CONFRONTATION BETWEEN NICARAGUA AND THE UNITED STATES IN 1982 (FIRST OF TWO PARTS)
The Reagan Administration's objectives in Central America – expressed initially in the Republican Party platform and confirmed on numerous occasions by high U.S. officials are abundantly clear. They are to overthrow the popular and anti imperialist government of Nicaragua, replace it with a regime which serves the U.S.. interests, and at the same time prevent any new triumph by liberation forces in the area. The defeat of this policy by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and by the other liberation movements in Central America with the aim of achieving national self determination and social development is the objective of all the revolutionary forces in the region. Such is the nature of the conflict which in multiple guises presently envelops the isthmus and forms the basic thread of its historical emergence.
The year 1982 witnessed the failure of the original U.S. foreign policy design for Central America, followed by readjustments in the same. In this article we will analyze that initial failure along with the developments which have contributed to the policy's reformulation. In our next Envío we will analyze the new plan, the course of its implementation, and the response of the revolutionary forces in the area. Our analysis will be centered on Nicaragua but will make constant reference to events taking place in the rest of Central America.
1 THE ORIGINAL FOREIGN POLICY DESIGNIn order to avoid the probable and dangerous emergence of a "new Nicaragua”, the Reagan Administration chose, as its number-one regional priority, "normalization" in El Salvador. Coupled with an improvement in relations with the Lucas Garcia regime in Guatemala, aimed at strengthening it militarily, that course appeared to the Administration to be the best way of overcoming the liberation movements in both countries. Parallel to this, harassing actions were to be undertaken against the Sandinistas which would culminate in economic and military blows against Nicaragua with strategic repercussions. With grassroots power in Nicaragua thus weakened, and with the situation in the northern part of the isthmus under control, the principal thrust of the Reagan Administration offensive would concentrate on seeking the final overthrow of Sandinismo.
Although affected by important contradictions within the United States itself, such a scenario, in conjunction with actions to be taken in the Caribbean and with the weakening of Torrijismo in Panama, would restore to the U.S. absolute control over an area that it regards as strategically important. It would thus demonstrate to the world America's resurgence as the power in the area.
1.2. By March of 1982, after 15 months of a Republican government, the results obtained in Central America were judged by the Administration to be unsatisfactory. The two main goals proposed for El Salvador, the military defeat of the FMLN (foreseen for October of 1981) and the subsequent political legitimation of the Christian Democrats through elections in March 1982 could not be achieved. Six months after its January 1981 offensive, during the months of July and August, the FMLM once again took the military initiative. In December it struck the Salvadoran army a number of hard blows. The situation was by then serious enough that the Reagan Administration began to examine a number of different alternatives for external intervention (within the framework of the Rio Treaty, with the help of other Latin American dictatorships, and even in the form of direct U.S. participation). Although, due to important tactical mistakes and to the strengthening of the Salvadoran army by the U.S., the FMLN was unable to have a decisive impact on the electoral process, it was clear that U.S. goals in El Salvador had not been fulfilled. The strategic turn which the FMLN made on the war in June 1982 demonstrated this even more clearly. Meanwhile, the elections themselves took the form of a struggle which ran across the dominant classes and armed forces and led to the victory over the Christian Democrats by an ultra right coalition headed by Major Roberto D'Abuisson. As a result, elections which Washington had so zealously promoted made the legitimation of the Salvadoran regime more difficult, at the same time promoting a sharp internal power struggle within the dominant forces.
1.3. While all this was taking place, American plans for Guatemala were undergoing serious alteration. The initially excellent relations between the governments of Romeo Lucas and Ronald Reagan relations based on ideological homogeneity and fortified by intermediaries such as presidential advisor Michael Deaver and special envoy General Vernon Walters – led the State Department to announce the resumption of military sales to Guatemala in the amount of $3.2 million. However, adverse reaction by the Senate and the House of Rep¬resentatives, influenced by the Carter Administration’s prior suspension of aid to Guatemala because of human rights violations, curbed Reagan’s and Haig's plans. The internal situation in Guatemala also began to deteriorate; Amnesty Interna¬tional estimated that a thousand people (including those from moderate sectors) were being murdered each month; the guerrillas were gathering their forces, establishing in February, 1982, the URNG or Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity; and deep divisions between Lucas Garcia and influential sectors of the oligarchy and armed forces were beginning to appear. Furthermore, Washington's repeated requests to the Guatemalans to soften their repression in order to give the Reagan Administration some maneuverability within the U.S. fell on deaf ears. If anything, the distance between the two governments was growing rather than decreasing. The elections of March 7, 1982, which the opposition charged were a "scandalous fraud", eventually produced a coup d'etat headed, after a series of internal realignments, by General Efrain Rios Montt. However, the Reagan forces had lost precious time.
1.4- Meanwhile, the Republican Administration in Washington continued to accuse the Sandinistas of being responsible for the resistance in El Salvador. In particular, the Nicaraguans were charged with serving as a bridge for a supposed flow of arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas originating in Cuba and the Soviet bloc. Behind such charges, never proven, the Administration's real design was concealed: to overthrow the revolutionary government and replace it with a pro U.S. regime. In consonance with that design, three paths of attack were chosen: a national and international political offensive against Nicaragua, a campaign of economic damage, and military aggression.
The first line of attack, the political offensive, consisted principally of diplomatic actions designed to damage the credibility of the Nica¬raguan Revolution in the eyes of other democratic states. This was coupled with internal support for anti Sandinista political groups (urging them in the first instance to undertake unarmed but illegal activities) and backing for conservative forces within Nicaragua's churches. Financial, technological and commercial pressures, along with sabotage directed against the country's productive apparatus and infrastructure, were at this stage the main elements in the strategy of economic damage. At the same time, military attacks began to accelerate significantly.
Signs of the Reagan Administration's hostile intentions toward Nicaragua were the following: the existence of anti Sandinista training camps in Florida and California, the training of at least three companies of ex Somoza National Guardsmen in the Panama Canal Zone, constant incursions into Nicaraguan territory by Somocista bands operating from bases in Honduras, blowing up the bridges over the Rio Coco and the Rio Negro, acts of terrorism against the National Airport in Managua and against an Aeronica plane in Mexico City, the "Red Christmas" plot to separate the Atlantic Coast from the rest of Nicaragua, attempts to destroy the country's only cement plant and oil refinery, the "electronic fence" set up around Nicaragua by the U.S. Southern Command to interfere with and monitor certain internal communications, 40 violations of Nicaragua airspace by the U.S. Air Force, the Halcon Vista operation which was designed to assess the joint naval and air capabilities of Honduras and the United States in the event of a war with Nicaragua, numerous actions taken by the Honduran Navy against Nicaraguan ships, the authorization of $19 million for covert operations by the CTA, and the presence of U.S. spy ships in waters off Nicaragua's Pacific Coast.
Nevertheless, in March of 1982, while things were becoming more complicated in El Salvador and Guatemala, U.S. plans for Nicaragua suffered a serious setback. During that month, a period which would catalyze the whole Central American conflict, military attacks of a strategic nature against Nicaragua were foreseen. The spectrum of possibilities for those attacks ranged from direct U.S. intervention – considered unlikely but not entirely excluded – to the large scale penetration of National Guardsmen supported internally by counterrevolutionary commandos. An intermediate option was border war between Nicaragua and Honduras, backed logistically by Argentina and the United States, which would destroy vital economic and military targets within Nicaragua by using its superior air power. Except for the first option, such scenarios sought not the immediate overthrow of the Sandinista government but rather to create conditions for that overthrow later.
During the same month, the land of Sandino witnessed an unprecedented degree of mobilization. A state of alert on the part of the Sandinista army, the militia and the other forces; voluntary vigilance over farms, factories and means of communication; a national emergency law to prevent internal acts of destabilization; instruction of the populace in what it should do before, during and after aerial bombardment; and a parallel search for ways to minimize economic damage were joined together with an international diplomatic and political offensive. The peace proposal formulated by Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, a proposal supported by a number of democratic governments, the Parliament of the EEC, the Socialist International and 106 U.S. Congresspersons was an important initial step in the latter campaign. Subsequent blows to U.S. policy were delivered by the failure of Haig's attempt to pass off photos from the Somoza era as though they represented Miskito Indians being burned alive by the Sandinistas; by the statements of Orlando Jose Tardencilla who, upon being presented to the press by U.S. State Department, denied any Nicaraguan connection with arms traffic to El Salvador; and by the victory of in anti imperialist resolution which Nicaragua submitted to the U.N. Security Council. This resolution passed by a margin of 12 in favor, two abstentions and only the vote of the U S. against. With the U.S. short-term plans virtually defeated, and with Nicaragua reserving the right to take its case to the General Assembly, the outbreak of war in the Falklands arrived to block the first attempt of the Reagan Administration to design and implement a Central American strategy.
1.5. On the other hand, the alternative of negotiations, which presumably would have benefited the revolutionary movements in the region, also turned out to be unviable, either for strategic (Nicaragua) or tactical (El Salvador) reasons. Against the backdrop of the French Mexican declaration on El Salvador, President Lopez Portillo had proposed to Managua a plan consisting of three points: a negotiated solution of the Salvadoran conflict, dialogue and normalization of relations between Managua and Washington through a series of mutual security accords, and negotiations between the United States and Cuba. In spite of the international support it received and his several meetings with representatives of the forces involved, Lopez Portillo's initiative did not bear fruit. In El Salvador, the increased power of the forces around Roberto D'Abuisson augmented the difficulties in reaching an understanding and therefore left open Washington's accusations that Nicaragua was collaborating logistically with the FMLN. In addition, in the U.S. judgment the position of Cuba had not changed, while it seemed evident to the Cubans that Washington's attitude toward the island remained unaltered. Above and beyond all of these considerations hovered the fact that the U.S. objective was to promote not understanding but rather the destruction of Central America's liberation movements; negotiations would be viable only as a lesser evil after other roads were closed off. For the time being not only had other possibilities not been exhausted, but the United States had not even been permitted to negotiate from a position of strength. Thus the crisis in Central America remained without any resolution. What happened in that case was a readjustment in the Republican design for attaining its regional foreign policy objectives and a consequent reinforcement of resistance on the part of liberation movements throughout the isthmus.
2- NEW U.S. TACTICS2.1. The war over the Falklands is a key event for understanding the potential options available to Washington in redesigning its policy. The conflict between Argentina and Great Britain, with the United States taking Britain's side, in effect closed off for an indefinite period the already problematic option of resorting to the OAS and the Rio Treaty as a means of containment in Central America. At the same time, at the level of government- to government relations, the U.S. lost its most unconditional Latin American ally and a key counterinsurgency force in the isthmus when the Galtieri government in Argentina collapsed. Moreover, the very important diplomatic support which Venezuela had been lending to Reagan and Haig was called into question throughout the region; this may be seen more clearly if we take into account the electoral defeat of Christian Democracy in El Salvador and the options dictated by Venezuela's own electoral processes.
2.2- Nevertheless, events in Central America in the wake of the Falklands War are not sufficient to explain the reformulation which occurred in Washington's regional policy. It is also necessary to consider Haig's replacement by George Schultz as U.S. Secretary of State. The fall of Alexander Haig can be explained by faults in his style of carrying out foreign policy, a style which, aggravated by bureaucratic infighting, led to a series of conflicts in the world arena without any sign that the desired recovery of U.S. hegemony was taking place. Haig's "strategic globalism" was unable to forge the necessary compatibility among his own geopolitical conceptions, governmental criteria of efficiency, the balancing of military and economic interests, and the long term as a guide to short- and medium-run actions. Though no more conservative than his Administration colleagues, Haig generally took a position in favor of employing U.S. forces to combat movements of liberation in the Third World, under the theory that such action was a necessary first step in containing “Soviet expansionism”. Concomitantly, he was more receptive than other Administration officials to the European desire to avoid open confrontation with the USSR, something which could be left to a later stage. Other high government leaders, however, adopted a position which in certain respects was the opposite of Haig's or which at least attempted to marry the two objectives (on which there was virtual agreement) in a different way. For this reason Defense Secretary Weinberger acted as one of Haig's chief opponents and neutralizers.
It can be expected that Schultz, although just as conservative as his predecessor, will utilize force and negotiation alternately (depending on the U.S. real power capabilities). He will develop a closer coordination between government and big business while espousing pragmatism. His actions vis-à-vis Central America will thus tend to reinforce the position of the Pentagon. That position, although desiring the total defeat of the region's liberation forces, has been to avoid (though never ruling out) direct intervention by U.S. troops in pursuit of higher level objectives. The orientation of the new Secretary of State will thus reinforce a decision which had developed as a result of the international and domestic positions already secured by the vanguard forces of the area: to convert Honduras into the Israel of Central America.
In effect, the difficulties being experienced by the U.S. "internal allies” particularly in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; restrictions on the U.S. ability to resort to the OAS, the Rio Treaty and other Latin American governments; and a preference for not employing direct action due to its inherent difficulties necessarily imply strengthening Honduras as an interventionist power within the region. This is without, of course, neglecting other allies, especially governments.
The advantages of choosing Honduras are the following: its geographic position bordering on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; a deep U.S. economic penetration which has not, however, overcome the country's status as the archetypical "banana republic"; strong growth of the military in the last decade as a result of the war with El Salvador; a high percentage of U.S. trained military; and a legitimately elected civilian government which through pre electoral agreements has left real power in the hands of the army. Without a doubt, Republican purposes vis-à-vis Honduras have ample chance of being realized, and U.S. policy now points toward the creation of an army of occupation. At the same time, U.S. support for the Somocista ex National Guard has become such that Sandinista leaders have stopped referring to the latter as mere bands and have begun to compare them with a professional army in terms of armament, equipment, training and organization.
Finally, the emergence of Honduras’s new role and the strengthening of the ex National Guard are taking place in a context marked by greater docility on the part of Central American regimes in the face of Washington's dictates. The financial debility and conservative character of the Monge government in Costa Rica, the search by Rios Montt for an image which will permit Reagan to come to his assistance, the accelerated process of "de Torrijoization" in Panama, etc., are all factors that will have an impact upon the readjustment of U.S. strategy in Central America. Nevertheless, the creation of conditions should not be confused with the plan designed for Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. That plan will begin to emerge clearly, in the latter half of this year and will be combated by the peoples of the area. Once again the biblical precept that "the hopes of the poor shall not perish" will be evident.
(To be concluded next month)