The End of an Era: The Cold War in El Salvador and Cuba

Fifty years after the Cuban revolution took Latin America by storm, El Salvador became the last Latin American country to restore bilateral relations with Havana. When President Mauricio Funes took office in June, he immediately restored diplomatic ties with the island. The reengagement marks the beginning of the end for the hemispheric Cold War alliances constructed by Washington.

July 8, 2009

On June 3, media commentary focused on the historical importance of the Organization of American States’ decision to lift its 1962 suspension of Cuba. But another historical milestone had taken place just two days earlier. When newly-elected Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes was sworn in on June 1, he promptly announced the reestablishment of his country's relations with “our sister nation of Cuba.” Fifty years after the Cuban revolution took Latin America by storm, El Salvador became the last Latin American nation to restore bilateral relations with Havana.

The move marks the end of an era. With the Central American country's reengagement, the hemispheric Cold War alliances first constructed by Washington in the early 1960s to contain the Cuban-inspired revolutionary have finally come undone.

The 1960s had brought an abrupt end to a period of promise. In the 1950s, the hemisphere was still flooded with idealism over post-war democratic openings. Revolutionary movements for social democracy emerged in Central America and the Caribbean – that is, in plantation America – which had largely missed the nationalist push for development and industrialization that took place elsewhere in Latin America in the preceding decades. The election of the social reformer Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1951 and the rise of the Cuban revolutionary movement in 1956 were among the more forceful bids for modernization.

But by then, the U.S. government’s post-war emphasis on democracy had given way to Cold War fears over Communism. Also fueling Washington's ensuing interventions was the perceived threat posed by reformers to U.S. business interests. Counter-revolutions backed by Washington in Guatemala in 1954 and in Cuba in 1961 had vastly different outcomes, pushing Cuba toward Soviet-sponsored socialism and Guatemala toward decades of civil war. But together, these interventions established the dynamics of the Cold War in the region for the next 50 years.

El Salvador, which shares a border with Guatemala, soon felt the tremors of political change. According to historian Joaquín Chávez, when a reformist junta took power in El Salvador in 1960, Washington feared the new government would not be strong enough to contain the Cuban-inspired left and encouraged a right-wing military coup. The military putsch effectively eliminated the political center and established the foreground for the civil war that devastated the country from 1980 to 1992. “Prior to this, there had been a number of coups in the 1940s, but they were intra-elite conflicts,” Chávez explains. "After the coup of 1960, the whole restructuring of the state apparatus responded directly to U.S. Cold War politics, which basically created a counter-insurgent state.”

As revolutionary movements spread throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cuban government sporadically tried to bolster insurrectionary groups, including El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Yet it also called for negotiated settlements, to no avail. Convinced that the Central American conflicts were fanned by Soviet and Cuban incursions, Ronald Reagan and his allies waged a punishing counter-insurgent campaign in the region. By the time of the 1992 peace accords, the war in El Salvador had claimed some 70,000 lives.

Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. government strategy toward Latin America emphasized economic integration through free trade, the regulation of migration, and the war on drugs. But Cuba and El Salvador seemed to be the two Latin American countries where the Cold War lived on.

The alliance between U.S. Republicans and militant anti-Castro exiles in Florida that had been solidified during the Reagan administration bore fruit with representatives who helped swing congressional and public opinion against the liberalization of relations with Cuba after the fall of the USSR. And in El Salvador, Washington backed the right-wing ARENA party, which had risen to power as a bulwark against Communism during the civil war.

Despite Funes’ careful pronouncements of political moderation as he took office, the new electoral power of the FMLN marks a historical watershed in El Salvador. After decades of civil war and right-wing rule, the left gained power in one of the countries perhaps most punished by the ravages of the Cold War. If Funes had international audiences in mind when he proclaimed himself inspired by moderate figures such as President Lula in Brazil and even Barack Obama, then the swift renewal of diplomatic ties with Cuba sent an important message to Funes’ constituents on the left.

It remains unclear what the immediate repercussions of resumed bilateral relations with Cuba will be. For example, there is no sign yet of whether El Salvador might utilize Cuba’s medical or educational programs, as Venezuela and Bolivia have. It may at first simply facilitate the business relations that were already budding under ARENA’s rule.

Just as Washington's diplomatic stonewalling of Cuba has not prevented elements of the U.S. agricultural sector from entering Cuban markets, some Salvadoran businesses have also established a presence on the island since the opening of the Cuban economy to foreign investment in the 1990s. For example, the Salvadoran airline TACA provides international service to Cuba and even internal flights within the island. Additionally, some Salvadoran elites have traveled to Cuba for tourism or medical treatment since the Cuban government began promoting those sectors in the 1990s.

Diplomatic rapprochement may at least slightly allay decades of ARENA-fed fears about Cuban-style socialism. Joaquín Chávez notes that ARENA's anti-Cuban scare mongering has influenced large portions of the population that had no first-hand knowledge of life on the island. He adds that myths about the supposed horrors of life in Cuba – for example, the rumor that the Cuban government abrogated parents’ rights to their children – were a key pillar of anti-Communism in El Salvador.

Like other right-wing parties in Latin America, ARENA engaged in a politics of fear, warning voters that if the FMLN ever won elections, El Salvador would be “just like Cuba.” So one effect of improved contact between the two nations may be to give a broad swath of Salvadorans a different perspective on life on the island. “It’s not that they would necessarily bring back an idealistic vision,” Chávez says, “but that they might bring a more realistic vision of what Cuba is about.”

Michelle Chase is NACLA Research Associate and a doctoral candidate in the history department of New York University.


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