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Double Standards for Latin Democracy

October 25, 1987|SUSANNE JONAS | Susanne Jonas teaches Latin American studies at UC Santa Cruz. As part of current research she attended the Central American presidents' peace summit in August.

"I can't move back home," an internationally respected Central Amerian professional told me in August. "Things haven't changed enough; my family wouldn't be secure." This was not a Nicaraguan expatriate opposed to the Sandinistas but a Guatemalan moderate who committed the indiscretion of favoring mild social reform.

"What we need is time," said another Central American. "If we have a period of time without serious threat from subversives and without serious involvement (from abroad), we can increase our (combat) readiness." This was not a Nicaraguan comandante looking to the day when the Contras are disarmed and democratization can be reversed. The speaker was Guatemala's defense minister, Brig. Gen. Hector Alejandro Gramajo, assessing his army's continuing counterinsurgency war, the casualties of which have been overwhelmingly unarmed civilians.

These two comments are not uniquely Guatemalan; they might refer to El Salvador or, to some extent, Honduras. This suggests that Washington officials are applying a double standard in Central America when they see problems only with Nicaragua and reduce the entire regional peace process to one simple question: "Will the Sandinistas really democratize?" Jeane Kirkpatrick even suggested in a recent column that "liberals" in Congress and in Central America would "lower the standards for democracy to permit the Sandinistas a 'passing grade.' "

But who in Washington is asking whether Nicaragua's neighbors are themselves acting in good faith in regard to the peace accords? Who is asking whether the generals in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras can really democratize? Who is asking what standards of democracy have been lowered (or ignored entirely) to permit a "passing grade" for these pro-American governments?

Ironically, the intellectual foundations for Washington's double standards were erected by Kirkpatrick herself in a much-noted 1979 article, "Dictatorships and Double Standards." In that article, while accusing the Carter Administration of applying a liberal-left "double standard," she made the case for a U.S. policy of supporting right-wing "authoritarian" regimes in the Third World as preferable to left-wing "totalitarian" regimes--sometimes the only alternative.

In Guatemala, the United States has supported a series of military regimes whose counterinsurgency wars since the mid-1960s, among the most brutal in the Hemisphere, have left hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. From 1978 to 1985 alone, the human cost of the Guatemalan security forces' scorched-earth strategy included the burning to the ground of more than 440 villages and the killing or "disappearing" of 150,000 civilians. El Salvador's war, which has been waged with heavy U.S. involvement, has cost at least 60,000 civilian lives since the late 1970s.

On the positive side, there are now elected civilian governments in place of military dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In El Salvador and Guatemala there is increased space for political activity and limited social protest, and the volume of human-rights violations is greatly reduced. But in all three, the limits of the present political opening are set by the region's ongoing counterinsurgency wars.

Guatemala's war has left its imprimatur on every aspect of the society. It can be seen in the vast expanses of land that government troops burned in the highlands and in massive population migrations and relocations. And it can be seen in the continuing militarization of Guatemalan political life: Even outside the active "zones of conflict," large areas of the countryside are kept in line through mandatory civilian defense patrols, "model villages" and other counterinsurgency institutions. While formal prohibitions on politics have been relaxed, opposition forces practice self-censorship, since they never know whether they will suffer reprisals for voicing protest. Guatemala's military leaders have turned Clausewitz's famous dictum around; they say that "politics is a continuation of war by other means."

In Guatemala and El Salvador, political assassination and "disappearances" continue. Both countries' presidents (Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo and Jose Napoleon Duarte) have promised not to prosecute army officers for past human-rights crimes or death-squad activities, thus granting them a shield of unaccountability in the present. And Honduras' political life has been destablized and distorted by that country's participation in the regional war.

Underneath a "democratic" surface, then, these countries are still governed by a logic of counterinsurgency that violates the requirements of an open society.

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