Documentation: Soviet Power in Central America and the Caribbean-The Growing Threat to American Security

The significance to the United States of developments in Central America and the Caribbean Basin cannot be appreciated apart from a consideration of the Soviet Union’s role in the region and its implications for American national security. Over the last quarter of a century, with the imposition in Cuba of a Communist regime allied with Moscow, the Soviet Union has steadily, if at times imperceptibly, expanded its power and presence in the region. This steady advance, which is reflected in Soviet doctrinal shifts registering Moscow’s heightened capabilities and ambitions in the region, has been marked by an immense increase in Cuba’s military capability and greatly stepped up aid to regional insurgent forces. With the coming to power in 1979 of pro-Cuban groups in Nicaragua and Grenada, the ability of the Soviet Union and Cuba to promote armed struggle and to project military power throughout the region was vastly enhanced.

These developments, especially if viewed in the con-text of the Soviet Union’s growing global power and its unprecedented peacetime military build-up, pose a grave and growing threat to what Hans J. Morgenthau once called “the permanent national interest of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.” They also threaten the well-being of the region’s peoples who have suffered from escalating levels of violence, economic destruction, and social dislocation. Not least, the deteriorating regional conditions threaten the NATO Alliance owning to the special importance of the Caribbean Basin as a geopolitical zone — the “strategic rear,” as the Soviets call it, of United States global power.

The critical importance of the Caribbean Basin to American security and the growing threat to U.S. interests there is still not adequately appreciated in this country. As Americans, we have been so accustomed throughout most of our history to security in our own hemisphere that we have come to think, as Walter Lippmann wrote four decades ago, “that our privileged position was a natural right.” In fact, it was the divisions in Europe and the supremacy of British seapower that allowed us to uphold the Monroe Doctrine with minimal effort during the last century. The only significant breach of the Doctrine came during the American Civil War when Napoleon III, taking advantage of our debilitating internal conflict, installed an Austrian archduke in Mexico City and Spain briefly re-annexed Santo Domingo. The Monroe Doctrine remained essentially intact for a full century thereafter, until the intrusion of Communism into Cuba.

That event, which prompted Khrushchev to declare that the Monroe Doctrine had “outlived its times” and had died “a natural death,” might have been expected to challenge the complacency with which Americans have tended to regard their security in the Hemisphere. But the 1962 understanding with the Soviet Union, according to which the Soviets would not introduce offensive weapons into Cuba and would curtail Cuban aggression in the Hemisphere in exchange for our assurances against invading Cuba, allowed the belief that “the Cuban problem” had been effectively contained. Subsequent history has shown, however, that this belief was both premature and mistaken.

In the aftermath of the 1962 agreement, the Soviet Union and Cuba followed different policies toward the Hemisphere. Cuba, hoping to replicate its own revolution in other countries, followed the foco theory of Castro and Che Guevara which was based upon the belief that protracted guerrilla warfare in the countryside could create the political as well as military conditions for the overthrow of established governments. The Soviets, showing a Leninist distrust of “infantile leftism,” preferred to prepare the ground slowly and systematically for a future challenge to the U.S. While not opposing Cuban support for armed struggle in Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala and several other countries, the Soviets concentrated on expanding their diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties in the region and on strengthening the influence of local Communist parties in broad electoral fronts and the trade unions.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, this strategy appeared to be paying off. While Cuban-supported guerrillas suffered repeated setbacks, the Soviets were encouraged by the victory of Allende in Chile, the success of the Broad Front in Uruguay, and the return of Peron to Argentina, as well as by “progressive” military coups in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Panama. In 1971, Boris N. Ponomarev, the chairman of the international department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, welcomed “the upsurge of the revolutionary movement on the Latin American continent” which had “tremendous importance to the world revolutionary process.” Emphasizing the strategic significance of this development, Ponomarev wrote,

Seemingly quite reliable rear lines of American imperialism are becoming a tremendous hotbed of anti-imperialist revolution. A tremendously powerful revolutionary movement is developing by the side of the main citadel of imperialism, the U.S. These changes are having and, unquestionably will continue to have, a strong impact on the further changes in the correlation of world forces in favor of the international working class and socialism.

A number of developments came together in the 1970s causing the Soviet Union to abandon the relatively cautious approach it followed in the decade after 1962 and to adopt a policy of revolutionary armed struggle, thus setting the stage for the current crisis in Central America.

The first of these developments was the overthrow of Allende in Chile and the subsequent right-wing takeovers in Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. The effect of these events was to discredit the Soviet line concerning the “peaceful path” to Communism in Latin America. While the Soviets continued officially to uphold this line — they did not abandon it completely until the Sandinista victory in 1979 — they also embraced the armed struggle, as indicated by the Havana Declaration of Latin American and Caribbean Communist parties in 1979:

The utilization of all legal possibilities is an in-dispensable obligation of the anti-imperialist forces . . . Revolutionaries are not the first to resort to violence. But it is the right and duty of all revolutionary forces to be ready to answer counter-revolutionary violence with revolutionary violence.

Second, with the triumph of Soviet-backed forces in Indochina, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and South Yemen, the Soviets adopted a much more aggressive policy toward the Third World, reflecting their view that the “correlation of forces” had shifted dramatically against the West. In the Soviet view, changes in the balance of strategic and conventional forces had created the conditions for further Soviet gains in Third World struggles, which the Chief of the Soviet General Staff Academy, I. Shavrov, called “epicenters” in the global East-West struggle. Under these favorable conditions, wrote Soviet Central Committee member and Third World specialist Karen Brutents, the decisive issue was no longer the defense of the Soviet Union but “carrying on the offensive against imperialism and world capitalism as a whole in order to do away with them.”

Third, the Soviets dramatically strengthened their military capability in the Caribbean, in line with their global build-up. This development was marked by the “Sovietization” of Cuba, which fell into line behind Soviet policy after 1968, and by a dramatic increase in Cuban military forces. Cuba’s total armed forces, which numbered less than 50,000 in 1960, more than doubled by 1970 to 109,500. With the beginning of Cuba’s Africa operations in the mid-1970s, these forces expanded once again, from 117,000 in 1975 to 175,000 in 1976. In addition to acquiring valuable combat experience in Africa, these forces received upgraded training and sophisticated weaponry, including an impressive array of tanks, armored cars and personnel carriers, heavy artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons, and surface-to-air missiles. This build -up included an expansion of the Cuban Navy, which acquired Osa patrol boats equipped with Styx surface-to-surface missiles, as well as the expansion and modernization of the Cuban Air Force, which received advance models of the MiG-21MF in 1975 and MiG – 23/27 fighter bombers in 1978.

The Soviet military presence in the Caribbean also increased dramatically during this period. A seven-ship Soviet task force entered the Caribbean in July 1969, beginning a series of regular visits that gave the Soviets a routine naval presence in the region. Though the Soviets were forced to halt their construction of a nuclear submarine base at Cienfuegos in the fall of 1970, Soviet nuclear submarines and diesel-powered ballistic missile submarines made repeated visits to Cuban ports thereafter, and new naval basing and repair facilities were under construction at Cienfuegos by the end of the decade. In addition, Soviet TU-95 Bear reconnaissance aircraft began to be deployed in Cuba in 1975, and several new airfields were constructed capable of accommodating the Backfire strategic bomber. Increased numbers of Soviet military advisers, technicians, and instructors arrived to supervise and service the build-up of Soviet and Cuban forces.

As an indication of the increasingly close collaboration between these forces, significant numbers of Soviet pilots were sent to Cuba in 1976 and 1978 to replace the Cuban pilots who were sent to Africa to defend the pro-Soviet regimes in Angola and Ethiopia. The 3000-man Soviet brigade in Cuba also indirectly aided Cuban military activities: as a guarantee of the Soviet commitment to the survival of the Castro regime, it allowed Cuba to pursue a more aggressive policy in the region without fear of a retaliatory U.S. strike.

Fourth, just as the increase in Soviet global power was accompanied by a major build -up in the region, the retreat of U.S. global power during the same period was matched by a corresponding regional decline. Between 1968 and 1981, U.S. military personnel in the Basin decreased from over 25,000 to under 16,000, and U.S. military installations in Panama, Puerto Rico, and Guantanamo were downgraded or closed down entirely. At the same time, the rise of the “Vietnam syndrome” in the United States created a climate of indifference to U.S. security concerns in the Basin and stimulated calls for ending what some disparagingly called the American “hegemonic presumption.” The resulting power vacuum altered the geopolitical dynamics of the region, inviting new foreign intervention — from the Socialist International as well as the Soviet bloc — and contributing to increased Balkanization and political instability. These trends were accelerated by the enunciation of a new human rights doctrine during the Carter Administration which signaled the withdrawal of support for Central American government previously backed by the United States.

Fifth, rapid social and economic changes in Central America during the previous quarter of a century forced new pressures to the surface in the mid-1970s that made the region an inviting target for insurgency. The sustained economic growth of the 1960s produced a new middle class and an urban working class whose political aspirations were blocked by the traditional oligarchs, and whose rising economic expectations were frustrated during the recession that followed the first OPEC oil price rise of 1973-74. The shattering impact of the second oil price rise of 1979-80 brought to a head seething social conflicts which, as they turned more violent, worsened the economic collapse.

Sixth, by the mid-1970s and increasingly thereafter, Cuba had developed a much greater institutional capacity to promote guerrilla warfare than it possessed during the previous decade, and its revolutionary strategy was much more sophisticated than the failed foco strategy of Che Guevara. The principal institutional instrument for promoting insurgencies was the Americas Department, which was established in 1974 to centralize Cuba’s operational control over covert revolutionary activities throughout the Hemisphere and particularly in Central America. The Americas Department brought together the expertise of the Cuban military and the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) in a coordinated operation that included covert operations in the field, networks for the movement of intelligence and other personnel and material between Cuba and abroad, and extensive cultural and propaganda activities tailored to discredit targeted governments and to build support for armed opposition groups. The Department’s activities also included supervision of a network of guerrilla training camps and indoctrination schools on the island where trainees from throughout Latin America received 3 to 6 months of instruction in guerrilla warfare tactics, weapons use, and propaganda and agitation.

The revolutionary strategy pursued by Cuba in target countries involved the creation of separate military and political fronts, as well as the establishment by such fronts of relations with a broad array of non-Communist allies, both domestic and foreign. This strategy, as it developed in the course of the Nicaraguan revolution, required in the first instance the unification of traditionally splintered insurgent groups as a condition for increased Cuban military advice and assistance. Just as the creation of such unified military fronts allowed Cuba to exercise control over the armed struggle, so too did the creation of broad political fronts with non-Communist oppositionists allow the guerrillas to co-opt such forces and neutralize them as rival alternatives to the existing government. This objective was also served by the armed struggle itself, which undermined the political center by sharpening the increasingly violent confrontation between left and right.

The popular-front tactic had the added advantage of allowing the guerrillas to disarm critics by posing as non-Communist democrats, a posture given further credibility by the alliances formed with non-Communist Latin governments, European Socialists, political forces in the United States, and church and human rights groups. These alliances strengthened the international legitimacy of the guerrillas and helped delegitimize the target government, and they neutralized U.S. opposition even as they legitimized support from Cuba as just one of many foreign backers of the insurgents.

This highly sophisticated and subtle strategy was successfully applied in Nicaragua, with far-reaching consequences for the future of Central America. In March 1979, after more than a year of effort, Castro announced the unification of the three guerrilla factions of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). During the next three months, Cuba escalated — but also cleverly masked — its military involvement, transshipping through Panama to Costa Rica 450 tons of weapons for use in the “final offensive.” It also provided the FSLN with some 200 military advisers, who manned the heavy artillery and other sophisticated weapons, and with an “internationalist brigade” drawn from Central and South American terrorist groups. In addition, an intelligence center was set up at the Cuban Embassy in San Jose under the control of Julian Lopez, the DGI officer sent to Costa Rica the previous year to coordinate Cuba’s assistance to the FSLN.

In the meantime, a Broad Opposition Front (FAO) had been established in 1978 consisting of political representatives of the FSLN (the so-called “Group of 12”) and leaders of political parties, trade unions, and business and professional groups. Though the FAO was disbanded after the militarization of the conflict had given the FSLN pre-eminence in the opposition, the Front had, in the words of an FSLN document, “allowed the channeling of external help from many sources and without restrictions, while limiting the maneuvering of the most reactionary forces within the U.S.”

Among the principal sources of such external help were the governments of Venezuela, Panama, and Costa Rica, which provided important material, logistic, and political assistance. Other sources included Western European Socialist Governments and the Socialist International, and human rights, church, and political groups in the United States. Instead of moderating the revolution, as many of these external actors had surely hoped to do, they supported the democrats and the “extreme left” without distinction, thus conferring democratic legitimacy on the latter and limiting the options available to the U.S. Their involvement also helped Cuba conceal its decisive role.

The success of the armed struggle in Nicaragua brought about a basic revision of Soviet doctrine regarding revolution in Central and Latin America. The editor of Latinskaya Amerika, Sergo Mikoyan, called the Nicaragua revolution an event of “colossal international importance” demanding a “re-examination of established conceptions” in light of the fact that “only the armed road has led to victory in Latin America.” Another contributor to the Soviet publication stated that “The Nicaraguan experience demolished the previous simplistic interpretation of guerrilla actions, confirmed the justice of many of Che Guevara’s strategic principles and crystallized his idea of creating a powerful popular guerrilla movement.” The President of the Soviet Association of Friendship with Latin America Countries, Viktor Volski, called the armed victory in Nicaragua a “model” to be followed in other countries, while Boris Ponomarev included for the first time the countries of Central America among Third World states undergoing revolutionary changes of “a socialist orientation.”

The new line was unanimously endorsed by the leaders of the Central American Communist parties. For example, the Communist Party of El.Salvador (PCES), which had previously described the country’s insurgent groups as “adventurist” and “bound to fail” — and was accused, in turn, of “decadence” and “revisionism” — made a complete about face and established itself as the revolutionary arm of its front group, the National Democratic Union (UDN). The party secretary Shafik Jorge Handel wrote in Kommunist, the theoretical organ of the Soviet Communist Party, that the Salvadoran revolution “will be victorious by the armed road . . . there is no other way.”

The change of line was also embraced by Communist party leaders from elsewhere in Latin America. Luis Corvalan, the leader of the Chilean Communist party who had earlier derided the Castroites as “pretty-bourgeois revolutionaries,” now called for armed struggle, as did Rodney Arismendi, the first secretary of the Uruguayan Communist party.

The change in doctrine was accompanied by a new build-up of Cuban and now also Nicaraguan military forces, and by an effort to export the Nicaraguan revolution. By the early 1980s, Cuba had become by far the most formidable military power south of the United States, “a kind of vast floating military base,” as Robert S. Leiken has aptly put it, “united by a Soviet-built central strategic highway and railway system. . . .” Including army ready reserves, Cuban armed forces in 1981 totaled 227,000. This represented over 2.3 percent of the population, fully 10 times the average proportion of military personnel to population in ten other leading countries of the Basin (including Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and the Central American states). Moreover, this figure does not include a paramilitary force of 780,000 consisting of a Youth Labor Army (100,000), a Civil Defense Force (100,000), a Territorial Troop Militia (over 500,000), Border Guard Troops (3,000), the National Revolutionary Police (10,000 plus 52,000 auxiliaries) , and the Department of State Security (10,000-15,000).

Whereas the Soviet Union annually delivered an average of 15,000 tons of military equipment to Cuba during the 1970s build-up, 66,00 tons arrived in 1981 and about the same amount the following year. The new equipment enhanced the mobility and firepower of Cuba’s ground forces, which have an overwhelming numerical superiority in weapons over Cuba’s Latin neighbors, as well as a qualitative advantage. The Cuban Air Force now possesses more than 200 combat jet aircraft, including three squadrons of MiG -23s whose combat radius, if they could refuel in Nicaragua and Grenada, would encompass all of Central America and the eastern Caribbean, southern Mexico, and northern South America. The Air Force is also equipped with Mi-8 helicopter gunships and Mi-24 assault helicopters, as well as AN-26 and other transport aircraft which give Cuba a logistic capability much greater than it had at the time of the airlift to Luanda in 1975. This capability could be used to deploy quickly to crisis points within the region the Special Troops Battalion, a 3-4,000 man all-purpose elite force under Castro’s personal command. The expansion of the Cuban Navy that began in the mid-1970s had continued with the acquisition of three Foxtrot- and Whiskey-class submarines, a Koni-class frigate, 24 fast-attack missile craft, 24 fast-attack torpedo craft, and 22 fast-attack patrol craft, as well as coastal patrol craft, minesweepers, and landing craft.

A corresponding military build-up has taken place in Nicaragua. According to Nicaraguan army commander Joachin Cuadra, by the end of 1982 the Nicaraguan forces had grown to be “four times as big and eight times as strong” as Somoza’s Guardia Nacional. With a population of just 2.7 million, Nicaragua has 25,000 regulars and 80,000 reserves and militias, a force that already vastly overshadows that of Honduras, with only a 15,000 man force, and Costa Rica, which has no armed forces at all. Moreover, the Nicaraguan force is rapidly being built up through broad-based conscription and Soviet bloc logistic support.

Nicaragua has added nearly 40 new military bases, as well as a powerful array of Soviet Bloc weaponry, including some 50-60 T-54/55 tanks — the heaviest by far in Central America — 1,000 East German trucks and armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery, assault helicopters, anti-aircraft weapons, mobile multiple rocket launchers, patrol boats, and amphibious ferries. The first delivery of sophisticated Soviet electronic gear of a type seen previously in Cuba took place in December 1982, giving Nicaragua the ability to intercept signals from throughout Central America that would be especially useful in locating Honduran military communication sites.

The acquisition of these and other weapons accelerated during 1983, with 14 deliveries arriving from the Soviet Union between January and August, compared to 11 such deliveries in all of 1982. Libya has also succeeded in delivering military equipment to Nicaragua after its failed attempt earlier this year to transship through Brazil arms labeled as medical equipment.

The foreign military presence in Nicaragua includes Soviet, East European, Libyan, and PLO advisers, along with a 2,000 man Cuban force that is reportedly headed now by the former commander of the Cuban forces in Angola and Ethiopia. East German advisers have reorganized Nicaragua’s internal security apparatus and intelligence system and a set up a military communications network linking Managua with Havana and Moscow, while the Soviets are supervising the reorganization and “Sovietization” of the Nicaraguan economy. The Cubans have constructed a major strategic road between Puerto Cabezas and the interior, facilitating the movement of troops and supplies to suppress and remove indigenous Indian residents of the region. They have also supervised the extension of the airfields at Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields on the Atlantic Coast and Montlimar on the Pacific Coast to accommodate advanced jet aircraft. About 70 Nicaraguan pilots who were trained in Bulgaria are now in Cuba, where it is reported that about an equal number of advanced MiG warplanes designated for Nicaragua have recently arrived.

The Nicaraguan leaders have made no secret of their intention to use this new military capability to promote revolution through armed struggle in Central America. The Economist (May 16) quoted Defense Minister Humberto Ortega as follows: “Of course we are not ashamed to be helping El Salvador. We would like to help all revolutions.” Similarly, Interior Minister Tomas Borge told columnists Evans and Novak earlier this year that the Sandinista revolution was the vanguard for similar revolutions throughout the region and that “the energies released here will be universal in all Central America.”

The effort to export the Nicaraguan revolution to El Salvador began almost as soon as the Sandinistas had seized power in Managua. As had earlier been the case in Nicaragua, the first priority was to unite the various Salvadoran guerrilla factions. A meeting in Havana in December 1979 resulted in an initial unity agreement, after which a combined military command was formed called the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (DRU). A joint command and control apparatus was established in the Managua area, and logistic and training support for the guerrillas was organized on Nicaraguan soil with Cuban and other Soviet Bloc assistance.

The training of the Salvadoran guerrillas in military tactics, sabotage, explosives, and special commando operations has taken place in Cuba as well as in Nicaragua. One Salvadoran guerrilla who defected to Honduras in September 1981, for example, reported that he and 12 others were sent for training from Nicaragua to Cuba, where over 900 other Salvadorans were also being trained.

Cuba is also intimately involved in the arms supply to Salvadoran guerrillas, both by shipping arms destined for El Salvador directly to Nicaragua and by coordinating the acquisition and delivery of arms from Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Eastern Europe. In December 1981, after meetings in Havana with Salvadoran guerrilla leaders, Castro directed that external supplies of arms to FMLN units be stepped up with a view toward mounting an offensive that would disrupt the elections planned for March 1982. In addition to ammunition, these supply operations have included greater quantities of sophisticated heavy weapons, including M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers, and M-72 antitank weapons. Confirmation that Nicaragua remains the primary source of these weapons was given by Alejandro Montenegro, a high -level Salvadoran FMLN leader captured during a raid on a guerrilla safehouse in Honduras in Augusi 1982. One of the guerrillas captured with Montenegro had already made five trips to Managua that year to pick up arms for the insurgents, using a truck modified by the Sandinistas to carry concealed weapons.

Montenegro also provided evidence of the role played by Cuba and Nicaragua in the Salvadoran armed struggle. He said that he personally had attended two high-level meetings with Cuban officials in 1981, one in Havana and the other in Managua, to review the situation in El Salvador and to receive strategic advice. Another captured Salvadoran guerrilla leader, Lopez Arriola, admitted to attending a platoon leaders course in Cuba in July 1979. He also confirmed that the Sandinistas control weapons delivered to Nicaragua for the Salvadoran insurgents, and that the guerrillas have to seek permission from the Sandinista authorities to draw on the supplies. He added that the Sandinistas give the insurgents an extensive base of operations in and around Managua, and even provide a school for their children.

After years of combat, the Salvadoran guerrilla head-quarters in Nicaragua has evolved into an extremely sophisticated command and control center. Guerrilla planning and operations are guided from this headquarters, and Cuban and Nicaraguan officers are involved in command and control, coordinating logistical support for the insurgents which includes food, medicines, clothing, and money as well as weapons and ammunition.

The Salvadoran insurgents have not denied their relationship with Cuba and Nicaragua. In a broadcast last year, the Salvadoran guerrilla Radio Venceremos declared, “We are and will continue to be friends of the peoples and Governments of Cuba and Nicaragua, and we are not ashamed of this.” It added: “We have conducted important logistics operations clandestinely, which have served to provide our forces with arms and ammunition for long periods of time. We have conducted these operations using all the means available, and therefore, have used the entire Central American region and other countries.” The purpose of these operations, the broadcast pointed out, was the destruction of the Salvadoran economy.

This past spring, for example, the guerrillas announced a heightened campaign to disrupt the planting of cotton and the processing of coffee, products that account for 60 percent of El Salvador’s export earnings. In an effort to stop trade and communication between El Salvador and Honduras, they increased the destruction of bridges. Following the destruction of the bridge at El Amantillo in April, the guerrillas announced that they would kill anyone who tried to repair it. They have attacked the rail system, hoping that the paralysis of traffic between the capital and the East Coast would discourage growers and investors. They have also ordered continued operations against energy and transportation facilities and have destroyed hydro-electric plants.

As a result of these massive attacks, unemployment has increased from 7 percent to 40 percent since 1979, per capita income is down by over 30 percent, the eastern part of the country has been blacked out for most of the year, half of the country’s buses have been destroyed, schools have been closed, and hundreds of thousands have fled, including many of the best educated and trained citizens.

El Salvador has not been the only target of the armed struggle in Central America. Guatemala exemplifies Cuban and Nicaraguan efforts to create a unified guerrilla command as a first step in mounting a sustained insurgency. In the fall of 1980 the four major Guatemalan guerilla groups met in Managua to negotiate a unity agreement. It was signed in November — in Managua — in the presence of Manuel Pineiro Losada, the Chief of Cuba’s Americas Department. Following the unity agreement, which set the goal of establishing a Marxist-Leninist state, Cuba agreed to increase military training and assistance for the Guatemalan guerrillas, including instruction in the use of heavy weapons. Arms smuggled from Nicaragua overland through Honduras have included 50mm mortars, submachine guns, rocket launchers, and M -16 rifles that have been traced to U.S. forces in Vietnam.

Reflecting the Nicaraguan experience, the Guatemalan guerrillas have adopted a comprehensive political-military strategy which combines a commitment to prolonged armed struggle with an awareness of the need to establish popular front organizations and links with the media, churches of all denominations, human rights organizations, trade unions, political parties, and sympathetic governments. A General Revolutionary Command (CGR) has been established by the leaders of the four insurgent groups to plan military strategies and strengthen ties to front organizations and international solidarity networks in Mexico, Central America, the United States, and Europe.

Honduras has also become a target of Cuban and Nicaraguan assisted armed struggle. Until 1981, Havana and Managua maintained links with Honduran terrorist groups primarily for the purpose of transporting arms to insurgents in El Salvador and Guatemala. At the same time, the ground was laid for armed struggle with the formation of the Morazanist Front for the Liberation of Honduras (FMLH). In El Nuevo Diario, the pro-government Nicaraguan newspaper, a founder of the FMLH described it as a political-military organization formed as part of the “increasing regionalization of the Central American conflict.” Evidence of Nicaraguan and Cuban involvement came when Honduran authorities raided several guerrilla safehouses in late November 1981, detaining a number of guerrillas, including several Nicaraguans. Captured documents and statements by detained guerrillas revealed that the group was formed in Nicaragua at the instigation of high-level Sandinist leaders, that its chief of operations resided in Nicaragua, and that members of the group had received military training in Nicaragua and Cuba.

The strategy pursued in Honduras until March 1983 involved a series of urban terrorist incidents, most of which saw Salvadoran guerrilla groups working together with Hondurans. Captured Salvadoran and Honduran terrorists have admitted that explosives used in bombing attacks in the Honduran capital were obtained in Nicaragua. Other information indicates that the Cubans had a hand in planning the seizure of 108 hostages in San Pedro Sula in September 1983.

In March 1983 the Communist effort to destabilize Honduras took a new turn with the announcement that four extreme left groups had formed a Unified Revolutionary Coordinating Board. The April 21 issue of Barricada, the Sandinista organ, published the new group’s declaration of “Popular Revolutionary War” which called on the Honduran people to rise up against the government and armed forces and against “U.S. imperialism.”

Subsequently, on July 19, 96 Honduran guerrillas launched an unsuccessful raid from Nicaragua into Olancho Department. The 24 guerrillas who deserted or were captured told a fairly consistent story of their recruitment and training. In almost all cases they were recruited by deception, having been told that they would receive some type of training in mechanics or agriculture. They were not told that they would be sent to Cuba. The training took up to two years and included 4 to 6 months in Cuba at the guerrilla training school in Pinar del Rio. There they received instructions in ideology, weapons, intelligence, and military tactics. At the same camp were guerrilla trainees from other countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala. For some, the story in Cuba included “volunteer labor” as farm workers or servants at state guest houses. Following their stay in Cuba, they were sent to Nicaragua for additional training before their entry into Honduras on July 19. Statements by Havana and Managua indicate that despite the failure of this raid they will persist in efforts at rural insurgency and destabilization in Honduras.

Costa Rica remains the most politically stable nation in Central America but it, too, has not been able to isolate itself from the turmoil in the region. For the past two years, Cuba and Nicaragua have used terrorism and diplomacy to intimidate Costa Rica into neutralism. The July 1982 bombing of the Honduran Airline office in San Jose, for example, took place at Nicaragua’s direction. The captured terrorist who placed the bomb said that Nicaraguan diplomats in Costa Rica had recruited and trained him for the operation. Though Nicaragua denied complicity, the accused diplomats were caught in flagrante, declared persona non grata, and expelled from the country. The captured terrorists also stated that the bombing had been part of a broader Nicaraguan plan which included sabotage, kidnapping, bank robberies, and other acts designed to discredit Costa Rica internationally. Since the beginning of 1982, several guerrilla arms caches and safehouses have been uncovered in Costa Rica.

Terrorist attacks have continued to occur in San Jose, along with a joint Cuban, Soviet, and Nicaraguan campaign attacking Costa Rican democracy. There have also been incidents involving Sandinista forces along the border, including the recent Nicaraguan attack on the Costa Rican border installation at Penas Blancas which Costa Rica denounced at a specially called meeting of the OAS Permanent Council.

The cumulative effect of the armed assault on Central America and of the overall growth of Soviet and Cuban military power in the Caribbean Basin has been to pose a major threat to the “strategic rear” of the United States. The view that U.S. security is only threatened by the establishment of Soviet military bases in the region or by the deployment of SS-20 missiles there — a step repeatedly threatened by the Soviets, most recently by the chief of the Warsaw Pact forces in connection with the planned deployment of U.s. intermediate range missiles in Europe — overlooks the vital strategic importance to the United States of a secure Basin.

Until now, the United States has been able to act on the assumption that its “strategic rear” was secure and did not require a large diversion of military resources for its protection. The Western Alliance has benefited from this “economy of force” posture since, as Congressman Dante B. Fascell has pointed out, “in a real sense it is the non-threatening environment close to home that permits the United States to concentrate so much manpower, equipment, and attention on Europe.”

This situation has already begun to change as the United States has had to expend increased military resources and growing attention on the crisis in Central America. In the event of a collapse there, the reversal of our posture would be swift and drastic, requiring the diversion of significant resources to protect our southern border and the Caribbean Basin. Were the United States ever to be tied down within this region in such a manner, our ability to fulfill commitments in Europe and elsewhere in the world, not to speak of our own security and well-being, would inevitably suffer.

The Basin is also important strategically, since as much as 70 percent of U.S. seaborne reinforcements to NATO would transit the sealanes leading from the Gulf Coast and the Panama Canal in the event of a Soviet armed attack in Europe. The goal of interdicting such reinforcements is an important element in Soviet strategic thinking, as set forth in 1979 by Soviet Navy Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov in his book, Naval Power in Soviet Policy:

To achieve superiority of forces over the enemy in the main sector and pin him down in secondary sectors . . . means to achieve sea control in a theater or a sector of a theater . . . the enemy will be paralyzed or constrained in his operations . . . and thereby hampered from interfering with our operations.

The Soviets have already achieved a far greater inter-diction capability than the Nazis had during World War II, when 50 percent of U.S. supplies to Europe and Africa were shipped from Gulf ports. At that time, German U-boats were able to sink 260 merchant ships in just six months, despite the fact that the Allied forces enjoyed many advantages, including a two-to-one edge in submarines and the use of Cuba for resupply and basing operations. The Germans, meanwhile, had to operate from the Bay of Biscay, 4,000 miles across the Atlantic and without the benefit of aircover. Today these advantages have been reversed. It is the Soviet Union that now has the two-to-one edge in submarines and can operate and receive aircover from Cuba, a point from which all 13 Caribbean sealanes passing through four choke-points are vulnerable to interdiction.

The Soviet ability to carry out a strategy of “strategic denial” is further enhanced by the presence near Havana of the largest Soviet-managed electronic monitoring complex outside the Soviet Union, as well as by the deployment of TU-95 Bear reconnaissance aircraft.

The strategic position of the Soviet Union in the Caribbean would be considerably strengthened if Grenada were used for refueling and stationing tactical and transport aircraft or as a site for naval refueling, both real possibilities with the construction of a new airport at Port Salines and the reports of Soviet plans to build naval facilities on the island. The establishment of new Soviet military positions in Grenada would give Moscow a routine military presence in the Eastern Caribbean, while the acquisition of new positions in Nicaragua — especially the construction of a naval base on the Pacific Coast, where a fishing port is being built — would extend the Soviet reach to the Pacific Basin. Either development would constitute a major gain for Soviet strategy.

The sea routes of the Caribbean are also important economically to the United States, since they now carry nearly half of all the crude oil and other foreign cargo shipped to this country. Moreover, the Basin itself is a growing source of critical raw materials. Mexico supplies 33 percent of the crude oil currently imported by the U.S. and has reserves estimated at 45 billion barrels, roughly equal to the reserves of such major producers as Iraq and Abu Dhabi. Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago supply another 8 percent of U.S. crude oil imports, while 56 percent of the refined petroleum products imported to the U.S. come from Basin refineries. In addition, Jamaica and several other Basin countries supply 85 percent of the bauxite imported to the U.S. and nearly 40 percent of the alumina.

Beyond the issue of the U.S. strategic interests in the Basin, the overriding fact is that our credibility worldwide is inevitably engaged in an area so close to the United States. The triumph of hostile forces in our “strategic rear” would be read as a sign of U.S. impotence — the inability successfully to define our objectives, manage our policy, and defend our interests.

A consensus on policy would need to be based upon a common understanding of the nature of the problem facing the United States in Central America. The view heard frequently that the problem is essentially internal, deriving from poverty and repression, does not take adequate account of the scope of the external threat facing the region and the extent to which the Soviet Union and Cuba are exploiting the serious problems of very vulnerable Central American societies. Since their strategy of armed struggle wreaks havoc with any effort to promote economic opportunity, a democratic political center and free institutions, and a more professional military — the pillars of any meaningful policy of reform in Central America — it is hard to see how it is possible to deal effectively with internal problems without resisting the external threat. As President Kennedy’s Latin American task force declared in its report that led to the creation of the Alliance for Progress, “good wishes and economic plans do not stop bullets or hand grenades or armed bands.”

Today the threat is greater — far greater — than it was in 1961 when the task force declared that it “resembles, but is more dangerous than the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.” Moreover, today we have fewer resources at our disposal — economically, militarily, strategically, politically. We are still, ten years after the withdrawal from Vietnam, divided over our foreign policy and national purpose, over our understanding of the threat we face and our sense of our proper role in the world.

The deterioration in the region to our immediate south has been such, however, that we cannot afford paralysis in defending our national interests and in achieving our national purposes. The fact that such paralysis could be attributed to the continuing absence of a national consensus on foreign policy in the United States would not mitigate the consequences of failure. As George Kennan once wrote, “History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics.”

This essay was prepared for the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, October 21-22, 1983. 


  • Carl Gershman

    Carl Gershman (born July 20, 1943) has been the President of the National Endowment for Democracy since its 1984 founding. He had served as the U.S. Representative to the U.N.'s Committee on human rights during the first Reagan Administration. At the time this article was written in 1984, he was Counselor to the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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