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Human Rights
United States

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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] Washington's war effort

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[image, unknown] Wayne Ellwood
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Wayne Ellwood

Force of Arms

The interests of the US and the West are at stake in
Central America, according to President Ronald Reagan.
Wayne Ellwood
looks at what lies behind the rhetoric.

ANTONIO OROSCO has never read Karl Marx and he wouldn’t know a copy of the Communist Manifesto if it fell into his lap. In fact, until 18 months ago Antonio couldn’t even sign his name. Now, in the manner of someone used to a rough wooden hoe handle and the rhythmic swing of the machete, he can trace an awkward scrawl across a scrap of lined paper. He can also read the stencilled words on the side of a fertilizer bag and slowly sound out phrases in the government health manual. Words like nutrition and sanitation are still new and strange-sounding.

The world of words is mostly uncharted territory for Antonio and his brother Francisco. They feel more comfortable under the hot Nicaraguan sun, breaking up clods of stoney earth with a worn steel hoe and severing the clinging roots of stubborn weeds. Under the steady thudding of the hoes the fields have prospered, Corn, beans, yucca, tomatoes, melons and onions flush the undulating hillsides with green: the maize especially stands tall, the coarse leaves flapping in the light breeze and the kernels plumping with the recent rains.

Antonio and Francisco are farmers and proud of it, They are also proud of their country’s revolution and more than a little worried that the distant fighting on their country’s border with neighbouring Honduras will bring the killing, the fear and the hunger that was so much part of their lives only five years ago.

‘Before the revolution,’ says Antonio stopping to sweep the horizon with his right hand, ‘all this land served one man, a millionaire.

We were farmers without land. Now it is serving 50 families. Before everything went to the rich. Now we are masters of the land, we are no longer hungry.

Before the 1979 revolution Nicaragua was one of Central America’s hungriest countries. It was in fact a textbook example of the old-style Latin American dictatorship. One man, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. his family and his favoured friends ran the country like a personal fiefdom. Somoza himself owned nearly a fifth of the country’s arable land. In all, almost half the land was owned by less than one per cent of the population. Peasants like Antonio and Francisco were left out in the cold, Somoza backed up his privilege with force. The National Guard operated as the President’s private army, a band of killers and torturers whose name still inspires a deep-seated hatred amongst Nicaragua’s three million people. Nearly 50.000 died during the country’s battle to purge the dictator. Nicaraguans are still dying at the hands of the National Guard. Former Guard stalwarts, men like Hugo Villagra Gutierrez. Emilio Echeverria Mejia and Armando Lopez Ibarguen. head up the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces (FDN), attempting to over-throw the present Sandinista government from their bases inside Honduras.

It’s no longer a secret that the United States is arming, training and funding the FDN and other armed groups. Democratic Congressman Edward Boland, head of the US House Committee that decides on CIA funding, first broke the new of Washington’s covert war against the Sandinistas in 1982. The New York Times says the CIA actions in Central America are the largest since Vietnam; there are a reported 8-10,000 of these mercenaries operating along the Honduran border. The CIA has asked for $80 million to bankroll an expanded army of 15-20,000 in 1984. Cross-border raids on Nicaraguan peasants and CIA-backed air strikes on Managua have thrown the country into a war alert. Ordinary Nicaraguans wonder just what it is that President Reagan and his advisors have against them and their government.

Unlike Antonio and Francisco, Ronald Reagan is no stranger to the world of words. His supporters call him the ‘great communicator’; you only have to see him, jaw set and steely eyes glinting at the camera to appreciate his actor’s training and familiarity with a well-written script. According to Mr. Reagan’s world view, Nicaragua is the fount of revolution in Central America, a Marxist puppet-state intent on destabilizing the region and smothering democracy with the dark cloak of totalitarianism. ‘Violence,’ the President declared, ‘has been Nicaragua’s most important export to the world.’

Mr Reagan’s reference is to Nicaragua’s alleged role as the main conduit for arms supplies to the guerrilla forces in El Salvador. The Sandinistas, he said, ‘are doing everything they can to bring down the elected government of El Salvador.’ This kind of blunt charge from Washington has turned Central America into a global flash-point.

The Sandinistas don’t deny which side they are rooting for in El Salvador. But they have sworn up and down that if arms are slipping through Nicaraguan territory, they know nothing about it. Washington also says Nicaragua is crawling with 1200 Cuban military advisors, 6000 Cuban troops and 6-7,000 Eastern-bloc personnel. The Nicaraguans admit there are 200 Cuban advisors and thousands of foreign doctors, teachers and technical assistants - at least 3,000 from North America.

In fact, the US has yet to produce any hard evidence of arms shipments through Nicaragua. According to Senator David Duremberg, a member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in 18 months of covert action CIA-supported forces failed to intercept any arms shipment to Salvadoran guerrillas. But if arms shipments aren’t really the problem, just what is the US up to in Nicaragua?


Marines and gunboats

A little history might help clear the air: the US is no outsider in the world of Central American politics. Washington has sent in the marines and the gunboats nearly 40 times this century - the last time in 1965 when President Johnson dispatched some 20,000 American troops to the Dominican Republic. Nicaragua itself was invaded by US marines in 1909, 1912 and 1926. One legacy of the 1926 invasion was the National Guard - a force created by the Americans to take the place of the occupying marines. The Guard’s head, also appointed by Washington, was Anastasio Somoza Garcia - the first member of the Somoza dynasty.

The justifications for US meddling in the internal affairs of Central American nations were the same in the 1920s as today: to protect democracy, to help friendly governments, to keep out alien influence, to safeguard American investment and to protect the Panama Canal. In 1927 US Under Secretary of State Robert Olds wrote:

‘The Central American area down to and including the isthmus of Panama constitutes a legitimate sphere of influence for the United States. . . We do control the destinies of Central America and mine do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course.

Fifty-six years later the level of rhetoric has hardly shifted. In April, 1983 President Reagan stressed that ‘the national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America. If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble and the safety of our homeland would be put in jeopardy.’

But when the rhetorical spell wears off and the glow of the TV tube fades, President Reagan’s recipe for building ‘independence and freedom’ in Central America is perversely warlike, Two US naval fleets, including the USS Ranger carrying 70 warplanes, are sent to cruise the coasts of Nicaragua. Honduras, wedged strategically between El Salvador and Nicaragua, is turned into a regional command centre for the battle against Salvadoran guerrillas and the Sandinistas. Landing strips, roads, a radar station and a new military training centre have been built inn recent months. Furtive CIA men, veteran green berets’, army trainers and US Embassy personnel are now conspicuous figures on the streets of the capital. Tegucigalpa.

Next door in Guatemala the army continues its trail of slaughter. Counterinsurgency drives to destroy an estimated 4-5,000 guerrillas have turned the Guatemalan countryside into a human abattoir. Support for the guerrillas amongst the majority Indian population is increasing: and no wonder. Former President Efrain Rios Montt put it bluntly (perhaps too bluntly) before he was deposed last summer: ‘Of the seven and a half million people in the country,’ Montt said, ‘three million do not earn even a subsistence salary, another two and a half million barely make enough to survive.’

While international human rights organizations denounce Guatemala’s ‘massive and unspeakable human rights violations’, a lightening visit by President Reagan in late 1982 prompted him to declare that Guatemala had got ‘a bum deal’. Military aid, vetoed by the Carter administration, was resumed. American-made Huey helicopters outfitted with machine guns, phosphorous bombs and napalm are the Army’s main means of ‘pacifying’ the scattered Indian communities. Presumably, this is part of President Reagan’s goal of supporting ‘democracy, reform and human freedom’ in Central America.

But it is El Salvador, named after Christ, ‘the Saviour’, that most agitates Ronald Reagan and is the cornerstone of his Central America policy. A postage-stamp size country with a population of five million, ten years ago El Salvador was known (if at all) for its volcanoes and its coffee. It is now the potential site of the biggest US foreign policy gaffe since Vietnam. The US has poured nearly a billion dollars into the country over the last four years - 5140,000 for each of the estimated 17,000 guerrillas.


Pushed off the land

Like the rest of Central America, El Salvador is a country where the global tug-of-war between the super powers is a meaningless pantomime. Salvador’s peasants, pushed off their ancestral land by the coffee estates, despised as la chusma (the rabble) by the coffee-growing elite, and trapped inn a cycle of disease and powerlessness, know only that any attempt to change their lot has been crushed. In the Army’s war against the FMLN guerrillas close to 40,000 people have been killed, 90 per cent of them civilian non-combatants murdered by soldiers and paramilitary death squads, according to Amnesty International.

The guerrillas and their political arm the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) did not just pop out of the wordwork. And contrary to the US view, they are not mindless automatons manipulated by Moscow. Yes, there are Marxists in the FDR coalition as there are in the French Socialist Party, the British Labour Party and the Canadian New Democratic Party. But there are also Christian Democrats. Social Democrats, the National Association of Teachers, the Association of Professionals and Technicians, the Federation of Christian Campesinos and the Association of Slum Dwellers. Former American Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White said the opposition represents 80 per cent of Salvadorans. However, in Washington they are all painted with the same communist brush.

As George Black writes later in this issue Salvador’s moderate democratic centre has been systematically attacked by the military, hounded into exile and driven into unity with the left by the oligarchy’s paranoid reluctance to admit the slightest social reforms.

Washington’s proof that ‘democracy is beginning to take root in El Salvador’ is Robert D’Abuisson. Once described by the US Embassy as a ‘pathological killer’ and implicated in the murder of the country’s outspoken Archbishop Oscar Romero, D’Abuisson’s 1982 election triumph was trumpetted as democracy in action. A strange sort of democracy when the FDR opposition was threatened with death by the Army if they participated, when not voting is against the law and considered treason and when a written record of all voters and their ballot choice was carefully compiled at each polling booth.

Continued American aid to El Salvador has become a point of principle with the Reagan administration. So much so that the 1,000 a peasants a month murdered by the Salvadoran military are brushed aside in the President’s attempts to certify human rights improvements’ and a continuous supply of weapons and Army advisors. Atrocities committed in the name of freedom in El Salvador are now common place. Headless, mutilated bodies, suspected guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers are routinely collected from the streets of San Salvador in the early morning. In March, 1983 a delegation from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee reported:

‘...we saw photos of men and women beheaded and split like sheep; lie heard relatives tell of the death and mutilation of a 75-year old man; heard a Colonel admit without shame that he napalmed his countrymen ...we heard the President admit he has no power mine heard the military tell us repression is essential; and we heard it all justified in the name of anti - communism amid nothing more.

The war goes on and the murders continue amidst the ebb and flow of press coverage on Central America. The armaments pipeline runs straight from American munitions factories to the Salvadoran troops: the mortars, the M-1 6 automatic rifles, the A-37 fighters, the Cessna Skymasters. the Huey helicopters. Mr Reagan has yet to commit American troops to El Salvador; the Vietnam analogy is studiously avoided by the White House.

Yet the President has indicated he is not about to lose Central America. The region is a quagmire and the slightest upset could push America into it neck-deep.

A negotiated settlement to the Salvadoran civil war and the Nicaraguan conflict is still possible. The FMLN and the Sandinistas, supported by the ‘Contadora’ peace group (Panama, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela) are keen to talk peace. Yet, the White House closes its ears. And the guns keep firing. The roots of revolution, the poverty, the hunger, the brutal repression, arc obscured in an anti-communist witch-hunt. An exasperated Tomas Borge, Nicaragua’s Minister of the Interior, can only shake his head. ‘What does the East/West conflict have to do with gastroenteritis, illiteracy and genocide of repressive military rulers?’, he asks.

Like Borge, his fellow countryman Antonio Orosco is puzzled by Ronald Reagan’s obsession with countries that don’t march lockstep to the tune that America whistles. Will the US. like the Soviets in Afghanistan. intervene directly to keep maintain unruly, independent-minded countries in their ‘sphere of influence’? Antonio Orosco furrows his brow and wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. ‘President Reagan should come here to see.’ he says. ‘We are not communists, we don’t have totalitarianism, here we are trying to have real democracy and just the right for all to gain a little life.’

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