In 1958 a US Army second lieutenant named John R. Galvin, freshly graduated from West Point, was posted to Colombia to help train elite Colombian troops. Nearly 30 years and many European assignments later he returned to Latin America, wearing the four stars of a general, as the top United States officer in the region.
``I see a tremendous destabilization there, compared to what it was like 30 years ago,'' General Galvin says. ``There were always problems, and they were always reflected in violence. The difference is the violence is now organized into umbrella insurgent groups -- the FMLN in El Salvador, M-19 in Colombia, etc.''
Based in Panama, Galvin is commander in chief of the US Southern Command. His area of responsibility stretches from Guatemala, through the troubled crescent of Central America, to the bottom of South America.
This area of the world is the US strategic front yard, he says, yet it receives only about 3 percent of the total US military aid budget. Not counting the US presence in El Salvador and Honduras, ``there are more Soviet military advisers in Peru than US military advisers in all of Latin America,'' he says.
The US has historically paid attention to Latin America only when it felt its commercial interests were theatened, according to the SOUTHCOM chief. This situation has moderated somewhat in the post-World War II era, which has seen more US public and government concern over human rights and democracy in the region. But attention still tends to spotlight trouble spots -- with Nicaragua perhaps the current focus.
For months, Congress has been wrangling over whether to provide $100 million in military aid to ``contra'' guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's communist Sandinista government. The issue is far from settled, with more votes perhaps coming in May.
By US law, Galvin can't deal with the contras himself. But as the top US officer in the region, he says of the contra-aid battle, ``we have a democratic force, which is the contras, fighting a Marxist totalitarian force, which is the Sandinistas. We need to take sides.''
The contras have been criticized in the US as less than savory themselves, poorly organized and trained, with few gains to show for their efforts.
Galvin says they are still a ``young insurgency,'' and contrasts their strength of 20,000 troops with the Sandinistas, who had only 5,000 soldiers when they toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Fifteen percent of the Nicaraguan people strongly support the contras, and 15 percent the Sandinistas, Galvin says. Between those poles is a large uncommitted middle that could be swayed by US commitment to the contras, he says.
While he admits that a large chunk of the contra officers are former Somoza followers, he says that 20 percent of the officers and an even larger chunk of the enlisted ranks are ex-Sandinistas.
The contras ``need sustained support,'' Galvin says. ``If we are not committed to our own hemisphere forever, then we are going to face some serious problems.''
SOUTHCOM's hottest area of direct responsiblity is El Salvador, where 55 US military advisers are helping government troops in their war against communist guerrillas. Galvin claims this war is going well. The insurgents' strength, he says, has shrunk from 12,000 men to 7,000 during the past year. Of this decline, only 1,000 were casualties, Galvin says -- the implication being the rest simply walked away.
This shows the Salvadorean military is making progress in its most crucial area of operations -- the fight for the hearts of the people.
``There is a much better understanding of the connection between military operations and other essential stability operations,'' says the general.
Aid from Nicaragua's Sandinistas to the El Salvador rebels has slowed, he says, and is now mainly ammunition, demolition supplies, and medicine, as opposed to weapons.
``Small guerrilla organizations of 100 are supplied individually. It's not something where there's a main trunk followed by distribution out to other places,'' Galvin says.