‘Backyard’ Four Years Later
Reagan's Responses to Troubled Region
No news story during president Reagan's first term occupied the American press so continuously or troubled the American people more than the bloody fighting in Central America. Increased American involvement there, together with the invasion of Grenada, raised the specter of “another Vietnam.” An official response was slowly shaped that would define a region of special U.S. interest, the “Caribbean Basin,” and new policies to deal with it. These would combine a much-increased military presence and a new region-wide program of American economic assistance to be called the “Caribbean Basin Initiative” (CBI), now just a year old. Many believed both the military and economic thrusts were inevitable. In this region, wrote Robert W. Tucker in Foreign Affairs, “our pride is engaged as it cannot possibly be engaged in Africa or Southeast Asia.”
When Reagan took office in 1981, Nicaragua's Sandinista government was well into its second year and appeared to be slipping steadily into a Marxist format, while Cuban-sympathizing governments had taken power by coups in Grenada in the Caribbean and Suriname on the South American mainland. El Salvador was reeling under the so-called “final offensive” by leftist guerrillas and was losing the public relations battle in the United States. The killing of three nuns and a Catholic lay worker in 1979 had underscored the brutality of the country's right-wing goons and death squads, while unproven charges of guerrilla atrocities were written off as propaganda. To the north, Guatemala was in the throes of a guerrilla war of its own, and for the first time in history leftist agitation appeared to be penetrating that country's normally apolitical Indian masses.
Rightly or wrongly, President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig saw a planned regional pattern of Soviet-Cuban subversion and takeover that directly threatened the United States “in its own back yard.” A year later The Economist, the London-based magazine, would write: “The fires in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala did not ignite in swift succession by accident.…They seem to be flowing together in a single isthmus-wide conflagration.”