The Crimson held a discussion on Central America with Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador under the Carter Administration and Terry Karl, assistant professor of Government who has just returned from a tour of the area and is collaborating on a book focusing on U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Antony J. Blinken and Lavea Brachman moderated the discussion.
Crimson: Most recently in the news, there have been a series of alleged reforms coming from the Nicaraguans. From your perspective, how legitimate are these attempts at reform, or are they just surface measures that don't really go to the root of the problems which the Nicaraguans face?
Karl: I think you have to put that into a context, first of all. The context is that all of these measures are being offered in a country that right now is really at war--a country that is building and digging trenches, a country that in every town I went to in the border area of Honduras and Nicaragua you see Sandinista trucks driving into the center of town and literally handing out rifles to everyone in the town The measures they have been announcing are really not very new. They have been saying for several years now that in 1985 they would have elections. They now have said that on February 21, 1984, they will give the date in 1985 that they will have elections. Some of the liberalization of the press--that comes and goes in Nicaragua. Everything that's censored you can hang up outside on bulletin boards, so anytime you want to see what's cut out of newspapers in La Prenza, all you have to do is go the building and see everything hung up. The reason for emphasizing some of these things is that I think some of these were in the works What has accelerated is the calendar and the emphasis. Some of them ere not in the works and are clearly being done to get the United States off them backs. But also, that this is a country that has done significant reform in economic reforms. Social reforms, in education, in agrarian reforms, etc And having spent some time in Central America. It's somewhat astounding to me that the focus of U.S. policy is Nicaragua rather than Guatamala of El Salvador.
WhiteWell, I think that the central criticism of the government of Nicaragua is that the Sandinistas right from the beginning, forgot or ignored the contribution that others made to the changing of Somoza to the overthrow squads. They don't persecute them--they just made them irrelevant. And that's a tremendous mistake that will flaw then actions until they reorient their thinking. The idea that these reforms are making the Sandinistas more tractable and more ready for negotiations. I just don't believe is historically accurate. They've been starting their willingness to negotiate without condition on any subject that the United States chooses ever since Reagan stationed troops there.
Crimson: Do you think that this recent re-emphasis on these reforms presented any kind opportunity for the Reagan Administration to go along the conciliation route? And if so, how would you judge the Administration's response, or lack of response on the last week or so?
Karl: I don't think it presented an opening. I think what the Nicaraguans are doing and, actually, I think very intelligently, is that they're taking away any possible pretext for an invasion, any possible excuse. I also agree that I don't think there is going to be an invasion at this moment. I think what they have done has, in fact, made it very difficult for the U.S. to do something militarily against Nicaragua, right now, without looking like an enormous bully.
White: Well, I interpret the question slightly differently. I thought you meant could the Reagan Administration, in effect, seize on the Nicaraguan offers to negotiate liberalization, exiting of Cubans, and so forth, to strike a deal. Well, I think they could.
Crimson: I wanted to follow up on one thing you said. Do you feel that there is less of a chance of a U.S. invasion now, partially as the result of these reforms in Nicaragua, and partially due to other reasons?
Karl: I think the reasons why the Reagan Administration would not do something right now in Nicaragua have little to do with what is actually happening in Nicaragua. I think it has more to do with what is happening in the United States, with what's happening in Lebanon, and with what's happening in El Salvador in a certain way. I think it is not clear, still, where and when the United States will intervene in Central America.
Crimson: Last week, the United States issued two visa denials to prominent Central Americans, one being the Nicaraguan Minister of the Interior, the other an El Salvadoran leader. Administration officials have stressed both of these acts as demonstrating its even-handedness in dealing with Central Americans--one person being a leftist, the other a rightist. How would you both interpret the visa denials? What kind of signals do those denials send to the respective governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador?
White: It was a mistake to deny the visa to Nicaraguan Tomas Borge, Borge is, after all, a member of the ruling class of a government with which we have friendly diplomatic relations. At least on the technical level, there's no technical reason at all to deny him the visa. Until the Reagan Administration came along. Stopping government officials from travelling to the United States was practically unknown Now, in the question of Salvadoran Roberto d' Aubuisson, as I understand from the newspapers. Vice President Bush met with d' Aubuisson You can see the State Department's hand as it tries to gain some control over foreign policy. In Bush's meeting with him we see the reasserting of the hard line of the Reagan Administration--the line that all anti-Communists are our friends.
Crimson: With regard to El Salvador, is there any consensus in Washington for dealing with El Salvador?
Karl: I think one of the results of that uncoordinated U.S. policy in El Salvador is to actually make U.S. foreign policy hostage to the right in El Salvador. I watched in the Salvadoran papers, I saw something absolutely astonishing: the President of the United States issuing a denial that the United States embassy was penetrated by communists in El Salvador. It was a ludicrous scene, and I think that that kind of mixed message only plays, in the end, in the hands of the right in El Salvador, because the right--and I would say the non-democratic, violent, and murderous right--is convinced that in the end the United States will do anything to stop communism in El Salvador--even if it means maintaining or looking the other way when the death squads run around in El Salvador like they do.
Crimson: One of the side effects of terrorism is that it kills any spirit of opposition within the people. Is there still, among the Salvadoran people, any kind of will to seek a more democratic system, or are they totally numbed by the system in which they now have been placed and now willing to accept whatever policy?
Karl: I seriously doubt that there will be a democratic outcome in El Salvador, no matter what anyone does at this particular time. It's not just the numbers that are important--how many people died. But in El Salvador, it's the way that they die In El Salvador, you put it on television In El Salvador, you hang bodies out in streets You throw them in parking lots. You throw them in garbage dumps. In Salvador, it's the publicness of this terror which means it has penetrated widely. I think that the political impact of something like that is, of course, to make people terrified. Everyone is terrified, and the silence of San Salvador today--which the U.S. embassy kept assuring me was the silence of a pacified city--was the silence of terror.
White: I think the possibility for a democratic solution still exists. I think that one of the more remarkable things is how the Left has matured over the last two and a half years. I think they're a lot more politically sophisticated than they were. They now realize that standard superficial Marxist analysis does not really apply to this country. There are important elements here than would wholeheartedly back a solution that retained pluralism. This is why a negotiated solution is so important. Until you have a negotiated solution, then the revolutionaries will owe something to the politicians, and politicians, by their very nature, require pluralism to be politicians.
Crimson: Given this analysis, quite specifically, if you were making U.S. policy for El Salvador, what steps would you have our government take?
White: Force the disloyal right to negotiate. That's the only thing you can do. If they did that, the chances are that you would have a coup within the military within a very short time. A pro-democratic coup.
One of the tragic things that's happened--not so much to them but to us--is that the Reagan Administration uses phrases to hide realities that are uncovering now. When you talk about elections and democracy, the people in Central America always put out enough votes to return the right wing to power. Now, theidea that you're talking about bringing democracy to El Salvador through elections is mindless. Because the crisis in El Salvador is not a constitutional crisis, it is not going to be solved by constitutional means. Elections are not a device to transport a society from one stage to another. After you agree on the bases of a society, then you can pick the team that you want to lead.
Crimson: If we could guarantee fair elections tomorrow, would the Sandinistas stand to hold power in Nicaragua in a fair election?
Karl: Tomorrow? Yes, I think that it's very hard. There is still no organized, effective alternative inside Nicaragua or outside Nicaragua to the Sandinistas.
Crimson: Do you think that the Sandinistas have the intention of seeking truly democratic elections. Do you think that's possible in Nicaragua, or are they talking about elections to placate the United States and the European support that they have?
Karl: I don't really know the answer to that I would say certainly that they didn't show an enormous democratic vocation right after the revolution I don't know what kind of project they have in mind what struck me most in Nicaragua is that, in the situation they are now in, it's very difficult to have any kind of political or economic long-term plan.
White: I think that there is, leane Kirk patrick notwithstanding, room for pluralistic development inside Nicaragua because no matter how harshly you judge Nicaragua. It is not a major offender against human rights There's nobody afraid to stand up and talk about how bad the Sandinistas are I would think that, just as in Mexico, you might evolve a Sandinista party, with various wings and tendencies within it You have this pluralism panning out, and then it develops along its own way. I don't see any evidence to suggest that the Sandinistas are wedded to the idea of suppressing everyone who disagrees with them.
Crimson: What potential is there in Guatemala for more democratic government and him in U.S. policy now affecting Guatemala'.
White: Well. I think the revolution is endemic to Guatemala and has been since 1954 because what you have is repression and greed Guatemalan leaders are so completely dedicted to the maintenance of an unjust system It's just going to be a matter of time--there's no way that this government can last for very long But it will last in effect for as long as we continue to work with it.
Karl: I think another point in all this is that some thing that is new in Guatemala is the number of refugees. It's not new to have a refugee problem in Guatemala, but the result is the exportation of repression, to Mexico. It you go riding along the Mexican-Guatemalan border, you see enormous numbers of Guatemalan Indians, who become a problem between Guatemala and Mexico. They create a new level of tensions between Mexico and Guatemala. The other thing that they do is that they create new and important problems within the Mexican political system.
Crimson: Is there a role for some of the regional nations i.e., the Contradora group, and if there is, what would that role be in bringing about peace'
Karl: Yes there's a role. I think an important one I will say that one thing that has impressed me about the Contradora group, with all its limitations, is that it has managed to come up with some concrete suggestions. It has been a kind of break on a march towards more and more military involvement, and has not resolved anything, but at least it's slowed down the march of events. It has taken the heat off each individual country. It's no longer just the Mexicans, in a sense, criticizing U.S. policy in the region, but they've spread the risk by having other countries involved So in those senses, yes, I think it's useful. I think they've played an important role, and I think that we should take them much more seriously than we have.
White: The Contradora group largely plays the role of combining a convenient mechanism for the Reagan Administration not to negotiate directly with Nicaragua, or directly with Salvadoran revolutionaries. At the same time, we refuse to back the Contradoras in any way and therefore we are using the Contradoras as a shill to keep the appearance of negotiation going while at the same time, we drive a militaristic policy forward, and that. I told you, is going to build up deep resentments among the presidents and the foreign ministers and others who made it their commitment to Salvador.