Reagan's Latin American year

It would be comforting to report that 1983 was a successful year for the United States in Latin America or it would be sensational to call 1983 a disaster for US-Latin American relations. The truth lies ambiguously between, with elements of both success and failure.

On the positive side, democratization in South America has continued to progress gradually. There have been no military coups. Democratic governments have held up under difficulties in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador; and Venezuela reaffirmed its democracy in elections that brought the opposition party to power. Military regimes weakened in Uruguay and Chile, and Brazil stayed on the road to its political ''opening'' despite near bankruptcy. Most important, the military regime of Argentina, discredited first by economic calamity and then by the loss of the Falklands/Malvinas war, yielded office to an elected anti-military president.

Central America was another story. It was expected that the guerrillas could be defeated or pushed back in El Salvador if the US furnished adequate supplies, trained the Army, and supported pushes toward democratization through land reform and elections. The formula did not work. American supplies found their way into the hands of the rebels and the morale of the government troops seemed little improved by US desires for observance of human rights. In the last months of 1983, however, the administration became fearful that it could not muster support for a government by murder and began to exert serious pressure on the rightists to curb their death squads.

The plan for Nicaragua was to defeat anti-American forces (the government) by arming and training the rightists (the guerrillas). However, the counterrevolutionaries, or contras, were unable to present a credible political alternative or to make progress toward overturning the Sandinistas. They only consolidated and radicalized the Managua government. The American administration was faced with either tolerating the Marxist-Leninist regime or undertaking a major invasion with American troops. The first would represent a humiliation and a strategic loss and was virtually unacceptable. The second would be costly politically. An invasion would lack the justifications of the Grenadian action, and was even more difficult as the contras seemed to have demonstrated a strong lack of support on the part of the Nicaraguan people.

Economically, the year was bad for Latin America, because of an exorbitant load of debt on almost all countries. Effects would have been horrendous if various debtor countries, headed by Mexico and Brazil, had actually been held to their financial obligations. Instead, they pretended their debts were payable in principle; in return the lending institutions ''restructured'' debts and extended new loans, partly to pay interest, partly to keep economies going. But the new net lending was very much less than in previous years, generally uncertainty stifled investment, and nothing prospered but unemployment and inflation.

Any realistic approach to the debt question would be very painful for major banks and probably for the American economy as a whole and hence is not feasible for 1984. Yet a continuing depression in Latin America may well lead to extremist politics and a drive for radical solutions, which must almost automatically be anti-US. Revolutionary development in a major Latin American country would mean realization of a nightmare that has haunted the US State Department ever since the victory of Castro and the communization of Cuba over 20 years ago. How the administration would cope with such a turn is hard to imagine.

The administration seems to pay little attention to forestalling potential storms in major nations of Latin America as it concentrates on present problems in such minor countries as El Salvador and Nicaragua. The dilemma of accepting Marxist-Leninist regimes in Central America or engaging American forces to undo them is hardly escapable unless the US can promote a democratic alternative.

The administration has assumed until recently that it lacked leverage to put the rightist murder gangs out of business and must have been pleasantly surprised when some arm-twisting brought results. If more pressure could be translated into a genuine change of rulership the guerrilla problem should be manageable. And if El Salvador could be stabilized, Nicaragua would probably be compelled to accept a more moderate role and a reasonable degree of pluralism. However, the US has never managed to bring about much social-political improvement in Latin America - no doubt, for lack of trying very hard. If the US could make itself the champion of popular causes in El Salvador, it would greatly alleviate the problems of dealing with all Latin America and substantially brighten the prospects.

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