If there is a lesson to be learned from the relationship of the United States with El Salvador, it is how not to conduct foreign policy in a strife-ridden Central American nation. This lesson should be applied by the US to future dealings with Guatemala, a nation on the edge of civil war.
All of Central America is struggling to come to terms with a rapidly changing world. The economies of these countries are in shambles. Their rate of growth is down drastically from the rapid growth most of the region experienced in the '60 s and early '70s, and the prospects for the future are dim.
US policy in El Salvador has proved that military assistance does not address the basic problem of underdevelopment that exists throughout Central America.
The situation in Guatemala is remarkably similar. Guatemala has been struggling internally for over 20 years. Since 1954, with the overthrow of the popularly elected government of Jacobo Arbenz by the Guatemalan Army and the CIA , Guatemala has been controlled by the oligarchy and the Army. This ruling coalition has done little to reverse Guatemala's rampant poverty. Eighty-one percent of the children under the age of five are malnourished. Unemployment is excessively high, and the conditions for Guatemala's poor have been steadily deteriorating.
But it was the success of the Nicaraguan revolution, the open struggle in El Salvador, and the overwhelming repression of the recently deposed Lucas-Garcia government that brought the situation in Guatemala to a boiling point.
On March 23, officers in the Guatemalan Army staged a coup and placed a former general and born-again Christian, Efrain Rios-Montt, at the head of the new junta. Rios-Montt subsequently consolidated his power, and proclaimed himself President. He also dismissed the other members of the junta.
Since the coup, the Reagan administration has indicated that it wants to sell military equipment and supply military assistance to the new Guatemalan regime. Currently the US does not provide military aid or sell military equipment to Guatemala because of its poor human rights record.
Now is not the time to resume sending aid to Guatemala. The violence there is increasing. Although the atmosphere in urban centers has become less tense, the overall level of killing, particularly in the countryside, has not abated.
El Grafico, Guatemala's second largest newspaper, recently published an editorial saying that, as long as the level of violence in Guatemala remains high, Guatemala does not deserve assistance.
In the beginning of July, Rios-Montt declared a state of siege for 30 days to try and quell Guatemala's rebels. On Aug. 1 he extended it for 30 days. The state of siege includes restrictions on union and political activity and on freedom of the press.
There is no agrarian reform program planned for Guatemala. Further, no elections have been scheduled, and Rios-Montt's economic and political recovery programs are still very unclear. Despite this, Rios-Montt preaches reform.
The new Guatemalan President is not an easy person to understand. His speeches have an evangelical flavor. He often complicates matters with unchecked public pronouncements.
For instance, in the beginning of May he offered amnesty to the guerrillas but at the same time threatened to shoot anyone who didn't accept his olive branch.
If the US begins to send aid to Guatemala, Rios-Montt will take this as a sign of acceptance of his present policies. It's too early to send him a positive signal. Guatemala's human rights record has not improved.
Isolating Rios-Montt would not, however, serve any useful purpose. Dialogue between the US and Rios-Montt should continue. But the US should also begin to establish contacts with the Guatemalan left in order to get a complete picture of Guatemalan problems.
It is important for the US to promote its interests in Guatemala, but, for the moment, those interests are best promoted by the US standing aside and allowing events there to unfold. There will be plenty of time to offer assistance once Guatemala has improved its human rights record.
One of the lessons learned in El Salvador is the need for the US to take a more gradual approach to the problems of Central America. The wars in that region are, to a great extent, wars of pride. The history of central America is one of poverty and oppression, and the image of the US throughout the region is a reflection of that history.
It will take time and a more understanding US attitude of Central America's complexities before that image will change. The US must remember this as it continues to develop its policy toward Guatemala. There is no need to repeat the mistakes of El Salvador.