Probably no other region in the world has jumped as rapidly to the front of the news headlines as Central America has done in recent months. President Reagan has made this region one of his major foreign concerns. Last summer he dispatched a US naval task force, including two aircraft carriers, to the area. They have since left.
But the US is continuing its military presence there.
About 4,000 US troops are being sent to Central America to show how much the US is concerned about what is happening there.
By Central America we mean that narrow band of countries that joins North America and South America.
North America includes Canada, the United States, and Mexico. South America includes all those countries from Venezuela and Colombia in the north right down to Argentina and Chile in the south.
Central America itself consists of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Sometimes Panama is included.
If we want to talk about Latin America, which is not so much a geographical term but rather a political one, then we have to include all of South America, Central America, Cuba, Jamaica, and the other Caribbean countries, as well as the Falkland Islands. And Mexico, too, for it speaks Spanish.
Because our attention has been focused for so long on other world trouble spots, such as the Middle East or Poland, we don't know as much about this important region as we should. After all, this area is right on the doorstep of the US.
Public opinion polls indicate how little Americans actually know about this region. These polls have showed that as few as 8 percent of the people interviewed recently knew which side the US administration supported in both El Salvador and Nicaragua.
El Salvador (whose capital is San Salvador) is the smallest country in Central America. The US government is for the government of El Salvador.
Nicaragua (whose capital is Managua) is the largest country in size in Central America, although tiny compared to the US - only about the size of South Dakota. The US Government is strongly against the government of Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguan government also goes by another name, the Sandinista government. This is because four years ago the Sandinistas forced the dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, better known as President Somoza, to flee. The Sandinistas are named after a revolutionary leader called Augusto Cesar Sandino. During the 1920s, when the US occupied Nicaragua, Sandino tried to resist the US occupation.
The Reagan administration is worried about Nicaragua for several reasons.
For one thing, it doesn't like the fact that Nicaragua is friendly with two longtime US foes: Cuba and the Soviet Union. Both these countries are communist, and the Reagan Administration thinks the Sandindista Nicaraguan leaders think too much like they do.
What is more, US officials regard the Nicaraguan leaders as a revolutionary government that wants to spark revolution in the rest of Central America.
This is where El Salvador fits in. El Salvador has a government that is largely in agreement with Washington. It also receives aid, weapons, and military training from the US. The problem is that there are many guerrilla fighters trying to overthrow the El Salvador government. These guerrillas allegedly receive some of their arms from Nicaragua. At times they take refuge in Nicaragua.
The US administration wants to put a stop to these guerrilla activities. What complicates the problem is that the pro-US government of El Salvador does not have the full backing of the American people. Many Americans, while not wanting to have communists take over El Salvador, are unhappy with a government they feel has dealt brutally with those Salvadoreans who do not agree with it.
At the same time, the Nicaraguan government is so unpopular with the US government that many experts say Washington would be glad to see the Nicaraguan government toppled.
The Reagan administration not only sees Nicaragua as a threat to El Salvador. It also sees it is a threat to at least two other Central American states. These countries are:
* Guatemala, which has always been pro-US, but is even more so since the coup of Aug. 8. This coup brought in a new chief of state, Brig. Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, pushing out the previous leader, President Efrain Rios Montt.
* Honduras, which should not be confused with the former colony of British Honduras, now renamed Belize. Honduras, which shares a border with Nicaragua, is also friendly to the US. Its leader, President Roberto Suazo Cordova, believes Nicaragua is a threat to his own government.
The US naval task force sent to the area and the US troops sent to Honduras are seen as a show of force to put pressure on the Nicaraguans. It also serves as a warning to Cuba and the Soviet Union not to interfere in the region.
Those who criticized this US strategy say all the Americans were doing is pushing the region toward war. The Reagan administration officials said that instead of causing war their tactics were preventing it. They said neither the Nicaraguans nor the Cubans would have started talking about the need for all sides to stop the flow of arms to the region if the US had not applied such pressure.
The US policy of making its presence widely known and felt through ships, arms, and troops has some Americans cheering and others booing.
Those who are for it say by acting in this strong way America will discourage the communists from trying to sabotage governments that are lined up with Washington.
Those who are against a strong US force in Central America say it will only make the people of Central America think the US is interfering in their region - and that in time the attitude of people in the region may turn out more anti-US than anti-communist because of it.