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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 90 | Enero 1989



Bush and Latin America: The View from Nicaragua

Nitlápan-Envío team

To roll back the Cuban revolution after Fidel's death, to wage a low-intensity war against Nicaragua to the bitter end, to consider backing a coup d’état in Brazil—these are a few of the alarming recommendations proposed by the Santa Fe II document, the most conservative of several policy blueprints for Latin America that the Bush Administration will be considering.
From Nicaragua's perspective, these plans are far from realistic. They do not take into account the complex problems facing the United States in Latin America, and Central America in particular. In the case of Nicaragua, even an exclusive focus on US interests dictates today that the best solution is a negotiated one. While the Santa Fe document says that "the good neighbor is back and is here to stay," Nicaragua's perspective can be read on Managua billboards: “Reagan is gone, but the revolution is here to stay."

Bush and Latin America:
Old problems need new solutions

Reagan’s policies focused excessively on Central America, Nicaragua in particular, overlooking serious developments in Latin America. The incoming Bush Administration will have to face these unresolved problems.

A glance at six related problems, focusing on the case of Mexico, gives us an idea of the new dimensions of the conflict between the Americas. Mexico serves as a geographic and geopolitical gap between the US and Central America and its problems are common to the rest of Latin America.

Debt. Topping the US-Mexican agenda is the question of the debt. Despite politically costly efforts to reduce its debt by austerity measures and privatization of state enterprises, Mexico today is more in debt than ever. Interest on the debt alone equals twice the country's oil exports. The newly elected Salinas government is already in a weak position with the worst electoral showing by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in its 60-year history, despite the usual vote fraud. It will now have to face the growing strength of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas' Democratic National Front, which will call for nonpayment of the debt—while at the same maintaining the confidence of Mexico's creditors.

The United States, for its part, will have to convince its citizens—and the financial community—that the third world debt issue must be faced, and will require innovative and flexible solutions.

Drugs. According to official US statistics, the United States annually consumes 7,000 tons of marijuana, 7 tons of heroine and 80 tons of cocaine, and half of the drug traffic reaches the US through Mexico. The US claims the problem is supply so has called on Mexico to take much stronger measures to combat the drug trade and accuses its government of corruption and cover-up. Mexico, which already devotes a large portion of its budget to fighting drug trafficking, claims the problem is the massive and growing US demand for drugs. The Bush Administration would do well to work out a solution to this problem that relies less on rhetoric, posturing and coercion, and more on joint policies with Latin America, attention to domestic enforcement and the underlying causes of drug addiction.

Behind drug trafficking is a new and frightening reality: drug politics. The enormous sums of money involved in the drug trade generate a whole system of clandestine power relations within the United States, Mexico and other deeply implicated countries. Bolivia's General Luis García Meza came to power with the open support of cocaine exporters; it is likely that Colombia's Turbay Ayala rose to power with the same base, and his country is servicing its debt through drug trade earnings; Paraguay's economy is based on contraband.

Trade and investment. Under the de la Madrid Administration, the United States and Mexico signed a series of trade and investment agreements that led Mexico away from its traditionally protectionist policies, making it one of the most open economies in Latin America. But while Mexico is moving in that direction, the United States is becoming increasingly protectionist—a popularly supported tactic to combat the country's growing trade deficit. US politics should—but may not—face the serious impact that its increasingly protectionist policies will have on debt-ridden Latin American economies, whose products face import restrictions in the United States.

Migration. About one million people per year enter the US illegally. Some 50% of these immigrants are Mexican, with growing numbers of Central Americans fleeing war and economic crisis. The rapidly growing immigrant population, barely slowed by the Simpson-Rodino law, generates problems of employment and overburdened public services, as well as fueling racial, linguistic, religious and political conflicts. There is no easy way to stop this migratory tide. The simplest solution, deporting illegal immigrants, poses economic and political problems in their countries of origin.

Political stability. With the last elections, the United States now sees Mexico as entering the ranks of "volatile Latin American nations." Cárdenas' impressive showing in the election went against conventional US wisdom that increased democracy in Mexico would mean a turn to the right and a move away from nationalistic stances. President Salinas de Gortari, in a weak position, will have to take into account Cardenist viewpoints on vital issues like the debt, trade and foreign policy.

While Mexico, due to the newness of its status among "volatile nations" and its geopolitical position, is of most concern to the United States, other Latin American nations are facing difficult challenges. Political violence is increasing In Colombia, with guerrilla forces once again active, not only in rural but in urban areas. Landowners and industrialists are also taking part in the armed battle; linked to the military, their death squads are now the most active on the continent as they wage a "dirty war" against the popular forces. Armed drug traffickers and producers are escalating the ongoing violence.

Looking further south, despite President Alan García's reformist policies, Peru faces growing challenges from the increasingly active Sendero Luminoso armed group, capable of carrying out military strikes in the capital itself. García is rapidly losing his ability to maintain control in a serious economic crisis, with inflation reaching four digits.

By the end of 1989, nine countries in Latin America will hold presidential elections. Populist leaders Carlos Menem and Leonel Brizola may respectively come to power in Argentina and Brazil, only recently emerged from dictatorship. From Washington’s point of view, this raises the specter of a debt moratorium and in Brazil’s case, might also lead to growing trade disputes. It also raises the specter of instability, given the traditional enmity between Brizola and the military. In Argentina, Menem’s victory could also create tension with the military, which fears a return to the chaotic days under Isabel Perón. A military coup, taking advantage of economic crisis and political discontent, is always a possibility in both countries.

It’s within this context that the stance of Latin American nations towards the United States and the Central American regional crisis must be viewed. Mexico has long promoted a negotiated solution of the crisis, from a strong anti-interventionist perspective. In recent years, however, it has retreated a bit from that stance. While not abandoning these principles, Salinas could choose to continue this withdrawal from involvement in Central American affairs. But it is perhaps more likely that Mexico will revive its active role, as compensation to its internal leftist opposition, thus giving it more room to maneuver in negotiating other more central issues with the United States. This kind of trade-off will no doubt play a role in determining the policies of each country in the Latin American Group of Eight (the Contadora and Support Group nations of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela).

Bush and Central America: More trouble ahead

The Bush Administration faces a series of obstacles in Central America that will make it difficult to further US policy in the region. In Panama, General Manuel Noriega—who has expressed his contentment that Bush, with whom he has had dealings in the past, is in power—has led a challenge to which the United States has been unable to respond. Honduras faces growing poverty and disputes within its governing bloc—both problems complicated by the drug trade and presence of the contras on Honduran soil. In Costa Rica, President Oscar Arias’ consent to USAID plans, including the promotion of nontraditional exports at the expense of domestic consumption and the rapid privatization of state enterprises, is leading the country down the path of a dangerously destabilizing model of development. Guatemala’s government has less room to maneuver than ever, with rising military pressure following failed coup attempts, and its guerrilla forces slowly increasing their activity. But it is El Salvador and Nicaragua that will be at the top of the US agenda.

Salvador: The worst is still to come

The new model of sophisticated dictatorship developed in El Salvador since 1980 was built on three factors: the killing of 35,000 Salvadorans and displacement of 800,000 more in 1980/81; the escalation of the US-directed war; and the creation of a civilian democratic facade as a means to promote structural reforms essential to the military campaign. While the military pursued a policy of genocide, President Duarte and his Christian Democratic Party presented a cleaner image to national and international opinion.

Eight years later, the Salvadoran people are still resisting this genocide. Despite the $2 million per day poured in by the United States to prop up the Salvadoran war effort, the FMLN has taken a heavy toll on the Salvadoran army, which has suffered some 30,000 casualties—twice the number of troops at the start of the war, and half the current number. The FMLN has captured 2,000 prisoners, including the vice minister of defense; destroyed 60 aircraft and hundreds of military transport vehicles; captured over 10,000 arms and abundant ammunition—indeed, this is the FMLN's main supply source. The FMLN has taken or attacked nine military bases, two of them more than once. Thirteen of the nation's 14 provinces are now involved in the war.

Salvadoran social movements are again on the rise. In the past, moments of peak strength in the military revolutionary forces' and in the popular civic struggle did not coincide. But now the social movements and the FMLN are both at a high point, reinforcing each other. The FMLN is stronger than ever, and more unified with the mass movement.

The Christian Democratic Party is, in contrast, in disarray. The elections, originally a key part of the counterinsurgency plan, have become a destabilizing element. ARENA, the far-right party of the oligarchy, is favored to win the March elections. Both the military and the Christian Democrats are deeply divided.

A negotiated solution does not seem possible, given the degree of polarization within the country. A military victory by either side seems unlikely in the short term. And the option of direct US intervention would force the Bush Administration to invest resources it would prefer to use elsewhere. Could it be in Nicaragua, ironically, where conflicts could be resolved the soonest?

Nicaragua: Negotiation is the way

The choices for Bush in Nicaragua are direct intervention, continued support for the contras or a negotiated political solution.

Direct military intervention is the most remote possibility. Nicaragua has shown itself to be ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. Unofficial sources estimate that Nicaragua can count on 100,000 armed people, including the military and civilian militias, which might shoot up to some 250,000 if highly nationalistic Nicaraguans had to defend their country from an invasion. And this is a well-trained force. The Sandinista army has successfully defended the country for ten difficult years, and many citizens have served at least one or two years of military service within the army or during the insurrection. US experts state that you need ten conventional soldiers to every guerrilla, although the use of advanced technology can narrow that gap somewhat. In any case, the number of troops needed to invade Nicaragua would be prohibitive.

Even the most optimistic scenarios from the Pentagon, which Nicaragua considers unrealistic, estimate that it would take the US four years of occupation before it could remove its troops from Nicaragua. Such involvement would affect its commitments in other world arenas. It would also risk the "Central Americanization" of regional conflicts. And, finally, it would face strong opposition from the US public, reopening the still unhealed wounds of Vietnam.

The second and third options for Bush's Nicaragua policy are more likely. To judge which one will win out, let's look at four factors.

1. The contras' current status. The contras began to lose the war in 1985, a process that culminated with the Sandinista army's successful Operation Danto in 1988. This defeat split the contras, as can be seen in their divided stance towards the Sapoá accords and subsequent internal quarreling. Today, they only have small groups within Nicaragua; most have had to seek refuge in Honduras. To continue the war, the US will have to restructure and repackage the contras, something Reagan tried but failed to do. However, if the US chooses to pursue a negotiated solution, the contras could still be effective as an instrument with which to pressure Nicaragua.

2. International diplomacy. International opinion weighs strongly on the side of negotiated solution. In the OAS assembly in San Salvador this November, members sent a clear message to US President-elect Bush. They solidly backed the efforts of Contadora and Support Group nations to promote peace in Central America and called on the Central American nations to work towards peace despite interference from nations outside the region. OAS Secretary General Joao Baena Soares called for "a new push" for the Esquipulas process. Gorbachev's foreign policy may also have an impact on US policy towards Central America, as it emphasizes negotiated solutions to regional conflicts.

3. US domestic politics. While Bush beat Dukakis by a sizeable margin, even he could not claim a clear mandate, given a bitter campaign and the lowest voter turnout in 64 years. Democrats won the Congress again, gaining slightly in the Senate, which is now Democratic by a margin of 55-45 while the House is 262 Democrats to 173 Republicans. (Congressional lobbyists estimate that the net change in
terms of contra aid votes was three anti-contra votes gained in the House, with no change in the Senate.) This balance of power means Bush needs bipartisan support to tackle the difficult issues ahead, including the budget deficit, tax policy and military spending. It is doubtful he would choose to start with the controversial issue of contra military aid, although humanitarian aid can always be pushed. A Los Angeles Times exit poll indicated that only 9% of voters favored contra aid; even among Bush's supporters, that figure was only 14% in favor.

A possible scenario is that the Bush Administration will push negotiations in Central America as a tactic, in order to then pull out, finding a pretext to label Nicaragua as intransigent and increase the likelihood of extracting more military aid for the contras from Congress. While this option must be taken very seriously by Nicaragua, the negotiating skill Nicaragua has shown in Esquipulas II and III and at Sapoá make it unlikely that the tactic will succeed.

4. The Nicaraguan economic crisis. The Nicaraguan economy is in ruins, battered by years of war, the international economic crisis and now the winds of Hurricane Joan. The UN's Economic Commission on Latin America estimated that the hurricane caused $840 million worth of damage, or 40% of the GDP. Inflation is reaching a dizzying five digits. While this lends weight to the position that it will be tempting for Washington to continue the war and push Nicaragua's teetering economy over the edge, this has to be weighed against the three countervailing factors above.

In addition, a careful understanding of the economic crisis and its political impact leads us back to the more realistic option of a negotiated solution, since while the economic crisis causes increasing discontent, this in itself cannot cause the downfall of a government. According to a recent survey conducted by the independent research center Itztani and the Jesuit University of Central America in Managua, this economic discontent does not translate into support for the counterrevolution. Some 74% of those polled say their economic situation is worse than the year before, but a resounding 85% oppose US aid to the contras, while only 9% approve of it (the majority of the latter group are over 40 years old and from middle and upper class neighborhoods). Only 7% of the sample claims to admire democracy and liberty as seen in the United States, while 54% view as very positive the position of Mexico, Cuba and the Soviet Union towards Nicaragua. Of those who ally themselves with a political party, 70% choose the FSLN, while 30% are divided among 20-odd opposition parties. If the US were to decide to prolong the military strategy, it would still have far to go to win the hearts and minds of Nicaraguans.

But a genuine negotiated political solution will draw much more support from Nicaraguans. While 36% of the public rejects the idea that the contras should take part in the political life of the country as outlined in the Esquipulas peace process, 57% would accept this solution. The degree to which this is accepted is one symptom of the exhaustion caused by war and economic crisis.

Such exhaustion has led to indifference. A surprisingly high 59% percent of those polled don’t identify with any political party at all. Although this doesn’t seem so shocking when compared to the United States, where 51% of the eligible population in the last election didn’t bother to vote, such exhaustion and apathy is of great concern, since opposition parties can seek to take advantage of it. And the best situation for opposition parties to win supporters will be in elections, after a negotiated solution to the conflict. The United States, then, can take better advantage of Nicaragua's economic crisis through political-ideological methods than through military means.

For these reasons, a negotiated solution is the most sensible option for the Bush Administration. But conservative forces may still successfully push for prolonging the military strategy. If that should happen, the United States might lose its capacity to make choices. Continuing the contra military option might lead inexorably to direct US intervention, pulling Bush in where even Reagan feared to tread. Nicaragua would have its own response to ongoing military pressure. It could go the route of stepping back from the Esquipulas accords, and within the constitutional framework regarding emergency measures, reintroduce a state of emergency and restrict elections and other liberties more appropriate to peacetime than wartime. And it might decide, finally for real after being accused of it so many times by the US, to provide the Salvadoran guerrillas with anti-aircraft missiles, giving the FMLN a substantial boost. The US would find itself forced to intervene directly in Nicaragua and/or El Salvador—at a very high cost.

Dramatic? Certainly. But is it reasonable to suppose a nation can just sit endlessly by while it is slowly destroyed economically, politically and militarily? In the last instance, wouldn't the Nicaraguan strategy be to force the conflict so that the United States has only two options, to intervene or to negotiate? Daniel Ortega's letter to George Bush after the November election shows us the path Nicaragua would prefer to take.

A new road?

A new road was opened in Mexico at Salinas' inauguration, attended by many Latin American leaders. Salinas emphasized foreign policy, insisting on the common problems that affect Latin American peoples and on the essential principle of self-determination. In this same vein, the Central American foreign ministers present at the inauguration asked UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar to begin verification of the Esquipulas II accords on security matters, proposed a Central American presidential summit (Esquipulas IV) in El Salvador on January 15-16 and called a prior meeting of the Executive Commission of the Esquipulas accords. New imperial tactics may be behind these meetings and the contras may once again turn up the military pressure—but if reason prevails, Esquipulas IV will be a decisive step towards peace.

Letter from Daniel Ortega to George Bush, 12 November 1988

Upon learning the outcome of the November 8 elections, electing you as President of your country, I would like to send you greetings and express the willingness of Nicaragua to work towards normalizing relations between our countries.

I am reminded of the time when we shook hands during the Brazilian Congress in March 1985. The political leaders of Latin America and the world meeting there broke into applause, clearly showing their desire that peace should reign between our two nations.

That is Nicaragua’s desire, and we understand that it is the desire of the immense majority of the US people as well.

I invite you to work together with us to transform this noble longing for peace into reality.

Daniel Ortega Saavedra

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