The cast of a dangerous drama

August 8 1983

The cast of a dangerous drama

August 8 1983

The cast of a dangerous drama


Since the Reagan administration took office in January, 1981, Central America has become the world ’s most dangerous flashpoint. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in what often seems a bewildering and pointless conflict. In the process, the central figures and the battle lines have shifted so frequently that the situation is as confusing as the Southeast Asia drama in the 1960s and 1970s. To bring the situation up to date, Maclean’s Senior Writer Val Ross profiles the main Central American personalities and countries involved. Her report:

Steely eyes behind glinting spectacles give Daniel Ortega the look of a 1960s student radical. But Ortega, 38, is the best-known member of Nicaragua’s ruling junta and his country’s official head of state. Two weeks ago Ortega gained international prominence with a six-point peace plan for Central America, calling for the removal of all foreign bases and arms supplies from the region. Ortega typifies the youthful, hard-line, idealistic character of the leftist Sandinista movement which has ruled Nicaragua since toppling dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Sandinism is a movement that teaches basic arms drill by means of rock songs (Las Municiones is the title of one popular number). It sporadically censors the dissident press but welcomes journalists, novelists and Catholic priests into government.

Despite the Sandinistas’ reputation for Marxist fanaticism, Nicaragua’s 80,000 square miles have been notably free of internecine violence. In that, Nicaragua stands in marked contrast to its rightist neighbors, although its controversial decision to remove Moskito Indians from the border zone with Honduras has been widely criticized by human rights activists. Still, the left-wing Sandinistas have left much of the country’s coffee, sugar and ranchlands in private hands.

But the nation is now under pressure from U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries waging a series of military strikes across its border with Honduras. As a result, the Sandinistas, who govern 2.9 million people, are becoming increasingly defensive and are reliant on roughly 4,000 Cuban advisers to provide them with military and strategic assistance. Elections have been repeatedly postponed, and the army—one of the region’s largest—is on constant military alert. But the junta denies that it

has become a Soviet puppet, as Washington asserts. Junta member Sergio Ramirez Mercado recently countered Washington’s charge that his country is becoming a Soviet base with the comment: “[U.S. President Ronald] Reagan’s problem is that we are no longer a North American base.”

Ramirez’ anti-American rhetoric directly reflects Nicaragua’s troubled history. The agriculturally rich nation was invaded by U.S. marines in 1909, in 1912 and again in 1926, after which they re-

mained until 1933. Their presence was opposed by a nationalist member of the Liberal party named Augusto César Sandino, who formed a guerrilla army to oust them. The United States gave its support to an obscure officer named Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who lured Sandino into peace talks, then ordered his murder. Gaining control of the country, Somoza persecuted Sandino’s supporters, including Daniel Ortega’s parents. A generation later his son and successor, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, jailed Ortega himself.

On July 19,1979, a delirious crowd of nearly one million welcomed Ortega and other triumphant Sandinistas (named after Sandino) to Managua’s cathedral square to celebrate the downfall of the younger Somoza after two decades of guerrilla war. But two weeks

ago, on the fourth anniversary of El Triunfo, the celebrations were much more sober. U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista guerrillas—many of them former members of Somoza’s National Guard—were threatening Nicaragua’s northern border from their Honduran bases. At the same time, in the south forces led by dissident Sandinista Edén Pastora Gómez are pledged to overthrow the junta in Managua. U.S. naval task forces practise blockade manoeuvres offshore, and U.S. troops are scheduled to begin sixmonth exercises with . their Honduran counterparts.

ince April, 1983, when Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova became El Salvador’s new defence minister, he has been described in the press by local diplomats as “an old-fashioned straight guy” who can help pacify his tiny (population five million) civil war-torn country. But that may be an exaggeration. “Old Green Eyes,” as he is known to his colleagues, is a former commander of the feared National Guard, which is

responsible for the £ deaths of many of the 5 40,000 victims of the past

four years’ internecine “ violence. U.S. diplomats

privately blame him for obstructing investigations into the murders in 1980 of four U.S. churchwomen and two U.S. agricultural advisers, for which the Guard is widely believed to have been responsible.

Vides is a close friend of the rightwing political firebrand Maj. Roberto d’Aubuisson and he is now also probably the most powerful man in El Salvador. The country is nominally led by the army’s hand-picked choice for president, Alvaro Magaña, who was chosen after last year’s constituent assembly elections. But it is the army, through Vides, that wields the most authority.

The defence minister was born in 1939, between the two most traumatic events in El Salvador’s history: the current civil war and La Matanza (the massacre) in 1932. Then, the country’s Indians and peasants revolted against

the legendary 14 families who owned 95 per cent of the arable land, only to be crushed by dictator Maximilliano Hernández Martínez, while U.S. gunboats and two Canadian destroyers patrolled offshore. In all, 32,000 people were butchered.

For more than a quarter of a century afterward, El Salvador was a nation in shock, and its essentially feudal structure, with severe poverty and illiteracy, reigned unchallenged. Then, in the 1960s foreign industry arrived, attracted by the Salvadorans’ reputation as hard workers (they call themselves guanacos, or beasts of burden). Such companies as Texas Instruments and Maidenform Bra Ltd. turned the peasant population into Central America’s most industrialized work force. But

eventually the ambitious new urban working class and the newly literate peasants formed a powerful opposition to the traditional power brokers—the army and the rich landowners. The establishment struck back with violence—the secret violence of the death squads. But while many opposition leaders and trade unionists were murdered, many others, including a growing number of young professionals—lawyers and doctors—joined the burgeoning left-wing guerrilla movement. In 1979 moderate officers in the army staged a coup, and they promised land reforms. But the reforms were never implemented with any effectiveness, and the death squads’ activities never slackened.

Since then the country has become increasingly polarized, with neither the

guerrillas nor the U.S.-armed and trained army able to take full control. At the same time, U.S.-sponsored electoral and agrarian reforms have been repeatedly delayed. Elections scheduled for December, 1983, have also been postponed, while the far-right and centrist parties in the government coalition haggle over a new constitution.

Washington is pinning its hopes for an ultimate solution on Vides, who seems more amenable than his predecessor, Gen. Guillermo Garcia, to accepting U.S. military advice in prosecuting the war. But Vides may also be planning to split the defence ministry in two, retaining control of the political side and giving military authority to soldiers with more battle experience. That will free Vides from the ticklish

task of persuading proud local commanders to take orders from their U.S. advisers. And if he can retain both their trust and that of Washington, he can plan on a long term of duty in the long war ahead.

The Honduran election of December, 1981, replaced the military junta that had ruled the nation for nine years with a civilian government-earning Central America’s poorest country the proud title of a “democracy.” But the election was, in many ways, a chimera. Before the vote, the sleepy mountainous country of 43,277 square miles tolerated a remarkably open press and strong .labor unions. Now, the military is actually increasing its power and clamping down on dissent, strengthened by annual infusions

of $40 million in U.S. military aid and the presence of at least 300 U.S. military advisers. Asked recently whether the army’s leader, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, might seek the presidency in the next elections, one Honduran official commented, “Why should he seek a demotion?”

Along with the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte, Alvarez, 45, is the most powerful man in the country. He is not philosophically opposed to the CIA’s use of his country’s southern frontier to stage attacks on leftist Nicaragua. Indeed, like the rest of the military he enthusiastically welcomes massive infusions of U.S. military aid and hardware. But he is also a proud nationalist known for his dislike of Negroponte’s dominant role.

The 3.9 million Hondurans, a quiet, predominantly agricultural people, are paying a high price for their U.S.-supported democracy. Trade union and human rights activists have begun to “disappear,” although at a slower rate than in El Salvador or Guatemala.

Currently, the White House is asking Congress for a 30-per-cent increase in military aid to Honduras. It is simultaneously considering a National Security Council recommendation that Honduras’ western frontier with El Salvador be used as a staging area by the Salvadoran army to attack its left-wing guerrilla opponents. Many Hondurans, recalling their bitter 1969 border war with El Salvador, will find that suggestion repugnant. But it may still become part of the price that they have to pay for their unsatisfactory democracy.