Washington — Remember El Salvador? Two months ago Reagan administration officials indicated -- with some fanfare -- that they were drawing the line against Soviet expansionism in that small Central American country.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. subsequently asserted that the Soviet Union had a "hit list" for the takeover of Central America. First on the list came Nicaragua, Mr. Haig said. Then, in his view, the Soviets moved on to target No. 2, El Salvador. Next, according to the secretary, would come Honduras and finally the prize, Guatemala, which abuts Mexico, the world's fifth-largest oil-producing nation.
All this seemed designed in part to let not only the Soviets but also the rest of the world know that the United States had overcome the self-doubt that it had suffered from the fall of South Vietnam.
But administration officials have said little about the thorny subject of El Salvador lately. In fact, it merited only one line in Secretary Haig's lengthy major speech to American newspaper editors on April 24.
It turns out that some of America's allies have been less than enthusiastic about the hard-line rhetoric that emanated from Washington. The American public has been more sharply divided over the El Salvador issue than the Reagan administration expected. Congressional opposition to the US military aid program for El Salvador has been stronger than was anticipated. In some places, the "Vietnam syndrome" still lives.
The administration built its case for sending military aid and advisers to El Salvador on the grounds that "massive" Soviet and Cuban assistance to the Salvadoran guerrillas had to be countered. It might soon start building a similar case for aiding Guatemala.
After spending nearly a month in Central America, a reporter returns with the impression that Cuban involvements is an important factor in the regional equation but that repression and economic injustices are decidedly more important in the creation of the insurgencies. Indeed it can be argued that the terror perpetuated through "hit lists" carried by members of certain government security services in Guatemala and El Salvador may be responsible for creating more guerrillas than the Cubans have.
Left-wing terrorism obviously exists in both countries. But when it comes to assassinations, the executioners of the left seem to lag behind the executioners of the right. The Carter administration was unable to put an end to this, and the Reagan administration has so far found no magic formula, either.
Most US senators and congressmen appear to accept the Reagan administration's contention that Cubans are involved in training, supplying, and advising the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador and Guatemala. But many have their doubts that the Soviets, or their Cuban allies, are really exerting a massive, or decisive, influence on the course of events in Central America at this stage.
The Soviet Union may indeed be acting a good deal more cautiously than Secretary of State Haig has implied. What looks to Mr. Haig like a Soviet "hit list" might turn out to be a Soviet "wish list." As one official puts it, "If the Soviets could take Central America on the cheap, with a minimum of risk, they would do it."
A real test of Soviet intentions could be looming in Nicaragua, where the ruling Sandinistas may be facing an economic crisis. Will the Soviets pick up the bill in Nicaragua as they have in Cuba? Most economists seem to doubt they will go that far. For one thing, if Nicaragua became totally dependent on the Soviets the way Cuba has, it might prove highly provocative to the United States.
Reading Soviet intentions is never easy. But one specialist on Soviet relations with Latin America, Robert S. Leiken, a research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks that a central objective of the Soviet Union in Central America may be to divert US military resources away from other regions of more vital interest to the Soviets.
According to Mr. Leiken, the US must pursue a highly sophisticated policy. If it overreacts and increases its military involvement in the region dramatically, it could have the effect of (1) alienating American allies in both Europe and Latin America, (2) reviving sagging Cuban influence throughout Latin America, (3) pushing Nicaragua and the Salvadoran opposition into total subservience to the USSR and Cuba, and (4) igniting a regional war that might pit Guatemala and Honduras against Nicaragua and Cuba.
"A major Soviet strategic objective would thus be achieved: the tying down of US resources already stretched to the limit around the globe," says Mr. Leiken in an article published in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
Secretary of State Haig has indicated repeatedly that he recognizes a need for more than a military reaction to events in Central America. But the anti-Soviet tone of his rhetoric tended at first to create an impression both at home and abroad that the Reagan administration had little real interest in the plight of the peoples of Central America and was interested only in one thing: blocking the Soviets and Cubans.
The administration seemed to commit itself to the defense of El Salvador without thinking the policy through and without keeping an eye on the injustices in Salvadoran society that had helped to create the Salvadoran insurgency. It was only after the West Europeans had expressed their concern that the administration repeatedly began to stress its interest in economic aid, reforms, and elections as part of its support for the junta in El Salvador.
But many Latin Americans don't really believe the Reagan administration's heart is in a program of reform. They think that the talk about elections is mostly window dressing and that the administration will in the end back military-dominated regimes, no matter how repressive they are.
"You are going into El Salvador in order to take revenge for Vietnam," said a Latin American editor to a North American visitor. The editor believes in socialism but is anticommunist.
"You look at Central America and you see dominoes," he continued. "That is such a mechanical way of looking at things. . . . Don't you realize that the real danger for you is not communism but hunger -- hunger for food and hunger for liberty?"
Why is the administration now playing down the El Salvador crisis? In part because there seems to be no easy military victory in sight for that US-supported nation. In part because support from the allies has been lukewarm, and in some cases critical. In part because some Salvadoran police officers seem to be associated with assassination squads. In part because American public protest has been stronger than expected. In part because "going to the source" and squeezing Cuba has proved to be a more complicated proposition than it at first seemed.
But State Department officials have been preparing more positive statements on the subject. They think that once they speak out more forcefully in favor of elections in El Salvador and in favor of social and economic development for all the nations of the region, US policy may prove to be more acceptable, not just to the US public but also to skeptical Latin Americans, such as the Mexicans.
Mexico and Venezuela, the two regional oil powers, have shown great concern recently over the possibility of heightened superpower intervention in Central America. The two nations are currently pursuing a peace initiative designed to end the fighting in el Salvador. Some of Mexico's oil fields lie not far from Guatemala, a country that has already become one of Central America's main battlegrounds.
Although Secretary Haig did not say so, the real concern of some administration officials is that Central American instability will lead domino-like to those oil fields. Most Mexican government officials seem to consider North American talk about a Central American domino theory -- Haig's "hit list" is a variation on that theme -- to be off the mark. Preoccupied with past North American intervention in the region, they think one of the main sources of instability has been US support for military-dominated regimes such as the one that rules today in Guatemala.
But the Mexicans are not completely sanguine about their own security. They are obviously concerned that instability might spread from Guatemala to Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas. They have intensified existing rural-development programs in the border state. At the same time, the Mexican Army has become more active there.
The Reagan administration, meanwhile, has shown some signs that it can deal flexibly with certain aspects of the Central American problem. After first declaring that Nicaragua was in the Soviet camp, Secretary Haig backed away. His spokesman acknowledged that some elements of democratic "pluralism" still existed in Nicaragua. The State Department kept the door open to the possibility of continuing aid to that nation. This is what the West Europeans and some members of the Nicaraguan business community had been urging the US to do.
One Central America specialist, Richard Millet, a history professor at Southern Illinois University, thinks the real long-range question for the US is whether it can commit itself to support political and financial alternatives to the extremes of right and left in Central America. Such a commitment, he thinks , would require large amounts of long-term economic assistance. He doubts that this will be forthcoming from an administration which is preoccupied with budget cuts and which sees the Soviet Union as the cause of most of its overseas troubles.
But Mr. Millett says there is a positive side to the picture. Despite the economic squeeze that is affecting all of Central America, Honduras and Nicaragua do have undeveloped land. Guatemala could become a middle-level exporter of oil.
Facts on region in turmoil State Population Est. GNP Main Exports Per Capita Nicaragua 2.5 million $ 850coffee, cotton El Salvador 4.7 million $ 550coffee Honduras 4.0 million $ 450bananas, coffee Guatemala 7.2 million $1,000coffee, cotton Mexico 70.0 million $1,400coffee, cotton, oil
From the World Fact Book of the CIA's National Foreign Assessment Center and other sources.