U.S. Support Remains Kiss of Death in the Third World

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington</i>

The events of 25 years ago this week in Cuba have endured as a milestone, but with different readings. In the United States, “the Bay of Pigs” has become synonymous with defeat--the defeat of U.S. attempts to reverse the Cuban revolution. In much of Latin America, “Playa Giron,” as it is known, is synonymous with victory--the victory of popular will against U.S. intentions. This is not just a Cuban view; many Latin leaders supported Fidel Castro’s resistance to the invasion--notably Lazaro Cardenas, former president of Mexico and one of the founders of its political system.

Then, as now in Nicaragua, the problem with U.S. policy was quite clear, as viewed from south of the Rio Grande. One of two conditions must be met if U.S. attempts at unseating revolutionary regimes are to prosper: Either the United States is willing to back up its proxy force with a commitment to use its own military, or there truly has to be a population ready to rebel against “communist tyranny,” waiting impatiently for arms and the sign from Washington to proceed. Neither condition was met in 1961, and U.S. policy foundered in embarrassment and incompetence; neither is present in Nicaragua today.

In fact, the conditions of success are also mutually reinforcing reasons for failure. As long as there are proxy forces available-- brigadistas in 1961, contras in 1986--the United States will use them, even without resounding success, rather than commit American troops. And if there are no “freedom fighters” on the ground or in the vicinity (in Miami or Honduras), the necessary element of “generalized internal discontent” appears unconvincing at best and, more plausibly, intelligence agency wishful thinking at worst.

But the weak link in the chain of argument lies elsewhere. Discontent does exist under many young (and not so young) revolutionary regimes. There is indisputably much discontent in Nicaragua today, more than in Cuba a quarter of a century ago; there is certainly a great deal of it in the ranks of Col. Moammar Kadafi’s army in Libya. What the United States does not seem to understand is that its exploitation of discontent in countries with weak or recently constituted national structures is quickly taken as an attack on that country’s very national being. The revolutionaries in power easily--and rightly--paint their struggle as one between their country and America and its proxies, not as a settling of scores between domestic factions.


No Latin American politician with any feeling for his own political culture would ever allow himself to get caught in a bind of this nature. If he opposes the government in power, he automatically is siding with Washington against the entire nation --or, worse, is an agent of a foreign power. The consequence is obvious: The United States and its proxies are left to fight alone, with no hope of support from the political center in the country under siege.

Twenty-five years ago Castro defeated the contras of the moment because he was seen by the majority of the Cuban people as the defender of the Cuban nation against foreign aggression. There is every reason to believe that the Sandinistas will very soon eliminate the contras as a military force, regardless of President Reagan’s $100 million. Domestic support for the contras, never very significant, is waning. The diplomatic initiative has been retaken by Nicaragua in forcing the Contadora Group to choose between its long-belabored peace treaty and Washington’s contra strategy. Even Honduras’ army seems to have reached at least an implicit understanding with the Sandinistas, whereby the former looks the other way--or gets out of the way--each time the latter enters Honduran territory in pursuit of contra battalions. Similarly, the smart money in the Arab world is betting on Kadafi’s remaining in power unless American troops dislodge him themselves.

U.S. support, unless it is very discreet or entirely overwhelming, continues to work like a kiss of death for those seeking power in the Third World by unseating revolutionary regimes. Those who receive it do so at their own peril, and those who give it do so at the risk of adding another chapter to their history of mistakes. The United States tends to remember its mistakes, and only grudgingly, on major anniversary dates. Elsewhere, those mistakes are remembered as victories. Elsewhere, the lesson of history is taken seriously.