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Essay: U.S. Foreign Policy: Bush Snr. and Reagan

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Sierra Club

by Nicholas Klar

The Bush administration policy on Latin America was not dissimilar to Reagan policies in many ways. However it could be said that it was only a continuation of Reagan policies due to the fact that many of them were in the process of change anyway. Prior to Bush's inauguration the failure of many Reagan policies were being seen as a fait accompli. Like Reagan, Bush's rhetoric smacked heavily of the 'Vietnam Syndrome'.

Because of both Reagan’s and Bush’s apparent pre-occupation with the problems of Central America and Cuba, this paper will mainly focus on their policies affecting this area. Also this is the area that will most immediately be affected by the NAFTA agreement, and this also will be discussed. It will be concluded that it was new world realities, the decline of the Cold War, and the threat of instability in the third world that forcibly thrust change upon the Republican administrations.

Reagan never saw the Third World as anything more than an arena of the East-West struggle. [W.M. LeoGrande "Grappling with Central America" p.310] He saw his mission as one of ‘roll-back’ of communism. With the Soviet Bloc failing and the tide of public opinion building against Latin American policy, particularly in Central America, it appeared Bush’s Secretary-of-State Jim Baker wished to pursue a more pragmatic policy. [W.M. LeoGrande "From Reagan to Bush" p.196] This was to mean moving from a position desiring military victory, to one of negotiation

Baker advised President Bush to de-escalate the Central American conflict and overcome the divisiveness both in the U.S. and abroad. Bush felt secure enough with this to propose a bi-partisan approach to the majority Democrats in Congress. The consensus was delicately built and would later backfire on the President, forcing him to bow to Congress.

Both the Reagan and Bush administrations, played a large role in uniting the opposition in Nicaragua, then threatened that sanctions would not be lifted if the Sandinistas were returned. After Violeta Chammoro won she instituted a form of power sharing with the FSLN. The Bush administration immediately held up promised aid, supposedly on the pretext that arms were still flowing to El Salvadoran rebels, and also wanted Umberto Ortega fired as head of the military. Reactionaries in Congress, such as Jesse Helms, refused to allow any aid while Sandinistas were still in positions of power. [San Francisco Chronicle 9.29.92 pp.A9,A12]

In El Salvador the Democrats under Bush’s presidency were still supporting the leadership of Alfredo Christiani. The FMLN offensive and subsequent deaths of some Jesuit priests ignited a ground swell of support in the U.S. for policy reforms. In an unlikely scenario the Pentagon admitted it could not win militarily. Congress was pressed and the Democrats caved in, cutting military aid by half, and rupturing the bipartisan approach. With the Iran-Contra scandal still brewing, Bush could do little to pursue Reagan type policies.

The government reluctantly began to concentrate on economic rather than military solutions. Bush allocated $40 million of 'humanitarian aid' to the Contra forces in 1989, and chose not to allow his economic policies against Nicaragua to be discussed by Congress. [R. Bissio p.442] Although supporting the peace processes verbally, he still favored the hard line position. Some of the more liberal elements in Congress sensed this, threatening to upset some of the President's programs if he would not give firmer backing.

In the middle of all of this came the invasion of Panama and a huge propaganda campaign was waged in its justification. General Noriega was 'demonized', much as Sadaam Hussein would be during the Gulf War. Noriega was accused of being a drug dealer who needed to be brought to justice. However, quite clearly the U.S. was protecting what it deemed as strategic interests: the Panama Canal and its military bases. Bush failed to acknowledge the internal problems of drug usage within the U.S.

The Bush administration was also concerned over a growing nationalism, the encroachment of Japanese financial interests, and the general unreliability of 'their man' Noriega. Many other reasons were involved. Amongst these, George Bush had to 'prove' he was a strong leader in the mold of his predecessor, it was a warning to Nicaragua in the lead up to their elections, and it was a dry run for further 'interventions'.

On Cuba policy, Reagan was initially the most hostile administration toward Castro, though there was some thaw in relations later. [Wayne Smith "Washington and Havana" p.557, "U.S./Cuba Relations" pp.349,50] Like Reagan, Bush was prepared to keep up the threat of a Cuba invasion, but it was mainly political rhetoric and neither seriously contemplated this option. With the end of the Soviet subsidies to Cuba it was considered that the U.S. embargo would make the Cuban economy ‘scream’.

It could be argued that the Bush administration would have liked to have continued hardline Reagan policies but were not able to because of international pressures, public protest, and Democrat acquiescence to these. Bush was also under pressure from newly democratic governments in Latin America, and organizations like Contadora, the Rio Pact, and the OAS who were beginning to assert themselves more. The end of the Cold War had brought new realities, but the only changes that Bush was willing to undertake were those that had already been pre-empted, and those that he was pressured into.

NAFTA is a new cornerstone policy that has come as a result of the new world realities. The U.S., sensing it’s economic decline, and under pressure from Europe and Japan, wants to maintain it’s traditional ‘driver’s seat’ position in Latin America and the world economy. Bush, and now Clinton, perhaps failed to recognize that Latin America is now more interdependent with, rather than dependent on, the U.S. NAFTA is also considered a useful tool to control the ‘upstart’ Mexican government, and unionized labor.

With NAFTA the emphasis has turned again to economic, rather than military, domination. Cuba is the one continuous ‘triumphalist’ policy - the ‘unfinished business’ of the cold war, and the only country the U.S. can not forgive. The U.S. is intent on not resuming relations with Cuba until Fidel Castro, the man who has outlasted eight U.S. presidents, is replaced with a ‘democratic’ government. [New York Times 11.25.92 p.A5]


R.Bissio (Ed) 'Third World Guide 91/92' Uruguay:Instituto del Tercer Mundo

W.M. LeoGrande "Grappling with Central America: From Carter to Reagan" in M. Blachman, et al ‘Confronting Revolution’ Pantheon:NY

W.M. LeoGrande "From Reagan to Bush: The Transition in U.S. Policy Towards Central America" in ‘Journal of Latin American Studies’ October 1990

New York Times 11.25.92

San Francisco Chronicle 9.29.92 pp.A9,A12

W. Smith "Washington and Havana:Time for Dialogue" in World Policy Journal Summer 1990

W. Smith "U.S.-Cuba Relations:Twenty-Five Years of Hostility" in S.Halebsky and J.Kueh (Ed.) ‘Cuba’ N.Y:Praeger 1985

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "U.S. Foreign Policy: Bush Snr. and Reagan" - + date accessed

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