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The Carter Doctrine, Part I: Human Rights, and the Legacy of Nicaragua
May 7, 2007

Finally, after a considerable hiatus, I'm picking up the thread of my discussion of the history of U.S. Involvement in El Salvador. The last entries dealt with the 1979 Reformist Coup and the legacy of Archbishop Romero, whose murder in 1980, just like the 1979 coup, took place during the latter days of the Carter presidency.

The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has expressed a revitalized interest in human rights in Latin America, the first time this has been a policy priority in thirty years. (First rollback of Communist insurgency under Reagan and the first President Bush, then globalization and neo-liberal economic policy under Clinton, were the principal foci of foreign policy in the region since 1980.) It's instructive, then, to examine how an emphasis on human rights originally played out in regional foreign policy.

The emphasis on human rights under Jimmy Carter resulted from a belief that détente had stabilized relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that in truth it was only a matter of time before the latter self-destructed because of the inefficiency, corruption, and unpopularity of the communist system. This contrasted with the conservative viewpoint, best articulated by Ronald Reagan, that the Soviet Union remained intent on world domination and saw the Third World as ripe for conquest, was an intrinsically "evil" empire, and should be confronted aggressively and unapologetically throughout the world, a position known as "rollback" (in contrast to "containment," the prevailing strategy since the 1950s).

Given Carter's belief that the Soviet Union posed no immediate threat to U.S. interests, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, he sought to reverse the existing policy of supporting repressive autocratic and military regimes in the region, which became considered counterproductive and actually contrary to long-term U.S. goals, such as promoting democracy and institutional transparency throughout the hemisphere. (This was ridiculed by conservatives on several grounds, mainly because it was impossible to know what "long term" goals might be, whereas short term goals of regional security, i.e., combating communism, were clear, and the autocratic or military regimes in question were historically loyal to the U.S. and amenable to its interests.)

There was actually considerable debate as to whether the Soviets were even concerned with Latin America at that time (though it was obvious the Cubans were). For example, it was known that the Soviets had been forewarned of General Pinochet's intent to overthrow Salvador Allende, the elected Socialist president of Chile, in September 1973, but did not even bother to inform him of that fact, out of a belief that détente had created a new world order in which the Soviets would concede U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, in exchange for American acceptance of the inclusion of Central Asia within the Soviet sphere of influence. This was not a negotiated understanding, and when the Carter administration reacted vehemently to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets were rather stunned. This seriously chilled the aura of détente, and the Cold War resumed its frosty edge.

Even so, Carter remained committed to the cause of human rights, believing that Soviet progress in the Third World would best be retarded not by propping up loyal but repressive regimes, but by emphasizing values considered truly American. The first regional crisis involving this newfound emphasis concerned Nicaragua, where the U.S. had for some time backed the sultanistic regime of Anastasio Somoza. (A sultanistic regime is one where a single family holds the reins of power.) Somoza was a particularly ruthless and corrupt leader, whose atrocities included the brutal torture and murder of political opponents by his singularly loyal National Guard, as well as a macabre scheme that involved exploitation of the nation's blood supply: Poor people were paid $5 per liter of blood, from which the plasma was then extracted at one of Somoza's factories, and then sold to the United States at $25 per liter. The exposure of this scandal by journalist Pedro Chamorro led to his death by Somoza assassins in January, 1978, and that murder prompted the broadly supported strikes and violence that ultimately toppled the Somoza regime.

Carter's demands for improvement in the human rights arena had prompted both Guatemala and El Salvador to refuse U.S. military assistance, rather than accept the strings attached to that aid. Somoza still relied heavily on American money, however, and thus was seen as an excellent test case for Carter's policy, i.e., Somoza was seen as eminently vulnerable to U.S. influence and arm-twisting. But as 1979 progressed, and the Marxist Sandanistas became increasingly proficient in their face-to-face encounters with Somoza's military, Carter faced the prospect of compromising Somoza at the risk of a possible Marxist takeover of the country, something for which he was fiercely derided by his right-wing American critics such as Ronald Reagan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

It wasn't just American conservatives complaining. The Nicaraguan opposition was hardly monolithic. The business community had long hoped to depose Somoza, for the corruption and repression that characterized his regime made ordinary commerce virtually impossible. (It is often remarked that violent repression is simply another form of civic disorder.) But they didn't want to make their bed with the Marxists unless absolutely necessary. They kept hoping that Carter would withdraw his support from Somoza, the regime would crumble, and they would be able to step to the fore as the natural and reliable inheritors of commercial and governmental stability. In truth, no one in Washington believed the center had the legitimacy or experience to reliably take power, and Somoza cagily realized that if he could fragment the center, Carter would have to choose between him and the Marxists, something that would inevitably lead to continued support from the U.S.

Carter responded just as Somoza predicted he would. Due to the vocal hammering he was taking at home, Carter recoiled at the prospect of a Communist regime in Nicaragua, and therefore refused to abandon Somoza until far too late, by which time the business community had joined forces with the Sandanistas, the only party willing to confront Somoza militarily, in a bid to rid the country of its dictatorship. The irony of this development was that while the American right was condemning Carter for abandoning Somoza, it was in fact his refusal to do so earlier that sealed Nicaragua's fate. In July 1979, the Sandanistas entered Managua, and Somoza fled the country along with senior members of his loyalist National Guard.

This inability to isolate and support the political center, while condemning human rights abusers on the militaristic right and resisting Communist takeover from the left, would haunt Carter policy in its dealings with other Central American hotspots—specifically, El Salvador.


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