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Memo to Mr. Shultz: change course on Central America

Beyond the current political scrimmage over certification for continued aid to El Salvador, the Reagan administration faces a more important task: namely, the urgent need to reassess seriously US policies for all of Central America.

Specifically, it is time for Secretary of State George Shultz to compare what the administration sought to accomplish these last two years with the current realities in the region. The first thing such an examination will show is that the violence in the area is spreading. Peace and stability have not been achieved as easily as the early rhetoric from administration officials suggested.

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Central America had top priority at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Secretary of State Alexander Haig proclaimed that it was the place where the United States would ''draw the line against communism'' and ''do whatever is necessary,'' including going to the ''source'' of the region's troubles, then believed to be Cuba.

Other pressing world issues such as those involving nuclear weapons, Lebanon, and the global recession have since eclipsed that spotlight on Central America. In addition, since taking over the State Department last spring, Secretary Shultz has lowered the volume and softened the tone of official pronouncements concerning the region. However, the largely confrontational policies drawn up at the start of the administration are basically still in place.

When asked about a midterm assessment of the administration's policies, a number of regional experts replied that the area is worse off today than it was two years ago. In short, the policies that have been attempted have not worked. Regional experts give the following country-by-country critique:

* El Salvador is no closer to peace today than it was two years ago, or to establishing a government that respects its citizens' human rights. The country has not fallen to leftist guerrillas, but those forces which failed in their so-called final offensive just before President Reagan took office now control three areas of the country. The best that has been achieved in El Salvador is a costly stalemate, in terms of both lives and money.

* Nicaragua is further to the left than it was two years ago, its Sandinista government more entrenched. In part, that is because of covert, American-supported counterrevolutionary attacks against Nicaragua from neighboring Honduras. Those attacks have so far proved to be counterproductive, rallying support for the central Sandinista government.

* Honduras is in a precarious position now, more and more likely to be sucked into the turmoil in the region. Its fragile democracy is jeopardized by military commanders who call the political shots there.

* Guatemala may be slightly quieter now, but the army under General Efraim Rios Montt has just carried out a bloody antisubversive campaign in rural areas in which several thousand Indians and peasant farmers were killed, and tens of thousands more were forced to become refugees.

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* Even Costa Rica, traditionally the most peaceful country in the region, is in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history, severely challenging its democratic tradition.

Panama is probably the best-off country in the area. And, as one regional expert pointed out, that is probably because of the Panama Canal treaties which, ironically, Ronald Reagan opposed.

The administration's problem in Central America is that US officials have emphasized military solutions to what are essentially political, social, and economic problems. For example, throughout the last two years administration officials have stressed that the primary threat to the area comes almost exclusively from leftist guerrillas.

This analysis has meant the administration has been slow in recognizing the more immediate threat from the right in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala; that is, the intransigence of established leaders blocking needed reforms, and the free-lance killings by paramilitary groups. In short, the kinds of human rights abuses and stagnant political opportunities that help create guerrillas.

With regard to Nicaragua, the administration's policy of isolation has contributed to the polarization and volatility found in the region as a whole. In addition, those policies have increased the danger of a region-wide conflict which, if it occurred, the United States would now have a hard time blaming on the Sandinistas.

What is missing in American policy in Central America is the same kind of conciliation and willingness to negotiate that the US is pursuing on difficult problems in the Middle East, in southern Africa, and in disputes with US allies in Europe and Japan. In contrast, in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, it has been the US which has rejected outside efforts in behalf of negotiations, or even a dialogue. Venezuela and Mexico first proposed such talks. They have since been joined by Panama and Colombia in urging a less confrontational approach.

Yet the US still pursues policies such as military maneuvers near the Nicaraguan border, the building of military airstrips and supply roads in Honduras, renewed military aid to the government of Guatemala, and the same war effort in El Salvador.

The administration seems to believe that with these policies it can dictate solutions in these small countries. And, this is coupled with what appears to be a fear of negotiations with leftists or Marxists. It is as if any abandonment of America's military friends in order to talk, will lead directly to the downfall of those friends; as if somehow it must be one extreme or the other.

In fact, negotiations may help those nations find a way between the extremes of left and right. There is at least room to try for any number of possible solutions.

As with the Middle East Peace process or the European pipeline affair, Secretary of State Shultz has proved he is capable of shifting the administration off a troublesome, going-nowhere course. For the same reasons, the secretary should begin to take a common sense and conciliatory approach to Central America. Past policies haven't worked, and the continued instability in the area is dangerous to American interests. As a world leader, the US should be part of the solution in the area, instead of part of the problem.

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