The isthmus became formally independent from Spain in 1821. But it has always been pitifully dependent on outside powers, first Spain, then Great Britain, and then the United States. Since the 1899 founding of the United Fruit Company, the US has maintained the region as a sometimes bothersome set of client states dependent on New York financiers and Boston fruit merchants. Washington politicians and the ever-ready Marines have never been far in the background. US Marines landed in Central America to install or prop up some pro-American regime an average of once a year between 1904 and 1924.
In El Salvador, opposition to the despotic, Washington-backed rule of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in 1932 led to an insurrection suppressed by the slaughter of more than 30,000 people. More recently, in Guatemala in 1954 the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup. The US media charged that communists were taking over (four Communist members had been elected to the 56 seat Congress). But more important seemed to be the long-overdue agrarian reform which threatened nationalization of unused United Fruit Company land. In 1961, a short lived liberal civilian-military government was toppled by a US-sanctioned military coup in El Salvador.
These are only the most blatant actions in a continuing pattern of US intervention which has stalled any change in the status quo- no matter how moderate. The political system that Washington underwrites each day perfects more subtle forms of domination: the trade unionist, journalist or academic who disappears in Guatemala city, the peasant family brutally tortured and killed by paramilitary goons in El Salvador, the student leader bribed or intimidated in Honduras.
Government terror is rooted firmly in the longstanding military aid proffered by the US. Between 1950 and 1976 exactly 17,578 Central American military personnel were trained in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone and in the United States itself. In later years they received professional instruction from American Vietnam veterans in counter-insurgency warfare. Today, over 300 El Salvadorean officers are being rushed through emergency courses organized by the Pentagon. In three decades between 1946 and 1976 US military grants and credits to Central America's armed forces totalled more than $180 million. The present turmoil is expected to push military aid through the roof. This year El Salvador alone has received $35 million with $66 million more projected for 1982.
In a more sophisticated approach, the US has tried to derail radical change by influencing the trade union movement. Thousands of Central American trade unionists have been educated by the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD). With US multinational corporate businessmen on its board and money from the US Agency for International Development in its coffers, AIFLD excels at co-opting potential leaders into bureaucratic trade unionists.
In 1954, for example, there were major strikes on US-owned banana plantations in Honduras. Workers wanted higher salaries and legal recognition of their union. When local strikes threatened to mushroom into a nationwide shutdown, the US acted. Working together, AIFLD trade unionists and the American Embassy (some say CIA) organized a 'putsch' of the 'radical' trade union leadership by more 'moderate' elements. The local police assisted by arresting militant leaders. The union survived but it was 20 years before trade unions again could challenge the military dictatorship.
For the United States, Central America's underdevelopment has been profitable. Over 70 per cent of all foreign investment in the region comes from the US. This translates into $2 billion to $3 billion worth of American mines, plantations and factories in the five nations north of Panama.
Florida also soaks up US currency from wealthy Central American elites who maintain their families in second homes at some of Miami's most prestigious addresses.
The heavy hand of US influence relaxed briefly under President Carter. The CIA was tightly leashed and military aid was linked to human rights as the State Department attempted to execute a foreign policy more consistent with espoused American democratic values. During this breathing space the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) successfully launched a popular insurrection in Nicaragua against the Somozo dynasty. Ronald Reagan's foreign policy heralds a return of the US to its interventionist past. Recalling the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s Cold War, Reagan's ideologues claim that today's popular struggles are conceived, directed and armed by the Soviet Union. The underlying causes of the discontent - poverty, inequality and hunger - are ignored Fighting communism is the justification for expanding crucial support to murderous military dictatorships.
According to Ernest Lefever, Reagan's new Assistant Secretary for Human Rights the US must 'choose between the lesser of two evils.' Although the overwhelming majority of the 13,000 killings in El Salvador in the last 12 months have been by the nation's security forces, Jeane Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the UN, remains straight faced when she calls the regime a 'moderately repressive authoritarian government.'
The identification of the Reagan administration with Central America's murderous right-wing is most clear in the case of Guatemala. Long before his election Reagan maintained personal contact with well-known Guatemalan rightists, such as Manuel Ayau and Roberto Alejos Arzu. Ayau is a member of the National Liberation Movement (a creation of the CIA in 1954) and has been repeatedly linked to the death squads. Arzu loaned his ranch to train mercenaries for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He is also head of Amigos del Pais, a pro-government Guatemalan lobby active in Washington. One of the public relations firms defending Guatemala's image in the US is Deaver and Hannaford. Michael Deaver is an assistant chief-of-staff in Reagan's White House. Richard V. Allen, Reagan's national security advisor and staffer Roger Fontaine both within Reagan's inner circle of top policy advisors are pushing for renewed aid to Guatemala.
Aid was cut by President Carter due to human rights violations. Nevertheless military aid is about to be resumed, despite recent allegations by Amnesty International that President General Romeo Lucas Garcia is directly involved with the right-wing death squads.
Since Lucas Garcia assumed office over 3,000 people have been killed and a further 600 arrested and presumed dead. Amnesty notes that Major Hector Montalan, head of Lucas' general staff, selects assassination targets and operates out of an annex to the Presidential Palace. Former vice president Francisco Villagran Kramer, who fled Guatemala last year, confirms Amnesty's reports.
Less than two months after taking office Secretary of State Alexander Haig drastically re-vamped US policy in El Salvador. American ambassador Robert White was said to be too interested in human rights and was unceremoniously cashiered. Ignoring the pending investigation into the rape and murder of four American missionaries, military aid has been quadrupled and 15 Green Berets sent in as military advisors. In addition, aid and food sales to Nicaragua have been cut and Cuba has been threatened with a naval blockade.
The Reagan administration appears desperate to smother any real economic and social reforms in Central America. But it is no longer as easy as despatching a few thousand Marines. The world is a more complicated place and - after Vietnam - a wiser one. American arms and aid to the region's dictators will add to a growing pile of peasant corpses. But it will do nothing to blunt the drive for change.
Tim Draimin lived in Central America from 1976-79 and is editor of Central America Update.