The Spark

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

El Salvador:
the Next Viet Nam?

Mar 31, 1981

President Ronald Reagan recently announced that U.S. military advisers were being sent to assist in the training of government troops in El Salvador, where a wide-spread rebellion against the government has been underway for some time. Certainly, in the last several years, the U.S. has sent “advisers” into a number of other countries without any of this fanfare. But contrary to the earlier secrecy, Reagan made a point this time, with El Salvador, of publicly announcing and emphasizing that the government was sending these “advisers.”

In addition, Reagan used the opportunity to make a comparison between the situation in El Salvador and that of the Viet Nam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reagan said that El Salvador would not be the next Viet Nam, but not because the U.S. would refuse to send large numbers of troops into El Salvador. The difference between El Salvador and Viet Nam, according to Reagan, is that if U.S. troops are sent into El Salvador, they will win there, while in Viet Nam they lost. In other words, Reagan underlined his point – in case anyone had missed it – that the U.S. was willing to send troops into El Salvador. He was announcing that the U.S. intends to maintain its claim there.

Reagan’s attitude is clearly different from the one that Carter, and before him, Ford, took pains to express. For example, in 1980, when the Nicaraguan people rose up to overthrow the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship that had been imposed on them for decades, Carter clearly took some distance from this regime, during the regime’s final weeks.

Do Reagan’s recent statements now mean that there is a real change occurring in U.S. foreign policy? And if there is a change, what does it mean?

El Salvador – Dominated by U.S. Imperialism

Reagan says that the U.S. is ready to prop up the military dictatorship in El Salvador through direct intervention by U.S. troops because the opposition movement against the government there is led by “communists” or “Marxists,” and uses terrorism.

But in reality, the opposition movement in El Salvador has fundamentally the same political outlook as the opposition movement in Nicaragua. In effect, Reagan himself admits this, when he complains that the regime in Nicaragua is encouraging the opposition in El Salvador, that the two encourage each other.

In fact, the opposition in El Salvador has nothing to do with communism. This movement has fundamentally the same political stance as did the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Both are nationalist groupings, which have the goal of getting rid of a dictatorial regime imposed by U.S. imperialism; both look to the establishment of an independent nation as their final goal, a nation which will still be bourgeois, but with this important difference: the capitalists who dominate the economy will now be Nicaraguan or Salvadoran, and not American.

In El Salvador, the most important opposition has coalesced in the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). Important elements of the FDR are just liberal in their political outlook: besides the CP, there are also the opposition Christian Democrats, and the social democrats, for example.

Reagan also says that the opposition forces in El Salvador are getting arms from Russia, Eastern European Communist governments, Cuba and Viet Nam. But “arms from the communists” has always been a pretext used for armed U.S. intervention in other countries. Even the bourgeois press in the U.S. admits that while there may be a few weapons that the Salvadoran opposition has gotten from communist governments, most of their weapons seem either to be home-made, captured or bought from Salvadoran government troops or purchased in the capitalist world arms market.

These are pretty transparent excuses. And, in fact, Reagan is not really trying to hide what is happening. The problem for Reagan and for the big American monopolies he represents is the threat to U.S. interests in all of Latin America that is implied in the current struggle in El Salvador. And Latin America is, above all, that area of the world that has always been viewed by U.S. imperialism as its private property, as its corporate backyard.

In El Salvador, as in the other countries of Latin America, this has meant impoverishment and repression for the masses of people.

El Salvador is a small country – the smallest in Central America – with an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts. El Salvador’s main resource is rich farm land and a work force skilled in raising crops. About 60 per cent of all the arable land in the entire country is owned by only two per cent of the people. And the most profitable lands, and most of the power within this landlord class, is concentrated in the hands of just 14 landlord families. Two-thirds of the people who work on the land own none of it at all – they are laborers on the big farms of the landlords. And most of the one-third who own some land own so little of it, that they must also work for one of the big landlords in order to survive.

Big U.S. and Western European agricultural corporations, like the U.S. General Foods Company, rely on the big Salvadoran landlords to supply them with the crops that they then process and sell outside of El Salvador. This relationship has been profitable for them: they have made millions off trade in coffee, sugar cane, and cotton grown in El Salvador.

The industrial investments of the U.S. corporations in El Salvador have also been very profitable. Wages in El Salvador’s manufacturing and service industries have been kept very low. They averaged only $1.64 per day in 1973. The average income in the country is one of the lowest in all of Latin America.

It is such a situation in El Salvador and the other countries of Central America which explains that the average annual rate of return on U.S. investment in Central America is about 17 per cent. And the real rate is probably higher than this. But even this official rate of return is significantly higher than the official rate of return on investments within the borders of the United States.

The consequences for the Salvadoran population of this situation are demonstrated in many different ways, beyond the simple fact of starvation wages. About 60 per cent of the Salvadoran population can neither read nor write, and illiteracy among the rural population runs much higher even than this. Most people have no health care to speak of, and malnutrition is wide-spread. The official infant mortality rate in the country is about four times the rate in the United States.

It is such a situation which explains why the regime in El Salvador has always been a repressive one: the big landlords of El Salvador got their land and have managed to keep it by using the army against the population. And the army in El Salvador has been trained and armed by the United States. In 1932, there was a mass rebellion against the landlords and their government that was put down by the army. 30,000 people were slaughtered as U.S. ships and marines stood off the coast to make sure that the army didn’t fail. Ever since 1932, El Salvador has been ruled by military dictatorships backed by the U.S.

The Corporate Backyard of the U.S.

Like this regime in El Salvador, most of the regimes in power in Latin America today have been imposed on their populations by the United Sates. While masses of people in El Salvador are in open rebellion against the regime that has been imposed on them, there is little popular support for any of these regimes, and in some cases, there is growing hostility toward them and, in many cases, towards the U.S. which backs them.

Under these circumstances, there is a certain danger posed to the United States, whenever the people of any one of these countries rebel, no matter how small the country, no matter how insignificant might be U.S. investments, at least on the scale of total world investment. That danger was already demonstrated by the overthrow in Nicaragua. But Nicaragua, by itself, might be viewed as an aberration. But if Nicaragua were to be followed so soon by a new overthrow in El Salvador of a U.S.-backed regime there, even if that overthrow is led by nationalists who are moderate and relatively co-operative, the dangers then begin to mount for U.S. imperialism. There stands the U.S., ready to give up its playground, apparently powerless to do anything about it – there it stands, for all the world to see. A success in El Salvador, coming so soon after the victory in Nicaragua might encourage the workers, peasants and middle classes of many more countries to oppose the regimes the U.S. has imposed on them.

This is the real reason Reagan has taken a stand against the opposition in El Salvador, citing the so-called Monroe Doctrine, as he does so. For, in fact, Reagan is making a warning to all of Latin America, in the form of the warning he delivers today to the Salvadoran people. And what is he saying, by dragging out the Monroe Doctrine one more time? It’s nothing more than a restatement of property rights. A century and a half ago, Monroe stated it, and American presidents ever since have repeated it: the U.S. claims the right to make all of the Americas its own private hunting grounds. Reagan reminds us – if anyone had forgotten – that the U.S. wants its property rights respected.

With the debacle of the Viet Nam war, given the economic and political problems created at home and its obvious ineffectiveness on the international level, the U.S. tried for a period of time to take for itself a different stance. For these reasons, very specific to a precise time, the U.S. government preferred not to act as openly as it had in the past against the countries it dominates.

Today, however, as Reagan is warning, the U.S. is ready to return to its habitual, and basic, way of enforcing U.S. domination around the world: to gunboat diplomacy. Toward El Salvador Reagan is making a warning and, as he does it, he makes it to people all over the world, and particularly to the peoples of Latin America. He is saying that the U.S. is once again ready to send troops around the world to defend U.S. interests – that is, to defend the interests of the big U.S. banks and corporations. He is saying that the U.S.’s post-Viet Nam policy is at an end. The U.S. will tolerate no more Nicaraguas. The U.S. may agree to a change of faces at the top of a regime that it supports in a poor country. But it is unwilling to back away from such a regime: to strike a deal with the nationalist leaders of a popular opposition movement; to allow that movement to overthrow the old, loyal puppets of imperialism. Reagan is saying that the U.S. is now ready to fight to stop this from happening any more.

Reagan’s warning shows very clearly the foundation of imperialist exploitation: it always has been and always will be based, most fundamentally, on the violent oppression of the exploited. The main question today, as always, is how determined the masses of people are to oppose this exploitation, despite the violent repression. And this question is posed for both the victims of imperialism in the poor countries, and for those in the imperialist countries who are always called upon to do the imperialists’ bloody dirty work for them.

A New Viet Nam – But in What Sense?

Reagan announces the intention of imperialism to return to its policy of Viet Nam. For the imperialists this has one meaning: that the U.S. will go to war to defend its interests, it will destroy a country, if need be, to maintain domination. Reagan makes it clearest of all when he says: not like Viet Nam – because we will win this time.

But this is not the only meaning of Viet Nam. For there were other actors on the stage, than just U.S. imperialism. Above all there was the Vietnamese people who displayed incredibly heroic resistance to oppression. There were the peoples of the other countries in Southeast Asia. Even within the United States itself, a mass popular movement grew up that opposed the murderous actions of the U.S. government in Viet Nam.

It’s not always true that the imperialists have the last word – no matter the sophisticated level of their weapons technology, no matter the money they can spend on items of destruction. Sometimes other actors come on the stage who make a mockery of imperialism’s weapons. They make a mockery because they are determined to decide their own lives for themselves.

And so Reagan can make his warning but it’s up to the Salvadoran people whether they are cowed by it, or whether they show, one more time, that imperialism is not so powerful as it appears. It is up to the Salvadoran people, first of all, but also up to all the poor masses of Latin America, and to the American working class which will be called on to go to war if the Salvadoran people continue their struggle.

They, too, will have a role to play. It’s not at all necessary that El Salvador must be another Viet Nam in the way that Reagan intends it – it may be another Viet Nam in the way the Vietnamese people made it.