THE Central American Presidents' call for the United Nations to involve Cuba, along with the United States and the Soviet Union, ``more directly in the peace efforts'' in the region comes at an appropriate moment. The suggestion was made vaguely in the Dec. 12 Costa Rica summit, and was further explained in a Dec. 15 press conference by the a senior UN official in charge of Central American issues. Recent developments suggest that now is the time to test Cuban flexibility on Central America, and that such talks are in the long-term interest of the US.
First, the Malta discussions made it clear that the Cuba/Central America issue is a potential obstacle to further improvement of US/Soviet relations. Gorbachev apparently said he had done all he could with Cuba, felt unable to threaten an aid cut-off to force Castro into line, and hoped the US would take the matter up with Cuba directly. As Bush feels the Cuba issue could hinder progress on bilateral issues like arms control, perhaps it is time for a new approach. Since the US will have to cut military spending anyway due to budget constraints, any issue which hinders reduction of the Soviet military threat warrants creative attention.
Second, Cuba's recent behavior in the southern Africa peace process shows Cuba can comply with a regional accord and encourage its allies to do likewise. When Namibia's nationalist guerrilla movement, SWAPO, violated the peace accords this Spring, the South Africans credited Cuba, not the USSR, with bringing the guerrilla leaders to heel. Cuba then met the October deadline for withdrawing half its troops from Angola, and is on schedule to withdraw the rest by mid-1991. While the Central America conflict is different from that in southern Africa, the African experience shows that in at least one regional settlement Cuba was true to its word.
Third, Cuba's new interest in improving relations with moderate governments in Latin America and elsewhere gives the international community a powerful enforcement lever to obtain Cuban compliance with a Central America accord. Cuba is reaching out in part because it needs alternative economic partners and diplomatic allies as relations with Eastern Europe deteriorate. Since Cuba now has a greater strategic interest in the opinion of moderates, the threat of ostracism following violation of a regional accord is a more powerful compliance incentive.
Fourth, Cuba has sent recent signals that it might be willing to facilitate a negotiated solution to the Central America conflict. Foreign observers resident in Cuba believe Castro was not the author of the recent FMLN offensive, though he has continued arms supply to that ally. Cuban academics and government officials also have emphasized that while the FMLN offensive ``may have been necessary'' to convince the El Salvadoran government ``to negotiate seriously,'' the conflict will have to be ``resolved in the conference room rather than the battlefield.''
Fifth, the escalating level of violence in El Salvador threatens to again make Central America a pertisan issue in Washington that could disrupt legislative/executive relations, suggesting resolution of that conflict warrants the taking of some political risks.
Sixth, recent events in Panama give the US and Cuba an extra incentive for cooling regional conflicts. Latin American resentment of US military action would be assuaged by Washington acquiescing to broad regional negotiations. While Cuba is likely to respond to the Panama action with ``anti-imperialist'' rhetoric, over the long term the US move forces Cuba to face the reality of US military power and the advantages of negotiated solutions over military ones.
There are strong arguments against testing Cuban flexibility in Central America. The most powerful is the claim that the natural evolution of Eastern Europe will eventually curtail Cuba's foreign policy options anyway, so diplomatic contact is superfluous. While this is probably true, the evolutionary process will be slow and incomplete. Cuba's arms stockpiles, and Moscow's current reluctance to cut off its only ally in the Western hemisphere means we could be in for a long wait.
There is also the argument that it would be inappropriate to ``reward'' Castro by permitting Cuba to participate in regional negotiations while Havana is refusing to implement the political liberalization measures evident in the socialist bloc. It is certainly true that Cuba is ignoring the Eastern European example, and has recently cracked down on human rights activists. However, if a neighbor throws garbage onto your lawn, it seems foolish to refuse to talk to him about it until he stops mistreating his family.
The domestic political cost to the Bush Administration entailed in any Cuba contact is also a strong deterrent. However, that impact could be blunted if the contact occurred in a multilateral context, for example, if the UN or the Central American presidents provided the umbrella structure.
It may be time to test Cuba by including it in the diplomatic game. If Cuba cooperates in a regional solution, all will gain, including the US. If Cuba does not cooperate, the US might suffer a short-term embarrassment, but in the end it is Cuba that will pay the price: international ostracism at the time it needs new allies. Including Cuba in talks is clearly a gamble, but continued war in Central America and conflict Washington and Moscow are also unattractive prospects.