Fortifying the Democratic Center in Central America


November 1, 1987

Editors’ Note: In March 1987 Charles S. Robb made a fact-finding tour of Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, including the camps of the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance. On June 9, Gov. Robb summarized his findings in a speech to the Foreign Policy Association in New York City. His remarks were later published by Prodemca, a private citizens group committed to democracy, human rights, and social justice in the Americas, and are here reprinted with permission of Prodemca.

Since the Vietnam War, Americans have remained deeply ambivalent about the proper uses of U.S. power abroad. Sometimes self-assertive, at others, self-absorbed, we oscillate between engagement and detachment from a fractious world. The rhythm of these swings is dictated by ideological and institutional rivalry. While the right tends to see American power as the antidote to communist contagion, the left often views U.S. intervention itself as the problem. As the political factions contend, the executive and legislative branches are likewise engaged in a continuing struggle over control of foreign policy.

What is missing, of course, is the stabilizing force of national consensus. In its absence, complex foreign policy questions tend to be decided in the context of domestic politics. Instead of asking where our nation’s interests lie, the question becomes: who will prevail, the Democrats or the Republicans, the president or Congress? In short, political conflict at home is preventing us from pursuing a stable and effective policy abroad. If America is to carry out effectively its obligations as a world power, our elected leaders will have to strive harder to compose their differences and to find common ground on which a durable foreign policy can be built.

Under our Constitution, the president has primary responsibility for foreign policy. A wise president, however, understands that he cannot conduct a successful policy by executive fiat. No policy can be sustained over time if the president fails to muster broad public and congressional support for it. To proceed without such a consensus is to invite mistrust, bad faith and deception. The Iran-Contra affair is a distressing case in point.

While the onus of forging a sturdy consensus falls chiefly on the president, he must have a reasonable measure of discretion and flexibility in the execution of his policy. Once Congress has approved the broad outlines of a policy, it should give that policy time to work and refrain from managing every detail. No policy will work if Congress reverses course with every setback abroad or every election. The bipartisan leadership of both Houses must act as a force for stability and continuity in U.S. foreign policy.

I offer these general reflections because I think they apply with particular force to U.S. policy in Central America.

Two months ago, I visited Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The trip reinforced my impression that the reality in Central America is far more complex and multi-faceted than the shrill and sometimes simple-minded debate in Washington suggests. I left Central America convinced that our current policy has failed and must be replaced by a new one. We simply cannot afford to continue on the current path of paralysis and partisan rancor. Instead, we need to forge a new, bipartisan policy that serves both our strategic and our moral interests, a long-term policy designed to fortify the democratic center in Central America.

I recognize that the policy I’m about to propose will not be popular in my own party. I suspect, as well that it may run counter to the views of a majority of the people in this room. Nonetheless, I believe that fair-minded Americans need to take a fresh view of the crisis in Central America, and that is why I have chosen to deliver this particular message in this forum. I should also add that these thought are entirely my own and do not reflect the position of the Democratic Leadership Council.

I think the lesson of Central America’s recent history is clear: when the United States fails to identify early, consistently and strongly with the democratic center in a nation undergoing revolutionary change, our options will only grow narrower and less attractive as the crisis wears on. Yet some contend that we should once again seek the path of least resistance in Central America, as if a U.S. withdrawal from the region would somehow solve the problems there. I would argue, instead, for a different policy that consciously allies our country over the long term with those struggling against the enemies of democracy on the right and left to build democracy and social justice for the people of Central America.

Such a policy, in my view, could be built on these four propositions:

First, that our paramount goal should be to promote freedom and democratic values in Central America.

Second, that we should work with the region’s democracies to fashion a long-term development program for economic and social progress.

Third, that we should continue aid to the Nicaraguan resistance in order to buy time for neighboring countries, to keep alive the democratic option in Nicaragua and to support a serious negotiating strategy.

Fourth, that we should engage in more vigorous diplomacy to rally Latin American democrats to our mutual cause.

Let me elaborate on these points.

First, I believe the overriding objective of U.S. policy should be to give Central America’s struggling democracies a fighting chance to survive. Ultimately, their success is the best guarantee of their, security as well as ours. Today our attention is riveted on the Iran- Contra spectacle, especially the issue of illegal aid to the Nicaraguan resistance. These hearings should and must investigate what went wrong and why, and identify those responsible. However, they should not be allowed to obscure the larger question of how we protect our enduring interests in Central America long after the inquiry and scandal have passed into history. What happens in Nicaragua is important, but it is time to put that controversy within the broader context of a stunning expansion of freedom and democratic pluralism in Latin America.

In the last decade, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Uruguay have all replaced military rulers with popularly elected civilians. Of course, there are exceptions to this promising trend, including Paraguay and Panama, Chile and Cuba. And there has been one aborted democratic revolution: in Nicaragua.

Moreover, the emerging democratic center in Central America is under violent attack from extremists on both the left and the right. Elected leaders face a daunting array of obstacles: a landowning and business elite loathe to yield power and privilege; Marxist insurgents who reject the very possibility of peaceful change; abject poverty and illiteracy; inefficient, statist economies; staggering external debts; and, most insidious of all, a haunting legacy of political corruption, betrayal and failure.

Will the center hold? Certainly the odds are better with American support. The alternative is the spread of what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has called the “terrible violence” fostered by the vicious cycle of revolution and counter-revolution. He has said:

The ordinary people have opted for democracy in an attempt to find an escape from this nightmare reality of civil war, terrorism, indiscriminate repression, revolutionary “taxes,” blind executions and the proliferation of torture . . . They decided to support that system which, intuitively and instinctively, they thought would be best able to defend human rights, or oppress them least . . .

I believe our country, with constructive leadership from my party, now has an opportunity to transform a narrow policy of Contra aid and anti-communism into a broader strategy that aligns the United States with the democratic aspirations of most Central Americans. We have learned, from painful experience, that defending our values is the best way to defend our interests in Central America. And the Central Americans I spoke to — presidents, leaders of business, labor and the church, Nicaraguan dissidents, and ordinary citizens — all find it conceivable that the United States would simply abandon the isthmus to the Sandinistas and their Cuban and Soviet patrons. After all, if Americans won’t stand up for small and vulnerable democracies in this hemisphere, where will we?

My second point is that regardless of the fate of Contra aid, the U.S. needs a comprehensive and sustained program of economic and security aid to the four Central American democracies: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Just as President Kennedy answered Fidel Castro’s revolutionary challenge to Latin America with the Alliance for Progress, so must we today offer fresh hope for renewed economic progress and social justice within a democratic framework.

For example, we need to go forward with the Kissinger Commissions’s plan for long-term economic aid and security assistance to the region, including this year’s $300 million installment. Our development package should include debt relief, a reduction of trade barriers, and a commitment to channel part of our aid through the proposed Central American Development Organization. In return, the region’s democracies should agree to make internal reforms that promote both economic efficiency and social equity, and that create a more congenial climate for investment and growth. That means scaling back public bureaucracy and subsidies, easing government economic and trade controls, and dismantling inefficient state enterprises. It also means proceeding with land reform, investments in public education and health and other policies that foster upward mobility and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Growth alone won’t do; the poor in Central America also need a chance to share in renewed prosperity. Otherwise, the promise of democracy will remain out of reach, a glittering abstraction.

The U.S. can also work to ensure the integrity of democratic institutions and processes in Central America: honest elections, professional security forces subject to civilian control, and, especially, fair and impartial judicial systems. And, as Sen. Bob Graham has proposed, we ought to reach out to the next generation of Central American political leaders by offering more scholarships to our colleges.

Private efforts to build the infrastructure are also welcome. In Nicaragua, for example, the AFL-CIO, through its American Institute for Free Labor Development, is providing crucial support to the free trade union movement, whose members and leaders are subject to constant harassment by the Sandinistas. And in El Salvador, the AFL-CIO’s support is crucial to the success of land reform.

Finally, if we are serious about bolstering Central  America’s fledgling democracies, we can’t ignore the grave security threats they face. To pour large amounts of economic aid into Guatemala or El Salvador, while ignoring the insurgencies that threaten their stability, would be a futile and self-deluding gesture. Improving the lives of the people of Central America must begin with the basic security that we all take for granted.

The Central American presidents with whom I spoke clearly fear the Sandinista’s revolutionary ambitions, their growing dependence on Cuba and the East bloc for economic support and arms, and their faithful devotion to the Soviet line in foreign policy. Without the counterweight of U.S. power, several leaders told me, their countries won’t be able to withstand Sandinista attempts to export their revolution. They also recognize, as we should, that a Sandinista victory would strengthen rightist and militarist forces throughout Central America, who would use the heightened threat of subversion and increased guerrilla activity as an excuse to seize power and, once in power, to forego badly needed social reforms.

Should the Sandinistas fully and finally succeed in consolidating their power and permanently silencing all internal opposition, neighboring countries fear they will be engulfed by a new tide of refugees. Already, about 200,000 Nicaraguan refugees are living in Costa Rica and Honduras. Regional stability requires that we continue security aid to Nicaragua’s neighbors, to erect a shield behind which their free institutions can take root and flourish.

My third point is that continued U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan resistance can serve three critical goals: buying time for neighboring democracies, keeping the democratic option alive in Nicaragua and sustaining pressure for serious negotiations. To be effective, our support has to be steady and consistent. The chronology of Contra aid, however, offers a vivid tableau of indecision:

1981: Congress approves covert military assistance.

1982: Congress again approves covert aid and adopts the first Boland Amendment, which says that the money cannot be used to overthrow the Sandinista regime.

1983: Congress openly appropriates $24 million for the Contras. Later, in response to the CIA’s mining of Nicaraguan ports, it cuts off all aid. And it passes the second Boland Amendment, barring any public money for the resistance.

1985: the Senate votes for and the House against further aid. Congress later approves $27 million in “non-lethal” or humanitarian assistance conditioned on steps by the Reagan Administration to seek a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

1986: Congress appropriates $100 million in military and non-lethal aid to the Contras. Now, in light of the Iran-Contra affair, the smart money in Washington says that no further aid will be approved, at least this year.

What kind of policy is this?

Americans need to recognize that every change in the political wind in Washington has gale-force repercussions in Central America. During a visit to Washington last month, Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo was asked to name the most important step the U.S. can take to help Central America. He asked not for more aid or arms, or for less U.S. meddling. He simply asked for a predictable policy.

Much of the blame for our erratic course rests with the Reagan Administration, whose shifting rationales for Contra aid and extra-legal misadventures have done much to discredit its policy. Still, I hope Congress will recognize that it too has a responsibility to the Nicaraguan resistance. Turning aid on one year and off the next is tantamount to playing with their lives. If Congress is unwilling to make a clear and continuing commitment to aid for the Contras, it should terminate the program altogether — and be prepared to accept the consequences.

My view is that Congress should approve a multi-year package of aid. For without constant pressure, the Sandinistas will have little incentive to relax their repressive grip on Nicaraguan society or to reach a negotiated settlement with their neighbors.

While we should refrain from pressing the resistance for quick military results, some conditions should accompany our aid. The Contras urgently need to define a clear political and moral alternative to the Sandinistas. They need to unite their various military functions under civilian control, to continue progress toward eliminating human rights abuses, and to prepare to play a supportive role in peace negotiations.

To encourage such steps, we should channel aid through the civilian leadership — through the new umbrella group called the Nicaraguan Resistance. Putting a civilian buffer between the CIA and the FDN [Nicaraguan Democratic Front], the main Contra fighting force, will help the resistance demonstrate that it is an authentic Nicaraguan movement, not simply an instrument of U.S. policy in the region. Closer coordination of the political and military aims of the resistance is also critical. I raised this matter with Contra leaders in Central America, and I welcome their recent announcement that the members of the new directorate will be spending more time with the troops in the field.

The Contras cannot contest the Sandinistas on military grounds alone. They must offer a credible political agenda that offers the Nicaraguan people hope of a democratic future, not a return to a discredited past. To spark a wider insurrection, the resistance needs to establish itself permanently on Nicaraguan territory, to treat the rural folk decently, to educate them in the theory and practice of democracy, to win their confidence, and, eventually, to demonstrate support in the cities, where Sandinista domination is strongest.

In short, the resistance must win political as well as military victories. It is likely to do neither, however, if it must face, alone and unaided, a Sandinista army of 70,000 men, trained by Cuba and supplied by the Soviets, and equipped with advanced weaponry like the Soviet Hind helicopter gunship. Only with consistent U.S. backing can the Contras even the military odds sufficiently to win growing support among the Nicaraguan people. We can’t expect them to rally behind a doomed cause.

In the months ahead, I hope we can at least advance the Contra aid debate beyond the level of crude caricature that has marred it in the past. The Nicaraguan resistance is neither the equivalent of our founding fathers nor a gang of venal thugs. No doubt there are some reactionaries among the Contras. There are also men and women of impeccable democratic credentials. Mostly, there are peasants, thousands of them, who hold a variety of legitimate grievances against the Sandinistas.

Any movement that at times has attracted such former Sandinista government officials as Alfonso Robelo, Arturo Cruz, Alfredo Cesar, and Eden Pastora, and such undoubted Somoza opponents as Adolfo Calero, Pedro Joaquin Chomorro, Jr., and Marta Patricia Baltodano — such a movement cannot honestly be accused of plotting to return Nicaragua to a Somoza-style tyranny. Whether the current leaders are capable of creating a truly democratic order in Managua — which has not seen one in over fifty years — is another question. Considering the alternative, I believe they deserve the right to try.

But most important, the issue of internal democracy in Nicaragua cannot be separated from the issue of containing Sandinista subversion in the region. Democracy in Nicaragua and the constraints of a functioning political opposition are the only reliable checks against the expansionist ambitions of the Sandinista regime. As Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has succinctly put it: “Without democracy there can be no peace in Central America.”

My fourth and final point is that the U.S. needs to make more adroit use of diplomacy to rally the democratic center throughout the Americas to our mutual cause. So far, U.S. support for diplomatic openings has been tepid at best and obstructionist at worst. It is time to follow the lead of Nicaragua’s democratic neighbors and embark on a diplomatic path that can lead to an enforceable negotiated settlement. Though far from perfect, the regional peace plan proposed by President Arias does keep the focus on the central problem: the Sandinistas’ unrelenting drive to monopolize political power and to lock in place their version of totalitarian rule in Nicaragua.

Later this month, Central American leaders will meet to discuss the plan. Their challenge will be to transform a rather vague set of well-intentioned ideas into a concrete timetable for a truce accompanied by measurable progress toward the establishment of civil and economic freedoms in Nicaragua. Key elements of such an agreement should include a temporary ceasefire during which censorship would be lifted; a suspension of U.S. military aid to the Contras and Soviet bloc military aid to the Sandinistas; immediate talks between the Sandinistas and the domestic opposition to lift the state of emergency and reinstate the suspended constitution; a firm deadline for general elections in Nicaragua, overseen by the Organization of American States; an end to Sandinista support for insurgents in the region; and, as democratization is irrevocably underway in Nicaragua, the disbanding of the Contras and their integration into Nicaraguan society.

We should not be under any illusions about the Sandinistas’ intentions. They are not going to bargain away their power in the absence of serious military pressure. A policy that calls for negotiations without continued support for the resistance is, in my opinion, a toothless policy, a policy without leverage. Even if negotiations should falter or fail, they still serve a useful purpose by keeping the world’s attention focused on the despotic character of the regime in Managua. If the Sandinistas cannot be persuaded to share power, they can at least be further isolated. We should press our European friends to end their economic aid to the Sandinista regime, which uses rationing and strict regulation of Nicaragua’s disintegrating economy as a means of social control.

We should also urge the rest of Latin America, under the auspices of the Organization of American States, to take a much higher profile in resolving the crisis. Respected figures such as Alfonsin of Argentina and Sarney of Brazil can bring stronger moral and diplomatic pressure to bear on the Sandinistas. They and other elected leaders should step forward and say to the Sandinistas: “We are part of the new democracy of Latin America and what you do in Nicaragua affects us all.”

Regardless of what happens to the Arias plan, the United States, in conjunction with the OAS, should give firm assurances to the Central American democracies, particularly Costa Rica, which has no army, that we will come to their aid in case of an armed attack.

And finally, we ought to spell out clearly our vital security interests in the region. All Americans have good cause to be concerned by the deepening strategic relationship between the Sandinistas and the Soviet Union. We need to serve notice on the Cubans and Soviets that we will not tolerate the introduction of advanced weaponry or the transformation of Nicaragua into a strategic base for Moscow.

This fall, the nation will again grapple with the question of aid to the Nicaraguan resistance. As we debate, let us be aware of the consequences of inaction. Let us ask ourselves: what will become of the resistance if we abandon them? Where will they go, and what about refugees who will likely follow them out of Nicaragua? Let us also ask: how will such a decision affect those who are struggling peacefully for democracy, not only in Nicaragua but also in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala? How far are we prepared to go to prevent those countries from going the way of Nicaragua?

And let’s be clear about the dual nature of the threat to peace and stability in Central America. It stems from the gross social inequities that have long plagued the region, and from the betrayal of a democratic revolution in Nicaragua by the Sandinistas, who now contemplate a similar fate for neighboring countries.

How should America respond? We could pull back, send some economic aid and hope it all works out in the end. We could — but that strikes me as neither a principled nor a prudent course. The alternative policy — one that serves both our nation’s interests and our sense of moral purpose —is to engage energetically in the struggle for human rights and dignity in Central America.

There is ample historical precedent for such a policy. This year, in fact, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, one of the greatest achievements of U.S. foreign policy. Its lesson is clear: when America joins with other nations to defend democracy and promote hope and economic advancement, we lay a lasting foundation for our own national security.


  • Charles S. Robb

    Charles Spittal "Chuck" Robb (born 1939) is an American politician. He served as the 64th Governor of Virginia from 1982 to 1986, and as a United States senator from 1989 until 2001. In 2004 he chaired the Iraq Intelligence Commission.

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