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What to read on Central America; El Salvador in Transition, by Enrique Baloyra. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 236 pp. $19.95 in hard cover, $8.95 in paperback.

El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the United States, by Cynthia Arnson. Washington: The Institute for Policy Studies. 118 pp. $5.95 (paperback). The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, by Richard H. Immerman. Austin: The University of Texas Press. 291 pp. $24.50 in hard cover, Nicaragua: The Sandinist Revolution, by Henri Weber. Translated from the French by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso Editions (distributed by Shocken Books, New York). 154 pp. $5.50 (paperback).

Central America no longer slumbers in the backwaters of attention - but this hapless region still yearns for honest and accurate reporting and analysis, which is all too rare. In the spate of books which have tumbled in ever-increasing number from the publishing houses, very few have come close to answering the insistent questions that surround most of the tragic events in the areas which make the headlines. The current crop is little better, and only a few are worthy of note.

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Enrique Baloyra's El Salvador in Transition is easily the best. A scholarly work, it reads well, and its many footnotes don't get in the way of those seeking a careful but understandable presentation. Professor Baloyra concludes that El Salvador's current malaise was brought about by Salvadoreans themselves. ''The oligarchy, for its obstructionism, and the military, for its unwillingness or inability to challenge the oligarchy,'' he writes, ''must share major responsibility'' for the current crisis. The ''disloyal Right,'' as he terms the conservative forces, has got to be curbed, and the ''democratic Left'' has got to be included in the political equation if there is to be a solution to the current crisis.

In Professor Baloyra's view the United States is a key factor. The US ''must be willing to run some risks,'' he comments. But he suggests that neither Presidents Carter nor Reagan have shown the willingness to take the risks that include working toward a reconciliation of the centrist Christian Democrats and the democratic elements of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Front, which has attracted some of the best Salvadoreans. In the final analysis, Baloyra writes, the US just might be the element that provides the ''difference'' allowing for solutions.

Cynthia Arnson takes a somewhat different tack in her small book, El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the United States. She agrees that the current crisis ''far pre-dated Washington's attention.'' But she is much harsher on both the Carter and Reagan administrations than is Professor Baloyra. ''Two successive U.S. administrations have failed miserably,'' she writes, ''to understand or address the 'Salvadorean problem.' '' Her solution involves a Zimbabwe-type option: ''a restructuring of the armed forces and a redefinition of the socioeconomic order.'' She probably is right in stressing that the big difference between Zimbabwe and El Salvador ''is the attitude of the external actors.'' Until the US opts for some sort of negotiation between the center and the left, there is likely to be no peace in El Salvador.

Of course, Washington is involved not only in El Salvador but elsewhere, as Richard H. Immerman makes clear in The CIA in Guatemala. He looks back at the successful CIA-sponsored and directed overthrow of the legitimately elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. Nothing that has happened in Guatemala since then and nothing that has happened in the guerrilla movements of Latin America from the 1960s to the '80s can be understood without some reference to this event. The Arbenz government, taking a moderate, reformist path to solving decades of social and economic injustice in Guatemala, was easily the best hope millions of Guatemalans had. But to have that hope snuffed out in the 1954 coup ''made (Arbenz type) moderation impossible,'' Professor Immerman concludes. That, of course, is the great tragedy of Guatemala, but also the challenge in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, including Nicaragua.

Henri Weber's polemic Nicaragua: The Sandinist Revolution makes this clear. His sympathies with the leftist Sandinista movement cloud objective analysis to some extent, yet he shows eloquently how the US failed to recognize that forces of change were clamoring to oust the hated dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in the 1970s and that the scenario in Nicaragua might have been different had the US withdrawn its support of General Somoza earlier.

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