The Development of Latin American Foreign Policy
During the Reagan Administration
When the Reagan administration first took office early in 1981, many of its key members wanted to make a move as soon as possible in response to the growing realm of Soviet power in the world. One area that the U.S. felt a lot of pressure from was Latin America. Even before the advent of communism, US influence in Latin America was always a touchy subject. As early as Teddy Roosevelts term as president, the US began a course of foreign policy that protected US investments in Latin America. While being decidedly pro-imperialistic in the dealings with these small neighbors, Roosevelt created a dollar diplomacy relationship and resorted to a devious policy of preventive intervention in dealings with Latin America. Not surprisingly, there were not many American supporters in those countries, except, of course, for the American companies exploiting the native populations to maximize profits. But not until the late seventies, with the threat of communist expansion into Central America, did the US again focus their attention on Latin American foreign policy affairs.
From the beginning, the Reagan administration displayed concern about Nicaragua becoming another Cuba. Nicaragua showed signs of becoming an armed camp from which trained guerillas would be sent into the neighboring countries to start revolutionary movements, and the US began to think that their only choice was military intervention.
But support for military intervention was not very popular in the US among the public and legislature. The first Boland Amendment of 1982 capped the US monetary support for the contra rebels, and in successive years, amendments to the Boland Amendment dropped that number dangerously low. Congress remembered the lessons of the Vietnam War, and wanted to avoid the slow, steady build up to all-out war.
Also, many of Reagans most trusted advisors were leftovers from the Nixon era. They had watched Vietnam fall shortly after the U.S. withdraw, followed closely by Laos and Cambodia, and the situation in Nicaragua seemed eerily familiar. Cringing at the memory of leaving millions of South Vietnamese American supporters to suffer a dismal fate at the hands of the NVA and Peoples Republic of Vietnam, the Reagan Administration was careful not to get so involved in the situation that they could not wash their hands of it if necessary. Therefore, the USs plan for challenging communism in Latin America changed. Now, the plan was not a large scale intervention to depose the Sandinista government, but instead to support a guerilla war that hindered it enough to allow a larger, pro-American revolution to erupt and take over control of the country.1
The first problem that the US faced was how it was going to deal with Fidel Castro. Since the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the US had taken to an anti-Cuban policy, which included the old Ford/Kissinger policy of blockading the country.2 This, in turn, created a hostile relationship between these two neighboring countries. Fidel Castro and Cuba represented the USSR in the area, and supported any revolutionary effort that named the US as a primary enemy. Since the US had been funding the Nicaraguan governments efforts to quell a guerilla war, led by the communist Sandinistas, Castro openly supported the Sandinistas.3 This meant, if only implicitly, that the USSR supported the Sandinistas. This placed the Soviets, like in Cuba, perilously close to the US border and in an almost provocative manner.
But what most people did not realize was, as invested to the Soviets as Castro was, he was hiding a concern about the reliability of their commitments. In Europe, the Solidarity trade union movement was consuming all of the Soviets attention and support. This scared Castro because he was incredibly paranoid about America moving against him and he thought that the Soviets might just leave him out to dry in that case.1
It turned out, however, that Castro grossly overestimated the USs desire for revenge. The Reagan administration had just come into office and it would be impossible for them to sell a military measure of that extreme to Congress and the American public. Reagan did not know much about foreign affairs, instead he concentrated his main efforts on domestic economic policy.2 Large scale military action would also not fare well for a bid for a second term no one wanted a second Vietnam.
Even though the Reagan administrations hands were tied in dealing with Cuba, they were more than willing to address the problem brewing in El Salvador. A plan of harassing guerilla operations was developed by William Casey, the head of the CIA, that intended to nibble away at the supply lines of the guerillas in El Salvador and interrupt the flow of weapons and intelligence into El Salvador from Nicaragua.3 In order to facilitate this kind of project, immediate funds would be necessary to train these insurgents and provide military aid. But to many in Washington, this seemed too large an operation to hide and would attract unwanted public debate. Secretary of State Alexander Haig supported this view, arguing that it did not have public support and it was prone to the same partisan political debate that plagued the Vietnam War.4
After the Nicaraguan government fell to the Sandinistas, the NSC and CIA, which led the contra funding programs, began looking for any groups opposed to Sandinista control that would be willing to fight a war paid for by US money. The US was anxious to respond to some frightening facts that were surfacing at the time. The American government, during the Carter administration, had captured documents that outlined a Soviet plan to support a guerilla movement in El Salvador, with help from the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Cubans. The captured documents painted a thorough picture of a Soviet-Cuban plan trying to centralize the revolutionary efforts in El Salvador.1 Also, the Sandinistas government had made it overwhelmingly clear to the US that they had a few new foreign policy objectives: (1) to stall the USs intervention with talk of pluralism and defection; (2) to display growing Nicaraguan supremacy in Latin America by increasing its standing army from fifty thousand to over two hundred thousand soldiers; and (3) show their overwhelming support for the world revolution.2 This information scared the Americans into a defensive position.
Another major issue influenced the US to take action against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. With each passing day, Nicaragua moved closer and closer to implementing a Cuban-style Communist dictatorship, complete with press censorship, crackdowns on private businesses, the arrest of political opponents, and harassment of the Catholic Church.3 But, the US believed that if they put enough pressure on the Sandinistas regime, that Cuba and the Soviets would hopefully abandon their efforts in Nicaragua.
Thus American foreign policy concerning Latin America was born. The Reagan administration made it quite clear that they had no intention to depose the Sandinistas, instead they wanted to defend El Salvador. The US would not tolerate any further communist advances in Latin America, but it never intended to rid the communists at their source. Internationally, the US could do no more than apply pressure to the Nicaraguan government, and domestically, ask for funds to mediate the conflict, but not end it.
Church, George. What He Needs to Know. Time, 22 December 1986, 14-20.
Dean, John. John Dean on Ollie: The Ugly Road Ahead. Newsweek, 20 July 1987, 28-29.
Draper, Theodore. A Very Thin Line. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991.
Koh, Howard H. The Natonal Security Constitution: Sharing Power After the Iran-Contra
Affair. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Ledeen, Michael A. Perilous Statecraft. New York: Scribner, 1988.
Smolowe, Jill. Prepping for a Covert Overt War. Time, 3 November 1986, 22-24.
Timberg, Robert. The Nightingales Song. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.
Wilentz, Amy. Not Much Wiser Than Before. Time, 29 December 1986, 12-14.