With high poverty rates, political instability, and proximity to the United States and Cuba, Central America proved to be a fertile ground for the ideological and military struggles of the Cold War. As civil wars ensued in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Central America also became the focus of much of the human rights movement in the 1980s.
George Lister kept a close eye on developments in Central America, and he was sensitive to how U.S. policymakers and diplomats viewed the region. His concern with U.S. paternalism is evident in a memorandum in which he expresses frustration with constant references to the region as ''our backyard.'' When someone in the Bureau suggested Lister's concerns might be allayed by referring to Central America as ''our frontyard,'' Lister was not appeased. ''The offensive words are 'our yard' Lister wrote in a follow-up memo. ''Can't we just refer to Central America as 'our neighbor' and to its inhabitants as 'our neighbors?' That would be better manners, less provincial, and much smarter politically.''
As in other parts of the world, Lister pursued and maintained contacts with members of the democratic opposition. Several of those opposition leaders, such as Miguel d'Escoto of Nicaragua and Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, later became officials of their governments. In both cases, Lister was critical of the ensuing governments.
In fact, political and military circumstances in Central America in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s brought into sharp relief some tensions between Lister's pro-democracy, even-handed human rights approach and his Cold-War strategies. Nicaragua provided the greatest example of these tensions, as Lister's position shifted over time and in relationship to different audiences.
Human rights activists during the Carter years were concerned about perceived U.S. support for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. As Somoza's regime was crumbling, Lister tried to build mutual understanding between the State Department and representatives of the Nicaraguan opposition. A series of memos from June 1979 shows that Lister convinced his superiors to meet with Nicaraguan opposition leader Miguel d'Escoto, whom Lister had already known for a dozen years. d'Escoto would become Foreign Minister of Nicaragua when the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front unseated Somoza's government.
When the Reagan administration later took a hard line against the Sandinista government, even supporting a right-wing insurgency, Lister urged his colleagues in the Bureau not to hyperbolize Nicaragua's human rights violations. At the same time, Lister encouraged human rights activists in the United States to apply the same standards to the Sandanista government as they did to other governments in the region.
Over time, as Lister became increasingly critical of the Sandanista government, he sometimes reverted to a Cold War mindset. Lister once pointed, for example, to indications of an alignment of the Sandinista government with the North Korean government as providing a perfect opportunity for the United States to exploit against the Sandinistas.