This past summer I received a letter from Henry Kissinger. It’s not that often he writes to me, and although 200 others received similar letters, I was flattered that he took the time to ask. He wanted to know what his new National Bipartisan Commission appointed by President Reagan should do about Central America. What role should the US play in the economic development of the region?
My first response was to wonder why he took so long to ask? Ten years ago would have been ideal. An earthquake had virtually destroyed Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. The US Agency for International Development (AID) then under Dr Kissinger’s direction was channelling disaster relief and development support through the Somoza government. However, one disaster soon led to another as Somoza and his family used most of the aid to line their own pockets.
Many of us with experience in the region could have warned him, but neither he nor any commission was soliciting advice in those days. With pro-American dictators firmly in charge, Central America was really no cause for concern. Three years earlier, I had been working with a rural cooperative in Nicaragua run by a government agency and financed by AID. The program’s objective was to bring electricity to much of the countryside. But the result was something quite different a service only the wealthy could afford and an expansion of large landholdings at the expense of poor farmers to take advantage of irrigation schemes made possible by this new energy. Even then, this kind of aid was widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in Nicaragua - laying a firm foundation for the popular uprising that followed.
Unfortunately, the Kissinger Commission is not interested in history. In fact from the focus of the Commission you would assume the United States played no role in Central America before 1979. From a political point of view this is understandable.
The President hired Dr. Kissinger with very specific politicol objectives in mind. How else to explain the establishment of a Commission on the future of Central America while the United States is underwriting at least two wars in the region?
President Reagan’s use of the Kissinger Commission to build a consensus for his policies and to divert attention from increasing military involvement in Central America is troubling. But at least it is a predictable strategy. What is more disturbing is the willingness of Reagan’s critics in Congress not only to support the Commission but also to promote increased aid as a remedy for the region’s ills. After so much aid has achieved so little in Central America over the past 20 years, it would seem reasonable to ask first, ‘what kind of aid works and what doesn’t?’
One thing we should have learned is that aiding governments that don’t represent the poor is a sure way of making things worse rather than better. In countries like Guatemala and El Salvador public agencies under the government’s thumb lost the confidence of the poor long ago. They inspire no trust in peasant communities and often undermine self-help efforts already begun.
Rather than study the links between US aid and political instability in Central America, Congressional critics denounce increased military aid while blindly supporting more economic aid.
The amount of development aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has increased dramatically in the past few years. Virtually all this aid has been consumed by governments which even the Reagan Administration must go to great lengths to paint as fledgling democracies. And the majority of these funds are now used for balance of payments support rather than directly for development projects.
In the United States, as in most Western countries, there is an enormous gap between the realities of Third World poverty and the perceptions held by most policymakers. The aid debate in Washington focuses on questions like ‘macroeconomic policy’. ‘geopolitics’ and human rights. It virtually ignores the things that make aid successful.
So liberal members of Congress have little problem supporting the President’s $30 million Caribbean Basin Initiative, a package of economic aid and liberalized trade approved by Congress in 1983. They continue to believe that more aid to the governments of El Salvador and Honduras will somehow help the poor in those countries.
And that liberalized trade will help peasants pull themselves up by their bootstraps - rather than primarily benefitting the operation of American corporations in the region.
Both Democrats and Republicans now back economic support for a Honduran government which, like its predecessors, pays only lip service to the concerns of the poor. But in Honduras there is still time to do something. The country’s labour and peasant movements are among the strongest in the region. They include popular organisations that are capable of carrying out development projects and laying the basis for peaceful, structural change. These institutions, rather than the agencies of their government, are the logical candidates for aid.
But it may soon be too late. US arms are turning the country into a military camp. The political killings of labour leaders, so common elsewhere in Central America, have already begun. And the prospects for peaceful development and change are rapidly dying with them.
Traditional supporters of economic aid continue to believe that governments like that in Honduras use aid to help the poor. And then when the tinder box they helped create explodes, they will hide behind Commissions that study the future. But until they study the past, they will not understand the present.