Well first of all, let me say that the El Salvadorian [sic] troops are doing an absolutely terrific job. Your people should be very proud of how they have handled themselves. It is not what [you’re] doing for the United States or doing for the CPA. It is what [you’re] doing for the Iraqi people, a people who have been oppressed for so many years. My friends in El Salvador know about oppression. So these people were oppressed for so many years by Saddam Hussein and he’s been removed, but now they need help. They need to help to establish the right conditions for democracy.
Secretary of State Colin Powell in an interview with La Prensa Grafica’s Alex Aillan
It is always a bad sign when impoverished countries with much to lose pack up and leave their hegemonic masters behind in battle. Last week, El Salvador’s fellow partners in the Spanish-led Brigada Plus Ultra began their withdrawal from Iraq. In a surprise move, Honduran president Ricardo Maduro called home his country’s 368 troops, and the Dominican Republic announced the pullout of its 302 troops. Citing cost and combat dangers, leaders in both countries attempted to play up and play down the withdrawal simultaneously, wanting credit for a modest display of backbone to domestic constituencies opposed to the war, but also seeking to avoid the wrath of U.S. overlords.
The paradox of Honduran, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan and Dominican troops being sent to support another U.S.-initiated regime change is depressing but certainly not remarkable. The reasons why the Dominican Republic or El Salvador or, up until March 2004, Nicaragua sent troops to Iraq had little to do with officials’ keenness to bring free speech and elections to the Middle East. After all, some of the military elites who signed off on the troop order in 2003 are the same people who spent decades undermining elections and mowing down peasants and trade unionists who spoke their minds about a lack of democracy at home.
What presumably was on the minds of right-wing presidents of some of the hemisphere’s poorest countries was leverage with the metropole. Countries that until recently spent fifty to seventy percent of federal budgets paying foreign creditors need to maintain some modest concessions extended to them under debt relief programs. Then there is bilateral aid to think about. With so little left in the coffers for the civil service or for health care, even the most basic infrastructure that gets built comes from the U.S. State Department. In Central America, the Central American Free Trade Agreement was in the final stages of negotiation, and ratification in the U.S. Congress was still uncertain. Though NAFTA has done Mexico no measurable good in the last ten years, the idea of an export-powered economy nonetheless fuels high hopes, at least among those wealthy enough to buy imports in return. Finally, in countries increasingly dependent on remittances from nationals working in the U.S., immigration reforms in the U.S. are a matter of high priority to foreign governments. In Honduras and Nicaragua, for example, forty percent of the working population has left to work abroad. Fully 24 percent of Nicaragua’s GDP is money sent home to families from the U.S. in packets of cash averaging about $200. Meanwhile, over half of the population remains below the poverty line.
Certainly, leaders speak diplomatically for the soldiers, but one wonders what might have been said if language barriers and barbed wire had not separated Iraqis from Central American and Caribbean Coalition fighters. If rank-and-file soldiers from Central America and the Dominican Republic had had the opportunity to speak with Iraqis, they undoubtedly would have a great deal to say to one another. Dominicans and Nicaraguans, for example, might have advised their Iraqi hosts that American occupation is seldom a short-term affair. They too have had experience with American occupations done in the name of restoring order and installing democracy. If their histories are a guide, they might well have told Iraqis about humanitarian missions scheduled for a few months that instead took years and installed dictatorships that carried out campaigns of terror against domestic opposition. Hondurans and El Salvadorans might well have a word with the Iraqis about hog-tied electoral democracies where citizens vote for one of two parties every four or five years, but in which civilian leaders obey U.S.-controlled militaries or face armed dismissal. They also would have told them about U.S.-Latin American joint military exercises, the School of the Americas, and permanent U.S. bases on their soil. Most importantly, they all would have warned Iraqis that future oil profits were not likely to stay in Iraq. Halliburton is to Iraq as Chiquita is to Honduras.
Had a private conference been arranged between Plus Ultra soldiers and their coerced hosts, pitched hilarity might have characterized their discussion of John Negroponte as Paul Bremer’s replacement as administrator of the U.S. occupation government in Iraq. Negroponte, currently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, served as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, a period during which U.S. military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $77.4 million. During that time, Ambassador Negroponte deep-sixed reports of abductions, disappearances and killings at the hands of a special intelligence unit called Batallion 316. Negroponte also supervised the creation of the El Aguacate air base, where the US trained Nicaraguan Contras and where the military secretly detained and tortured Honduran dissidents, according to eyewitness testimony cited in a 1993 report by the National Commission for Human Rights in Honduras. In August 2001, excavations at the base discovered 28 corpses, including two Americans, who are thought to have been killed and buried at the site.
Finally, if Latin American troops had any further words of caution to say to Iraqis, they might well show them how little their countries’ cooperation is worth to the U.S. after so many decades of subservience. Despite now fully compliant governments that have dutifully guarded U.S. multinational properties, dropped tariffs, extended generous tax holidays to firms, suppressed wages, headed off union organization, and reversed land reform, thank you’s seem to be in short supply. Ironically, the biggest consideration for Latin American coalition governments in the recent troop pullout was lack of funds. Apparently the U.S. has asked its coalition members to pony up money as well as the cannon fodder for its adventures abroad. In pulling out his troops several weeks ago, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños stated simply that his government lacked the $750,000 necessary to maintain their contingent of minesweepers in Iraq. While this pales in comparison to the $153 million his country paid in external debt service last year (on a total debt that is equivalent to 162 percent of its GDP), it is nonetheless money that might have better uses.
HEATHER WILLIAMS teaches political science at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She can be reached at: HLW04747@pomona.edu