For more than thirty years, a constant flow of depressing information has dominated the news out of Central America. In the 1980s, the media documented our harmful involvement in regional revolutions and counter-revolutions. In this new century, stories and articles have recorded the violence and lawlessness that are a direct consequence of the counter-narcotic policies that the United States has forced on Central Americans.
Then, as now, the United States uses Central America as a practice arena. Yesterday, it was to test the doctrine of counter-insurgency in its various manifestations; today, Washington invests huge resources into a counter-drug program that evidence and common sense demonstrate can only make the problem worse. At the root of both problems, is faulty analysis.
Central America in the last half of the twentieth century was a place of unbroken civil strife and bloody repression. These conflicts were rooted in class warfare. A handful of the landed elite backed rightist regimes and paramilitary death squads against impoverished campesinos and laborers who, out of desperation, had begun to support left-wing guerrilla movements.
In 1981, the Reagan administration erroneously attributed revolutions in Central America to the Soviet Union and Cuba; “What we are facing in Central America,” said then Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “is a straight case of external aggression, nothing more, nothing less.” This of course was utter nonsense. If there was one thing we were not facing in Central America, it was foreign aggression. The rebellions in the region were home-grown and authentic, popular uprisings against the heaped- up injustices of decades. There would have been uprisings in these countries whether the Soviet Union and Cuba existed or not.
Had the United States, a country born in revolution, respected the right of other nations to revolt against intractable injustice, Central Americans would have quickly found their own political solutions, sometimes democratic, sometimes not.. At a minimum our restraint could have avoided closing off democratic alternatives that drove idealistic young people into violently anti-American revolutions movements.
Today it is the misconceived ‘War on Drugs’ that scourges Central America and corrupts every function of government, in particular those institutions charged with upholding the law.
The drug trade is big business. It is, in a very real sense, the perfection of capitalism. In the United Sates, the drug lords have the largest market in the world for marijuana and cocaine. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. And all the measures we adopt to interdict drugs from outside the United States will fail because the profits are so huge. The only way to bring the drug trade under control is to reduce domestic demand. It is our refusal to clean our own house and our readiness to force other to pay the price for our illicit appetites that has undermined the fledgling democracies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
It is discouraging that a government as sophisticated as ours should make the same errors over and over. Yesterday in Central America, and today in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unless a government in power enjoys the support or at least the sufferance of its people, it is fruitless to try to prop it up with military intervention. This is a rule that applied then to Nicaragua and El Salvador where former revolutionaries now govern. It applies today to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where you will look in vain for a ruling class with the will to sacrifice and to prevail.
Regarding the criminally stupid ‘War on Drugs’, Clive Crook of the Financial Times asks, “how much misery can a policy cause before it is acknowledged as a failure and reversed?”
The answer would appear to be indefinitely as long as it is the Mexicans and Central Americans who pay the price and not the inhabitants of Wichita or Spokane.
For decades, violence and impunity in Central America were linked to armed insurrection and military repression backed by the United States. Today, with former revolutionaries in charge of government affairs, violence and impunity are associated with misguided Washington campaigns to suppress the commerce in narcotics. This is a dismal record.
Both in the 1980s and again in this new century, U.S. policy appears to be out of fresh ideas and out of touch with reality. We need to treat Central America not as a sphere of influence but as a sphere of abstention in which we refrain from prescribing solutions for these countries and instead through consultation and diplomacy look for solutions that serve their interests as well as ours.
By Robert E. White
President of the Center for International Policy