Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 56 | Febrero 1986


Central America

The Military Factor

Envío team

The military conflict has shown itself more and more to be a direct clash between the new historic subject and the United States. The push from armed popular forces has been held back only by US intervention.

The term “low intensity warfare” masks the horrible face of US military involvement, which has had two phases. The first is the phase of indirect intervention, in which US advisers direct a subordinate national army, or mercenaries. In this phase, the visible US presence is mainly AID, whose purpose is to maintain the economy of the country in which the intervention is taking place, while the subordinate army takes on the forces of national liberation.

The second, or direct intervention phase begins when the subordinate army can’t control the growth of the guerrillas due to lack of popular support, corruption generated in the indirect intervention and subsidized economy phase, demoralization of the army itself arid the inability of the restricted democracy to confront the real problems.

The indirect intervention phase in Central America isn’t a different strategy from the one used in Vietnam; it’s only a more sophisticated one, in which the propagandistic and ideological component has been considerably refined. During the indirect intervention phase, the threat of a direct invasion serves as psychological pressure, forcing constant tactical and logistical preparations and resulting in a wearing down of the economy. The cost to Nicaragua of this type of war has been $1.5 billion in the past three years, almost double the country’ s exports in the same period.

The period of indirect US involvement in Central America is also a much more prolonged and harder war than it was for the Vietnamese. It is likewise much more difficult to defeat, whereas the direct involvement phase, if it occurs, will in all likelihood be much shorter and easier to overcome than it was in Vietnam.

In the indirect intervention phase in Central America, the US government has incorporated the sane guerrilla tactics as the Vietnamese, making the intervention harder for Central Americans to defeat. The United States in Vietnam did not have an internal front within North Vietnam, and its counterinsurgency war in South Vietnam was less than what has been used against the FMLN in El Salvador since 1983. The closeness of Central America within the US sphere of influence gives the US government advantages in the indirect intervention phase, not only regarding the ideological struggle but also in the realm of military logistics and supply.

Recently a group of 250 US experts predicted that the US government would invade Central America in 1988, that is, after eight years of indirect intervention, the same duration as in Vietnam. Present tendencies indicate that the indirect intervention will be longer than in Vietnam. The United States will use direct intervention only as a last resort because of the political, ideological and military problems that accompany a full-scale US invasion. For the same reasons a direct US invasion of Central America will be easier to defeat than the indirect phase. The US is likely to try to prolong its war of attrition.

The military factor has been a dominant one in the present period. The war against the new historic subject has been the most effective in Guatemala. The society as a whole has suffered the most profound militarization and a genocide against the indigenous population that is possibly unparalleled in Latin America’s recent history, even under the Somoza dictatorship. With the new “democratization” without reforms, repression is likely to continue at the same levels to maintain “social peace.”

Militarization of El Salvador has meant the elimination of basic services. All public concerns are subordinated to the incorporation of the civilian population into military defense. When a civilian community refuses to incorporate itself into the war, basic services disappear. Additionally, an army private in his first two years of service earns twice what an agricultural worker receives. If he stays in the army longer, he earns four times as much; and if he is in a combat battalion fighting the guerrillas, he earns six times as much. The vas majority of the soldiers are agricultural workers who enjoy personal consumption levels in the army that were unimaginable in civilian life.

The air war has intensified in a very sophisticated way. It cannot hit the guerrillas, who are well entrenched in shelters, but it prevents the expansion of the liberated areas. The purpose of the bombing is to drive out the civilian population, thereby blocking productive activities by the revolutionary forces.

The FMLN is, in the view of experts, the best prepared and militarily capable unit in the history of national liberation warfare. It has shown itself able to halt transportation in 70% of the country, force wage increases, cut electric power supplies and take over El Paraisol, the most sophisticated military installation in the country.

The human cost of prolonging this conflict is enormous. In the past five years the war has cost more than 50,000 civilian lives and is killing or wounding 200 government soldiers a month. The war in El Salvador thus shows signs of continuing without either side being able to prevail in the short term. Without negotiations, this war of attrition could continue on into the 1990s.

In Nicaragua the militarization of life doesn’t manifest itself in the political and civil aspects of society but it does in the economy and standard of living. The prolonging of the conflict in that country is the most artificial, and consequently the most unjust, inhuman and dehumanizing. The minimal conditions required for reconstruction had already come into being. By the end of 1985, the Sandinista army had beaten the counterrevolutionaries and thus wasn’t engaged in a war of military confrontation. Rather, it was devoting its attention to defending the harvesters of coffee, cotton and sugar, protecting cooperatives and health and education centers, and relocating 250,000 peasants driven from the war zones.

The logic of the war has displaced the national priorities of increasing production and popular participation. The low-intensity warfare strategy is overt in its intent to cause limitations and deficiencies in the revolutionary process in order to pull away mass popular support. The poorest of the poor, the Atlantic Coast indigenous peoples and the peasants in the northern mountains and along the border, are the chosen target for attempting to create a social base for the counterrevolution. By the end of 1985, the counterrevolution has found itself at a dead end, able to maintain itself only with new infusions of US military aid. If these infusions were stopped, the contras would be only a nightmare from the past.

In Honduras, the militarization takes the form of a struggle to transform the country into a vast base for US military maneuvers and contra operations, without recognizing the denationalization that both phenomena produce in the country.

The effects of militarization, however, have perhaps been most shattering in the Costa Rican form of society. The assimilation by Costa Rica of the US characterization of Nicaragua as “the enemy” and the replacement of Costa Rican national security with US security concerns, with the rupture of Costa Rica’s historic neutrality, have sown the seeds of the destruction of the Costa Rican model.

In Panama, the militarization of Central America, the expansion of the conflict to Costa Rica and the use of Canal Zone military bases and the US Southern Command as the nerve center of Central American militarization have all served to undermine the third-world nationalism championed by the late President Omar Torrijos. The obvious instability of the Panamanian government after Torrijos’ mysterious death has been made only more acute by the worsening economic picture and the lack of a clear political and social agenda for the country.

The prolonging of the conflict and the dominance of military factors in the region imply high costs for the new Central American historic subject, as well as for the United States. Increased human suffering, higher military budgets, and general destruction have limited the possibilities for any type of planning for the region.

The United States too is paying a high geopolitical price for the prolonging of the military conflict. Its imperial legitimacy has been questioned in the most important international forum, even by its closest allies. The new aggressivity of the United States, not only in Central America but in the Middle East, Libya, South Africa, Angola, etc., is confronting intense international opposition.

The expansion of the Contadora group, its international legitimacy and the growing antagonism between the United States and the new Bolivarian vision of political and economic self-determination for the continent are beginning to put vital US interests in doubt, all for a conflict that could have a negotiated resolution with considerable possibilities for success from the US standpoint.

The challenge for the new Central American historic subject is to close the breach between military actions and political-ideological ones. Perhaps the greatest deficiency of the vanguards has been to underestimate the importance of the latter, given the military situation. The US, on the other hand, has spent almost all of its ideological options in these four years. Its maneuvering room is much more limited now than that of the new historic subject.

This will be a decisive test. The US Congress doesn’t want to continue pouring enormous amounts of money into a losing cause, particularly when it’s also eroding US credibility at the international level. The cost to the American taxpayer is beyond what the Reagan administration indicates. PACCA (Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America), an association of scholars and policy-makers, has concluded that the US government spends roughly $9.5 billion a year on current military/security policies toward Central America and the Caribbean. PACCA authors Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, in their new study titled “Inequality and Intervention: The Federal Budget and Central America,” note that while analysts may disagree about this figure, any reasonable estimate will be higher than the Administration’s $1.2 billion.

The dead-end for US policy in Central America creates a dilemma for the US: it must intensify its war in the isthmus or accept a pragmatic and flexible accommodation with a new kind of collaboration in a project that could create social stability throughout the Caribbean basin. That social and political stability is vital to US economic interest and to its national security.

The growth of international solidarity movements, and particularly those in the United States that oppose Reagan’s policy on Central America—Sanctuary, Witness for Peace and the Pledge of Resistance, among others—is important. They can help bring about the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the conflict rather that the more likely decision of the Reagan administration to move into the phase of direct intervention.

Up to this point international solidarity hasn’t been strong enough. This is particularly the case for the northern part of the isthmus, where international support hasn’t crystallized for the URNG of Guatemala and has declined for the FMLN-FDR. Although solidarity has held for Nicaragua, it hasn’t been enough to bring Contadora to a successful conclusion.

It is not utopian to believe that negotiations are a potential option for the administration. Enough debate still exists about the definition of “national security” within the ruling establishment and the Reagan administration itself to be able to envision a willingness to negotiate the protection of US interests rather than ensure them only through US military might.

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The Economic Factor

The Military Factor

The Political Factor

The International Factor: Coexistence or prolonged conflict?


The Cultural-Ideological Factor
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