The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

U.S. Imperialism Faced with Trouble in Its Own Backyard

Jan 31, 1983

When President Reagan made his tour of Central America in early December, holding top level talks with the heads of the governments of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala, he denied reporters’ questions that the CIA was instigating guerrilla attacks against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He denied this, although months before, the administration had unofficially announced that it was giving almost 20 million dollars aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. After Reagan returned to the U.S., Congress promptly voted a symbolic resolution which supposedly barred the Reagan administration from supporting military operations aimed at overturning the Nicaraguan government. The White House said nothing against the resolution as it passed the House with Republican support by a margin of 411-0. It would once again appear there are mixed signals coming out of Washington.

Reagan, when he came into office, promised that his foreign policy was not going to waffle as did that of his predecessor, Carter. It was going to be the hard line all the way. There were Cubans and Russians in Nicaragua, and the U.S. wasn’t going to tolerate it. That was Reagan’s talk – the flip side of Carter, who claimed to protect U.S. interests by supporting human rights. Yet, Reagan, just as Carter before him, has followed a policy in Central America that is somewhat contradictory, not only between what they say and what they do, but also in what they are saying they are doing at different times. Neither administration has been able to find simple solutions for protecting U.S. imperialism’s interests in its complex and difficult “backyard”.

The Example of Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan government has maintained a certain independence from U.S. imperialism because of its ties with Cuba and the USSR. But the Nicaraguan government has in every other way tried to show that it wants to remain on friendly terms with the U.S. government and business, and is not adverse to exist within the overall framework of U.S. imperialism. From the start, the Sandinista government has pushed for negotiations with the U.S. to resolve differences between the two governments. The U.S. government has used as a pretext for maintaining a hostile attitude to the Nicaraguan government that it is encouraging guerilla movements in El Salvador. However, Nicaragua has gone out of its way to prove that it is willing to act in a responsible way to the U.S. Thus, during preliminary negotiations with the U.S. last winter, Nicaragua tried to prove its good will to the U.S. by trying to use its influence with the Salvadoran guerillas to wind down their struggle during the critical period before the March 28 elections. The upshot was that, although the struggle continued, the rebel forces did split on this proposal.

Nicaragua has also tried to be cooperative with U.S. business, extending, in fact, more generous terms for foreign investment than existed during the Somoza regime. These terms allow foreign investors to own 100 percent of any operation they establish within the country – in contrast to Somoza’s policy of taking 50 percent share – and they would be permitted to repatriate profits under monetary rules also more favorable than Somoza’s. Also, the Nicaraguan government has made interest payments to Western banks on schedule, without renegotiating the loans, a record better than that of all the other Central American governments that are tied directly to U.S. imperialism.

The existence of the Sandinista government does not, in itself, constitute a big problem for U.S. imperialism. However, because it is an independent government, it can have ties with Cuba and with the Soviet Union. And this bothers the U.S. despite Nicaragua’s assurances to U.S. imperialism. Moreover, the fact that the Nicaraguan government was established by a popular upsurge that overthrew a government that was tied completely to U.S. imperialism serves as an example to people in other countries throughout Latin America. It shows that it is possible to overthrow highly repressive, corrupt military dictatorships tied to U.S. imperialism; and that it is possible to keep a certain independence from the U.S. for a while.

The problem of U.S. imperialism is how to discourage others from venturing on the same path. Up until this moment, the U.S. government has used many means, except direct military intervention to keep the Sandinista government, as an Administration official said, “off balance”. The Reagan administration has armed neighboring Honduras, in order for the Honduran military to threaten both ground and air assaults against Nicaragua. Late last summer, Honduras, with the aid of the U.S. military, began building a permanent military base in an isolated region near the Nicaraguan border. The reason for its placement was explicitly stated to be its proximity to Nicaragua. The U.S. government also made use of an estimated 5,000 ex-National Guards of Somoza, who are camped in Honduras along the Nicaraguan border, and make regular forays into Nicaragua to blow up assorted parts of the Nicaraguan infrastructure and massacre hundreds of people. The U.S. government has also discouraged trade and investment in Nicaragua, further hampering the Nicaraguan economy. So far, these attacks have not seriously endangered the Nicaraguan regime. But they have added very big problems to the Nicaraguan government, and partly as a result, the Nicaraguan government has been forced to impose harsh austerity measures on its population, which tends to make Nicaragua a negative example of what happens after a popular revolt overthrows a U.S.-supported regime.

U.S. Proxy War in Central America

Nicaragua is important to U.S. imperialism, because it wants to stop incipient Nicaraguas in other countries in Central America and Latin America. In Central America there are civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and social strife in Costa Rica and Honduras. U.S. imperialism has been doing almost everything it can, short of engaging its own troops, to stop the guerillas from coming to power. Above all, U.S. policy has been based on using the local state apparatuses to control and at best put down the various threats to its rule. The U.S. provides the military hardware and trains and advises the officers. The various governments provide the cannon fodder. In 1982, El Salvador became the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. U.S. military aid has also gone to Guatemala, although in a more hidden way. Despite the fact that in 1977, President Carter announced a cut-off in military aid to Guatemala, as a show that the U.S. government opposed the torture and massacres carried out by the Guatemalan military; despite the fact that the U.S. government still has not resumed official military aid to Guatemala; unofficially, the U.S. military aid never stopped. It has just been funneled to the Guatemalan military through Israel and Argentina.

The U.S. has been pouring money into beefing up the armed forces of both Costa Rica and Honduras. Since the late 1970s, Honduras has been the largest arms importer in Central America, building up a well-armed military machine. With the Nicaraguan civil war and subsequent overthrow of Somoza, the purpose of this arming was not only to maintain domestic order, but also to play a regional military role, both to support the military in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to isolate and threaten the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In promising dramatically to increase the arms shipments to Costa Rica this year, the U.S. government has also expressed the intention of making use of the Costa Rican military in a similar, if smaller way.

The use of the local state apparatuses, which it more or less controls, gives the U.S. government a certain flexibility, since it has not committed itself, but only the troops of other governments. So, the U.S. can take a distance from these governments, as it did with the Guatemalan government for a certain period, in order to mask its involvement, mainly for consumption in this country, but also to make it slightly less embarrassing to liberal elements in the Latin American countries. It allows it to hint at a willingness to negotiate as in El Salvador in October, in order to split the guerrillas to a certain extent between the more militant section of the FMLN, which opposed the negotiation initiative, and the more liberal section. And it also allows it to threaten the possibility of sending troops, as when Reagan first came to office and he and Secretary of State Haig bragged that they were going to draw the line in Central America. But most importantly, the U.S. avoids a certain risk by using local troops. For if U.S. troops were sent in to bring order, they could get bogged down in a long, costly war. Even the maintenance of struggle by the guerrilla forces against U.S. troops could be an encouragement that it is possible to defeat or at least to hold off the strongest military force. So, the U.S. has so far used other troops to do its dirty work, while it plays a game, seemingly from the sidelines, of making gestures of peace and threats of invasion.

Deterioration in Latin America?

Yet, for all the overwhelming forces that U.S. imperialism has used in order to keep its rule in Central America, there are also overwhelming forces – economic, political and social – threatening to blow the situation apart. Not the least of these is the determination to fight by the insurgents. In El Salvador the U.S. has increased its military aid from 114 million dollars in 1979 to 238 million dollars in 1982. The El Salvadoran military has used this aid to murder over 35,000 people, or almost one percent of the population. Yet the guerrilla struggle in this time has intensified. In Guatemala the military government has killed 9,000 people since Rios Montt took power in a March 1982 coup. The military has massacred entire villages and herded the survivors into concentration camps in a military campaign patterned after the U.S. army’s pacification program used in the Viet Nam war. Yet, despite this slaughter by the government, the guerrilla struggle has continued, as it has done for years. In Honduras and Costa Rica, along with a military build-up there is a big increase in social tension.

The tiny countries of Central America are not alone. They are simply the scenes of the most intense civil wars. But much of the rest of Latin America is being rocked by social unrest, strife and guerrilla struggles. In Argentina, under the military dictatorship, strikes and demonstrations demanding an end to the military dictatorship and pay increases for workers became almost daily occurrences in the months of November and December. On December 6, a 24-hour national strike closed down the entire country. Ten days later there was a demonstration of 100,000 people, the biggest anti-government rally since Argentina’s military rulers seized power in 1976. In Bolivia the military dictatorship decided to hand over government rule to a civilian government under the pressure of general strikes in all nine departments of the country. In Peru a right-wing civilian government has been shaken by peasant strikes and guerrilla struggles. In Colombia, a guerrilla war has been simmering.

The pressures on this situation promise only to get worse, due to an economic crisis that is building to catastrophic proportions. All of the countries of Latin America are being hit by a staggering growth of debt, leading to the near bankruptcy of these countries. Honduras has already defaulted on some of its short-term loans. Costa Rica has the highest per capita debt inn the world. Beyond this, the biggest debtors in the world among the major underdeveloped countries are in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela. Their foreign debt service is so large, it is equal to or greater than their annual income from exports. In order even to attempt to pay the interest on these debts, all of these countries have clamped austerity measures on their populations. This has led to a rapid deterioration in the already very low living standard. Thus populations that were living on the edge of starvation are now being pushed over that edge. As the economic situation deteriorates, the potential for social conflict increases. And if there is a financial collapse in one or more countries, and they go bankrupt, how much more turmoil will this cause?

Thus, in the current situation of all Latin America, there has been a growing threat to the stability of country after country. If this threat becomes a reality and if current U.S. policy fails to stabilize the situation, then the U.S. government could be faced with a choice, a choice that for the last period it has been able to avoid: it could be forced to change its policy, and either send in its own troops or reach some kind of settlement with nationalistic forces. If U.S. imperialism decided to reach a settlement with a nationalist regime or guerrilla force, it would be in order to use them to help to keep order in a particular region. But this raises other problems for U.S. imperialism. And first of all, that such a settlement, in and of itself, can be an encouragement to other peoples to continue their struggle. If we judge by the past history of U.S. policy toward Latin America, a settlement is the less likely choice; the choice to send in its own troops is the one it has almost always resorted to. Since Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, the U.S. troops have invaded what has been considered its backyard over fifty times. And it is not a question of this or that president, this or that party. These invasions have been carried out under both Democratic and Republican presidents. The development of the situation in Latin America could put a U.S. invasion of one or more Latin American countries once more on the agenda.