When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, Central America was in flames. Long a semifeudal paradise for tyrannical oligarchs and US monopolies, the region was then consumed by revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence.
In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had overthrown the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, igniting the hopes of revolutionaries throughout the isthmus and lighting a fire under the cold warriors in Washington. In 1980, five leftist organizations united in El Salvador to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). In Guatemala, where the United States helped overthrow a democratic reformist government in 1954, leftist insurgents had been waging an unsuccessful but persistent battle against the military regime since the 1960s; by 1982, four guerrilla forces had merged to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
Under President Carter, US aid to Central America dropped to historic lows. Assistance to Guatemala was cut off over human rights concerns, and military aid to El Salvador was also restricted. In 1979, however, things changed. After an October coup ousted a president who had been elected two years earlier in a vote broadly denounced as fraudulent, Carter restored non-lethal military assistance to El Salvador. The administration hoped that the new “centrist” junta would achieve in El Salvador what the United States hadn’t in Nicaragua — namely, tempering revolutionary aspirations and installing a modestly reformist, US-friendly bourgeoisie democracy. But El Salvador’s recalcitrant elites forcefully opposed the junta’s land reform proposal, and the government’s civilian members were soon forced out.
In February 1980, San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero wrote to President Carter, asking him to “forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government; [and] to guarantee that [his] government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people.” Carter never replied, and Romero was assassinated five weeks later, gunned down by US-backed paramilitary forces while celebrating mass.
Following the gruesome murders of four North American churchwomen in December, assistance to the country was briefly suspended. But the Carter administration quickly resumed its support, including lethal military aid, after the FMLN launched a major offensive in January 1981.
By 1983, Reagan had tripled US aid to the isthmus. Support to Nicaragua was severed save that destined for opposition groups, while aid to Guatemala was restored. From next to nothing in the late 1970s, military aid levels soared. Fresh from Vietnam’s humiliations, the neocons were sure that Central America would provide the decisive victory America needed to reassert its prowess.
But gains were illusory. The FSLN held firm to power, despite North American sponsorship of a covert insurgent war against the Sandinistas waged largely from Honduras, which became so overrun by the US military that it was referred to as the “USS Honduras.” Meanwhile, the Guatemalan state was waging a genocidal war against rural indigenous communities, and the Salvadoran military and its associated death squads were drawing international condemnation for their flagrant disregard for civilian life. Joan Didion wrote in 1982 that “the American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer.”
With his policies under fire and a reelection campaign looming, in 1983 Reagan convened the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. The president hoped that the commission would legitimize his administration’s ongoing activities in the isthmus in the face of significant opposition in Congress and in the streets, to say nothing of the international community. He appointed Henry Kissinger as its chair.
For Kissinger, as Greg Grandin writes in his biography of “America’s most controversial statesman,” the new role gave him “the chance to establish his credibility and reconcile with the Right” after Reagan himself had led the charge in lambasting the diplomat and his trademark strategy of détente as responsible for the United States’ recent failures on the world stage, both moral and military. Prepared to prove himself to the neocons, Kissinger was quick to agree that Central America was just the place to regain ground on both counts.
As evidence mounted of appalling human rights violations by the governments that Reagan championed as Central America’s warriors for democracy, Kissinger’s commission needed to convince Congress to keep the arms, training and cash coming. “Without the necessary funds,” warned the Great Communicator in a July 1983 speech announcing the commission, “there’s no way for us to prevent the light of freedom from being extinguished in Central America.”
Kissinger presided over a twelve-man team, which included a handful of politicians from both sides of the aisle, a couple of academics, business and military men, and the president of the AFL-CIO. The group included no Central Americans — or women, for that matter. The only woman’s name to grace the commission’s report was that of notorious neocon ideologue Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as senior counselor to the commission. After a month and a half of meetings, including a whirlwind nine-day tour of Central America, Mexico and Venezuela, the group published its findings in January 1984.
Kissinger’s greatest challenge was to portray local revolutionary movements as foreign conspiracies more alien than the United States’ own interventions. Even as the report acknowledged that authoritarian violence and repression wrought by ruling elites had systematically foreclosed the possibility of democratic reforms, it stubbornly disqualified the insurgencies and radical opposition movements fighting for dignity, equality and self-determination as outside intrusions. As journalist Belén Fernández has observed, the commission at times even appeared to suggest that Cuba is not in fact located within the hemisphere, but rather in some Soviet hinterland.
In its report, the commission desperately reiterated this tortured logic: “We have stressed before, and we repeat here: indigenous reform movements, even indigenous revolutions, are not themselves a security concern of the United States… What gives the current situation its special urgency is the external threat posed by the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua which is supported by massive Cuban military strength, backed by Soviet and other East bloc weapons, guidance and diplomacy, and integrated into the Cuban network of intelligence and subversion.”
The argument was not particularly convincing. A review in Foreign Affairs found that the commission “never successfully resolves the tension between US security interests in the area and the admitted need for radical change in many Central American societies… As policy is currently conceived, in order to fight that intrusion [of foreign aggressors] the United States must depend on precisely those forces that have always stood in the way of significant indigenous revolution, thus eventually forcing the advocates of radical change to rely for support on Cuban or Soviet backing.”
El Salvador particularly preoccupied the Reagan administration. Reports of the regime’s atrocities had sparked widespread public outcry, and in 1981, France and Mexico officially recognized the insurgency as a legitimate and representative political force. Reagan and his colleagues saw the tiny country as a crucial battleground: an FMLN victory would embolden the Sandinistas, and by extension the Cubans, and by extension the Soviets, setting off a chain reaction of red victories that would sweep northward toward US borders; the insurgency’s defeat, in turn, would cement US hegemony in Central America. A key part of Kissinger’s task was to convey the magnitude of this threat to Congress.
Against all evidence, Kissinger’s report strained to equate the scope of Salvadoran state violence with that of the opposition. “Both traditionalist death squads and murderous guerrillas have attacked political party, labor, and peasant leaders working to establish and consolidate democratic institutions,” it claimed, assuring readers that “both violent groups are morally and politically repugnant to this Commission.”
The report suggested that “curbing the insurgent’s violence in El Salvador requires, in part, cutting them off from their sources of foreign support.” But the Salvadoran military understood all too well that the guerillas’ principal bastion of support was domestic. Already, the generals were using their US arms, intelligence, and training to deploy a strategy of “draining the sea to kill the fish,” deliberately targeting civilian communities with terror, mass extermination, and displacement. This was also the counterinsurgency strategy employed by their Guatemalan counterparts under the leadership of war criminals like Efraín Ríos Montt, whom the Commission fondly referred to as “the maverick General.”
In reality, it was US aid that perpetuated the violence in El Salvador. “The worst possible policy for El Salvador is to provide just enough aid to keep the war going, but too little to wage it successfully,” Kissinger argued, claiming that more support would actually improve the dismal human rights situation: “a vicious cycle results in which violence and denial of human rights spawn reductions in aid, and reductions in aid make more difficult the pursuit of an enlightened counter-insurgency effort.”
The report did recommend conditioning the increased military aid “on progress in the effort to bring death squads under control.” However, in the final notes, Kissinger joined two other commissioners in expressing their “strong view that neither the Congress nor the Executive Branch interpret conditionality in a manner that leads to a Marxist-Leninist victory in El Salvador, thereby damaging vital American interests and risking a larger war.”
Similarly, the commission observed that military aid to Guatemala, currently suspended, “could become necessary” and should be authorized under the appropriate conditions. Kissinger also called for increasing military aid to Honduras. His commission declined to officially opine in favor or against aiding the Contras, as the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries were known, but noted that “the majority of the members of the Commission, in their respective individual judgments, believe that the efforts of the Nicaraguan insurgents represent one of the incentives working in favor of a negotiated settlement and that the future role of the United States in those efforts must therefore be considered in the context of the negotiating process.”
As the United States was propping up homicidal military regimes in the name of staving off communism, it was also striving to implement a particularly ruthless breed of capitalism in the region. Kissinger was no stranger to either endeavor. As secretary of state under Nixon, he’d supported the Chilean right-wing military coup against Allende and encouraged the newly installed dictatorship to liberalize the economy according to the recipes of free market fundamentalist Milton Friedman, all while engaging in mass executions, disappearances, and torture. When neoliberalism’s militarized laboratory shifted from South to Central America, Kissinger dutifully followed.
Though couched in the language of development, the commission’s economic recommendations served the same agenda. “What is now required is a firm commitment by the Central American countries to economic policies, including reforms in tax systems, to encourage private enterprise and individual initiative, to create favorable investment climates,” the report intoned. Characteristically, the commission declared that “US corporations, active in the region, have a particular responsibility to provide leadership in creating safe and healthy [working] conditions, as well as to introduce appropriate standards of environmental pollution control in their own operations,” but suggested no measures to enforce such duties.
The 130-page document displayed a brazen disregard for history — a Kissinger signature if there ever was one. “Perhaps,” it read, “over the years, we should have intervened less, or intervened more, or intervened differently. But all these are questions of what might have been. What confronts us now is a question of what might become. Whatever its roots in the past, the crisis in Central America exists urgently in the present, and its successful resolution is vital to the future.”
Of course, such disdain for the lessons of the past was necessary to justify the commission’s calls for more of the same failed policies. Walter Lafeber wrote that the report “combined ideas from Reagan’s military policy, Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, and Eisenhower’s use of the CIA.” All told, the commission recommended $8 billion in development aid and $400 million in military aid to Central America over the next five years.
Congress balked at the enormity of the sum. Rabid anti- communist Jesse Helms, chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, declared that, “the report is a mandate for socialism, financed by the US taxpayer.” Nevertheless, Kissinger did succeed in garnering support for a significant increase.
From 1984 to 1987, aid to Central America would peak. The Salvadoran government, in particular, benefited from Kissinger’s persuasive talents. A 1989 Congressional Research Service review found that thanks to the report, “the base for congressional support for US economic and military assistance to El Salvador seems to have widened.” Aid to the country, which reached its height in 1985 with nearly $700 million, made up nearly half of all aid to the region. Guatemala was also rewarded, becoming Central America’s second largest recipient by 1988.
The increase, however, had little civilizing effect on the Central American militaries, nor did it bring a swift and decisive end to the region’s conflicts. Despite the Iran-Contra scandal nearly bringing down the Reagan presidency, the failing Contra War was obstinately sustained until the Sandinistas’ 1990 electoral loss. War raged on in El Salvador until 1992, when United Nations-brokered negotiations reached a settlement. Guatemala did not sign its peace accords until 1996.
The Kissinger Commission appealed for greater support for governments systematically massacring their own people by warning that “the insurgents, if they win, will create a totalitarian regime in the image of their sponsors’ ideology and their own.” Looking back, however, it is hard to find more deplorable regimes than those that Kissinger helped to shore up.
In El Salvador, some 75,000 were killed during the conflict, with tens of thousands more disappeared; the 1993 UN Truth Commission attributed 85 percent of this violence to the government and its paramilitaries, and only 5 percent to the FMLN. The Guatemalan Truth Commission found that the war claimed 200,000 lives, 83 percent of them Mayan; state forces were responsible for 93 percent of the violence. As many as 40,000 lives were lost in the Contra War in Nicaragua.
But where human rights and democracy failed, capitalism flourished. Beginning in the late 1980s, the US-backed governments in the region forced through deeply unpopular neoliberal reforms, gutted public spending, devalued their currencies, raised sales taxes, implemented sweeping deregulation and created dramatic tax incentives for foreign corporations, including the establishment of special tax-free industrial zones for low-wage manufacturing plants or maquiladoras, in exchange for US aid and international loans.
These efforts were particularly acute in El Salvador, where the banks, the state energy and telecommunications companies, major port operations, the pension system, and myriad other public institutions and services were privatized; and in Honduras, which auctioned off its rich natural resources for hydroelectric dams, mining and monocultures, and eventually pioneered the privatization of entire cities. These processes culminated with the 2006 implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Predictably, the victor has been private — often North American — capital. Central America’s poor majorities have faced displacement, ecological destruction, and miserable working conditions. This economic devastation fed a tide of mass migration northward and an escalating security crisis as Central American societies — ravaged as they were by decades, even centuries, of exploitation and violence — were further torn apart by the shocks of structural adjustment. As contemporary administrations have grappled with the compounding consequences of decades of US intervention in Central America, the bipartisan consensus for militarism and neoliberalization that Reagan dispatched Kissinger to achieve has never been stronger.
Today, the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero is Saint Óscar Romero. But Kissinger, too, has undergone a sanctification of his own by the US political establishment. Romero’s beatification is a symbolic but significant gesture by the Vatican that places the United States squarely on the wrong side of history; the veneration of Kissinger, on the other hand, shows our determination to learn nothing from it.