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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 184 | Noviembre 1996



Relations with the United States: A Two-Way Street

What will be the policy of the new U.S. government towards the new Nicaraguan government? We can learn a lot from the past. Rethinking relations with the hegemonic power should be accompanied by a recalling of history.

Augusto Zamora

Ten years have passed since the international court of justice handed down its decision in the case of the "Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua." The exact date was June 27, 1986. The case had been introduced on April 9, 1984. This indicates that that suit, the most famous of any heard by the "main judicial body" of the United Nations, coincided with the most intense period of the conflict that shook the Central American region in the last decade, and more specifically with the hardest years of the policy of intervention and force suffered by Nicaragua.

Ten years is a short lapse of time to turn one's eyes again to those years and expect that the events can be examined without passion, or at least with more objectivity. To expect this may be impossible in a country in which the sympathies and antipathies pull in generation after generation--in Nicaragua, a center later, the Conservatives still revile Liberal President Zelaya and the Liberals still defend him. There are still open wounds and inflamed hatreds, which is comprehensible given the magnitude of the conflict, which affected all Nicaraguans one way or another. The aftermath of that war includes traumas that are slow to heal. It is not easy for conflicts of the size imposed on Nicaragua to find an easy solution. The human damage is irreparable, the economic damage too profound, and the social dislocation too traumatic.

Understanding doesn't Mean Servitude

Perhaps the greatest damage has been the loss of hope and the dismembering of Nicaragua. The Sandinista revolution was the closest thing to a dream--of making a country, of possessing a free, just and independent homeland--in which a broad sector of the population, particularly its youth, participated. This could be the greatest contrast between the Nicaragua of today and that of yesterday, that which could have been and wasn't. It is enough to see the current political and institutional panorama to grasp the miasma into which Nicaragua has sunk. Disharmony and corruption have reached such depths that there will be no crawling out in the short run, not as long as a corroded and ambitious political class continues to direct the destiny of the country. Is it the right time to take a new look at the conflict that pitted the United States against Nicaragua, or, said more exactly, at the conflict that was imposed on our country? Rethinking our relationship with the hegemonic power should not be incompatible with gathering the history. Looking to the past does not mean locking ourselves into it, any more than the necessary understanding between the two countries should translate--even if it happens way too often--into servitude, abandonment or renouncing one's own interests. If that is how relations are understood, small countries like Nicaragua would be condemned to vassalage and humiliation

We can't go into the theme with fear. We should go into it, at the very least, to put a fundamental period of the history of Nicaragua and the Central American region on record. And to be better understood, this period should be inserted in the general framework of the relations between the two parts of the hemisphere, the United States and Latin America. This insertion is even more necessary insofar as it allows us to understand that the Central American conflict, and more specifically the US policy toward Nicaragua, does not constitute an isolated fact, but is the product of a conception whose roots are anchored in the last century.

Nicaragua in Lamentable First Place

Relations between the United States and Latin America have always been uneasy. The contradictions continue, and will continue, to arise because the interests of the superpower don't coincide with ours and are often contradictory. Coming to terms with this reality should not lead us to a simple anti US attitude, but rather to seek the inevitable roads of confluence, such that the mutual relations--thus far disadvantageous for our countries--can be replaced by attitudes that are constructive and beneficial for both parties, or that at least do not damage the interests of the Latin American countries.

Returning to Nicaragua, we could point out that relations with the United States have gone through different stages, divided by the evolution of US interests. The first stage, which we could call "canal based," covers the period in which the US interest in Nicaragua centered on the construction of the interoceanic canal, with two well marked periods: from 1848, with the arrival of the first diplomatic agent (Henry Wise), to the bombing and destruction of San Juan del Norte by the frigate Cane, in 1854.

After this there was a long hiatus, provoked first by the conquest of the territories wrenched away from Mexico in 1848, and afterward by the US civil war (1860 1865). The reappearance of the United States on the scene was a result of the war against Spain (1898), which ended with the annexation of Puerto Rica and the conversion of Cuba into a protectorate.

The ascension of the United States as a hegemonic country in the continent opened the stage of "classic" imperialism (1903 1945), summarized in two policies: that of the "big stick" and that of "gunboat diplomacy." That stage was followed by another parenthesis or transition (1934 1944), dominated by the aftermath of the 1929 "crash," the rise of fascism in Europe and the Second World War. That transition stage left infamous dictatorships in the Caribbean, sustained by armed forces created, trained and indoctrinated by the United States--Somoza being the most conspicuous example. These dictatorships would, in the postwar period, turn into the main instrument of control in our countries and into the last brake on the rise of nationalist, revolutionary or reformist movements.

The following stage corresponds to a United States that emerged from World War II as a superpower, rivaled only--and then only partially--by the Soviet Union. The defense of democracy and freedom in a bipolar world would determine the US foreign policy, which required its allies--those who sided either voluntarily or by force with the United States--to get solidly behind its policy of confrontation with the USSR. Latin America, as its main sphere of influence, had no other alternative than to accept this alignment, which the United States has managed to maintain without skimping on the means, which ranged from simple economic pressure to armed intervention. The only exception has been Cuba, whose resistance has earned it an inflexible and implacable US policy. The latest episode of this policy was the passage of the Law for Cuban Freedom and Democratic Solidarity, better known as the Helm Burton Law, which seriously aggravated the economic war that the United States has maintained against that tiny state since 1961.

Throughout all of these stages one fact leaps to view: no American country has suffered US interference in its internal affairs for such a long time and in so many ways as Nicaragua. There may be others, such as Cuba and Panama, that could show similar levels, but none could beat out Nicaragua for this lamentable first place.

Four Armed Struggles vs. the USA

It could be stated from one perspective that the conflict produced between 1979 and 1990 constituted a new episode between two groups with different positions and interests. On the one side were the nationalist forces of Nicaragua, in turn an expression of Latin American nationalism, who were determined to exercise the country's sovereign rights and develop a national project. On the other were the imperialist and hegemonic interests of the United States, early announced in the Monroe Doctrine, which consider Latin America, and in particular the Caribbean region, as a mare nostrum, in which only formally independent but economically dependent countries politically signed on to the discipline of the United States can exist.

These counterpoised interests have devolved into armed struggles of unequal intensity on four occasions. The first was between 1856 and 1858, when the National War against the filibusterers of William Walker occurred, supported by some US sectors. The next was between 1909 and 1912, a period spanning the Knox Note and the death of Benjamín Zeledón, which produced the first armed intervention. Following that came the stage between 1927 and 1934, which corresponds to the heroic struggle of Sandino and concluded with his assassination. Finally, the period between 1979 and 1990, which began with the triumph of the Sandinista revolution and ended with the electoral defeat of the FSLN as a consequence of the human and economic erosion provoked by nine years of a war without quarter.

Only in 1858 did Nicaragua see the triumph of the patriotic and nationalist forces, due in part to a lack of support for Walker's conquest adventure and in part to the union of all Central Americans against the filibusterer. Given the absolute inequality of the forces in conflict, the other three confrontations ended with the defeat of the nationalist forces. In two of these cases (1909 1912 and 1927 1934) the defeat was total and the patriotic forces were virtually wiped out, with the forced exile of their leaders (in the case of Zelaya) or with their death (in the cases of Zeledón and Sandino), followed by the pursuit and annihilation of their followers (Wiwilí). In the third case (1979 1990), the defeat was only partial since it was an electoral defeat rather than a military one and the nationalist forces retained a substantial part of their power, although in precarious conditions.

The criterion used as a guide or dividing line between nationalist Nicaraguans and those who are not is their position toward or links to and with foreign interests, in this case US ones. Nationalists are those forces that, independent of their political affiliation, have opposed US interference in Nicaragua's domestic and external affairs. Non nationalist groups and sectors are those that have favored, supported, incited and promoted foreign intervention, under whatever pretext or reason. All legislation in the world severely sanctions nationals who favor foreign interests to the detriment of their own country and it is an accepted idea in the world that no reason could justify one harming or selling out the independence of one's country, less yet when this encourages an armed foreign attack. "The prince should love his nation even more than his own children," said Seneca.

Independence: Hard but Possible

The Liberal and Conservative forces that fought against Walker, the Liberal followers of Zelaya, Zeledón and Sandino, and the sectors grouped around the FSLN must be included in the group of nationalists, as must the heterogeneous group of all those who, as individuals or from parties and other organizations, have opposed foreign interference and defended national independence. In the group of non nationalists, a line extends from the sadly celebrated Father Agustín Vijil (who served as William Walker's ambassador in the United States) to the sectors that gave coverage to the last aggression against Nicaragua. Among them are found such baneful figures as Adolfo Díaz, Carlos Cuadra Pasos, Emiliano Chamorro, the Somoza family and an endless etcetera that it is not necessary to include.

Because of Nicaragua's own conditions--its small size, small population and geographic proximity to the empire--its independence is hard to defend. As Karl W. Deutsch points out in his analysis of international relations, "In the small countries [those with less than 10 million inhabitants] it is more probable that foreign intervention, disguised or open, will be victorious." The facts support this statement. The smaller a country, the less the risks and efforts that must be invested for an intervention to be successful. Only 6,000 Marines were needed to invade Grenada in 1983. In 1965, 25,000 were used in the Dominican Republic, and a similar amount invaded Panama in 1989. For Nicaragua, it required nine years of indirect war, destruction and economic boycott. In Vietnam, not even 600,000 soldiers could prevent the US defeat. On the other hand, no Western power even contemplated invading China to prevent the victory of Mao's communists.

The fact that independence is difficult does not mean that it's impossible. Deutsch adds: "A small country must usually have a government of unusual strength, or a strong motivation among its inhabitants, to maintain the kind of government that puts it in conflict with a powerful neighbor. But in different epochs and in various ways, Switzerland, Israel, Finland, Afghanistan and Cuba have shown that this can be done. In particular, because a small, well defended country may not be worth the probable costs [to its large neighbor] of a sufficiently large scale intervention to pull down its government or end its independence." It is important to keep these antecedents in mind to avoid falling into defeatism or fatalism.

Trafficking with Nicaragua instead of Defending It

In Nicaragua, as in other countries of the region and the world, a sector of the political and economic class has opted to bow down to the positions of the hegemonic power, renouncing the exercise of the country's sovereign rights in all the aspects or issues that the United States does not allow.

The denial of sovereignty never has a general character. If it did, the state would disappear, giving rise to a protectorate or colony. In cruder terms, a sector of the dominant class too important to ignore considers it more profitable--or less risky, or a fatal fact against which it is useless to fight--to accept US interference. Since it is useless to fight it, they say, the best thing is to admit it. Whatever reason they invoke, these citizens assume as their praxis to traffic with the country's interests instead of defending them.

The political attitude of this sector ends up determined by the position that the United States assumes toward a concrete government. If the latter obtains the nihil obstat and is accepted by the US authorities, its local favorites will also accept it, even if with clenched teeth. This happened in Nicaragua during the Carter period. If, instead, the government is rejected, this sector will defect into the opposition, as happened during the administration of Ronald Reagan. The motive for these attitudes is found in the conviction that the anathemized government will fall sooner or later, and the sell outs will receive the country as recompense. Juan José Estrada in 1909, Adolfo Díaz in 1912, Emiliano Chamorro throughout his life, José María Moncada in 1927, Violeta Barrios and Adolfo Robelo in 1980 and the UNO coalition in 1989 are all examples of this attitude.

A trip through our history illustrates this attitude. José María Moncada justified to his generals his buckling to US intervention in the following terms: "I have no desires for immortality. That is, I do not want to be the second Zeledón. I am already old and if I can live a few years more, so much the better. I tell you this with respect to the American imposition. In other words, I wouldn't go into struggle against the American army for anything, given how disastrous that would be for our army and for the country in general." With the Espino Negro Pact, imposed by Stimson in 1927, the Liberal Party renounced its nationalist heritage and assumed the same position as the Conservative Party toward foreign intervention.

From that time on, the patriotic forces were proscribed, and after the establishment of the Somocista dictatorship, were made illegal. The forces that emerged later--such as the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and certain Conservative sectors--would exist as "tolerated" but not legal parties. The defeated nationalist sentiment remained a minority for decades, allowing the consolidation of the Somocista dictatorship and an undiscussed submission to the United States. "The basis of empires is the political apathy of the majority of its population," recognized Deutsch.

United States: Informal Empires

The creation, financing and support of local groups identified with foreign interests is a common policy of the countries of the center in their relations with the peripheral countries. This makes it possible to maintain "informal empires." Latin America has been a prodigal country in providing examples. In the 19th century, Great Britain created an informal empire in the old Spanish colonies, which the United States then inherited. The United States imitated the model and, as Tony Smith has indicated in his study of models of imperialism, the US policy of expansion in the Third World was based on "controlling a regional situation through its local allies" and on the availability of "reasonably strong local allies that take on the burden of the effort." Informal imperialism is harder to denounce. An intervening military force is felt and suffered. In this other form of intervention, economic and political control is diffuse, largely thanks to the local agents who provide the face and the words to disguise this control. The native armies--designed to act as occupation armies--are not seen as such and fulfill the same task with fanatic zeal.

The US attitude toward the Third World's nationalist movements has not been uniform. Smith argues that the US initially supported the South's nationalism against European imperialism, propelled by economic motives. Woodrow Wilson was the first to speak of self determination in the Conference of Versailles, after World War I, although he did not intend the concept to be applied beyond Europe. In 1944, Roosevelt upheld the need to grant independence to the colonized countries and peoples. The Unitd States supported the decolonization process promoted through the United Nations, but these attitudes have been determined by economic and political interests. Decolonization opened the old colonies up to US companies which, as in the Middle East, displaced the European ones in the control of basic natural resources such as petroleum. Furthermore, it favored nationalism, above all in Eastern Europe--its support to the insurrections in Hungary and Poland--because this attacked Soviet interests. But it persecuted nationalism in Latin America, because it considered it an enemy of US interests. This is an important element to keep in mind to understand more fully the US policy toward the countries in the south of the continent.

What's Good for the USSR is Bad for the USA

The triumph of the Sandinista revolution meant that the nationalist and revolutionary forces had taken power, 45 years after the murder of Sandino. The illusion of national unity went up in smoke quickly. The anti Somocista front fell apart in no time and the rupture deepened with the electoral victory of the Republican Party and its candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. An important sector of the traditional economic oligarchy--as well as that of the political class--broke with Sandinismo and lined up, as in the past, with the hegemonic power.

With the Republican victory, US foreign policy made a Copernican shift. This triumph, says Smith, augured "another wave of the US imperialism of occupation." Reagan brought back the rigid criteria of Truman and his anti communist crusade. The world situation was seen as a zero sum game. "Any zero sum game," says Deutsch, "represents a simple benchmark with no alternative. What's good for one side is necessarily bad for its adversary, and anything that may in any way be good for one's adversary must necessarily be bad, and to the same degree, for oneself." Applying this guideline to politics, "everything that's good for communism, or even merely acceptable to it, must automatically be bad for the United States." The "impatient [activists] of the universal hard line," says Hoffman, "showed that the world still was, above all else, a duel between communism and us," and "the typical machismo of a Hollywood western characteristic of Ronald Reagan proved attractive to an appreciable fraction of a disoriented public." Viewing international relations in extremist terms, "the peoples of the Third World appeared as hollow pawns in the contest set up between the superpowers."

The proposals of the Republican administration left no room for neutrals or for those who wanted to remain outside the conflict between these great powers. In this sense, the Sandinista revolution, which had triumphed in a favorable international context, found itself in the eye of the hurricane after 1980. Nicaragua's geographic and economic situation made it the ideal objective of a low cost policy of intervention and force with nearly assured success. The possibility of an understanding with the new US government was compromised by the Reagan administration's decision to define the conflict with the USSR in zero sum terms. Being nationalist, sympathizing with Cuba and establishing relations with the communist countries while broadening and deepening its ties with Latin America were seen as a sum for the USSR and zero for the United States. This extremist view ended up determining the failure of Nicaragua's constant peace initiatives as well as of internal efforts such as those of Undersecretary of State for Latin America Thomas Enders, who favored an understanding with Sandinismo. The hard line, which supported armed intervention in Nicaragua, won the day.

The Sandinistas' electoral defeat in February 1990 shattered Nicaragua into dozens of pieces. Domestic sectors and foreign governments still celebrate the defeat of totalitarianism, which has certainly been more a defeat for Nicaragua than for the FSLN. A reflection by Stanley Hoffman on US policy in Vietnam is evocative: "Others still believe that despite anything that could be said, our effort was not immoral because our intentions were good. But the ethics of political action is an ethics of consequences, not of motives.... There is nothing moral or politically wise in the arrogance that makes us substitute 'their' realities for our dream and [when the realities do not live up to the dream] use vile and violent means to try to realize the dream that the conflictive realities have made unrealizable."

However much one would like to present US policy toward Nicaragua in the 1980s as based on good intentions, its results suffice to delegitimize it. The destruction of a country could be explained from amoral positions--like those held by "realists" such as Morgenthau or Kissinger--but never from those that claim to defend the rights of nations or of human beings.

It would appear that one of Reagan's concerns was that a communist victory in Central America "would lead to a massive flight of refugees to the United States and the prospect of uncountable Central American refugees crossing the Río Grande alarmed him tremendously." Facts have more than demonstrated that the cruel wars suffered in Central America are what have provoked the uncontainable wave of refugees. After 1991, the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran governments had to ask the United States not to expel the illegal immigrants. The flood of poor emigrants has sparked a racist and xenophobic reaction in the United States. Wire fences, concrete walls, military detachments and laws are all used to try to hold back the Latin Americans fleeing poverty. In the United States they seem not to understand that the problem of hunger is not resolved with repression, but with social justice and the citizenry's participation, and that if they don't want emigrants they should drastically modify their behavior patterns and abandon their imperial policy.

Do We Believe in the UN Charter?

As a consequence of the overwhelming US influence, Nicaragua--as well as the other countries in the region--have been obliged to make their relations with this country a life and death issue. The nationalist forces, although defeated again and again, persevere in their dream of someday having a free country without having to die for it, although are willing to do so if there's no other alternative. We cannot stop being critical of imperialism for the simple reason that imperialism is opposed to independence. As happened with slavery, one cannot assume an indecisive or vacillating posture toward this phenomenon. One either does or does not believe in the right of all countries in the world to their sovereignty and independence. In juridical terms, we either believe that the United Nations Charter is valid or we go around it. It is impossible to combine the right to independence with tolerance or acceptance of intervention by powerful countries to the detriment of the weak ones. As the International Court of Justice said in 1949: "The supposed right of intervention cannot be considered more than a manifestation of a policy of force reserved by the nature of things to the most powerful states."

USA: Old Habits Die Hard

Anti imperialist is not the same as anti American. One cannot be against an entire country because, in the immense majority of cases, ordinary people have nothing to do with the policy of their government. Furthermore, demanding relations of respect should cease being a crime. Only extremist mentalities could view it a crime when a people aspires to improve its living conditions and raise its education levels, building houses, hospitals, industries and research centers.

Today's world has little or nothing to do with the one existing between 1979 and 1990. The USSR no longer exists and the cold war is now a museum piece. The signs of the times have been forced into a foreseen retirement, although--and this is one of the most notable characteristics of today's world--the huge problems that affected the world remain, some immutable, others noticeably aggravated. The terms in vogue speak of globalization, competitiveness, free trade, dislocation. No one, or almost no one, wants to be reminded of the North South conflict or of unequal exchange. Less still does anyone speak of a new international economic order. But the fact remains that the wealthy countries are ever wealthier and the poor ones, like Nicaragua, are ever poorer.

The relations between Latin America and the United States would seem to have experienced a change in accord with the new times. Without the communist threat it should be possible to think about more egalitarian relations, about greater respect for the sovereignty of nations and about mutual trust. Nonetheless, situations such as that of Cuba, besieged without pity or truce and without the slightest thought to the fundamental norms of International Law; the attitudes of the United States regarding drug traffic, in which it tries to impose its own policies on countries that are suffering this vice without respecting their sovereignty; or the military intervention in Haiti on the pretext of defending democracy all make one think that old habits in the United States refuse to die. Such facts force us to temper our hopes of establishing a really new framework of relations between our countries.

The Seeds of New Violence

One as yet unresolved theme is the tension between Latin American nationalism--political and economic--and the persistent intolerance, to say the least, of an influential sector of the US political class. Monroism still strongly resonates in the United States, frightening off Japanese and European investors, while cruel policies with no alternatives are dictated for the countries of the region from international organizations controlled by the US government, increasing poverty and inequality, making dependence even harder and underdevelopment even deeper. The seeds of new spirals of violence are there and anti imperialist and anti US sentiments are reproduced in them as well.

"North Americans often forget how powerful and lasting the memories of historic injustices can be." These words are by Richard Nixon, in a commentary on the relations between Russia and the other republics that made up the Soviet Union. Further on he stated: "We can be sure that the Ukrainian longing for national self determination will not vanish any time soon." Although these comments refer to the nationalism of non Russian Soviet peoples, they could be applied to Latin America, the hinterland of the United States as much as those European states were--and continue to be--of Russia.

Will the United States be capable of abandoning its old and negative habits and policies and assuming the need to respect the independence and sovereignty of the hemisphere's states as a historic necessity? Will it give up turning to direct and indirect intervention, for whatever motive, to smother the demands for change and the indispensable political, economic and social reforms? Will it finally accept a relationship of equality, without considering the demands for real and effective independence, not just the formal and decorative independence of today, as hostile acts?

If the Ukrainians have kept alive their "longing for national self determination after 300 years of union with Russia, the Latin American peoples, many of whom, like Nicaragua, have been fighting for their self determination and independence for nearly a century and a half, have even more reason. This factor should be kept in mind if constructive relations are desired. In oppressive situations the nationalist phenomenon does not diminish. Zeledón was defeated and killed and those who followed him were few. Sandino was not defeated, but he was killed, and his followers were many more. The FSLN promoted a revolution and defeated the dictatorship. It did not lose the war and, though it did lose the elections, it is today the greatest political force in the country. Military interventions, dictatorship and war did not weaken that sentiment; they made it grow.

If the conservative forces in the Unites States--those who sponsor and impose laws such as Helms Burton--are incapable of taking on the right to national self determination, it is predictable that the conflicts will continue. It could happen that the conservative forces succeed in imposing themselves in the continent for a while longer, but such policies cannot be maintained over the medium and long run. If history teaches anything it is that no empire is eternal and that the world is moving toward a greater democratization of the international society. Barely half a century ago a handful of countries governed the world. The bipolarity that followed World War II did not prevent international society from paying less tribute to the empires. Today we live in a multipolar world in which the United States is no longer a dominant power even if it is still a decisive factor. In 1945 the US economy represented 50% of the world economy. Today, the US gross domestic product is in second place (20%), after the European Union (22%) and followed closely by Japan (19%), while China is emerging as the fifth world power. Lester Thurow, an MIT professor, recalls that "to be simply one more in the group of wealthy countries in a wealthy world is much better than being the only wealthy country in a poor world."

A Two Way Street

The United States is an unopposable reality in the world and the strongest one on this continent. This reality obliges us to seek roads of understanding and constructive relations for all. But that is a two way street, in the sense that the two parties should show their willingness to cooperate, without the most powerful expecting the weak to always bow down. History teaches us that collaboration is more productive than confrontation. Also that it is less costly for a country to defend its interests when, as in 1857, it unites its forces. Looking at the past should allow us to understand the present and, above all, should make us move toward the future with perspectives that are more correct and more tuned to our reality.

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