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Political Ferment in Central America, 1984

© 1984 Donald J. Mabry

    I find the causes of political ferment in Central America so deep-rooted and complex that I hesitate to speak about them. Perhaps that is the scholar's natural reluctance to generalize. But speak I must. I want to start by describing the region. In the process, some of the causes will be highlighted. I will then touch on some of the immediate causes.

    Each nation is small. Nicaragua, the largest, is 5% larger than Mississippi whereas El Salvador, the smallest, is 17% the size of Mississippi. Nicaragua and Panama have a population density similar to Mississippi but the others have more people per square mile. El Salvador, with 526 people per square mile, is more crowded than China or India. Guatemala has the most people with 7.7 million; Salvador has 5.million; and Honduras about 4 million. The other three are about the size of Mississippi.

    All are poor by Mississippi standards where per capita income is about $6200. The richest is Costa Rica; its per capita income is 25% of. Mississippi's. Nicaragua, before the Sandinista revolution, had a per capita income that was about 13.5% of Miss. Salvadoran income is about 10' % of Miss. Honduras, the poorest with $400 is 61% of Miss.

    The region is primarily agricultural in spite of numerous mountains and jungles. Coffee, cotton, and bananas are the leading crops. Honduras is the classic banana republic. The economic health of these nations depends upon worldwide commodity markets, over which they have no control. In recent years they have been battered by high inflation, declining export earnings, and rises in the prices of oil and manufactured goods. They have covered trade deficits with massive borrowing and have been avid supplicants for economic aid.

    Some people fare well in such an economy. Except for Costa Rica and Panama, a small oligarchy has owned these nations. Before the beginning of land reform in Salvador in 1980, 1% of the population owned 50% of the land. Thirty-five percent of the rural population owned no land. Before 1979, Nicaragua might have more properly been called Somoza, Inc. for the Somoza family owned 25% of the arable land and fifty-one corporations; put another way, they owned about half of the economy. In Honduras, 10% of the people receive 60% of the Gross Domestic Product and 5% own 60% of the land.

    Except for Costa Rica, each of these nations is and has been controlled by the military although sometimes it is called the National Guard. They are military dictatorships which serve the interests of the officer corps and the oligarchy. At times, civilians are put into the presidency but are never allowed to make-the important decisions. Suázo Córdoba, a civilian, is president of Honduras but, in 1984, Air Force General Walter López Reyes overthrew General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez and took his place as commander of the Honduran military without telling the civilian president until after the fact. When Duarte became provisional president of Salvador in 1980, he was the first civilian president since 1931 and was brought into the government by a military junta, which he could not control. Most of the changes in government in Central America are squabbles among officers. Some want the chance to enrich themselves; a few want to reform their societies,

    These nations have had violent histories. They have fought each other numerous times. In the beginning of the century, Nicaragua was constantly fighting or intervening in the internal affairs of its neighbors. The military has an extensive record of violence against its opponents. The Guatemalan military has been especially ferocious against Indians; separatists, constitutionalists, and, of course, guerrillas. That these armies are trained and equipped by the United States does not go unnoticed. Few remember that U.S. suspension of military aid in an effort to reform these governments have failed simply because they buy arms from Argentina, Israel, the U.S. Mafia or other suppliers.

    These militaries do little or nothing to stop the death squads which have been killing conservatives, liberals, leftists, workers, peasants, priests, and even U.S. officials. Like the death squads, they oppose democratic government, civil discourse, and land reform. Death squad members also tend to be current or former members of the security forces.

    T he death squads are a very serious threat to the stability of the region. They are destroying the political center and driving people into the arms of the radical left or into a perpetual state of fear. Duarte estimates that the Salvadoran death squads have killed 600 members of his party. The U.S. government estimates that they are killing.500 a month in Salvador. They killed Archbishop Romero while he s saying mass; three U.S. nuns and a lay worker; two US AID land reform specialists in the Sheraton Hotel coffee shop; and a number of other people days after they were denounced by Roberto D'Aubuisson.

    Since violence is a way of life and peaceful efforts to change have failed, armed uprisings have not been uncommon. The Matanza of 1931, a peasant uprising led by Farabundo Martí, saw 8,000-10,000 killed by the army. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua grew in direct proportion to Somoza's tyranny. Military repression and death squad activity have aided the growth and appeal of the radical left

    The radical left has committed murder and kidnappings as well. It is not as good at it as the established authorities, of course. Moreover, being out of power, it cannot risk alienating the population it is courting. Kidnapping has proven an effective means to raise millions of dollars with which to finance insurrection; bank robberies perform the same function In both cases, the "rich" are the targets.

    The fall of Somoza in 1971 proved that military dictatorships could be beaten and beaten without much outside aid. The Sandinistas got most of their aid from within Nicaragua and from Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panamá. Somoza had not only alienated the bulk-of the population but had also been too greedy to supply his army adequately.

    The survival of the Sandinista government, especially in the face of the withdrawal of U.S. aid and the U.S. training and financing of moderate Sandinista and Somocista exile armies in early 1981 has encouraged guerrilla movements. Nicaragua was devastated by the anti-Somoza rebellion and took aid from any source available. It also began to convert itself into a garrison state to maintain the Sandinistas in power, discourage attacks from its ancient rivals Honduras and El Salvador, and to provide "jobs" for its many unemployed. The Sandinistas have also allowed arms to pass through Nicaragua on their way to El Salvador. Internal upheaval in neighboring countries keeps those countries from trying to stop the Sandinista Revolution

    The U.S. has responded to political ferment in Central America through various means. In the case of Nicaragua, aid was cut off, exile armies created, and harbors mined. Honduras with a national budget of $675 million, received $41 million in economic aid, $11 million in military aid, and a low-interest $200 million loan in 1981. The US drastically beefed up its own military presence in Honduras and conducted several joint military exercises. Guatemala has also received increased economic and military aid. In El Salvador, the US. backed the reform military junta that seized power in 1979 and pressured the junta to accept Duarte and his reform program in 1980. In December, 1981, the U.S. began training the Salvadoran military because it had been to unsuccessful in defeating the guerrillas. In March, 1982, the U.S. supervised democratic elections to a Constituent Assembly and, in March, 1983, for the presidency. The military is still powerful, however. The US has demanded that the death squads be stopped. U.S. military and economic aid for FY '84 was budgeted at$260 million.

    In sum, the US is trying to drive the Sandinistas from power in Nicaragua, strengthen the anti-guerrilla capabilities of Guatemala and Honduras, and support democratic reform in El Salvador.