Robert E. White: Lessons from Central America

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. Continue reading