New Internationalist

Forgotten Histroy

issue 130

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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] History of foreign intervention

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Forgotten History
‘So far from God and so close to the United States’, lamented a former Mexican president. He might just as well have been talking about Central America. More than any other outside power the US has bullied, blackmailed and invaded the region since the 1850s. Phil Gumpson gives us a potted history.

1855 Tennessee adventurer William Walker enters Nicaragua at the head of a private band of US filibusterers - the ‘American Phalanx of Immortals’. Invited by the Liberal faction to aid them in a war against Conservatives, he swiftly has himself named president and recognised by the United States. Walker reintroduces slavery, thus winning the support of the US slave states; seizes Nicaraguan land and hands it to US citizens; makes English the official language; and uses Nicaraguan territory as collateral for international loans. He is’ eventually routed in 1857 by a coalition of Central American states.

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1903 Frustrated by the refusal of the Colombian government to give up the land required for the building of the Panama Canal, the US finances a Panamanian secessionist movement, which stages a revolt. Colombian troop reinforcements are prevented from landing by the USS Nashville. Three days later Washington recognises the new republic, which obligingly cedes the Canal Zone ‘in perpetuity’ to the USA. Colombia eventually receives the derisory sum of $25m in compensation. President Theodore Roosevelt boasts later: ‘I took the Canal Zone and left Congress to argue’.

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1909 Four hundred US marines land at the Nicaraguan port of Bluefields. in support of a Conservative revolt against the government of Jose Santos Zelaya. The pretext is stopping the execution of two US-born saboteurs. But the real reason is that Zelaya has violated the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ by seeking close relations with foreign powers and has investigated building a potential rival to the Panama Canal. The marines stay on to force the resignation of Zelaya’s successor, Jose Madriz, and the US then instals the pliant Conservative Adolfo Diaz.

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1912 Three thousand marines are sent to Nicaragua to protect the Diaz regime from a peasant rebellion. Having put down the rebellion and executed its leader, the marines withdraw, leaving behind a token guard force. The US then takes control of Nicaraguan finances, to ensure’ healthy profits for United States private banks (to whom a controlling interest in the Nicaraguan Central Bank is transferred). Nicaragua is forced to grant Washington exclusive rights to construct an inter-ocean canal on its territory. The marines stay on until 1925.

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1927 ‘Constitutional War’ in Nicaragua brings renewed US military intervention, leading to the imposition of a pact between the warring factions. Augusto Cesar Sandino, alone among Uberal generals, rejects the terms of the pact and embarks on a guerrilla war. In 5½ years fighting, US forces and their creation, the Nicaraguan National Guard, fail to defeat Sandino’s ‘crazy little army’, despite intensive aerial bombardments and a Vietnam-style strategic hamlets’ programme. In 1933 the US withdraws, having made Anastasio Somoza head of the National Guard. Sandino lays down his arms but the following year he is assassinated, allegedly on the orders of the US ambassador. Somoza and the Guard rule the country until 1979.

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1932 Two US destroyers and a cruiser are sent to Salvadoran waters in support of dictator Maxmiliano Hernandez Martinez after an abortive peasant revolt. As on many other occasions, US ‘moral support’ is enough. Martinez has little difficulty in crushing the uprising, and in massacring upwards of 15-20,000 civilians in the immediate aftermath.

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[image, unknown] 1954 Left-leaning civilian government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala is overthrown in CIA-backed invasion. Col. Castillo Armas’ invasion force was trained and equipped by the USA and the ClAflew bombing raids in US-supplied warplanes to ensure its victory. The Arbenz government had incurred Washington’s wrath by expropriating unused land belonging to the US-owned United Fruit Company and offering compensation in line with the company’s own tax declarations. ‘We had to get rid of a Communist government which had taken over’, said US-President Eisenhower nine years later. (The Communist Party held four out of 56 seats in the legislature). The country has been ruled by the army ever since.

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1966-68 Height of the counter-terror campaign in Guatemala - a two-year period in which roughly 8,000 civilians died at the hands of security forces and associated death squads. Guerrilla forces never numbered more than a few hundred. The counter-insurgency campaign was devised and led by the United States, which put around 1,000 ‘green berets’ (special forces) into the field and supplied sophisticated weaponry (including napalm) along with training to the Guatemalan military. According to Time magazine, the death squads were the brainchild of US military attache Col. John Webber.

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1972 A devastating earthquake hits Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, killing some 20,000 and reducing the city to a chaotic ruin. Only the prompt arrival of 600 US troops, together with forces from other Central American countries, allows the Somoza dictatorship to retain control of public order. The dictator’s private army, the National Guard, goes on a looting spree.

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1981 Several thousand former Nicaraguan National Guards, Central America and the USA, are forged into a counter-revolutionary army to attack the Sandinista government, the product of the popular insurrection of 1978-9 A CIA programme to arm and train these ‘contras’ estimated at $10 million per year is mounted to halt alleged flow of arms to guerrillas in El Salvador. The contras, based principally in neighbouring Honduras, make no secret of their true aim, to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

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THE OUTSIDERS
A brief guide to the activities of four other
foreign powers active in Central America.

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Israeli involvement in Central America encompasses arms supplies, military training and advisers, intelligence assistance and various kinds of trade and economic cooperation agreements. Recipients range from conservative Costa Rica to the military dictatorship of Guatemala, by-passing Nicaragua, which has an anti-Zionist stance and hosts a PLO diplomatic mission.

The Carter embargo on arms sales to human rights violators, imposed in 1977, allowed the Israelis to boost their sales and become the biggest single supplier to Guatemala. Three hundred Israeli military advisers allegedly helped plan the Guatemalan military coup of 1982. Other advisors are widely believed to be in El Salvador and Honduras. Well-placed sources suggest the advice given covers intelligence matters, interrogation and torture.

The Israelis are also passing on PLO weapons, captured in the Lebanon, to US allies in the region. By acting as US proxy and supplying Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries, Israel helps the White House evade congressional restrictions on arms supplies.

As well as earning much-needed foreign exchange for the country, Israeli policy towards Central America wins allies on the diplomatic front and smooths relations with the United States.


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After 20 years of almost total isolation in Latin America, the Cubans now have a firm ally in Nicaragua. They are anxious to ensure the survival of the Sandinista regime. They also have close and historic relations with many other guerrilla organisations in Central America, to whom they have provided aid and a safe haven on many occasions. Whether or not they currently supply weapons to these groups is a matter of controversy. In Salvador for example it is generally admitted that most guerrilla arms are captured from the army or purchased on the international arms market.

Cuban aid to Nicaragua has come in the form of equipment (i.e. for the Literacy Crusade) and volunteer workers, as well as government advisers. More than half of the nearly 6,000 international volunteers in Nicaragua are Cubans: they include teachers, medical personnel and construction workers. About a third, which Washington is loathe to mention are Americans. The US alleges that Cuba has 2,000 military advisers in Nicaragua; the Sandinistas say 200.

Havana has put pressure both on Nicaragua and on the Salvadoran opposition to seek a negotiated settlement of the crisis and backs the Contadora initiative.


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The United States has accused the Soviet Union of coordinating shipments of tons of weapons to guerrillas in El Salvador from other communist countries but has as yet produced no firm evidence.

Soviet arms ore being supplied to Nicaragua but consist largely of defensive equipment such as anti-aircraft weapons. The T-54 and T-55 tanks of which much has been made in the USA are obsolete and pose no real danger to neighbouring countries. Nicaragua says the offer of MiG jets would only be taken up if the treat of invasion were to escalate.

Soviet military advisers in Nicaragua number about 50, the United States says. But the figure is rejected by the Sandinistas.

Because of the USSR’s lack of hard currency, most aid comes in kind (i.e. food) or in credits for the purchase of Soviet goods. Nicaragua has accepted very little of this aid, because of its policy to restrict imports. Just over 20% of foreign aid to Nicaragua comes from the socialist bloc as a whole, compared with 40% from the West.

The USSR has expressed its full backing for the ‘Contadora Group’ initiative. And many experts on soviet foreign policy believe Moscow is anxious to avoid a major international conflict in Central America, which could expose its inability to provide adequate support to its allies


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Like Israel, Argentina has played the role of US proxy in Central America, as well as pursuing its own ideological interests. It helped fill the arms supply gap left by the United States in the late l970s. Argentine military advisers have played a covert part in counter-insurgency work in El Salvador and Guatemala, And army and police officers from both countries have been trained in Argentina, ‘principally in interrogation techniques and repression’, according to a former press officer at the Guatemalan interior ministry.

Its most public commitment is to El Salvador, with which it signed a $15 million economic and technical aid agreement in 1981. In the past the Argentines have offered arms and even troops for counter-insurgency work. Argentina was one of the few countries to send observers to last year’s Salvadoran elections.

The close links between Argentina and US intelligence services were affected adversely by the Falklands (Malvinas) war, but the estrangement was partly for public consumption. Argentine military men continue to work in Central America and are currently involved in the covert war against Nicaragua.


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