BY ROBERT A. PASTOR
IN EARLY FEBRUARY OF 1981, AS HE WAS DRAWING A line publicly in El Salvador, Secretary of State Alexander Haig privately sent a strongly worded message to Omar Torrijos, the head of the National Guard of Panama and the power behind the presidency. Haig let Torrijos know that the flabbiness in U.S. foreign policy had been firmed up; no longer would the U.S. government tolerate Torrijos’s adventures with the Cubans. The goal of U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere was now the containment of Cuba, replacing the half-dozen different goals that the Carter Administration had tried to pursue simultaneously. Torrijos would have to shape up, or else.
U.S. Ambassador Ambler Moss, Jr., was instructed to deliver the message to Torrijos immediately, and Moss helicoptered to the military barracks at Farallón. He found Torrijos in a hammock, swinging and meditating, and savoring his every puff of a Cuban cigar—a Cohiba, a personal present from Fidel Castro. Torrijos had not heard from Ronald Reagan since Reagan’s inauguration; before that, Reagan had referred to him as “a tinhorn Marxist dictator,” and Torrijos had reserved some choice quips for Reagan, “in the spirit of reciprocity,” he liked to say.
“General,” Moss said, “I have a message to you from Secretary of State Haig,” and he then read the message.
Torrijos listened with no visible sign of emotion, except that he began puffing more rapidly on his Cohiba. When Moss was finished, Torrijos lifted himself out of the hammock, and asked if our ambassador would mind writing down his response. Moss took out his pad and pencil and Torrijos dictated:
“Mr. Haig, I cannot acknowledge receipt of this message. It was obviously intended for another destination. It should have gone to Puerto Rico. Omar Torrijos.”
So much for the Big Stick in the 1980s.
MUCH HAS CHANGED IN CENTRAL AMERICA since Teddy Roosevelt boasted that he had taken Panama. One change is that Central America, like the late Omar Torrijos, seems to be listening to us less, while we seem to be listening to Central America more— more intensely if not with more comprehension. Another change has occurred in the national interests of the United States: we have fewer vital interests in the region, but we seem to care about them more.
Last March, 792 foreign journalists, more than were in Vietnam during the height of the war, were in El Salvador to observe an election for a constituent assembly. The political, economic, and military turmoil in Central America—especially in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua—has been on the front pages of American newspapers and on the television news shows for months. Why are we so preoccupied with the crisis? Is all this attention justified?
Americans cannot help but ask whether El Salvador might not be better off if we were a little less possessive. If we are better off today by letting the Panamanians run the Canal, and we are, why wouldn’t we be better off tomorrow if we let El Salvador be El Salvador? In short, why bother?
Before I attempt to answer these questions, I would like to consider briefly the origins of the Central American crisis.
Two rather simple explanations have been offered. In his speech at the Organization of American States (OAS), on February 24, President Ronald Reagan attributed the crisis to “imported terrorism,” a “new kind of colonialism” that “stalks the world today and threatens our independence. It is brutal and totalitarian. It is not of our hemisphere but it threatens our hemisphere”; it is communism, and it is exploiting the economic crisis caused by the increase in the price of petroleum and the fall in the prices of the principal exports of the region—coffee, bananas, sugar, and cotton.
Mexico’s President José López Portillo had offered a different explanation in a speech in Managua, on February 21: “The Central American and Caribbean revolutions are, above all, the struggles of poor and oppressed peoples to live better.” While most of Reagan’s explanation was aimed at Cuba as the source of the problem, López Portillo’s speech didn’t mention Cuba, except to suggest that it is one of the countries of the region “struggling to change domestic and foreign structures which very much resemble the colonial order.” López Portillo did, however, mention the U.S. frequently, both by insinuation and by direct reference:
I can assure my good friends in the United States that what is taking place here in Nicaragua, what is taking place in El Salvador, and what is blowing throughout the whole region, does not constitute an intolerable danger to the basic interests and the national security of the United States. What does constitute a danger [for the U.S.] is the risk of history’s condemnation as a result of suppressing by force the rights of other nations.
One is reassured to learn from the White House press spokesman that the two Presidents hit it off so well together at their meetings last year. But after reading the two speeches given three days apart this year on the same subject and finding absolutely no conceptual overlap, one is left wondering whether their excellent relationship was brought about by conversing in different languages without the aid of an interpreter.
Which is it? Poverty and injustice, as the Mexican President suggests, or oil prices and Cuban terrorism, as the U.S. President maintains? A neat irony hides in their arguments.
If López Portillo is correct, then one might wonder why Mexico isn’t in flames. It has one of the most inequitable income distributions in Latin America—worse than El Salvador’s. (Indeed, in a report in 1979, the World Bank found an improvement in the distribution of income in El Salvador from 1965 to 1977—the lower 40 percent had increased their share of the economic pie, while the top 20 percent had reduced their share. The distribution was still grossly inequitable, but the trend was positive, which was not true in Mexico during the same period.)
If Reagan is correct, and all the trouble in Central America is caused by the Cubans and the Russians, why isn’t similar mischief being made in the United States? The Cubans and the Russians have a far greater incentive to export their terrorism to the center of the empire. Why step on the emperor’s toes, when you can plunge a dagger into his heart?
There is an alternative explanation: the instability of Central America stems from the region’s socio-economic progress and political-military stagnation. (Access for all groups to the political process is one important reason Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico have been able to escape the instability.) It is, of course, true that most of the people in Central America are poor, not just by U.S. standards but by world standards. The United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America estimates that 42 percent of the population in the six countries of Central America— Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala—live in a state of “extreme poverty.” The level of economic development ranges from Honduras, with a per capita income of $530, an adult literacy rate of 60 percent, and a life expectancy of fifty-eight years, to Costa Rica, with a per capita income of $1,820, an adult literacy rate of 90 percent, and a life expectancy of seventy years.
But what is most remarkable is not the poverty in the region, which has been its burden since the dawn of man, but the recent extraordinary economic growth. Between 1950 and 1978, the six nations averaged an annual real rate of growth of 5.3 percent, doubling the real per capita income during this period. This occurred despite the fact that the population nearly tripled, from 8.6 million to 23 million; without population growth, the per capita income would have quintupled.
Primarily banana or coffee exporters in 1950, the six nations have multiplied their trade by a factor of eighteen, and trade has been the stimulus for expanding and diversifying the entire economies. Exports now include a wide range of agricultural products, manufactures, and services. Physical infrastructure—roads, telephones, electrical energy, port facilities, mass communications—expanded severalfold. Just from 1960 to 1976, the adult literacy rate increased from 44 percent to 72 percent.
The changes in the societies wrought by this burst of progress were genuinely revolutionary. An enterprising middle and professional class emerged. There was an expansion of medium-sized, efficient agricultural units. A working class emerged, and organized in both the urban and the rural areas. The Church, which had legitimized the status quo for centuries, also underwent a profound transformation in this period, and many priests began to help and identify with the poor.
When the new groups sought political power commensurate with their new economic power, however, they found their path blocked by the old order. In 1972, rejecting the advice of his friends as well as his political enemies, Anastasio Somoza changed the Nicaraguan constitution and secured a second presidential term for himself. In the same year, the Salvadoran oligarchy colluded with the military and overturned an election won by a coalition that was led by Napoleón Duarte, of the Christian Democratic Party, and that included the Social Democratic and Communist parties. Two years later, a similar scenario was played out in Guatemala. In each case, the U.S. government winked as the democratic process was discredited. Human rights as a policy had not yet arrived; we confused the status quo with stability, and we are paying the price for that confusion today.
Guerrilla groups roamed the political landscape of Central America throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Cuban support varied, but was never extensive. Only in Guatemala in the late 1960s did the guerrillas represent a threat, and although some saw in this “another Vietnam,”the movement itself was pushed back into relative isolation and obscurity.
There were three related developments in the 1970s that gave the guerrillas a chance to emerge from obscurity. First, the population explosion and increased educational opportunities provided the guerrillas with a new and educated leadership, more recruits, and a politically awakened population. The demographic profile is a critical starting point for understanding the current struggle in Central America, which pits not only old sources of power against new social forces but, more important, an older generation against a younger, better-educated one, representing larger numbers.
Second, the clogging of the political arteries in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, and to a lesser extent in Guatemala made the guerrillas the only opposition game in town. When the middle class was denied access to power, the guerrillas stole its reformist programs and by doing so enhanced their legitimacy and widened their base. The children of the middle class joined the revolution and persuaded their parents either to stay neutral politically or to front for the guerrillas.
Repression, which had long been the military’s way to maintain order, became a counterproductive instrument; a younger population is not intimidated when the security forces slaughter a father or sister, it is politicized. The military thought they were killing the left, but in fact, they have been recruiting for it. The famed “muchachos” that made up the bulk of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and have expanded the guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala are the result of a collision between a younger demographic profile and a discredited militaristic approach to politics.
Finally the rise in oil prices in 1979, followed by the collapse of the prices of sugar, coffee, bananas, and cotton, halted the economic growth and exacerbated unemployment in economies that already could not cope with an annual increase in the labor force of about 3 percent. The war between the military and the guerrillas spooked any further investment and prompted a transfer of capital from Central America to the U.S.—currently estimated at more than $500 million annually, which is more than the U.S. aid program to the region. During the war, GNP fell by 25 percent in 1979 in Nicaragua, and by 9 percent in 1980 in El Salvador.
Population pressures, political obstructionism, military repression, and a severe economic depression—these are the mediumand long-term causes of instability; the tinder awaited the spark. The immediate cause of the current instability in Central America was the Nicaraguan revolution, which traumatized the region. The left became bolder, the right more intransigent, and the middle more precarious. Polarization—the process by which the middle is forced to choose sides, flee, or die—gained momentum. Both the extreme left and the extreme right are committed to trying to make the political reality conform to their perceptions and propaganda—that there is no middle. The left claims that the choice is between the oligarchy and the people; the right, that it is between communism and Christian values. As the polarization process continues, it is natural for Americans to be drawn to original questions, such as what are U.S. interests in Central America, and do they justify our deep involvement?
It is unusual for an administration to ponder such basicquestions, especially when it is taxed by international crises and endless bureaucratic debates. When an administration does address such questions, as it sometimes does in testimony before Congress or in speeches, it has no time to devise original answers, and so bureaucrats dust off traditional answers.
THE EXPLANATIONS THAT PRESIDENT REAGAN and Secretary of State Haig have offered for their policies in Central America certainly have the ring of history. “Make no mistake,” Reagan said in February, “the well-being and security of our neighbors in this region are in our own vital interest.” Why? “The Caribbean region is a vital strategic and commercial artery for the United States. Nearly half of U.S. trade, two thirds of our imported oil, and over half of our imported strategic minerals pass through the Panama Canal or the Gulf of Mexico.” In the words of William Middendorf, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, the region is “right on our strategic doorstep.” Middendorf argues that we should quit referring to the region as “in our own back yard”; instead, we should think of it as “our strategic front yard.” In addition, the U.S. has economic and ideological interests, defined positively as a concern for freedom and democracy, or negatively as anti-communism. These answers have sustained U.S. engagement in the region since the turn of the century, but they are no longer convincing.
Merely to list these interests is to understand why the Reagan Administration has been having so much difficulty persuading the American people that a decisive battle is being fought in Central America. A “vital interest” is presumably one for which the U.S. is willing to fight. In 1914, the U.S. occupied the port of Veracruz, Mexico, to gain respect for the American flag. In 1916, the U.S. fought to ensure that customs taxes would be collected in the Dominican Republic. In 1927, U.S. troops died to ensure a free election in Nicaragua. Not only would few Americans consider any of these interests vital today but it would be hard to identify a consensus in the U.S. around any interest that would justify unilateral U.S. military intervention in Central America; in a recent poll published by the Washington Post, 70 percent of Americans said they would oppose any fighting by the U.S. in El Salvador. Our interests are not immutable; they have changed as the world and our capabilities have changed. Moreover, new administrations often attach very different weights to each interest; to see this, one need only compare the importance that the past three administrations have given to U.S. national interests in human rights abroad.
There is no better example of the changing character of U.S. interests and the implications of the change for U.S. strategy than the Panama Canal, which has been the symbol of U.S. interests in Central America since the turn of the century. Even today, there are many who believe that the principal reason for preventing instability in the rest of Central America is that the Canal must be protected, lest a hostile neighbor interfere with its traffic. Through World Wars I and II, the Canal was an invaluable strategic asset, but with the advent of aircraft carriers, which were too large to pass through the Canal, U.S. interests in it changed—from strategic to primarily economic, from facilitating the movement of the U.S. fleet to providing a marginal economic advantage in the shipment of supplies. U.S. interests in an open and efficient Canal remained important, but they could hardly be considered either vital or strategic. At the same time, the Canal became vital for countries such as Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, which shipped much larger percentages of their trade through it. Closure would only marginally affect the U.S.; it would be catastrophic for these countries. The new Canal treaties between the U.S. and Panama ratified in 1978 reflected these changing interests and the necessity of a new approach to protect these interests.
LET’S LOOK AT THE INTERESTS OFFERED BY THE ADmimstration to justify U.S. involvement in Central America.
First, U.S. economic interests in the region are currently marginal—less than 2 percent of U.S. investments abroad are in Central America and less than 2 percent of our trade is with the region. Moreover, the long-standing fear that the establishment of Communist regimes would close the “open door” of Western trade and investment has been questioned by none other than David Rockefeller, who recently returned from a trip to Africa and declared that Americans could do business with the Communist regimes there if the U.S. government would let them.
While an impressive quantity of U.S. trade flows through the region, what country would seriously consider either trying to sink U.S. vessels or closing one of the strategic sea lanes? Certainly, the Cuban leadership understands that to do so would provide the U.S. government with the kind of pretext to punish Cuba militarily that many nationalist Americans have been seeking for the past twenty years.
As long as we support the principle of freedom of the seas, the Soviet navy will be able to conduct regular naval maneuvers in the Caribbean as it has done since 1969. One Cuba is more than adequate to service the needs of the Soviet fleet in the Caribbean. (A facility on the Pacific side of Central America, where there is less traffic, would be another matter.) Soviet interference with our shipping is unlikely short of a nuclear exchange, which would make any further discussion irrelevant. Even if there were a conventional war with the Soviets, it is unlikely that Cuba or other Soviet allies in the Caribbean would risk interfering with U.S. shipping, because of their extraordinary vulnerability to U.S. retaliation. Anyway, not much could be done that we aren’t already doing to make the sea lanes less vulnerable. Undoubtedly, the Pentagon will insist on building up its capabilities in the Caribbean and will argue that an increased Cuban military buildup requires still larger budgets, though the threat is not directly against the U.S. but rather against other sovereign nations in the region, which have the option of turning to the OAS or the U.S. for defense if they feel the need.
That is not to suggest that we have no security interests in the region, only that traditional exhortations about strategic arteries or Soviet bases or expanded military capabilities in surrogate Cubas don’t strike the same chord in Americans that they once did. This is because the administration’s case against the Soviet threat to this hemisphere is a caricature, based on three exaggerated assertions.
First, the administration argues that the guerrillas fighting in Central America are merely tools of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Reagan told the Wall Street Journal during the presidential campaign that the Soviet Union is the source of all instability in the Third World. In warning Cuba to stop fomenting insurrection throughout Central America, Secretary Haig said: “It is our view that this is an externally managed and orchestrated interventionism, and we are going to deal with it at the source.”
Haig’s assertion has met with incredulity in the U.S. and Western Europe, and he has sought repeatedly to substantiate the charge. On March 2, he announced that he had “overwhelming and irrefutable” proof that El Salvador’s guerrillas are operating under instructions sent to them from a command-and-control center outside the country. Since he has not shared that proof, it is difficult to judge except to say that it is apparently refuted by the uncoordinated operations of the five guerrilla groups, even with respect to the election—with some groups trying to sabotage it violently, others encouraging a boycott, and still others doing nothing. Moreover, if the U.S. had located a command-and-control center, presumably the Salvadoran government would have beaten the guerrillas in every confrontation since then, because they would have had access to the guerrillas’ strategic plans and instructions. (Conversely, if the guerrillas intercepted cable traffic between the State Department and our embassy in San Salvador, they might conclude that the Salvadoran government gets its instructions from a command-and-control center outside the country.)
This caricature of the guerrillas as tools only invites people to embrace a mirror-image caricature of the guerrillas as a wholly indigenous and autonomous response to decades of oppression and repression. The second caricature obscures the political, military, and ideological links between Central American revolutionaries and the Soviet Union and Cuba and the extent to which the guerrilla leaders look to Castro’s Cuba as a political and military, if not an economic, model and at the U.S. as the source of all their nations’ problems. (It is true that the left is quite heterogeneous, including disaffected Social and Christian Democrats in El Salvador, for example, but the guerrilla leaders with the guns do not hide their Marxism-Leninism in interviews with the Mexican and Cuban press, although they do sound more like Social Democrats when interviewed by American reporters.) Surely, a more realistic appraisal of the guerrilla movements in Central America would recognize their indigenous roots and their ideological branches, their idealistic motives and their hunger for power by force of arms, their professed interest in “democracy” and their own authoritarian organizations, their concern about social injustice and their belief in the class struggle, their admiration for Cuba and their obsessive hatred for “U.S. imperialism.”
Second, the administration suggests that the emergence of “new Cubas” in Central America constitutes a security threat to the U.S. and, in Haig’s words, “a profound challenge to the security of our hemisphere, to the whole character of the southern hemisphere, its political orientation and its compatibility with traditional hemispheric values.” Leaving aside the question of what values unite President Pinochet, of Chile, Castro, and President Herrera Campins, of Venezuela, the problem with this assertion is that the American people find it easier to visualize Central America as composed of six relatively poor and weak countries with a justifiable preference to be viewed in their own terms rather than as kings or pawns in a global chess game.
The administration made a point of the fact that the person who briefed the press on March 9 on the Nicaraguan military buildup was the same person who had briefed on the Cuban missile crisis. The implication—that the military buildup constituted a security threat to the U.S., perhaps equivalent to the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba—is absurd, either from a strategic perspective or from the standpoint of a possible effect on global perceptions of U.S. power. With slide shows depicting the threat in such unrealistic and melodramatic terms, the administration repeated the mistake of its first assertion, and the result is that people are driven again to a mirror-image caricature, which suggests that no security interests are at stake.
Nicaragua’s neighbors do have grounds for fearing that country’s military buildup, but not because Nicaragua will invade, which would probably provoke an OAS response. When combined with Nicaragua’s support for insurgencies in neighboring countries, the increased military capability acts to deter any neighbor from “hot pursuit.” The U.S. is not the appropriate country and the State Department is not the appropriate forum, however, to make the case on Nicaragua’s military buildup; the evidence should have been presented by Central American governments, with U.S. assistance, before the OAS, where a multilateral response could be requested.
The establishment of a Soviet base that could be used to threaten other countries or even the U.S. is a legitimate security concern, and a nation in the region that was on a collision course with the U.S. would certainly have an incentive to issue an invitation to the USSR, much as Cuba did in 1962. From a U.S. perspective, the issue is how to minimize the chance of this happening, and there are two ways: reduce the probability of Marxist-Leninists coming to power in the region who would look to the USSR and Cuba for security support, or try to reduce the level of hostility with such groups if they do come to power. Although some have referred to this concern with the possible emergence of hostile regimes as a presumption of U.S. hegemony or imperialism, in fact the concern is shared by all governments of the region, whether of the right, the left, or the center. However, this concern must be kept in perspective. The emergence of a hostile regime is primarily a regional problem affecting important U.S. interests, but it isn’t one that alters the global strategic balance and threatens vital interests.
The administration’s third assertion is that the choice for Central America is, in President Reagan’s words, between “two different futures”—a positive, democratic one and a negative, Communist one. Would that it were so. Though the phrases are reminiscent of the Truman Doctrine of thirty-five years ago—and, unfortunately, of equal subtlety—the American people are not as trusting as they were then nor as ignorant of the real choices we face in Central. America. As the U.S. retreats from its defense of human rights, the black-and-white choices begin to blur into one another. The Marxist future in Central America—at least as it has evolved in Nicaragua thus far—is simply not as dark as the administration would have us believe, and the possibility of a democratic future for El Salvador and Guatemala can hardly be considered bright.
It is precisely because the likely alternatives are not very attractive that some Americans are driven to the idea that there is no choice. Others feel that the dissolution of the old oligarchical structure can present an opening for greater freedom and justice, and that it’s a mistake to believe that if the left comes to power, it cannot be co-opted. Of course, U.S. policies can make revolutionaries either a little more or a little less hostile, but the probabilities argue against the chances of converting those MarxistLeninist guerrillas, who have been fighting U.S. imperialism for a decade or so, into either democrats or friends of the U.S.
In the search for a relevant answer to the old strategic question, we have ricocheted between two caricatures— one suggesting that our most vital security interests are at stake, and the other, that there are no objective security interests, only errant perceptions based on a lingering desire for hegemony. In assuming that the insurgencies are not nationalistic movements but rather tools of the Soviets and therefore fixed in their hostility to the U.S., that the cause of the instability is external, that the only struggle in Central America is against the left, the Reagan Administration distorts the struggle into a confrontation with the USSR and invests the prestige of the U.S. in the outcome, over which we have considerably less than complete control. Moreover, the strategy of bringing the full weight of the U.S. against the insurgents is counterproductive, because it provides the right with a blank check to be intransigent and repressive in its war against communism and the left with a target that it can use to establish its nationalist credentials.
Those who would withdraw from Central America because they don’t perceive any security interest either don’t see or don’t care about the covert extension of Cuban influence on behalf of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, or don’t want to do anything about rightist terrorism, or don’t think we can do anything. But they should understand that the consequence of withdrawal would be the intensification of the struggle; the right would be unshackled, and the Communist supporters of the left would be less inhibited in transferring weapons.
THE QUESTION OF NATIONAL-SECURITY INTERESTS returns at one point or another to the question of U.S. ideological interests—human rights, democratic government, a pluralistic and open international system. “International terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern,” Haig said on January 28, 1981; by this deliberate act of unilateral disarmament, the Reagan Administration not only deprived the U.S. of one of the most powerful weapons in its ideological arsenal but also betrayed U.S. history and values and placed itself in opposition to a vigorous transnational human-rights movement. It is a mistake to view our security and humanrights interests as contradictory; they are mutually reinforcing. Let me illustrate this point with two sets of examples. In the early 1970s, U.S. preoccupation with stability led us to ignore the discrediting of the democratic process in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and the entire region is suffering because of the closing of those political avenues. In 1978, the U.S. placed its full weight behind democracy in Honduras and Panama, and that weight contributed to restraining the military in both countries, which are now relative paragons of stability.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argues that the U.S. should have openly supported Somoza in Nicaragua, because the Sandinistas are worse. That same logic would lead us to resist all changes and to embrace all dictators—since the alternatives are almost always more uncertain. The Nicaraguan people had a lot more to say about whether Somoza remained in power than did the U.S., but even if the U.S. had had the choice, and backed Somoza, not only would we have backed a loser but we would have tainted our nation’s values perhaps irrevocably in the area. Nothing would have weakened the U.S. security position more than to have gone down with Somoza.
What kind of system of government do we want our friends to live under? Certainly the U.S. cannot be silent on this question, and the answer must be some form of democracy, in which human rights are respected. We cannot ensure that democracy will take root everywhere, but we should never uproot it if it does, and we should use whatever influence we have to increase its chances by trying to assist those who would support social justice, restrain rightist repression, and offer an alternative to Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. We can neither walk away from such a struggle nor take sides with the right against the left.
The U.S. also has systemic interests in contributing to a world economic and political system that is open and pluralistic. In Central America, this means that it is in the long-term interests of the U.S. to encourage greater independence and autonomy, since these would permit more balanced and respectful governmental relationships. Of course, this particular interest is generally eclipsed during a political crisis, when it is more important for the U.S. to try to influence internal political developments, but it is a mistake to ignore it totally. U.S. strength is derived from its respect for political diversity abroad and at home. We have an interest in influencing developments in Central America but not in dominating those countries as the Soviet Union dominates Eastern Europe. The U.S. would not be served by a Reagan Corollary to the Brezhnev Doctrine.
LIKE THE AMERICANS WHO WENT TO PANAMA IN THE first decade of this century to dig a canal but brought back malaria, we have gone to El Salvador to save it from communism but have found ourselves infected by that country’s disease, political polarization. Of course, in Central America, the people in the middle position are attacked with guns instead of placards, but the same principle—that the middle becomes more precarious as the contest becomes more intense—governs the struggle in El Salvador and the debate in the U.S. And increasingly, the two struggles parallel each other and are drawn to each other.
Why are we psychologically involved in El Salvador today? Geographical proximity and the administration’s own highly charged rhetoric partly explain the intensity of the debate. The administration has defined the issues in blackand-white terms, and this promotes polarization in the U.S. and contributes to it in Central America. But there are two other reasons why the conflict in El Salvador has the potential for polarizing the U.S.: the psychological proximity of the Vietnam trauma and the “Caribbeanization” of the U.S.
Fighting a war always leaves deep imprints on a nation’s consciousness, affecting its self-perception and the way it looks at the world for at least a generation. Certainly, World War II deeply affected an entire generation of Americans. Because U.S. involvement reflected so many of our nation’s most valued myths—the U.S. as supporter of the underdog; war as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship; the necessity for unconditional victory—our nation emerged with a positive feeling of unanimity, assured of its rightness in fighting and its moral and physical strength in winning. After the war, it was relatively easy to transfer this perspective to a new enemy—the Soviet Union and communism.
The Korean War partly breached this consensual view. President Eisenhower sensed this and avoided involvement in Vietnam in 1954 because he realized that the American people were not yet prepared for “another Korea.” More than a decade later, however, the total breakdown of the World War II consensus occurred in Vietnam, which divided the nation then and continues to divide it today. There is agreement that it was a mistake, but that is where the consensus ends. Two views of the Vietnam conflict seem particularly relevant to El Salvador.
The first view—that U.S. leaders lacked the will to win—was articulated by President Reagan in February of 1981, in a ceremony to present the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam war hero. Reagan said that U.S. military forces were withdrawn “because they’d been denied permission to win.” Although this view appears to be shared by his secretaries of state and defense, there does not appear to be a consensus on its implications for Central America. The Defense Department appears to be reluctant to get involved militarily in the absence of broad national support, while Secretary of State Haig apparently believes that if the U.S. is to play its proper role in the world, we need to get over the Vietnam syndrome and demonstrate our resolve for both friends and adversaries. This explains why Haig was so eager to make El Salvador the key test for U.S. foreign policy; it was close to home and presumably an easy win. Of course, it didn’t develop as he intended, but there is no indication that he has been diverted from a belief that the U.S. must demonstrate a willingness to apply force—as the Soviet Union has done either directly or by proxy in at least six instances since the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam—or U.S. diplomacy will become less credible. According to this view, there is no reason to re-arm America if the rest of the world doesn’t believe that the U.S. has the will to use the arms.
Before Congress last March, Secretary of State Haig said that the problem in Vietnam was that the government had failed to decide whether or not our vital interests were involved. “If they had concluded negatively, then we would never have become involved in the first instance,” he said. If they had decided our vital interests were at stake, “I believe they would have taken actions commensurate with that judgment. . . . Now, let me tell you,” he said, “I come down on the side of, in such an assessment in Central America, that the outcome of the situation there is in the vital interest of the American people and must be so dealt with. . . . I know the American people will support what is prudent and necessary providing they think we mean what we mean and that we are going to succeed and not flounder as we did in Vietnam.” In short, Haig was saying that the survival of the U.S. is at stake in Central America.
The White House reads the polls and knows how divisive is the conflict in El Salvador, and so the military option has not received any support. What the White House has apparently not recognized is that Reagan’s use of the term “vital interest,” as further developed by his secretary of state, commits the administration to stopping the left in Central America; the cost is irrelevant when the survival of the country is at stake.
Secretary of State Haig may be over the Vietnam syndrome because he never had it. But the view held by the majority of Americans, according to the polls, is that U.S. military involvement in a civil war like that of Vietnam is a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. The formative political experience of an entire generation—the baby-boom generation of the late 1940s and early 1950s—was marching against the war and turning the U.S. government around. In some ways, this was as heady an experience for this generation as winning World War II was for their parents. And just as the older generation enjoys recapturing the memory of its experience in movies or by marching in veterans’ parades, the younger generation is ready to recapture its lost youth by marching against another war alongside a new generation ready to develop its own anti-war experience. This is part of the reason why the insertion of U.S. troops in Central America would divide America as Vietnam did.
For those whose views of the Vietnam War were shaped by watching it on television, the conflict in Central America promises to be much more riveting. Central America is more accessible, not just geographically but in its language and culture. Moreover, a large number of Central Americans are living in the U.S. today, and this helps people focus on the human consequences of the conflict.
Among journalists, there is a Vietnam generation ready to replicate the biggest story of the 1960s, and a new generation ready to cut its teeth on a new war. This partly explains why the coverage of the conflict has been so extensive, even though there are fewer than fifty U.S. military advisers in El Salvador; either the media are anticipating or they are trying to recapture the war of the past on a new battlefield. Their presence, however, serves the useful function of a self-denying prophecy; the more Americans focus on El Salvador, the more certain people are that they don’t want to repeat Vietnam.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE STRUGGLE IN CENTRAL America matters to the U.S., one must go beyond the traditional questions and answers about U.S. interests and explore the psychological relationship between the U.S. and Central America. One finds that the U.S. is so much a presence in Central America that to debate nonintervention is to elicit utter bewilderment from Central American leaders. And in the evolving debate in the U.S., which has grown more intense and polarized, one finds for the first time that the region is beginning to exert a profound impact on the U.S.
Franklin D. Roosevelt became a hero to Latin Americans just for taking seriously the principle of non-intervention that Latin jurists and diplomats had been preaching to the U.S. for generations. The second U.S. President to take that principle seriously was Jimmy Carter, but Latin Americans reserved judgment on him, since they had heard other Presidents make the pledge and then break it. Only in Central America did they take Carter seriously; there, however, they feared that he might be true to his word.
In March of 1977, before a congressional committee, Napoleon Duarte, then in exile from El Salvador, asserted that the Carter pledge was not only irrelevant but immoral.
. . . the U.S. cannot assume that it does not intervene, because even at this moment if the U.S. decides not to intervene at all, it will mean that it sustains the structure presently existing in Latin America; it will mean the continuing existence of all the dictators imposed on the people. Therefore, there is a continuing historical intervention . . . the U.S., at this moment, has a historical duty . . . in support of those basic principles which form the basis of the so-called American way of life. . . . If the U.S. starts presenting its international policy based on moral principles, on the concepts and values of the American way of life, then there is hope that the world will find a new destiny, better than the one we are livingin today.
Omar Torrijos, of Panama, put the same point a little differently: “General Brown [former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] once told me that the U.S. cannot involve itself in the internal life of Latin America. I say, right . . . but the truth is that our peoples feel that the U.S. is involved and even though you believe you are not involved, the important thing is what our peoples think about you.”Torrijos said that “the people of the Americas associate the Pentagon and the White House with the interests of the oligarchy and the interests of the armed forces. We are a nearsighted continent.” If the U.S. is going to stand for democracy and social justice, it will have to move; to stand still is to reinforce an unjust status quo.
Mexico’s great philosopher and poet Octavio Paz once wrote that North Americans “are always among us, even when they ignore us or turn their back on us. Their shadow covers the whole hemisphere. It is the shadow of a giant.”
It is a presence that pervades Central America’s politics, and that contorts the psychology of its leaders so much as to make it difficult at times for outsiders to understand what is happening. During the Nicaraguan insurrection, the Sandinistas repeatedly claimed that the U.S. was aiding Somoza, hoping that making such claims would further compromise the independence of Somoza and also embarrass the U.S., perhaps enough so that we would consider supporting them. At the same time, Somoza used the U.S. news media to claim that the U.S. was destabilizing him, hoping by such statements both to re-establish his independence and to press the U.S. to come to his support.
The only people in Central America who resolutely oppose U.S. involvement are those who are certain that the U.S. can’t support them. Virtually everyone else tries to maneuver the U.S. into supporting them, and if they fail, they blame the U.S. for their problems. Even those who cannot decide what political path to follow blame Washington for neglecting to send a clear signal. The psychology of dependence is much more powerful than the reality.
Central Americans preach non-intervention but practice mutual interference. Ever since the Central American federation fragmented, in the early nineteenth century, a strong leader—a caudillo—has always consolidated power in one country and then tried to establish friends or overthrow enemies in neighboring countries. The U.S. has always been invited in by one side or the other or both. (A new element is that Central Americans now solicit the USSR and Cuba for military assistance and Western European governments and political parties for political support.) Even though U.S. troops have not fought in Central America since they were withdrawn from Nicaragua in 1933, the memory lingers. And even the most independent leaders—men who, like Torrijos or Somoza, appeared dependent on the U.S. but were actually manipulative—have always felt that their destinies were determined in Washington. Indeed, the greatest source of U.S. influence in the region remains the myth of control, the perception that the United States shapes all events.
U.S. influence in Central America is neither new nor news; what is both is Central America’s influence on the U.S. After a century of trying to shape developments in the region, the U.S. for the first time is on the receiving end—and subject to a more subtle and pervasive process of change than the blunt instrument of U.S. diplomacy.
THERE IS A NEW, PROFOUND REASON WHY U.S. interests in Central America are permanent, not transitory: the United States is becoming a Caribbean nation. The character of American society is being subtly reshaped by the most enormous influx of migrants from a single region since the turn of the century, when nearly 9 million people arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Since the 1965 amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act liberalized entry to the U.S. from the developing world, the composition of the immigrant population has changed rather dramatically. From 1900 to 1965, 75 percent of all immigrants were of European extraction, whereas 62 percent of the immigrants since 1968, when the new law took effect, have been from Asia and Latin America. By 1980, about 85 percent of all immigrants and refugees were from these two regions, while fewer than 6 percent came from Europe.
Although the new immigrants came from more countries than at any previous time in our history, the largest source of immigrants was the Caribbean Basin—Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Before 1960, less than 4 percent of U.S. immigrants came from the area. Since 1960, about a third of all immigrants to the U.S., two thirds of all political refugees, and nine tenths of all undocumented workers have come from the region. The total number of people who have come to the U.S. from the region is approximately 8.5 million—more than half of the people who have come to live in the U.S. since 1960. As the numbers from Southeast Asia decline, the percentage from the Caribbean Basin can be expected to increase even further.
In large part because of immigration, the Hispanic community has become one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the U.S., increasing from 9 million (or 4.5 percent of the population) in 1970 to 14.6 million (or 6.4 percent of the population) in 1980.
An examination of the social, demographic, economic, and political dynamics of the region leads to the inescapable conclusion that absent any new immigration law for the U.S., the flow will increase as dramatically over the next two decades as it has over the past two. The population of the region will nearly double by the end of the century. The economy of the region has progressed sufficiently to expose even poor Salvadorans to the material attractions of North America and to enable some of them to pay $1,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. But the economy has not been successful enough to provide jobs for a labor force expanding at 3 percent annually. Nor are the political institutions in the region flexible enough to channel the energies of a youthful and demanding population, almost half of whose members are under fifteen.
Until a few years ago, the vast majority of Basin immigrants came from Mexico and the islands in the Caribbean, but the recent political and economic turmoil in Central America has changed the composition of the immigration; most estimates now show an increasing proportion of political refugees and undocumented workers coming from Central America. El Salvador, with the highest population density in the region, was destined to become a major source of migrants even if there hadn’t been a civil war. Some current estimates suggest that as many as 500,000 Salvadorans—more than 10 percent of the population— have come to the U.S. in the past three years. As many as 3,500 people every month may leave the violence of El Salvador, where at least 6,116 people were killed in 1981, for the peaceful environment of New York City, where only 1,826 people were murdered last year. And some estimates hold that 10 percent of the Nicaraguan population—about 250,000 people—have come to the U.S. in the past few years.
An increasing number of people considered migrating for economic reasons but were finally motivated to depart by political violence. These people have not only an additional reason to come but an additional excuse to stay—to claim asylum. Large numbers of such people can be expected from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in the years to come, particularly because the members of the first enterprising wave have already settled and adjusted to the U.S. Families and almost entire villages have been transplanted from San Salvador to Washington and Chicago, from Managua to Miami, from Guatemala City to New Orleans; these communities serve as “transnational bridges” for bringing friends and relatives to the U.S., for finding them jobs and documents, and for easing their cultural adjustment.
The full impact of this new wave of migration has not been fully grasped, and indeed its effects will become apparent only over the next two decades. The new migration occurs at a time when the U.S. fertility rate is at a historical low. In a recent study projecting the impact of this new migration on the composition of the overall population, Leon Bouvier, of the Population Reference Bureau, estimated that if the current rates of fertility and immigration are maintained, 40 percent of the U.S. population a hundred years from now “will consist of post-1980 immigrants and their descendants.”
During the next two decades, the concept of an “American” is likely to be changed as much as at any previous time in our history. Those looking for a snapshot of the entire Caribbean Basin region might well find it by looking at the changing face of the U.S. One will discover that Miami and Newark airports look more like those in San Juan and Mexico City than those in Columbus and Nashville. Or a Connecticut Yankee might be shown around Boston’s Faneuil Hall district by a newly arrived Guatemalan taxi driver.
Many U.S. cities increasingly resemble the small nations of the area, not only in ethnic composition but also in economic structure. These cities suffer from a weak or declining industrial base and a top-heavy, inefficient public sector oriented more toward social services than toward productive investment. If we can share problems with the region, can we share solutions? The new ties among peoples of the region may soon lead us to such questions, if not to their answers.
WHILE SOME MAY DEBATE WHETHER THE U.S. IS the cause of the problems in Central America, it is a fact that the U.S. has come to share in the social consequences of political and economic instability in the region. The conflict in El Salvador is no longer a vague and abstract foreign-policy issue to be debated only at the State Department and in universities; it is a real and practical concern for the Department of Health and Human Services and for cities such as Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, which have to adjust their local services in a time of budgetary austerity to meet the growing needs of their Central American and Caribbean populations. Federal, state, and local governments spent about four times as much in resettling Cuban and Haitian “entrants” in 1980 as the U.S. spent in foreign aid to all of Latin America and the Caribbean that year.
Like all previous large migrations, the new wave from Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean has stimulated some nativist fears and calls in Congress to limit the migration lest it lead to a problem of cultural and linguistic division comparable to the problem Canada has with Quebec. It is true that the foreign-born population has increased in the past decade to 6.2 percent after a steady decline since 1920, and that Spanish has become the second most-used language in American homes, but neither of these developments justifies any anxiety. Ninety percent of the people polled by the Census Bureau in 1980 spoke English in their homes, 5 percent spoke Spanish, and 5 percent spoke other languages. Unlike the French in Quebec, Hispanics are geographically dispersed, and although they may have a language in common, their nationalities and cultures reflect wide differences. Studies on acculturation and assimilation, although still quite preliminary, suggest that the new migrants are assimilating as rapidly as earlier migrants and that they recognize that their ticket to social and economic advancement in the U.S. is education and the English language. Moreover, as in past migrations, recent immigrants—as contrasted with refugees— utilize about the same number of social services and contribute as much to the economy as does the average U.S. citizen.
HOWEVER, THE FACT REMAINS THAT THE STRONGest nation in the world has been powerless to manage the flow of people across its southern border. Some of the weakest nations have found in this spontaneous and largely illegal flow a source of real power—an instrument for exporting unemployment (and in the case of Cuba, its “undesirables”), an independent source of foreign exchange and welfare payments (through remittances), a means to relax social pressures, and a means for their most pervasive impact on the U.S.
“We have lost control of our borders,” warns Attorney General William French Smith. It is not the phenomenon of Caribbean Basin migration that is troubling Smith and most of the country but one dimension of it—illegal migration. In 1979 and again in 1980, about a million Mexicans were apprehended while trying to cross the border illegally. Each year, at least 500,000 people elude the border patrol or enter the U.S. legally and overstay their visas, and it is estimated that 90 percent of them come from the Caribbean Basin. Although Mexicans account for the largest single group, an increasing percentage comes from other nations in the region.
The U.S. government has been wrestling with this issue since the Ford Administration. When faced with a bill sent by President Carter, Congress dodged it and established a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy to do a comprehensive and learned study. The distinguished commission, chaired first by Reubin Askew and then by the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, submitted its report with detailed recommendations and a suggested law to President Reagan. After another study, the Reagan Administration submitted legislation to Congress. Then, last February, Republican Senator Alan Simpson, of Wyoming, and Democratic Representative Romano Mazzoli, of Kentucky, after exhaustive hearings on all of the issues related to immigration and refugee policy, submitted another bill, which is almost a synthesis of the numerous proposals that have been offered but in many ways is the best of all of them and also the most likely to pass. The bill would penalize employers who hire illegal aliens; establish a worker-identification system; legalize immigration of 425,000 per year, excluding refugees; and double admissions from Canada and Mexico to a combined total of 40,000.
Like most issues before Congress, the illegal-migration issue is subject to lobbying by groups on both sides. Unique to this issue, however, is the fact that many people find themselves on both sides of it. Liberals are sympathetic to the plight of illegal migrants but also oppose their entry because it undermines organized labor. Conservatives favor the silent invasion because either they believe in a single labor market or they sympathize with those businessmen who can’t find Americans to do the work, and they oppose illegal migration for fear that the U.S. is losing control of its borders and losing its Anglo culture. Conflicting emotions as well as conflicting interests have paralyzed the policy process.
That is the reason the U.S. has not stopped the illegal flow: it serves some U.S. economic interests, and we are of two minds about what to do about it. The “push” forces from the region explain why it continues. However, while illegal migration may serve everyone’s short-term interest, it serves no one’s long-term interest. The illegal flow is a problem for the migrant, who is subject to exploitation first by the smuggler who brings him and then by the employer, who often keeps the migrant’s illegality secret for a price. It is a problem for the U.S. because it weakens respect for the law, undermines labor unions, and, in allowing the development of an underclass of people without rights, is contrary to U.S. values. And it is a problem for the sending country because a nation that exports its economic difficulties—whether rapid population growth or unemployment—has little incentive to solve them and because it is humiliating to a nation seeking to develop a sense of nationhood when its citizens volunteer for exploitation.
Civil-rights and Hispanic groups have tried to resist attempts by the U.S. government to deport illegal aliens, and there is no federal law prohibiting employers from hiring illegals. The principal flaw in the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is that it fails to take into account the new bonds connecting the U.S. to the region. If the bill becomes law, and sharply reduces illegal migration, as it is likely to do, the pressures caused by increased unemployment and returning workers will generate social and political tensions in Central America where they don’t exist and exacerbate them where they do. We will find ourselves exchanging one end of the problem, illegal migration, for another end, more political instability. The Reagan Administration’s Caribbean Basin Initiative could help address the broader problems of unemployment and economic development in the region, but only if it were more comprehensive and related more directly to the immigration issue than it now is.
Like members of the black community, Hispanics are mostly preoccupied by bread-and-butter domestic issues. The leaders of the community who care about foreign policy generally have views that range from virulent anti-communism to sympathy for the insurgents in Central America, with very little in between. The community in the U.S. therefore increasingly reflects the political polarization in Central America. The existence and influence of the community have heightened U.S. concern and interests in the region, but to the extent that the community’s political views cluster around one ideological pole or the other, they have made a clear policy response more difficult to achieve.
Human-rights groups and the Catholic Church are playing increasingly important socio-political roles in Central America, helping the poor, the dispossessed, and the brutalized and giving them a voice and a haven in the U.S. Even if Americans were inclined to ignore the suffering in the region, the Church won’t let us anymore, and that is to our nation’s benefit.
Politically, the Church is as divided on Central America as our country is and almost as divided as is Central America, but those members of the Church who are opposed to repression appear the most vigorous and motivated. The White House has repeatedly been surprised by the large numbers of letters and telegrams from church groups urging the U.S. not to intervene in Nicaragua or to stop military aid to the Salvadoran government. The Church has become a political force to reckon with in Central America and in the U.S., and is strengthening the connection between the two of them.
The migration is slowly changing the way the U.S. looks at itself and at Central America and the entire Caribbean Basin. As the problems of Poland are felt more intensely by the American people because of the Polish-American community, or of Cyprus because of the Greek-Americans, or of the Middle East because of the Jewish community, and as earthquakes in Italy resonate through Italian neighborhoods in the U.S., so will the new immigrants from Central America force our nation to watch that region with more sensitivity and concern.
The U.S. will continue to have a major impact on Central America, but the nature of that impact will change as Central America’s presence begins to be felt more directly in the U.S. Some of the most important U.S. interests in the world derive from the interests and concerns of our multi-ethnic population. The “Caribbeanization” of the U.S. may very well be one of our most compelling and enduring interests in Central America.
ALTHOUGH OUR NEW, IMPORTANT INTERESTS Appear to bring us to objectives—resisting the imposition of a hostile Marxist-Leninist regime, supporting democracy—similar to our old, vital interests, there is a key difference. In the past, we were seeking to defend in a foreign environment what we considered ours—whether the Panama Canal or U.S. investment. Today, with the increasing importance of nationalism in Central America and elsewhere in the developing world, and with the changing composition of U.S. interests, the U.S. is seeking to influence what it never can control—the political struggle in sovereign nations. The formulation of U.S. policy ought to follow logically from a definition of U.S. interests, but U.S. policy toward Central America is not made in a vacuum; it must operate within the constraints of U.S. capabilities and what is effective in Central America. I believe that we can exert our influence most successfully if our strategy takes account of the following points:
First, U.S. strength is demonstrated in the region not by military threats but by a willingness to negotiate legitimate concerns. Negotiations with Panama on new Canal treaties represented not a retreat of U.S. power but rather the preservation of U.S. interests in the Canal and an enhancement of U.S. legitimacy and influence in the area. In El Salvador, the left is not a unified, coherent MarxistLeninist movement like that of the Viet Cong but rather a heterogeneous umbrella over five guerrilla groups, hundreds of political organizations, and disaffected Social and Christian Democrats. Sincere negotiations aimed at forging a democratic alternative would naturally separate those who are interested in democracy but want genuine guarantees if they are to participate in elections from those who are interested in imposing a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship.
Second, just as the way to protect the Canal was for the U.S. to relax, not tighten, its control, so too the way to win the struggle in Central America is for the U.S. not to fight it. Though Secretary Haig may believe that he obtains useful leverage by keeping all his options open, the unilateral use of U.S. troops is one option that should be ruled out, because it would be so internally divisive as to make the Vietnam demonstrations of the 1960s appear only a minor historical prelude to the anti-war riots of the 1980s. Moreover, U.S. troops would be landing not in the Central America of the 1930s but in the politically awakened region of the 1980s, provoking such a hostile nationalistic reaction that it would be the best gift we could ever give to the left. In short, we would lose both at home and abroad.
Third, the best way to defeat the Marxist-Leninist left in Central America is to break the hammerlock of the traditional power centers of the right. Central America is writhing in its struggle to free itself from a feudalistic past that is no longer acceptable to its expanding and demanding youthful population. The left feeds off the intransigence of the right and the repression of the military; the best way to reduce the support for violent revolution is to open the political channels for peaceful change.
Fourth, the best way to help the government in El Salvador is to be equivocal in our commitment. Secretary Haig’s total support for the government in El Salvador is an inappropriate policy in Central America, where some of our enemies are potential allies and some of our so-called friends are really our enemies. By “drawing lines,” Haig discarded the leverage necessary to influence the military to end the repression. In establishing its credibility against the Communists, the Reagan Administration lost its credibility against the right. The only way to restore credibility is to reduce support and aid.
Fifth, the best way to strengthen the enemy in the region is to confront him in a way that infringes on his sovereignty. Despite the unleashing of so many potent socio-economic forces in the twentieth century, the most awesome tool for mobilizing a population is still the old nineteenthcentury idea of nationalism. A key concept that has apparently eluded some Americans is that the so-called retreat of U.S. power is the result not of diminution of U.S. will or capabilities but rather of the advancement of nationalism in the developing world. The days when the Marines could take over a Central American country or the CIA could overthrow one are long gone; their involvement now is more likely to produce the opposite of U.S. objectives, by providing our adversaries with the great energizer of nationalism.
Sixth, one way to elicit support in the region is for the U.S. to demonstrate respect and understanding for the almost desperate need in the region for reciprocity. One of the arguments against the Canal treaties was that if we gave in to Panamanian demands for the Zone, the Panamanians’ demands would escalate, and soon they would try to throw out the U.S. military. The opposite happened. Military cooperation became so close that in August of 1980 Torrijos accepted a parachute-jump exercise seventy miles west of the Canal by the 82d Airborne. He set only one condition: reciprocity. And so, the same day, a Panamanian airborne company parachuted into Fort Bragg. “It was,” Torrijos said with evident pride, “the first time Latin Americans ever practiced an invasion of the U.S.” The U.S. can go a long way in the region by recognizing the need of unequals for equality.
The parting irony of the Panama Canal treaties is that Ronald Reagan now probably wishes that he had one to negotiate with each of the other Central American nations, to bring to them the stability that the treaties brought Panama. But, alas, the political instability in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the uncertainty in Honduras and Panama, and the economic crisis in Costa Rica cannot be solved by a treaty. The crisis of Central America goes back at least a decade, but the solution that might have worked then—opening the political process to new groups and forces—is unlikely to be adequate today. Still, that is the first step.
The short answer to the strategic question is that U.S. interests demand that we seek to reduce the political polarization in Central America, because it affects us even as it divides our neighbors. In part because of the gradual conversion of the U.S. to a Caribbean nation, it is no more possible for the U.S. to ignore the struggle in Central America in the 1980s than it was possible for us to ignore our racial crisis in the 1960s.
The strategic challenge the U.S. faces in Central America is difficult precisely because it has less to do with traditional concepts of national security than previous challenges did, and much more to do with trying to influence the process of political change in a sensitive Third World environment. The time when the U.S. could bring political stability to the region is long past; all we can do now is contribute to the problem or to the solution. The U.S. can contribute to the problem by demonstrating an unwillingness to negotiate, an eagerness for unproductive threats and military confrontation, a penchant for military responses to political problems, a preference for unilateralism instead of regional cooperation. Or the U.S. can seek social and economic justice even as it resists communism, condemn human-rights violations even as it denounces Cuban-supported terrorism, promote democracy, and seek to de-politicize the military. The U.S. may also find that a little more distance may mean a lot more influence.