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Mexico's Central America strategy

The most important and least understood issue in the current United States-Mexican relationship is the communist threat in Central America and the correct response to it.

Currently the Mexican strategy is to support the "leftist coalition" in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala without seeking or urging any guarantee of free elections, political liberties, and the like. Mexico's hypothesis is that, given the failure of the Carter administration to halt the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979 and the growth of the revolutionary forces in El Salvador and Guatemala through 1980, its only successful strategy must be to "moderate the extermist left by supporting the revolutionary groups."

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Examples of this discreet but officially sanctioned support will illustrate how active and assertive Mexico has become in Central America.

* Nicaragua. During the revolution against Somoza, starting in late 1978, Mexico contributed money to buy weapons for the FSLN (Sandinista Liberation Front) and permitted its territory to be used for facilitating the flow of guerillas, weapons, and propaganda for the FSLN. In May 1979 Mexico broke diplomatic relations with Somoza. Lopez Portillo personally called for the overthrow of "that horrendous dictatorship," terminated all sale of petroleum products, recognized the "provisional revolutionary government of Nicaragua" then based in Costa Rica, and worked with Cuba and others to coordinate expanded practical help from many sources during the final military offensive in June and July 1979.

After the revolution Mexico adopted a policy of "unconditioned support" for the Nicaraguan government of National Reconstruction, making absolutely no distinction between the Marxist-Leninist groups and the genuinely democratic elements who combined to overthrow Somoza and never mentioning the promises for free elections, parties, press, and trade unions made by the FSLN to the OAS. Following the Carter/Reagan accusations of Nicaraguan help for the revolutionary groups in El Salvador, the then president of the Mexican government party, the PRI, visited Nicaragua to pledge complete solidarity.

* Guatemala. President Lopez Portillo cancelled a scheduled visit in 1979 and since then has followed a generally consistent policy of keeping an official distance from the Lucas government. In 1980 the Mexican ambassador was recalled but relations and oil sales continued. In March 1980 Mexico promised the Salvadoran communist party that during the final offensive against the government Mexico would send troops to the Guatemalan border to prevent the Guatemalan army from helping the Salvadoran army.

Those maneuvers were announced on Dec. 5, 1980, and conducted just before and during the final offensive in El Salvador (January 1981) with observers from the Guatemalan army invited ostensibly to verify that there were no camps for the communist guerrillas from Guatemala in Mexican territory. In fact, there are strong allegations of tacit Mexican approval for the establishment in Mexico of networks which provide money, medicines, food, and perhaps even weapons to the revolutionary forces in neighboring Guatemala.

Since a revolutionary Guatemala might become a sanctuary for guerrillas and terrorists operating in the southern oilrich regions of Mexico, the consequences of Mexico being wrong about its strategy could be very severe for its people and for the United States as well.

* El Salvador. During 1980, Mexico gave consistent support to the armed revolutionary groups. This was done by the PRI, acting for the government, and involved permission for the "Revolutionary Democratic Front" (FDR) to use Mexican territory as its propaganda base and to facilitate help for the guerrillas. There are reports that in the summer of 1980 the president of the PRI promised the communist coordinating leadership of the El Salvador guerrillas (the DRU, Unified Revolutionary Directorate) extensive, clandestine support through the PRI apparatus (funds, propaganda, safehouses), action against any Honduran support for the El Salvador government, and the holding of a conference on world solidarity with the revolution in El Salvador.

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Following the US election in November 1980 preparations began for the final offensive in El Salvador. Mexico then took the following actions: in late November 1980 a "demand" by the Mexican trade union federation that the government stop selling oil and break diplomatic relations with El Salvador; the conference on world solidarity with El Salvador; in December 1980 the ambiguous military maneuvers on the Guatemalan border and an enormous increase in Mexican government and media support for the Salvadoran guerrillas, along with additional funds for propaganda and permission for a "government in exile" to be based in Mexico.

The United States must communicate to Mexico that it understands the Mexican strategy but believes it is mistaken because of the fundamental differences in outlook and power between the hard-core communist groups which control the "leftist coalition" in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and the moderate reformist left which Mexico hopes to encourage.

A better way to promote reform, stability, and constitutional government would be an approach which consists of support for the center as well as democratic left forces and which condemns equally the violence of the extreme left and extreme right.

Mexico, as a sovereign state, will of course pursue its own policy. However, it would be advisable to discuss the facts and alternatives in Central America at greater length in follow-up meetings at a senior level in the wake of the Reagan- Lopez Portillo summit. Ambassador John Gavin has impressed Washington with his intelligence, serious dedication, and knowledge of Mexico. Combine these qualities with his close relationship to President Reagan, and the prospects for effective diplomacy are excellent.

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