Key Problems

  • U.S. policy toward Central America during the past century has been guided mainly by threats:
    • During the first half of the century, threats to U.S. investments;
    • During the cold war, the “communist threat.”
  • A threat-driven foreign policy caused the U.S. to oppose negotiated solutions to the conflicts of the 1980s. U.S. opposition was finally overcome by a Central American initiative, the Esquipulas II agreement.

Central America’s modern history is marked by widespread poverty, stark inequalities, political instability, and violent repression. It is a cruel irony that the powerful, “enlightened” democracy immediately to the north has consistently supported the region’s worst perpetrators of misery and repression.

U.S. involvement in Central America began in earnest with its post-Civil War industrial boom. Over the next century, the U.S. regarded the region’s seven states (British Honduras–now Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama) as directly within its sphere of influence. Washington trained the isthmus’ armies and helped engineer elections and coups when it deemed U.S. interests threatened.

During the cold war, eliminating the “communist threat” became the Washington’s key objective in Central America, and only leaders who shared this priority were permitted to rule. Unfortunately, these tended to be authoritarian, brutally repressive, military figures who ruled through fear and intimidation.

Those found to be insufficiently anticommunist were replaced; in 1954, for instance, the CIA organized a bloody coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, whose attempted land reforms ran afoul of U.S. banana companies. Guatemala only now appears to be emerging from a long nightmare of military dictatorships and civil war that have cost some 200,000 lives, most of them civilian victims of the military or its death squads.

U.S.-supported repression reached a feverish intensity during the 1980s, as bloody civil wars exploded in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. When the Reagan administration came to power, Central America became one of the cold war’s main battlegrounds. Forces equipped and trained by the U.S. killed tens of thousands of civilians, while in Nicaragua, the U.S. created a rebel army, the contras, to topple the Sandinista government.

In exchange for massive amounts of aid, the U.S. convinced army-less Costa Rica to militarize its police force and to weaken its extensive social-welfare system. By the mid-1980s the region was devastated, with no end to the conflicts in sight and a U.S. policy singlemindedly opposed to a negotiated solution.

In a major break with history, however, the region did arrive at a negotiated solution despite U.S. reluctance. A peace plan promoted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias metamorphosed into the Esquipulas II agreement, which leaders of the five traditional Central American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) signed in August 1987. Esquipulas II committed all nations of the region to negotiate solutions to existing wars and to build and strengthen democracy. While peace was breaking out elsewhere, the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to remove its erstwhile client, the drug-dealing dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Though the process was not easy, peace has come to Central America. Nicaragua’s contras laid down their weapons after that country’s 1990 elections removed the Sandinistas from office. They were followed by El Salvador’s FMLN rebels, who gained several concessions and became a political party following the January 1992 signing of the Chapultepec peace accord. In 1996 Guatemala’s government and rebels entered in the final stages of peace talks, with the signing of a final accord expected by the year’s end. Elected leaders rule in all seven countries, and regional political and economic integration efforts have been revived.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • In the absence of perceived threats, U.S. policy toward Central America today is confusing and contradictory. Support for reconciliation and democracy is undermined by several parallel policies:
    • A steep reduction in economic aid;
    • Lack of cooperation with the region’s true advocates for democracy;
    • Continued strong links with Central American militaries, among them training, joint exercises, military bases, and intelligence.

While the Clinton administration is verbally supportive of the encouraging trends in Central America, in practice its policies are a confusing mix of well-intended programs and repeated mistakes. With the end of the cold war and the region’s bloody conflicts, U.S. interest has rapidly declined. This results largely from a lack of threats to U.S. interests—whether real or imagined. As has often occurred in the history of U.S. foreign policy, the lack of a compelling threat has been accompanied by the lack of a unifying vision to guide U.S. actions. The result is a hydra-headed approach in which various U.S. agencies and programs pursue their own, often contradictory, agendas.

Washington’s infrequent statements on Central America call for social reconciliation and “enlargement” of democracies. These admirable principles have helped guide U.S. efforts to support elections (particularly in El Salvador in 1994), to reintegrate ex-combatants (in El Salvador and Nicaragua), and to assist United Nations monitoring (in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua). Many of these programs have achieved an admirable degree of success.

These accomplishments are subverted and contradicted, however, by other facets of U.S. policy. A neo-isolationist opposition to all forms of foreign aid has been especially painful in Central America. Nonmilitary assistance to the region has been cut by 90% since 1990, wreaking macroeconomic havoc. Those working to strengthen democracy have frequently been frustrated by U.S. intransigence. Economic aid to impoverished and war-devastated Nicaragua has been held up by the demands of congressional Republicans for the return of properties confiscated by the Sandinista government (1979-90). Honduran civilians’ search for the truth about military human rights abuses during the 1980s has been blocked by U.S. noncooperation and foot-dragging. Although the State Department has provided some documents as part of a year-long “expedited review,” the other five agencies from which Honduras Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares has requested information have yet to hand over a single page. In El Salvador, funding for compliance with the 1992 peace accords has fallen precipitously, despite increasing signs that initial progress on many fronts is eroding. Meanwhile, Guatemalan officials complain that the U.S. has committed only $6 million so far for compliance with their country’s peace accord.

While Oscar Arias and others have launched a campaign to demilitarize Central America, the U.S. has maintained a close relationship with the region’s armed forces. Central American military personnel regularly attend training courses in the U.S., both as part of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and as guests of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. While many courses now include the essentials of human rights and democratic processes, these remain a sideline to combat and counterinsurgency techniques. Worse, as we learned in September 1996, the SOA used training manuals with explicit instructions for murder and torture as recently as 1992.

As revealed by recent scandals involving Guatemala, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies continue covert relationships with some of the most reprehensible human-rights abusers in the region’s armies. The June 1996 Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) report revealed that, as late as 1995, the CIA station in Guatemala paid $1 million a year to what it calls “unsavory assets” or informants. One CIA asset has been implicated in the murder of an American innkeeper and the guerrilla husband of a U.S. lawyer. The necessity of maintaining such accomplices in an era of scarce economic aid and no security threats defies rational explanation.

Every few months, the U.S. army holds high-profile joint military exercises with Central American armed forces. These exercises often include “civic action” programs such as road and bridge construction or the provision of medical, dental, and even veterinary services. Encouraging such noncombat roles is counterproductive when civilian leaders are struggling to reduce or eliminate armies’ meddling in internal affairs. Washington also supports risky military role expansion by urging Central American armies to participate in the domestic fight against narcotrafficking. This is especially problematic in Central America, where many high-ranking military officers have been exposed as being involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

The U.S. still maintains military bases in both Panama and Honduras. While the Panamanian bases are scheduled to be vacated by 1999, U.S. policy makers’ frequent calls for renegotiation threaten this agreement. Meanwhile, Southern Command chief Gen. Wesley Clark recently announced that he will soon increase the U.S. presence at the air base in Soto Cano, Honduras.

There is little evidence that U.S. military cooperation and bases are helping, as Washington claims, to “professionalize” armed forces in Central America. The net effect instead is to provide more sophisticated hardware and training to armies whose top officers continue to be involved in human rights abuses, drug trafficking, smuggling, and other crimes. U.S. military support helps legitimize these armed forces, making it more difficult for Central America’s fragile new democracies to assert effective civilian control.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Clear, unambiguous support for demilitarization, including:
    • Drastic reductions in all ties with the region’s existing armed forces;
    • Support for military reductions or abolition;
    • An end to military aid and training, including closure of the School of the Americas.
  • Closure of U.S. military bases in Panama and Honduras.
  • Open support for the region’s advocates of human rights and democracy.
  • Generous and active assistance for postwar reconstruction and reconciliation.

Now that the U.S. perceives no threats to its national security in Central America, it is time for Washington to pursue a new foreign policy in the region. Since the region has become a lower security priority for the U.S., national security cannot be used as an excuse to keep cooperating with undemocratic sectors. Instead, a new policy should be consistent in its support for those working to support the transition to democracy and the rule of law.

This would imply a much clearer emphasis on demilitarization than exists today. As the region’s armed forces become increasingly irrelevant to regional security and political evolution, U.S. ties with the military officers and informants should be drastically reduced, if not severed. Support for scaled-down militaries—and, where feasible, their outright abolition—should be unambiguous. The bases in Honduras and Panama should be closed and turned over to civilians, while joint military exercises and military/civic action programs should be halted. Military aid, including IMET funding, must be zeroed out, and weapons sales to the region’s armies must be discouraged. Antinarcotics programs must not encourage military involvement in internal security; armies whose officers participate in the drug trade with impunity must be excluded from future antidrug collaboration. If it is not closed outright, the School of the Americas should reinvent its curriculum, as urged in legislation introduced by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (HR 2652), to serve as an “Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military Relations.” Those responsible for the use of offensive training manuals should be investigated and prosecuted.

With fewer security concerns, the U.S. can and should link respect for human rights to aid, trade, and other relations. Countries where abuses are systematic and impunity reigns must be given the pariah status they deserve.

Those in Central America who have shown the courage to confront authoritarianism, corruption, and human-rights abuses deserve high-profile moral and financial support. All U.S. agencies that have been involved in the region must cooperate with Central Americans’ efforts to achieve justice and to learn the truth about the crimes of the recent past. Those working to strengthen the rule of law and the integrity of institutions—human rights ombudsmen, nongovernmental organizations, local community leaders—deserve direct and specific assistance.

Countries recovering from civil wars must not be abandoned; the mere holding of elections is not a sufficient indicator of a healthy democracy. Where needed, UN or OAS monitoring missions must enjoy sufficient resources and clear approval of their activities. Societies must be reconciled, and excombatants thoroughly reintegrated; both processes require money and cooperation from the region’s northern neighbor. New civilian police forces will also require funding and extensive training based on respect for human rights and service to the community.

Though economic aid is politically unpopular, its downward trend must be reversed. More support is needed to help nongovernmental organizations and governments meet the basic needs of the Central American poor. At the same time, the U.S. should end its support for structural adjustments programs (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These SAPs worsen the poverty and inequality that fueled conflicts in the past. At the regional and national levels, U.S. assistance can do much to guarantee the success of initiatives for economic and political integration, sustainable development and collective security. At the local level, aid that emphasizing self-help, training, and participation in project design, will assure that a larger portion of shrinking development assistance dollars directly goes to beneficiaries.

Since Esquipulas II, Central America has served as a laboratory for many new ideas, among them regional integration, United Nations monitoring, reintegrating excombatants, creating civilian police forces, and even abolishing national armed forces. As the U.S. searches for a rationale to guide its policy toward the region, the laboratory metaphor remains relevant. Today, Central America should become the proving ground for a new approach to developing countries: one that sees security and development as complementary, not contradictory, goals.

Written by Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy.

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