The most distressing thing about this hook is that, because of the language barrier and its limited availability, few instant Central American “experts” will ever read it. For serious students of the Reagan administration’s Central American policy, however, Lilia Bermúdez’s work is must reading. It is a thoroughly researched and balanced analysis of the formulation and implementation of Reagan’s low intensity conflict policy in Central America. Actually, Bermúdez attempts more than simply an analysis of Reagan’s Central American program. Rather, she set out to write a critique of the current administration’s response to pro-Soviet movements throughout the Third World, with Central America as the focus. In a clearly written style, refreshingly free of social science jargon, Bermúdez admirably succeeds in her effort.
Bermúdez traces the evolution of the low intensity conflict concept to the mid-1970s and the development of what she refers to as the “Vietnam syndrome.” She argues that the prolonged and politically unpopular war in Southeast Asia forced conservative military and civilian geopolitical strategists to search for a viable alternative to invasion and traditional counterinsurgency doctrine to confront pro-Soviet forces in the Third World. The essence of this new theory was to be flexibility. The ultimate aim of the low intensity conflict doctrine was to defeat Marxist forces in the Third World through a multidimensional approach employing economic aid, antiterrorist training, logistical support, psychological warfare, and the use of military surrogates. In short, invasion and prolonged occupation by U.S. military forces were to be postponed, and, it was hoped, completely avoided.
The laboratory for low intensity conflict theory was, of course, Central America. Bermúdez emphasizes that El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras have unquestionably been pawns in the Reagan administration’s global sparring with the Soviet Union. The massive Big Pine exercises in Honduras, for example, were not only designed to establish the military infrastructure for subsequent Contra operations in Nicaragua but also to “neutralize” a potential base of operations for the Salvadoran FMLN and the Sandinistas. Here the lesson of the Vietcong sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos has been directly applied to Central America. In the case of Nicaragua, Bermúdez concludes that Reagan’s policy is clearly designed to test the viability of his “rollback” initiative, which seeks the overthrow of not just the Sandinistas but the Marxist regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. Bermúdez sees the Reagan policy in Central America floundering on all fronts, largely because of its inability to gain the necessary political support in the U.S. Congress and the Central American nations themselves. General Manuel Noriega’s nose thumbing at Washington underscores this book’s increasingly evident conclusion.
Although this is a work of broad perspective, Bermúdez fails to properly place Reagan’s Central American policy in the context of his overall relations with Latin America. While this is a significant flaw, it does not fundamentally detract from what is unquestionably a most important and provocative study.