Great Decisions '82; Central America: fire in the 'front yard'?
'We are engaged in a war against those forces that would destroy our homes, our cities, our farms, our nation, our religion,'' says Guatemala President Romeo Lucas Garcia, commenting on growing leftist insurgency in Guatemala.Skip to next paragraph
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''We must, and we will, save our society,'' General Lucas Garcia adds.
Behind the general's comment is deepening concern not only here, but also throughout much of Central America, that the guerrilla insurgency is beginning to take its toll on established society.
Leftist forces friendly to Cuba and the Soviet Union are clearly on the offensive in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the former, the guerrillas threaten to gain the upper hand. Their allies are also present in two others -- Honduras and Costa Rica.
Promising radical political, economic, and social change, the insurgents are no longer simply a troublesome group; they are getting bold and strong enough to bring down governments.
That is also Washington's worry. For the Reagan administration, in the words of UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, ''Central America is the most important place in the world for the United States today.''
The countries of the area, once pejoratively called ''banana republics'' because of their small size and their basic crop, bananas, have moved from the back pages of newspapers onto the front pages and onto nightly television. Central America is no longer a backwater of US interest.
The Reagan administration is convinced that the political fate of Central America is crucial to US national security. It sees a leftist, pro-Cuba group of countries in the region as detrimental to US interests in the Americas.
Already Nicaragua, with its Marxist-leaning Sandinista leadership, has moved tentatively into the Cuban-Soviet orbit.
Were El Salvador, which is the current focus of Marxist intent, to follow suit, it would be hard, in Washington's view, to keep the rest of the region from doing the same.
The Reagan administration sees this scenario as a real possibility. So it is pumping an additional $55 million of military aid to the Salvadoran government as it struggles against leftist guerrillas.
The US is shoring up the Salvadoran government on the diplomatic front, too, certifying that the junta is improving its human-rights record. But not all observers of El Salvador believe there is improvement on this score. The Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, recently charged the Salvadoran government is responsible for 12,500 deaths in 1981.
The Reagan view is not universally shared by neighbor nations in the Western Hemisphere, either. Argentina and Venezuela go along with the Washington approach, but Mexico does not. France and several other European countries also disagree with the Reagan assessment.
Indeed, Mexico and France see the guerrilla tide sweeping the area as home grown, albeit with perhaps some Marxist support. They see the promise of radical change under the guerrillas as the way the people of Central America want to go. France is beginning to provide a limited supply of arms to Nicaragua in direct opposition to Washington policy.
Washington faces some clear problems in the situation. Just how far should the US go in involving itself in Central America? It already is supplying $200 million in economic and military aid to El Salvador. More is planned -- not only to El Salvador, but also to other countries.
The specter of a region controlled by leftist forces friendly to both Cuba and the Soviet Union sends shivers through official Washington. But as Washington escalates both its economic and military support of the hard-pressed government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, there are many who recall the US entrapment in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early '70s.
Will that trap be repeated here? Is the situation similar?
There are no quick answers. But the risk to the Reagan administration is high in terms of human lives, resources, and political divisions at home.
Yet the administration argues that it must somehow blunt the leftist challenge in the US front yard. It is keeping its options open. At the moment, more military assistance to El Salvador is planned. Greater economic assistance is likely.
Meanwhile, the struggle for Central America's 20 million people goes on.
Here is a brief rundown on the six nations of the area: EL SALVADOR