Beware the Myths Behind Central America

By , Max Primorac is a research fellow at the Council for Inter-American Security.

UNITED STATES policy on Nicaragua has yet to take definitive shape. But a key element in the policy appears to be persuading the Soviet Union to pressure the ruling Sandinistas to undertake democratic reform. If so, the Bush administration may be unwittingly relying on a set of wishful myths regarding the nature of the changes affecting the communist world. The relaxation of superpower tensions, developments in Afghanistan and Angola, and the communist bloc's grudging acceptance of the bankruptcy of Marxist economics are reshaping the West's view of East-West relations.

It's now assumed that we are moving into a period of ``economic interdependence'' rendering traditional approaches to the conduct of foreign affairs obsolete. This presumes that the communist bloc's domestic and international behavior is now determined by economic imperatives. In other words, the reasons for the cold war are over. Moreover, it is believed that the same economic determinants pushing the Soviets to ``reform'' will move the Sandinistas to seek accommodation with the internal opposition.

Upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that a US policy based on such myths would add little to advance peace and democracy in the region.

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Myth No. 1: Economic pragmatism has replaced Stalinist ideology as the driving force behind communist intentions.

True, socialist regimes have rediscovered the efficiency of the market and the creativity of private initiative. This should not be confused with power-sharing, however. Perestroika (restructuring) is intended to loosen the most stifling aspects of centralized economic control, as Soviet leaders have stressed time and again. This pragmatism (like Lenin's New Economic Policy of the 1920s) lies in strengthening socialism, not in fostering liberal democracy.

Daniel Ortega Saavedra echoed these sentiments when he explained his new economic reforms to Sandinista cadres: ``We are not renouncing our socialist orientation. ... We believe this is the way to build socialism in our Central American circumstances.''

Myth No. 2: The USSR is no longer interested in subsidizing bankrupt Marxist-Leninist regimes in the third world.

What the Soviets really want is for the West to give its third-world allies economic assistance while they provide military aid necessary to ensure continued Marxist-Leninist control. The objective is to reduce the cost of supporting their allies, not to undo socialist revolutions. Last year the Soviets sent Nicaragua $515 million worth of military equipment. Just prior to the signing of the Central American agreement last Feb. 14, the Soviets delivered a major shipment of North Korean torpedo boats.

Myth No. 3: The communist bloc's need to cure its economic ills prompted them to seek an end to costly conflicts in Angola and Afghanistan, thus providing the context within which the Central American quagmire can be solved.

First, the conflicts there are far from over, and second, it was effective and consistent US military aid to Afghan and Angolan rebels that prompted the Soviets to seek negotiated settlements in the first place. Such aid to Nicaraguan rebels has not been forthcoming. As a result, persistent efforts by the US to convince the Soviets to reduce their military support of Nicaragua have failed.

Myth No. 4: The growing primacy of economic over military issues is harmonizing international interests.

Since global problems are viewed essentially as economic ones, they demand economic solutions. Political and ideological factors no longer prevail - again, the cold war is over. Thus, negotiation and not traditional uses of force are viewed as appropriate instruments for solving international problems.

This reasoning is behind calls for a regional security pact between the US and Nicaragua. It is believed that a containment policy toward Nicaragua will allow the Central American countries to concentrate on economic development. It is conveniently forgotten that the US entered into a similar arrangement with Cuba which, nevertheless, continues to pursue an expansive foreign policy.

There exists a Pollyannish desire among many in the West to minimize Sandinista claims to Marxist-Leninist ideology as outdated and unrealizable given systemic changes affecting the communist world. They conclude that diplomacy and economic incentives will permit these changes to proceed more smoothly. It is an appealing argument. The solutions appear part of emerging global trends, requiring little action beyond the formal details of diplomacy. But it is dangerously simplistic because it mistakenly projects a democratic mindset on those who do not share it.

What Henry Kissinger has called America's ``yearning for normalcy'' sweeps aside disturbing facts: Thousands of Nicaraguans are fleeing economic collapse and political persecution, Latin terrorists from Guatemala to Argentina are being armed and trained by Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas continue their utterly disproportionate military buildup regardless of global trends or of US behavior.

Despite this, hopes persist that the natural course of events will somehow precipitate an act of conversion on the part of the Sandinistas. Days after the accord was signed, Mr. Ortega told democratic critics of his economic reforms that ``they fail to understand that with these attitudes they are playing with fire, which could end up burning them.'' Certainly, Commandante Ortega does not subscribe to these myths.

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