Democracy by Force
excerpted from the book
In the Name of Democracy
U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan
by Thomas Carothers
University of California Press, 1991
NICARAGUA AND GRENADA
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
the Name of Democracy