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Is the United States a School for Central America?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987

Americans, like ancient Athenians, are a proud people who believe their form of government worthy of universal emulation. “We are the school of Hellas,” boasted Pericles in his famous oration; and today the United States would like to think itself a school for the Americas.

Teaching U. S. style democracy to Central Americans has been a high priority for both the Carter and Reagan Administrations. President Carter sought to school Latin America in the individual’s right to due process. The Reagan Administration began its tenure calling that human rights policy “utopian,” because “it measured all countries by the same standards—disregarding differences in history, political traditions and social conditions.” However, the president soon appointed a “school board,” The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, made up primarily of amateurs in the region’s cultural inheritance, language, and politics, to gauge the possibilities for implementing his own 1776 vision of freedom and democracy. Successively, each administration had set out with diplomacy and appropriations to fulfill its particular version of United States’ “higher law.”

Superimposing interpretations of the American creed upon Central America’s discredited “democratic” past and intolerable present, Carter and Reagan policies coincide in their insistance that nationalistic movements attempt the impossible—that they be legitimate within the framework of our own political tradition.

Our tradition in fact provides no solution to the key difficulties facing these nations. Indeed, Central America fits George F. Kennan’s startling observation that “we have nothing to teach the world. We have to confess that we have not got the answers to the problems of human society in the modern age.” Those sentiments, perhaps overstated and certainly rejected by the American people, rest upon the irrefutable uniqueness of our national experience.

America’s “higher law,” far from offering a plan of deliverance to the Central American masses, stands dumbfounded before an unfree people in a state of deprivation. Rooted in 18th-century “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” our War of Independence was fought for individual rights in particular, and political freedom in general, rather than to solve everyman’s socio-economic difficulties. Our founders singularly devoted their lives and fortunes to political liberty because there were no urgent needs, no suffering nor abject poverty requiring them “to submit to necessity, no pity to lead them astray from reason.” Yet, Americans and their spokesmen, with Patrick Henry voices ringing in their ears, now say, in effect, “even though most of you citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are poor, illiterate, sick, own no property, and have no experience in local town councils, if your revolutions are about life’s necessities rather than about political liberty and pluralist democracy, they are not legitimate.”


Paradigms of political freedom, derived from a revolution whose participants had already fulfilled their basic economic wants, are rationally neglected as irrelevent, or dismissed as inadequate, by the Central American masses and their representatives. However ideologically valid, leaders who speak of concrete remedies for the difficulties of everyday life reasonably gain a more attentive audience. Nicolas Berdyaev recounted this peasant realism at the time of Russia’s 1917 Revolution. In The Origin of Russian Communism, he wrote, “the old government had lost all moral authority; people had no faith in it. . . . Liberal ideas, ideas of right as well as ideas of social reform, appeared, in Russia, to be Utopian.” In this ambience, Marxism, with its attention to peace, bread, and land, “showed itself to be much less Utopian and much more realistic, much more in accord with the whole complex situation in Russia in 1917.”

Justifiably proud of our message, in practice the United States’ procedural “fix,” popular elections and due process, is tied to a reality Central Americans have never known— respect for individual opinions, interests, and rights. These appear idealistic and infeasible before their preoccupation with security and well-being—a still to be attained assurance that from the lowered vigilance of sleep they will awaken to tranquillity, tortillas, and beans rather than to machine-gun fire or hunger. Our diplomats largely sidestep such tangible fears and desires by simply assuming that morally superior political philosophy, like one’s religion, carries its own legitimizing papers, and that only leaders of good will are wanting in order to win the hearts and minds of the masses.

But this is not so. “The great political ideologies of the past which captured the imagination of men and moved them to political action . . .were successful because they gave the people to whom they appealed what they were waiting for both in terms of knowledge and in terms of action.” Peoples of Central America are demonstrably unwilling to fight for any political theory or structural arrangement that does not promise them deliverance from misery. The Salvadoran’s and Nicaraguan’s attention—and this includes the CIA-paid Contras—is primarily upon short- and long-term routes to improved personal welfare and security. It may be an unwelcome truth, but, as Hannah Arendt concluded from her analysis of revolutions, “liberation from necessity, because of its urgency, will always take precedence over the building of freedom.”

Central Americans have historically shown themselves less motivated to replace self-imposed leaders with electorally legitimized alternatives than, depending upon class status, to either abrogate or defend an inherently unjust order of existence. Consequently, self-limitations necessary for reasonable dialogue readily give way to the boundless violence of oppressor and oppressed. For example, El Salvador’s peasant uprising of January 1932, militarily put down in a matter of days, with the slaughter of 30,000 campesinos, illustrates that tradition of callous confrontation. President Napoleon Duarte’s failure to negotiate successfully with his guerrilla opponents is a foregone conclusion because the latter are as dedicated to altering the nature of El Salvador’s 14-family control as Duarte’s military-civilian oligarchy is dedicated, however indirectly, to preserving it. The situation is reversed in Guatemala, but the conclusion must be similar: Vinicio Cerezo, the populist candidate allowed to take power through the grace of a few generals, will be unable to negotiate fruitfully with the military-oligarchic alliance whose very existence is threatened by his proposed integration of the Maya-Quiche Indian majority into the political life of the nation. It is within this context that the United States’ insistence upon the government of Daniel Ortega holding “reconciliation” talks with the Contras should be understood as futile.

America’s “higher law” ideology of political freedom not only furnishes no feasible guidelines to these three presidents of nationalistic good will but indeed runs counter to the logic of the conditions which they face: its Newtonian vision of autonomous parts contractually coming together in pluralist government or open marketplace ignores the imperative for collective action on behalf of a dispossessed poor, what Barrington Moore, Jr. has termed the “unity of misery and the diversity of happiness.” As such, United States’ diplomacy speaks in largely irrelevant syllables of liberty rather than of necessity. This contradiction would long ago have emerged had not theory been denied in practice by providing massive aid to endangered regimes and movements we favor. Indeed, the one positive area-wide program haltingly advanced by this administration, the Jackson Plan, which would have implemented the economic assistance provisions of the Kissinger Report—a recommended $1.2 billion for fiscal 1987— foresaw political freedom built upon local well-being. Unfortunately, that liberty involves the ambiguous legacy of discontinuous congressional appropriations and continuous misappropriation by recipient officials. (Somoza’s downfall was due in no small part to the Nicaraguan business sector’s withdrawal of support after he channeled millions of Agency for International Development funds for earthquake relief into his own enterprises.)


American democracy’s language of individual freedom is reasoned self-interest; Central America’s language of personal necessity is compassion. American democracy’s protection for collective freedom is the multiplicity of interests; Central America’s solution to collective necessity is the unity of interests, nationalism.

It is futile to teach our “higher law,” a variant of Plato’s abstract “truth by the discourse of reason,” to individuals in search of compassion; thinkers from Plato to Maslow have recognized the priority of physiological need over political self-actualization. The United States in Central America is attempting a political solution to a social and economic question in which concepts of freedom and public action are perceived to be largely irrelevant. Nicaragua’s citizens, some of the poorest in this hemisphere, pragmatically placed little faith in Somoza’s legal-rational prescription for poverty relief through a corrupted capitalism’s “hidden hand” that seemed to reward those who were already affluent; but they line up with hope before personalized benefactors like Interior Minister Tomas Borge who, working in a building adorned with a sign announcing the “Sentinel of the People’s Happiness,” opens his door once a week to any petitioner.

Liberal democracy, the government of reasonable forms and rational processes, found its model in a text crafted for a people of abundance (“in the beginning all the world was America”); who enjoyed absolute liberty (“a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit”); followed a God who rewarded effort (He “gave the world” to the use of the “industrious and rational”); and were guided by a natural law (“and reason . . .is that law”). These phrases from The Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke—whom it is worth recalling wrote an essay on “The Reasonableness of Christianity” that could be illuminatingly juxtaposed to compassion-oriented tracts in Liberation Theology which center upon Christ’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor . . . .to set at liberty those who are oppressed”)—appealed to a citizenry that already had peace, bread, and land for the taking. Such reason-oriented government grounded in a vision of equal and autonomous contracting persons sounds counterfeit to individuals living in a poor, hierarchically based, socioreligious order of haves and have-nots. Locke’s belief that “reason . . .teaches all mankind who will consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions,” and that “there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses,” is contrary to Central American history, everyday experience, and, I would suggest, “reasonable” expectations in the foreseeable future.

Difficult though their task of creating a workable government may have been, our constitutional fathers were not saddled with the simultaneous foundation of political order and provision for man’s fundamental social and physical needs. Under that dual burden every modern revolution since 1789 has succumbed to the priority of human necessity and initially established some form of nonplural, nonfree centralized state. However evil such regimes may appear to outsiders (Nicaragua’s vice president, Sergio Ramirez, said in 1984, “The literacy campaign is a priority. The improvement of the health system is a priority. Housing is a priority. Organizing an electoral system is not a priority of the government.”), it should be understood that this centralization of power has not only been welcomed but demanded by suffering masses whose experience of man’s pre-political state, contrary to Locke’s vision and our ancestor’s reality, has been one of scarcity, irrational allocations, and limited freedom. There has been little land for use by the “industrious,” and cooperative efforts have been as often rewarded with violent death as with affluent security.

While our founders sought little more than to remedy politically an obvious defect of an abundant frontier—protection for one’s property—much more drives Central Americans. Middle-class Cubans and Nicaraguans who fled to Miami, accusing revolutionary leaderships in their swing to the Left of reneging on democractic promises, omit the fact that these movements were driven to that position not only by sinister Marxist-Leninist cabals but by a popular cry for nearly everything except political liberty. Movements born in scarcity readily abandon freedom as an expendable luxury. “Of all ideas and sentiments which prepared the [French] Revolution,” noted Tocqueville, “the notion and the taste of public liberty, strictly speaking, were the first to disappear.”

And those new regimes, despite their broad economic failures, have undeniably produced compassion: 25 years after toppling the old order, Cubans have “a life expectancy of 73 years, an infant mortality rate of 17 per 1,000 live births, a literacy rate of 96 percent, per capita income of $1,417,” Juan M. del Aguila reported in his 1984 book, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution. While comparable statistics for Nicaragua seven years after the revolution are incomplete and suspect, in part because data from the Somoza era were so patently imaginary, experts agree that dramatic gains have been accomplished in these same categories,

For a people focused upon everyday needs, it also means much to know that their leaders, however authoritarian, probably have no Swiss bank accounts. From the common man’s point of view, to return to electoral competition could expose the revolution to the danger of reactionary minorities; reminders of the Batista and Somoza dictatorships, where, for their ruler’s gain and glory, the individual’s vote was uncounted and his life was discounted.

Although outstripping the old “democracies” in fulfilling basic necessities, the Marxist/nationalist governments of Cuba and Nicaragua have unfortunately not addressed the realm of poltical freedom. They naïvely maintain that liberty will flow from a dialectical resolution of class antagonisms: the end of exploitation, and a more just distribution of goods. Marxist regimes everywhere demonstrate that Hegel erred in believing freedom would evolve according to historical imperatives without conscious human action. Yet their partisans are undoubtedly correct in holding that socioeconomic liberation has everywhere been a condition of political freedom (although by no means does it lead automatically to it).

Just now, 70 years after their revolution confronted “the social question” with rivers of blood, Mexicans are beginning to demand pluralistic rights and political competition to solve staggering problems. The promise has not been fulfilled. But, in undergoing an ultimately integrating national revolution, Mexico founded an order imbued with authority—the source of law and the origin of power; and government assumed the obligation to deal with necessity. This combination of popularly bestowed authority and accepted political responsibility has provided successive Mexican regimes with a presumption of legitimacy and stability and Mexicans with a relatively open society. By contrast, when assuaging biological need is beyond concern of ruling oligarchies, as in Guatemala, where “the private sector does not seem to want to assume any responsibility. . .for developing the infrastructure or the well-being of the population as a whole” (as New York Times correspondent James Lemoyne reported, quoting “a foreign diplomat” on Aug. 3, 1985), one can hardly fault the rationality of hard-pressed campesinos in heeding the siren song of nationalist deliverers.

Collective necessity calls forth nationalism. Not differentiation and multiplicity but nationalistic unity offers hope to distressed individuals. Every Central American populist movement—whether of Center, Left, or Right, whether led by Panama’s late Omar Torrijos Herrera who sprang from the military, by Guatemala’s civilian president Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo who emerged out of the established system, or by Nicaragua’s Marxist president Daniel Ortega Saavedra who arrived as a guerrilla fighter—is sustained by the promise of collective freedom from an oppressive existence attributed to local or foreign power arrogators operating contrary to the common welfare. These leaders and their suffering followers are uninterested in replicating 19th-century pluralistic divide-and-rule minority governments that left them impoverished. In common with citizens of Algeria and Vietnam, neither “democratism” nor communism, but nationalism is the credo for which the masses have demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives. Movements are built around national heroes (Marti, Sandino, Farabundo Marti); adopt national titles (the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front [El Salvador], the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity); and proclaim nationalist slogans (Patria libre o morir [Nicaragua], Patria o muerte! Venceremos! [Cuba]).

Nationalism in Latin America presents itself as liberation from “outside” forces. That is the attracting message of nonrevolutionary regimes as diverse as Peron’s Argentina, Stroessner’s Paraguay, and Garcia’s Peru. (“Alan Garcia has been elected by 20 million Peruvians and not by international bank officials,” a Peruvian politician told the New York Times on July 29, 1985. “Peru has one over-whelming creditor; it is our own people.”) Think then of the energy and exaltation loosed by the 1979 popular uprising in Nicaragua that visibly ejected overlordship. “People felt for the first time as if they were the bosses in their own country. It was a country that had always before been someone else’s—it wasn’t our country, it was almost like a foreign country,” said Tomas Borge. In this euphoria it does little good to warn of future totalitarianism or the heresy of their saviors. Franklin Roosevelt is alleged to have remarked that “Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” Surely Americans are sophisticated enough to understand that some Cubans and Nicaraguans now rejoice in saying the same of Castro and Ortega.

Our “higher law” background envisioning individual freedom stands uncomfortable, mute before political figures who speak of freedom in a nationalist context. Guatemala’s populist president, Cerezo Arevalo, spoke the truth when he observed, “the Americans don’t like people with very nationalistic sentiments.” We fear and oppose nationalism inasmuch as, unlike our own drive for personal liberty which was accommodated within the law, elsewhere freedom from necessity has seen the very laws themselves displaced. During the French Revolution, St. Just chillingly remarked that all “is permitted to those who act in the revolutionary direction.” His statement speaks to a situation where a privileged sector rules with no intention of self-destructing and, legally or illegally, means to protect that position. Such sentiments bring terror to our hearts when expressed from the proximity of Central America because we intuit the chasmic gulf between any shade of government rooted in the legitimacy of the past (i.e., its laws and constitutions) and a populist movement searching for validation in truths, inevitably abstract, proclaiming a future order where justice will reign.

Central American constitutional polities such as that of El Salvador were founded with minimal popular consent and are ultimately maintained through violence. Citizens there never formed a social contract, however fictitious, either among themselves or with their leaders; constitutions were not submitted to the people for debate and ratification. Lacking historical and psychic approval, without fundamental authority and empowerment by the people, such regimes must rely upon ever heightened coercion to sustain control over populations which increasingly resent their misery. Within this context of illegitimacy, albeit veiled by electoral and legalistic rituals, governments inevitably turn to outside sources for weapons of internal coercion; force is substituted for learning, school is turned into barracks.

Meanwhile, the deprived masses easily embrace Rousseau’s union sacrée, fount of Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty.” Grounded in Catholic unitary philosophy of the common good, Latin Americans have always been lukewarm toward a separation and division of powers. Dissatisfied citizens readily adopt one-party premises common to both the French Revolution and to Marxism. “The people” form a collective relationship with their spokesmen to oppose the existing “despotism of interests.” In the current revolutionary situation, unanimity is rewarded and prepares a climate whereby “we,” a self-righteous nationalist majority, face “them,” counterrevolutionaries and enemies of the people who, in the name of pluralist privilege, support a system unresponsive to the demands of poverty.

From the point of view of American “higher law,” both Right and Left participants in the contest are usurpers of individual freedom. Thus, U.S. policy-makers offer up status quo arguments, frightened scholastic distinctions between “authoritarian” evil and “totalitarian” evil, which merely obscure and detract from the great fear engendered by a people remaking themselves under any lawless label, let alone one associated with our world antagonist. Fear has not, however, filled our minds with tolerance or humility toward a populist revolutionary situation before which we stand powerful but speechless. Resorting to moralistic ideology, smugly contending all nations are traveling on our inexorable freedom course, we leave unstudied the differences and difficulties of every particular quest, a people’s unique history and culture, their words, deeds, and immediate aspirations.


In the fourth century B. C., Thucydides wrote, “as long as poverty gives men the courage of necessity . . .so long will the impulse never be wanting to drive men into danger.” Latin American campesinos increasingly demonstrate a willingness to forfeit usually evanescent political freedoms for tangible alleviation of suffering. Given the concrete personal motives of those majorities, nothing could be more certain than the eventual areawide success of national liberation movements.

Although these masses are no more intellectually attracted to Lenin than to Locke—28 years after the Revolution, Cubans still show little curiosity about Marxism—from the late General Torrijos on the Right, to Cerezo and Duarte in the Center, to Oretega and Castro on the Left, to the guerrillas in the mountains, populist leaders have all used categories and concepts of collective struggle. Quite naturally, any theory offering an explanation for the cause of their woes or suggesting a justifiable solution, gains a hearing and advocates. Communism and Liberation Theology provide both, and it is not by chance that the governing directorate in Managua includes priests and Marxists.

Arrogance of power and righteousness of conviction blind us to the irrelevance of words and armaments unattuned to popular needs. Our founding fathers, more steeped in political philosophy than recent statesmen, were less sanguine about the possibilities for the accommodation of republican government in countries of vastly different size and circumstance. Correct or not in their conclusions, these men at least appreciated the uniqueness of their situation. Skeptical of using the Greek city-state as a pattern for the United States, they suggested the difficulty of extending our system to Central American-sized nations. A small polity, said Madison, “can admit of no cure from the mischiefs of faction. . . . Such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”

During the Spanish-American War, William Graham Sumner warned, if this nation “attempts to be school-mistress to others, it will shrivel up into the same vanity and self-conceit of which Spain now presents an example.” Establishing the internal justice of another nation living another agenda is not the Anglo-Saxon man’s burden, and historically, short of cultural and physical annexation, such instruction has not been carried to a happy conclusion.


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