San Salvador — For decades, many and perhaps most Americans have seen the Caribbean and Central America as their country's backyard. It hardly seemed to require the attention Washington focuses on more troubled lands.
The Caribbean was a great vacation site, and Central America a region that could be counted on to support the United States in international forums.
Even Fidel Castro's march to power in Cuba 22 years ago -- and the imposition of a Marxist state 90 miles from the Florida Keys -- failed to significantly erode that assessment. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 focused heavy attention on Cuba for several months but did not change the US view of the region in general.
Only Cuba, which continued to be a nagging problem on the back doorstep, drew much attention from the US while Washington grappled with issues much farther afield.
Now, however, developments in the area have taken on an urgency that is forcing Washington and Americans in general to alter this pattern of neglect -- to accord the Caribbean and Central America an importance akin to that of the Middle East or US-Soviet relations.
This changing assessment is due, in part, to the arrival of a new administration in Washington. But attitudes began shifting months before Ronald Reagan became President Jan. 20.
The growing explosiveness of various countries in both the Caribbean and Central America is the key reason for the change in US views.
First Nicaragua, and now El Salvador, have been embroiled in civil war. Guatemala is dangerously close to civil war as well. If El Salvador and Guatemala go the way of Nicaragua -- whose war ended in victory for leftist insurgents in mid-1979 -- US hegemony over Central America may be endangered.
In the Caribbean, a crop of newly independent countries refuse to consider themselves extensions of the United States. Some political parties in the islands are fiercely anti-U.S. The Caribben is bristling with a new spirit of nationalism.
And now there is mounting evidence -- the US State Department said this week there is proof beyond any doubt -- that Cuba and the Soviet Union are supplying weapons to leftist guerrillas bent on overthrowing El Salvador's centrist military-civilian junta. One result: Presidential Reagan is having one of his first foreign-policy face- offs with the Soviet Union over the tiniest of the Central American countries.
The Central America and Caribbean region is crying out for development and improved social and economic conditions.
But these needs probably weigh less in the Reagan administration's interest in the area than does Soviet and Cuban involvement in the region's turmoil. Yet , unless these needs are met, the political sparks so evident at present will not be snuffed out.
El Salvador is the eye of the storm besetting Central America. It is narrow, mountainous, and densely populated. The gap between rich and poor in El Salvador is vast, one of the largest in the hemisphere.
For several years in the late 1970s, it appeared that a political and economic polarization of the country was taking place -- left vs. right, Marxism vs. capitalism. But in recent months, party because of careful nurturing by former US Ambassador Robert White, a third alternative developed -- a moderate, reformist alternative that might bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.
At least for now the Salvadoran people seem to have opted, reluctantly, for this third route. But the struggle is far from over, and the war goes on in all its fury. It has claimed at least 15,000 Salvadoran lives in the past 15 months.
The effect of Cuba's alleged involvement in El Salvador remains to be seen. A State Department "white paper" purporting to document that involvement says at least 200 tons of arms and ammunition have reached Salvadoran guerrillas through their Cuban connection. According to the report, the political direction, organization, and arming of the Salvadoran insurgents are coordinated and strongly influenced by Cuba with the active assistance of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Vietnam. Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders have also been closely linked to the cause of the Salvadoran leftists.
President Jose Napoleon Duarte, a centrist Christian Democratic politician, is at the helm of El Salvador's shaky coalition of moderate civilians and military men. Despite leftist efforts to undercut him, Duarte and his government appear to be gaining popular support, some of it coming from Salvadorans simply tried of the confrontation between left and right.
It will take all of President Duarte's political skills to build this sort of support into something more viable.
Continuing efforts to undo landholding patterns -- efforts that date from colonial Spanish times -- have put hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land into the hands of formerly landless peasants. Banking, commercial, and other economic measures are aimed at breaking the stranglehold of the wealthy and giving the poor of El Salvador, who make up 85 percent of the country's 5 million people, some hope for improvement.
The rest of Central America is watching this process carefully. In fact, much of the world is concentrating a great deal of attention on this small land -- and on the approach Washington, Moscow, and Havana take toward it.
But if El Salvador is today's focal point, it could be Guatemala tomorrow . . . or one of the Caribbean islands.
The newly independent countries in the Caribbean want to be more than a playground for rich US, European, and South American vacationers. They are trying to keep their political distance from the US. Several islands still under colonial rule are awash with nationalistic sentiment and agitating for independence. Here, too, Cuba is trying to extend its influence. It has succeeded with Grenada in particular. Dominica and St. Lucia recently ousted conservative governments in favor of leftist, nationalist regimes.
The point of all this, as a State Department spokesman said recently, is: "The region cannot be ignored."
And as Washington gropes for solutions -- economic, political, and military -- to the problems of the region, it is clear that the area requires the most skillful sort of attention Washington can muster.
Leftist guerrillas will not give up easily. The failure of the Salvador leftists' "final offensive" in January was a blow to both the guerrillas' strength and their psyche. There was no major groundswell of support from peasants. But the leftists remain determined. They are wreaking havoc: burning crops, killing peasants who support the government's land-reform efforts, and harassing government troops at every turn.
But right-wing vigilante groups, perhaps with the connivance of some government officials, are at least as brutal as the leftists. Although the right's links with the government do not reach to people at the very top, the right does enjoy an immunity the left does not have.
Only when the warfare between left and right ends can El Salvador work toward longterm solutions to economic and social problems. Advancing the lot of the region's 40 million or so people may prove even harder than defusing the threat from extremists.
It is the immediate problem of insurgency that most concerns the Reagan administration, and there are not many options left on this issue.
In the short run, a US military presence in El Salvador is one option. The issuance Feb. 23 of the State Department's report on Cuban intervention led some in Washington to urge sending in some US troops immediately.
The prospect conjures up memories of other US incursions in the area -- in the Dominican Republic, in Haiti, and in Nicaragua.
The massive US intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 snuffed out a moderate leftist effort at seizing power. Ironically that US incursion is resented more these days by other Caribbean nations than by the Dominicans themselves.
A US move into Nicaragua -- in the late 1920s -- is a rallying point for the Sandinista guerrilla leadership that now rules that country. "Never again will we permit Yankee invaders to despoil our sovereignty," shouted Daniel Ortega Saavedra, one of the top Sandinista commanders, at a rally late last year in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.
Despite their rhetoric, the Sandinistas, who fought an 18-month civil war to wrest control of government away from the 45-year-old Somoza family dynasty, desperately need US aid to rebuild their country.
Sandinistas took power in July 1979. US aid to the largely agricultural land has been under suspension since late 1980 while the US is assessing whether funds given previously were properly administered -- 60 percent was earmarked to go to the private sector. Now the US will add another factor to its decisionmaking on the Nicaraguan aid question -- Nicaragua's role as a conduit in the shipping of arms to Salvadoran guerrillas.
US aid is essential to all the countries of the region, but particularly to those whose economies are experiencing troubled times. Jamaica, for example, is a sun-drenched island that has long been a tourist mecca for North Americans.
During the 1970s Jamaica's experiment with the "democratic socialism" of Prime Minister Michael Manley put the island in economic straits, and when Edward Seaga became prime minister last November, he inherited a bankrupt nation.
Mr. Seaga's visit to Washington in late January -- he was the new President's first foreign visitor -- symbolizes both positive and negative aspects of the US-Caribbean and US-Central America relationship.
These nations want to be better neighbors. And they also need one another -- increasingly. If Central America and newly independent and nationalistic Caribbean nations are closely allied with the US, Washington will feel more secure against any possible Soviet inroads into the hemisphere. The US can help the Caribbean and Central America with economic and social development programs.
But there is always that element of resenting their large, affluent neighbor. Even nationalists in the Caribbean and Central America realize they cannot live without the US. For economic reasons -- but also for geopolitical considerations -- the US and the Caribbean and Central America have got to learn to live together.
This is one of eight weekly articles keyed to the New York-based Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions" program, designed to help Americans become better informed about critical foreign policy issues. The articles, appearing Fridays Jan. 30 through March 20, are intended to update the basic course book obtainable from the FPA. (The "Great Decisions '81" course book, $5 , and discussion leader's guide, $1, may be ordered from the Foreign policy Association, 205 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. Payment must accompany orders for single copies, plus 60 cents for postage and handling.)
The topics are:
1. The US and the Soviet Union
2. From Cairo to Kabul
3. China after normalization
4. South Africa
5. Central America and the Caribbean
7. Made in US
8. The world in 1981