The escalation of the civil war in El Salvador into a US-Soviet confrontation has been accompanied by an escalation of hypocritical rhetoric from all points of the political compass.
From several liberal and left-wing circles comes the predictable opposition to any sort of US intervention, all the while turning a blind eye to Soviet/Cuban aid. Writing in the Miami Herald, political scientist William LeoGrande complains that the Reagan administration "now proposes to inject massive quantities of economic and military aid, including scores[!] of military advisors"—as if 800 tons of Communist-supplied arms and thousands of Cubans in neighboring Nicaragua did not constitute intervention.
But the conservatives are equally off-base. While denouncing the Carter "human rights" policy for naively attempting to manipulate events and tailor outcomes (for example, in Iran and Nicaragua), Secretary of State Haig and President Reagan are attempting to do the same thing today in El Salvador. Overthrow of the virtually US-installed Salvadorean junta, said Haig in March, would "not represent United States policy" and would carry "serious consequences." A coup against the junta by either rightists or leftists "would be of gravest concern to us," added President Reagan. This from an administration whose nominee for assistant secretary of state for human rights, Ernest W. Lefever, calls himself a "strong noninterventionist" in the internal affairs of other nations!
Some libertarians have also let opposition to dictatorship spill over into support for meddling in other countries' internal affairs. REASON recently turned down an article that detailed the ways in which US policy had propped up Nicaragua's late dictator Somoza. The thrust of this supposedly noninterventionist piece was that the US government had waited far too long before destabilizing Somoza's regime!
A sensible foreign policy toward Latin America, it seems to us, must recognize the reality of two crucial factors. The first is that the countries of the Western Hemisphere are, in fact, sovereign states. A US policy based on the historic pattern of Big Brother paternalism—the policy of Carter's "human rights" as well as Reagan's "anticommunism"—is both wrong and self-defeating. It is wrong because the US government has no right to decide which governments should rise or fall in Latin America. It is self-defeating, as well, because such a policy plays right into the hands of the Soviets and their Cuban proxies by reinforcing the stereotype of Yankee imperialists who side with the oligarchy against the populace.
The second crucial fact is the very real threat posed by Soviet penetration of this hemisphere. The establishment of socialism in Nicaragua, for example, may threaten the rights of a few American business people and property holders, but that is the risk of doing business in unstable countries. It does not threaten the security of the United States. While the socialization of Nicaragua is tragic for the citizens of that country, it is not the proper business of the US government to concern itself with that problem. If Nicaragua becomes a Soviet military base, of course, that's another question entirely.
At this point in time Cuba is the only Soviet military outpost in the hemisphere. The presence of a Soviet submarine base at Cienfuegos is a real, tangible threat to the security of this country, substantially increasing the danger of nuclear attack by giving Soviet submarines an extended range of operations. The pattern of recent Soviet government actions—particularly its orchestration of the massive transfer of arms from Communist countries to Cuba and Nicaragua for shipment to Salvadorean guerrillas—makes it clear that the Soviets seek to establish further outposts in Latin America. But they have not yet succeeded in doing so. And US policy should be aimed at preventing them from succeeding.
How? First, by not equating Soviet aid to internal rebellions with Soviet control or Communism. The fate of Nicaragua, let alone that of El Salvador, is far from settled. But the more US policy identifies with dictatorships and reflexively opposes rebellions against them, the more likely rebel groups are to succumb to Cuban/Soviet pressure. As far as the internal affairs of sovereign states are concerned, US policy should be "hands off" and "mouth closed."
At the same time, however, it would be foolishly naive to sit back and do nothing while the Soviets and Cubans send millions of dollars worth of weapons into the region. Here is where tough diplomacy could make a real difference. Both the Cubans and the Soviets want certain things from the US government, in exchange for which they might well give up the potential of outposts in Central America. Fidel Castro considers the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay "a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil." In fact, it is of little real military value to the Navy. What if President Reagan offered to remove it…in exchange for the removal of Soviet military bases from Cuba? Brezhnev and Company want access to US grain and technology. What if that access were conditional upon the absence of any arms shipments into the Western Hemisphere?
For the United States to be propping up dictators and oligarchies contradicts the most basic principles of our heritage of freedom. We are a nation born in revolution—a revolution against arbitrary rule and hereditary power structures. A free-market economic system is itself revolutionary, continually producing change that expands people's options—not preserving an established order. What a tragic irony that the feudalistic philosophy of Marx and Lenin, rather than our own truly revolutionary tradition, has captured the imagination of those seeking a better life in Latin America!
One can only hope that—before it's too late—the Reagan administration will recognize the complex realities of Latin America and stop trying to pick winners and losers. By staying out of internal disputes and by keeping the Soviets out, too, the United States would once again raise a banner to which the wise and honest could repair.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Facing Reality in Latin America".