Ronald Reagan Made Central America a Killing Field
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration used Central America as a testing ground to rehabilitate US imperial "hard power" after defeat in Vietnam. The results were predictable: death squads, massacres, and murderous repression of left-wing movements.
- Interview by
- Sasha Lilley
Latin America has played a crucial role in the history of US empire — and not simply because of its proximity to the US. As historian Greg Grandin argues in the recently reissued Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Making of an Imperial Republic (reviewed by Hilary Goodfriend for Jacobin here), countries south of the border have been used as a crucible in the formation of US policy, a testing ground for its imperial theories, and a touchstone for domestic movements.
One critical moment was the rise of Reaganism, when neoconservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams steered the US’s foreign policy and rank-and-file members of the New Right took a keen interest in fighting left-wing movements in Central America. Right-wing leaders later used the lessons they gleaned from brutal counterinsurgency programs in El Salvador in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a recent appearance on the California-based progressive radio show Against the Grain, Grandin spoke with radical journalist Sasha Lilley about the many ways Latin America’s resistance to US empire has reshaped American politics. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How important has Latin America been for the United States as an imperial power?
It’s been critically important. It’s easy to talk about Latin America as a site in which the US imposes its imperial will, carries out coups and regime changes, and pays no attention to the consequences and disastrous results. But there’s another story to tell. Latin America was a challenge to the founders of the United States. They immediately had to deal with the fact that the Western Hemisphere had multiple republics, and that they shared with the founders of the United States a sense of American exceptionalism.
Latin America resisted US expansion ideologically, economically, and politically in ways that, say, European empires prior to the collapse of Spain and England in the Western Hemisphere, or indigenous communities, couldn’t. That pushback forced the United States to figure out new strategies to project its power. Ascendant political coalitions in the United States used Latin America to work out their worldview and their tactics, and to reconcile contradictions among different constituencies.
That is something absent from most discussions of the relationship of Latin America to the United States. It’s easy to talk about Latin America as this place where US empire has run roughshod. It’s much more difficult to understand the way Latin America has shaped the domestic politics of the United States.
The 1970s marked a moment of great defeat and disarray for the United States, following the Vietnam War and Watergate, and as well with the global economic crisis of capitalism, and the unraveling of that New Deal order. How were interventions in Latin America in the 1980s a response to those crises?
Empire’s Workshop looks at the New Deal and the New Right as the quintessential twentieth century political coalitions. Reagan is elected in 1980 running on a program of restoring US power and moral authority in the world. A lot of neoconservative analysts like Jeane Kirkpatrick saw the crisis not just as a crisis of power but a crisis of confidence. Vietnam scrambled the establishment’s ability to act in the world with an assuredness that it was doing good. Reagan’s task, and Reaganism’s task, wasn’t just to reassert power, but to re-moralize power, re-moralize militarism, and re-moralize markets.
When Reagan comes to power in 1981, there’s not a lot of places in the world where the US can actually act. The Soviet Union is still in existence, they still have nuclear weapons. The Middle East is split between allegiances to the Soviet Union and to United States. Africa’s allegiances are split. Most of South America is under anti-communist dictatorships, following coups that the US had supported: Chile in 1973, Uruguay in 1973, Bolivia in 1971, Paraguay and Argentina in 1976. So South America was secure — it was like a garrison continent.
But Central America was in revolt. The Sandinistas had won their revolution in 1979. There were powerful insurgencies in El Salvador and Nicaragua. So the Reagan administration uses Central America to work out ideas, work out tactics, to get a sense of themselves as an aspiring coalition.
One of the arguments of Empire’s Workshop is that the importance of Central America resided in its unimportance: it had no nuclear weapons, it was firmly within the US’s sphere of influence, the Soviet Union wasn’t going to object, and the US had clients it could work with and who were eager to work with the United States. Reagan could give Central America — whether we’re talking about the Contra war in Nicaragua or the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala — to movement conservatives with little fear of consequences.
So Central America becomes the crucible for different constituencies of the New Right. Secular neoconservatives, religious theocons, militarists radicalized to the right by the Vietnam War, Soldier of Fortune–type mercenaries — Reagan basically lets loose all of these people in Central America.
We talk about the importance of Nicaragua for the Left as a kind of pilgrimage site. But scratch the surface of somebody in the new right — Blackwater’s Erik Prince, for instance — and you’ll find that they spent some time in or had something to do with the Contra war in Nicaragua.
Central America allows these relations on the New Right to thicken and contradictions to be worked out. There are tensions, for instance, between secular neoconservatives, whose vision of a restoration of American power after Vietnam wasn’t necessarily religion-based, and Pentecostals and Evangelicals. The key to this is liberation theology, which was powerful in Central America. The Sandinista revolution was as much Christian as it was Marxist; liberation theology was strong in El Salvador; it was powerful in Guatemala. So liberation theology becomes the first political religion that unites the New Right before they move on to Islam.
This is important because it forces the New Right to think through the morality of capitalism and militarism. It’s one thing to be able to project power; it’s another thing to justify it in moral terms. And a lot of the re-moralization of markets that we associate with libertarianism was forged in arguments against liberation theology.
Liberation theologians said the market was an amoral site of greed, and that militarism made life miserable for the world’s poor. Evangelical economists, arguing directly against liberation theology, said that the market was a place that reflected God’s grace; that by striving to overcome, you expanded the area of freedom — that militarism, and the strength of the United States, was actually a reflection of God’s will.
So Central America becomes central to this emerging worldview that we generally call Reaganism.
Could you give us a short history of US support for counter-insurgency in a place like El Salvador?
US involvement in El Salvador really takes off after the Cuban Revolution, when the US commits itself to strengthening — the word that they often use is “professionalize” or “centralize” — the intelligence agencies of allied states, El Salvador being one of them. In the early 1960s, the US began to create and fortify El Salvador’s security apparatus, well before there was an insurgency. El Salvador is a classic place where the counter-insurgency creates the insurgency.
A lot of this takes place under the rubric of the Alliance for Progress — John F. Kennedy’s developmentalist program for Latin America, which was a direct response to the Cuban Revolution. Kennedy was trying to claim Castro’s revolutionary thunder: “we will complete the revolution of the Americas.”
The Alliance for Progress did promote land reform and tax reform and a certain kind of developmentalist capitalism. But it’s a classic example of “good cop, bad cop.” At the same time the Alliance for Progress was promoting moderate land reform and a little bit more just tax structure, it was also arming the militaries and strengthening the intelligence agencies of these countries, to the point where the reformists that the Alliance for Progress hoped to bolster were being singled out for execution by the death squads that the Alliance for Progress had created.
El Salvador is a classic example. US funding supported both the strengthening of the intelligence agency and the strengthening of what became a paramilitary network that used information gathered by that intelligence agency. Intelligence fed to death squads and paramilitaries singled out not just communists, and not just activists that were seen as a threat by the US, but all sorts of reformers and activists and democrats. And then there would be waves of radicalization.
So El Salvador becomes the place where counterinsurgency is rehabilitated in the 1980s. It’s the place where militarists go down, working with the Department of Defense. The famous bumper stickers read, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam,” and these Department of Defense military advisors didn’t disagree. They thought El Salvador was a place to get the theory right. By that, they mostly meant preventing a deepening, direct involvement and strengthening the security apparatus of the country without increasing the number of US boots on the ground.
What lessons did they draw from this counter insurgency against the Left in Latin America? Many of the same people who cut their teeth in Latin America in the 1980s later used similar policies in launching the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is a new edition of a book that I wrote right after the invasion of Iraq, when I was trying to make sense of why all of these Central American hands had come back. Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, John Poindexter — there were all of these characters from Iran-Contra that all of a sudden assumed a prominent role in the US’s post-9/11 bid to go global, to drive into the Persian Gulf.
John Negroponte was the ambassador in Honduras, where he basically ran death squads. Then he becomes very prominent in the war in Iraq.
My argument is that Latin America allows retrenchment, and then once that retrenchment takes place, the US goes global. Then once going global hits a wall or collapses, the US turns back to Latin America.
In terms of counterinsurgency, there’s a dynamic that goes back almost to the inception of the concept. Counterinsurgents are constantly talking about “fighting the other war” — constantly talking about, to use a phrase associated with Vietnam, “winning hearts and minds” or “building the state” or “building institutional capacity.” The idea is to create a state that is strong enough and capable enough to administer its territory and confront and root out the causes of insurgency.
Sometimes this “winning hearts and minds” actually entails some real reforms; other times, it’s more like window dressing. But the fact of the matter is that wherever counterinsurgency has been successful in defeating an insurgency, it’s been because of a preponderance of power and the application of what otherwise would be known as terrorism — the use of death squads.
El Salvador, for instance, was a workshop. It was a laboratory. It was a way to reapply a counterinsurgency theory that had been discredited in Vietnam — but discredited, according to these theorists, for the wrong reasons.
The reason why it didn’t work in Vietnam was because the US violated that theory and escalated and turned it into a full-on war, with boots on the ground. So these theorists said, “No, we get a chance for a do-over; we can train the security apparatuses, we can build the state, we can win hearts and minds, we can fight the other war.” By “the other war,” they meant, again, winning hearts and minds, civic action, some kind political and economic reform. They talked about this incessantly in El Salvador.
But the fact of the matter is that none of that helped defeat the FMLN in El Salvador; none of that worked to win back territory, or win allegiance, or strengthen a reformist sector within the domestic bourgeoisie and the security apparatus that would defend a general interest against out-and-out terror and out-and-out exploitation. None of that happened.
What happened is that the bodies mounted: fifty thousand disappeared, maybe seventy thousand dead. We all we all know the history of El Salvador — the US spending billions of dollars a day supporting these deaths, the massacre of El Mozote in December 1981, horrific killings throughout. That ultimately, is what at least contained the insurgents in El Salvador and brought the war to a draw.
So it’s an interesting dynamic, just constantly circling back to “we have to build the state, we have to fight the other war.” And that just never happened. You see the same dynamic in Colombia, you see the same dynamic in Afghanistan, and the same dynamic in Iraq.
By 2008, a number of left-leaning governments had come to power in Latin America, the “pink tide.” To what degree did this interrupt the tried-and-true pattern of the US turning to Latin America when its imperial ambitions had created crises elsewhere?
There was a moment when Latin America, with the rise of the pink tide — starting with Chavez in Venezuela, and then continuing with Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, and so on — was governed by every historic tendency of the Latin American left. At one point, you had a trade unionist in power in Brazil, a military populist in power in Venezuela, a feminist doctor in Chile, a New Left guerrilla in Uruguay, an indigenous peasant activist in Bolivia, a liberation theologian in Paraguay. The whole slate was a historic panorama.
When Obama was elected, they were eager to welcome him into the pantheon. But what did the Obama administration do? It basically endorsed a coup in Honduras, the first turning point against the pink tide. It allowed a coup in Paraguay. It actively supported the corruption investigation against Lula in Brazil. And it did everything it could to isolate Chavez and, in terms of its energy policy, expanded fracking and natural gas to turn the United States into an energy exporter, which led to the collapse of oil prices and led to the containment of Venezuela.
Trump couldn’t take advantage of allies in Latin America either. He had Duque in Colombia, he had Bolsonaro in Brazil. And he flailed in Latin America, too. So I think — and this is an argument I make in the new epilogue to the book — that the dynamic in which Latin America serves as a workshop for the United States for ascending political coalitions no longer holds. Because the United States is exporting its own extremism.
You look at Bolivia, you look at Brazil, and what you see are libertarians; what you see is the power of the National Rifle Association, what you see are Pentecostals, what you see is a certain kind of Trumpism. Bolsonaro is an example of Trumpism on steroids. And that doesn’t actually create the conditions for using Latin America as a training ground. It’s a marker of the centrifugal forces that are pulling the United States apart.