PANAMA CITY — The United States is a nation that likes to feel good about itself. No other country in the world believes that it has been promised happiness; the rest of us struggle along with occasional successes and inevitable downfalls. Jimmy Carter offered the United States malaise . Reagan told it to stand tall and feel good.
The United States needs reliable villains. The epic Manichaeism of Anglo-American culture requires instant identification of good and evil: white hats, black hats. Reagan has excelled at identifying villains--the evil empire, the ayatollah, Col. Kadafi, the Sandinistas.
The current crisis of the Reagan presidency is deep because it turns out that, after all, the villains were not that villainous and you could play footsie with them. Goodby to black hats. And how can anyone feel good or stand tall as deception is piled upon deception, hypocrisy upon illegality and illegality is crowned by failure? Goodby to self-esteem.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz feels sulky about all this, but it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him. His opposition to the Iran arms deal is based on his firm adherence to a policy of not dealing with terrorists. Yet many of us in Latin America have been wondering for a long time if this attitude could be reconciled with Shultz's avid espousal of the most notorious gang of terrorists in the Americas, namely, the Nicaraguan contras.
What North Americans are now seeing clearly, thanks to Iran, many Latin Americans have been seeing for quite awhile--thanks to Nicaragua. To say the least, we are not surprised. The operation against Nicaragua began as far back as the Republican Party's platform for the 1980 elections. Gen. Alexander M. Haig verbally escalated it as the new Administration settled in and in March, 1981, President Reagan issued a "finding" for stepping up covert action in Central America. In April came the aid cutoff to Nicaragua and by spring, Argentine military personnel were busy recruiting and training the first contra units.
The operation then went on to be covertly financed and directed by the United States. After the press uncovered the activity, Congress banned it with the Boland Amendment in October, 1984. The Iranian arms deals seem to have skirted that prohibition. But the pattern had been set: the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, the printing of homicidal instructions for the contras by the CIA, the disregard for the rulings of the International Court of Justice, the terrorist activities of the contras against Nicaraguan civilians, crops, schools and transports. And the contras have not been able to hold a single town after five years of warfare supported by the world's greatest military power; they are a fleeing army, constantly chased back into Honduras and resupplied from El Salvador, whose governments fervently deny that any such things occur. Who is actually menacing whom in Central America?
Recently, at the meeting of the Organization of American States in Guatemala City, the International Herald Tribune reported that many Latin American statesmen were not sympathetic to the Sandinista government, while at the same time they opposed the activities of the contras. U.S. diplomats seemed to sense a contradiction in this. Well, there is none. A Latin American government may deplore the Sandinistas, but it is bound to deplore, even more, United States intervention and arming of military bands against any constituted government in Latin America.
Who can tell, given this President, when the same tactics will be used against Mexico, or Peru or Colombia? Memories are short in the United States. They are long in Latin America. We remember the mutilation of Mexico in 1847 and of Colombia in 1901; the string of Marine landings in the Caribbean; the coups against Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, where elected governments were overthrown with the full connivance of U.S. administrations.
Since the early 20th Century, Latin America has patiently attempted to construct an edifice of legal obligations with the United States, in order to reduce the asymmetry of power in the hemisphere and construct a new relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation, not on dominance. But Reagan has shown us that the use of force and disregard for the law in dealing with Latin America are not things of the past.