Nicaragua and the National Interest
May 14, 1985        

What is American foreign policy really about? In 1977 President Jimmy Carter proclaimed to widespread approval, that fostering human rights throughout the world was “the soul of our foreign policy.” Since then, two studies have appeared — one by Michael Klare of the Institute for Policy Studies, the other by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman — that examine the relationship between human rights and American military and economic aid to noncommunist countries in the Third World. Both studies indeed found a strong correlation between human rights and American aid. But surprisingly — at least to those who took Carter’s pronouncement seriously—the correlation was a negative one: since World War II, a high level of human-rights violations within a Third World country has generally been accompanied by a high level of American aid. And more than that, where there have been significant changes in the human-rights situation, American aid has varied correspondingly. Changes in government in government involving an increase in democracy and popular participation have resulted in decreased American aid; changes of government involving increased authoritarianism and state terror have resulted in increased American aid.

How can this be? Chomsky and Herman explain: ‘The deterioration in the human rights situation and the increase in U.S. aid each correlate, independently, with a third and crucial factor namely, improvement of the investment climate. The climate for business operations improves as unions and popular organizations are destroyed, dissidents are tortured or eliminated, real wages are depressed, and the society as a whole is placed in the hands of a collection of thugs and gangsters who are willing to sell out to the foreigner for a share of the loot. And as the climate for business operations improves, the society is welcomed into the Free World and offered the specific kind of ‘aid’ that will further these favorable developments. The authors go on to list other features of a “favorable investment climate": unregulated access to national resources, easy tax and profit-repatriation laws, conversion of agriculture to cash crops for export, and extreme austerity in social-welfare programs. The euphemisms most frequently employed by American policy makers (and their academic and journalistic apologists) to package these policies for public consumption are “stability” and “the national interest” Third World regimes with different policies are labeled “communist” and are said to “threaten stability’ and “adversely affect our national interest”; and they are subjected to American hostility, subversion, or even invasion.

All these unpleasant facts add up to one conclusion: rhetoric aside, promoting democracy, self- determination, and human rights has little to do with American foreign policy. This fundamental truth is the framework in which current American policy toward Nicaragua must be understood.

Certainly it is difficult to make sense of that policy from any other assumption. The arguments offered by the Reagan administration and its supporters are impossible to take at face value. The president persists in describing Nicaragua as “totalitarian” and claims that America’s purpose there is to establish democracy. There are indeed grave violators of human rights and democratic process in contemporary Nicaragua: extensive (though erratic and inept) censorship of the press, sporadic harassment of opposition parties and labor unions and of the Roman Catholic Church, intrusive state-sponsored neighborhood committees. But these pale into insignificance beside the systematic, unrestrained state terror unleashed in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chile— all staunch American allies — in the last decade. It is possible in Nicaragua to make a speech, publish an article; give an interview denouncing the government; or organize a strike or an oppositional political association. Anyone attempting these things in El Salvador or Guatemala is routinely murdered. The State Department “Human Rights Report” blames the Nicaraguan government for the deaths of six political prisoners in 1984. More than 30,000 civilians have been killed in El Salvador by military and paramilitary forces in the last decade; the figures for Guatemala are comparable. Clearly, a US invasion of Central America on humanitarian grounds would be justified — directed not against the government of Nicaragua but against those of El Salvador and Guatemala.

The Reagan administration dismissed the November 1984 elections in Nicaragua as “Soviet-style,” a “sham,” and a “farce,” while praising the 1982 and 1984 elections in El Salvador as exemplary and citing them as vindication of US support for genuine democracy in Central America. In the spring 1985 issue of “Dissent,” Abraham Brumberg, a scholar and editor of impeccable anticommunist credentials, examines the reports of international observers and human-rights organizations covering the Nicaraguan election, he concludes that by Nicaraguan and Central American standards, it was exceptionally fair and free. The Sandinistas “made numerous concessions to the political opposition with regard to the electoral law,” they “clearly made strong efforts to reach an agreement with [opposition candidate Arturo] Cruz ‘in order to allow his participation, and the actual balloting was “eminently fair, the conditions for secrecy were scrupulously observed, the incidence of irregu1arities…remarkably low.” In El Salvador, by contrast, dozens of Christian Democratic politicians and party workers were murdered in the months before the 1982 and ‘84 elections, and it was generally recognized that any attempt by leftists to campaign in the countryside would he tantamount to suicide. (The Defense Ministry advised the left to participate in the 1982 electoral campaign via short wave radio.) Voting was compulsory, nonvoters were threatened with reprisals, and many ballot boxes were transparent plastic, with ballots visible and government officials standing nearby. So much for US support for genuine democracy in Central America.

Conservatives ritually refer to the Nicaraguan contras as “freedom fighters,” and even some “Phoenix”” writers seem willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. (Scot Lehigh, April 30: “Surely the Nicaraguan Democratic Front’s hypothetical commitment to democracy is more real than the falsified proposition that was the Sandinistas’ pledge.”) But the contras’ past affiliations and present blood thirstiness do not inspire much confidence elsewhere, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has written in the “New York Times”: “Everyone knows that if the rightist counterrevolutionaries fighting in the north of Nicaragua were to reach Managua, they would not create a democratic regime. They would first stage a bloodbath and then restore the former dictatorship.... The counterrevolutionaries would reverse the social and juridical changes wrought by the Sandinistas — such as the literacy campaign, health care programs and various provisions necessary for holding elections, including preparations for a census and laws protecting political parties. Nicaragua would fall once again into the pit of world indifference and internal oppression of the Somoza years [and] would again be a model servant of the United States.”

Reagan’s recent executive order imposing a trade embargo on Nicaragua alleged that Sandinista policies constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security…of the United States.” The claim that a nation of 2.7 million with a per capita income of $780 and virtually no air force can threaten the security of the United States is simply an expression of contempt for the intelligence of the American public. As for Nicaragua’s representing a threat to its neighbors, the reverse is true. The United States has been holding provocative military exercises on Nicaragua’s borders and coastline for some time. If the Nicaraguan army ever crosses the Honduran border, even in advertently, in pursuit of contra raiders, the US and Honduras are poised — American public opinion permitting — to launch a joint “defensive” invasion.

The Sandinistas’ response to this has been, predictably, to seek military aid and diplomatic support from the Soviet Union. Inasmuch as dependence on either superpower exacts moral costs, this is regrettable. But does it justify dark talk of Soviet expansionism? Compare Nicaragua in the 80s with South Vietnam in the ‘60s. The Nicaraguan government certainly has more popular support than the South Vietnamese government did, and the contras have much less popular support than did the National Liberation Front (Vietcong). It follows that if modest Soviet aid to Nicaragua is evidence of imperialist designs, then the massive American intervention in Vietnam was a great deal more so: likewise, if Soviet aid to the NLF infringed South Vietnam’s national sovereignty, then American aid to the contras would even more blatantly violate Nicaragua’s national sovereignty. Few politicians, even liberal Democrats, have the courage to put forth the “Vietnam analogy” in this form.

If, as I’ve suggested, every justification offered for current US policy in Central America is a cynical deception. What is the real motive of that policy? No doubt geopolitical paranoia and infantile aggressiveness play a large part. But I believe there is a “rational” motive as well. It is this: the domino theory is true, and policy makers know it. I don’t mean the silly, superficial version of the domino theory, in which an NLF victory in Vietnam was to be followed by the fall of Indonesia and the Philippines, or our failure to overthrow the Sandinistas is to be followed by the fall of Mexico and Brazil. I mean the serious version, which holds that any Third World country that achieves successful self-development, independent of American economic tutelage, may inspire other Third World countries to take the same developmental path. No hypothesis can explain everything, but this one makes sense of the United States’ implacable hostility toward postwar Vietnam, the extensive American terrorism and sabotage directed against Cuba in the 1960s, our current obsession with Nicaragua, and our simultaneous toleration of murderously repressive regimes throughout the “free world” with barely a whisper of protest.

Does my view of American foreign policy imply support for the Vietnamese/ Cuban/ Nicaraguan model of centralized, state-directed development? No, it does not. Clearly, that model involves much inefficiency and authoritarianism, which Americans should not hesitate to criticize. But it’s worth remembering that no country, including the United States, has industrialized without severe exploitation and repression. The question of whether a poor Third World country can find a humane path of development — especially in the face of First World hostility — is an extraordinarily complex and difficult one. But the question of whether the United States has the right to impose an inhumane model of development on such countries merely because it is in our alleged national interest to do so is a simple one, and the answer is no.

The president and his sup porters insist that the stakes are high in Central America. They are right, though not for the reasons they offer. If each super power habitually intervenes in its own “sphere of influence,” they may well wind up trying to extend these spheres. If they extend into the same region at the same time, sooner or later a military confrontation will result, with unpredictable, perhaps unimaginable, consequences. In the long run, our not bullying Nicaragua may he a matter not only of national honor hut also of national survival. For Americans, restraining the executive branch is our paramount “national interest” in Nicaragua.