CRITICS of the Reagan administration's Central America policy who are hoping for a change under George Bush should not be satisfied with vague promises of ``more diplomacy.'' They should insist on a thorough change of goals. We will end up with more of the same unless Washington accepts the central idea of the Central American peace accords: negotiated settlements of the major wars in the region. Under Reagan, US diplomacy has obstructed the peace process; its anti-Nicaragua policy has destabilized the region.
Take the case of Guatemala, where the center-right civilian government headed by Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo has been threatened for months by ultra-rightist coup attempts. If these forces succeed in overthrowing Mr. Cerezo, the US State Department will no doubt issue a statement of condemnation. In fact, Washington's actions in Central America could themselves be paving the way for a coup.
The United States has been playing a complex double game in Guatemala - one of Washington's ``model democracies.'' Officially the US is fully behind the Cerezo government, with Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams claiming that his policies helped bring about its existence and warded off a right-wing coup attempt against it last May. But Washington's nonstop pressures on Cerezo to alter his neutral stance toward Nicaragua have strengthened pro-coup extremists.
Clues to Washington's two-tier policy emerged from interviews in Guatemala with key politicians in the days after a visit by Secretary of State George Shultz last August. While there, Mr. Shultz met with the Central American foreign ministers, excluding Nicaragua's. He demanded that they accept US-drafted language condemning a putative Nicaraguan ``threat.''
The US proposal, considered a declaration of war against Nicaragua, would have killed the regional peace process. Members of Cerezo's party and others publicly charged that US officials had alternated threats of economic reprisals with promises of more military aid so as to pressure Guatemala into dropping its opposition to the US statement.
``Guatemalan neutrality just plays into the hands of the Nicaraguans,'' a leader of the ultra-right pro-coup Movimiento de Liberaci'on Nacional told me the day after the Shultz visit. Further, he said, Cerezo is ``passing information'' to Managua, and ``people high up in the White House have told me off the record that they regard Cerezo's position as hypocritical.'' He went on to say that this is just one more indicator that the President's reformism is paving the way for socialism.
The Shultz visit also stirred up a lively debate within the Guatemalan Army between proponents of Cerezo's policy of ``active neutrality'' and those who see this policy toward Nicaragua as inconsistent with anti-subversive policies in their own country.
Many consider active neutrality in the ``national interest,'' according to Defense Minister H'ector Gramajo, who heads the pro-Cerezo faction of the Army. This approach, however, is far less institutionalized than might first appear: One top Army official, who ostensibly backs the government, said skeptically, ``Nicaragua will always remain a threat; the Marxists never give up.''
In the days after the Shultz visit, Guatemala shook with coup tremors. On Aug. 9, while military helicopters circled ominously above the National Palace, the Army's top command deliberated for hours over whether to depose Cerezo. In an uneasy compromise, pro-coup and anti-coup forces agreed to destabilize the civilian government just short of overthrowing it - ``a coup in stages,'' as some call it. This has become the Army's method of ``negotiating with'' Cerezo. In August he was forced to weaken his Nicaraguan policy, perhaps his last source of popular support and credibility.
There is a grim logic to Washington's Guatemala strategy. In searching for ideological supporters for its anti-Sandinista policy, the Reagan administration finds natural allies on the extreme right. But the administration knows that a successful coup against Cerezo would hamper its effort to gain congressional approval for increased military aid for the anti-guerrilla war in Guatemala. Hence Washington's risky game of applying destabilizing pressures.
The stakes are high. The Central American peace process is already weakened by Washington's success in undermining Cerezo's ``active neutrality.'' Domestically, the Guatemalan leader has little enough to show for his time in office except a dramatic increase in human rights violations since he has become allied with the Army rather than with the people who elected him. But replacing his government with a rightist military junta - or even forcing it to yield on neutrality - would abruptly end the small democratic opening achieved in Guatemala.
The US has been sending all the wrong messages. To further its ostensible goal of ``promoting democracy'' in Central America, the new administration should support compliance with the Central American peace accords by all five governments, rather than provide ammunition to rightist, anti-democratic forces in order to bring Nicaragua to its knees.