Tuesday, August 20, 2013

America For Americans

I did, finally, go to a national park in Costa Rica. It would have been scandalous not to. Though in the end it turned out to be neither cloud forest nor volcano, which are the usual natural suspects for tourists to Costa Rica. Instead I opted for a dry tropical forest at the Guanacaste biosphere reserve in the northwest of the country. Of course, with my knack for mistiming I of course turned up in the rainy season when the dryness of the forest is not really appreciable. The park is home to the standard roll call of mesoamerican fauna, of which, as per usual, I saw precious little. It's also an important nesting site for marine turtles, and the beaches can see thousands of females coming up to lay their eggs in the season. Instead I saw a few spider monkeys swinging directly overhead (which was pretty impressive), iguanas basking in the sun, and a whole host of crabs infesting the mangroves. I went with my host in Liberia, Laura, a young Aussie girl. A fascinating character who has the fortitude to follow through with her convictions to make the world a better place, she has spent time living in protest zones and organising activist movements. And although I don't see radical activism as a sustainable way forward, I admire her principles and how far she's prepared to go to defend them. It's perhaps fitting then that the national park is also home to the hacienda Santa Rosa, an ordinary-looking old farmstead (well, it was an old farmstead up until a decade ago when some poachers burnt it down, but since it's been lovingly rebuilt) that saw its own protest against imperialism back in 1856, in what was perhaps the most pivotal episode in Costa Rican history, when the Costa Rican army defeated the invading army of the American filibusterer William Walker. His name may not be well-known outside of Central America, but his episode is familiar to everyone here as the start of US attempts at hegemony of the region.

Red-legged crabs scurrying into their burrows amongst the mangroves.

The small countries of Central America rarely make it into our collective consciousness in Europe, or probably anywhere else for that matter. Before coming here I knew their names and perhaps had some vague notions about guerrilla conflicts in the 90's, but that's about it. So reading up and learning about the history of the region has not only been a real eye-opener, but made me almost physically disgusted. Like most Latin American countries they have suffered the consequences of what is known as the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine is a fundamental pillar of US foreign policy. Named after US president James Monroe who in 1823 declared that the USA would not tolerate European powers meddling in the affairs of the newly-independent American countries and would view any attempt at recolonisation as an act of aggression. Put this way that seems like a reasonable point of view: colonial empires stay away and let these people use their new-found liberty. But over time, as the United States grew into a world power, this doctrine morphed from being a tool to stop European dominance to one of asserting US dominion and right to step-in in the case of "flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation" (of course, the definition of wrongdoing is to be determined by the US and kept secret from anyone else). So, in effect, the United States set itself up as judge, jury and policeman of all of the Americas. Of course I knew of the right-wing dictatorships of Pinochet, Videla and Stroessner in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, that were heavily supported by America, but it seems that the countries of Central America, perhaps because they are closer or that they are smaller and weaker, have found it almost impossible to pull clear of US hegemony. And despite declarations to the contrary, American intervention rarely ever turns out to be in the best interests of the civilian population.

Central American point of view on US involvement in the region (caption in the Santa Rosa museum).

This blog post is going to be a little longer, and more fact-heavy than usual, as I plan to go into some historical details. I suppose I could just put up a link to a website with "A Concise History of Central America", but I doubt many people would bother to read it. Learning about the region's tormented history has been an integral part of my time here, and without understanding it many of the things I have seen and heard would have lost their significance. So anyway, I will take a few episodes from Nicaragua's history (although, to be honest, I could pick any country here and the litany of cases of popular hope and progress dashed at the altar of short-term US expediency) to illustrate how US involvement in Nicaragua has been lengthy, and rarely anything but negative for Nicaragua(ns). I'll start in the 1850's, some 30 years after independence with ongoing struggles between Liberals and Conservatives. (Liberals and Conservatives are the labels given to the two major, antagonistic political movements that existed throughout the newly-independent Spanish colonies, but are not exactly equivalent to what we may understand by those terms today.) The Liberal faction hired an American mercenary, William Walker, to help them in their struggle against the Conservatives. After helping the Liberals win he made himself head of the army and then president in quick succession. Although acting independently of official US sanction, the American government was quick to recognise the legitimacy of this usurpation of power. Walker then set about trying to Americanise the country by introducing slavery and making English the official language before biting off more than he could chew by trying to conquer the whole of Central America, before being defeated by the Costa Ricans.*

The Santa Rosa hacienda, site of William Walker's defeat at the hands of Costa Rican forces.

The American Civil War decreased US intervention in Nicaragua until 1909, when the country started looking for foreign countries to invest in undertaking the construction of a trans-isthmian canal. The United States was in the process of building its own in Panama and did not take too kindly to competition. In 1909 a pretext (the death of a couple of American mercenaries) was found for sending in US marines. The US maintained a military presence in the country until 1933, during which it was the power behind the throne whose support determined the rise and fall of presidents. The United States got what it came for though, with American fruit companies consolidating their vast landholdings in the east of the country to quench the new thirst for bananas, and the signing of a treaty that gave it exclusive rights in perpetuity to build a canal across Nicaragua - a canal it had no intention of building, but that it didn't anyone else to build either. The meddling inevitably riled a few people, including one Augusto Sandino who started up his own little guerrilla army to try and get the Yanquis out. Sandino was a continual thorn in the side of the marines stationed in Nicaragua, although militarily he didn't achieve that much (except perhaps provide the opportunity for the US air force to become the second country to attack a civilian population with airplanes, when they bombed the town of Esteli in 1927. In the end the Depression and economics proved a more effective weapon, and in 1933 the Americans pulled out the last of their troops. Now that Sandino has no cassus belli he agreed to hold talks about a cessation of hostilities. Whilst attending peace talks with the president, Sandino, despite being guaranteed safe passage, was kidnapped and executed by the US-trained national guard run by Anastasio Somoza. Within two years Somoza had made himself president and set about instigating Latin America's longest-serving dictatorship that only fell 44 years later with the toppling of his son in 1979. The brutal Somoza regime has the full backing of the United States pretty much from the get go and Anastasio was FDR's famous bastard ("he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard").

My guide in the museum of the revolution in Leon showing me his veteran's card. This being a relatively recent conflict there are many people around who remember it well, and he told me about his training in Cuba as well as the liberation of Leon.

The Sandinista resistance movement was founded in the 60's and started limited operations against the Somoza regime. In 1972 a massive earthquake flattened Managua, and Somoza Jnr embezzled almost all of the aid money for reconstruction. This was the straw that broke the camel's back and definitively put most of the population in the Sandinista camp. The insurrection escalated until 1979 when Somoza Jnr finally fled the country, getting on a plane for Miami, where the US authorities decided to refuse entry to their erstwhile pawn seeing that he was now an international pariah (Somoza Jnr eventually ended up in Paraguay where fellow dictator Stroessner gave him asylum). The incoming Reagan administration couldn't tolerate any non-right-wing-dictatorships in Latin America and so started funding and arming the ex-national guard, the so-called Contras, on the pretext that the Sandinistas were receiving help from Cuba (which, although true, is no reason to start a full-blown proxy war in someone else's country).Congress was not so gung-ho as Reagan in arming the Contras, so a complex system was set up whereby arms were illicitly sold to Iran (despite the US's own embargo) and the profits used to fund the Contras. Of course the CIA made some extra money with some drug smuggling on the side. The Contra War lasted until 1989, cost some 30,000 lives, and sent the country back decades. (For those of you who have found my little history too superficial and want some more in depth reading - you masochists you - the library of congress has a detailed country study online that you can peruse at your leisure.)

The Sandinista (Frente Sandinisata de Liberacion Nacional) colours of red and black can be seen prominently displayed throughout Nicaragua. The party is currently in power since 2006 (having lost the first three elections after the war) and is undeniably popular.

All in all not a very flattering report card for US foreign policy in its "near abroad". However, not wanting this post to be a completely pessimistic piece, I want to share a recent revelation that lit up like a eureka moment for me when I compared an English Wikipedia page with its Spanish counterpart (although I was not that surprised to see that I was far from the first person to come to the same realisation). When travelling around Latin America and talking to locals you will inevitably be confronted by a variation on "I hate it when people of the USA are referred to as Americans. I'm American too!" When asked what term should be used instead they will often say Norteamericano (North American) or Estadounidense (United Statesian - it also sounds unwieldy in Spanish, but not as bad as the English translation). But borth of these terms are just as problematic when viewed objectively: North America starts at Panama's border with Colombia and ends at Canada's Arctic shores, whereas there are two United States in North America, those of America, and those of Mexico (the official name of Mexico is the United States of Mexico, which makes it even more strange when this suggestion is proposed by Mexicans). The root of the problem though lies in a difference of definitions. for anglophones there are two continents, North America and South America divided by the Darien gap, and together they can be referred to as the Americas. For hispanophones there is only one, indivisible continent called America that stretches all the way from Alaska to the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego. So in English there is actually no real, defined entity America, which makes it alright to apply it to people from the USA, whereas in Spanish America applies to everyone in the western hemisphere, hence their, understandable, disgruntlement. It just goes to show that in any argument it's important to agree on terms and definitions before you start slinging mud.

*The footnote to the story is that Walker managed to make his way back to the States where he was lauded as a hero for trying to bring the American Dream to the uninitiated. He then regrouped, rearmed and tried to invade again in 1860, though this time setting his sights initially on Honduras where he was caught by the British, handed over to the Hondurans and summarily executed.

First place though goes to the British who, in 1920, bombed Taleh in northern Somalia. (Ah, the interesting, yet completely useless nuggets of information that get unearthed as I research the facts for my blog - because, believe it or not, I try and make sure that what I write is as factually accurate as possible, so a lot of time is spent trawling the net to try and get the facts straight.)


ASV said...

And you said it was going to be long...could have read more. Very interesting

Erik said...

Aww, thanks for that. I'm glad you liked it. History is one of the things that continually fascinate me. Interestingly I was reading up on Guatemalan history today (got to keep one step ahead) and honestly, it's almost exactly the same as Nicaragua's, only with a little less drugs and more massacring of indigenous populations.