A new US plan for long-term aid to Central America and the Caribbean could produce positive political results for the Reagan administration, both at home and abroad.
This is one of the thoughts behind such a plan, at this moment still in the making. It would be designed in part to help generate support from the American public and from America's European allies for Reagan administration policy in the region.
The plan would obviously be aimed primarily at countering Soviet and Cuban influence in the region. But officials say it also will have a "positive" and forward-looking economic side.
Some sectors of both the US and Western European publics have become alarmed that Reagan administration responses to crises in the region, particularly toward El Salvador, have been too heavily focused on the East-West aspect of these crises and on military solutions to them. Opposition to American involvement in El Salvador both in Western Europe and in the United States has been stronger than most US officials anticipated.
A long-term plan that emphasized economic aid as well as military assistance might take some of the heat off the administration. It might make its designs more acceptable to some of its friends and less objectionable to some of its enemies.
The talk of such aid to Central America and the Caribbean results partly from consultation between West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Reagan administration officials during the Schmidt visit here last week. Chancellor Schmidt has been an advocate of a "mini-Marshall Plan" for the region. But Schmidt told one group of scholars and foreign affairs experts he met with here that there were limits on what West Germany could do to contribute to such a plan.
Within the "division of labor" that exists between the US and its European allies, West Germany already is contributing heavily in the form of economic aid to troubled countries, such as Turkey, Schmidt said.
What he apparently did not mention is that West Germany has a problem with some of the authoritarian regimes the US is backing in the Central American-Caribbean region. While not publicly critical of the ruling civilian-military junta in El Salvador, the West German Social Democratic government did at one point -- because of reports of human rights violations -- halt economic aid and recall its ambassador from that country. The German Social Democrats have ties with some elements of the opposition in El Salvador.
A more positive and forward-looking US program for Central America and the Caribbean might not only help Schmidt to sell his newly strengthened ties with President Reagan to his countrymen but might also help the new French President, Francois Mitterrand, to deal with the radicals in his ruling coalition.
In an interview on the ABC-TV program "Issues and Answers" May 24, Schmidt said the press had created a "wrong image" of Mr. Reagan in Europe and that he would like to try to be helpful in correcting that image.
Joseph Rovan, a professor at the University of Paris and expert on Franco-German relations, says President Mitterrand is certain to be critical of US policies toward so-called third-world nations in general, and toward those in Central America and the Caribbean in particular.
In an interview, Mr. Rovan said Mitterrand must do this in order to appease the militants and radicals among his supporters. Sympathy for Central American revolutionaries is strong in France, Rovan said. But he warned that the Reagan administration should not overreact to the criticism that almost inevitably will come from the new French leadership.
Rovan described Mitterrand as a moderate, whose new Cabinet reflects his pragmatism. First moves by the Reagan administration seem to recognize this. For one thing, the US seems to be encouraging the continuation of a close relationship between West Germany and France.
The planning for multinational economic aid to Central America and the Caribbean reflects the influence of another pragmatist, albeit one who comes from the conservative side of world affairs -- US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig. He has been fighting within the administration to maintain foreign aid programs in the face of attacks on such programs by budget-cutters.
In a recent speech to American newspaper editors, Haig spoke of offering "hope and aid" to the developing countries as one of the main projects of the Reagan administration.
But some critics of the administration doubt that in the end it will give high priority to aid programs. They note that administration officials speak often of the need to get American private enterprise to do more in the developing nations. They wonder where the money will come from. They also think that while Venezuela may be helpful to the US in a new economic aid program, some other key nations, such as Mexico, may be skeptical.
Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development has been trying without success for several months to find four rural development officers to fill positions in El Salvador, a nation supposedly having high priority among US economic aid progra ms.