Reagan’s Central American Foreign Policy

The Monroe Doctrine, which established the American sphere of influence in the Caribbean and Central America, played a significant role in the formation of American foreign policy throughout the 20th century even before John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, adopted in the first decade of the 20th century, called for intervention in the Caribbean whenever the U.S. felt that its sovereignty was threatened.

As a result, during the second decade of the century, America invaded Cuba, occupied Nicaragua, invaded Mexico and sent the marines to Haiti and Santo Domingo. (Barnet, et al, p. 26.) This policy was continued by the administration of Ronald Reagan. Reagan and his advisers tended to view every regional conflict through a Cold War lens. They believed that it was important for the United States to challenge the Soviets in “proxy skirmishes” in Central America and Caribbean, so that the Communists could not establish a foothold in the area. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 498-502.)

In Nicaragua in 1979, The Sandinista National Liberation Front (“FSLN” (Spanish acronym) or “Sandinistas”), a communist insurgent group, overthrew the long-standing (43 years) dictatorship of the Somoza family. The FSLN took its name in honor of Augusto Sandino, who had fought the Somozas in the 1930s. (Denselow, pp. 181-182.) The Sandinistas were leftists, but ”were no hard-line Marxist regime, for many of the supporters of the revolution (and members of the Government) were radical priests…” (Id.)

The Sandinistas aided the communist insurgents in El Salvador and Guatemala. For the Reagan administration, Nicaragua looked “like another Cuba,” a communist state that threatened the security of its Central American neighbors, so it aided the “Contras,” remnants of the brutal Somoza National Guard, by supplying them with arms. Reagan also approved covert training of the Contras by the CIA. The Contras waged war on the Sandinistas from camps in Honduras, with CIA provided assistance. In 1984, Congress ordered an end to all covert aid to the Contras. (Lynskey, p. 416; Denselow, p. 182.)

“Nicaragua, is written and sung by Bruce Cockburn (1983) about the Contra wars in Nicaragua, where often a 15-year-old would be a four-year veteran of the conflict. (

Breakfast woodsmoke on the breeze—
On the cliff the U.S. Embassy
Frowns out over Managua like Dracula’s tower
The kid who guards Fonseca’s tomb
Cradles a beat-up submachine gun—
At age fifteen he’s a veteran of four years of war
Proud to pay his dues
He knows who turns the screws
Baby face and old man’s eyes

Blue lagoon and flowering trees—
Bullet-packed Masaya streets
Full of the ghosts of the heroes of Monimbo
Women of the town laundry
Work and gossip and laugh at me—
They don’t believe I’ll ever send them the pictures I took
For every scar on a wall
There’s a hole in someone’s heart
Where a loved one’s memory lives

In the flash of this moment
You’re the best of what we are—
Don’t let them stop you now

Sandino in his Tom Mix hat
Gazes from billboards and coins
“Sandino vive in la lucha por la paz”
Sandino of the shining dream
Who stood up to the U.S. Marines—
Now Washington panics at U2 shots of “Cuban-style” latrines
They peak from planes, eavesdrop from ships
Voyeurs licking moistened lips

In the flash of this moment
You’re the best of what we are—
Don’t let them stop you now

In “Lives in the Balance, written and sung by Jackson Browne (1986), Brown steps away from his usual topics of personal trials and tribulations and takes on the Reagan Administration’s actions in Nicaragua. (

I’ve been waiting for something to happen
For a week or a month or a year
With the blood in the ink of the headlines
And the sound of the crowd in my ear
You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war

And there’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interest runs

On the radio talk shows and the T.V.
You hear one thing again and again
How the U.S.A. stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
But who are the ones that we call our friends
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can’t take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone
There are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
Where we can’t even say the names

They sell us the President the same way
They sell us our clothes and our cars
They sell us every thing from youth to religion
The same time they sell us our wars
I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they’re never the ones to fight or to die
And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

The Reagan administration circumvented Congress’ prohibition of aid to the Contras by soliciting contributions for the Contras from private individuals and from foreign governments seeking U.S. favor. Cynically and surreptitiously, Reagan’s administration, through the CIA, its director, William Casey, and Oliver North, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marines and deputy-director of the National Security Council, permitted the sale of arms to Iran (remember that Iran was hostile to the U.S. and was engaged in a war with Iraq, which was supposed to be an American ally), with profits diverted to the Contras. By dealing with Iran, the Reagan administration, also hoped to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s leader. (Jennings, and Brewster, pp. 498-502.)

The Iran-Contra Affair (also known as “Iran-gate”) was a grand scheme that violated American law and policy in a number of ways: arms sales to Iran were prohibited; the U.S. government had long forbidden ransom of any sort for hostages; and it was illegal to fund the Contras above the limits set by Congress. Exposure of the Iran-Contra Affair in late 1986 provoked a major congressional investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

In response to the Walsh investigation, North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, shredded records and implemented a cover-up. North testified before the Senate on several occasions. He did not deny the events; he said that he was only following orders. He was convicted of three charges of obstructing Congress and unlawfully destroying government documents resulting in his resignation of his position on the National Security Council and his commission. Later, his convictions were reversed. Others in the Reagan administration were also convicted, but they were pardoned by the first President Bush. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 501.)

On Nov. 13, 1986, President Reagan declared in a national address, “We did not—repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages—nor will we.” That statement was not correct. But, did Reagan know it was inaccurate? Reagan’s critics commented: “dealing with the Iranian devil [was] like learning that John Wayne was selling firearms and liquor to the Indians.” (Jennings, Id.) Reagan, testifying in a deposition in the oval office, later said that he could not remember if he had approved the program. The scandal seriously weakened the influence of President Reagan.

The American preoccupation with Nicaragua subsided in 1987 after President Oscar Arias Sanches of Costa Rica proposed a regional peace plan. In national elections in 1990, the Nicaraguan opposition routed the Sandinistas, bringing an end to 10 turbulent years of Sandinista rule.

At the same time the U.S. was trying to help the Contras oust the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, similar civil war conflicts broke out in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. [These conflicts, like Nicaragua, pitted leftist, agrarian reformers, sometimes including Communist guerrillas, who were trying to remove long-time, entrenched conservative military rulers, who used the local economy as their personal treasuries. The military rulers were supplied with weapons from the U.S. These wars of liberation were costing thousands of deaths a month.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a Salvadorian Catholic priest who supported the liberation movement—it was known as “liberationist theology.” He preached against the tactics of the military. Romero said: “In a country like ours, where injustices reign, conflict is inevitable…when a dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes unsupportable, and when all the channels of dialogue are closed, the church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence.” (Fish, p. 34; Boyce, ed., Lynne Rienner, Economic Policy for Building Peace: The Lessons of El Salvador)

Romero called for intervention in the war by outside forces. His actions earned him the enmity of the military. He was killed by an assassin’s bullet on March 24, 1980 while he was celebrating mass after giving one of his liberation sermons. Other priests and nuns, including six Jesuit priests, and U.S. aid workers, who were ministering to the poor in El Salvador suffered, similar fates. (Lynskey, p. 416.)

“El Salvador”, written by Noel Paul Stookey, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, paints a critical picture of the situation in El Salvador under the military government. (

There’s a sunny little country south of Mexico
Where the winds are gentle and the waters flow
But breezes aren’t the only things that blow
In El Salvador

If you took the little lady for a moonlight drive
Odds are still good you’d come back alive
But everyone is innocent until they arrive
In El Salvador

If the rebels take a bus on the grand highway
The government destroys a village miles away
The man on the radio says
“Now we’ll play ‘South of the Border”

And in the morning the natives say
“We’re happy you have lived another day
Last night a thousand more passed away
In El Salvador”

There’s a television crew here from ABC
Filming Rio Lempe and the refugees
Calling murdered children the ‘Tragedy’
Of El Salvador

Before the government camera 20 feet away
Another man is asking for continued aid
Food and medicine and hand grenades
For El Salvador

There’s a thump, a rumble, and the buildings sway
A soldier fires the acid spray
The public address system starts to play
‘South of the Border’

You run for cover and hide your eyes
You hear the screams from paradise
They’ve fallen further than you realize
In El Salvador

Just like Poland is protected by her Russian friends
The junta is assisted by Americans
And if 60 million dollars seems too much to spend
In El Salvador

They say for half a billion they could do it right
Bomb all day and burn all night
Until there’s not a living thing upright
In El Salvador

And they’ll continue training troops in the USA
And watch the nuns that got away
And teach the military bands to play
South of the Border

Killed the people to set them free
Who put this price on their liberty
Don’t you think it’s time to leave
El Salvador?

“The Big Stick, written and sung by The Minutemen (1985), calls on Americans to protest the U.S. support of military regimes in Nicaragua and Guatemala. (

Now over there in Managua Square
With American made bombs falling everywhere
They kill women and children and animals too
These bombs are made by people like me and you
And we’re told that we hold a big stick over them
But I know from what I’ve read that peace is in our hands

Now over there in Guatemala my friend
We’re making mistakes there once again
Uncle Sam supports a fascist regime
That doesn’t represent the people over there
We learn and believe there is justice for us all
And we lie to ourselves with a big stick up our ass

Now if we stand and yell it out
That war isn’t what we’re all about
Then someone will come and bring us back
To get the peace train back on its tracks

This is what I’m singing about
The race war that America supports
Indians will never die
They’ll do just fine if we let them try
Though we hold, we’re never told that peace is in our hands
If we stop there is time to heal the scars we’ve caused
To heal the scars we’ve caused…

“Flowers of Guatemala, by R.E.M. (1986) is a song is about the violent right-wing government in Guatemala and the devastating effect it had on the Guatemalan people. (

I’ve took a picture that I’ll have to send
People here are friendly and content
People here are colorful and bright
The flowers often bloom at night

Amanita is the name
The flowers cover everything
The flowers cover everything

There’s something here I find hard to ignore
There’s something that I’ve never seen before
Amanita is the name, they cover over everything

The flowers cover everything
They cover over everything (Amanita is the name)
The flowers cover everything

Look into the sun
Don’t look into the sun

The flowers cover everything
They cover over everything
The flowers cover everything

The flowers cover everything
They cover over everything
The flowers cover everything

There’s something that I’ve never seen before
The flowers often bloom at night
Amanita is the name, they cover over everything

U.S. implementation of the Monroe Doctrine to control the Caribbean also resulted in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, a small island nation in the Caribbean, north of Venezuela. The situation on Grenada had been of concern to American officials since 1979, when a leftist named Maurice Bishop seized power and began to develop close relations with Cuba. (The U.S. Invasion of Grenada, Stephen Zunes;

The CIA was involved in efforts to destabilize the Bishop government. In October 1983, another more radical Marxist named Bernard Coard, had Bishop assassinated and took control of the government. Coard pursued a policy of active cooperation with the Soviet Union and Cuba. When Coard and his allies began construction of an airfield capable of landing large military aircraft, the Reagan administration decided to remove the Communists and restore a pro-American regime. (Id.)

There were nearly 1,000 Americans in Grenada at the time, many of them students at the island’s medical school. President Reagan, citing the purported threat posed to American nationals by the Marxist regime, ordered nearly 2,000 U.S. Marines to invade and secure their safety, a campaign called Operation Urgent Fury. (Id.)

When the forces met greater than expected resistance, Reagan ordered in more troops, and by the time the fighting was done, nearly 6,000 U.S. troops were in Grenada. They killed or captured 750 Cuban soldiers. Coard’s government collapsed and was replaced by one acceptable to the United States. (Id.) The invasion sent a clear message throughout the region that the Reagan administration would not tolerate communism in its hemisphere.

Another instance of United States military intervention in the Caribbean involved the invasion and deposing of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. From the early 1970s, Noriega, a military officer, was aligned with the Army faction that controlled the government of Panama. Over the years, he rose to second in command in the military government. He made himself useful to the United States by providing intelligence on the happenings in the Caribbean and occasionally acting as an intermediary to the Castro regime in Cuba. Noriega also supplied weapons to the parties in the Nicaraguan, Salvadorian and Guatemalan rebellions, and he was a notorious drug trafficker. Although Noriega was a gun-runner, money-launderer, drug trafficker, and double agent, he was still useful to the U.S. government.

But, Noriega eventually fell out of favor in Washington for multiple reasons. Reagan’s administration tried to use economic sanctions to pressure him to resign, and tried to engineer a coup by other military officers. When George Bush, Sr. took office after Reagan, he increased the pressure on Noriega. However, Noriega withstood all of the U.S. efforts to remove him.

Frustrated and concerned that Noriega knew of too many skeletons in the closet, President Bush launched a full-scale attack (Operation Just Cause) with 24,000 troops on December 20, 1989. Bush’s justifications were Noriega’s declaration that U.S. actions had created a virtual state of war, fear that Noriega would jeopardize the security of the Panama Canal and the fact that his troops fired on U.S. soldiers. Noriega was captured and brought to Miami, Florida for trial on numerous drug offenses. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

“Please Forgive Us, sung by 10,000 Maniacs is a 1989 song that protests American involvement in Central America and our penchant for propping up dictatorial governments (El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala). (

“Mercy, mercy,” why didn’t we hear it?
“Mercy, mercy,” why did we read it buried on the last page of our morning
The plan was drafted, drafted in secret.
Gunboats met the red tide, driven to the rum trade for the army that they
But the bullets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them.

Please forgive us, we don’t know what was done,
Please forgive us, we don’t know what was done in our name.

There’ll be more trials like this in mercenary heydays.
When they’re so apt to wrap themselves up in the stripes and stars and find that
they are able to call themselves heroes and to justify murder by their fighters
for freedom.

Please forgive us, we don’t know what was done.
Please forgive us, we didn’t know.
Could you ever forgive us? I don’t know how you could.

I know this is no consolation.
Please forgive us, we don’t know what was done,
Please forgive us, we didn’t know.
Could you ever believe that we didn’t know?
Please forgive us, we didn’t know.
I wouldn’t blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, we didn’t know.
I wouldn’t blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, and you never will.