A case study of Central American in 1980s

After the Second World War the relationship between the US and Soviet Union was changed from anti Nazi partners to latent enemies. But because of the nuclear threats from both sides, the possibility of a real battle became very small and a new form of cold war known as the competition between military, economies, politics, diplomacy, ideology and so on started. During the cold war both sides were trying to gain more international influence and power, so foreign policy became especially important. In term of the US and Latin America relation had changed a lot because of it. This essay is going to talk detailed about those changes and focus on countries like EI Salvador,Nicaragua and Guatemala .

During the Second World War the partnership relation between US and Latin American was very good and strong. For example, in the first two years of the war most Latin America countries were neutral as US, after US joining the war they stopped diplomacy with those fascism countries and claimed war against them Mexico and Brazil even sent troops to fight with US. Other Latin American countries also had done a lot to provide many material supports to US (Zhu 2002 p19). After the war although US did a lot to deepen its influence in economic, political and military terms but because its interventions anti US sense was popular in those Latin American people.

In 1959, the Cuba victory pushed this sense to a very high level and rang the alarm to US. In 1960, US have changed a lot of its attitude to Latin America. The reasons are on one hand, the great fear to the Soviet Union catch up and expansion, on the other hand the fear of Cuba bring communism domino effect to the Latin America countries and finally surrounded by the red empire (Priestland 2010 p48). From 1960, US launched a lot of actions to suppress communism and gain its power in Latin America.

Firstly, the long term actions toward Cuba to intervene and subvert the communism government. One thing should notice is it was not an independent movement but a collective one, countries like Dominica and Guatemala also involved. (Priestland 2010 p48). The relationships between the US and Latin American countries divided into clear branches. Secondly, ideology competition with communism accompanied with military actions. This movement was trying to reconcile the relationship through ideology penetration and economic aid and at the same time defeat the communism ideologically and physically. (Zhu 2002 p26) But outcomes are not all good as predicted because these ideologies also raised disputes between the US and authoritarian regimes in Latin America. Thirdly, mainly after the 1980s besides dollar diplomacy to Latin American, the US gave more concentration to Central America and Caribbean area as their most urgent task and changed their military and political strategy to a low intensity one.

Nicaragua and EI Salvador can be good examples to understand the policy. (Priestland 2010 p51) Nicaragua is quite different from other communism country, the reform of the Sandinistas was relatively soft and did not rose much class conflicts maybe partly because the avaricious Somoza regime that only the Somoza family owned 20% of the country’s cultivable land. (Skidmore & Smith 2005 p386)And also the Sandinistas’ different attitudes to capitalist countries relatively friendly and their nonaligned foreign policy make sure at the very beginning of 1980 its relationship with US was not bad, it was still able to get financial help from US (Priestland 2010 p51).

But the implement of the Reagan doctrine changed the situation. US started to sanction Nicaragua economically and politically and fostering any anti Sandinista force to subvert the communism government (Skidmore and Smith 2005 p387-388). The action was brutal almost 1% of the population died in the contra war. Combine with many other factor it finally lead the Sandinista lost the election to weak but pro US candidate (Priestland 2010 p60). In the EI Salvador case, even under very much domestic pressure, US had not stopped its military intervention. Unit any possible force within Latin American, gave economic aid and sent military advisor to support anti communism regime.

(Nigel 1990 p103) Many criticisms had put Vietnam label on this time. This led to 12 years civil war responsible for more than 75,000 deaths (Skidmore and Smith 2010 p388). But the US attitudes changed from purge to negotiation.

Partly because the reform nature and the popularity among people of the FMLN or partly the weakening soviet power, two conflict regime under supervision of US finally ceased fire and lead the EI Salvador to a direction to democracy (Nigel 1990 p105). But the American influence seemed hard to get rid of, even in 2004 when the election seems to be a victory of FMLN, American warned right wing with possibility of economic and political sanctions (Skidmore & Smith2010 p385). After persuading the Latin American countries with conciliatory policies before the World War II, Roosevelt’s administration had hoped to rally the Latin American countries to cooperate in defending the region. However, during the World War II and after the war, these nations found international military, political and economic relations with communist countries especially with the Soviet Union. After the World War II, the US had problems containing the spread of communism in Latin American countries.

The US policymakers attempted to control radicalism of social change as they argued that the US was encouraging the spread of democracy in these countries. It was difficult curbing the spread of communism and sometimes the US was forced to support undemocratic regimes like that of Anastasio Samoza of Nicaragua. If at all the United States wished to record any improvements with regard to the alliance it was enjoying with Latin America, the Kennedy administration deemed it necessary to take on board Nicaragua and President Anastasio in all the ensuing economic development programs.

In the 1970s, the Marxist left demonstrated its unwavering support for both Cuba and the Soviet Union, in addition to the desire to create communist regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. This implied that the Soviet Union was expanding power and spreading its communist ideology in America’s backyard. However, there was sharp division in the Reagan’s administration as conservatives wanted the Marxist left to be defeated while liberals feared another Vietnam-like war between the US and; El Salvador and Guatemala and therefore they did not support any military aid to anticommunist governments or rebel forces.

The US and Nicaragua

The US used the Central Intelligence Agency to achieve most of its ambitions in these countries. In Nicaragua, between 1981 and 1990, particularly in the Reagan’s administration, the CIA carried out several activities to destabilize the government of Nicaragua. They planted mines in harbors mainly those used by the civilians and also sunk civilian ships. They aided and trained the major rebel group in Nicaragua, the Contras Guerilla Insurgency which had its base in Honduras. The Contras insurgents waged guerilla war on the government and also carried out serious human rights abuse such as murder, torture, rape, kidnappings, arson among others aimed at destabilizing the government and eventually topple it and taking over power (The Catholic Institute for International Relations 11).

They even destroyed social amenities like health care centers and also assassinated the health care workers. According to Leogrande the CIA created the Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets (UCLAs) group in 1983 to help the US in sabotaging ports, bridges, refineries. This was part of the US deception strategy so that these activities would be perceived to be Contras sabotage activities. (Leogrande 1993 p340) The UCLA was responsible for the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors that saw many Nicaraguan boats sink and several foreign vessels damaged in January 1984 (Gilbert 1988 p167). This led to the ratification of the Boland Amendment which barred the provision of arms support to the Contras insurgents (Gilbert 1988 pI67). The amendment criminalized under the US law the supply of arms to any militant group. However, this did not stop the Reagan’s administration from supporting the Contras militants. Instead the hatched the Iran-Contra Plan which enabled them supply the Contras insurgents with arms.

The US had initially supported the Sandinista-dominated regime by providing economic assistance. US even helped the regime to take over power from the Samoza regime which was also doctorial. On the other hand, the United States government had to withhold its financial support when the conflict in Salvador came into the light. Moreover, private diplomatic contacts had to be engaged by the US government in a bid to try and persuade the government in Nicaragua to suspend its apparent subversion (Wenchi 2002 p34). The US government also put economic sanctions on Nicaragua and even supported Nicaragua’s neighbors against Nicaraguan aggression. In 1984, Nicaragua held presidential elections during the state of emergency that was meant to curb the Contras insurgents as well as the CIA-orchestrated bombings. The election was won by President Daniel Ortega. This government now leaned more towards the communist world and relied on the Central Committee of the Communist Party for approval of its activities (Kriele 1986 p56).

The US government maintained its arms support to the Contras insurgents so as to pressure the Nicaraguan government to revert its relations with the communist bloc (Kriele 1986 p57). It also made regulations that required that any non governmental organization to submit its public statements to the Censorship Bureau before making it public (Chamorro 1988 p23). The continued insurgency by the Contras militants through the US support destabilized the Nicaraguan government and was finally overthrown in 1990 (Chamorro 1988 p25).

The US and the Contras militants forced the Sandinistas to agree to elections which were finally held in 1990 and saw the end of the Sandinistas regime as the election was won by the opposition despite Ortega having used all the resources available and the power he possessed (Chamorro 1988 p27).

The US and El Salvador

In contrast, the US supported the Salvadoran military government against the insurgents from the left-wing militia during this time that it supported insurgents in fighting Nicaragua (Burgerman 1998 p272). During the Salvadoran Civil War which was between the Salvadoran military government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) which comprised of five left-wing militias; the US provided arms and economic support to the Salvadoran government and also protected the centrist Christian Democrats as well. The centrist Christian Democrats were the target of death squads which existed in Latin America (Francesca 2007 p32). In addition, even within the security forces in Salvador, divisions were apparent, with one part of the force affiliated to the reformists and the other part affiliated to the right-wing extremists. In an attempt to prevent the occurrence of an economic or political revolution, right-wing extremists had to rely on the death squad. According to Francesca Carter’s administration had to intervene again and again to prevent right-wing coups, while Reagan’s administration had to constantly threaten the right-wing extremists with aid suspension so that they could put an end to their killings and acts of violence. (Francesca 2007 p32) The US was determined to help El Salvador to overcome its bloody fighting since it wanted to ensure that the government did not lean towards the communist regime and that it achieved democracy.

Consequently, following many years of involvement in the civil war, it was time now for the US military to intervene and attempt to assist the government contain the insurgence. As a result, the rebels had no choice but to concede defeat. Since the US wanted the Salvadoran government to commit itself to democratic rule, it threatened the Salvadoran government with aid suspension unless it considered democratic transformations which the government accepted. This led to the promulgation of a new constitution, reforms in the armed forces and establishment of the civilian police force. The new constitution guaranteed free and fair political participation and prompted the transformation of FMLN from a militia group to a political party and its members granted amnesty. These transformations enabled the Salvadoran government achieve democratic and peaceful environment.

The US and Guatemala

Guatemala was and is still characterized by dictatorial rule and repressive military activities.

US provided military aid as well as training to Guatemala’s army in the 1960s and 1970s with an aim of helping it transform its army to be able to counter-insurgency forces (Burgerman 1998 p256). This was the origin of the death squads in Latin America. Government officials, army leaders and all those who supported the death squads had some close attachments with the US government. The US’s objective was to establish a counterinsurgency base against revolutions which could destabilize the activities of US corporations and US landowners in Guatemala.

The US used the CIA and the Guatemalan military to terrorize and eliminate guerillas, labor leaders, professionals and any other person who advocated to for revolution in the system of governance (Brody 1985 p71). The CIA provided training for the army, the police and the death squads and also provided arms support. However, in 1970s, public reports revealed the Guatemalan military torture and killings which propelled human rights activists in the US to protest against the human rights abuse in Guatemala (Burgerman 1998 p267). As a result, President Jimmy Carter halted open military aid to Guatemala in 1977. Military aid still continued through the CIA which still supported the atrocities committed by the military and the death squad in the President Lucas Garcia which began in 1978 (Burgerman 1998 p263). This regime set out to eliminate popular leaders in Guatemala. The 1980s saw more repression and massacre of the native communities by the Guatemalan military supported by the US through the CIA (Burgerman 1998 p262). Again reports revealed the military violations of human rights in Guatemala which made President Reagan to change his open aid policy to Guatemala and to apply the controversial two-track policy.

The Reagan administration supported the military oppression in Guatemala while in public; it made pronouncements which supported human rights and the rule law in Guatemala. The US government still relied on the CIA to liaise with the Guatemalan security forces. The US government did not intervene in the coup and the dictatorial rule of General Efrain Rios Montt which occurred between 1982 and 1983 (Burgerman 1998 p259). He killed and tortured Indians and those who survived escaped to Mexico. He used deception strategies to establish concentration camps for those who had survived the political genocides that had earlier been carried by the government and used the concentration camps to eliminate them.

His activities against the purported insurgents gave President Reagan the advantage to resume military support to Guatemala arguing that Montt’s counterinsurgency on the guerillas was working. CIA and the Guatemalan military activities did not even stop in President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo’s regime who was elected in the in December, 1985 (Burgerman 1998 p268). The CIA still provided assistance to the military in its repressive activities. Towards the end of Reagan’s administration, the government invented a new method for eliminating the indigenous Guatemalan population. The Guatemalan government supported by the US government sprayed toxic herbicides using the anti-drug helicopters (Burgerman 1998 p269). This caused the death of many people, animals and plants. Those who had fled to remote areas in Guatemala were either killed through the bombings that were carried out in these areas or captured in the pretext of the fight against drugs by applying its anti-drug policy. Those who were captured were tortured and killed.

The Bush administration also continued with Reagan’s two-track policy. In 1989, the Bush administration sent humanitarian aid to Guatemala particularly in areas most occupied by the guerilla movements. This was to convince the public that it supported human rights while the National Guard units which had been sent to provide medical services did more interrogation than provision of medical services. An American businessman, Michael Devine, was kidnapped and killed in 1990 for having information on Guatemalan military’s drug-trafficking activities. Although President Bush publicly announced an end to Guatemalan military aid, his administration continued to support the Guatemalan military through the CIA. The activities of the US in Guatemala were driven by the need to protect the United Fruit Company among many other US investments in Guatemala as well as its trade with Guatemala.

This company owned about 42% of Guatemala’ land and in addition, the company was exempted from taxes as well as import duties (Burgerman 1998 p266). Most of those who were involved in this company were in the US ruling circles. This is arguably the reason as to why the US supported the authoritarian regime in Guatemala which was renewed by the inauguration of President Reagan in 1981 while on contrary; they fought the authoritarian right-wing regime in Nicaragua.


The US relation with Nicaragua was the most conspicuous among Central American countries (Burgerman 1998 p273). The US relations with Guatemala and El Salvador were the exact opposite of its relations with Nicaragua. While the US government supported the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments against insurgency forces, it openly supported insurgent forces against the Nicaraguan government. Carter’s administration tried to influence the new government which entered power in 1980 through economic assistance for emergency aid and reconstruction. However, Reagan entered power in 1981; he halted all the economic support to Nicaragua since Nicaragua pursued communist ideology.

Economic sanctions as well as trade embargo were imposed on Nicaragua in 1985 and even convinced Nicaragua’s neighbors to impose trade embargo on Nicaragua. The US government went to the extent of lobbying the World Bank and the IDB against providing loans to Nicaragua. CIA activities included bombings of the transportation and storage facilities such as pipelines, oil tanks as well as launching helicopter assaults on its mining harbors among other activities.

According to Burgerman, the US Congress later on reversed its ban on provision of military support to the Contras militants in 1986 to provide military assistance approximately US$100 million. (Burgerman 1998 p273).


The US policymakers were very much concerned about the US’s national security especially after the World War II and therefore set out to expand its power and influence in Latin America. It was necessary for them to overcome global political and economic instability, and these are issues that presented a lot of risks to its prosperity and security.

To them, the Soviet Union was the source of the economic and political instabilities that they were faced with. The US intervention in any given country was determined by its national interest and ideology and was based on liberalism, its mission and anti-communism. As a result of the cold war the US was desperately trying to gain power and influences in Latin American. And this was showed to the world by the agreement between the US and Soviet Union about recognizing Latin America as the US’s sphere of influence. Based on different features and conditions of different Latin American countries, US had made different measures and policies to achieve its goal in different time. Different policies have different outcome and impact, and then lead to different effect on bilateral relation among different countries or with one country at different time, so the cold war to a very big extent shaped and influenced the relation between American and Latin America.


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