excerpted from the book

In the Name of Democracy

U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years

by Thomas Carothers

University of California Press, 1991


An Evolutionary Policy

The Reagan administration characterized almost all its policies toward Latin America as efforts to promote democracy. The mix of rhetoric and reality in the administration's pervasive use of the democracy theme was complex. Four different types of policies were carried out under the democracy promotion rubric. Each had its own mix of style and substance. Considerable evolution in the content of the policies occurred during the decade, generally reflecting a movement away from purely rhetorical invocations of the democracy theme to more substantive prodemocracy involvement.

The democracy theme first appeared in the Reagan administration's Central America policy. One-half of the Reagan administration's intensive anticommunist campaign in Central America was bolstering the governments of the countries it saw as threatened by internal or external leftist aggression-El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Very early on the administration adopted the line that it was not just bolstering existing Central American governments against leftist threats, it was promoting democratic change in those countries. The adoption of the democracy theme reflected two quite different motivations. On the one hand, the administration recognized that it would not be possible to secure congressional approval for the ambitious military assistance programs contemplated for those countries unless there was movement away from military rule to elected civilian governments. On the other hand, some persons in the administration, generally the moderates who dominated the State Department's Latin America team, believed that anticommunist military efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere would not be successful if the underlying political and economic problems that created pressure for radical change were not solved.

Although the Reagan administration cast its policies toward (these) Central American countries as democracy promotion campaigns, in fact the fundamental policy was anticommunism. Promoting democracy, which the Reagan administration interpreted as fostering elected governments, was one component of the anti-communist policy (along with military and economic components), though it was not the totality of the policy. The priority of the political component relative to the military component varied over time in each country. In the early 1980s, the military component was clearly the administration's highest overall priority. The hard-liners in the administration dominated the Central America policy and they were interested in the political component largely for its utility in the domestic policy arena; their commitment to it even for that purpose was essentially rhetorical. The moderates were genuinely interested in the political component but they had only limited influence. This balance shifted somewhat in the mid-1980s. As the leftist insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala were brought under control and elected governments emerged, the military component of U.S. policy toward those countries lost its urgency and the political component grew in relative importance. In Honduras no such evolution occurred because the high-intensity military component of U.S. policy toward Honduras was tied to the unbending Nicaragua policy rather than to internal developments in Honduras.

The theme of promoting democracy spread to the other half of the Reagan administration's Central America policy, the anti-Sandinista campaign in Nicaragua, soon after it appeared in the policy toward the other countries of Central America. In 1982, the Reagan administration adopted the "internal democratization" of Nicaragua as one of its conditions for a bilateral security accord with Nicaragua. This adoption was a move by the hard-liners to insure that no security accord was negotiated between the United States and Nicaragua that left the Sandinista government intact. The hardliners believed that the Sandinistas were hardened communists and would therefore never accept an accord that provided for democracy in Nicaragua. In short, the hard-liners settled on the "internal democratization" of Nicaragua as a principled, publicly acceptable formulation of their basic desire to oust the Sandinistas.

As the militaristic policy toward Nicaragua developed, the stated emphasis on promoting democracy grew. The administration increasingly packaged the policy as a noble democratic crusade, devoting a great deal of time and energy to denouncing the Sandinistas as brutal totalitarians and praising the contras as heroic freedom fighters. The intensification of the democracy rhetoric reflected the administration's continual effort to win support for its policy in the U.S. Congress and from the U.S. public. Promoting democracy was the most anticommunist policy.

Promoting democracy figured as a theme of the October 1983 , U.S. invasion of Grenada. The invasion was an anticommunist intervention aimed at rolling back one small part of the outer fringe of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. The Reagan administration made restoring democracy one of the main stated rationales for the invasion; as with the Nicaragua policy, promoting democracy was an alternative to presenting the policy in naked anticommunist terms. Having stressed democracy promotion during the invasion, the administration kept U.S. troops on the island long enough t~ oversee the establishment of an electoral process and the election of a government with plausible democratic credentials.

After it became established as the overarching theme of all of the Reagan administration's Central America policy, promoting democracy emerged as the dominant stated theme of the administration's South America policy as well. In the initial years of the Reagan administration, promoting democracy did not appear as an important element, either rhetorical or substantive, of U.S. policy toward South America. The Reagan administration was preoccupied with trying to rebuild relations with the military governments of the region, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and there was little place in this anticommunist policy for democracy concerns. Between the 1982 Falklands War and the end of the first Reagan administration, however, U.S. policy shifted away from the renewal of relations with military governments toward a low-profile policy of support for the newly emerging democratic governments of South America. The policy shift was primarily the result of the strong democratic trend in South America itself; military governments were on their way out, and the early policy of removal went out with them. The administration characterized the new policy as a policy of promoting democracy. This prodemocratic cast of the later South America policy was genuine, but the administration put so little real economic or political weight behind it that the administration's prodemocratic commitment made little impression in South America or in the U.S. policy community.

During the second half of the 1980s, the Reagan administration developed policies of economic and diplomatic pressure against the four remaining right-wing dictators in the region, Pinochet in Chile, Stroessner in Paraguay, Noriega in Panama, and Duvalier in Haiti. In each case the administration was seeking to induce the dictator to step down and permit a transition to elected rule. The policies developed quite separately from one another but the administration portrayed them as multiple examples of a policy of promoting democracy in right-wing as well as left-wing countries. The policies were rooted in a mix of symbolic and substantive motivations in which promoting democracy was a genuine motivation but not always the dominant one.

Although the Reagan administration embraced the promoting democracy theme for its rhetorical value, there is no question that over the course of the Reagan years the theme gathered some real substance and that an administration initially unsympathetic to what it saw as moralistic crusades abroad became sincerely interested in being a force for democracy in Latin America. This shift was the result of a number of factors; three major ones stand out. The first was the consistent pressure on the Reagan administration from many Democrats in Congress to pay attention to democracy and human rights in Latin America. This pressure forced the administration to engage itself with the issue and in some cases shaped U.S. policy in ways favorable to the promotion of democracy and human rights. The pressure affected all different areas of the Reagan administration's Latin America policy.

The deep-seated opposition of many Democrats in the House of Representatives to military assistance for Central American countries with military governments was crucial in convincing the hard-liners in the administration to add a political component to its military-oriented, anticommunist policy in those countries. Throughout the 1980s, congressional interest in human rights and democracy in Central America obliged the administration to address questions of the day-to-day reality of the political process in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and to incorporate at least some concern for human rights into its policy.

Congressional resistance to the contra aid program was obviously a major factor in the evolution of the administration's anti-Sandinista policy in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration expended incalculable quantities of time and energy in an only partly successful effort to get congressional approval for contra aid. The concern of many Democrats in Congress that in Nicaragua the Reagan administration was arming antidemocratic, reactionary forces for an anticommunist crusade led the Reagan administration to cast the contra program in prodemocracy terms and to some extent even to try to mold the contras into a more democratic shape.

Congressional pressure also affected the Reagan administration's South America policy. Congressional Democrats blocked most of the administration's early attempts to restart military assistance to South America, effectively taking the wind out of the incoming administration's policy of renewing relations with the military governments of South America and speeding the transition to a policy of support for the growing democratic trend there. Congress also had a role in the emergence of the administration's later policy of pressure against the remaining right-wing dictatorships in the region. Congressional interest in promoting a democratic transition in Pinochet's Chile, distancing the United States from General Noriega in Panama, and backing the precarious democratic trend in post-Duvalier Haiti contributed to the prodemocratic evolution of the administration's policies in those countries.

The prodemocracy influence of the congressional Democrats ~ on the Reagan administration's Latin America policy can be understood as the extension into the 1980s of the human rights consciousness that gained a place in U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s. Although Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 represented a repudiation of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy, the belief that human rights should be an important concern in U.S. foreign policy did not disappear from the American political consciousness. The human rights agenda was closely associated with Carter but in fact predated the Carter administration and arose out of broader trends, including the post-Vietnam desire to put U.S. foreign policy on a clear moral footing and the impact of increasing interest and knowledge of the U.S. public (produced by the increase in international communications and travel) about political conditions in other countries. When President Carter was defeated, this growing human rights consciousness lost its chief spokesperson but not the public basis of its support. The Democrats in Congress, or more specifically, a small set of liberal senators and representatives, became the repository of this human rights concern within the U.S. government.

The incoming Reagan administration sought to turn the clock back on U.S. foreign policy to the pre-Vietnam era, to an old-fashioned cold war approach in which the United States would accept the need to support unsavory dictators as an inevitable component of the global struggle against Soviet communism. The Reagan administration discovered fairly quickly, however, that it was not possible to forge a bipartisan foreign policy on this basis; a concern for human rights and democracy also had to be factored into the policy. Throughout the 1980s, congressional Democrats, as well as many interest groups in the U.S. policy community, pushed the administration on the issue, obliging the Reagan administration to develop its foreign policy as a blend of its cold war instincts and this newer U.S. concern for human rights.

A second cause of the rise of promoting democracy in the Reagan administration's Latin America policy was the changing balance between the moderates and hard-liners in the policy-making process. The moderates tended to be interested in promoting democracy as a necessary component of anticommunist policies and as a valid policy goal in and of itself. The hard-liners were less interested in promoting democracy and much more focused on military-oriented anticommunist campaigns. In the early 1980s, the hardliners controlled or at least strongly influenced almost all of the Latin America policy, both in Central America and South America. By the late 1980s, however, the moderates were in control of almost all Latin America policy with the large but nonetheless singular exception of Nicaragua, where the hard-liners maintained their hold. The later Reagan administration's policies toward Latin America were largely implemented by the same career officers at the State Department, AID, Defense Department, CIA, and elsewhere who had carried out Latin America policy in the 1970s. And with the exception of the anti-Sandinista policy in Nicaragua, the policies were not substantially different from those of the Reagan administration's recent predecessors.

The shift from hard-liner to moderate predominance was the result of a general thinning of the hard-liners' ranks that occurred in the second Reagan administration. The latter Reagan administration was much more moderate than the first with respect to foreign policy. Hard-liners still occupied the key senior Latin America policy-making positions during the second Reagan administration but most of their deputies and staff were moderates. And above them, President Reagan was no longer breathing fire at the Soviet Union. The increasingly small group of hard-liners involved in Latin America policy concentrated their time and energy on the issue they cared most strongly about-Nicaragua-and let the rest of the Latin America policy fall into the hands of the moderates. This tendency was reinforced by the decline of the perceived leftist threat to Latin America that occurred during the 1980s. The Reagan hardliners had become engaged in Latin America policy largely because they saw the region as the subject of a concerted Soviet-Cuban campaign to spread communism throughout Central America and even South America. As the insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala were brought under control and South America evolved peacefully toward moderate elected governments, the hard-liners' fear of a regional communist takeover faded and they lost most of their interest in the region, except for Nicaragua, where fighting communism was still an active concern.

The rise of promoting democracy in the Reagan administration's Latin America policy was also the result of a third cause, the tendency in U.S. foreign policy-making for rhetoric to influence reality. Government officials sometimes set out lofty rhetoric on a foreign policy issue and then find that, almost without their intending it, the actual policy begins to gravitate toward that rhetorical line. This effect occurs in part because once senior officials state particular goals, even if only for rhetorical purposes, they will find that they are held to them. Critics and commentators in the public, as well as other agencies and branches of the government, will begin asking what the government is actually doing to achieve the stated goals. Faced with such inquiries, senior officials tend to respond by telling their subordinates to start doing something in pursuit of the goals, if only to give the impression that they are serious about them.

This phenomenon was of great importance in the Reagan administration's Latin America policy. In the early 1980s President Reagan and his top advisers adopted promoting democracy as a useful rhetorical line for their Latin America policy-it unified diverse policies in a single, clear framework and put a pleasing, principled face on military-oriented realpolitik policies. The stated emphasis on promoting democracy also allowed the Reagan administration to associate itself with the growing trend toward democracy and to champion Latin America's successes as the administration's own. Having made democracy the stated goal of its policy, however, the Reagan administration soon found that its policy was evaluated in those terms, that Congress and the public pressed the administration on the status of democracy in Latin America and asked what the administration was really doing to promote it. And so, predictably enough, senior officials began signaling the foreign policy bureaucracy to take up the issue actively. This opened the way for an evolution toward policies with real prodemocratic substance.

This interactive effect renders impossible any simple characterization of a policy or set of policies as rhetoric versus substance. Rhetoric and substance constantly interact in the policy-making process with rhetoric leading to substance, which may in turn generate new rhetoric that will have yet further effects on the policies. The Reagan administration talked endlessly about promoting democracy in Latin America. That talk inevitably had significant effects on the policy.


The Reagan Administration's Conception of Democracy in Latin America

What did the Reagan administration mean by democracy in its many invocations of the term with respect to Latin America? The answer to this question is not especially complex. The Reagan administration was quite consistent in its view of democracy in all the different policies that went under the title of promoting democracy. The administration's view was that a country is a democracy when it has a government that came to power through reasonably free and fair elections. A corollary of this view was that the process of democratization in a country is the organization and implementation of a national electoral process. Promoting democracy was thus primarily conceived of as encouraging or assisting a country to hold national elections and then helping whatever government emerged from the elections to maintain and consolidate power.

The gap between this formal, institution-oriented view of democracy and the concept of Western pluralist democracy that informs conventional Western political science analyses was significant. To begin with, the Reagan administration's "elected government equals democracy" formula ignored the crucial question of how much actual authority any particular elected government had, whether, for example, an elected government's authority was largely curtailed by traditional power groups in the country, such as the military or an economic elite, or whether certain attributes of the elected government itself, such as its own gross ineptitude or corruption, effectively negated its claim to being a functioning representative government. Given the traditional weakness of the civilian political sector in most Latin American countries, the Reagan administration's unwillingness to inform its pronouncements on democracy with any assessment of the real authority of a particular elected civilian government rendered those pronouncements of little value.

Moreover, the Reagan administration made little attempt to go beyond its institutional view of democracy to consider the degree or kinds of political participation that existed within particular countries. The administration treated voting as the definitive form of political participation and paid little attention to the question of whether a continuous, multidimensional process of political participation-a process involving the uninhibited formation and mobilization of interest groups, the free expression by groups and individuals of their political interests and attitudes, and a process of day-to-day interaction and responsiveness between the government and the citizens of the country-was actually existent or at least developing in countries attempting to make a transition to democracy.

Interestingly, in one country the administration did give considerable attention to a gap between the existence of an elected government and real democracy. That country, of course, was Nicaragua. After Nicaragua held presidential elections in 1984, the Reagan administration was determined to show that despite having an elected government, Nicaragua was not a democracy. The approach the administration took for the task paralleled that used by U.S. liberals asserting a lack of democracy in El Salvador and Guatemala. The administration highlighted the nonparticipation of the armed opposition in the 1984 Nicaraguan elections (just as liberals pointed to the nonparticipation of the left in the 1984 Salvadoran elections). Administration officials also scrutinized the amount and quality of political participation in Nicaragua, giving a degree of attention to human rights in Nicaragua matched only by the human rights scrutiny given by U.S. liberals to E1 Salvador and Guatemala. The administration concluded that the limitations of the electoral process and of the general level of political participation rendered Nicaragua undemocratic despite its elected government.

It is important to go beyond simply identifying the fact that the Reagan administration maintained a formal, institution-oriented view of democracy in Latin America, which in itself is scarcely a novel conclusion, to explore the question of why such a view was held in the case some U.S. officials, primarily hard-liners preoccupied with anticommunist concerns, the explanation is cynicism. Their talk of promoting democracy was largely rhetoric adopted for public relations purposes. They had little interest in the reality of the political situation in Latin American countries other than in bare communist versus noncommunist terms and were content to utilize the most simplistic view of democracy available. The status of democracy in Latin America became a kind of scoreboard issue with them; they chalked up countries in the won-lost column in the most superficial fashion and broadcast a running score in which democracy's lead over tyranny and darkness was ever-lengthening.

Out-and-out cynics, however, were only a small proportion of the overall set of officials concerned with Latin America. Many, or even most officials involved in Latin American affairs, from the very senior to the very junior, were sincere when they referred to countries with elected governments as democracies. They were willing to concede, at least in private, that many of the newly elected governments in Latin America had serious shortcomings. But they did treat democracy as something like an off-on switch in which the holding of elections and the coming to power of an elected government was the crucial transition from off to on. They saw countries with extremely weak, even debilitated elected civilian governments and very limited forms of political participation, such as E1 Salvador and Guatemala in the late 1980s, as being fledgling democracies but democracies nonetheless.

This narrow view of democracy was not a peculiarity of U.S. officials. It is common among many Americans and has its roots in the national experience of democracy in the United States, or at least the popular historical notions (and myths) about U.S. democracy. The process of democratic development in the United States had at least two distinctive features relative to other Western developed countries. The first was that the process of democratic development was not a long, slow process of transformation from a monarchical, feudal society to a republican, democratic one. There was a transition from a monarchical to a representative government but this transition was a rebellion against the ruling colonial power, not an internal evolution from a centuries-old feudal system to a democratic one. In at least the public conception of U.S. history, the United States was from its very origins a democratic culture, a young democratic society (with the important exception of the existence of slavery) seeking to get away from oppressive English monarchical rule. The second distinctive feature is that the U.S. Constitution and the particular institutional arrangement of government it oversees has existed without major change since the creation of the United States of America in the eighteenth century.

Each of these distinctive features has consequences for how people in the United States tend to conceive of democracy and the process of democratization, and how they address these issues abroad. The unusual "democratic from the start" nature of U.S. society leads Americans not to have any intuitive sense of what a long-term, internal evolution from a nondemocratic society to a democratic society is like. The profound question facing most nondemocratic countries of how a society that has known only dictatorship, repression, injustice, and inequality can democratically transform the myriad antidemocratic habits, beliefs, and customs, as well as antidemocratic internal power structures, finds little resonance in the U.S. national experience. As a result, Americans tend to underemphasize the deep-rooted, evolutionary process of social, economic, and cultural change that goes into democratization and see the process as a matter of a nondemocratic society simply adopting the right institutional framework.

Second, the remarkable endurance of the institutional configuration of U.S. democracy leads Americans to reify that configuration. The institutions of U.S. democracy are equated with the ideas and principles behind them. Thus, for example, the idea of a representative government has become identified with a three-part government consisting of executive, legislative, and judiciary branches with the former two elective and the third not. The U.S. version of democracy has come to be thought of by Americans not merely as one of many possible versions, but the very essence of democracy itself. As a result, when the United States sets about to try to promote democracy in a foreign country, it tends not to think about how the general ideas and principles of democracy might take form in that society but to assume that the other country should devote itself to establishing the institutional configuration the United States associates with democracy.

The conception of democracy employed by the Reagan administration thus reflected a deeper pattern of U.S. thinking about democracy not limited to the 1980s. The Reagan administration's conception also reflected a long-standing U.S. attitude about political change in Latin America. Off and on during the twentieth century the United States has supported democratic political reforms in Latin America. That support has usually been promoted by the fear that stagnant, autocratic governments will foster political instability or pressures for radical political change and the belief that supporting democratic reforms is a way of avoiding that eventuality. The underlying U.S. goal is maintaining the basic societal orders of particular Latin American countries approximately as they are-ensuring that the economics are not drastically rearranged and that the power relations of the various social sectors are not turned upside down.

Thus, there is a built-in tension or even contradiction in the recurrent impulse to promote democracy. The impulse is to promote democratic change but the underlying objective is to maintain the basic order of what, historically at least, are quite undemocratic societies. The United States mitigates this tension by promoting very limited, controlled forms of democratic change. The deep fear in the United States government of populist-based change in Latin America-with all its implications for upsetting established economic and political orders and heading off in a leftist direction- leads to an emphasis on incremental change from the top down Democratic development is interpreted as the strengthening or modification of existing governmental institutions. In other words, the United States works with the existing power structures and tries to teach or persuade them to be democratic rather than working from the bottom up to spread the ideas and principles of a democratic society among the citizenries.

The Balance Sheet

An answer can now be given to the most fundamental question underlying this study: Did the Reagan administration's policies contribute significantly to the trend toward democracy in Latin America in the 1980s? The answer is a qualified no. The muchheralded resurgence of democracy was a mix of democratic transitions, primarily in South America, and civilianizing transitions in Central America. In almost all cases the democratic or civilianizing trend was the result of internal factors; it was not the result of external factors such as U.S. policy. The United States did play a clearly positive though not determinative role in some countries; in several countries U.S. policy was harmful to democracy or its prospects. Let us review the specific results of the policies examined in this book.

The United States did contribute to the establishment of elected civilian rule in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The U.S. role was greatest in El Salvador. The Reagan administration's (and the Carter administration's before it) active support of the civilian-military juntas that emerged after the 1979 junior officers coup and of the creation of a viable electoral process was a crucial factor in the achievement of an elected civilian government in El Salvador. Similarly, the extensive U.S. support for the Duarte government was a major factor in Duarte's managing to last out a very difficult five-year term. The U.S. role in the Honduran electoral transition was less intense but still significant. The Carter administration's strong support for a civilian transition helped get the electoral process underway. The Reagan administration, after an initial period of uncertainty, helped see that process through to fruition in the 1981 elections. The Reagan administration's strong backing of the Suazo Cordova and Azcona Hoyo governments insured the continuation of civilian rule. In Guatemala, the United States had little influence on the transition from military to civilian rule. Once civilian rule was established in early 1986, the U.S. role increased. The economic and political support the United States gave to the Cerezo government was important in helping Cerezo stay in office, although it was of less weight than the U.S. role in El Salvador.

Although the United States contributed to the achievement of civilian rule in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, civilian rule in those countries did not constitute democracy. As detailed in chapters 1 and 2, the civilian governments of those countries exercised only very partial authority; the traditionally dominant sectors of the societies-the militaries and the business elite-maintained substantial authority and power. Moreover, the level and scope of political participation was not high. Political violence and intimidation by the security forces in all three countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala, constituted a serious restraint on the exercise of political and civil rights.

Contrary to what the Reagan administration repeatedly said, the civilian transitions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were not broad-based political movements. The civilianizing trend was a project of the militaries of those countries. The fall of Somoza in Nicaragua and the concomitant defeat of Somoza's National Guard prompted the militaries in neighboring countries to reconsider their direct political role and let civilian governments emerge. Civilian transitions were settled upon precisely as a means of insuring the military's long-term survival as well as permitting a largescale U.S.-financed military expansion, not as means of reordering the traditional military dominance of the societies.

Furthermore, although the Reagan administration did help promote political reforms in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, its policies also had adverse effects with respect to promoting democracy. The huge quantities of military assistance to El Salvador and Honduras helped the Salvadoran and Honduran militaries expand dramatically and consolidate their dominant domestic position. The assistance also fanned corruption in the militaries, increasing their lawless tendencies. The Reagan administration never used its military assistance relationships with El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala to push hard for changes in the militaries' abiding disrespect for human rights and civilian authority. More generally, the intensive and often overbearing U.S. involvement in the economic, political, and military affairs of these countries inevitably weakened the legitimacy of these governments in their attempt to establish themselves as sovereign, representative authorities.

The Reagan administration's obsessive anti-Sandinista campaign had spillover negative effects on the rest of Central America. By fostering a civil war in Nicaragua and attempting to involve all the countries of the region in that war in different ways, the Reagan administration helped create an atmosphere of political tension and violence that contributed to the economic problems of the region by increasing the disruption of Central American economic interchanges and worsening the already bad climate for foreign investment. The anti-Sandinista policy also heightened the general militarization trend in the region, which worked against the democratic trend. Honduras was particularly hurt by the anti-Sandinista policy. The basing of the contras in Honduras was a continuous burden on its already weak social fabric and the Reagan administration's general treatment of Honduras as a mere tool of U.S. anti-Sandinista policy reduced the Honduran government to the status of the United States's regional lapdog.

Costa Rica was a case somewhat apart. The Reagan administration's attempts to involve Costa Rica in the U.S. anti-Sandinista policy provoked political divisions in Costa Rica as well as sharp diplomatic tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; for a time in the mid-1980s it appeared that the Reagan administration might be leading Costa Rica down a path of militarization and political polarization. In the end, however, Costa Rica's democratic institutions proved capable of withstanding the various strains imposed by the U.S.-Nicaraguan conflict and Costa Rican democracy emerged from the 1980s in relatively good health. The economic component of the Reagan administration's Costa Rica policy, the provision of massive amounts of economic assistance to Costa Rica, significantly contributed to Costa Rica's partial recovery from the crippling economic recession of the early 1980s. The positive economic component of the Reagan policy appears, in the final view, to have been more lasting and significant than the negative political and military components.

The Reagan administration's two invocations of military force in Latin America and the Caribbean, the invasion of Grenada and the contra war against Nicaragua, had different results. The invasion of Grenada succeeded in accomplishing the Reagan administration's main goal of ousting the leftist Grenadan rulers. The United States did oversee the restoration of elected rule in Grenada. The electoral process was compromised by U.S. covert efforts to shape the process but the newly elected government gradually established itself as a credible, representative authority and Grenada in the late 1980s was clearly far more democratic than in the early 1980s. The Grenada policy involved costs as well as benefits. The invasion resulted in several hundred deaths, mostly Grenadans, and put the United States in clear violation of the well-established international norm of nonintervention. Most Americans were willing to accept those costs in return for what they perceived to be a clear victory for the United States against the Soviet Union.

The political results of the Reagan administration's intensive, vast anti-Sandinista campaign were ambiguous. The contras never succeeded in ousting the Sandinistas. They also failed to gain consistent support from the U.S. Congress (and the U.S. public) and by the end of the Reagan years had accepted a cease-fire with the Sandinistas that left the Sandinistas firmly in power. The existence of the contras did, however, move the Sandinistas to enter into regional peace negotiations (that the Reagan administration opposed), which led to elections, which in turn resulted in the Sandinistas losing power. The Sandinistas agreed to hold elections not because the contras had the Sandinistas against the wall, but because the contras were weakened (owing to their loss of support in Washington) and because the Sandinistas were certain they would win. The elections appeared to be a low-risk means of getting rid of the contras once and for all and paving the way for a normalization of Nicaragua's regional and extraregional relationships. The Sandinistas unexpectedly lost the elections and a government led by Violeta Chamorro took power. The new Nicaraguan government is trying to make Nicaragua a working democracy but Nicaragua is profoundly polarized by ten years of civil war, rendering the achievement of a working democracy extremely difficult.

The ambiguous positive effects of the Reagan administration's contra policy were counterbalanced by its many negative aspects. Most importantly, the contra war resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans, scarring the country for decades to come. Together with the U.S. economic sanctions against Nicaragua, the war also inflicted serious economic harm and aggravated sociopolitical divisions in the society. The Reagan administration policy also had negative effects outside Nicaragua. As mentioned previously, it had a deleterious impact on the rest of Central America and on the United States itself. It harmed the tenor of U.S. democracy (through the Iran-contra activities), put the United States at odds with the international community, dissipated a great deal of the administration's political capital with Congress, and repelled a good portion of the U.S. public.

The Reagan administration's policies toward South America had little effect on the dramatic movement toward democracy that spread through that region in the 1980s. The early policy of rebuilding diplomatic and military ties with the military governments of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and other countries worked against the democratic trend by politically bolstering undemocratic governments against growing domestic pressures to cede power. One exception was Bolivia, where, owing to the Bolivian military's involvement in drug trafficking, the Reagan administration did not attempt a rapprochement with the military government and the U.S. embassy in Bolivia vigorously and effectively supported a transition to elected rule.

The Reagan administration's later policy of diplomatic support for the new democratic governments of South America was a genuinely prodemocratic policy but had little real substance. The greatest threat to the survival of the nascent democratic rule in many South American countries was the continuing economic stagnation. The Reagan administration never developed a significant economic component to its policy of diplomatic support for democracy. In general, the democratic trend in South America was the result of domestic factors, such as the economic recession of the early 1980s, the decline or demise of many of the leftist guerrilla movements of the 1970s, public exhaustion with the military governments, and the sociopolitical effects (such as improved education, greater social mobility, and increased political participation by the middle and lower-middle classes) of the preceding two decades of economic growth.

Finally, the policy of the second Reagan administration to exert economic and diplomatic pressure against the remaining rightwing dictators in the region achieved very mixed results. The most favorable case was Chile. After following a pro-Pinochet line in the early 1980s, the administration shifted in 1984 and 1985 to a policy of firm support for the holding of the constitutionally mandated plebiscite on Pinochet's continued rule. The plebiscite was held in October 1988, instituting a successful return to elected rule. The U.S. prodemocratic policy was a boost to the democratic Chilean opposition but was only a minor factor in what was a thoroughly Chilean political transition. In Paraguay the administration similarly shifted to a policy of open support for a transition from the long-time dictatorship of General Stroessner to an elected government. The United States did not have strong economic or political leverage in Paraguay, however, and the U.S. role in the eventual transition although positive, was extremely modest.

The administration's policy of pressure worked out rather unfavorably in Haiti and Panama. In Haiti, the Reagan administration did weigh in during the final weeks of Jean-Claude Duvalier's rule to help speed what had already become his inevitable departure. During the post-Duvalier period, however, the Reagan administration's active attempts to steer the interim government toward an electoral transition ended in failure. In Panama, the Reagan administration reversed a long, close friendship with General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the de facto leader of Panama since the early 1980s, only when public revelations about his involvement in international drug trafficking and in other sordid activities made the friendship politically unfeasible. The administration's frantic, improvisatory effort to oust Noriega in the first half of 1988 was a humiliating failure. Prompted largely by the unending embarrassment of Noriega's successful defiance of the United States, the Bush administration invaded Panama in 1989, capturing Noriega and restoring civilian rule.


As the United States enters into a new decade of relations with Latin America, it faces an unusual juncture. Since World War Two, the basis of U.S. policy in Latin America has been anticommunism, the desire to prevent the emergence of leftist or perceived Communist governments from coming to power. In recent years, however, the threat of communism in Latin America (whether perceived or real) has declined significantly and shows no sign of reviving. With the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Cuba is the only remaining leftist government in the region. Marxist-Leninist rebel groups are still active in El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, and Colombia but they are isolated movements, not the harbingers of any regional trend. The decline of communism in Eastern Europe and the liberalization trend in the Soviet Union have undercut the U.S. perception that an expansionistic, international communist movement is trying to gain control of Latin America. The result of these trends is that the traditional anticommunist basis of U.S. policy toward Latin America is fading away, leaving the United States with no set script in Latin American affairs.

It is likely that as the United States assembles a new policy framework for Latin America, promoting democracy will figure as a primary, even dominant concern. The resurgence of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s is a fact that commands attention in the international community and almost inevitably leads the United States to commit itself to protecting and promoting that trend. Furthermore, the democratic trend in Latin America has convinced many once-skeptical U.S. policymakers that democracy is possible in Latin America. In particular, the ability of elected governments to emerge and survive in countries caught in powerful left-right civil conflicts has persuaded many U.S. conservatives that democratic governments are a feasible alternative to anticommunist authoritarians and that democratic governments in Latin America are fully consistent with and even favorable to U.S. security interests.

Promoting democracy has appeal for more symbolic reasons as well. It is a sweeping, lofty policy theme. The United States is experiencing a relative decline in its global power but is not yet prone to give up universalistic, grandiose policy themes. Promoting democracy is a natural choice in this regard. It also has the advantage that it easily attracts bipartisan support. After the divisiveness of the Reagan years, the Bush administration is intent on building a bipartisan Latin America policy. Promoting democracy is an "apple pie" theme in Latin American affairs. It appeals to liberals because of its moralistic quality and its promise of addressing the problems of human rights and of socioeconomic injustice that dominate U.S. liberals' perception of Latin America. It appeals to conservatives because of its implicit stance in opposition to non-American political ideologies and in favor of promoting the U.S. way in Latin America. Furthermore, a democracy theme for Latin America policy corresponds with the direction of U.S. foreign policy generally. The perception of a worldwide trend toward democracy has seized policymakers in the United States, with the result that promoting democracy is becoming a dominant stated theme of the Bush administration's global foreign policy.

Given that promoting democracy is likely to be a focus of U.S. policy toward Latin America in the 1990s, and in fact of U.S. policy in many other parts of the world as well, it is important to draw some lessons from the experiences of the 1980s, a decade in which promoting democracy was almost always the stated theme of U.S. policy in Latin America and often a genuine concern as well. Numerous lessons are evident from the intense and turbulent U.S. involvement in Latin America's democratic resurgence of the 1980s. Almost all are cautionary.

Perhaps the most basic, and the most important, lesson is that the United States does not really have much influence over the political evolution of most Latin American countries. The main finding of the analysis in the previous chapters is that the United States had neither a significant positive role, nor for that matter a significant negative role, in the political evolution of most countries in Latin America in the 1980s, despite the high level of time, energy, and resources the U.S. government devoted to various parts of the region. Although this conclusion may seem surprising to those who saw the Reagan administration as a powerful actor, whether positive or negative, in Latin America, upon further reflection it should not be. The political evolution of a country in any given period involves the most fundamental elements of the country's social, economic, political, and cultural character. The notion that an external actor can have a profound and lasting effect on that political evolution through some set of relatively short-term diplomatic, economic, or even military means ignores the complexities and realities of how societies are made up and how they change.

A second lesson is that the traditional tension in U.S. policy toward Latin America between fighting communism and promoting democracy has not been resolved. Repeated attempts have been made from the late 1950s on to resolve the tension, usually by trying to enlist democracy promotion as a means of fighting communism. The Reagan administration's policies toward El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were such efforts, at least in part, and drew significantly from the ideas of the Alliance for Progress. Yet the Reagan policies, like their predecessors, ran into the problem that they entailed large-scale assistance to antidemocratic militaries, strengthening the hold of those already dominant institutions over the political life of their societies. Efforts to change the political role and attitude of the military were weak and unsuccessful; they were dwarfed by the concrete fact of the hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military assistance pouring in.

In general, the Reagan administration tried to propagate the notion that communism was the main threat to democracy in Latin America and that therefore fighting communism was equivalent to promoting democracy. In reality, however, the main obstacles to democracy in Latin America have historically been a variety of structural domestic factors such as the extreme concentration of economic and political power in the hands of undemocratic elites, the sociopolitical marginalization of whole classes of citizens, and the lack of any underlying national consensus on basic democratic values. Leftist revolutionary movements have arisen in response to these various shortcomings; they are a symptom much more than a cause of the lack of democracy. Thus, fighting communism, at least in the manner which the United States has traditionally done so, tends to involve strengthening the forces of groups that constitute the primary obstacles to democracy. This is not at all to say that not fighting communism would necessarily promote democracy, but only that a deep-seated tension between anticommunist and prodemocracy policies exists in U.S. relations with Latin America and that the United States has not found a solution to it.

Although the decline of leftism in Latin America will reduce the number of U.S. anticommunist campaigns there, the same democracy-security contradictions are likely to exist with any U.S. policy explicitly based on security concerns that involves military assistance. The rise of the drug issue in U.S.-Latin American relations is a good example. The United States instinctively approaches the drug issue as a security problem that requires U.S. assistance to Latin American militaries and police. Such assistance may help alleviate the security problems but it is bound to raise problems of compatibility with the goals of democracy and human rights.

A third lesson is that the conception of democracy Americans tend to apply abroad is not well suited to generating effective policies of promoting democracy. As discussed earlier in this chapter, the U.S. national experience with democratic development, or at least the popular myths of the development of democracy in the United States, gives Americans a strongly institution-oriented view of democracy in which the process of democratic development is seen as the creation or improvement of a particular set of governing institutions, primarily through elections. The importance of bottomup self-transformation of a society as the basis for democratic development is underemphasized or even feared. Instead, U.S. policies of promoting democracy concentrate on shaping the institutions of government in certain acceptable forms.

A fourth lesson is that the nature of the U.S. foreign policymaking process is at odds with the nature of the task of promoting democracy in other countries. Democratic development in most Latin American countries is a slow, precarious process, riddled with setbacks and uncertainties. A well-designed policy of promoting democracy should be both steadily funded and implemented over many years rather than called into question year by year and it should be planned in advance rather than simply improvised in response to a sudden crisis or turn of events. It should also be overt but quiet, carried out in a low-profile manner rather than trumpeting its own existence in a manner that will exacerbate the inevitable tension caused by one country involving itself in the internal affairs of another. And finally it should be a policy of low expectations that gives explicit recognition to the marginal role external actors generally have in the political evolution of societies.

Unfortunately, however, the U.S. foreign-policy-making process is not conducive of policies with those characteristics. Long-term, steady implementation and funding is rarely a feature of U.S. foreign policy for a variety of reasons, including the tendency for new administrations to try to reinvent the foreign policy wheel and the short attention span of the U.S. government and the U.S. public. A lack of advance planning and the tendency to make foreign policy in a reactive, crisis-oriented fashion is also characteristic of U.S. foreign policy. The global ambit of U.S. interests is so broad, and in a sense so unfocused, that U.S. foreign policymakers tend not to concentrate their attention systematically in a few regular areas but to respond to emergencies that are continually cropping up in scattered parts of the world.

With respect to the need for low-profile policies grounded in low expectations, the U.S. policy-making process also poses problems. The United States tends to launch itself into areas such as promoting democracy abroad with its moral sails fully rigged. Since the United States decides to try to promote democracy abroad in no small part to convince itself and others that it is doing good in the world, the United States tends to carry out such policies in a loud, even triumphal fashion. Similarly, such policies are usually invested with extremely high expectations. The United States confidently takes on the goal of altering other countries' political history and gives itself all of three to five years to accomplish that monumental task. The high expectations reflect the inveterate optimism characteristic of Americans as well as their chronic habit of overestimating the United States's ability to influence events in other countries.

A fifth lesson is that agreeing on promoting democracy as the core element of U.S. policy toward Latin America does not in fact mean that any significant agreement has been reached. Promoting democracy appeals as a natural basis for a bipartisan policy toward Latin America. Yet promoting democracy is such a general concept that it does not provide as solid a policy foundation as one might first think. One can take many approaches to promoting democracy, approaches which may be so drastically different from one another as to divide a policy community more than unify it.

The best example of this problem was Nicaragua. The Reagan administration claimed-and some Reagan administration officials believed-that it was promoting democracy in Nicaragua by supporting the contras. U.S. liberals and moderates, however, objected strongly to the contra policy, in part at least because the contras were an undemocratic force and the contra war was giving the Sandinistas an excuse to crack down on internal opposition. Conservatives and liberals agreed that the United States should promote democracy in Nicaragua but disagreed violently as to what the United States should actually do. Agreeing on promoting democracy as a policy objective solved little in terms of real policy concordance.

A sixth and final lesson is that making democracy the primary lens for viewing Latin America can distort our view of the region as much as focus it. This is not to say that democracy is unimportant to Latin America. It is to say, however, that Latin Americans do not judge the overall situation of their countries in terms of a simple formula of democracy versus nondemocracy. To begin with, Latin Americans experience the political life of their countries on a day-to-day basis, they confront the fine-grained reality of that life, they do not simply look at occasional snapshots of the overall form of the governing institutions. In the 1980s Latin Americans were faced every day with the complexities and ambiguities of transitions from dictatorships to democracy, with the many ways in which an elected government may still be unaccessible, unresponsive, and dishonest as well as dominated by antidemocratic forces brooding in the background. Moreover, they confront the totality of life in the country. They experience not just the political situation but the economic, cultural, and social features of the society. In the 1980s, economic problems were of particular importance. The unending economic crisis afflicting almost all Latin American countries imposed hardships and suffering that outweighed many of the gains derived from progress in the political domain.

If you asked a U.S. government official in the late 1980s to describe the situation of South America he would likely have portrayed the situation in very positive terms, highlighting the many recent transitions to democracy and pointing to a two-colored map that pictured the victory of democracy over dictatorship in dramatic, clear-cut terms. If you asked a South American the same question, chances are he would have emphasized the economic crisis of the region and the precariousness of the new elected governments. Thus when U.S. officials in this period gave speeches on Latin America in which they talked of the region's "democratic revolution" in glowing terms and described Latin America as being on a profound upward climb, they were not describing the Latin America that Latin Americans experienced or understood. A Latin America policy that makes democracy, particularly a relatively narrow conception of democracy, its primary lens for viewing the region risks relying on a distorted view of the region.

In sum, the cautionary lessons regarding the relationship between the United States and Latin American democracy are many and they are serious. Taken together they are not intended as an argument that the United States should refrain from making promoting democracy a goal of its policy toward Latin America. Rather they indicate that the United States should do so in a knowing, clear-minded fashion, explicitly recognizing the very limited influence the United States has on the political evolution of Latin America, the continuing tensions between U.S. anticommunist concerns and prodemocracy goals, the shortcomings of the narrow conception of democracy the United States tends to employ abroad, the weaknesses of the U.S. foreign policy-making process for democracy policies, the fact that agreeing on promoting democracy as a foreign policy goal does not necessarily lead to agreement on specific policies, and the limitations of democracy as a lens for understanding Latin America. Only if such limitations and uncertainties are acknowledged can the United States pursue the goal of promoting democracy in a manner that will reflect a productive, realistic sense of the United States' proper role in Latin America and a genuine understanding of Latin America itself. The goal of democracy in Latin America deserves no less.

In the Name of Democracy

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