Democracy in Transition II

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 much of this century Honduras was an exceptional country relative to its neighbors. Although it was the poorest country in Central America, it was not plagued by the same profound sociopolitical divisions and conflicts that marked other countries in the region. Honduras did not have a powerful landed oligarchy and its military was not the automatic partner of the upper class against the peasantry. Two large, historical political parties, the National party and the Liberal party, though dominated by elites, constituted a genuine civilian political sector. In the 1960s and 1970s Honduras experienced some of the same pressures for economic and political reform that provoked armed leftist insurgencies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, but the pressures were much weaker and were contained by a series of military and civil-military governments that were neither democratic nor severely repressive. Given the absence of any strong leftist threat in Honduras, the United States government paid relatively little attention to it during the 1960s and 1970s. The United States began to take note of Honduras in the late 1970s when the upsurge in leftist revolutionary movements in Central America, in particular the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, provoked the Carter administration to engage itself more actively in the region. Honduras appeared to be relatively stable compared to its turbulent neighbors but the Carter administration was concerned about keeping it that way and settled on the same sort of centrist-oriented anticommunist policy that it had arrived at in El Salvador. The Carter administration strongly backed the emerging transition to elected civilian rule that the Honduran military was overseeing and increased U.S. military assistance, both to strengthen the Honduran military's capacity to resist any internal or external leftist aggression and to gain political leverage over the military.

When the Reagan administration came to power and raised Central America to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, Honduras was one of the countries thrust into the limelight. The early Reagan team saw Honduras as a likely victim of Soviet-Cuban aggression in Central America, another domino that could fall at any time.

As in El Salvador, the hard-liners eventually agreed to at least a public position of support for a civilian transition, in significant part out of recognition that Congress was unlikely to support U.S. military undertakings in Honduras unless an elected civilian government emerged. The moderates in the early Reagan administration backed the civilian transition in Honduras for the same reasons the Carter administration did; it was a way of moderating the political divisions in Honduras, thereby undercutting existing or potential pressures for radical leftist change. Presidential elections were successfully held in November 1981. Roberto Suazo Cordova of the Liberal Party won the elections and Honduras gained its first directly elected civilian President in decades. The Reagan administration greeted the elections with enthusiasm, proclaiming that "Honduras has made what is by any measurement remarkable progress . . . in the establishment of civilian democratic institutions." And once the Suazo Cordova government was in place, the administration's Honduras policy settled into the form it would very consistently maintain all the way through 1988. The core of the policy was an aggressive, multifaceted military program targeted against Nicaragua, consisting of three elements: the controversial program of support for the Nicaraguan contras (who were based primarily in Honduras); the establishment of a semipermanent U.S. military presence in Honduras; and a large U.S.-financed expansion of the Honduran military. A lesser element of the policy was support for the continuation of elected civilian rule in Honduras, publicly characterized as support for democracy.

The contra program began in earnest in 1982 as the CIA developed in Honduras what was to become a massive paramilitary infrastructure of training, material support. and financial assistance for a force of anti-Sandinista rebels who eventually numbered over ten thousand. Although the contra program was directed against Nicaragua, it was the main issue in U.S.-Honduran relations in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, Honduras, along with El Salvador, became another I case of a country led by elected civilian governments that was not a working democracy. Although the Suazo Cordova and Azcona Hoyo governments came to power through reasonably fair elections, they did not uphold democratic values during their tenure and cannot be considered to have been representative governments that gained the trust of the people and served their interests. Both were corrupt, self-serving governments more interested in self-enrichment than in democratic governance.

... the extended period of civilian rule did not alter the traditional antidemocratic structures of power in Honduras. The military and the economic elite maintained their position as dominant forces beyond the reach of direct governmental control. The civilian governments were obliged to bargain with them over what were essentially power-sharing arrangements. The military in particular dominated the Honduran political system. The armed forces constituted a state within a state and set limits on civilian political life that were enforced by violence. Honduras suffered a regular pattern of human rights abuses carried out by military and police personnel against persons who strayed outside the bounds of what the military considered acceptable political activity. The level of human rights violations was low by comparison to El Salvador or Guatemala but was very significant within the Honduran political context.

The Reagan administration was well aware that the elected governments in Honduras were hardly representative bodies and that a small circle of military officers and business leaders exercised a good deal of control over the society. U.S. officials nonetheless consistently characterized Honduras as a democracy and included it on the administration's oft-repeated list of democratic success stories in Latin America.

Perhaps the clearest example of the inherent clash between the U.S. military assistance to Honduras and the stated goal of promoting democracy in Honduras occurred in the early 1980s. An army intelligence unit, Battalion 316, that had received CIA training and was partly supported by U.S. military assistance, carried out a "dirty war" against the scattering of Honduran guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers. Dozens of Hondurans were tortured and killed in what was the most serious campaign of political repression in recent Honduran history. The CIA (which gave counterinsurgency training to the unit beginning in 1980) apparently did not instruct the Hondurans to torture or kill their prisoners, but was nonetheless closely involved with the unit. Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who became commander of the Honduran army in 1982, masterminded the dirty war. Until his ouster in 1984, Alvarez was a favored figure among U.S. military advisers and was the main Honduran force behind both the contra program and the renewing of U.S.-Honduran military relations.

The militarization of Honduras was one main legacy of the Reagan administration's policy. The other was the diminishment of Honduras to the status of a client state. Even more than in El Salvador, the level of U.S. political influence and involvement in Honduras, particularly the huge covert war against Nicaragua the United States administered from Honduran territory, made a mockery of Honduran sovereignty. The contras were increasingly unpopular in Honduras and the Honduran government obviously tolerated them only because of the huge quantities of U.S. assistance and the general weight of the United States in the region. As a result, Honduras was widely seen in the international community as the Reagan administration's lackey in Central America ...

This overbearing U.S. policy inevitably created serious strain on the Honduran social fabric. Hondurans grew increasingly resentful of the United States using Honduras as a platform for its anti-Sandinista policy and treating it as a vassal. This resentment came to a head in April 1988 when the United States kidnapped in Honduras a Honduran wanted on drug trafficking charges in the United States. In response to the kidnapping, approximately two thousand demonstrators sacked a U.S. embassy annex and set fire to more than twenty embassy vehicles. The Honduran police were slow in coming to the embassy's aid, further signaling Hondurans' resentment. The demonstration was widely recognized as an expression of Hondurans' pent-up anger over U.S. heavy-handedness

The history of Guatemala since at least the 1940s is a story of recurrent clashes between forces of societal change and a deeply entrenched, reactionary business elite defended by a violent, repressive military. In the 1950s, a strong reformist movement culminated in the election of a reform-oriented government led by Jacobo Arbenz, who was ousted, however, in a ClA-sponsored coup, after which Guatemala returned to military rule. In the 1960s, Guatemalan security forces, with considerable counterinsurgency assistance from the United States, combated recently formed guerrilla bands made up of some former Guatemalan military officers who had become disaffected after a failed military rebellion in 1960. Despite its military origins, the rebel movement took on an increasingly leftist character during the 1960s. In the 1970s, a number of more clearly ideologically based guerrilla groups formed and began waging a prolonged "popular" war against the military government. The Guatemalan military fought back viciously, employing terror-based counterinsurgency tactics, torturing and killing thousands of civilians.

The traditionally warm U.S.-Guatemalan relationship, rooted in mutual anticommunist interests, grew chilly in the late 1970s. The Guatemalan military refused to accept the human rights conditions imposed on U.S. military assistance by the United States in 1977 leading to a suspension of U.S.-Guatemalan military cooperation.

The Guatemalan right celebrated the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, anticipating a return to the good old days of close U.S.-Guatemalan relations. The incoming Reagan team was indeed sympathetic to the Guatemalan military government led by General Lucas Garcia. Reagan officials saw Guatemala as another victim of Soviet-Cuban aggression in Central America, and potentially the last domino that would fall after El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras, opening the door to the communist subversion of Mexico. Reagan administration officials portrayed the Guatemalan rebels as being "heavily supported and influenced by our adversaries," 16 propagating the incorrect notion that Soviet-Cuban interference was an important cause of what was in fact a very Guatemalan civil war.

Administration officials repeatedly ascribed the political violence in Guatemala to "the cycle of provocation from the left and overreaction from the right." Implicit in this misleading formula was the notion that Guatemala had been in a reasonably good political and economic situation until without warning a group of Guatemalans irresponsibly or inexplicably launched a violent leftist rebellion, drawing a predictable, even understandable, "overreaction" from the right. Missing from this view were the twin facts that Guatemala had long been a profoundly unequal and unjust society in desperate need of political and economic reform and that the Guatemalan right had been systematically stamping out all nonviolent civil and political dissent for generations, eliminating any possibility of moderate opposition and fueling or creating the radical tendencies of those who sought reform.

Guatemala was obviously so far from democracy that even the Reagan administration's habitually loose use of the term could not be stretched to apply to its starkly repressive political situation. Instead, the administration focused the political component of its policy on the need to reduce political violence. The way for the United States to encourage a reduction of violence, according to the administration, was not to censure the Guatemalan government but to engage it in dialogue on human rights issues.

The administration also began what was to prove a long, relatively fruitless campaign to put a good face on Guatemala's human rights violations. In July 1981, for example, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Bosworth told a congressional committee that the Guatemalan left was responsible for most of the political violence in Guatemala and claimed that the Guatemalan military was "taking care to protect innocent bystanders."

... [1982] a group of junior military officers overthrew the outgoing government and installed a military junta headed by General Efrian Rios Montt, who himself had been elected President in 1974 but had been ousted before taking office. The coup was the work of a group of junior officers who were concerned that the Guatemalan military leadership was blind to the lessons for Central American militaries in the fall of Somoza in Nicaragua. The junior officers were dissatisfied with the terror-based tactics and the absence of a positive political program in Lucas Garcia's war-fighting strategy. With Rios Montt in power the military devised and began implementing a multi-year plan to defeat the rebels based on a forceful counterinsurgency strategy aimed at destroying the rebels' rural bases of support and establishing control of the rural population through forcible relocation of large numbers of peasants in strategic hamlets and the creation of numerous civil defense patrols. This counterinsurgency effort was better planned than the indiscriminate terror campaign of the preceding years but still entailed horrendous levels of violence against the civilian population. It also initiated a process of militarization of the countryside in which the military achieved a level of repressive control over the rural population unmatched anywhere in Latin America.

The Reagan administration seized on the March 1982 coup and the emergence of Rios Montt as a decisive political turnaround in Guatemala. Administration officials began a new campaign to gain congressional approval for military assistance by trying to sell Rios Montt to a skeptical U.S. Congress as a reformist committed to reducing human rights abuses and initiating a transition to democracy. In April 1982, U.S. Ambassador Frederick Chapin declared "The killings have stopped.... The Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light."

The administration's exaggerated position on the human rights situation provoked a bitter debate throughout much of 1982 between the administration on the one hand and the U.S. human rights community and congressional Democrats on the other. The debate coincided with and paralleled the debate over human rights in El Salvador. President Reagan himself weighed in during December 1982 when he met briefly with Rios Montt in Guatemala and afterward described the Guatemalan leader to be "totally dedicated to democracy" and said the Guatemalan government had been getting "a bum rap" on human rights.

Rios Montt's somewhat peculiar, even messianic evangelism 17 alienated many Guatemalan military officers and his rigid imposition of military control over the entire political system offended some of the oligarchic political elites. He was ousted by his defense minister.

The Reagan administration policy was(nonetheless)seriously flawed. As in El Salvador, the notion of democracy by centrist transition was problematic. The formal transition from military to civilian rule was not a means of breaking up the Guatemalan right's traditional stranglehold on power. The transition was, if anything, part of an effort by the military to consolidate and stabilize its own power. The Reagan administration believed in a political center that did not really exist and clung to the idea that the right would somehow give up power voluntarily to the center. The policy was thus based both on a denial of the true configuration of political forces in Guatemala and of the usual laws of political power and political change in Central America.

The most glaring operational flaw of the policy was its human rights component. Human rights violations were the symptom of the Guatemalan right's antidemocratic attitudes and the handle by which the administration could call attention to its commitment to bringing about a change in those attitudes. Yet the administration's human rights policy was extremely weak. During the first half of the 1980s the administration consistently played the role of apologist for the Guatemalan government. Administration officials struggled to minimize the political violence that was occurring or to blame it on the rebels. Most of the administration's time and energy on human rights was devoted to fighting with U.S. human rights groups rather than investigating human rights problems in Guatemala and trying to do something about them.

In the Name of Democracy

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