Shaping up Central America

By , Pat Holt, formerly chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington

Going back at least to the Eisenhower administration, conservative Latin American governments have successfully manipulated the United States by using the specter of communism.

''If you don't help us,'' their argument has gone, ''the communists will take over the country, and then the United States will have a real security problem.''

The proper answer to this is, ''If your country goes communist, it will be because you misgoverned and exploited it for so long, and it will hurt you a great deal more than it will hurt the US. We would not like another communist government in this hemisphere, but our experience with Cuba proves we can live with one. If you will shape up and give your common people a break and otherwise do something to save yourselves, we may find it in our hearts to help you. But we're not going to help you perpetuate your own corrupt, unjust system.''

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That is what the US ought to say, but no administration of either party has had the courage to say it. Instead, the US has huffed and puffed, pleaded and cajoled, in an effort to persuade the Latin American oligarchy to reform itself. The oligarchies have smiled and given us some good rhetoric that we wanted to hear. But they have been woefully short on action, secure in the belief that when the chips are down, the gringo paranoia about communism will keep the checks flowing.

Nowhere has this syndrome been more apparent than in Central America. And in recommending an $8 billion aid program for the area, the Kissinger commission has fallen into the same trap.

The $8 billion figure was arrived at by estimating the gap in the balance of payments and the gap between saving and a desirable level of investment. This is an exercise in economics; it ignores the political realities.

The exercise ought to start, not with a calculation of the resources which would be necessary, in an ideal system, to cure poverty in Central America, but rather with asking why there is poverty in the first place. It is not for lack of resources; it is for misuse of resources. The social system is unjust, the economic system is exploitative, and the political system is corrupt and is manipulated so as to keep those who are exploited from doing anything about it.

Until these things are remedied, American aid, especially on anything approaching the scale envisaged by the Kissinger commission, will come to rest in Miami bank accounts or investments in Florida real estate. And the wretched, grinding poverty will continue. So will the guerrillas.

There is brave talk in Washington about matching the aid to progress toward reform. We have heard that talk before, and in the end Washington has always caved in - because of ''overriding political considerations,'' in the words of dozens of diplomatic cables in State Department files. The Reagan administration has even less backbone about these things than its predecessors. It is only halfhearted, at best, about tying military aid to El Salvador to Salvadorean progress in curbing the death squads.

Notwithstanding the discouraging historical record, both the Reagan administration and Congress may fall for the delusion represented by the Kissinger commission report. The Reagan administration has yet to give many signs that it knows much history. And Congress often succumbs to the notion that if you throw enough money at a problem, it will go away. Even before the Kissinger commission, some members of Congress who should have known better were talking about ''a Marshall Plan for Central America,'' as though Central America had the know-how and the political systems which made the Marshall Plan work in Europe.

But there may be hope. As has happened before, the great American public gives evidence of being more sensible than its government. A recent Harris poll shows that Americans:

* Oppose increasing military aid to El Salvador.

* Oppose the Kissinger commission economic aid proposals.

* Oppose covert aid to Nicaraguan rebels.

* Oppose American military maneuvers in Honduras.

And all of this is by majorities ranging from 62-29 percent to 76-17 percent.

At the same time, a 59-31 percent majority favors tying aid to El Salvador not only to progress in human rights and in curbing death squads, but also to progress in establishing a fair system of justice. A similar majority favors negotiations with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Here are the elements of a sound policy. Is anybody on Washington listening?

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