Events over the last two years have not been all bad for the United States in Latin America. Honduras held its second free election in a row, and the elected Liberal party took power even though the armed forces preferred its opponents. The horrid government of Guatemala was replaced by that of a twice-born Christian, Ríos Montt, who seems to want to do better. Significant figures associated with the Nicaraguan revolution have now openly split with the Sandinistas. An outstanding democrat has been elected the head of financially troubled Costa Rica. Democratic elections were held successfully in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Miguel de la Madrid, the new President of Mexico, the most important country in the region, seems to be relatively pro-American. The election in El Salvador surprised almost everyone with its tremendous outpouring of votes in a clear rejection of the guerrillas that greatly increased the legitimacy of the government we have been supporting.

However, major opportunities have been missed in Latin America and important mistakes made since January 20, 1981, when the Reagan administration became responsible for foreign policy. To appreciate the increased dangers resulting from the administration’s failures in Latin America it is necessary to examine some of the main arenas individually.




In 1979 a broad-based coalition of democratic groups in Nicaragua joined with the Sandinista party (FSLN), headed by a directorate composed of nine Marxist-Leninists, in an armed revolt against the latest member of the Somoza dynasty. The rebels had outside support not only from Cuba but from democratic Latin American countries like Venezuela and Costa Rica.

Nicaragua turned out to be a replay of Cuba twenty years later. In both cases Communists disguised themselves to get democratic support, and then turned against their democratic allies to make totalitarian “revolutions from above.” Despite persistent assertions to the contrary, in neither case did the U.S. have the slightest chance of avoiding the enmity of the revolutionary leaders.

The United States had for many years accepted the Somoza dynasty, and provided some economic and military assistance to it. As the revolt grew, the Carter administration at first put pressure on Anastasio Somoza which led him to liberalize his regime slightly, then attempted to put together a Latin American peace force to take over from Somoza, and finally joined in the call by the Organization of American States (OAS) for Somoza to step down, which he did.

As soon as Somoza was gone a one-sided conflict began. The Sandinista Directorate, led by Tomás Borge and the Ortega brothers, gradually excluded from power all the other elements in the revolutionary coalition that had defeated Somoza: the Church, the unions, the newspaper La Prensa, most of the business community, political parties, the Latin American democracies, and so forth.

The Sandinistas, of course, received massive help from Cuba, East Germany, the PLO, and other members of the Communist system of alliances. In addition to thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers, who came to combine good works with political help to the FSLN and with Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, more than 2,000 others arrived to help organize and staff the Sandinista system of control: the security police, regular police, army, militia, block committees, etc.

In a country of only 2½ million people, several thousand foreign experts in the use of force and political control are an overwhelming presence. The U.S. has never put so many people into any foreign country, of any size, except during wars.

The Sandinistas went about the business of taking power from the top with a good deal of shrewdness and caution. They knew that because of the $3 billion a year the Soviet Union has committed to Cuba they could not get enough financial aid from the East. So they decided to seek it from the West by signaling their desire to work “realistically” with foreign businessmen, and by downplaying their ideological commitments. This strategy succeeded. Western businessmen, banks, and international financial institutions provided many hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sandinista-controlled government in its first few years.

As for the Carter administration, it provided more aid to the Sandinistas in one year than the Somozas had received in the preceding twenty. It virtually ignored the flagrant violations by the Sandinistas of their written commitments to the OAS to hold prompt, free elections and to maintain democratic pluralism. Virtually no help or even recognition was given to the various independent political and social forces struggling to survive by any outside country or organization, except the American labor movement.

By the time Reagan took office the nature of the Sandinista regime had become set, and there was plenty of evidence to show what that nature was. The so-called “72-Hour Document” had already been available for over a year. This extraordinary document contained the presentation by the Sandinista Directorate to a special three-day assembly of the FSLN cadre on September 21-23, 1979. In it the Sandinistas spoke of their determination to exclude from power their democratic “tactical” allies and to hold power for themselves, to be part of the camp led by the Soviet Union against the “imperialists” led by the U.S., and to expand the Nicaraguan military. In short, the document made clear the Directorate’s determination to create a militarized totalitarian Marxist-Leninist regime as quickly as possible.

By January 1981 the Sandinista seizure of power from its revolutionary partners was all but complete. Alfonso Robelo and Violetta Chamorro had resigned from the junta. All the programs described in the “72-Hour Document” were well under way. While independent groups survived, they were much weakened and almost completely shut off from influence. The instruments of power, now greatly developed, were firmly in Sandinista hands.

The face of a spreading Nicaraguan totalitarianism was described in March 1981 (in the Washington Post) by Josè Esteban Gonzalez, a much respected figure who had organized the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission for Human Rights in 1977 to protest Somoza’s abuses, and who now heads the Nicaraguan Committee for Human Rights from exile:

What has happened in Nicaragua is very grim. There have been massacres of political prisoners. I myself with other members of the Human Rights Commission examined mass graves on two different sites near the city of Grenada in October 1979 and March 1980. Other persons in whose truthfulness I have full confidence have witnessed similar evidence at other sites—and even those who are still in Nicaragua will so testify. These killings cannot be dismissed as rash acts of post-revolutionary anger. They have continued for over two years—some occurred within the past few months.

The official number of political prisoners in Nicaragua now stands at 4,200—higher than the highest figure ever registered under Somoza. There have been hundreds of disappearances—although the government never responds to inquiries about such persons.

President Reagan, as was required by law, terminated the program of U.S. aid for Nicaragua which President Carter had already suspended because of the Nicaraguan support for the guerrillas in El Salvador. (Our direct aid was anyway small compared with that which we had the power to stop but which continued flowing from the West’s international financial institutions.)

But the Reagan administration has done virtually nothing to expose the campaign by the Sandinista leadership against its democratic partners. Nor has the administration made it clear—against the common notion in the U.S. and Europe that the Sandinistas are forced, as Castro was, to take harsh measures because of irrational American hostility to their regime—that the Sandinistas reneged on their commitment to pluralism long before Reagan entered office (and long before we began giving covert support to military action against Nicaragua from Honduras). The administration does not, in fact, seem to have any interest in or concern about democratic practice in Nicaragua.



By attending only to the Sandinistas’ actions outside the country and their Cuba-Soviet connections, the Reagan administration has made it harder for the truth to be known about what is happening inside Nicaragua. The result is that by the time the real nature of the Sandinista regime is generally recognized, it may be too late, on both the internal and the external fronts. The independent political forces in Nicaragua that earlier might have had the effect of reducing the Sandinistas’ outward threat may be too nearly destroyed, and the building of the huge new Nicaraguan army may be completed.

By January 1981 much work had been done on the Sandinistas’ program to develop a 50,000-man army with modern tanks and jet fighters. This army, which had been planned and publicly announced by the spring of 1980 (although it is often said that it came about as a response to Reagan policy), is completely out of scale with any Central American army that has ever existed, and will dominate the local military scene.

This new Nicaraguan army, it is said, presents no problem because it is no threat to the U.S.; because nations do not invade their neighbors any more; or because the certainty of a U.S. response to a blatant Nicaraguan invasion of Honduras or El Salvador acts as an infallible deterrent. But what a rich store of examples, from just the last fifty years, can be adduced to show how totalitarian aggression can combine the threat of military force with propaganda, diplomacy, and the manipulation of domestic groups and of just grievances to achieve victory without invasion, or with invasion only by “volunteers” or as the last stage of a process that prevents any feasible resistance at the end.

Ultimately, a Latin American leader who is confronted by an army which seems willing to march, and that he does not have the military force to defend against, cannot be expected to resist the demands that army is supporting if he does not see where the military force he would need to stop the threatening army will come from in time. If there is division in his country he will be less capable of resisting. If the initial demands are modest he will be less capable still. The word appeasement may no longer serve as a proud label, but the policy is quickly reinvented.

The task for the U.S. is to reassure Nicaragua’s neighbors that it is not the better part of prudence to accept the “guidance” of the Sandinistas. But to convince these neighbors we need to display an understanding of the situation ourselves. When the Reagan State Department finally began to pay serious attention to Nicaragua it focused mostly on Nicaragua’s role in supplying weapons and other assistance to the guerrillas in El Salvador. The idea then seemed to be to negotiate a deal with the Sandinistas by which they would refrain from helping to supply arms to the Salvadoran insurgency and we in return would not challenge their internal behavior; in a word, a local détente. Fortunately this approach was at least temporarily aborted, in part because it evoked strong protests from Venezuela and elsewhere. Yet it still holds some appeal for those in charge of the administration’s Latin American policy—despite the warnings brought to us by Eden Pastora, Robelo, Cruz, the Chamorros, and other democratic Nicaraguan revolutionaries who have learned the hard way.

People around the world, friends and enemies, used to assume almost as a law of nature that, although the U.S. might make mistakes, we could not be defeated and would not let ouselves be humiliated or shown to be negligent or incapable of defending our interests or our word. Certainly we would not let Communism expand in our own neighborhood. But how many, even in our own country, where the very idea of American indomitability inspires shame in the hearts of editorialists and foreign-policy specialists, are confident of this today?

Of course we might give firm guarantees of protection against any Nicaraguan invasion. But like the British guarantees to Poland in 1939, that would be a desperate act. How, then, do we propose to prevent Central America from becoming, over the next few years, as Communist as Eastern Europe, and by a similar process?



El Salvador

When the Reagan administration took office, a “final offensive” against the Revolutionary Governing Junta (JRG) had just fizzled.

The JRG was a year-old partnership between the new army of El Salvador—after the coup of October 1979, two-thirds of the senior officers had been thrown out and replaced by a reformist consensus—and the Christian Democratic party (PDC), the traditional major left-wing opposition party in El Salvador, led by José Napoleon Duarte. The previous spring this partnership, with help and urging from the U.S., had enacted a wide-ranging set of drastic economic and social reforms. Subsequently, however, five extreme Left groups had come together (with the help of Fidel Castro) to form a new guerrilla organization, the FMLN, and to build up an international coalition of political supporters arid military suppliers. The FMLN created a political front (FDR) to represent it and succeeded in persuading a number of prominent non-Communists to take part.

The basic political fact in El Salvador is that the new leadership of the army, men in their late thirties and early forties, made a general commitment to the body of reforms described in their Revolutionary Proclamation of October 1979 and enacted by the JRG. They had decided that the old system of army domination of politics, in unexpressed partnership with a largely landed oligarchy, should be terminated, and that the army had to become completely professional. Despite all the pressures from Left and Right, internal and external; despite (or because of) the war; and despite normal rivalries, this new army leadership has remained stable.

What is more, the main themes of the October 1979 proclamation have been acted on: free elections, economic and social reforms, peace with Honduras, and the taking of steps to end political killings by security forces. For all this the army has received credit only from the mass of Salvadorans, who in March of this year overcame threats and obstacles to come to the polls in unprecedented numbers to demonstrate the potency of the appeal of free elections and to support the army against the guerrillas who urged them to stay home or to cast null ballots.

Most analyses of the political situation in El Salvador overlook the fact that few civilians there know how to conduct themselves in a democratic environment. With the partial exception of the army, most Salvadorans have little sense of the techniques of compromise, or of what a loyal opposition is, or of how personal or ideological rivals can unite within the system against an enemy deadly to all. The Salvadoran way is to politicize or personalize everything, even during a war. In the period before the March 1982 elections, the Christian Democratic party (PDC) remained so consumed by its historic antagonism to the army that even after two years of partnership it was unable to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Therefore, in spite of the fact that the people clearly favored the army, the PDC campaigned in part against it.

Another source of misunderstanding concerns the political significance of the brutality seen in responding to the guerrilla threat. Some of the atrocity stories are true, but many others are exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth, and very often the connection between the individuals who carry out an atrocity and the army is tenuous or nonexistent. Crimes committed by men who used to be in the army or in the security forces, or by village “self-defense forces,” or by an individual officer acting on his own, are all charged to the army’s account. In some cases this is fair, but often the charge of army responsibility is not justified.

The reduction of political killings by the security forces has been obscured by the great increase in killings by all parties in connection with the guerrilla war, which was raised to a much higher level after the FMLN was created in 1980. In this connection it is a mistake to believe that the record of atrocities and brutality shows that the army is unpopular in El Salvador, or that the peasants must identify with the victims. In El Salvador most people, whether Left or Right, civilian or military, are not particularly troubled by the lack of restraint of their own side. Depending on their own sympathies, most tend to blame either the guerrillas or the army for all the deaths.

Among army officers themselves there is a wide range of opinion on issues of economic and social policy—issues which most want to leave to civilians anyway—and also a wide range of attitudes on human rights; but there is little correlation between these two sets of views. Some “radical” officers are brutal and some “conservative” officers are humane, and vice versa. It would be a mistake to conclude from the record of atrocities in the guerrilla war that power in the army resides with the opponents of reform—or that replacing the present army-oriented government with some other group would be likely to change things for the better. Despite the exclusive stress in the U.S. on the need to control the Salvadoran army, it remains true that the quickest and most effective way to stop all the killings associated with the guerrilla war is for the guerrillas themselves to stop the war.



The Reagan administration’s failures in El Salvador have been both political and military, but there may be a greater chance to save the situation there than in Nicaragua. The military mistakes began in the spring of 1981, when the State Department decided that the initial assignment of 57 U.S. military trainers to El Salvador should be treated as a firm upper limit on U.S. military participation. For most of the time since then, there have been fewer than 57 American soldiers in El Salvador, a fact about which the administration has boasted. But if what we are doing in El Salvador is right and important, why should we limit ourselves to 57 men? The administration has not asked itself whether it is doing enough to prevent the Communist-aided guerrillas from defeating the elected reform government of El Salvador, or whether small increases in the equipment, training, and support we provide might not make a real difference.

In fact, more effective help from the U.S. during the past eighteen months (and at a much lower level than the foreign assistance that has been given to Nicaragua) could almost certainly have produced a more favorable military situation in El Salvador, possibly even a military victory. The same modest increase in U.S. military aid now might not be nearly so effective—in part because of the new Nicaraguan army. In many situations the prudent response is to delay; in El Salvador, however, the decision to refrain from vigorously pursuing victory when it was achievable was the opposite of prudent.

The administration also failed to give adequate political support to the revolutionary government. It was very slow to recognize that the new army leadership in El Salvador had committed itself to a civilian reform government based on free elections. Instead, in presenting its case to Congress and the public, the administration followed the strategy of crediting Duarte and the Christian Democratic party with everything good that happened in El Salvador, and deprecating, or distancing itself from, the army—even though the army was the originator of the Salvadoran revolution and was a full partner of the Christian Democrats.

This strategy had important costs. Since it was clear that the army was a weightier element in the political equation than Duarte, placing all our bets on Duarte’s ability to control the army was seen to be delusory. On the other hand, the strategy encouraged Duarte and the PDC to claim credit for the reforms and to blame the army for atrocities. When opponents of Duarte won a majority in the elected Constituent Assembly, the U.S. was left hanging in the air.

Now the Reagan administration is inhibited from making the case for the Salvadoran army in Congress and abroad—a case which is intrinsically very strong—by its record of talking as if Duarte and the PDC were the only “white hats” in El Salvador. In this way it lost the political opportunity created by the dramatic election of March.




Reagan’s term in office began after José Lopez Portillo’s term as president of Mexico was two-thirds over. Lopez Portillo was understood to be a business-oriented economist and as sympathetic to the U.S. as could be expected of a Mexican president.

It was less well understood here that López Portillo had changed Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of verbal support for Cuba and the extreme Left in the region to an active program of cooperation and coordination with Castro. Anyone who pointed to this shift in Mexican behavior was reminded that Mexican rhetoric always took a tone antagonistic to the U.S., and anyway this was no more than the United States deserved as a rich superpower that had done Mexico dirt in the past and in some ways was still doing so. These lectures usually offered a sophisticated interpretation of the internal mechanisms of the governing Mexican party, the PRI, whose left wing was supposedly being bought off with foreign-policy rhetoric while the business interests who were the real power in the party decided the overridingly important economic issues. Besides, it was said, Mexico had had its bloody revolution in the past, and was thoroughly inoculated against a recurrence; it had a strong middle class with a stake in the system and too tough a character to let itself be taken over by the extreme Left. Mexicans knew Communists were not really a danger because if worse came to worst, the Americans would anyway step in to prevent them from coming to power.

While it was being elegantly demonstrated that Mexican foreign policy was not what it seemed to be, and with little notice being taken in the U.S. State Department or the White House, López Portillo had shifted from talk to a practical cooperative relationship with Cuba. The first Mexican action concerned Nicaragua, and was a decisive rejection of the Carter proposal that Anastasio Somoza be replaced by an inter-American peace force, which would have prevented the Sandinista revolution from taking place. Then, as soon as Somoza was replaced by the Sandinistas, Mexico insisted that no foreign country (i.e., the U.S.) had the right to influence developments in Nicaragua in any way. Mexico opposed any attempt to use the massive Western economic aid as a means of encouraging the Sandinistas to fulfill their promises of elections and a democratic political system. It explicitly endorsed the immense Cuban presence, which it said did not constitute foreign interference.

In El Salvador, Mexico’s support for the extreme Left guerrillas (FMLN) was early, consistent, and extensive. The government-in-exile established by the FMLN openly operated out of Mexico. Mexico allowed a clandestine use of its territory for transshipment of military supplies. The PRI donated money to support the FMLN, and, with France, sponsored an initiative to recognize the FMLN/FDR as a legitimate “political entity.” (This was so blatantly out of order that it stimulated many other Latin American countries, including Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, to come out in support of the Salvadoran government.)

Mexican support for the FMLN was critical in enabling France, the Socialist International, and many political figures in the United States to accept the perspective on El Salvador put forth by the FDR for the guerrillas. In the American and European discussion, Mexico was cited as an objective and informed source; at one point 100 Congressmen urged the State Department to pay greater heed to the Mexican initiative (this, while the OAS was voting by margins of 19-3 and 22-0 against the Mexican approach). Finally, in the summer of 1980 López Portillo reportedly promised Castro that when the planned final offensive in El Salvador was carried out the following January, the Mexican army would conduct maneuvers near the Guatemalan border to discourage the Guatemalan army from interfering. (The maneuvers were carried out as promised, but by then the situation had changed.)

Finally, Mexico was responsible for the estabment of COPPAL, an organization of Latin American political parties that excludes all Christian Democratic parties—supposedly because they are dominated from the outside—but does not exclude the Sandinistas. The purpose of COPPAL is to increase Mexican influence in Latin American politics; its effect is to split the democratic Left and Center and thus to increase the danger of polarization or takeover by Cuban-influenced extreme Left parties.



The U.S. has several kinds of interests in Mexico. First there are the normal economic interests—oil, migrant labor and emigration, and other practical issues of trade. But aside from these the United States has a serious interest (in common with almost all Mexicans) in Mexico’s stability, in the avoidance of a bloody internal war and of a takeover either by a brutal right-wing regime or by a totalitarian group like the Sandinista Directorate. In line with this, it is also in our interest that Mexico not extend help to Castro and other extreme Left forces in the area—indeed, that Mexico work against such forces, as Venezuela and Colombia sometimes do, either independently or in cooperation with us.

Our ability to influence Mexico during the recent period has undergone substantial changes. When Reagan took office Mexico’s huge and growing oil capacity immensely strengthened the country’s hand; everyone thought that oil would forever be a sellers’ market. This perception was wrong at the time, but it took another year before it was widely recognized to be wrong, and even today few people realize that the buyers’ market is likely to last a long time. Meanwhile the head of the Mexican oil company lost his job when he dared to reduce the price by $4 a barrel in order to sell the stuff. A few months later his successor, who restored the old price upon taking office, had to lower it again. Now many informed Mexicans would like to arrange for the U.S. to buy more of their oil without breaking the price, thus making it possible to earn an extra $5 or $10 billion a year which the country needs rather badly, especially since this summer’s massive financial crisis.

When it comes to oil Mexico functions in effect as an informal member of OPEC, and has the same basic strategic problem as the other members. The problem is how to sell as large a percentage of potential production as possible without breaking the price. Each member would like to sell his own oil while the others hold back, to keep the price up; this leads to a good deal of implicit political bargaining among the sellers. Mexico’s special position in the group consists in the fact that it is probably operating the farthest below long-term capacity, and may be the only country that can sensibly expand sales by 5 million barrels a day or more over the next decade. In addition, Mexico is next door to the world’s largest importer of oil.

If there were some way the U.S. might arrange things so that Mexico could sell a larger share of its potential oil, while the other suppliers held back, this would be very valuable to Mexico. At the same time there are a number of reasons why it would be good for us if Mexico took a larger share of oil revenues away from the Middle Eastern countries. Nevertheless, despite these potentially large common interests, it is not clear that a way can be found to serve them. The difficulty is increased by Mexico’s perennial posture of suspicion toward the United States and its desire to minimize symbolic dependency on the country with which it conducts the bulk of its foreign trade.

The Reagan administration has done little to advance U.S. practical interests vis-à-vis Mexico. It has not gathered together America’s various trade, energy, and immigration concerns and tried to bargain seriously with Mexico over them. In this respect it has represented no advance over the Carter administration.

On the issue of Mexico’s help to Castro, the FSLN, and the FMLN, the Reagan administration has not even made a start. Nor has it tried to alert others to the role that Mexico has-been playing. Hence we have been regularly pressured to bring U.S. policy into line with the supposedly neutral and benignly motivated Mexican initiatives in Central America, and at a loss to counter with firm initiatives of our own.

As for Mexico’s internal political stability, the administration’s main strategy has been to deny that there is a problem. The question was not even on the agenda until the surfacing of the financial crisis this past summer. No effort has been made to warn the Mexicans of the price they may end up paying for their failure to tax their wealthy, for their callous treatment of the Indians who have been thrown out of the new oil lands near the Guatemalan border, and for their disregard of groups without full representation within the PRI. Nor have the American and European publics been made aware of what it may mean if the extreme Left begins trying to destabilize the Mexican regime.



A new president, Miguel de la Madrid, is about to start a six-year term of office in Mexico. The financial mess he is inheriting has been worsened by the potentially disastrous process initiated by López Portillo’s nationalization of the banks, undertaken to avert blame for mismanaging the economy. The banks own blocks of stock in many Mexican companies and have embarrassing information about many prominent Mexican business and political figures; the extreme Left has access to the government agencies now controlling the banks; this combination may turn out to be lethal to the Mexican economy.

In foreign policy, a Mexican president traditionally has great freedom to set his country’s direction. López Portillo chose, in effect, to strike a partial alliance with Castro. This may have served his personal interest in buying protection against destabilization and in keeping Mexico quiet until December 1982. De la Madrid must decide whether to extend this tacit alliance or, if not, how best to move away from it. But even if de la Madrid understands the need to switch from a strategy of buying off and postponing to one of active political defense, he will face a difficult and dangerous situation. The extreme Left, part of which is strongly influenced by Castro and/or the KGB, now has a substantial position in Mexico’s intelligentsia and media, in the PRI, in the civil and foreign service, in the Church, and perhaps elsewhere. De La Madrid is thus tied to the present course by a thousand tiny threads. He can break his bonds with a decisive exertion, but unless he makes such a decisive break he will have relatively little leeway.

The job of an American administration in this situation is obvious. The U.S. must give de la Madrid as many incentives, and as much sympathetic urging, as it can to encourage him to break away from the López Portillo strategy, and as much help as it can to reduce the dangers and costs of doing so. So far the Reagan administration has shown no sign of understanding the critical decision de la Madrid is facing, even though the possibility of influencing that decision may be the most important item in Latin American policy during its tenure.




Fidel Castro believes that the world is divided into “imperialist” and “revolutionary” camps. This means, in his view, that Cuba and the United States are mortal enemies. Nothing we do can change that view.

Of course, the fact that the Cubans see us as their enemies does not mean that they are without normal interests and normal weaknesses, or that it is impossible to negotiate and make practical deals with them. But if there is an opportunity, by using appropriate means, to increase the chances that a non-totalitarian regime will come to power in Cuba, our principles demand that we exert reasonable efforts in that direction.

Undoubtedly President Reagan and others in his administration understand these primitive facts, but there can be less assurance about the individuals representing the U.S. in Cuba and the relevant officials in the State Department. This may explain why the plans for Radio Marti, a Radio Free Europe-type broadcasting service aimed specifically at Cuba, were so late and so desultorily pursued; why there were periodic flirtations with unserious schemes for “better relations” with Cuba; why consideration was given to seeking Cuban (and Mexican) “cooperation” in negotiating with the Sandinistas; and why no substantial effort has been made to inform the American public or elites in Europe about the number of political prisoners in Cuba and other evidences of Cuba’s totalitarian character and pernicious record. In short, the Reagan administration has underestimated the practical political consequences of the excessive credit widely given to Castro, and has not taken steps to make the truth more generally known.

Castro understands the U.S. and the role of the media very well. He has gloatingly described how, before Batista was defeated, he pretended to be a “Jeffersonian democrat” to win bourgeois support. And, at the same time that he was publicly deriding claims that Cuba was providing arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador, he was telling visiting German socialists that of course the claims were true. It may be possible to buy Castro off sometimes, but he does not sell anything cheap, and he will not sell out his essential convictions.

On the other hand, Castro presides over a regime that is profoundly unsuccessful and deeply unpopular (the evidence is that perhaps 10 percent or more would leave tomorrow, taking nothing with them, if they could). He is extremely dependent on the Soviet Union and was forced in 1968 to give it a key role in his secret police, the DGI. These factors create a field of opportunity. Unfortunately the Reagan administration has not begun to put together a realistic strategy for dealing with Cuba, neither militarily, nor diplomatically, nor in the war of ideas, and not even in the American domestic political debate. (On Latin American issues Castro’s organization can get more letters sent to the U.S. Congress than Reagan’s can, unless it uses Reagan’s personal prestige as President.)



The mistakes and failures of the Reagan administration are partly institutional but in greater part intellectual. The institutional aspect is of interest because the policy that has been put into place runs counter in many respects to the announced intention of the President and his advisers. The fact is that an administration which proclaimed a change of direction in Latin American policy chose for the most part to appoint as executors of that policy foreign-service officers who in various degrees accept the shallow idea-system which dominates the Latin American specialist community. Their mindset converges in significant ways, moreover, with the damaging policy pursued by the Carter administration, the ghost of which can be seen in the actions taken by the Reagan administration.

As for the intellectual failures, these show a recurrent pattern:

  • The administration has not grasped that in countries like Cuba and Nicaragua it is dealing with Marxist-Leninist true believers and totalitarian techniques of securing and holding power.
  • The administration does not appreciate the importance of ideas. It has no coherent strategy for presenting our case, even when that case is a strong one. In the making of policy decisions, weight is rarely given to the effect of such decisions on the war of ideas; programs designed to communicate ideas are not given sustained support. As a result, the President has even helped to make his opponents’ case for them—as when, in a major speech on the Caribbean Basin, he stressed precisely the element of global confrontation with which he has been taxed by his critics, and, instead of pointing out that in El Salvador we were supporting democratic revolutionaries against a counterrevolution by the totalitarian Left, lumped the case of El Salvador together with those of Nicaragua and Guatemala.
  • The administration completely fails to understand the concept of working with local democratic allies. Although it spends a great deal of time conferring with Colombia, Venezuela, and others, when the time comes to act it simply ignores these countries which share our perspective. Thus when Mexico tried to negotiate the Central American conflict with the U.S., the Reagan administration quickly responded, all but abandoning the countries it had previously been working with to develop a unified democratic opposition to the FMLN and the FSLN. So now Venezuela has been led to reduce its support for democratic forces in Central America and to work diplomatically with Mexico.

In sum, in dealing with Latin America the Reagan administration has failed to keep in mind the distinction between democracies and enemies of democracy; failed to understand the nature of modern totalitarian aggression, and especially its reliance on a war of ideas; and failed to demonstrate the rewards of friendship to those who share our values and basic perspectives. As a result, opportunities for significant democratic victories have been lost, and major setbacks may yet occur before Reagan’s term is over.

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