Throughout the Cold War the United States considered the installation in Latin America of radical regimes-socialist, Marxist-Leninist, or “leftist” in any way- to be utterly intolerable. Any such development would represent an advance for the communist cause and a vital loss for the West. Acceptance of this outcome could weaken the credibility of the United States as the leader of the west and as a rival for the USSR. In the eyes of Cold Warriors, the consolidation of any left-wing regime in the Western Hemisphere would have dire and perilous implications for U.S. national security and for the global distribution of power. It was therefore crucial to resist this possibility by any means necessary in countries such as Grenada, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
The 1st Prime Minister of Grenada was Eric Mathew Gairy, an energetic, charismatic, and ultimately egomaniacal leader with personal interest in self-aggrandizement and unidentified flying objects. The opposition of Gairy’s movement to increase his own wealth appeared with the foundation in 1972 of a movement called JEWEL, Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation of people, combined with the Movement for the Assemblies of the People, MAP, to create the “New Jewel Movement,” NJM, led by Maurice Bishop and Bernard Courd. In the late 1970’s NJM began to promote a vague Marxist-Leninist ideology. While Gairy was in New York attempting to persuade the UN to establish an agency for investigation of UFO’s, the New Jewel Movement seized power in a near bloodless takeover. Bishop became Prime Minister in what came to be known as People’s Revolutionary Government, PRG; Courd became Minister of Finance. Bernard Courd became increasingly critical of Bishop and his national-democratic, reformist, and anti-imperialist PRG. He, along with a number of military advisors and their troops, placed Bishop under house arrest and eventually executed him.’
The Reagan administration watched these events with mounting interest. On the day of Bishop’s murder, the US Ambassador to Grenada recommended that Washington evacuate all Americans in Grenada. State Department Officials argued evacuation would be inadequate; instead the island would have to be seized to save American lives and broader goals. On October 23, a suicide attack by Islamic fundamentalist led to the massacre of 241 US Marines in faraway Beirut. This provoked intense concern within the White House about the possible taking of American hostages in Grenada. The next day Reagan signed an executive order approving the invasion. A combined force of 1,900 US Marines and army airborne troops launched an assault on Grenada. All significant military objectives were achieved in roughly 36 hours. Reagan justified the operation as an effort to protect US citizens whose safety was threatened because “a gang of leftist thugs” (Lake 182) had seized power to forestall further chaos, and assist in restoration of democracy.
In El Salvador, a mountainous coffee-growing country of 5 million citizens was ruled by an unholy alliance of large-scale landowners and military officers. Acceleration of agriculture exports during the 1960’s led to an increased concentration of rural holdings by large-scale landowners and in turn increased the percentage of peasants who had no land at all. A reformist challenge to the status quo came through the Christian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Jose Duarte. As mayor of San Salvador, Duarte built strong connections with intellectuals, professionals, and other middle-class groups that if the military hadn’t interfered and imposed dictatorial rule he would have surely won the election for presidency in 1972. Fake elections in 1977 led to the installation of General Carlos Humberto Romero as president, who imposed a law to defend and guarantee public order.
Duarte himself was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled but never fled to the hills. A movement called the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, FMLN, came to pose a major challenge to El Salvador’s right-wing regime; the FMLN developed considerable support among the peasants of the countryside. In October 1979, a group of junior officers, Junta, ousted Romero and attempted to implement long-needed reforms. The junta sought to support from “popular organizations” (Gellman 57) and invited Christian Democrats to join the government. Official repression persisted, however, and killings continued at the astonishing rate of nearly 1,000 per month. Now looking undeniably conservative, a beleaguered Duarte took over as titular head of the government. For most of the 1980’s, FMLN would carry on the struggle in a political stalemate.
Although the Carter Administration withdrew assistance to the Salvadoran regime because of its human rights abuses, the Reagan White House devoted unmistakable support to the newly installed government in its fight against the rebels. Though the uprising had fully homegrown roots, Washington saw the conflict as a sign of alien communist agitation. As explained by Secretary of State Haig, “Our problem with El Salvador is external intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation in this hemisphere- nothing more, nothing less” (Carothers 87). According to an analysis done by the State Department in 1981, the Salvadoran insurgency represented a “textbook case” (Blachman 283) of communist interference within the hemisphere. The logical corollary for U.S. policy was to terminate this external intrusion of El Salvador. Some believed that Nicaragua was the source of the dilemma in El Salvador. It was this accusation that would provide the rationale for the renewal of U.S. activity within that troubled country.
In Nicaragua, the Somoza dynasty contained the seeds of its own destruction. Coming to power in the wake of the U.S. occupations of 1916-1933, the Somoza family drew support from several sources: the Guardia Nacional, the landed elite, and the United States. Anastasio Sr., supported the U.S. conspiracy against Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; and it was Luis, the elder son, who encouraged the anti-Fidelista brigade as it set sail for Cuba in 1961. Yet the regime began to weaken in the 1970. Self-seeking and corrupt, Anastasio Jr. clamped an iron rule over the country but offended thoughtful Nicaraguans by his excesses, most notable his extractions of windfall profits from the reconstruction of Managua after an earthquake in 1972. Unlike El Salvador, where the existence of legal institutions encouraged a reformist option, the near-complete absence of representative institution in Nicaragua meant that opposition to Somoza could take only one form: armed resistance. In the 1960’s there emerged a guerrilla movement known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN. After years of fighting, the Somoza regime suddenly collapsed in 1979, just as Batista had given way in Cuba two decades before. Once in power, the youthful Sandinista proclaimed two broad policy goals. One called for the creation of a “mixed economy” in order to achieve social justice. The other espoused an independent and nonaligned foreign policy. In pursuit of these objectives the FSLN sought economic assistance from other countries of Latin America, from Western Europe, from the United States, and from the Soviet bloc.
The Reagan Administration viewed the Sandinista government with fervent hostility. The 1980 Republican Party platform openly denounced “the Marxist Sandinista take over of Nicaragua and the Marxist attempts to destabilize El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras . . .We [Republicans] will support the efforts of the Nicaraguan people to establish a free and independent government” (Whitaker 74) – in other words, to overthrow the Sandinista. In early 1981, Reagan formally ended economic aid to Nicaragua and signed a “presidential finding” authorizing the CIA to undertake covert actions in Central America to interdict arms trafficking by Marxist guerrillas. This was the origin of a counterrevolution movement whose adherents were known as Contras. From the start it included disaffected Nicaraguans of various political persuasions, but its heart and soul-and its military capability-rested with former members of the Guardia Nacional.
Heartened by early developments, Reagan signed an order on November 17, 1981 authorizing $19 million for a 500-man Nicaraguan force aimed at the “Cuban infrastructure in Nicaraguan that was training and supplying arms to the Salvadoran guerillas.” The purpose of U.S. activity was no longer just interdiction of arms shipments to neighboring El Salvador. It became, first and foremost, an attempt to topple the Sandinista Government. Seeking to muster popular support, Reagan insisted the stalemate in Central American threatened to damage the credibility of U.S. commitments elsewhere around the globe: “If the United States cannot respond to a threat near our own borders, why should European or Asians believe we are seriously concern[ed] about threats to them?” (Bemis 385)
Reagan continued his relentless campaign. In September 1983, he pushed Boland I through a presidential finding that authorized “material support and guidance to the Nicaraguan resistance groups”, not for overthrowing the FSLN government, but for two other reasons: pressuring the Sandinista into negotiations with neighboring countries, and forcing them to terminate support for the FMLN in El Salvador. A month later Sandinista government accepted the second condition and pledged not to harm or threaten any interest of the U.S.; the White House ignored this pledge. Despite an impassioned speech by Reagan in May 1984, the legislature passed Boland II, stipulating a termination of all lethal aid to the Contras. This brought an end to congressionally sanctioned support for the Nicaraguan insurgency.
Undaunted by this turn of events, the White House continued with its policy. The administrations most problematic response to the shut off of congressional aid was the initiation of a covert war. Under the direction of Lt. Col. Oliver North, the National Security Council, NSC, secretly continued and expanded operations in Latin America. The operation began to unravel in October 1986, when Sandinista troops captured CIA agent named Eugene Hasenfus after shooting down his plane over Nicaraguan territory. Under interrogation, Hasenfus revealed that Washington was supporting the Contras with funds diverted form the, equally covert, sale of arms to allegedly moderate groups in fundamentalist Iran. It was only a matter of days before the Iran-Contra scandal was out in the open.
In 1987, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica proposed a new peace plan calling on all sides to agree to an immediate cease-fire, negations with the oppositions, and terminating of outside aid. Implementation of these provisions was to be followed by reduction in armed forces and by free elections. In August 1987, the world watched in amazement as leaders of all five countries signed the document. President Reagan and his advisors would barely contain their fury. The Noble Peace Prize Committee rubbed salt in the United States President’s wounds by granting the 1987 award to Arias.
The pattern of US action was impressively consistent. Washington’s perception of “communist” dangers and tendencies rested upon exceedingly broad, loose, and often-irresponsible criteria. Most so called “communists” were civilian reformers, more akin to European social democrat than to Soviet KGB operatives. More over, even those who declared opposition to the United States did so only after Washington adopted blatantly hostile policies. Much of what happened was the result of exaggeration, misperception, and misunderstanding between countries.
Under the leadership of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, the United States attempted the forceful overthrow of each and every socialist or alleged socialist regime in the Americas. The Reagan Administration operated under the same theory that Reagan, himself, expressed in 1984,
“If the Soviet Union can aid and abet subversions in our hemisphere, then the United States has legal right and a moral duty to help resist it. This is not only in our strategic interest; it is morally right.”