The result of rattling sabers in Central America
What the Reagan people assumed about Central America when they came to Washington a year and a month ago is more true today than it was then.Skip to next paragraph
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Many Western experts and diplomatic observers think that what was curable then may be irreversible now. Here are the highlights of the present situation.
The rebels in El Salvador enjoy increased popular support, have become more radical, and are doing far better in the fighting.
The revolutionary government in Nicaragua is more radical, more closely tied in with Cuba, more anti-American - and very much stronger militarily.
The Cuban armed forces have been resupplied by Moscow with later and better weapons, have strengthened themselves by bringing home from overseas many of their best battle-seasoned fighters, enjoy more general public support, and are braced to resist any attempted United States invasion.
The Reagan people came into office sounding as though they would soon be invading Cuba and taking new military action against the revolution in Nicaragua and the rebellion in El Salvador.
But then nothing substantial was done to back up the threats. In effect, Washington first frightened the radicals in Central America, then gave them more than a year in which to perfect their organization, to appeal for more help from Moscow (which apparently came), and to use latent anti-''Yankeeism'' to improve their popular position at home.
Words and phrases that in Washington sounded more or less routine and obviously had no strategic plan behind them had practical and undoubtedly unintended results in Central America. President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had talked about ''drawing a line'' and eliminating subversion in Central America ''at its source.''
It sounded ''tough'' on the American hustings. In Central America it was taken to mean that the Reagan administration might mount a military expedition at least against Fidel Castro in Cuba.
The Cuban government reacted by first seeking diplomatic exchanges with the Reagan people. When that got nowhere and the Washington rhetoric escalated, they took fright. By late summer and early fall of last year the Castro people in Cuba apparently expected an invasion. At one time the Cuban armed forces went to battle stations and manned the beaches, the airfields, and other likely points for a US invasion.
According to a Western diplomat stationed in Cuba, the majority of the Cuban people a year ago were friendly toward the US or at least not anti-American in spite of years of Castro anti-American propaganda. But the talk of a possible US invasion has aroused their sense of patriotism. The net effect of the talk in Cuba has been to give Senor Castro the role of defender of the motherland. Apparently he has more popular support now than he could have enjoyed a year ago.
A similar side effect is to be noted among friends and allies. In West Europe the effect of the rattling of the American saber in the direction of Central America has been to arouse sympathy for the Central American radicals. European capitals seem to have difficulty understanding the difference between the Soviet attitude toward Poland and the US attitude toward Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
To a European there is a tendency to think that if the Poles should be free to be Poles, so too should Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans be free to be themselves.