On President Reagan’s first inauguration day, revolution appeared to be spreading across Central America. The Sandinistas were consolidating their hold over Nicaragua and guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala were on the move. Americans began thinking that Central America could become "another Vietnam." Six years later, Central America is going much better for Washington than Southeast Asia did—and with much less effort. Revolution has not spread, and the leftist guerrillas of Central America are not faring well, without the deployment of U.S. troops.


To assess the current status of revolutionary forces in Central America and U.S. policies for dealing with them, one must begin with Nicaragua. The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua has not been overthrown, but it has been contained. The Sandinistas, with their huge army and highly effective security and intelligence apparatus and their reservoir of youthful support, will not be overthrown anytime in the foreseeable future unless the United States decides to mount an all-out war. The Nicaraguan rebels have been unable to dislodge the Sandinistas, and by year’s end the U.S. policy of backing them was the subject of renewed controversy in Washington.

In fact, the most important developments concerning Nicaragua in 1986 occurred in Washington, where, after a high-pitched public campaign by the Administration, President Reagan finally convinced Congress to go along with his policy of giving military aid to the rebel forces. On June 25 the House of Representatives approved $100 million in aid for the Nicaraguan rebels.

The White House version of Central American affairs, as stated by President Reagan in a nationally televised address on March 16, 1986, warned the American people of "a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States. This danger will not go away; it will grow worse, if we fail to take action now." Furthermore, he said, "Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sealanes and ultimately move against Mexico."

Even though this characterization exaggerated the immediacy of the dangers, the President’s stark interpretation of the Central American situation may have worked to push an ambivalent Congress to back the "contras," as the rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government are called. The key votes in approving the 1986 aid package were mostly those of Democratic congressional moderates who had in 1984 cut off contra funding and in 1985 reluctantly approved nonmilitary "humanitarian aid." They came around in 1986 to believe that the kind of U.S. pressure that partially reformed the Salvadoran army could be used to mold the contras into a more attractive force.

Before the congressional conference committee meshed Senate and House versions of the contra aid legislation, the downing on October 5 of a cargo plane carrying weapons and American crewmen over Nicaragua appeared at first to jeopardize the Reagan Administration’s policy. Captured documents and testimony supplied by the surviving crewman, Eugene Hasenfus, revealed a disingenuous White House; by helping a shadowy network of civilians and former CIA agents gain access to Salvadoran, Honduran and Costa Rican airstrips, the National Security Council staff seemed to be stepping around the Boland Amendment, which prohibited arming the contras to overthrow the Sandinista government. Concrete evidence of official U.S. wrongdoing was not produced, however, and Congress completed work on the aid bill, without even a delay, thereby sending a signal that legalistic niceties were secondary to the job of destabilizing Nicaragua. The Sandinistas duly reaped the propaganda benefits of putting Hasenfus on trial, sentencing him to 30 years, and then sending him home just before Christmas.

Where the funds for these supply operations were coming from remained a mystery until the secret U.S. arms sales to Iran were made public in November. Attorney General Edwin Meese subsequently announced that $10 to $30 million had been diverted from the profits of these sales to buy weapons for the contra forces. President Reagan dismissed Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council staff, for his leading role in the diversion of funds, and National Security Adviser Admiral John Poindexter resigned at the same time. Just what North’s role was, and how much official involvement there was in this operation of shifting funds was not made clear, but the National Security Council staff and probably the Central Intelligence Agency were implicated in activities that appeared to violate U.S. law. The contra connection with the Iran arms sales (and the retaking of the Senate by the Democrats in the November elections) raised doubts that U.S. support for the Nicaraguan rebels would be continued by the next Congress. It was thought that Congress might even halt the final $40-million installment of the $100 million in aid to the rebels, which would deprive them of badly needed advanced weaponry. In any case, by year-end a reassessment of the policy was obviously needed.

The crisis precipitated by these revelations, as well as the embarrassing Hasenfus affair, demonstrated that the contras are almost totally dependent on the United States and even subject to significant U.S. control to keep their war effort going. It has been that way ever since the Central Intelligence Agency played a key role in reshuffling the original contra leadership in 1982. At that time a CIA operative who called himself Tony Feldman actually interviewed leadership candidates in the United States, and later the State Department promoted new leaders who were to broaden the political spectrum of the movement. The deficiencies of the contra forces, however, have not been and are unlikely to be overcome by U.S. aid and supervision. Whatever benefits the contras provide in tying the Sandinistas down in a small war have been outweighed by the reality that the contras have not made any military or political advances. There is no reason to believe that continuing the aid will produce a resolution of the Nicaraguan conflict.


The policy of constructing, financing, advising, supplying and attempting to unite a variety of contra groups who hope to overthrow a government still recognized by Washington improvidently puts U.S. prestige and commitment on the line in Central America. U.S. moral and human rights principles have been under attack not just for supporting a rebel force, but one that has been charged with numerous atrocities. This policy, furthermore, entangles the United States in obligations not only to the contras but also to the surrounding countries. The current limited war could easily escalate and spread in the region until the use of U.S. forces becomes unavoidable—either to defend Honduras from Sandinista counterattacks on contra positions there or to rescue a lagging contra movement on the verge of military defeat.

The State Department, CIA and Defense Department frequently disagree over which contra factions are worthy of support, impairing the U.S. ability to coordinate contra operations. Disagreement also extends to strategy and planning. Even if these U.S. agencies were united on policy, it would not be easy to help the contras build some semblance of unity and popular support. The contras’ Machiavellian world, based on deep differences in ideology and personality and rife with backstabbing, repeatedly surfaced in 1986 as virulently as the fight against the Sandinistas itself. Moderate contras, despite constant State Department support, could not get the upper hand over the former National Guard officers and conservative businessmen who control the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN), the largest contra guerrilla group. Even Adolfo Calero, a former Coca-Cola executive and the political chief of the FDN, has trouble on his right. Meanwhile, the 40 or so regional commanders run their units of several hundred troops as fiefdoms in personalistic "caudillo" style.

By April such infighting, combined with allegations of fraud, human rights violations and drug trafficking by the contras, put the Administration’s contra aid request before Congress in jeopardy. The State Department, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, used the crisis to attempt a remolding of the movement so it might gain badly needed legitimacy outside and inside Nicaragua. Abrams insisted that the three directors of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), the main contra political umbrella group, reorganize power relationships so that moderates could command the former National Guardsmen of the FDN.

In May the three UNO directors—Mr. Calero and former Sandinista junta members Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo—held a tumultuous three-week summit in Miami to thrash out agreements. Mr. Robelo, a social democratic businessman, demanded an explanation from FDN military chief (and former National Guard Colonel) Enrique Bermúdez for statements disparaging civilian controls over human rights. Mr. Cruz even threatened to resign from the movement altogether. Mr. Calero made concessions—at least on paper—by agreeing to bolster the contra human rights commission and allow UNO to handle foreign affairs and supervise military activities. The State Department and congressmen who were undecided on contra aid were satisfied with the reforms, and the aid package got through the House on its way to final passage. But it was only a matter of weeks following the Miami meeting before the former National Guardsmen, backed by a cabal of right-wing civilians who surround Mr. Calero, began to reassert the predominance of the CIA-backed FDN over the State Department-backed UNO.

FDN leaders showed their contempt for the UNO moderates over the summer by establishing a new political party and a war council exclusively for FDN commanders—moves reportedly approved by a CIA operative—without even notifying the UNO. This time it was Mr. Robelo who threatened a rupture; the three leaders met again in October, and again State Department officials urged them to bury the hatchet. Whether or not UNO stays unified, the tensions within the contra movement will continue to impede efforts to retain congressional support, to build diplomatic backing and, most important, to make a serious military effort.

A U.S. invasion seems almost as improbable as a contra victory, and just as problematic. As contra leaders concede, their government would face a Sandinista guerrilla resistance—caches of weapons have already been stockpiled and concealed in the mountains in case of an invasion. Judging by the current disunity in the contra leadership, there would probably be a free-for-all for power. The United States, assuming that it would not leave the contras to their own devices, would find itself in the unenviable position of trying to hunt down guerrillas while putting together and propping up civilian authorities at the national and local levels.

Given that the anti-Sandinista forces have not even been able to hold a single town or attract meaningful popular support to date, there is cause for skepticism about future progress. One hundred million dollars will not remedy the fundamental flaws in the movement’s makeup. Any realistic assessment of the money and effort required would surely deter many of the policy’s tentative supporters. This raises a moral dilemma for the United States: is it fair to give the contras just enough military support to keep them alive, yet not enough to give them a chance to win? The longer aid is trickled in, and the larger the contra armies become, the more fighters will eventually be left without a country (and the greater the problem for Honduras).

The dilemma is all the more poignant for the more than 100,000 Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians who populate the eastern half of Nicaragua. They have long sought to maintain their way of life, and have been provoked by the Sandinistas’ attempt to exercise control over their land and fragile cultures. Many have taken up arms, though some are now negotiating with the Managua government. Many contra and U.S. officials believe that mobilizing the Indians’ Atlantic coast front is crucial to dispersing the Sandinista army and cutting supply lines between Cuba and the population centers on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. One of the goals of the contra aid program is to isolate those Indian leaders who are negotiating autonomy rights with the Sandinistas. This is done by spreading propaganda and by equipping and training Indian leaders willing to heat up the war.

It would be a tragedy if Nicaragua’s small Indian population meets a fate similar to that of the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia who allied themselves with U.S. forces in the 1960s. The Meo tribesmen of Laos, like the Miskitos, accepted generous CIA aid to gain the autonomy they could not win on their own. Though they were excellent fighters, the Meos ultimately lost; some 20,000 were killed and about 100,000 became refugees.

Finally, there is the danger that despite U.S. efforts to create forces capable of governing democratically, the errors of past such attempts will be repeated. Some of Washington’s political and military creations have in the past turned out to be tragically different than intended. Nicaragua’s National Guard was founded in the 1920s to replace the feuding Conservative and Liberal Party armies, and to be a reformist nation-building institution. But the choice of commander was unfortunate; Anastasio Somoza Garcia used the National Guard as his personal force to found a family dynasty. Similarly in Guatemala the National Liberation Movement, founded with CIA assistance to take over after the fall of Jacobo Arbenz, temporarily undercut the left but over the long term divided the Guatemalan army and developed into a death-squad network that is still around. And in El Salvador in the early 1960s the CIA helped found what was originally conceived of as an anti-communist grass-roots political movement to complement Alliance for Progress social programs. Under Salvadoran leadership, that organization, known as ORDEN, became an 80,000-man paramilitary death squad that terrorized peasant villages across El Salvador a decade later.

Inside Nicaragua in 1986, the Managua government showed itself able and willing to maintain control and order, even if by repressive means. It closed the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and expelled a prominent Catholic bishop in a clamp-down just after the U.S. House passed aid to the rebel forces. It may be that the Sandinistas would have taken such repressive measures in any case, but the new U.S. aid has certainly provided a handy justification. Nevertheless, the regime continued to guarantee some pluralism, at least formally, by drafting a constitution that allows for private ownership, private religious education and even multiparty elections. A group of opposition parties announced that they would run joint candidates in the 1987 municipal elections, which could make the internal, unarmed opposition a more effective force for democratization. In the fall, President Daniel Ortega met with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo in an attempt to heal the rift between the church and the government caused by the cardinal’s outspoken criticism of the Sandinistas.

On the war front, the Sandinistas have been waging a successful counterinsurgency campaign. To deprive the contras of a support network, they have relocated Nicaraguans away from the border area and conducted sweeps picking up suspected contra collaborators.

The Sandinistas’ combat and transport helicopters have effectively cut attacking rebels to shreds, and kept them dispersed. A few thousand contras do operate wholly within Nicaragua, especially in the sparsely populated central province of Chontales. They have reportedly been supplied by air drops made primarily from planes flown by American contract pilots, as was confirmed when the cargo plane shot down in October was found to contain arms. Overall, however, the contras made little if any military or political progress, striking mainly economic targets, civilians and militia, and ambushing vehicles in hit-and-run attacks.


Nevertheless, the Reagan Administration argues that if the Sandinistas are permitted to consolidate their rule, the revolution can spread in the short term to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and in the longer term to Costa Rica, Panama and even Mexico. This new version of the domino theory fails to take into consideration two vital points: that the Sandinista revolution was a peculiar event not easily repeated, and that the region’s other major leftist groups have blundered their way to marginality.

The Nicaraguan revolution was not a class war. Indeed, it was characterized more by middle-class militancy than by worker-peasant radicalism. The Sandinistas were a successful guerrilla force because they correctly analyzed and adapted to a political situation in which normally conservative elements were ready to rebel. Hiding their true agenda, the Sandinistas put forth a platform offering a mixed economy and political pluralism that attracted not only widespread popular support but also aid from Nicaragua’s church hierarchy and several Western nations (including the United States in 1980). Furthermore, the three Sandinista factions put differences behind them and coordinated to win the war and form a government. In their fight against Somoza they avoided human rights abuses and economic sabotage that would have turned the population against them.

Nicaragua’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was vulnerable because he was negligent about his own security needs. His National Guard had only about 10,000 men (one-seventh the size of the current Sandinista army) and possessed an inadequate intelligence apparatus. Somoza let his political machine, the Liberal Party, decay with corruption, and in the end lacked a base beyond his small praetorian guard. His mistakes, including stealing earthquake relief funds in the early 1970s, made it possible for the Sandinista National Liberation Front to fashion its remarkably broad (if temporary) coalition with the business sector and middle class.

President Reagan has called the Managua regime "a cancer," imagery that is associated with a spreading infection and painful treatment. It might be better described as the Central American wart; unattractive and difficult to remove, but relatively stable and manageable. The primary reason for such an assessment is the current political reality of Central America. Revolution has nowhere to expand, not because Green Berets block its path, but because conditions in the other nations of the region are significantly different from those that catapulted the Sandinistas into power.

Marxism has long been and will continue to be a crucial element in Latin America’s political landscape, but it is unlikely to be the dominating factor in a region where traditional Catholicism and conservatism have deeper roots. (Cuba was and is uncharacteristically undevout and Nicaragua is exceptional for reasons already discussed.) Those attributes are particularly extant in Central America, where anti-communist and pro-democratic sentiments have grown since the Sandinistas took power in 1979. Central America’s balance of power is shifting away from the left; this is a vital political reality of the mid-1980s, one that ought to be paramount in the considerations of future policy goals and risks. The dominoes are not falling, although the U.S. government appears to be ignoring this calming thought.

El Salvador’s guerrillas are slipping badly, without having faced a single American marine. A primary reason for their declining fortunes has been their own errors. They did not follow the Sandinista example of coaxing the middle classes into an alliance. By publicizing their Marxist philosophy and goals early on, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, lost any chance of winning the support of the Salvadoran middle class. Worse still was their strategy. Between 1979 and 1981 the rebels exposed their civilian supporters to the state’s repression by marching them in the streets without protection. The vast Salvadoran security apparatus was thus able to pinpoint cadres and the rebels lost their urban network. This network has not revived; the government repression of 1979-81 remains a powerful deterrent.

Following that period, the guerrillas showed their insensitivity by targeting the economy; thousands correctly blamed the guerrillas for their unemployment, transportation difficulties and power shortages. The guerrillas further weakened their cause by copying the Salvadoran army’s forced-recruitment techniques. More recently, they have caused undue civilian casualties by indiscriminately planting land mines. Moreover, the FMLN’S bitter factionalism, and the consequent ugly political executions, robbed the movement of its political legitimacy and hindered its becoming a cohesive force. The Salvadoran rebels long ago lost their moral imperative and were beaten back as much by their own errors as by government repression and U.S. policies.

The demonstration effect of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was also a powerful deterrent to would-be supporters of revolution in El Salvador, as well as in Guatemala. Once in power the Sandinistas quickly disenfranchised Nicaragua’s middle class and turned most of the Roman Catholic Church against them. This sent a warning to the Guatemalan and Salvadoran middle classes and church establishments that alliances with armed rebel groups were foolish.

The Carter and Reagan Administrations, as well as Congress, deserve credit for pushing for some vital economic reforms in El Salvador and improving the army’s once miserable combat and human rights record. In part, Washington’s success is based on its aversion to sending in the marines when it looked as if the guerrillas might win; by limiting the number of advisers to 55, the United States forced San Salvador to win its own battles.

While the fortunes of the Salvadoran guerrillas declined in 1986, the war is far from over. But over the last three years, U.S.-supplied jets and helicopters have given the Salvadoran armed forces the firepower they needed to turn the tide of the war by forcing the guerrillas to disband their battalion-sized units. Once able to roam at will through about one-third of the country, the guerrillas now move at night in small bands.

Civilian president José Napoleón Duarte continues to face tremendous difficulties, even if imminent revolution is not one of them. El Salvador’s government and guerrillas held preparatory talks for a third round of dialogue, but they broke down in September, leaving little hope for a negotiated end to the war in the near term. After a devastating earthquake hit El Salvador in October there was a brief slowdown in the war, but it could not be sustained. A new labor federation was formed, having some sympathy for FMLN but motivated more by a desire for an end to the war and by economic discontent. Duarte’s main problems now are economic, and the continuing frustrations posed by an overstrong military.

The other Central American country facing an organized guerrilla movement is Guatemala, which has received minimal U.S. military aid since 1977. Despite this, Marxist rebels there are doing even worse than those in El Salvador. One reason for their weakness is that they took their main supporters, the Indians, for granted and exposed them to army repression. In the early 1980s, two of four guerrilla armies, believing their own triumphalist propaganda line, went on the attack across the country and spread themselves too thin. They promised scores of villages they would supply defense against the military in return for open support; but when the army swept through the highlands between 1982 and 1984, the rebels retreated and tens of thousands of Indians were massacred. Mistrust of the guerrillas is palpable to this day. In 1986 the guerrilla movement, reduced to a few "focos" in the highlands and the Petén jungle, harassed explorations for oil but did not seriously hamper Guatemala in any other way.

President Vinicio Cerezo, Guatemala’s first civilian president in two decades, took office in January, but the level of bloodshed and violence that has plagued the country for years remained high in 1986. To retain his hold on power, Cerezo limited his challenges to the army’s ultimate control. He calmed the army’s fears that he would take radical actions by resisting the pressures of Guatemalan human rights activists to move against officers allegedly involved in past death-squad activities.


Armed groups have not emerged in any serious way in Costa Rica or Honduras, even though the two countries border Nicaragua. In 1986 Honduras and Costa Rica grew increasingly wary of their Sandinista neighbor, but they did not seriously court an alliance with the contras. They heartily dislike the Sandinista government next door, but worry just as much about the effects of the contra presence on their territory and the U.S. policy of supporting it, which is destabilizing their countries, exposing them to Nicaraguan retaliation, and distorting attempts at democratic rule, especially in Honduras.

The Reagan Administration is pursuing a reckless policy in Honduras. The country is being used as a staging ground for attacks on Nicaragua, without consideration of what effect such activities will have on Honduras itself. Already, the contras have displaced many thousands of Hondurans from the border zone and are leaving resentment in their wake. Conservative coffee growers and cattle ranchers want the contras out for economic reasons; more important, the Marxist labor movement is using the contra issue effectively to galvanize discontent among workers. There is widespread concern among Honduran civilian officials that because a contra victory is improbable, future governments will face a well-equipped and experienced fighting force larger than the Honduran army on Honduran territory.

A more immediate danger, that of a war breaking out between Honduras and Nicaragua, increased in 1986. Sandinista troops held highland positions within Honduras for most of the year to prevent contra infiltrations, and nationalist pressures on the Honduran army to enforce national sovereignty mounted. Some Honduran hard-liners are said to welcome a Honduran-Nicaraguan confrontation in order to request immediate U.S. support and thereby draw Washington into a war with Nicaragua. But this seems to be a minority view. Tegucigalpa at first attempted to look the other way when 800 Sandinista troops crossed the Honduran border in March to flush out some contras. Washington reportedly urged the government of José Azcona to request U.S. transport so Honduran forces could round up the Sandinistas and to protest publicly to Managua.

But Honduran military officers became increasingly uncomfortable watching from the sidelines as contras and Sandinista soldiers fought on Honduran soil. In December a significant escalation occurred when, after weeks of fighting between the contras and Sandinista troops inside Honduras, Tegucigalpa decided to take military action. Honduran war jets bombed Sandinista army positions on both sides of the border while U.S. helicopter crews ferried Honduran troops to secure the frontier. Such pressures, combined with the perception that the Iran crisis was paralyzing U.S. contra policy, led the Honduran government to request in early December that Washington see to it that the contras leave Honduran territory as soon as possible. The United States privately agreed with the Hondurans that the contras should infiltrate into Nicaragua by mid-1987 but, considering Sandinista army superiority, this will not be an easy task.

Previous Honduran attempts to assert control over its territory and decisions affecting it have been stymied. Tegucigalpa has unsuccessfully pressed Washington for a pledge to accept contra refugees after the war is over. And, while a U.S.-Honduran military commission has been formed to coordinate policy, the civilian government appears increasingly weak. Former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John Ferch said in a July Newsday interview that the Administration’s policy was undercutting Honduras’ nascent democracy. "They want somebody [as ambassador]," he claimed, "to be strong enough and proconsul enough that no Honduran government is going to object to anything."

Costa Rica has been more successful than Honduras in avoiding involvement in the contra war. Since President Oscar Arias was inaugurated in May, he has backed off his predecessor’s secret policy of aiding the contras and reasserted San José’s traditional neutrality. He banned contra military activities in his country, shut down an airstrip and even closed a Nicaraguan rebel medical clinic. Although he is highly critical of the Sandinistas’ totalitarian tendencies, President Arias believes the contra war does his country more harm than good, and does not believe the contras can win. He fears that an escalation of the war would propel more Nicaraguan refugees into Costa Rica, further taxing government services, scare capital out of his country and possibly force San José to reverse its policy of refusing to create a standing army.

But Arias’ control is limited; only Washington can stop the war and encourage a diplomatic settlement of the Nicaraguan conflict. His government, like others in the region, gave the Contadora peace process on-again, off-again support, but the regional negotiations went nowhere. As long as the United States does not support the process, the Central American governments are likely to remain ambivalent.

President Reagan is right to be concerned about the stability of Mexico and Panama, for these countries occupy the most strategic positions in the region. But his reasons for concern are the wrong ones. Mexico and Panama face serious economic and political problems that have nothing to do with anything Russian, Cuban or Nicaraguan. Both the Mexican and Panamanian governments have excellent relations with Cuba. Neither country has an insurgent movement or is likely to develop one, because some Marxists are already in the ruling parties while other radicals have formed political parties that are committed to working within the existing political process, much as their European counterparts are.

In Mexico, the greatest challenge to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, comes from the right, not the left. State and city elections in 1986 showed the strength of the main rival, the conservative National Action Party, primarily in the north. The left in Mexico is divided and largely coopted by the PRI-dominated system; it is not a revolutionary force. Both left and right are putting pressure on the PRI to stop corruption in the party and government and to democratize the system, but they do not pose an electoral threat on the national level. If the PRI fails to reform, it will be increasingly besieged and protests will mount, but the system is far from crumbling. Progress on the economic front would take much of the steam out of the political discontent. The favorable terms concluded this fall for rescheduling Mexico’s foreign debt gave the government some breathing space for undertaking sorely needed reforms.

Likewise, Panama’s regime is shaky but not because communists are taking over in the streets. As in Mexico, the main challenge comes from a middle class tired of the abuses of undemocratic power; most of the poor have backed the government, in which the military has played a dominant role since the time of General Omar Torrijos. There was a burst of publicity this year about alleged drug dealing and intelligence sharing with Cuba by General Manuel Noriega, the military chief who controls Panamanian affairs behind the scenes. Noriega denied the charges, but many in the opposition parties see the current civilian president, Eric Delvalle, as unable to exercise control over Noriega. Even though U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) confirmed the charges against the general, U.S.-Panamanian relations remained close, as they have been since the Panama Canal treaties satisfied the strong nationalism that dominates Panamanian politics. Despite its problems, the near-term outlook for Panama is continued stability.


Even if there are no dominoes falling in Central America, the question of the Soviet role remains. Soviet bloc influence has been secondary to the ups and downs of the left in each and every one of the Central American countries. The Sandinistas (and the Cubans) came to power with limited Soviet bloc assistance. Most of the arms and ammunition that the Sandinistas used to take power came through Costa Rica from Venezuela and Panama, not Cuba.

Since 1979, however, Managua has received extensive military, economic and technical assistance—including thousands of advisers—from the Soviet bloc. Nevertheless, there are persistent reports of Nicaraguan officials returning from Moscow frustrated at not having received the amounts of aid, particularly in desperately needed hard currency, they sought. Soviet military aid to Nicaragua picked up in 1986, after dropping in 1985 from 1984 levels, but Moscow’s aid program amounts to little more than a safety net. Aside from some powerful anti-insurgency helicopters, the arsenal the Soviets have provided the Sandinistas is certainly inadequate for an invasion of their neighbors. Despite Managua’s considerable inferiority in air power vis-à-vis El Salvador and Honduras, the Soviets have repeatedly refused to send Nicaragua MiG jets—in part because the United States has indicated it would remove them by force if delivered.

Soviet bloc advisers have concentrated on defensive and infrastructural projects; their help is vital for training Nicaragua’s ideologically convinced youth how to run their new society. East Germans teach telecommunications and security techniques. Bulgarians advise on modernizing ports and the tobacco industry. Russians are attempting to make Nicaraguans better fishermen. The Cubans are the most aggressive helpers; they sometimes fly helicopters and send advisers into combat.

Fidel Castro’s stake in the success of the Nicaraguan revolution is much greater than the others’, insofar as he sees himself as the spiritual father of the Sandinistas and the leader of Latin American, if not all Third World, revolutionaries. But even Castro has drawn limits to his support for the Sandinistas. Following the 1983 U.S.-led invasion of Grenada, and again during the February 1986 meeting of the Cuban Communist Party Congress, Castro made it clear that while Havana was prepared to increase its aid to Managua to offset Washington’s escalations, he was not prepared to send troops to Nicaragua to defend against a U.S. invasion.

The number of Cuban military advisers in Nicaragua remained constant in 1986; 100 had been sent back to Cuba in 1985, but Nicaragua said that they could return if needed. Cuba will provide moral support and as much manpower and training as Nicaragua needs. But Castro has counseled the Sandinistas from the time they came to power that they would have to maintain broad ties with the rest of the world in order to secure the necessary aid and political support. Therefore, unlike Cuba in the early 1960s, which had a more generous and adventuresome patron, Nicaragua must retain a measure of political pluralism and coexist with a domestic private sector in order to continue trading and receiving aid from Western Europe.

One limitation on Cuban aid to Nicaragua is Havana’s preoccupation with its own economic crisis. Cuba’s most important foreign-exchange earner, reexported Soviet oil, fell in value over most of the year. In recent years, the island nation could not even produce enough sugar to fill its export quota to the Soviets. Faced with lagging labor discipline and production and rising debt, Castro grumbled that his revolutionary cadres were growing lackadaisical. He reversed a ten-year economic reform program in 1986 by watering down housing reform and dissolving private farmers’ markets. A full-blown cultural revolution could come next.

Beyond Nicaragua, both the Soviets and Cubans show themselves to be even more circumspect when it comes to backing insurgencies in the rest of Central America. The Soviet bloc did make a concerted effort in El Salvador for a fleeting time, when the Salvadoran rebels promised to take power in a January 1981 "final offensive" that would force the incoming Reagan Administration to accept a fait accompli. But when the FMLN failed miserably, principally because the predicted popular insurrection did not happen, the Soviets and Cubans appeared to realize that the time was not right for a concerted aid effort. The Soviet bloc could have sent the Salvadoran guerrillas surface-to-air missiles to defend themselves and their rural support base. But Moscow did not, apparently fearing that such a counterescalation would lead to U.S. shipment of surface-to-air missiles to the Afghan insurgency.

The Soviet bloc has been particularly miserly in supplying the Guatemalan guerrillas, whose forces got little help from anybody when they were shattered between 1982 and 1984 by the Guatemalan army. Since Guatemala is an oil producer, the largest and most developed nation in the region, and the land bridge between Central America’s strife and Mexico, the Soviet bloc could have been expected to make a concerted effort there. Instead, Castro has suggested that Guatemala’s Christian Democratic president represents a progressive force in the region.

Moscow is playing a no-lose game in Nicaragua. By supporting Managua against "Yankee imperialism" the Soviets project themselves as the natural ally of the Latin American left. But they are keeping their support limited. In the unlikely event of a U.S. invasion, the Soviets cannot be expected to defend Nicaragua any more than they did Salvador Allende’s Chilean regime when it was overthrown by a coup. Of course, Moscow would not hesitate to make significant propaganda gains from such an invasion, just as it now capitalizes on the "aggressiveness" of the U.S. posture.

The Soviets will continue to look for opportunities to expand their influence and strategic position. Mikhail Gorbachev, however, seems to recognize that Central America does not represent a ripe opportunity; he barely mentioned the region in his speech to the Soviet Communist Party Congress in March 1986; his caution is particularly understandable when considered within the context of his apparent desire to negotiate with Washington over nuclear arms. Several U.S. diplomats stationed in Central America privately share the view that the Soviet Union is not about to intervene in Central America. Ambassador John Ferch went on record to state that "The Cubans and Russians are not going to throw in troops. . . . They are so concerned about a clash with us that they’ll be very cautious."

Gorbachev certainly remembers that another would-be economic reformer, Nikita Khrushchev, lost power in part because he triggered the Cuban missile crisis and then backed down before U.S. military superiority. Today Cuba is a loyal Russian ally, a valuable strategic asset, but also an economic drain on Moscow and its allies. It is also a model of economic stagnation for the rest of Latin America.

If the Soviets ever decide to make the kind of commitment to Nicaragua that they made to Cuba, they would be taking on an even greater economic burden—the kind the Soviets recently decided not to embrace in Mozambique. Nicaragua offers COMECON little not already subsidized from Cuba. With human and infrastructural resources far inferior to Cuba’s, high unemployment, a worthless currency and annual inflation exceeding 600 percent, Nicaragua would represent a costly, as well as dangerous, commitment. There is little evidence that the East is making the kind of commitment needed to build a working socialist system in Nicaragua. One index is trade: Nicaragua’s Eastern bloc imports and exports represent about 40 percent of its total trade, compared to Cuba’s 85 percent figure for trade with the bloc. Furthermore, seven years into the revolution, half of Nicaragua’s production is still in private hands; Castro socialized his economy within three years. In short, the current balance of power in Central America, along with Washington’s far-reaching geographical advantages, dictates that Moscow refrain from fully incorporating Managua into its bloc.


Containment is thus already at hand in Central America. President Reagan could take some credit for the improved strategic situation, but he chooses not even to acknowledge it. The Administration’s rhetoric and policy are designed not to promote containment but to roll back communism. The public debate over the developing U.S. role in Central America needs to consider the pros and cons of these two alternatives.

If the Soviets and Cubans were in fact making an aggressive effort to take control of Central America, the United States would be obliged to counteract them every step of the way. A covert war against Nicaragua combined with the military aid effort in El Salvador would not be a strong enough response. But the truth is that both the Soviet Union and Cuba have been but cautious participants in Central America’s turmoil, which still arises primarily from local dynamics rather than the meddling of external powers.

There are several steps Washington can take to contain Soviet bloc interference in Central America, and even reduce it. Some correct policies are already in place: U.S. military presence and maneuvers in Honduras send appropriate signals to Managua and its allies. President Reagan’s warning that the introduction into Nicaragua of MiGs or other advanced jet bombers will trigger a U.S. military reaction to take them out lets adversaries know that they cannot get the upper hand militarily in Central America. It must also remain unmistakably clear that a Soviet military base in Nicaragua is unacceptable.

Now is the time to negotiate reductions in the number of communist military and civilian advisers in Nicaragua and eventually the size of the Sandinista army itself. The general Contadora guidelines, which are formally supported by Moscow and Havana, are a starting point, but they need to be tightened with tough enforcement measures that would directly involve the United States and its Latin American allies. Finally, a long-range policy is needed to check future insurgencies; the United States should consistently encourage economic, social and political reforms across the region.

In Vietnam, the worse the situation on the ground became, the more upbeat the Johnson Administration’s prognostications. In Central America, the opposite is true; the more conditions improve, the more dire Washington’s report. The White House refuses to see the light at the end of the tunnel. U.S. policy is supposedly designed to promote security in the region, but in practice it makes the isthmus less stable. A policy of containment ensures the security of the isthmus by blocking the spread of communism, without increasing the risk of war in Central America. Containment is not an ideal solution, but it is a feasible one. The task for 1987 is to work for a diplomatic complement to containment.

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  • Clifford Krauss covers Central American and Caribbean affairs for The Wall Street Journal. He has reported on the region since 1977.
  • More By Clifford Krauss