Inevitable Revolutions

U.S. policies in Central America have encouraged what they were supposed to prevent


WHEN PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY ANNOUNCED the Alliance for Progress in March of 1961, he proclaimed, “Let us again transform the [Western Hemisphere] into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts.” He did not, however, mean to be taken literally. The appeal to revolution was rhetoric meant to inspire taxpayers at home and placate the restless abroad. The President wanted to encourage slow, evolutionary development and democratization by providing comprehensive economic aid, and he further wanted to encourage the maintenance of the status quo during the development period by providing intensive training of Latin American armies and police forces in counterinsurgency techniques.

But twenty years after Kennedy initiated the Alliance, revolutionary ideas and efforts are tearing Central America apart. Having learned few lessons from the past, Ronald Reagan is responding with large economic-aid programs ($350 million for the embattled Caribbean Basin countries alone) and counterinsurgency-warfare training. After two decades of policies that contributed to the spread of both poverty and left-wing revolutions, Reagan is attempting to destroy those revolutions by repeating the policies.

Owing in part to its ignorance of history, the Reagan Administration has refused to question a fundamental assumption that shaped Kennedy’s foreign policy: the larger a nation’s economy grows, the happier that nation has to be. Nowhere has this assumption been proved more false than in Central America. Of the five nations in the area— Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica—three seemed to prosper during the 1960s. Nicaragua’s annual per capita growth rate rose 5.3 percent, Guatemala’s rose 3 percent, and El Salvador’s rose 2.8 percent despite an extraordinarily high birthrate. Within ten years after Alliance officials acclaimed those figures, revolutionaries had overthrown the Nicaraguan government and besieged El Salvador’s. Guatemala’s military regime saved itself, at least temporarily, by murdering and torturing opponents in large numbers. The only Central American country that remained both democratic and free of leftist disturbances during the 1960s and 1970s was Costa Rica. In the 1960s, that nation also had the lowest annual growth rate (.8 percent) in the region.

One conclusion might be that by escaping the economic invigoration that often followed Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress programs, Costa Ricans also escaped from his crucible of revolution. That conclusion, however, misses the heart of the problem. Costa Rica remained stable and open because the economic aid it received filtered down more fairly through the society than did the money given to the right-wing elites who controlled Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Costa Rica, moreover, was fortunate in being slighted during the Alliance era by American policy-makers—who urged on other Latin American nations the use of U.S. military officers to train army units in anti-guerrilla tactics. In the hands of dictatorial regimes, new methods of interrogating suspected foreign agents were easily transformed into methods of torturing domestic political opponents. Costa Rica had disbanded its army in 1948; a 6,000-man police force provided security. Real security, however, came from the welfare state and from the confidence in democratic processes that Costa Ricans had developed after World War II.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the Central American growth figures is, therefore, that the Alliance could help only those government officials who helped their people and not merely themselves.

THIS TRUTH WAS HIDDEN FROM, OR CAREFULLY IGnored by, those who created the Alliance. Yet it could be viewed ninety miles from the United States. As Fidel Castro consolidated his power in Cuba, a number of U.S. observers wondered why the island had been so ripe for revolution. They noted that in the 1950s Cuba enjoyed the largest per capita national income in the region. That statistic, however, did not show that the very rich entertained in the tourist casinos while the masses of seasonally unemployed sugar workers existed on the edge of starvation. Castro rose to power in 1959 with the support of those campesinos. Two years later, Kennedy designed the Alliance to prevent other Castros from appearing in Latin America.

Alliance officials planned to pump $100 billion into development projects between 1961 and 1970. Twenty billion was to come from outside sources, primarily the United States, and Latin Americans were to provide the remaining $80 billion from their own resources. Equally important, the Latin American regimes pledged to enact tax, land, and other socio-economic reforms. The scope of the plan, particularly the money, was awesome. It dwarfed any proposal for Latin America made by U.S. governments before or after. If huge amounts of investment and high percentage increases in the gross national product could bring stability and create more equitable societies, the Alliance should have worked wonders in Central America.

Publicly, Kennedy’s advisers argued that such reform would short-circuit revolution in the Third World. Behind closed doors, they were not certain. Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned a U.S. Senate committee during a private briefing: “We are in a period of far-reaching and fundamental and rapid change” marked by an “increased pace in the working out of the nationalist revolution.” Built-up pressures, Rusk added prophetically, “could lead to a war or to violent outbreak” in “another decade or two decades.”

Despite, or because of, such urgency, the Alliance at first stumbled. A month after Kennedy announced the plan, a U.S.-trained Cuban exile group attempted an invasion at the Bay of Pigs and was destroyed by Castro’s forces.

The Kennedy Administration vowed to make Castro pay for his victory. Rusk defined the danger by announcing that the Cuban was “part of the powerful offensive” launched by the “Sino-Soviet bloc” against the Third World. That this “bloc” was in an advanced state of decomposition did not prevent the administration from speaking about it in phrases that had mobilized Americans in earlier times. Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, declared that “most of the states of Central America” were endangered by “the insidious penetration of Cuban communism.” Within six months after the Alliance for Progress began, Castroism, not poverty, had been publicly defined as the evil from which Central Americans were to be delivered. The United States exerted enormous pressure on Latin American nations to cut off relations with Cuba. Most complied, although Mexico was a conspicuous holdout.

A not unnatural result of Kennedy’s defining Castro as a military threat was the 1962 missile crisis. But the President’s triumph in that crisis did nothing to lessen Central American poverty. Castro was isolated, but the conditions necessary for revolutions continued to develop.

By the time of Kennedy’s death, in November of 1963, Alliance policies had apparently worsened the economic situation they aimed to improve. The plan was victimized by bureaucratic jealousies in Washington and by conservatives’ foot-dragging in Latin America. Most important, the Alliance rested on the false belief that growth produced by New Deal-style development programs could work in El Salvador, where the fabled “Fourteen Families” held tight to every vestige of their immense economic and political power; in Nicaragua, where the Somoza family multiplied its wealth; and in Guatemala, where ruling military officers fought each other for larger shares of the country’s resources.

President Lyndon Johnson and his chief adviser on Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann, realized by early 1964 that the Alliance was not meeting its goals. They decided to reduce the emphasis on government programs and stress private investment. Since the inception of the Alliance, such an approach had been pushed by leading U.S. business spokesmen, especially David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. That private enterprise could not adequately redistribute wealth in the region, or that only governments would build the needed infrastructure of roads and educational facilities, did not change Johnson’s determination to try Rockefeller’s recommendations. The President’s new course quickly became irreversible as the political and economic costs of the Vietnam War dashed hopes that the administration might devote its considerable energy to effecting reforms in Central America.

Ronald Reagan’s faith that his Caribbean Basin initiative can be largely fulfilled by private investment and trade resembles Johnson’s original hopes. By 1966, however, the earlier President had come to understand that the constricted, impoverished marketplaces of many Latin— and especially Central—American countries could not attract the needed investment. Johnson’s solution was to support the five nations’ efforts, begun in 1960, to establish a Central American Common Market (CACM). Once the 12 million people in Central America formed an economically coordinated, tariff-free marketplace, the theory went, private enterprise would boom and the region would turn into a small-scale version of the prosperous Western European Common Market.

But by 1967, the CACM was already in trouble. Because of their surplus labor and larger amounts of native capital, Guatemala and El Salvador dominated CACM trade. Honduras and Costa Rica grew disillusioned with the experiment. By 1969, even the Guatemalan and Salvadoran governments were becoming uneasy. Large numbers of their land-poor peasants had been attracted to urban areas by new industry. Dislocated, expecting too much, the migrants were ripe for political organizers. In 1969, a short war between Honduras and El Salvador wrecked the common market. Within a year, little remained of the Alliance for Progress in Central America. What did remain, however, was large numbers of landless peasants who had been evicted from their fields so that the wealthy could invest in more export crops; a volatile urban population; revolutionary bands forming in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador; and U.S. military personnel teaching the local armies how to deal with growing numbers of insurgents.

AS ECONOMIC HOPES FOR THE ALLIANCE DWINDLED, the military component grew. As reform efforts failed, the need for armed force increased. In retrospect, this changing balance between the economic and military parts of the Alliance was an admission of the plan’s failure to touch the root causes of the national revolutions. Economic and military policies had actually been closely linked from the start. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had passed Federal Bureau of Investigation reports to his brother warning that security in Central America was “extremely deficient.” Military assistance flowed into the area in ever larger amounts. Between 1950 and 1963, for example, Guatemala received only $5.3 million in military aid; but the amount doubled to $10.9 million between the years 1964 and 1967. For Nicaragua, the comparable figures were $4.5 million during the first thirteen years and $7.5 million in the next three.

The new money went to a U.S.-trained military elite that was assigned a specific mission. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced in 1963, Latin American forces were to provide not “hemispheric defense” (which the Pentagon would handle by itself) but “internal security.” In the daily affairs of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, McNamara’s words meant that the United States was training native military personnel to protect the lives and property of the relatively few rich oligarchs. Sophisticated in weaponry and reactionary in politics, the freshly trained officers were not reluctant to control internal opponents with modern and often brutal methods.

Between 1961 and 1966, as the Alliance was set in motion, military forces overthrew nine Latin American governments, including those in Guatemala and Honduras. (Nicaragua and El Salvador had been under army-controlled regimes since the 1930s.) In each case, civilian conservatives urged the officers to strike before elections brought liberals to power, or before overzealous Alliance officials threatened the conservatives’ hold on their country’s property. What remained of Kennedy’s Alliance in the mid-1960s was being strangled by his administration’s own military creation.

But no one in Washington could come up with a better, or easier, solution than turning to the military. In 1964, the CIA warned Johnson that the Alliance was creating unstable conditions. The growing demand in Latin America for “positive and radical changes in the inequitable and backward socio-economic structures and for gains in levels of living are mounting steadily,” the Agency reported. Worse, an alternative model was at hand: “Cuba’s experiment with almost total state socialism is being watched closely by other nations in the hemisphere.” The CIA added that “any appearance of success there [Cuba] could have an extensive impact on the statist trend elsewhere in the area.” With the Alliance malfunctioning, a memorandum from the State Department, not the Pentagon, drew the lesson for Johnson: “The pace of social upheaval is likely to increase in the next ten years,” so the administration must maintain “predominant United States military influence" in Latin America and place “continued emphasis” on “internal security programs.”

Johnson exercised the military option most dramatically in 1965, when he sent U.S. forces into the Dominican Republic to stop what he mistakenly viewed as a Castro-style revolution. The President persuaded other members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to participate in the intervention, and more than 22,000 U.S. and OAS troops soon occupied the country. Johnson claimed full success for his Dominican adventure. In later years, critics who attacked the President’s other foreign policies were noticeably silent about the long-term results of the intervention. U.S. policies in Central America, however, suffered disastrous consequences over time. The region’s revolutionaries could learn much from the 1965 crisis. They could see that their survival depended on keeping the OAS divided so the United States could not confront them with the power of a united hemisphere. They learned the lesson so well that in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter tried to form an OAS force to stop Nicaraguan revolutionaries from overthrowing dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard army, the OAS nations, led by Mexico, rejected Washington’s plans. Assistant Secretary of State Viron Vaky observed that the rejection “reflected how deeply the American states were sensitized by the Dominican intervention of 1965, and how deeply they fear physical intervention.” The revolutionaries could also learn from the Santo Domingo affair that in a head-on military clash with the United States they would obviously have no chance. They had to develop mass support and create a national revolution—not an elite revolution such as the one Johnson had aborted in the Dominican Republic.

By the late 1960s, the Alliance had become a highly volatile mixture. It emphasized private investment that worked with wealthy elites and worsened an already glaring economic imbalance. Protected by Washington’s embrace, these elites refused to offer socio-political change even as Central American revolutionary forces grew in number; they relied instead on U.S.-trained and -supplied military forces to maintain order through repression. North American promises of development had raised but could never meet Central American hopes. No wonder that the three nations in the area that had supposedly benefited most from the Alliance, economically and militarily—Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala—were beset by growing opposition movements.


SINCE THE 1930S, THE SOMOZAS HAD RULED NICARAgua as a feudal estate. The founding father, Anastasio Somoza, had been placed in power by the United States because he was a cooperative and tough army officer who, through his control of the National Guard, could enforce stability in Nicaragua. In 1934, Somoza ended the last important challenge to his rule by luring the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino to a conference and then having him murdered in cold blood. Somoza systematically removed two other possible sources of opposition by substantially reducing the power of the Roman Catholic Church and independent labor unions. When he bragged, “Nicaragua es mi finca” (Nicaragua is my farm), Somoza did not stretch the truth. As revolutionary bands picked up strength in the mid-1960s, the elder Somoza had passed from the scene (killed by an assassin in 1956), and his son Anastasio was running the farm. The son’s power, like the father’s, depended on using the National Guard to intimidate or eliminate opposition.

In Nicaragua, the Alliance thus operated in a country that seemed to be as stable as any in Latin America. U.S. policy, however, helped undermine that stability. Dollars flowed into agricultural projects that enriched the 2 percent of the farms, the great latifundios, that occupied nearly half the nation’s usable land. The Somoza family alone owned territory nearly the size of El Salvador. As these giant farms expanded their cotton and other export crops, they forced peasants off the land and into towns, where jobs were scarce. Some of the displaced returned to their fields and squatted illegally so they could grow food for their families’ survival. After a half-dozen years of the Alliance, only 50 percent of the population—and 2 percent of those living in rural areas—had access to potable water. Despite U.S. health programs, the major causes of death continued to be gastro-intestinal and parasitic diseases and infant disorders.

Nicaragua’s overall growth rate did rise spectacularly. U.S. private investment entered at a faster rate than in any other Central American country. Exports increased 20 percent a year between 1960 and 1965. And revolutionary threats grew inexorably. By 1967, economic development had slowed, unemployment had risen, and squatters had been driven off lands by the National Guard. When political opposition united behind a single candidate to challenge Somoza for the presidency in 1967, the army fired into an opposition political rally, killing and wounding hundreds.

During the years of the Alliance an even more dangerous opponent for Somoza began to emerge. In 1961, a new guerrilla organization, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), was founded by Nicaraguans in Havana. Named after Somoza’s victim of 1934, the Sandinistas posed little threat to the Somoza regime until 1966, when they began urban terrorist campaigns. The Johnson Administration responded automatically. Within a year, twenty-five U.S. military advisers resided in Nicaragua, and the Pentagon increased military assistance. The FSLN nevertheless grew, as the landless labor force in some areas was more than ten times as large in the 1970s as it had been before the Alliance began.

In 1972, an earthquake shattered the country and nearly destroyed Managua. The Nixon Administration and international relief organizations gave millions of dollars for reconstruction. Somoza and his friends methodically siphoned off the money. They excluded other businessmen and major banking interests from the rebuilding plans. As both middleand lower-class discontent grew in 1974, Somoza launched terrorist campaigns against areas that were guerrilla strongholds. He succeeded only in driving moderates, including Roman Catholic priests, into opposition. Instead of seizing the opportunity, however, the Sandinistas fell to arguing among themselves over tactics. Three major groups emerged. Two based their programs on Marxist-Leninist principles. Then the third and largest group, the Terceristas (or “Third Tendency”), gained strength from moderate political figures and middle-class businessmen. The split only temporarily slowed the revolution. Somoza’s National Guard soon spurred it on with arrests and torture of opponents.

In early 1977, Jimmy Carter’s newly installed administration confronted the first serious revolutionary outbreak in the Caribbean Basin since 1959. Over the next twentyfour months, Carter made a series of miscalculations that previewed the mistakes Ronald Reagan would commit in El Salvador. On the one hand, the U.S. government proclaimed its commitment to human rights; on the other, it fully supported Somoza’s National Guard. Carter meanwhile searched for a reputable, non-revolutionary, proUnited States political group that could run the country in tandem with the Guard.

In January of 1978, Nicaragua’s leading opposition newspaper editor was gunned down. Carter demanded that Somoza’s forces improve their behavior. Seven months later he congratulated the dictator for showing more concern for human rights. U.S. officials hoped that Somoza could hang on, perhaps even until 1981, when Nicaraguan elections were scheduled. But in August of 1978, an FSLN band seized the National Palace, forced Somoza to make a series of concessions, and then called a successful general strike. The dictator responded by ordering his small air force to bomb civilian areas that supported the rebels. Several thousand people died in the attacks, and according to one account the FSLN army membership multiplied ten times, increasing to more than 7,000 soldiers. Aid for the revolutionaries came from the few Latin American democracies such as Venezuela and Costa Rica as well as from Cuba.

The FSLN factions reunited in March of 1979 to launch a final offensive. Carter urged the OAS to intervene. He hoped to save the National Guard so that it could “preserve order” and “prevent anarchy,” in the words of a White House spokesman. At the time, the Guard was machinegunning unarmed people, bombing towns, and looting cities, while its officers prepared to depart for havens such as Miami with as much loot as they could carry. Most North Americans learned of the atrocities only when a television camera filmed the execution of the ABC network correspondent Bill Stewart by a Guardsman. The Guard turned most violent against its own people just before its power crumbled. On July 17, Somoza fled. The FSLN controlled a nearly bankrupt country in which upward of 40,000 people had died in the revolution. Forty thousand others were orphaned, and a fifth of the population was homeless.

Instead of carrying out mass executions of Somoza’s henchmen, the new government outlawed capital punishment. But the FSLN had promised immediate elections; after gaining power, it announced that these would be delayed until 1985. The reason given for the postponement was the need to concentrate the nation’s energy on reconstruction. The real reason was a bitter argument within the new government over how to carry out reconstruction. An election campaign could have divided the regime into warring factions. In 1981, the Reagan Administration seized upon the postponement as a pretext for accusing the revolutionaries of imposing a Castro-like one-party rule. The FSLN replied that it planned to model the political system on Mexico’s long democratic history of one-party domination, and added that Nicaragua’s new government drew from a spectrum of political opinion, including conservative business interests.

Washington officials were actually less concerned about the emerging political structure than about the direction of Nicaragua’s economic and military policies. The United States has worked out mutually beneficial relationships with many one-party (and one-man) political systems in Latin America, but it has never tolerated economic programs that seek self-sufficiency, discriminate against foreign investment, look to Cuba for help, and refuse to cooperate with Washington’s international economic rules. The Sandinistas seemed virtually defenseless if North Americans wanted to exert economic pressures. The FSLN had inherited a $1.6 billion national debt; Somoza had left enough in the treasury to pay for about one day’s imports; the revolution had inflicted more than $1 billion worth of damage to factories and commercial facilities. Eastern European and Cuban Communists could not be depended on for help; for years the Soviets had been propping up Castro’s regime with a minimum $3 million in aid every day, and now the Russian economy, stumbling badly itself, faced enormous economic demands from satellites closer to home—especially Poland. The United States alone controlled the amounts of money and the technical assistance needed to rebuild Nicaragua rapidly. The revolutionaries entered into several credit arrangements for the purchase of North American food and other supplies, but the FSLN was wary of Washington officials who suggested an economic embrace. The Nicaraguans did not forget that the United States had supported Somoza to the end. Nor could they ignore the way North American economic policies had been used to help overthrow Latin American governments in the past, particularly Salvador Allende’s elected government in Chile in 1973. They were as suspicious of U.S. intentions as Washington was of their request to Cuba for technicians who could quickly construct educational and health facilities. Walter Duncan, vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latin America and owner of an industrial chemical firm in Managua, told a Senate commitee in 1979 that multilateral aid, not direct U.S. assistance, could be most useful: “We [North Americans] are suspect any time we help any of these people. They are paranoid.”

They were also determined to be as self-sufficient as possible. Roberto Mayorga, an economic adviser to the newly installed junta that ran Nicaragua, announced that development plans would emphasize growing food for the people and building light industry. Condemning any “obsession” with “heavy industry,” he declared that foreign investment had to be tightly regulated. Private businessmen continued to control 60 percent of the nation’s economy. But from 1979 to 1981, as Nicaragua was squeezed between rising energy costs and falling prices for its food and raw-material exports, the Sandinistas urged more government controls. The economic crisis coincided with a political crisis in neighboring El Salvador. The junta supported Salvadoran revolutionaries for ideological reasons, but also because conservative Salvadorans (and their allies in the Reagan Administration) supported exiled associates of Somoza who openly declared their intention of recapturing Nicaragua.

Despite these crises, the FSLN moved to support the private sector. In late 1980, the Sandinistas agreed with foreign bankers to begin repaying $600 million of debt. Viron Vaky believed that the deal “locked Nicaragua into the private money market, and Nicaragua’s willingness to [be so locked] was a significant move toward a pragmatic, pluralistic course.” But neither that arrangement nor the junta’s reduction of aid to Salvadoran rebels in early 1981 satisfied the Reagan Administration. By March, it had suspended aid to Managua, had allowed former National Guard members to conduct military training exercises in Florida and California (although their exiled former leader had been assassinated in Paraguay), had tried to isolate the Nicaraguan government politically, and—with Secretary of State Alexander Haig setting the example—had condemned the Sandinistas at every turn.

“We . . . want to continue to assist moderate forces in Nicaragua which are resisting Marxist domination,” William J. Dyess, a State Department spokesman, announced in April of 1981. Reagan’s policy, however, produced the opposite result. Fearful that Haig’s rhetoric meant that the northern giant wanted to destroy them through covert action, the FSLN further centralized its control, suspended civil rights in the spring of 1982, and built a 50,000-man armed force—the largest in Central America. In early 1982, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, much admired by the Reagan Administration for leading the moderates’ fight against the governing junta, said, “I wish the United States would keep quiet for a while. Every time Haig opens his mouth, he strengthens the Sandinistas by justifying their arms buildup and stimulating the nationalism of the people.” Another critic of the junta, Arturo Cruz, resigned as Nicaragua’s ambassador to Washington, but warned that he and his countrymen overwhelmingly supported the Sandinistas and—regardless of Reagan’s pressure—were determined to follow a “fully nonaligned" foreign policy.

By pouring money into the Nicaraguan economy and Somoza’s National Guard, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon inadvertently helped create the conditions for the revolution that seized power in 1979. Carter’s policies and the Sandinistas’ quest for self-sufficiency intensified the mutual suspicion. Reagan’s withdrawal of support and Haig’s threats only drove the revolution further to the left. U.S. policymakers seem to have tried for twenty years to bring about the kind of revolution that the Alliance for Progress was supposed to prevent.


THE SAME CONCLUSION COULD BE DRAWN ABOUT U.S. policy toward the nation that was next threatened by revolution. El Salvador received more Alliance funds than any other Central American country. Between 1962 and 1966 alone, $63 million of U.S. government monies were given to the ruling oligarchs to invest, and private investments increased until the U.S. was a dominant influence in the transportation, oil-refining, and electric-power sectors, in 1964-1965, the economic growth rate reached an extraordinary 12 percent. Hundreds of new industries appeared, and the country soon possessed the largest number of manufacturing plants in Central America. An annual $1 million of U.S. military assistance gave the small but tightly knit army the weapons and training it needed. El Salvador, the Johnson Administration announced, was “a model for the other Alliance countries.”

Puzzled North Americans then watched as the model for Alliance members turned into a model for aspiring revolutionaries. But the realities were not hidden. Every twenty-five years the birthrate doubled the population of a country that already had the highest population density in the Americas. Except for Haiti (whose poverty deserved a category of its own), El Salvador also had the poorest people. Neither the birthrate nor the poverty concerned the few families that had controlled the country’s wealth since the nineteenth century, when they had seized the best coffee-growing land. During the 1930s, the oligarchs and the military united for mutual protection. That partnership was cemented in 1932 when, within a single month, the military killed more than 30,000 Salvadorans suspected of supporting a left-wing group that hoped to seize the oligarchs’ riches. By the 1960s, the country’s political opposition was just beginning to recover from that bloodbath.

The oligarchs passed the reform laws demanded by Kennedy and then made sure that the laws were not put into effect. The ruling families channeled Alliance aid into their own industrial enterprises or used it to buy up more land, on which they grew crops for export rather than food for their countrymen. As Alliance funds helped sugar exports rise more than 1,000 percent between 1960 and 1970, thousands of Salvadorans were evicted from land so that more sugar could be grown. Throughout this century, the amount of land under cultivation has increased as growing numbers of Salvadorans have starved. By the late 1960s, the country was exporting huge amounts of coffee, cotton, and sugar, but the general population ranked among the five worst-nourished peoples in the world. El Salvador nevertheless remained stable. In 1967, a U.S. Senatesponsored analysis gave the reason: this model of the Alliance was found to be among the hemisphere’s most militaristic regimes, so it had not been troubled by the “popular revolutionary stirrings” that afflicted other Latin American countries.

More than 60 percent of El Salvador’s nearly 3 million people depended on agriculture for their livelihood, but no more arable land was available. By 1969, 300,000 Salvadorans had fled to find food and work in neighboring Honduras. In June of that year, the Honduran government began expelling large numbers of immigrants. A brief war erupted between Honduras and El Salvador. More than 120,000 Salvadorans were forced to return home. As they put the tightly settled land under enormous pressure, the government tried to buy time with the promise of agrarian reforms. The oligarchs, however, were in no mood to share their wealth. In 1970, after a decade of spectacular economic growth, the first armed rebel bands appeared. The oligarchs turned to the U.S.-trained army, as usual, for protection. In 1972, the military cut off reform as well as rebellion by intervening in the presidential election to order the probable winner, Jose Napoleon Duarte, of the moderate Christian Democrats, out of the country. According to one experienced American journalist, the army planned to have Duarte killed when he landed in Guatemala, but he escaped and spent most of the next eight years in Venezuela.

With little to lose and no hope for reforms, guerrillas began kidnapping oligarchs and using the ransoms to buy arms. The revolutionaries now received support from Roman Catholic priests. After a historic meeting at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, a group of Latin American Catholic clergymen had concluded that with the failure of reform movements, including the Alliance, the Church must take the lead in helping the poor. By the early 1970s, that commitment inevitably led some priests to support peasant political organizations that demanded land and other concessions from the oligarchs. Priests were arrested and shot, and their bodies were dismembered. In 1977, the White Warriors’ Union, a right-wing vigilante group made up of past and present military personnel, killed one well-known priest, told the forty-seven remaining Jesuits to leave the country, and probably authored the anonymous pamphlets that urged, “Be a Patriot! Kill a Priest!” But as the slaughter of Salvadorans of all political persuasions accelerated, the priests continued to help build peasant organizations, particularly the Christian Peasant Federation. That group, known by its Spanish acronym, FECCAS, became the political backbone of the Popular Revolutionary Bloc that waged the revolution. Amid the energy crisis and inflation of the mid-1970s, the bloc gained support from the growing number of landless and unemployed laborers.

In 1977, as Salvadoran politics polarized, Jimmy Carter’s administration intervened to search for a nonexistent middle. When assassinations and kidnappings continued to increase, the United States supported a coup by young, relatively liberal officers, in October of 1979. U.S. hopes rose when the new group brought in liberal civilians, including Guillermo Ungo, who had run for vice president with Duarte in 1972, to speak for some centrist and leftwing groups. But the hope just as quickly faded, and not— as some observers later charged—because the left refused to cooperate. Ungo and other moderates on the left watched helplessly as the younger army leaders clashed with older, conservative officers over the pace and extent of reform. The officer corps soon understood that its own power was threatened by the arguments, and it closed ranks. Carter was of little help during this critical period. His policies—like Reagan’s a few years later—aimed at isolating the left instead of integrating it into the ruling group. Government operations slowed. Left-wing bands stepped up their attacks. Ungo quit the government. In March of 1980, the country’s most reactionary political group murdered the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. The killers were never brought to trial. That same month the military allowed Duarte to return from Venezuela to give a more liberal fagade to the regime.

The revolutionary groups organized for full-scale war. Politically, they came together in the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), for which Ungo became a spokesman. Five leftist military units coordinated action through the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). A pivotal question arose over who would have the power to put the revolutionary program into effect: the FDR, led by men such as Ungo, or the FMLN, which contained avowed Marxist-Leninists and, the State Department claimed, was heavily influenced by Cuban advisers. Because these revolutionary groups were earnestly pluralistic and, at times, lacked direction, no one could answer the question with authority.

But U.S. policy helped drive the revolution to the left. By defining the conflict in military terms, Washington officials forced both Ungo and Duarte to become more dependent upon their hard-line army commanders. The State Department refused to negotiate seriously with leftist moderates such as Ungo. Such negotiations could have been useful, however, only if the United States had been willing to press for discussions between the military and the left. Neither Carter nor Reagan was willing to do so. Nor would the Salvadoran officers automatically have followed Washington’s advice; the last group to do that had been Somoza’s National Guard, and the Salvadorans were not about to follow it into oblivion. Carter did cut off aid to the Salvadoran government in 1980, as its violations of human rights continued (including the murder of three North American nuns and a lay missionary), but he reopened the pipeline in early 1981, when the regime had to fight off a major left-wing offensive. About 30,000 people died during 1980-1981, and, according to independent groups in the best position to judge, as many as 75 percent of them were civilian victims of either government forces or vigilante groups paid by oligarchs. The massacres increased when Duarte began to redistribute land. Figures compiled by the Church showed that the largest numbers of peasants were killed in the areas where they were to receive land from the reforms. By 1982, the agrarian program had come to a stop.

Reagan tried to deal with the spreading revolution by returning to two components of the Alliance for Progress. He doubled economic aid in 1981, to $126.5 million, and planned to double it again this year. Last February, he announced that government aid would be abetted by a Caribbean Basin program that would encourage private investment and increased trade. Reagan also revived another major component of the Alliance—military training: fiftyfour U.S. advisers went to El Salvador, 500 Salvadoran officers came to the United States for training, and military aid multiplied by a factor of eight during 1981, to $40 million. The only component missing from the old Alliance program was Kennedy’s request for reforms. Reagan refused to insist on effective land redistribution or an end to the massacres as a condition for aid. “Power is not negotiable,” a former Salvadoran military leader announced in April of 1981. That remark meant, among other things, that elections were unacceptable unless they confirmed the power of the army. It also meant that the revolution could end only in total military victory for either one side or the other. The Reagan Administration policy depended entirely on the hope that the government would win that victory.


IN GUATEMALA, THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE ALLIance became visible earlier than they had in the other two countries, but Washington’s policies never wavered. The result was predictable. In 1967, after six years and nearly $50 million of Alliance help (plus another $50 million of private U.S. investment during the 1960s), Guatemala ranked first on the State Department’s list of Latin American nations threatened by insurgents.

The United States felt a special responsibility for the Guatemalan government. That military regime had been installed in mid-1954 by a U.S.-controlled coup that brought to a halt a ten-year-old social and economic reform program carried out by two elected presidents. The second president, Jacobo Arbenz, began full-scale land reforms by seizing large holdings of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. The Eisenhower Administration responded by persuading the OAS to isolate Arbenz and training Guatemalan exiles for the overthrow of his government. Understandably nervous, Arbenz bought a shipload of arms from Czechoslovakia with which to defend his government.

For Washington officials, that was final proof of his Communist affiliations. Six weeks later, the Central Intelligence Agency sent the exile force into Guatemala. Arbenz fled into exile. Right-wing military officers controlled Guatemala during most of the next quarter-century. Their policies produced a revolutionary movement that was far more threatening to Guatemalan stability than the 1945-1954 governments. “What we’d give to have an Arbenz now’,” a U.S. official said in 1980.

The revolt against the right-wing military began not among the poor but within the military itself. In late 1960, no less than one third of the army rebelled against its senior commanders. At the time, Cuban exiles were trainingin the country for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Guatemalan President Ydigoras Fuentes quickly filled a transport plane with the Cubans to fight the insurrectionists. That weird potential confrontation was cut short by the U.S. ambassador, John Muecio, who forced the president to use his own troops to stop the revolt. The regime’s dependence on the United States could not have been more vividly demonstrated. The outbreak was quelled but the leaders survived, and by 1965 two Guatemalan revolutionary movements had evolved. The most radical looked to Castro as a model. The other chose to work with Guatemala’s small, inept Communist Party. Neither group should have received much popular support, but a combination of inefficient Guatemalan governments and Alliance policies quickly propelled the insurgents to the top of the State Department’s Most Dangerous list.

Despite more than $100 million in U.S. government and private investment during the 1960s, the Alliance was unable to pry any agrarian reforms out of the regime for the 80 percent of some 5 million Guatemalans who depended on the land. Nine out of ten rural families endured existences that were described in 1962 by a U.S. agricultural economist as lives “of poverty, malnutrition, sickness, superstition, and illiteracy.” About 68,000 rural families survived as tenants or lowr-wage laborers without any land of their own, while half the country’s farm area—the best half—was owned by 1,100 families. That elite group used Alliance funds to expand production of export crops, especially sugar. Meanwhile, food shortages threatened starvation in some areas, and the regime finally had to pay premium prices to import corn, beans, and rice from the United States and Colombia.

Again, aggregate figures deceived North Americans. Between 1960 and 1980, Guatemala’s economy grew at an amazingly high average annual rate of 5.7 percent. In the late 1970s, just as six different revolutionary groups unleashed attacks, the gross national product was rising by more than 7 percent annually. But 5 percent of the population received more than $2,000 each from that economy every year, while 70 percent tried to survive on a $74 average annual income. Even with North American aid, the Guatemalan government did little to redistribute the wealth more equitably, and Guatemala’s military maintained order with force. Between 1967 and 1971, the government waged a war that climaxed in a state of siege and a six-month offensive that claimed at least 2,000 lives. The country quieted. Then, in 1974, a rigged election destroyed centrist political groups. Two years later, an earthquake devastated the poor neighborhoods of Guatemala City and many rural villages. The revolutionaries’ opportunity reopened.

The major opportunity, the one that transformed the revolution, came from an unlikely source. The country’s Indians accounted for more than half the population and a much higher proportion of the poverty. For decades they had been docile, but in the 1970s, their economic conditions became intolerable when military officers and wealthy civilians seized land from them to grow export crops and stake out sites for oil drilling. The Roman Catholic Church, which had worked among the Indians for four centuries, helped them prepare to fight. A number of priests and nuns were consequently ordered out of the country by the government, and at least three priests were killed (another disappeared). After 1978, the slaughter picked up speed; and during the first nine months of 1981, government forces killed nearly 4,000 Indians and drove thousands of others from their villages. The Carter Administration finally protested by cutting off military aid. The Guatemalan military ignored the threat and began buying weapons from Western Europe, Israel, and the wellstocked private international arms market.

The Indians, driven by poverty and encouraged by the priests, have changed the course of Guatemalan politics. The revolution is no longer conducted by elite army members, as it was in the 1960s. Nor, in 1982, do its main groups look to Havana for aid, as the leading rebel organization did fifteen years ago, although they are willing to accept aid from Cubans or from any other source. The military government and the six disparate groups that form the revolutionaries are locked in a war to the death. Atrocities are committed by both sides, but the government’s actions have been so horrible that the Reagan Administration has not been able to explain away human-rights violations and resume regular arms shipments. Last year, however, the President began sending military trucks, jeeps, and helicopters, after disingenuously removing them from a list of items that the State Department can clear for shipment only after human rights have been taken into account. These supplies will hardly suffice. The revolutionary armies already have upward of 6,000 soldiers, and they grow as the economy is devastated by war. Senior Guatemalan army officers believe the government needs, instead of its present 22,000-man force, 100,000 soldiers, fully supplied with modern counterinsurgency equipment. Such assistance can come only from the United States.

If the experiences in Nicaragua and El Salvador are guides, the U.S. will send increasing amounts of that assistance to Guatemala. And, as a predictable consequence of U.S. policy, aid designed to rescue the economy will benefit the relatively few wealthy Guatemalans and their military allies, while military assistance will be used for the killing and torturing of the poor and middle-class who join the revolution. Regardless of how high the growth rates and military-aid figures soared in Central America during the 1960s and 1970s, the attractiveness of revolution grew, in part because U.S. aid was used in ways that only widened the socio-economic differences between rich and poor. Unless fundamental structural change occurs in many so-called Caribbean Basin countries, and especially in Guatemala and El Salvador, President Reagan’s Caribbean plan will, like the Alliance for Progress, only lead to intensification of the revolutions that it would like to destroy.

Revolutions in the three Central American countries can no longer be prevented. If they are to be contained, the reprieve will be only temporary unless their causes—the gross inequities that have long been accepted as natural in these societies—are removed. The United States cannot single-handedly perform that miracle, or at least not unless North Americans are willing to rule the three nations as the Soviet Union is attempting to rule Afghanistan, Throughout this century, Washington officials have proved to be poor colonial governors.

The United States would be wise to step aside and allow the revolutions to work themselves out, with the single proviso that no Soviet-controlled bases or military personnel be allowed in Central America. Washington can also use its power to promote negotiated settlements when circumstances allow, and then offer generous economic help to any regime that wants such aid and is willing to use it to improve the lives of all its people.

Since Central Americans have good historical reasons to be paranoid about Yankees bearing gifts, the assistance program should be developed multilaterally. Important roles will have to be played by the two leading regional powers, Mexico and Venezuela, and by the West European governments that have recently shown an interest in the area. These regional and industrial powers, moreover, certainly want no Soviet presence in Central America; Mexican and Venezuelan oil fields could be too vulnerable. Differences between the United States and other powers, especially Mexico, have less to do with the need to exclude the Soviet presence than with the need to accept the inevitable revolutions in the three Central American countries.

Since the era of Theodore Roosevelt, the United States has tried to stop Latin American revolutions. When it acted energetically, as in Cuba and Central America, the United States did little to remove the causes of unrest and, instead, frequently caused the revolutions to turn more sharply to the left. When the U.S. was unable to act energetically because of distractions (for example, World War I and the Great Depression prevented North American Presidents from cracking down on the leaders of the Mexican Revolution as they wanted to), the revolution moderated and North Americans adjusted gradually and profitably. Even with its power, the United States cannot roll back the Central American revolutions. With luck, and an understanding of the past, it can, however, help bring order out of those revolutions. □