It may be that the grotesque world of the small wars waged by the Reagan Administration in Central America has faded from public memory. Even at the time, there were never that many who were prepared to make the effort to distinguish between Nicaragua and El Salvador, let alone the even more obscure Honduras and Costa Rica. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States. The Vietnam War eventually engaged mass attention, not least because it was fought by a conscript army. But Central America remained a blur. Within the Administration, there was a continuum which ran between the two conflicts: Reagan's officials had pinned to the front of their minds the slogan 'Never another Cuba, never another Vietnam.' And of the personnel overlap one newspaper headline proclaimed: 'The gang that blew Vietnam goes Latin.' But in spite of Reagan's efforts to endow those sad little countries with the stature of a real threat to their giant northern neighbour, and, even more implausibly, to paint the sordid Contra forces in the heroic colours of America's founding fathers, the voters refused to be inspired, or even to get out the atlas. Central America was the President's favourite topic in his addresses to the nation, yet, relatively late in his Presidency, opinion polls reported that most US citizens were not sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys 'down there'. Asked to decide whether Daniel Ortega was a Mexican fast-food chain or the President of Nicaragua, a substantial majority opted for the tacos.
LRB 11 July 1991 | PDF Download