- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009


I am befuddled by the U.S. posture in the Honduran crisis. In circumstances where a sitting president, Manuel Zelaya, repeatedly flouted a key article of the Honduran constitution — an article designed to prevent the continuismo that has plagued Latin America’s fragile democracies — we, along with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s anti-American Sandinista president, appear to have ended up supporting Mr. Zelaya.

I assume that at least one of the motives of the Obama administration is the goal of developing better relationships with the Latin American revolutionary left. My experience in Nicaragua 30 years ago leaves me highly skeptical.

In July 1979, I received word that the Carter administration wanted me to take on the job of director of the U.S. Agency for International Development with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, fresh from its revolutionary victory over Anastasio Somoza. I was told that the new U.S. ambassador would be Lawrence Pezzullo, like myself a career officer and a Democrat, and a man whom I knew well.

Our principal task was to demonstrate that the U.S. government could develop constructive relationships with revolutionary authoritarian governments in Latin America. I had had some relevant experience: I was the deputy USAID mission director in the Dominican Republic, having arrived a few weeks after the eruption of the April 24, 1965, “Constitutionalist” revolution to restore the democratic left leader Juan Bosch to the presidency. Many embassy/USAID personnel, myself included, were rooting for Mr. Bosch in the 1966 elections, won by the right-of-center Joaquin Balaguer.

Larry Pezzullo was a gifted, highly entrepreneurial, courageous ambassador — a perfect selection for the job with the Sandinistas. We both developed close, candid relationships with Sandinista leaders, I with Jaime Wheelock Roman, the young jefe of the proletarios, furthest left of the three Sandinista factions. Mr. Wheelock, as minister of agriculture and agrarian reform, was responsible for confiscation of many farms from large landholders. The confiscated lands were then turned into state farms and state-run cooperatives. By the way, Mr. Wheelock is today one of Nicaragua’s richest large landholders.

In the fall of 1979, we made it clear to the Sandinista government that we were unhappy with the line in the Sandinista anthem, “We will fight against the Yankee, enemy of humanity.” Mr. Wheelock told me the word “Yankee” would be changed to “poverty.” But it never was, even though the United States was the principal source of financial, technical and food assistance to the Sandinista government during its first 18 months.

The failure of the Sandinistas to substitute “poverty” for “the Yankee” was highly significant. The bedrock of Sandinista theory was that the United States was responsible for Nicaragua’s — and indeed Latin America’s — underdevelopment. If that were not true, it would mean the Nicaraguans (and Latin Americans) themselves were responsible for their failures.

In the fall of 1980, U.S. intelligence detected significant flows of arms from Nicaragua to leftist revolutionaries in other Central America countries, above all El Salvador. The State Department sent the deputy assistant secretary for Central America, James Cheek, to discuss the intelligence findings with the Sandinistas. Mr. Cheek, also a Democrat, was the person most responsible for our turning away from Somoza before the Sandinista takeover.

The Sandinista leaders denied they were trafficking in arms, but our intelligence concluded that help to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador was continuing.

After the November U.S. presidential election, which Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, President Carter considered halting the flow of aid to the Sandinista government but decided, prudently in my view, to leave that decision to the new Reagan administration.

To his credit and that of his advisers, President Reagan offered the Sandinistas a deal: The United States would keep its hands off Nicaraguan internal affairs if Nicaragua’s government kept its hands off the other countries in the region. The deal was rejected by the Sandinistas, triggering Mr. Reagan’s decision to supply aid to the Contras — a decision that I and several other Democrats supported.

The Honduran Supreme Court and 123 of the 128 members of the Honduran Congress decided to invoke an anti-continuismo constitutional article that reads:

“No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.”

The day before he was ousted, Mr. Zelaya issued a decree that would have required all government employees to participate in a poll designed to facilitate his continuation in power. By doing so, he declared himself in opposition to a primary goal of U.S. policy toward Latin America since at least President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress: consolidation of democratic institutions.

Mr. Zelaya had joined Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Alliance, whose members also include Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua — an organization clearly aimed at undermining U.S. influence in the region.

So what is the United States doing giving the impression of supporting Mr. Zelaya? I have to assume President Obama was motivated at least in part by the same goal of building bridges to the Latin American authoritarian left that we pursued in Sandinista Nicaragua 30 years ago.

The lessons of that failed effort are clear: The commitment to anti-Americanism is powerfully rooted in the humiliation that our success — and their relative failure — produced, a humiliation not entirely unlike the humiliation that is, I believe, at the root of Osama bin Laden’s anti-Americanism.

Many Latin Americans of the authoritarian left almost surely experienced a sense of satisfaction at the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Consequently, any U.S. efforts to change the mind-set of those Latin Americans are almost surely doomed to failure.

Lawrence E. Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He is the author of “The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture And Save It From Itself.”

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