'Fracoso' South of the Border: From May 14, 1988

The Spanish language has a common but potent word that can be aptly applied to this country's present relations with its Latin American neighbors: fracaso. The word denotes "failure" but connotes a good deal more, including such things as are covered, in English, by the words "mess" and "disarray." Fracaso total, then, would mean something like "complete mess and utter defeat," and is an economical description in Spanish of this Administration's policy, or lack thereof, in Latin America.

No doubt those Spanish words have often been on the smiling lips of Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega when he has contemplated what the United States has tried to do to him. After predicting the General's imminent departure, and then putting the screws on Panama's economy to bring about this overthrow, the Administration—and most people in this country, probably—were surprised by the united reaction of Latin American nations calling on us to relax economic sanctions, to "lay off' Panama, in effect. Corrupt as he may be, and brutish toward his own people (though this did not keep the Administration from dealing with him in the past), General Noriega has not been isolated, according to plan. The United States now has no choice but to deal with the criminal we dealt with before as a matter of convenience. We wonder why the other Latin American nations do not cooperate in saving us from this humiliation.


Honduras is another country where presumably we have influence, or what we mistakenly suppose is influence—namely, paying rent to use the country for our own ends, harboring the contras and 'menacing the Sandinistas. Yet the recent anti-Yankee riots in Tegucigalpa that followed the forced extradition of an alleged drug czar show that, there too, the rent money is buying more resentment than friendship. There is hardly need to comment on the quality of our relations with Nicaragua, or on the Administration's astonishment and ill-concealed dismay that five Central American nations agreed on a peace plan last August.

Overall, one has the impression that, south of the border, the United States stumbles from surprise to bad surprise. One principle supposedly governing at least this Administration's dealings with "countries still struggling to achieve full democracy" (in Latin America and elsewhere) is that we favor "authoritarian" regimes over "totalitarian" ones—code for "right-wing" dictatorships over "left-wing" dictatorships. This is a principle of Realpolitik that, insofar as it were followed, would tolerate Chile's General Pinochet, Haiti's General Namphy and, yes, Panama's General Noriega. The putative shrewdness of following such a principle has little to commend it ethically, as the mere grouping of those names indicates. The recent frustrating experience with General Noriega shows its practical limits, as well.

The next Administration, and those who now put themselves forward as candidates to head that Administration, must formulate that which we believe this country lacks now-a coherent Latin American policy. If it were both honorable and smart, such a policy would be based on these principles, at least:

  • An unashamed and consistent insistence on human and democratic rights, in regimes of both left and right. (This would have prevented our cozying up to General Noriega, in the first place.)
  • A sensitivity to the painful history of U. S. involvement with, not to say interference in, Latin American countries, and a consequent recognition that Latin American resentments are a fact of life we must still deal with. (This would have prevented our policy of crassly using Honduras as a base.)
  • In accord with the above-named sensitivity, a firm commitment to the principle of self-determination. (We would not then have tried, however unsuccessfully, to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government.)
  • An eagerness to communicate with our Latin American neighbors. (A symbol of this desire and ability to communicate, so necessary in human relationships as troubled as those between the United States and its southern neighbors, would be an ability to speak Spanish. If the U. S. President cannot do so, then the Vice President ought to; and if he cannot, then the Secretary of State; and if he cannot, then at least the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs must. So far as we know, not one of these officials in the present Administration speaks Spanish, though we would like to be proved wrong.)

This country must learn to treat its Latin American policy with the same care it expends on its European alliances. The strategic and geopolitical implications are no less important. This Administration's ill-advised Nicaraguan policy, and its frantic but ineffectual efforts to dislodge General Noriega from Panama, at least serve to show that the importance of the region has not bee overlooked. What has been overlooked is a consistent, historically sensitive and ethical—and therefore effective—policy.

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