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The U.S. in Central America

The carnivorous U.S.

Notes on a classic. (See also these notes.)— In Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1993), Walter LaFeber interprets the history of U.S. imperialism in this region as consisting of several stages: first, the U.S.’s setting up of its Central American policy or “system” between the 1890s and World War II, a system that involved forcing a dependent status on Central America, limiting it to the production of food and raw materials, intervening militarily when necessary to keep it stable but then, by the 1930s, increasingly relying on dictators and indigenous militaries to do so (which was Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy) because blatant U.S. interventions caused too many problems; second, maintenance of the system under Truman and Eisenhower; third, updating of the system by means of the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s; fourth, collapse of the system in the late ’60s and ’70s, as the oppressed masses rose up; and I’ll get to the later stages when I get to them.

One of the key means of “maintaining” the system, of course, was the innovation under Truman and Eisenhower of providing extensive military aid to Latin American countries—not for global or regional operations, but for “internal security.” (Root out and destroy the Commies! And, ideally, all leftists.) Latin American officers were to be trained at the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone. “The Good Neighbor [policy] became less a policy of economic growth or reform than of military ties and leverage. And as the United States policy became militarized, it most directly appealed to, and necessarily counted on, Latin American dictators to protect North American interests.” By the end of 1954, military dictators ruled thirteen of the twenty Latin American countries.

By the late 1950s the reactionary policies of the Eisenhower administration were contributing to political turmoil and economic decay in Latin America, which greatly worried Americans because a new upsurge of left-wing movements might take power. In 1958, Eisenhower—who for years had refused to give substantive economic aid to Latin America because of, you know, the free market and capitalism and his preference for military aid and killing people—finally agreed to the establishment of the Inter-American Development Bank, to give loans for infrastructure projects. This was a major departure in U.S. policy, which had favored ineffectual private investment. But Eisenhower refused to go farther than this, preferring to stick to his tried-and-false method of military support or intervention, as when he approved CIA plans to train Cubans for an invasion of Castro’s domain. It was left to the Kennedy administration to try something bolder: the Alliance for Progress.

LaFeber introduces this program in a grand way: it stimulated high growth rates in a number of countries, including Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, at the same time that it inflamed severe political and social problems in the first three countries. “Ironically, it became the pivotal, perhaps even the essential, step on Central America’s journey to the revolutions of the seventies and eighties.” For the sake of heading off revolution, Kennedy wanted to pump $100 billion into Latin American development over ten years—$20 million from the U.S., $80 billion from Latin Americans. With the support of indigenous social democratic groups, he hoped to weaken both dictators and the far left by building up stable middle classes. So, for instance, coffee stabilization agreements were worked out to raise prices (which had dropped rapidly) and rescue countries from balance-of-payments crises. “Security” was just as important as “development,” so U.S. military aid increased 50 percent a year over the money granted under Eisenhower. “Military funds inundated small economies, transformed government budgets, and created a large military group trained by U.S. officers” in the School of the Americas and elsewhere. “The transformation of police forces was notable. Under the Agency for International Development, which operated the Alliance program in Washington, these forces learned to use gas guns, helicopters, and other anti-riot equipment. For this newly powerful elite, it proved to be only a short step to controlling dissent through sophisticated methods of torture.” With the help of all this money and training, between 1961 and 1966 militaries overthrew nine Latin American governments. As for development, “Alliance funds in massive amounts went to U.S.-owned firms and to the Central American oligarchs that controlled banks and mercantile businesses, as well as the best tillable land.” As always, the wealthy and politically connected benefited far more than the poor.

Lyndon Johnson was less enamored of the Alliance than Kennedy, so when he became president he reduced economic—though not military—aid. Relied, as had Eisenhower, on private capital and military regimes to accomplish development. So by the late sixties, “the Alliance’s remnants consisted of its most dangerous parts: an emphasis on private investment that worsened the already glaring economic imbalance in Central America; a dependence on the military to maintain order in restless societies; and promises made repeatedly by Kennedy, Johnson, and other U.S. officials that raised hopes and aspirations. The first two were destroying the third. And as revolutionary conditions developed, the United States government stood aside, except for its support of the military.” In many ways the Alliance actually accelerated and laid the basis for the coming revolutions, for example by mechanizing agriculture and forcing peasants into cities where they languished in unemployment. In Honduras (and elsewhere), “the post-1963 changes [in the Alliance’s program] led to a stripping of the nation’s wealth by foreign investors, the Hondurans’ increased loss of control over their own banking and productive system, and major defeats for Honduran liberals… By 1968…the investment boom in commercial agriculture (especially in cattle and cotton) had led to an illegal expansion of large haciendas over peasant-tilled lands. The oligarchs’ agents simply strung barbed wire around the area they wanted, then expelled any families found inside the barbed-wire compound. Peasants who tried to take wood from these areas were jailed on order of the new owner.” Hmm… Remember the centuries of peasants’ struggles in Europe against the privatization of forests? Funny (or not!) how history is constantly rhyming with itself.

In Honduras, “unemployment rose 25 percent between 1961 and 1967, not counting the 150,000 coffee workers who earned wages only during the harvest.” The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were leaving their country to seek economic opportunities in Honduras. With more competition from Salvadorans, it was even harder for Honduran peasants to find jobs in the cities. So—let’s quote a great passage:

…National campesino movements emerged to fight bared-wire and other incursions by the oligarchy. The new groups reoccupied land in force. The landowners promptly organized FENAGH (National Federation of Agriculturalists and Cattle Ranchers of Honduras) to discipline the peasants. FENAGH focused on attempts to turn poor Hondurans against the incoming poor Salvadorans. This tactic should have been effective since the latter took jobs and land from the former. But it failed. In a surprising turn, the campesinos banded together to protect each other. In one of many defiant gestures, the peasants moved back into the former lands in Choluteca, announcing that the enemy was not Salvadoran, but their own country’s system…

But in 1969 the “soccer war” erupted:

…When a soccer match between Salvador and Honduras ended in a bloody riot, Lopez’s government [in Honduras] seized the opportunity to expel all Salvadorans. War broke out between the two nations. It ended after both sides suffered heavy casualties and the Central American Common Market began to break down. But FENAGH achieved its objectives. Ruthlessly expanding its export-crop operations into land long held by peasants, FENAGH finally succeeded in destroying united peasant opposition through the war against El Salvador.
FENAGH, however, had to share the benefits with the already autonomous and virtually supreme Honduran army. The Alliance had set out to develop Honduran society, but ended by creating a highly efficient military force. The Alliance helped make such a force necessary, for the program’s failure to diversify the Honduran economy led to an expansion of an export economy. That expansion in turn took lands from campesinos and set the class war in motion. The Alliance’s post-1963 emphasis on private investment worsened the growing crisis, for it increased the nation’s indebtedness, lessened Honduras’s control over its own economy, paradoxically pulled wealth from the country while doubling U.S. investment, and—in all—helped create conditions that could lead to revolution.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere, no substantive land reform or tax reform occurred. Foreign capitalists were reluctant to invest because of political uncertainty, corruption, an unstable currency, and the small size of the internal market, but the little investment that did enter went into a few large firms that concentrated on exports, not on developing the domestic market. “Foreign-owned firms dominated the country’s export trade. Taking control farther out of Guatemalan hands, they further skewed an already lopsided economy. Labor unions were impotent…” Insurgencies erupted in the 1960s, provoking brutal responses by the army that the U.S. had largely created since the mid-fifties. In fact, the military was ready to govern the country by 1963. “A military whose officers before 1954 had been attached to individual politicians became by the sixties an institutional force dedicated to its own preservation and prosperity. Its political tentacles reached down to the village level. From this point at least through the early eighties, Washington officials expressed severe reservations about the tactics and ambitions of the Guatemalan army, but they could do less and less about it. They were losing control of their own monster.” On a less official level than the army the repression was even more brutal: private right-wing groups formed their own units to torture and murder students, Indians, and labor leaders suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Military officers became major landholders themselves and formed close relationships with reactionary economic factions. To save himself, the civilian president gave the army total freedom to attack its enemies, which led to a bloodbath between 1967 and 1970.

In retrospect, the early 1970s were “the calm after the storms from the Alliance in the sixties, and before the terrors of revolution in the late seventies.” Regimes seemed solidly in power. Nixon stepped up military aid to dictators (increasing their public debt). But the OPEC price shock of the mid-70s proved devastating to Central American economies that were already at the breaking point because of rising military expenses and the enormous debts incurred to pay for the Alliance of Progress programs. “As money drained out of these small economies, they soon lacked the means to pay for U.S. food and industrial goods.” With a growing urban proletariat, revolutionary pressures accumulated. Carter tried to punish Central American regimes for human rights abuses by cutting off military aid, but they responded by buying weapons from West European and Israeli suppliers and growing even more repressive at home. As the U.S. did little to change the terrible economic and political environment in Central America, Mexico and Venezuela, which had benefited from the rise in oil prices, emerged as relatively progressive counterweights to U.S. policy in the region.

But a more significant change, as you probably know, was the rise of liberation theology. Consciousness-raising among the peasantry, base communities in the countryside to work with peasants, etc. “In Nicaragua, priests were instrumental in the revolution. At a critical moment they played the major role in transforming a narrow Marxist movement into a more moderate, broad-based, and powerful force. In Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero became increasingly critical of government-supported vigilante groups and the atrocities committed by the military. One group of Jesuits led the first strike in history in a large sugar mill and worked closely with a peasant union that supplied soldiers and supplies for a guerrilla unit.” And so on. Of course all these priests were the target of violence.

I won’t describe the course of the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Will just note that Carter had a confused and ineffective policy towards them, at times denying military aid to the reactionary regimes and at times not. Supported Somoza until the end, then tried to get members of the barbarous National Guard into the Sandinista government. Gave military aid to the sadistic Salvadoran army in 1980. As for Guatemala, a huge earthquake in early 1976 played a role in the uprisings. Before 1976, the Indians who made up half the country’s population had started to see their villages and traditions be destroyed “as the oligarch-military group seized Indian lands that seemed fertile or a likely spot to drill for oil. The army also brutally regimented villages in anti-guerrilla campaigns. In its rapacity, the government had thus not only opened up the Indian communities but also had made them enemies. The failure of the government to rebuild the villages after the 1976 earthquake only added to already great misery.” LaFeber continues:

But the Indians had begun to organize. International relief agencies appeared on the scene after the earthquake to do what the government refused to do, subjecting many villages to new political influences. Local priests provided leadership… For the first time in centuries, the Indians began to organize for a struggle. The country’s political wars no longer involved merely one army faction against another. The revolutionary movement threatened to become a mass uprising.

The economic crisis of the late seventies sharpened the conflict. Coffee and sugar earnings dropped more than 45 percent… But prices of such vital imports as food and energy soared. The poor not only became poorer, they also lost their land. Oil companies had started major exploration efforts in the early seventies… The oil discoveries set off a scramble for land in northern areas—precisely the region where revolutionaries grew in number. Mining of tungsten, nickel, and other minerals also focused on territory long held by Indians and other campesinos. Multinational corporations, in league with the Guatemalan military, forced people off land they had possessed for centuries…

Urban laborers trying to unionize were also subject to government violence. Rival factions of the elite even started killing each other as they competed for the country’s land and mineral wealth in the context of an economic crisis.

As you know, American policy went downhill with Reagan. “Control of Central American policy was a payoff to militant conservatives for their support of Reagan. ‘[Alexander] Haig and [Thomas] Enders realized they had to throw a bone to the right-wingers,’ a conservative Senate staff member observed. ‘They can’t have the Soviet Union or the Middle East or Western Europe. All are too important. So they’ve given them Central America.’” The resulting history is too nauseating to relate, so I’ll end here. The product of the 1980s was an utterly devastated region that has yet to escape from crisis and unimaginable misery.


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