US “War Games” in Central America: What’s Behind the Strategy?
With as little advance publicity as possible, the United States has been carrying out a complex series of military maneuvers in Central America since 1981. The most frequent locale for these land, sea and air exercises—or “war games” as they are euphemistically called in the US—has been Honduras and its territorial waters. Examined in their entirety, the size, regularity, troop strength and sheer volume of key military equipment involved in the maneuvers is surprising. (A summary of their basic characteristics over the last five years appears at the end of this article.)
The future of these military maneuvers is one of the principal controversies within the Contadora process. Nicaragua insists on their total proscription, and the US just as steadfastly refuses to suspend them. Contadora itself called for their prohibition in 1984, yet now only asks that they be “regulated.”
What, then, is their purpose? What lies behind the uncompromising positions of both the United States and Nicaragua, as well as the shift in Contadora’s own position? The subject of military maneuvers is a broad and relatively unfamiliar one that permits various interpretations. Ours is based on an extensive interview with Deborah Barry, a US analyst who works with the Regional Center for Socio-Economic Research (CRIES) in Managua. Her field of study is the growing militarization of Central America.
IHCA: Why in your opinion are these maneuvers such a controversial issue within the Contadora process? How significant are they to the Reagan administration’s military and political strategy for the region?
Barry: Contadora is the political and diplomatic instrument called upon to halt the growing intervention by US military forces in the internal affairs of the Central American countries. Above all, it must put a stop to the Reagan administration’s stated intention of overthrowing Nicaragua’s revolutionary project. To a certain degree, the topic of maneuvers is testing Contadora’s ability to do this just at the moment when its process of negotiation has reached the definitive stage.
The Reagan administration’s 1981 decision to hold simulated combat exercises in Central America is one of the most important policy decisions it has made toward the region. The maneuvers are not just one more item in the administration’s bag of tricks, they are a key element. Through them the US has established a permanent military presence in the zone, and maintained almost constant troop mobilizations, especially since 1983.
While these mobilizations do not constitute a formal declaration of war, they do represent the very real threat of direct US invasion. This permanent threat is fundamental to the “low intensity war” the US has been waging for years against Nicaragua and the other revolutionary forces in the region. It is the sustaining element of a psychological war as well, geared at provoking a reaction from these revolutionary forces, and specifically from the Nicaraguan government.
A second, equally important aspect is that a large part of the military equipment used in the maneuvers stays in Honduras. Thus the maneuvers act as a cover for the cautious but steady growth of a US military, logistical and intelligence infrastructure in Central America—without Congressional scrutiny or approval, and consequently without much public controversy. They provide a direct supply line of military aid, free from all controls or potential conflicts.
Thirdly, the maneuvers are a school. US armed forces and the CIA participate together in simulated war situations in which they learn how to better coordinate possible future activities. They familiarize themselves with the terrain, the capacity of the local armed forces, and even with the revolutionary forces—the Sandinista Army and the FMLN—without ever engaging them in direct combat.
Coordination of air, land and sea forces is critical in the type of war proposed for this region. The maneuvers are a rehearsal for this war. They permit the problems that arise from commanding different forces, as well as any rivalries that exist between the forces, to be overcome. Also overcome is the serious disadvantage that traditionally confronts an invading force: unfamiliarity with the terrain. The invasion of Grenada in 1983 highlighted the need to surmount these limitations and learn more about military coordination.
IHCA: Psychological threat, supply lines, rehearsal for war—do US maneuvers in other parts of the world carry the same connotations?
Barry: The maneuvers conducted in Honduras since 1981 differ from other US maneuvers on four basic points. First, periodic maneuvers are held in other parts of the world, but never with the same continuity or persistence as in Honduras since 1983. There, one military maneuver overlaps with the next. Second, US maneuvers in other parts of the world are announced well in advance and are programmed according to exact calendars of military operations. In the Central American region they are announced at the last minute and are sometimes improvised on the spur of the moment. Third, the maneuvers in Honduras entail constructions of a permanent character, which expand and improve the military capability of the host country. Finally, in the case of Honduras, the US Defense Department has left behind great quantities of military equipment without going through the normal budget allocation channels for military aid as prescribed by US law.
IHCA: Lets pin down the role these maneuvers play within Reagan’s overall strategy. When did they gain importance and why?
Barry: In fall 1981, the revolutionary forces in El Salvador proved that their military capacity was superior to what the administration had calculated. This led to a proposal by then Secretary of State Alexander Haig to take more direct action in the region, a proposal that Reagan rejected. Instead, he adopted a plan to drastically increase US military presence in the Caribbean basin—to “project US power to the countries in the region.” At the time, an administration spokesperson confirmed that this presence would demonstrate that the US was not going to leave until the situation improved, and that it would always be on the side of any “friendly democratic country” that requested its help.
The key instruments which were to project this US power are exactly those we have seen used in the region in the ensuing years:
- Increased economic and military aid to the Central American countries, particularly El Salvador and Honduras. As suggested by the Kissinger Commission, the economic aid was directly tied to military aid.
- Expanded CIA intelligence capacity.
- The initiation of covert operations in Nicaragua, in which a group of some 500 counterrevolutionaries were financed to begin military harassment from Honduras.
- The development of various contingency plans for a possible US troop invasion of Nicaragua or El Salvador. Within these plans, regional armed forces would play the principal attack role.
- The launching of a series of military maneuvers to promote and support the four previous points. As already mentioned, the maneuvers funnel more military aid to the Honduran and Salvadoran armies. They increase the intelligence capability not only of the CIA but also of the regional forces, through the use of radar systems which supplement local aerial information gathered by the militaries. The maneuvers are also a way to train and supply the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries in Honduras, and finally they are useful in exploring the possibilities and difficulties the different US contingency plans.
By facilitating the presence of a large permanent force in the region, the maneuvers serve as a mechanism for pressuring the Nicaraguan government. It is forced to take measures to defend itself from a possible US invasion.
IHCA: Is it possible to recognize different stages in the series of maneuvers held since 1981? If so, what has been their shape and scope, and how has each stage been justified?
Barry: Yes, it is possible to distinguish different stages. The first began in the fall of 1981 and continued until early 1983. The maneuvers during this stage were of a general nature and geographically very broad in scope, covering the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, with the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as the launching point. They involved gigantic simulated combats, in which up to 120,000 men, 240 ships, and 1,000 airplanes participated from NATO, Argentina, Venezuela and Columbia, as well as the US and Puerto Rico. The Navy played the major role in these exercises, directed by the naval forces in Florida, whose task was to guard sea lanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean basin.
Called “Ocean Venture,” they were presented as “routine maneuvers” in accordance with the calendar of military operations. Nonetheless, they assumed greater significance when US foreign policy was re-evaluated by the incoming administration in early 1981. The Reagan administration considered the Caribbean Basin vital to US interests and threatened by the Nicaraguan revolution and the revolutionary forces in El Salvador. Its argument justifying the magnitude of these maneuvers was that this “threat” made it necessary to deploy US power, to emphasize the intention of maintaining historic hegemony in the region.
Until early 1983, the maneuvers maintained this general character. The second stage, beginning in February 1983, was marked by a change in US policy towards the region itself.
After repeated rumors of an increase in the Salvadoran rebel forces’ military capability, and given evidence that the war there had reached an impasse, President Reagan sent Jeane Kirkpatrick, then his UN Ambassador, to Central America to evaluate the impact of US policy on the region since 1981. Her evaluation coincided with an increase in the influence of certain ideologues from the national security apparatus over the so-called pragmatists of the Defense Department. Concretely, this change in the correlation of forces signified a consolidation of the CIA’s power in Washington. Since then, the directors of the CIA and of the Panama-based US Southern Command have played much greater roles in shaping policy for the region.
After Kirkpatrick’s trip, the rightwing ideologues criticized the policy of the Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders as inappropriate and incapable of achieving a victory on acceptable terms. For them, negotiations signify the sharing of power, which is just as unacceptable as either surrender or, as Haig had urged, getting entangled in direct intervention.
There was also no viable military or political solution to be found. The ideologues criticized US foreign policy for having led to patent contradictions and conflicts. In El Salvador, the FMLN was advancing and demonstrating greater military capability then previously calculated. In Honduras, General Alvarez provoked strong internal opposition. In Costa Rica, US policy was also causing internal division. Nicaragua was well on its way towards consolidating a revolutionary political project, with US destabilization efforts there meeting with no real success. The maneuvers conducted until then, contrary to all expectations, had mobilized the Nicaraguan population against the US. The changes, then, in this second stage of maneuvers, arise from this overall situation.
The fundamental change lies in the adoption of a strategy of “low intensity war” for the whole region. The intent of this new strategy was to interfere on a regional level and to coordinate all regional counterinsurgency plans, taking into account the specific aspects of each country. It was also intended to coordinate the different spheres of US influence—political, economic, social, military and diplomatic—in a highly centralized fashion. A cupola of leadership was formed within the National Security Council, and the Special Operations Agency was created, under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be in charge of coordinating the activities of the special forces in the third world.
During the first half of 1983, while these changes were taking place in Washington, the administration proposed and organized the Kissinger Commission to formulate a public policy for the region in which all of the factors (economic, political, technological, etc.) would be combined in coherent fashion. This policy would aim at achieving a minimal consensus of public opinion and bipartisan support. In general terms, third world policy and especially Central American policy became a priority for the administration, and it launched an offensive in this area. From that point on Reagan began to place each new event that occurred in Central America within a framework dominated by the “threat” Nicaragua posed, supported by alarmist rhetoric with constant references to the East-West conflict. Since then Nicaragua has been consistently portrayed as a threat to US security in the midst of a global campaign against the communist threat at an international level.
IHCA: Where do the maneuvers fit into this new stage, what is their goal now? Were there variations? Are they being stepped up?
Barry: All of the conceptual changes in foreign policy were reflected in the structure of the maneuvers, beginning with Ahuas Tara I, II, and III [Ahuas Tara is Miskito for Big Pine]. These took place in Honduras and featured cooperation between US ground forces and the Honduran army. Naval forces were not excluded, but there was a shift in focus. In the previous stage the focus was on the Navy, with massive deployments of ships that inter-related the different countries of the Caribbean and Latin America; since 1983, the principal interaction has been between US land forces and the Honduran Army.
According to a February 3, 1983 Washington Post article, a State Department official indicated that the military objective of these maneuvers was to determine the rapid deployment capabilities of the Honduran armed forces, while the political objective was to “demonstrate that we will defend our allies in Central America against any type of aggression.” The name Big Pine, which some US observers refer to as Big Stick, is significant in this respect.
The US achieves a great deal through these maneuvers:
- It supplies the Salvadoran armed forces and the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries with additional arms and training not approved through the normal channels.
- It provides these same forces with intelligence gleaned from reconnaissance flights.
- It has developed regional communication networks between each one of these armies.
- It has succeeded in fortifying the rearguard areas of these “friendly” armies, including the contras, through increased infrastructure along the Honduran-Nicaraguan, Honduran-Salvadoran, and the Nicaraguan-Costa Rica borders. This infrastructure improvement is complemented by civil action and assistance to refugee programs administered by US government agencies and private groups.
- The maneuvers have also managed to forge a direct relationship between different US commandos and their Honduran counterparts, through counter-insurgency exercises within Honduras or simulations of operations against Salvador or Nicaragua. Each of the maneuvers implies, in operational terms, a lesson or exercise in a specific activity led by one sector of the US armed forces, or the training of combined forces against supposedly unknown enemies, which would obviously be Sandinista or FMLN troops in the event a real war.
Beginning in 1983, the maneuvers began to be continuous and in some cases simultaneous. In May of 1984 naval exercises coincided with land maneuvers “Granadero I” in Honduras and “Ocean Venture” in the Caribbean together involved 33,000 soldiers. In April 1985 “Big Pine II” and “Universal Trek” coincided with a total of 10,000 soldiers. Since the summer of 1983, the number of US personnel in Honduras has never been less than 700-800 and frequently has been as high as 2,000, a continual presence, well beyond what was stipulated by Congress.
At the end of 1983, naval forces began to take part in the maneuvers again. However, apart from “Ocean Venture” and “Computex” (November 1-19), which covered the whole Caribbean coast, the naval forces were integrated with the land and air forces, under one command. Apparently, the specific task of the Navy in these maneuvers was to cut supposed arms traffic to Nicaragua from Cuba and to offer air support from aircraft carriers to any type of special invasion force on the Central American isthmus.
A third stage, which coincides with maneuvers from the previous stage, features the participation of US troops coming directly from different US bases. This stage has been characterized by the increased construction of military facilities in Honduras near the Nicaraguan border, improvement of landing strips, and the establishment of a command post at Palmerola, destined to be the operations center for future maneuvers. Constructions were completed first at Palmerola, San Lorenzo, Trujillo, and Aguacate, and later in Cuyagua and Jamastran. In an operational sense, these are now US bases in Honduras.
During this same period a variety of “humanitarian aid” was sent to the civilian population located in areas affected by the maneuvers. Medicines and medical teams were sent, food was distributed, veterinary services were offered and schools were constructed. It was hoped that all this aid would guarantee a friendly relationship with the civilian population in zones of possible conflict and, in this way, extend the strategic rearguard of the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries. The political objective of winning the support of the Honduran population was to supplement intelligence on the FSLN and FMLN.
IHCA: Nicaragua has denounced the maneuvers on repeated occasions as a threat against their own security and as an obvious preparation for a direct US invasion. Are the maneuvers designed for this?
Barry: It is undeniable that the maneuvers—especially those that have taken place since 1983 in Honduras—developed a military infrastructure with the potential to be used by land forces in combat against the Sandinistas. It is equally undeniable that they have contributed—as US Lt. Col. John Buchanan recognized—to training troops from various bases in the US for rapid deployment in Honduras, while giving these troops firsthand experience with the terrain and greater operational capacity. Nor should it be forgotten that the region armies have been strengthened and prepared for actions against Nicaragua with the support of US special forces, especially National Guard reserves, and logistical support from the US bases in Panama and the US Also, US intelligence systems have been honed. All this naturally constitutes a real threat to Nicaragua.
The maneuvers are sort of like the penultimate step before a direct invasion against Nicaragua, always leaving the possibility open for such an invasion. All the infrastructure is in place for this, but I think that at this point the maneuvers constitute part of a more subtle war, part of the “low intensity war.”
In this sense the maneuvers, together with the diplomatic offensive, the economic strangulation, and the guerrilla war of the contras, have been an important part of the psychological war against the government, the army and the Nicaraguan people. A major in the US armed forces put it this way: “Psychological operations form an essential component of our policy, of our political, economic and military actions. These psychological operations are capable of strengthening one element of power and at the same time inhibiting other efforts in other areas. Psychological operations in other areas should begin to develop their full potential soon and with them the objectives of our policy.”
In this hypothesis the objective of the maneuvers is to pressure the government of Nicaragua and its armed forces to accept as probable the worst case scenario—a war between Nicaragua and the US—and to conduct their strategy from this perspective. In other words, the Nicaraguan government would come to expect a conventional offensive by US forces attacking from Honduras and would consequently respond with conventional forces.
By forcing the Nicaraguan government and its army to overreact to the extent of this threat, the goal is for it to focus its response on increasing its military capacity and militarizing its own economy and society.
According to this interpretation, the psychological effects of the maneuvers would be to force the FSLN to hasten its own demise by using its limited resources to prepare for an invasion. These resources were already diminished by the other real and tangible war foisted upon it, the economic war. The increase in defense spending would accelerate the country’s economic decline. Furthermore, conventionalizing Nicaragua’s defense forces would reduce their capacity to flexibly confront an irregular war, such as that being waged by the contra, or to react to multiple threats.
This, according to the administration’s plan, would have to be accompanied by complementary developments in the diplomatic arena, concretely in Contadora. In their diplomatic strategy, the Sandinistas would be obliged to mention time and again the possibility of a US invasion of Nicaragua. But the longer the infrastructure in Honduras goes unused for an invasion, the less credible these cries of alarm would appear. A hypothesis that cannot be brushed aside is that the maneuvers are intended in the short term to promote a war that would leave no concrete traces.
On Nicaragua’s domestic front the maneuvers have increased the economic and social costs of guaranteeing the country’s own defense. Belt tightening should supposedly lead to an increase in internal dissent and this psychological war would affect the population and induce it to abandon the revolutionary project. Fear of an internal front could lead to an increase in internal repression and the progressive unraveling of the nature of the Sandinista revolution’s social project. The propaganda apparatus of the US press would be ready to take advantage of any increase in military capacity or internal repression to denigrate the positive image that the FSLN and the revolution have won.
The maneuvers were conceived in this hypothesis as part of a comprehensive strategy, in which each one of the components is related to the others and the final objective is a wearing down that leads to overthrow.
IHCA: Assuming that the maneuvers have in fact left an infrastructure fit for use in an invasion—an alternative that ranking US officials do not fail to mention—and accepting that this psychological war can be a significant component in total war, how should the revised draft of the Contadora treaty, as it was presented in Panama on September 12 and 13, 1985, be viewed? Is the new draft, which no longer prohibits maneuvers but only contains provisions for their regulation, a trap intended for Nicaragua, and a decisive victory for the US?
Barry: I can’t think that the Contadora countries and the Lima Group have intentionally designed this “trap.” President Ortega himself has recognized the great contribution that these countries have made to the search for peace in Central America. But it seems that with the modifications introduced in September 1985—among these the new treatment of maneuvers—Nicaragua has been isolated as the result of pressure from the Reagan administration. With this new “refined” draft, the US stands to gain a regional instrument that can be used in its favor, a strong diplomatic instrument which will complement its military and hegemonic interests.
Here is where the maneuvers must be viewed as part of a whole, side by side with diplomatic pressures which the US has brought to bear in a continuous and escalating manner against the other countries in the region, in an effort to intensify their aggressive positions against Nicaragua.
It is evident that the Reagan administration has managed to reverse the behavior of the Contadora group. It has undermined the position of support and solidarity taken by the large countries in the group. It has succeeded in getting the Central American countries to assume an even harder line against Nicaragua. It has increased its logistical capabilities both militarily and in intelligence. And it has blocked the possibility of bilateral Nicaragua-US negotiations. All this leaves Nicaragua faced with the unfavorable diplomatic structure proposed by Contadora and without the resources necessary to mount an appeal to the international community in its effort to denounce this low intensity war. The Reagan administration is trying to blame Nicaragua for Contadora’s collapse, leaving the US “without responsibility.” It is the other Central American countries that are presented as fighting for their “security” against a potential enemy. If Nicaragua buys arms to defend itself against the war imposed by the US, it is breaking the Contadora accords, while these same accords place no restrictions on any US offensive activities. If Nicaragua decides to take steps inside the country against any of the destabilization campaigns, it is violating the Contadora accords. This is a difficult situation because it will always be very complicated for Nicaragua to prove that the US has already launched an all-out war in Nicaragua, and that the intervention began years ago.
The regional nature of the Contadora accords does not limit the actions of the countries of the region that are already functioning as puppet forces of the US. The limits are only for the extra-regional forces. Any border incident provoked by the armies of the region could constitute an advantage for the US. Even in the event that the Nicaraguans react defensively, it could all be interpreted as an act of aggression by Nicaragua.
In the end Contadora has been converted into a kind of straight jacket, tying Nicaragua’s hands and preventing self defense. The maneuvers have succeeded in making Nicaragua more and more vulnerable. The Honduran army and air force are newly fortified; Costa Rica is more anti-Sandinista than ever before and the Salvadoran armed forces are four times larger than their original size.
For its part, through this style of war, the Contadora forum has been used like a terrible Trojan horse to convert Nicaragua’s neighbors into the “legitimate” judges of any action that Nicaragua takes to defend itself from the US. The maneuvers have also been used to wear down Nicaragua’s credibility in the international community, which no longer believes or is moved by Nicaraguan cries of alert over a possible invasion.
Although isolated, Nicaragua has not fallen into the trap: it has not devoted all its energies to just constructing a conventional army for a horrible invasion. Rather, it has been able to maintain all of its guerrilla expertise in the rapid mobilization of its irregular warfare battalions and has not refrained from denouncing in every forum the real aggressions that are not mere possibility, but real deeds, as the mining of the ports was, and the atrocities committed by the contras against civilians continue to be.
The letter from President Ortega to the Contadora countries and the Lima Group is, in this sense, the clearest and most determined effort to unmask the trap produced by the Reagan administration’s policy against Nicaragua, and implemented by the other Central American countries. It would be suicidal to accept Contadora’s present proposal which, without absolutely and immediately prohibiting military maneuvers, calls for an “immediate” freeze on acquisition of arms and resources that Nicaragua continues to need for its defense.