The Crisis Areas: Central America: From Quagmire to Cauldron?

Courtesy Reuters

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.

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