The hard-liner strategy certainly helped Solidarity stay viable and enhanced the mujahedin resistance. There were definite limits, however, to what the hard-liners could accomplish, especially when they attracted congressional and public attention to their aid to resistance movements against communist regimes. In October 1983, President Reagan expanded the campaign by calling for freedom against Soviet totalitarianism with aid to freedom fighters who challenged communist domination. Under this perspective, which acquired the title "Reagan Doctrine" after the 1984 election, Casey and the hard-liners pushed to extend covert assistance to a variety of movements including those in Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Central America. Central America posed the most immediate challenge to Reagan and the hard-liner strategy, especially since the Soviet Union's role appeared distant and indirect with the exception of its alliance with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Washington faced the difficult challenge of how to deal with crumbling authoritarian regimes in Central America that the United States had supported throughout the Cold War. Should security and Cold War concerns receive priority or should Washington attempt to support reform, representative government, and negotiations among the contending factions? The Carter administration had wavered on this question but ended up attempting to work with a popular coalition in Nicaragua that included the Sandinist National Liberation Front (FSLN), which had overthrown Anastasio Somoza's regime there in 1979, and to encourage reform by moderates in El Salvador, where the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Forces (FMLN) challenged the authoritarian regime but had failed to overthrow it in a January 1981 offensive.
President Reagan and the hard-liner coalition preferred to emphasize Cold War concerns and moved quickly to step up U.S. aid to the government of El Salvador. Military aid jumped from $6 million in 1980 to $82 million in 1982, and economic aid to El Salvador tripled during the same period to $189 million. Washington also supported a moderate Christian Democrat, José Duarte, against the right and left and used Duarte's victory in the 1984 election to increase military aid to $196 million. U.S. training of El Salvadoran troops expanded and U.S. Green Beret advisers increased.
Secretary Haig wanted to go after what he considered the most direct source of communist influence, Fidel Castro's Cuba, with a naval blockade to shut off the flow of arms to Central America. Reagan's chief White House advisers, Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese, and James Baker, however, opposed any foreign adventures that would disrupt achievement of the Reagan domestic agenda, and they proceeded to keep Haig, but not Casey, from meeting alone with Reagan so that they could monitor the secretary's more aggressive Cold War scenarios. Haig also underestimated public and congressional resistance to a policy of direct U.S. involvement in Central America. Public opinion polls indicated majority support for staying out of the area, especially any U.S. involvement beyond economic aid, and the media stepped up its criticism in 1981 when a news photo revived memories of Vietnam by showing U.S. military advisers in the field carrying M-16 rifles instead of the handguns allowed under policy guidelines. Congressional reaction to El Salvador also limited the White House's options as representatives cut aid requests, demanded that the junta restrain the killing by security forces and right-wing death squads, and pushed for investigations on the killing of American churchwomen and labor advisers.
Washington faced an even more difficult challenge in dealing with Nicaragua and the Sandinista regime, a coalition increasingly dominated by Daniel Ortega and the FSLN. Washington maintained diplomatic relations with Nicaragua and engaged in discussions focused on persuading the Sandinistas to stop the flow of arms to the FMLN in El Salvador. CIA Director Casey, however, persuaded Reagan and the National Security Council to approve a covert operation ostensibly to interdict arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador and to disrupt any Soviet-Cuban ties in Nicaragua. Casey turned to Argentinian military veterans to train Nicaraguans, initially veterans of Somoza's National Guard, into a 500-man force that would operate out of Honduras. House and Senate intelligence committees received some information from Casey about this operation and raised many concerns, particularly about the extent to which this force, which would be called the contras, would operate in Nicaragua.
From 1982 on, Reagan and his advisers found themselves in an escalating campaign against the Sandinistas in the face of continuing public and congressional criticism and resistance. As the number of contra forces grew, the army's Special Operations Division replaced the Argentinians and provided training, arms, and intelligence assistance. In April 1982, Washington increased its demands from the arms issue to an insistence that Managua follow through on earlier pledges to permit political pluralism and hold free elections as well as tolerate a mixed economy. Congressional concerns about contra raids into Nicaragua prompted the first of many attempted restrictions: an amendment in December 1982 by Representative Edward Boland that prohibited the CIA and the Defense Department from using funds to support anyone trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Casey's CIA heightened public and congressional criticism with operations to blow up Nicaraguan fuel storage depots at Caribbean coastal cities in October 1983 and to mine Nicaraguan harbors with small C-4 explosives that wounded fishermen and seamen and hit Soviet and British ships. Congress responded with a second Boland Amendment in June 1984 that cut off all lethal aid to the contras but not $27 million in humanitarian assistance. Casey and the National Security Council, with Oliver North as the manager of the supply effort to the contras, proceeded to turn for the next two years to other sources of funding including the diversion of funds from the sale of arms to Iran. The ensuing Iran-Contra affair drove a number of the hard-liners out of the administration and considerably weakened and distracted Reagan in his handling of not only the Central American crisis but also direct relations with the Soviet Union.
Reagan persisted in the campaign to get renewed funding for the contras in annual battles over military and nonmilitary assistance and resisted various negotiated attempts to end the conflicts in Central America. When President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica advanced a new Central American peace plan in 1987 that called for cease-fires throughout the region, an end to outside military aid, and negotiations among all of the contending forces as well as free elections, Reagan and his declining number of hard-line advisers tried without success to head off the plan. Reagan remained adamant in his denunciation of Ortega and the Sandinistas as unreliable communists who would not keep any agreements that threatened their rule.
By the time George Bush arrived in the White House in January 1989, joined by Secretary of State James Baker, the Arias peace process had moved farther beyond Washington's influence. In February, Arias and the Central American presidents persuaded Ortega to agree to reforms and an election during February 1990. Bush and Baker moved to demobilize the contra camps in Honduras and test Arias's prediction that a withdrawal of military pressure would lead to a Sandinista defeat in the election in light of the resentment toward some of their more heavy-handed policies and accumulated economic problems. Secretary Baker also followed up on earlier conversations with Gorbachev concerning a Soviet willingness to encourage the Sandinistas to negotiate, a reflection of Gorbachev's "new thinking" in international relations and his desire to reduce the drain of Soviet aid to Cuba and its allies in Central America. Gorbachev indicated a willingness to cut off arms shipments to the Sandinistas and urge them to accept the results of the election if Bush and Baker supported the Arias peace plan. When Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega in the February election and a settlement in El Salvador brought an end to the conflict in 1992, Baker and Bush expressed both relief and satisfaction that the end of the Cold War had enabled them to achieve through negotiations what Reagan and the hard-liners had pursued unsuccessfully since 1981 through substantial aid, covert activities, and annual battles with Congress.
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