Panama City — Suddenly Central America seems to be coming apart -- and the United States is scrambling frantically to find always to keep it from doing so. El Salvador, where clashes between leftists and rightists continue unabated and leftists have been seizing buildings and hostages, is the eye of the deteriorating situation.
But Guatemala is regarded in both diplomatic and military circles as particularly vulnerable and ripe for major unrest.
Even Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua report a variety of internal and external problems.
These fresh assessments of instability in Central America, coming on the heels of Nicaragua's brutal 18-month civil war in 1978 and 1979, which caused nearly 50,000 fatalities, are forcing major policy reassessments on the Carter administration.
With so much current focus on the Middle East, and particularly on Afghanistan and Iran, Washington's attention is divided. And there is worry here that Central America may get short shrift in the shuffle. Moreover, there is concern that the two areas will be linked as Washington readies its policy.
"Linking Afghanistan and Central America would work to the detriment of this part of the world," a leading Guatemalan official says.
For starters, however, Washington is focusing on immediate bilateral aid. A major economic and military aid package, totaling $54 million, has been put together to bail out the embattled Salvadorean government.
In addition, there have in recent weeks been a series of high-level diplomatic and military missions to Central America, most of them unpublicized or at least not widely advertised.
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William Bowdler, for example, was in the area in early February. And there have been more aid and technical teams in several of the US embassies.
It is not lost on observers here that W. Graham Claytor, deputy secretary of defense, was in Panama this past week conferring with US military officials at various bases adjacent to the Panama Canal.
As far as Panama is concerned, there might well be more attention paid to events in countries to the north and west, were it not for the continuing debate over the Shah of Iran's presence on the island of Contadora and the flurry of rumors over his future role.
Nevertheless, it is known that Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, whose role as the dominant force in the Panamanian government continues even though he keeps a low profile, has been watching events in El Salvador with considerable anxiety. He wants a stabl area and fears the consequences to Panama of instability in Central America.
At the same time, he and other Panamanians are understood to be somewhat displeased with Nicaragua's recent abrogation of longstanding treaties with Colombia -- treaties that ceded control of several small Caribbean islands to Colombia.
With all its other problems, such as the basic one of simply getting the country back on its feet, the question is asked here: Why should Nicaragua take on an international issue of such dubious validity?
Panama feels it has a stake in Nicaragua. It supported the Sandinista guerrillas actively before they toppled the Somoza family dynasty, supplying arms and other supplies, and giving a great deal of other material assistance.
So did Costa Rica, which lies between Panama and Nicaragua. Here, too, there are problems. Reports of guerrilla activity are frequent, even if unconfirmed.
President Rodrigo Carazo Odio is under sharp verbal attack in the press and by politicians for a number of his actions. It is a situation that is clearly not as disturbing as those elsewhere, but it has potential for some instability.
Further north, Honduras, which has been something of an oasis of calm for a decade, last week reported formation of the first peasant guerrilla group in years. The government of President Policarpo Paz Garcia thought it ominous enough to issue warnings to guerrillas that they would face serious consequences if they resort to terrorist tactics.
Meanwhile, Guatemala continues to simmer in the wake of a brutal confrontation three weeks ago at the Spanish Embassy. Sixty people, including at least nine law-enforcement officers, two leftist politicians, and a host of guerrillas, have been killed in recent engagements.
But this activity has turned Guatemala's attention away from its longstanding dispute with Britain over the colony of Belize, which Guatemala claims and Britain wants to set free. Guatemala seems more concerned with its own situation. There are all sorts of rumors that it is prepared to send aid to El Salvador's embattled military.
Clearly the US wants to defuse this worsening situation. The El Salvador aid package is the first step, along with a similar package for Nicaragua, which is now before Congress.
But the next step -- a broader Central America policy, covering the whole region -- is still being orchestrated.