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.