Democracy by Force

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



For the first time since the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, the United States under the Reagan administration used military force in Latin America and the Caribbean. The United States financed and directed a covert war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada. The war against the Sandinistas spanned all eight years of the Reagan presidency and was a policy of extraordinary controversy that absorbed incalculable amounts of the administration's energy and had only ambiguous effects. The invasion of Grenada was a three-day military campaign which gained wide popular support in the United States and clearly achieved the administration's goal. Both were anticommunist policies aimed at ousting leftist governments and both were publicly cast as efforts to promote democracy.

Reagan and his top foreign policy advisers believed the Sandinistas were devout Marxist-Leninists and saw a Sandinista Nicaragua as a second Cuba working as a proxy for the Soviet Union and Cuba to spread revolution throughout Central America. For the early Reagan team, the Carter administration's attempt to mediate the Nicaraguan conflict had been a policy of weakness and stupidity that was directly responsible for the fall of Somoza. They thought the Carter administration's attempt at constructive engagement with the post-July 1979 Nicaraguan government had been a dangerous waste of time. In their view, Sandinista moderation could not be bought by the United States; it was a contradiction in terms. President Reagan moved rapidly toward a policy of open hostility with Nicaragua.

While the early Reagan administration was taking a hostile public stance toward the Nicaraguan government, it was also working behind the scenes to develop what would become the main element of its policy, the Nicaraguan contras. Since 1980, Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was head of the Honduran national police, had been providing training facilities and encouragement to small groups of Nicaraguan ex-National Guardsmen who had survived the Sandinista revolution and were beginning to form paramilitary units in Honduras. In 1981 the CIA joined forces with Alvarez, agreeing to a three-way plan to build up the contras whereby the CIA would provide financial support, Honduras the territorial base, and Argentina the military training. The CIA, as well as the hard-liners at the White House and elsewhere, talked up the contra plan within the inner circle of the Reagan Latin America policy team and rapidly transformed the initiative into established policy. On November 17, 1981 President Reagan approved a $19 million I program of covert assistance to the nascent contras.

The hard-liners kept the policy focused on one objective-building up the contras into a force capable of seriously threatening the Sandinistas. After the setback on contra funding in 1984, the administration mounted a massive campaign to secure congressional approval for new contra aid in 1985 and 1986. The campaign was plagued by the continued lack of public support for a hard-line policy. Despite intensive lobbying by President Reagan, the effort netted only $27 million of nonlethal or "humanitarian" aid in 1985. In 1986 the administration mounted the single largest congressional lobbying effort of the entire Reagan presidency. After a tortuous, see-saw struggle, Congress approved $100 million of aid ($70 million military, $30 million nonlethal) for fiscal year 1987.

Frustrated by the inconsistent support of the contras in Congress, the administration created a vast secret supply network run by the National Security Council staff, particularly Lt. Col. Oliver North, with the assistance of the CIA.

National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and CIA Director William Casey approached or directed ... administration officials to obtain funds from South Africa, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia came through with $1 million a month for the contras beginning in mid-1984, enough to keep the contras at least operational. With the backing of his bosses at the NSC (first McFarlane and then McFarlane's successor, Admiral John Poindexter) and with the active assistance of the CIA, Oliver North used this funding as a base on which he built up a major military resupply program for the contras.

The resupply program, which operated from mid-1984 to late 1986, grew into an extremely large, complex operation, funded not only by Saudi and other third country donations, but also the proceeds of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran and the cash generated by a large private fundraising operation North masterminded with the assistance of various private individuals including Carl "Spitz" Channell and Richard Miller. The resupply operation to the contras consisted of frequent, sometimes daily air drops of lethal materials (guns, munitions, grenades, mortars, etc.) as well as the direct furnishing of cash, military intelligence, and logistical advice by North or by his associates whom he brought into the operation (private citizens such as retired Air Force General Richard Secord and Robert W. Owen). North and Poindexter were well aware of the 1984 Boland amendment prohibiting U.S. government assistance to the contras but believed that it did not apply to the National Security Council because it specified only "the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities." The NSC's contra resupply program provided the contras with the assistance necessary to keep the contras fighting between the time Congress-approved aid ran out in 1984 and the resumption of official military assistance in late 1986.

The Reagan administration's Nicaragua policy was haunted from start to finish by the inescapable fact that it was not widely supported by the U.S. public. A majority of Americans did not believe that the United States should be in the business of trying to overthrow a sovereign government. They were also not persuaded that the Sandinista government presented a grave security threat to the United States. Nor did they accept that the contras were "freedom fighters." The Reagan administration labored mightily to sway the U.S. public on Nicaragua, spinning a rhetorical web around its policy so tangled that the truth was often indiscernible. The publicity campaign grew with each congressional vote on contra aid and became a massive, well-orchestrated effort directed by the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America in the State Department, an office created especially for that purpose.

One part of the rhetorical web was the administration's effort to portray the Sandinistas as evil incarnate and the Sandinista threat to the United States as a dire security concern. Perhaps no government in the world was described in such negative terms by the Reagan administration as was Nicaragua. What was a moderately repressive government that permitted a limited political opposition and a beleaguered private sector was denounced as "a communist reign of terror" that had transformed Nicaragua into a "totalitarian dungeon." Administration officials tore into the Sandinista government at every opportunity, straining to outdo each other in the harshness and colorfulness of the attacks. The administration's breathless hyperbole about the Nicaraguan government was the inverse of its overstated declarations about the democratic achievements of E1 Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The administration combined its condemnations of the Nicaraguan government with a stream of doomsday messages about the threat Nicaragua posed to the United States.

A crucial section of the rhetorical web was the portrayal of the l contras as the sole means to a democratic outcome in Nicaragua. This entailed selling the contras as a democratic force to a skeptical Congress and U.S. public. The administration approached this challenging task by developing the notion that the contras were not a group of ex-National Guardsmen but people who had fought against Somoza only to have their revolution stolen by the Sandinistas. In 1984 Reagan asserted, "Many of the people now fighting as contras are elements of this revolution." 2] Later that year he carried that remarkable proposition further: "No, actually, what those people are, those so-called guerrillas, or contras, as they're called in Nicaragua, are actually-and for the most part, people who were participants in the original revolution and then had that revolution stolen from them by the Communist Sandinistas." By 1985 it was no longer "many" or "most," Reagan declared flat out, "The contras are made up and led by revolutionaries who fought against Somoza."

These statements were serious distortions of the facts.

The administration was not content simply to distort the political origins and character of the contras, it portrayed them as a heroic democratic force, a group of "freedom fighters" struggling to light the lamp of liberty in Nicaragua. President Reagan pulled out all rhetorical stops in praising the contras, declaring that they were the "moral equal" of the U.S. Founding Fathers and that he was in fact "a Contra, too." The contras were analogized not only to the Founding Fathers but to whichever other famous rebel groups the administration thought might strike a responsive chord with the U.S. public, including the French Resistance and the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Aside from the obviously great differences with respect to political character between the contras and these historic groups, these overwrought comparisons shared a common conceptual error: each of the historic groups to which the contras were compared had struggled against a foreign occupying army for political independence whereas the contras were fighting a civil war.

... the most important effect of the Reagan policy was the tremendous destruction it wreaked on Nicaragua ... Approximately 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed and tens of thousands others were wounded, a death total higher in per capita terms than that suffered by the United States in the Civil War, World War One, World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. A generation of young Nicaraguans was devastated.

The contra war and U.S. economic sanctions also caused considerable economic destruction. The contras targeted all kinds of infrastructural facilities including power lines, bridges, oil installations, communications equipment, and municipal buildings, resulting in a frequent bleeding of Nicaragua's already scarce capital resources. Fighting the war absorbed huge amounts of government resources (although Soviet military aid went a long way to financing the military effort) and just as importantly, diverted the energies of tens of thousands of young Nicaraguans away from productive economic activity. The war also wreaked havoc on the country's agricultural system, disrupting the production and distribution of food in many areas of the country. By the end of the 1980s Nicaragua was an economic disaster area and had sunk to being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere except for Haiti. Some of the economic decline was clearly attributable to the statist economic policies of the Nicaraguan government. Unquestionably, however, the contra war and the U.S. economic sanctions had a major effect.

Despite the Reagan administration's attempts to justify the war on various principled grounds, the inescapable fact was that the U.S. campaign to oust the Sandinistas violated the basic principle of noninterventionism in the international system. The prodemocracy rationale did not hold water; the Reagan administration's root goal was getting rid of a foreign government it did not like, not promoting democracy. And in any case, under international law one country may not impose a particular political system on another country-be it democracy or anything else-by force. The self defense rationale (the argument that the United States was defending El Salvador against Nicaraguan aggression) also lacked substance. Even if Nicaragua's assistance to the Salvadoran rebels was consistent and substantial (an issue that remains under debate) El Salvador's right of self-defense extended only to stopping the flow of assistance. The contra war never had any significant Salvadoran participation and was aimed at ousting the Sandinistas, not interdicting arms passing from Nicaragua to El Salvador.

The U.S. government's flagrant, persistent flaunting of the basic principle of nonintervention badly hurt the international reputation of the United States, particularly in Western Europe. In simple terms, the Reagan administration's crude attempt to bully, harass, and topple the leftist government of a small Latin American neighbor, and the administration's stubborn resistance to any negotiated agreement, made a mockery of President Reagan's attempt to claim the high moral ground for the United States in international affairs and provided a natural focal point for unfriendly countries to score points against the United States in international forums. The Nicaragua policy also hurt the United States internally. The Reagan administration's insistence over eight years in carrying out a policy that was consistently unpopular with a majority of Americans undermined the popular basis for U.S. foreign policy. When the administration veered off into the illicit and clandestine contra resupply program it ended up damaging the tenor of American democracy itself. And the administration's obsessive pursuit of contra aid from the Congress had debilitating effects on Executive Branch congressional relations.

These many costs, particularly the human and economic costs to Nicaragua, outweighed whatever political benefits to Nicaragua one might attribute to the policy. For the most part, the Reagan administration simply avoided all mention of costs. The countless speeches, publications, and statements on the contra campaign, almost never contained references to the casualty figures in Nicaragua or detailed descriptions of the destruction wrought by the contras. The ardent supporters of the war within the U.S. government were almost completely isolated from the costs imposed on Nicaraguans but felt no hesitation in making judgments about what was good for Nicaragua. With respect to the costs for the United States, administration officials largely just talked them away. They had little respect for international opinion or traditional principles of the international system and were not bothered by the fact that the United States was almost completely isolated in its Nicaragua policy. They had similarly low respect for U.S. public opinion and when confronted with the force of that opinion responded by trying to hide the true policy (that is, the clandestine resupply effort) and devising a massive campaign to manipulate public opinion into conformity with the administration's views.

The Reagan administration attempted to justify its anti-Sandinista policy not only by exaggerating the gains and discounting the costs, but by denying the possibility of any alternatives. A cardinal element of the justificatory structure around the policy was that the United States must use force to try to get the Sandinistas to accept democracy because the Sandinistas, as Marxist Leninists, would never evolve toward democracy on their own. At every policy juncture between the hard-line approach and the possibility of a more conciliatory line, the hard-liners would shake their heads grimly and say that the Sandinistas, as Marxist-Leninists, would never change unless forced to at gunpoint.

This notion that Marxist-Leninist governments never evolve toward democracy was a hallowed tenet of the Kirkpatrickian dogma that was embraced by the early Reagan administration and that provided the intellectual framework for the Nicaragua policy. The notion was, however, sharply belied by the facts. In the second half of the 1980s, many Marxist-Leninist governments, including the Soviet Union and almost all the countries of Eastern Europe, began acknowledging the need for economic and political liberalization and taking steps, in some cases dramatic ones, in that direction. The Reagan administration hailed this trend and declared loudly that totalitarianism was giving way in the face of the irresistible attractions of democracy and capitalism. Yet when it came to Nicaragua, the administration held to the line that as Marxist-Leninists, the Sandinistas would never accept political or economic liberalization. Thus the odd spectacle occurred of President Reagan emerging from meetings with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, trumpeting the Soviet leader's commitment to change, and then turning around and insisting that the war in Nicaragua must be continued because the Sandinistas, as Marxist-Leninists, would never change. It was as though the subject of Nicaragua was stuck in a time warp; the administration applied to it a set of ideas that the administration itself was busy abandoning in the rest of the world.



The path leading to the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada began in 1979 when Maurice Bishop and his supporters in the leftist New Jewel Movement ousted Grenadan Prime Minister Eric Gairy and established the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada. Relations between the Carter administration and the new Grenadan government quickly turned chilly as Bishop aligned Grenada with the Soviet bloc on many foreign policy issues and developed warm relations with Cuba.

When the Reagan administration came into power, U.S. Grenadan relations turned outright hostile. The Reagan team saw Grenada not as a minor annoyance but an ominous advance of the perceived Soviet-Cuban conspiracy to spread communism through Central America and the Caribbean. Reagan officials warned that Grenada could serve as a transit point for Cuban military forces going to Africa and a staging ground for Cuban subversion of the Eastern Caribbean and even South America. In April 1982, President Reagan charged that Grenada had joined the Soviet Union and Cuba "to spread the virus" of Marxism-Leninism in the region. Grenada was excluded from the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The U.S. military staged a series of provocative military exercises in the Caribbean in the early 1980s. In October 1981, for example, U.S. military forces carried out an exercise code-named, "Amber and the Amberdines" (an obvious reference to Grenada and the nearby Grenadines), which simulated the invasion and temporary occupation of a small Caribbean island. Bishop reacted defiantly to U.S. pressure, repeatedly accusing President Reagan of planning to invade Grenada and citing invasion fears as the reason for the expansion of the Grenadan army.

In 1983, Bishop's hold on power began to weaken in the face of persistent dissension from hard-liners in the New Jewel Movement, who were associated with Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. Possibly with the goal of improving economic relations with the United States, Bishop attempted a rapprochement of sorts with the Reagan administration in mid-1983, traveling to Washington in the hope of meeting President Reagan or Vice President Bush. Reagan and Bush refused to see him, however, and Bishop returned home empty-handed. His initiative provoked even greater divisions within the Central Committee of the New Jewel Movement, leading to his fall. Members of the armed forces placed Bishop under house arrest on October 13 and then murdered him, along with a number of his close associates, on October 19. A Revolutionary Military Council, representing the hard-liners in the New Jewel Movement, proclaimed itself in charge on October 20, and imposed a strict curfew.

Grenada's Eastern Caribbean neighbors were deeply troubled by the brutal political violence in Grenada and, at the prompting of Barbadan Prime Minister Tom Adams, began planning some kind of joint military action against the Revolutionary Military Council. Similar thinking was going on in the White House. The Reagan administration saw the ouster of Bishop as a dangerous turn to the extreme left in Grenada. Reagan officials, uncertain as to who killed Bishop or why, speculated that Cuba, working with Coard, had masterminded the ouster and that Grenada would be opened fully to Cuban influence. The Reagan administration also began wondering about the safety of the approximately 1,000 U.S. medical students on the island and worrying about the possibility of an Iran-style hostage crisis.

In the days after Bishop's murder, the Reagan administration went into a crisis mode, setting up emergency task forces and monitoring the confusing political events in Grenada hour by hour. Plans for a U.S. invasion were suddenly taken out of contingency files and put on the front burner. When the member states of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) decided on October 21 that military action against Grenada should be taken and made an oral request to the White House for U.S. assistance, the momentum toward an invasion became almost irresistible. The following day, Reagan and his top advisers consulted on the situation and arrived at a consensus on the need for a U.S. invasion. And on the day after that, October 23, the OECS sent a written request for U.S. assistance with an intervention against Grenada and President Reagan signed the formal directive for U.S. military action.

The invasion was launched in the early hours of October 25. Several thousand U.S. troops landed on the island (several hundred Caribbean troops participated in a secondary role) encountering unexpectedly strong resistance from Grenadan forces and from the contingent of 500-1,000 Cubans who had been working on the new airport but were armed and willing to fight. It took three days to secure the island, eliminate most of the armed resistance, and evacuate the American students. Exact casualty figures remain elusive; approximately 100 to 200 Grenadans, 50 to 100 Cubans, and 20 to 30 Americans were killed.

The invasion of Grenada was an expression of the Reagan administration's desire to mount a policy of "rollback" against the Soviet Union by toppling communist governments at the periphery of "the Soviet empire" and then working toward the center. As the smallest and most far-flung of the Soviet Union's perceived client states, Grenada was the natural first target for a rollback policy.

Within the United States at least, the only persons who rejected the legitimacy of the invasion were that limited minority, who believe, that the United States should adhere to the principle of nonintervention, which is perhaps the most important principle of the post war international order.

In the Name of Democracy

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