Cruicible Of Conflict

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MAKING PEACE [image, unknown] Destabilising Central America

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Crucible of conflict
As the United States increases its military and economic commitments in Central America, the region becomes more volatile. Flora Montealegre explains why.

[image, unknown] THE UNITED STATES has often used military intervention to ‘stabilise’ the politically turbulent countries of Central America This policy has clearly failed. Central America today is torn by popular insurrections due to increasing landlessness. poverty, unemployment and huge income disparities. These are problems that cannot be solved by military force.

Yet the US, slow to learn the lessons of Vietnam and Nicaragua is responding with new aid packages of weapons, equipment and military training, combined with covert operations run by the CIA. The result is increased repression, a rapidly escalating arms race, mounting international tensions and the real threat of a major regional conflict erupting in the near future.

Determined to draw the line against’ communist aggression’ in El Salvador, the Reagan administration has doubled both military and economic assistance to the beleaguered Salvadorean junta, making El Salvador the third largest US aid recipient in the world, surpassed only by Israel and Egypt. US military personnel stationed in El Salvador since July 1981 have trained at least three Salvadorean ‘rapid reaction’ counterinsurgency battalions, established a tactical intelligence school for the Salvadorean army and helped repair and maintain US- supplied helicopters.

External involvement
Central to the Reagan administration’s approach to the El Salvador conflict is the theme of external i.e. Nicaraguan and Cuban involvement. Administration officials speak of ‘going to the source of the problem’ the supposed source being Cuba and its ‘proxy’ Nicaragua, which allegedly serves as an arms conduit to the Salvadorean guerrillas. While some arms may indeed flow into El Salvador through Nicaragua, there is no evidence that the government in Managua is supporting or even condoning arms shipments. Nor is it clear whether any shipments that are flowing are significant in sustaining the fundamentally internal struggle in El Salvador.

Yet the Reagan administration has undertaken a series of punitive actions against Nicaragua It has cut off economic aid: it allows the training of followers of ex-dictator Somoza in Florida, California and Honduras: it has threatened to undertake military actions such as a naval blockade: and it has approved clandestine operations by the CIA in neighbouring Honduras. Last November, News week reported that almost 50 CIA personnel were serving in Honduras and that the team was supplemented by dozens of operatives— including a number of retired military and intelligence officers as well as Argentine military advisers.

While El Salvador and Nicaragua are on the centre stage of US policy towards Central America, Honduras and Guatemala are the twin sideshows. Costa Rica has also become the subject of considerable US interest a largely negative interest, focusing on the role Costa Rica can play in supporting US policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Most US-Guatemala military ties were severed in 1977 at the behest of the Guatemalan government. which rejected aid contingent on its human rights performance. But the Reagan administration has been seeking ways to ‘establish a more constructive relationship with the Guatemalan Government.’ As a first step, General Vernon Walters was sent to Guatemala in early 1981 to express the new administration’s solidarity. Later that year, the administration resumed ‘back-door’ aid to Guatemala including military trucks, jeeps and helicopters after removing them from a list of items that the State Department can clear for shipment only after human rights considerations have been taken into account.

Since the coup of March 1982 which brought Efrain Rios Montt to power, the administration has sought to depict the new government as a clear departure from the oppressors of the past and has approached the US Congress about the sale of spare parts for US-made helicopters and the resumption of military training funds.

Some State Department officials have claimed that military assistance is needed to gain leverage with the Guatemalan government to change its distasteful human rights performance. It should be noted, however, that the level of violence directed against Guatemala’s rural population has increased dramatically since the election of Ronald Reagan and the visits of Walters and other US emissaries: that massacres have continued after the delivery in 1981 of US military vehicles; and that US-supplied helicopters, jeeps and trucks have been used to carry out these massacres. If the goal of US policy is in fact to reduce the incidence of human rights violations, the attempt to ’gain leverage’ with the Guatemalan government by providing military assistance has clearly failed.

Pressure on Costa Rica
Faced with the most severe economic crisis in its history, Costa Rica is also in danger of being drawn into the Central American maelstrom. As the region’s showplace democracy, Costa Rica’s support for US policy in Central America makes this militarily insignificant country the army was abolished over 30 years ago— an important propaganda asset. Moreover, the sharp deterioration of Costa Rican-Nicaraguan relations and the Costa Rican government’s unusually high-pitched denunciations of the ‘Marxist-Leninist offensive in Central America lend credibility to US cries of ’communist aggression’ in the region.

With US assistance, the Costa Rican government is restructuring its entire national security system and stepping up the training and equipping of its security forces. After State Department lawyers ‘reinterpreted’ US laws prohibiting the training of foreign police forces, Costa Rican police received US training and an anti-terrorist brigade was formed. The Reagan administration has also approved a $2 million grant to Costa Rica for ammunition, field equipment. radios, river patrol boats, uniforms and other items.

Threat of war
In light of recent history, the Nicaraguans have responded to the perceived threat of a US-backed counter-revolution by strengthening their own military capabilities. In addition to increasing the number of military personnel about 20.000 Nicaraguans are currently on active duty the Nicaraguan government has acquired several Soviet-built T-54 and T-55 tanks, while France is supplying two fast patrol boats, two helicopters with rockets, a dozen trucks and other military equipment. The Nicaraguan military build-up, while defensively motivated. is a drain on the scarce resources needed to reconstruct the country. Moreover, by using Managua’s military build-up as a rationale for increased militarization in the rest of Central America, the Reagan administration could turn the ‘threat’ of war into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the current levels of militarization and political polarization. US policies run the clear risk of provoking an open bring the regional arms race to a halt, if only it will take immediate steps towards supporting international efforts at mediation and work with all parties to curtail arms flow to the region.

Flora E. Montealegre, a Cosa Rican, is a research associate
at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.

Troops of the pro-Somoza ‘Nicaraguan National Guard’ splash through Florida’s Everglades. Their objective: to overthrow the Sandinistas government of Nicaragua.
Photo: Henning Christoph

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New Internationalist issue 121 magazine cover This article is from the March 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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