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The Soft War: The Uses and Abuses of U.S. Economic Aid in Central America.

The Soft War: The Uses and Abuses of U.S. Economic Aid in Central America.

While U.S. military aid to Central America makes headlines, there is little controversy about U.S. economic aid. Aid is good, says conventional liberal wisdom. Not so fast, say Barry and Preusch: not only does U.S. aid not help the poor, it strengthens the very sectors of society that block development. They argue that Central America would be better off without it.

Take Low Intensity Conflict, the Reagan administration's policy to deal with left-wing guerrillas, which combines military action with massive development programs to win the proverbial hearts and minds. It may be low intensity from the Pentagon's point of view; in Central America it seems awfully high intensity. In Costa Rica and Honduras, economic aid buys government toleration of the contras. Development is just one more part of the military campaign; politics has become the continuation of war by other means. Hence the Agency for International Development (AID) builds roads eight kilometers from the Nicaraguan border in contra-controlled northern Costa Rica, rebuilds bridges almost as fast as the Salvadoran guerrillas can blow them up, and sets up model villages in the Guatemalan highlands where that country's guerrillas find their support.

Where AID used to at least talk about helping peasants get land to grow their own food, it now encourages the opposite: large, privately owned plantations for efficiency in growing strawberries or snow peas for export. The problem is that while such trickle-down policies might work in a country where the wealthy feel a sense of social obligation and a responsibility to build and invest, this is not a description of Central America. Less than 3 percent of the citizens of El Salvador pay taxes. I went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in San Salvador where the government presented a plan to win support in war zones by providing electricity and hospitals. Chamber members attacked it as "the road to socialism."

The United States has always been taken in by anyone with the wit to say, as Anastasio Somoza did in 1979, "My ideals are basically the ideals the average North American has, and Nicaragua has similar interests to the United States." That he said it in English polished at West Point was even better. The rich in Latin America speak English and play golf and drink Bloody Marys. We feel close to them and think they are like us, even when they are the people who ensure that Latin America is nothing like the United States. One of the greatest obstacles to development in Latin America is that the rich, the people who can help their countries grow, take their money to Miami at the first sign that growth might help the poor. The life of the poor will not change while the United States--the only actor to whom the rich might listen--continues to reward such blackmail.
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Author:Rosenberg, Tina
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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