that the best way for the United States to help it preserve its democracy was to underwrite Costa Rica's faltering economy, with its heavily subsidized health, education and welfare programs. Although some limited steps were taken to improve the performance of existing police or Rural Guard units, including training of Costa Rican military instructors at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama, Monge still wanted to avoid confrontations with the government in Managua.
Former Sandinista commander Edén Pastora's decision to fight his former comrades, however, presented Costa Rica with a problem it could not easily finesse. Pastora was a hero to many Costa Ricans, having been exiled to Costa Rica in Somoza's time; after his spectacular 1978 raid on the Managua National Palace as "Commander Zero" he was the principal spokesman for the most moderate Sandinista views-what might even be called the Costa Rican line-during the insurrection. When he came out publicly against the Sovietization and the corruption of the Nicaraguan revolution's original goals in 1982, the Costa Ricans were quietly pleased. But as Pastora began actively to wage war against the Sandinista leadership from Costa Rican territory in 1983, they were compromised. There was tension throughout the year between those members of the Costa Rican government disposed to help Pastora's fledgling efforts and those who saw them as dangerous adventurism. Costa Rica had no military shield to protect it from Sandinista retaliation.
At first the United States, working closely with then Costa Rican Foreign Minister Fernando Volio, pushed for more military training and, in various guises, the beginnings of a serious American military presence in the country. U.S. Navy construction crews were sent to the northern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste to dig wells within a few minutes drive of the Nicaraguan border. General Paul F. Gorman of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama proposed a roadbuilding program that would have put hundreds, possibly thousands, of U.S. troops into the border region. Costa Rica was even asked to sit in on talks about mutual defense agreements in the region. But as Pastora's efforts showed few short-term results and the internal consequences of such increasingly overt militarization were more closely considered, Monge publicly opted for neutrality in the region's wars, hoping to reestablish his country's position as a "Switzerland" of Central America.
Nicaragua's northern neighbor, Honduras, was as aggressive as Costa Rica was ambivalent. A large and underpopulated republic, Honduras has been invaded and exploited through most of its history. American fruit companies were decisive in its economic development. Palestinian immigrants picked up most of the remaining business opportunities. A succession of military regimes were distinguished mainly for their corruption. A three-day war with El Salvador in 1969 ended with humiliating defeats. Yet Honduras traditionally has had a remarkable resistance to the class conflicts that help foment revolution among its neighbors.
When the Honduran people were given a chance to vote for a new civilian government in 1981, the turn-out was massive and enthusiastic. But in order to preserve his regime and to gird for what many of his officers saw as the coming war with Nicaragua, President Roberto Suazo Cordova increasingly relied on the Argentine-trained head of the armed forces, General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez. In a country where the military traditionally runs the government, the General was more prominent than the president. Alvarez Martínez was straightforward about his desire to eliminate the Sandinistas. "Everything you do to destroy a Marxist regime is moral," he said in July.17 But Alvarez Martínez lacked the army to fight the war himself. With only 15,000 men, and many of those press-ganged into service, even his greatly superior air force did not make his military a match for the Nicaraguans. U.S. diplomats faced the challenge of committing sufficient resources to Alvarez Martínez to protect and satisfy him without allowing him to set the agenda for the commitment of U.S. troops to combat or support roles in a wider war.
Guatemala's 22,000 soldiers were the best-trained, most effective troops in Central America, but they had two major liabilities: a grim record of atrocities dating back over 20 years in a fight against simmering insurgencies, and a penchant for putting some of their most corrupt generals into the presidential palace.
From March 1982 until August 1983, President Efraín Ríos Montt made some important changes in the usual scenario. Whole villages suspected of guerrilla sympathies were wiped out, but the massacres were carried out with carefully calculated effect. Montt's message to his country's Indian majority was simple; his government could protect the villagers from the rebels, but the rebels could not protect them from the government. Everyone had to choose allegiance, and most people chose the government, at least temporarily.
At the same time, Ríos Montt reduced dramatically the murders of dissidents in urban areas where these readily came to the attention of the church, the press, and human rights organizations. Ríos Montt promised to follow up his military campaigns with development programs to win the long-term loyalty of the Guatemalan people, both Indian and Ladino. He was adamantly opposed to the kind of pervasive corruption most of his predecessors had shown. And such policies made major strides against what had been a burgeoning insurgency. But Ríos Montt's political acumen was undermined by his fanatical devotion to a California-based evangelical church and its elders who surrounded him as advisers. His loyalty to this group eventually cost him the tenuous fealty of his troops, and the desperately needed international economic backing he had promised never materialized.
The February murder of Guatemalans working under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development and repeated lies about the incident by the defense minister, General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, helped sour the U.S. embassy on Ríos Montt's regime, and even though some of the human rights restrictions on military sales to Guatemala were lifted, Washington was reluctant to fight for aid to such an eccentric regime. Montt's nationalistic and evangelistic fervor also made him an unpredictable element in the regional military alliances being forged in the face of the Nicaraguan threat.
On August 7, after months of trying to thwart plots with promises soon broken, Ríos Montt was ousted in a coup. His replacement was none other than Mejia Victores. After a few token statements indicating his will to reform the regime and pursue democratic goals, the new head of state returned the government to its pre-Montt patterns: killings rose dramatically in the cities; corruption once again reached embarrassing and demoralizing levels; the guerrillas began to regroup. But Guatemala did appear increasingly receptive to the idea of military cooperation with its neighbors.
Several influential policymakers in the Reagan Administration, most conspicuously Jeane Kirkpatrick, believe in principle that Latin Americans should take the lead in resolving their problems while the United States merely plays a role of strong support. In practice, the appearance of Latin initiatives might have to be accepted as sufficient. For most of the last three years the Reagan Administration has attempted to foster regional political alliances isolating Nicaragua.
In 1982 the Central American Democratic Community provided the semblance of such a framework, although Enders played such a prominent role in its deliberations and decisions at the San José meeting in September 1982 that the credibility of Central Americans making their own initiatives was damaged. In 1983 the CADC faded into the background and two other groupings came to the fore. At an October meeting of regional military chiefs and U.S. officials in Honduras, steps were taken toward reactivating the long moribund Central American Defense Council, which could bring together the armies of the subscribing nations-Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama-for joint actions. Over the summer a Regional Military Training Center was established under U.S. and Honduran auspices at Puerto Castilla, Honduras. Its primary purpose was to train quantities of Salvadoran troops without raising the Administration's self-imposed limit of 55 U.S. military advisers inside El Salvador. But another major goal was to enhance cooperation among the Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan armies, all of which were expected to train units there. The Sandinistas called this a transparent preparation for invasion, but the likelihood of these traditionally antagonistic national armies working together effectively seemed small.
A completely different initiative, and one with impeccable regional origins, was the much publicized "Contadora Process," named for the Panamanian island where the foreign ministers of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama first came together in January. Organized as a joint effort for peace explicitly omitting direct U.S. participation and, presumably, U.S. machinations, it presented the Reagan Administration with both a challenge and an opportunity.
As Mexico and Nicaragua viewed it, the initiative was aimed at preventing the United States from invading Nicaragua, thus buying the time and providing a forum for a negotiated settlement that might guarantee the survival of the Nicaraguan revolution. "Contadora," said Sandinista Commander Tomas Borge ten months after the process began, "is a retaining wall and a pathway."18 But for the Reagan Administration and the nations it supported in the region, Contadora offered other possibilities: a means to isolate and pressure the Sandinistas without Washington seeming the instigator. It was the tension between these wholly different views of what Contadora was supposed to achieve that prevented it from reaching concrete results despite endorsements by everyone from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan.
In September the four Contadora countries and the five Central American republics, including Nicaragua, endorsed a 21-point framework for peace. Key elements included a withdrawal of foreign military advisers and firm promises that national territories would not be used for attacks on neighbors, as well as a ban on undercover arms trafficking and the identification and elimination of "irregular forces." But for such agreements to work among parties as hostile as Nicaragua and its neighbors there would have to be strict verification, and since the essential nature of the actions in question was that they were covert, hidden, illicit, it was difficult to imagine how that might be possible, At this point in the Central American conflict, moreover, the Marxist Nicaraguan government and the Salvadoran rebels probably could survive under such agreements, but the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan rebels almost certainly could not.
"Democracy," as used in the Contadora proposals by Nicaragua's antagonists, meanwhile became something of a code word for the elimination of the Sandinista Directorate. Honduran and other officials assumed that the Sandinistas could not possibly be elected if they subjected their government to a fair test at the polls, and that if they were elected in the vote scheduled for 1985 then the vote could not have been fair.
The Contadora Process and the peripatetic initiatives of Ambassador Richard Stone came to be viewed with increasing cynicism in the region. Speaking of Reagan's special envoy at the end of August, one top Salvadoran official said privately, "I don't think he's doing anything. . . . I think he likes to travel." There was a pervasive sense of apprehension on the isthmus, and little confidence that the problems of the area might be resolved short of major confrontations.
Then, suddenly, events in the Caribbean, thousands of miles to the east, threw new and even more unpredictable elements into the Central American equation.
President Reagan's decision to send U.S. troops into Grenada at the end of October was described by Administration officials as a move based on very special circumstances, a rescue mission to extricate 1,000 Americans, mostly medical students, who might otherwise have been taken hostage. Without that important element to win political support in the United States, it probably would not have taken place. But as unique as the Grenada invasion was in some ways, there were precedents set there with important potential applications to Central America.
The Reagan Administration had expressed growing concerns about Maurice Bishop's four-year-old Marxist government on Grenada throughout 1983 as the controversial international airport there neared completion. The Grenadans wanted it, they said, so that something bigger than a Beechcraft could start bringing tourists to their beautiful but cash-starved island. But what was the Cuban and Soviet interest?
Seven months before ordering the invasion, in a televised speech defending his defense budget on March 23, President Reagan showed a reconnaissance photo of the runway and warned the American people:
On the small island of Grenada at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000 foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for? The Caribbean is a very important passageway for our international commerce and military lines of communication. More than half of all American oil imports now pass through the Caribbean. The rapid build-up of Grenada's military potential is unrelated to any conceivable threat to this island country of under 110,000 people, and totally at odds with the pattern of other eastern Caribbean States, most of which are unarmed. The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region, and it is in this important economic and strategic area that we are trying to help the governments of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and others in their struggles for democracy against guerrillas supported through Cuba and Nicaragua.19
In Reagan's April 27 address to a joint session of Congress, he again mentioned Grenada prominently. Referring to an incident a few days before when Libyan cargo planes bound for Nicaragua with a disguised shipment of weapons were detained by authorities in Brazil during a refueling stop, Reagan said, "If that airfield on Grenada had been completed, those planes could have refueled there and completed their journey."
These statements apparently were intended as warnings to Grenada. But the Administration did not include military actions related to Grenada when it stepped up its actions in Central America in July, and when the invasion did come in October there was no evidence that the Administration was acting on the basis of preconceived military plans.
In June, Maurice Bishop visited the United States. The highest ranking official to receive him was National Security Advisor William Clark, who reportedly told him that the United States was ready for better relations with Grenada but wanted actions to back up Bishop's expressions of good will. In hindsight, Bishop's visit may have been a desperate attempt to head off growing extremist opposition, and he may genuinely have wished to reduce his Cuban ties or at least balance them with some links to the United States. But the Administration had almost no accurate intelligence on what was happening in Grenada and apparently did not see these possibilities.
Then, on October 13, Bishop was arrested by extremist colleagues under the leadership of Central Committee Member Bernard Coard and General Hudson Austin. On October 19 he was freed by enthusiastic followers only to be murdered by the extremists the same day. There was little doubt that Coard and his cronies were an unsavory crew. Fidel Castro minced no words in his description of them a couple of weeks later, likening them to the infamous "Pol Pot group" in Cambodia and calling them "hyenas emerged from the revolutionary ranks."20
The tightly knit societies of the tiny island nations in the Eastern Caribbean, meanwhile, linked by their common heritage as quiet little British colonies that quietly attained independence in the last two decades, felt genuinely threatened by the radicalism and violence they saw in the new Grenadan regime. In a series of urgent consultations after October 19, several members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States wished the United States to act at once. The charter of the Organization provided that its members might appeal unanimously for outside help in the event of external intervention. The six-nation request was not unanimous-and the case for "external" intervention was not then made-but it was on this appeal that the Administration relied heavily when it decided on the weekend of October 23 to go ahead. (The Administration's case would be aided later by the news that the British-appointed governor general of Grenada, Paul Scoon, who had been under house arrest, had also made a call for U.S. help. But, unfortunately, consultation with the British government itself was at best incomplete; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learned of the decision to invade only after the action was underway, and immediately expressed strong reservations.)
As stated by President Reagan in a letter to the Speaker of the House on October 25, the day the Marines landed, the basic reasons for the invasion were the protection of American citizens and the restoration of order and democratic rule in conjunction with Grenada's neighbors in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. A third objective set forth explicitly in the written presidential order to invade, but not mentioned in the letters to Congress, was to eliminate Cuban "intervention" on the island and make sure it could not take root again.21 Not to have moved against a Marxist government with fewer than 10,000 troops on a minuscule island, Administration officials said at the time, would have made the United States seem a "paper tiger."22
Just how much danger the Americans on the island actually faced remains a matter of debate. Although tensions were high and the presence of Grenadan troops nearby appeared threatening, no direct threats actually were made. A U.S. intelligence report from Barbados on October 24 raised the possibility of a hostage situation only to the extent that Grenada's new leaders saw the prospect of an evacuation as a prelude to an invasion; a justified concern considering the order to land had already been signed at that point.23
The Administration's concern about the airport facility and the projection of Soviet-Cuban military power was also subject to contradictory evidence. The 750-man Cuban "labor" force showed considerable fighting ability, putting up by far the most effective resistance to the U.S. troops. On the other hand, British engineers who designed the airport insisted that they had done so to civilian specifications and that there were none of the special facilities needed for military use.
The U.S. forces did discover substantial arms caches and other military equipment, as well as documents reconfirming and strengthening the picture of Cuban and Soviet influence on the Grenadan regime. Although much of its evidence was gathered after the invasion, the Administration was able to present the American public with a fairly convincing portrayal of Grenada as an outpost of Cuban and Soviet subversion. The U.S. news media were outraged by their exclusion from the island for the first two days, triggering a separate controversy and raising some questions in the minds of reporters, if not in the mind of the public, about the credibility of some Administration claims. But the President's October 27 speech (which also dealt with the disastrous bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon on October 23) turned the tide of public opinion strongly in the Administration's favor.
So, after an 18-year hiatus, the United States returned to its tradition of gunboat diplomacy in an action that could be deplored in principle but was difficult to condemn in practice. Americans were proud of it. With minimal casualties and an enormous outpouring of popular support back home, the U.S. armed forces achieved all three goals set for them in the invasion order. The whole military operation lasted less than two months, of which only a few days saw any fighting. The last combat troops were withdrawn from the island on December 15; meanwhile millions of dollars were directed toward its economic development. There was no independent government for the time being, but news stories led one to believe that many Grenadans, after the traumas of the last few years of independence, were satisfied, at least temporarily.
And if Grenada "shook them up in Nicaragua," as one Administration policymaker put it, that was all to the good. The specter of a hostage-taking made Grenada's situation unique, but the other justifications for invasion had more general applicability.
One of these might be called the "bad neighbor policy," based on the idea that a group of friendly nations can invite the United States to invade a neighbor they see as threatening, sending only token forces of their own. Certainly the various regional alliances fostered and revived with Washington's encouragement could provide a convenient framework for such a request in Central America.
An equally threatening precedent for the Sandinistas lay in the notion that when a revolutionary government falls apart violently and no immediately recognized regime takes its place, the United States somehow has the right, if not legally then morally, to restore that country's domestic tranquility through military occupation.
The eventual goal of the "secret" war against the Sandinistas might be to provoke just such a breakdown. Several Administration officials said privately that they believed the nine-man Sandinista National Directorate, Nicaragua's supreme ruling body, could be made to crack. They saw this collegial form of government, which had persisted for more than four years since the insurrection, as anomalous or, as one put it, "unnatural." There were few if any precedents for such a thing in the history of revolutions generally and Latin America particularly. It was viewed as strange that no single dictator had seized power from his comrades, or even made a visible effort to do so, especially given the long history of divisions and debate over dogma among the nine commandantes before they took power in 1979. More pressure in the form of contra attacks and economic sanctions might lead to its disintegration. If Nicaragua were without a government, if its neighbors called on Washington to restore order, the example of Grenada now existed as, in many ways, a useful precedent.
At the close of the year Central America seemed on the verge of a region-wide war, and what role the United States might play in such a conflagration remained, at best, a matter of conjecture.
The Reagan Administration's arguments about strategic security interests, and the obvious shortcomings of the Central American armies charged with defending those interests, seemed to dictate a direct commitment of U.S. force, either through airpower and tactical support, or with troops. But congressional and public opposition and the political reality of upcoming presidential elections in the United States argued strongly, perhaps decisively, against any such actions.
On January 11, 1984, when the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, presented its findings to President Reagan, there appeared little chance that it would succeed either in establishing long-term policy or in taking the Central America issue off the 1984 hustings.24
Speculation about the impact of the U.S. election year meanwhile weighed heavily in the strategic calculations of the warring parties. El Salvador's rebels, particularly, debated how far and how fast they could move against the Salvadoran government in terms of how constrained Reagan might be by election year politics. The rebels had been unable to revive their urban organizations sufficiently to stage a quick and overwhelming insurrection, even if they were to have the popular support they presume they have. But their domination had grown steadily over the third of the nation east of the Lempa River. It was practically an article of faith among El Salvador's rebels that President Reagan would commit American airpower and possibly combat troops to the Salvadoran war if the government began to fall. But on the other hand the rebels said they believed that Reagan would commit the United States to direct involvement anyway if he won a second term. Such thinking encouraged them to move as hard and fast as they could at the beginning of 1984.
The Sandinistas meanwhile had taken about as many conciliatory steps as they were likely to be willing to do. They believed that the Reagan Administration and Honduras would not be satisfied until they gave up so many of their principles-Marxist, internationalist, "anti-imperialist"-that they stopped being Sandinistas.
At the end of the year, some State Department officials privately expressed hopes that the Administration, having pushed as far as it was reasonable to go in Central America, would then be more willing to bend in negotiations. What form such flexibility might take was unclear.
One possibility would be for Washington to step back from its insistence on fundamental internal changes in Nicaragua's government. In El Salvador, if the regime there could survive through the scheduled March elections and Duarte were to win, he might be in a position to hold more substantive talks with the rebels than previous governments have been able or willing to do. In the summer of 1984, particularly if the Salvadoran government showed its usual wet-season strength, Reagan could present himself as a moderate man of peace by accepting some previously unacceptable terms of negotiation with the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels. But that would mean a retreat from ideology. And the ineluctable trend in the Administration has been to draw its line ever harder and ever deeper in Central America's sands.
1 Notes from a November 1980 interview with U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Lawrence Pezzullo, subsequently excerpted in Christopher Dickey, "2nd Ambassador Joins Criticism Of Reagan Team," The Washington Post, December 12, 1980, p.A1. Pezzullo, a career diplomat, remained in Nicaragua through most of 1981, but subsequently left the foreign service.
2 See Don Oberdorfer, "U.S. Policy Reflects A New Sense of Urgency," The Washington Post, August 7, 1983, p. A1. Oberdorfer wrote: "The day after George P. Shultz was named to succeed Alexander M. Haig, Jr., as secretary of state in June 1982, an internal State Department briefing paper on Central America outlined the existing Reagan Administration vision of 'Where We Go From Here' for the new chief U.S. diplomat: 'Assuming that Cuba and Nicaragua do not substantially increase the stakes in Central America, the secret to success will be a steady and sustained effort. Barring serious miscalculation by the other side, there will be no opportunities for a quick decisive action to end the problem.'"
Also see Oberdorfer, "U.S. Plans for Possible Rise in Cuban Role in Nicaragua; Military, Political Action Being Considered by NSC," The Washington Post, April 17, 1983, p. A1. "By April 1982 . . . State Department officials were beginning to believe that 'opportunities as well as challenges' could flow from communist escalation in the area. . . . 'Introduction of MiGs into Nicaragua could be exploited to obtain financing for upgrading of Honduran air force and stationing of U.S. squadron in Honduras,' said a State Department paper prepared for NSC discussion on U.S. policy in Central America and Cuba."
3 All statistics on the strengths of Central American and Caribbean government armies are drawn from The Military Balance 1983-1984, compiled by The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, except in the case of Grenada, which was not listed.
4 Lou Cannon and John M. Goshko, "U.S. Weighs Plan for 'Two-Track' Policy on Salvador," The Washington Post, February 10, 1983, p. A1.
5 Ronald Reagan, "Central America: Defending Our Vital Interests," April 27, 1983. United States Department of State, Current Policy No. 482, Washington, D.C.
7 "Remarks Prepared for Delivery by the Honorable Fred C. Iklé, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, Sept. 12, 1983." News Release, Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) No. 450-83, Washington, D.C.
8 Reagan, op cit.
9 Fred C. Iklé, "The Future of Democracy in Central America," prepared for the Dallas World Affairs Council, Dallas, Texas, November 16, 1983. News Release, Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), No. 566-83. Washington, D.C.
10 Reprinted in Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
11 The Argentine role was a complex one. It was partly fostered by personal links between the chief of the Honduran Armed Forces, General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, and the military establishment in Buenos Aires. Alvarez Martínez was a cadet at the Argentine military academy from 1958 to 1961. One of his best friends there, the General said in a July interview, was Emilio Echaverry, who became a major in the Nicaraguan National Guard. After the guard's 1979 defeat, Echaverry went into exile and in 1982 became the chief of staff of the anti-Sandinista rebels operating out of Honduran territory. Although there was serious friction between Argentina and the United States over Washington's position in the Falklands war in 1982, and there were several reports that the Argentines were then withdrawn from the anti-Sandinista training program in Honduras as a result, this does not appear to have been entirely true. When I interviewed several of the rebels in the mountains of Nicaragua during their March offensive, they said they had been trained by Argentines as recently as February 1983. Ranking members of the anti-Sandinista organizations later confirmed this, but said that the last Argentine advisers were pulled out in April 1983 as their functions were taken over by the Nicaraguan exiles themselves. In January 1984, the new Argentine President Raul Alfonsín announced definitely that Argentine support for the contras was ended and that Argentina would thenceforth align itself on Central American issues with Mexico in particular. The Washington Post, January 19, 1984, p. A1.
12 Reagan, op cit.
14 Both the Nicaraguan Planning Ministry and representatives of the private sector agree on this ballpark figure, with the Sandinistas claiming the private sector has a little more, and the private sector claiming it has a little less.
15 The FDN made the Sandinistas' harsh treatment of some segments of the Church a key point in much of its literature and in its recruiting operations. Several FDN leaders, interviewed in Guatemala during the Pope's tour, were frankly overjoyed at the turn of events in Managua.
17 Christopher Dickey, "Exercises Said to be Shield for Honduras," The Washington Post, July 28, 1983, p. A1.
18 Notes from a conversation with Sandinista Interior Minister and Commander of the Revolution Tomas Borge, Managua, Nicaragua, October 1983.
19 Ronald Reagan, "Peace and National Security: A New Defense," delivered from the White House, March 23, 1983. Vital Speeches of the Day, April 15, 1983, Vol. XLIX, No. 13, Southold (N.Y.): City News Publishing Co.
20 Fidel Castro, "Farewell address by Commander In Chief Fidel Castro, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party and President of the Councils of State and Ministers, in funeral homage to the heroes fallen in unequal combat against Yankee Imperialism in Grenada: Delivered at Revolution Square, Havana, November 14, 1983." Published as an advertisement in The New York Times, November 20, 1983, pp 60-61.
21 See Don Oberdorfer, "Reagan Sought to End Cuban 'Intervention'," The Washington Post, November 6, 1983, p. A1.
22 Bernard Gwertzman, "Steps to the Invasion: No More 'Paper Tiger'," The New York Times, October 30, 1983, p. 1-A.
23 Oberdorfer, loc. cit. footnote 21.
24 Six months of research (though only six days in Central America) and some intense internal debate had produced a document that, taken as a whole, would have represented an unprecedented commitment of U.S. resources to the peace and development of the Central American isthmus. But it was clear from the time the first news stories appeared on the report the week before its release that neither the press, nor Congress, nor the Administration itself was going to consider it as a comprehensive and indivisible package. Realistically, it probably could not be. The most farsighted recommendations for billions more dollars in carefully programmed funds for the isthmus depended on a Congress with little enthusiasm for such ambitious funding.
In its appraisal of the threat to U.S. security and the present nature of the wars in Central America, however, the commission had a more immediate impact. Its liberals supported the Administration's darkest vision of the Soviet threat, a rationale for virtually open-ended commitment of military resources, in return for the token gesture of a congressional certification requirement that the Salvadoran military make improvements in the area of human rights. Because President Reagan had vetoed a similar requirement only a few weeks before, this became the focus of much attention. But since the same soldiers who have to be certified remain the only thing standing between the United States and the Soviet-Cuban threat, as Washington saw things there was no way to give them a failing grade without forfeiting the game to Moscow.