Challenging Militarism In Central America

An area torn by the effects of militaristic policies
presents many opportunities for positive action

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 50
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

In the short-term, what steps can a person take to help hasten the end of militarism? Along with working to change consciousness, one can also work to change policy. For Americans, there is no more critical theater of militarism than Central America, where innocent millions daily feel the impact of war and political violence. We are in a position to reduce the suffering in that region by trying to influence our government’s actions, and by acting in concert to make a direct, positive impact on our troubled neighbors’ lives.

Lila Forest here maps out a variety of strategies to do just that, and gives us a broad overview of the status quo in Central America based on her recent travels there.

I recently returned from two weeks of travel in Nicaragua, and I am writing this article from the perspective of that experience. It was my second trip to Central America this year; in January, I spent three weeks in Costa Rica. I learned a great deal in my travels about the extent and influence of the military presence and strategy of the United States in all the countries of Central America.

During my stay in Costa Rica, I spent three days in the capital city of San José, listening to briefings by historians, theologians, and others with academic and personal expertise in the history, economics, politics, and theology of the Central American region. From these talks emerged an integrated and far-reaching picture of foreign domination and exploitation of the people of the area by a succession of major powers, beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 15th century and continuing into our era. This picture was fleshed out and made achingly real as I travelled in Costa Rica and later in Nicaragua.

In the latter country, I visited government offices, a coffee plantation, an extremely poor barrio in the city of Leon, a middle-of-the-road newspaper, a university, and a hospital. I spoke with representatives of the national women’s and youth organizations, campesinos (farmers and agricultural workers), journalists, government officials, students, and poor and middle-class people.

I saw how critical and, in the midst of great suffering, hopeful the present situation is. There is emerging in the region a sense of the possibility of autonomy and self-determination, as well as a desire to work out the differences between nations in the region without the interference of the United States or other foreign powers. The Arias Peace Plan is the most visible and concrete evidence of this growing sense. It also became clear to me that the real threat that the government of Nicaragua poses to the government United States is that it is committed to controlling its own affairs, and to placing the well-being of its people above the business, political, or military interests of foreign powers or the Nicaraguan privileged class.

The specific objectives and methods of U.S. foreign policy are different for each country in Central America, although the overall intent is one: to protect the interests of North American business and to maintain political control in the region. In Panama, the strategy seems to be one of de-stabilizing government and society so as to maintain a controlling influence in Panamanian affairs and control over the Canal. In Costa Rica, economic and political pressure is being applied to weaken support among the Costa Rican people for the Arias Peace Plan and to achieve the U.S. aim of re-establishing a standing army in Costa Rica, which has been without one since the 1940s, an achievement of which Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) are justifiably proud. In Nicaragua, the contra, created, trained, and supported by the U.S. government, continues to pressure the Nicaraguan people and government through war and terrorism in an attempt to force the Sandinista government to succumb to U.S. control. In El Salvador, American economic and military aid props up a weak but oppressive government that would be unable to stand without such aid. And so on for each of the countries of the region.

The situation will probably continue in this vein until one (or a combination) of the following scenarios evolves:

1) Faced by a growing movement towards cooperation and autonomy among the nations of Central America, Washington policymakers realize that this extremely costly strategy isn’t working, and that we can’t afford to continue;

2) A new administration comes to power with a different viewpoint on how to achieve the goal of peace, stability, and economic recovery in the region;

3) U.S. citizens become more aware of the realities of the Central American situation and pressure the government to change its policy.

I do hope and indeed believe that the tide of militarism in the world will turn, and that U.S. policy in Central America can and will change for the better. I also feel that those of us who desire an end to militarism must make a personal commitment to some form of positive action toward that end. For those, like myself, who feel particularly strongly about U.S. policy in Central America, action can occur on two fronts: to work to change the policy, and to contribute to positive action by non-governmental groups in Central America.


What can an individual do to help change destructive and unsuccessful policies? The first step is to become well-informed. There are many periodicals, books, and organizations available to help one to learn more about the history, politics, economics, and current developments in U.S.- Central American relations. The more one reads and listens, the more complete one’s understanding becomes. And of course, there’s no substitute for direct experience. Many groups offer short trips to various Central American countries.

Another step is to facilitate others’ increased awareness about U.S. involvement in Central America. This can be done by talking informally with friends and family, and by facilitating events in one’s community. Speakers from development and peace organizations are available to speak to churches, schools, neighborhood meetings, and other community gatherings.

A very important part of influencing government to change policy is to establish a direct and ongoing relationship with your U.S. senators and congressional representatives. You can find out from their local offices when they will be in town and make an appointment for yourself (and perhaps other like-minded people) to meet with them face to face to discuss Central America. If you have done your homework and can demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about events and conditions in the region, you may have considerable influence.

If your representative is already convinced that U.S. policy is correct, it’s important that that not dissuade you from meeting, writing letters, and maintaining a continuing dialogue. Dealing with this situation, one has the opportunity to live the principles of conflict resolution and other concepts that are essential if we as a human family are to move away from militarism. It is important to see from the other’s point of view, to be respectful, to listen, and to present one’s ideas without judgment, anger, or blame (as much as possible!). This can be extremely difficult, especially when one is well-informed and has had personal experience of the hardships faced by people in Central America as a result of U.S. policies. It is challenging to be patient and persistent, but that is what is required. Blessed are the peacemakers!


There are other means of working to effect policy change which demand a higher level of personal commitment and risk. Each of us has a responsibility to search our hearts and minds carefully and to determine the level of commitment and the arenas of action that are right for us personally. Once this is clear, it is important that we meet our commitment with joy and with a clear conscience. To feel guilty that our commitment is not greater is counter-productive. There are billions of us in this human family, and each has his/her role to play in our unfolding story. A good piece of advice I’ve come across recently is to "find your territory and cover it."

Resistance to the payment of taxes for military expenditure is one form of action which requires greater personal commitment. There are various forms of war tax resistance: some refuse payment of the federal tax on telephone service (which is a military tax), others pledge to begin refusing payment of a portion of their federal income tax when a total of 100,000 people have pledged to do the same, and others are already withholding a part of their federal income tax. Some use the money not paid in taxes to help with development work in Nicaragua and other countries affected by U.S. military policy. There is a network of war tax resistance groups which offers support and information to resisters. Several have cooperative funds for assistance with tax penalties assessed as a result of nonpayment, and some have trust funds in which money may be deposited in lieu of taxes.

Another form of peaceful non-cooperation is in demonstrations and other such gatherings at places where weapons and military equipment are manufactured, stored, or shipped. These actions cover a broad range of risk and personal commitment. The most notable personal sacrifice made in this form of action was Brian Wilson’s loss of both his legs when a munitions train in Concord, CA – carrying weapons bound for Central America, and blocked by a barricade of protestors who had been a continuous presence on the tracks – for the first time did not stop, but rolled over him before he could jump to safety. Others have carried on this vigil, so that there is a constant and enduring presence for peace at Concord.

Many have doubts about this kind of action, as it can be seen as negative. My own view is that one’s consciousness and attitude determine whether the action is negative or positive. When one approaches participation in a demonstration with a peaceful heart, with respect for the persons one encounters on both "sides" of the situation, and with a sense of joy and the creation of a new and better reality, the action is positive.

I feel that it is essential to remember always that one’s action is in resistance to the government policy and not to the individuals carrying it out. There are many stories in the lore of peace groups of government employees touched by peace actions to such a degree that they have questioned and eventually abandoned their own participation in militaristic policies. This can happen only when they are treated as brothers and sisters by demonstrators, rather than as evil adversaries.


Through a multitude of many development, peace, church, and special purpose organizations working in Central America, there are opportunities to contribute in many ways toward self-sufficiency, literacy, better health and nutrition, education, child welfare, human rights, and so on. One can contribute financial support, and help to disseminate information about their work. And, if time and money permit, one can travel to Central America for two or three weeks (or longer) and get involved in projects there, such as building housing and schools, working for health care and education, picking coffee, or programming computers.

There’s an unexpected benefit to this option, as everyone I’ve met who’s done this agrees, and that is making friends with the people there. One finds a surprising degree of openness, friendliness, generosity and trust, surprising because one hadn’t realized how much these qualities are lacking or covered over as a general rule in our culture. Somehow, in developing our world of affluence and comfort, we’ve also developed a certain degree of suspicion and caution towards strangers that is not found in Central American countries (at least in Costa Rica and Nicaragua) to the same degree. When I am there, my heart is more open, and I find myself responding to strangers in an entirely different way than I do here.


Working with others toward positive ends in Central America, or here in the United States, or anywhere in the world, can help us to develop the qualities of cooperation, commitment, friendliness, generosity, and trust – qualities that are required of all of us, if we are to bring an end to militarism. As with all that we do, changes in the world begin with changes in ourselves.

And if we wish to help create a world that is humane and sustainable, we must be able to envision such a world. We can use our creativity to hold that vision in whatever ways are appropriate for us, whether through prayer, meditation, reflection, or affirmation, and we can make the dream specific through writing, artistic creation, and ongoing conversation with others who share our faith in a developing planet and a maturing human family. As the vision becomes strong in our eyes, minds, and hearts, it can become a blueprint for the future. As we dream, so will we become.



Oxfam America * 115 Broadway, Boston, MA 02116, (617) 482-1211 * Development projects worldwide enabling people to become self-sufficient in food production. Books, pamphlets, occasional tours.

Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) * 145 9th St., San Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 864-8555 * Educational materials, "Reality Tours."

APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua) * PO Box 1151 Topanga, CA 90290, (213) 455-1340 * Delegations of volunteers to Nicaragua to build housing and schools.

TECNICA * 2727 College Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705, (415) 848-0292 * Delegations of volunteers to Nicaragua to work in computers, electronics, economics, etc.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee * 78 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108-3497, (617) 742-2120 * Health care workers in Honduras and Nicaragua; publications on Central America. Excellent materials for study groups on Central America.

American Friends Service Committee * 2249 E. Burnside, Portland, OR 97217, (503) 230-9427 * Education in U.S. in non-intervention, with specific outreach to the Latino community and high school and youth groups; community delegations to Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Witness for Peace * PO Box 33273, Washington, DC 20033, (202) 797-1160 * Groups from U.S. churches travel to Nicaragua to learn about the situation firsthand, inform their congregations, and provide protection by their presence in areas of attack by the contra.

Friends Peace Center (Centro del los Amigos para la Paz) * Apartado 1507, 1000 San José, Costa Rica * Active in Costa Rican peace activities and education; bimonthly newsletter of Central American peace issues.

EPOCA (Environmental Project on Central America) * Earth Island Institute 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666 * Environmental restoration brigades to Nicaragua, aid to environmental projects, environmental education, publications.

Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America (PACCA) * Suite 2, 1506 19th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 332-6333 * Association of scholars and policymakers to promote humane and democratic alternatives to present U.S. policy in Central America and the Caribbean. Books, pamphlets.

National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) * PO Box 85810, Seattle, WA 98145, (206) 522-4377 * Info and support for tax resisters.


Mesoamerica * Mesoamerica Fulfillment Office, PO Box 11806, Birmingham, AL 35202 * Monthly; published by the Institute for Central American Studies in Costa Rica; $48/year individuals, $32 students/seniors, $70 orgs. Summary of political and economic events in every Central American country. Some analysis.

envio * Central American Historical Institute Intercultural Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057 * Monthly; published by the Instituto Histórico Centroamericano, an educational center of the Jesuits of Central America; in-depth articles on humanitarian and peace issues. $27/year individual, $50 organizations.

Nicaragua Through Our Eyes * Through Our Eyes Publications PO Box 4403-159 Austin, TX 78765 * Approx. 10 issues/year; published by North Americans living and working in Nicaragua. $14/year, $22 non-U.S.

The Christian Science Monitor * PO Box 11202, Des Moines, IA 50340-1202, (800) 456-2220 * Daily; consistently complete and (comparatively) unbiased reporting on events in Central America and the rest of the world. $144/yr.

NACLA Report on the Americas * 475 Riverside Drive, Room 454, New York, NY 10115 * Bimonthly; detailed coverage of Latin American issues. $20/year.


Central America Fact Book * Tom Barry and Deb Preusch, Grove Press, New York, 1986, $12.95. * Resource book of facts about aid and economic factors in all seven Central American countries. 357 pages.

Misery in the Name of Freedom: The United States in Nicaragua, 1909-1988 * Al Burke, Sea Otter Press, P.O. Box 4484, Rolling Bay, WA 98061, $8.95. * A very readable and penetrating history of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, with illustrations. 200 pages.

The Central American Crisis Reader * Robert S. Leiken and Barry Rubin, Summit Books, New York, 1987, $12.95. * History, economic and political analysis, focused on U.S. policy. 717 pages.

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey * Salman Rushdie, Viking, New York, 1987, $12.95. * A journalist from India goes to Nicaragua to investigate its economic and political realities firsthand. 171 pages.

Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace * Noam Chomsky, South End Press, Boston, 1985, $10. * Chomsky, a linguistics professor at M.I.T., is perhaps the best-known "dissident" on U.S. foreign policy issues. He backs up his analysis with hundreds of sources. 298 pages.

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