Letting democracy sell itself

MUCH of the ferment that underlies today's strife in Central America is ideological. The poor seek personal liberties that are taken for granted in mature democracies, as well as access to a fairer share of material wealth. What system of governance would most aid them in attaining these goals? In this ideological struggle, the United States has problems to overcome as it seeks popular support in the region, both of perception and of history -- such as yesteryear's support of dictators who suppressed their citizenry.

But the US also has a major asset: the personal and ideological freedoms that American democracy provides. It is a striking contrast with Marxism, now aggressively importuning adherents from among Central America's impoverished. It would aid the US cause, and the fledgling if flawed democracies that Washington supports, if poor and youthful Central Americans could study in US colleges, then return home with firsthand accounts of life in a mature democracy. For all its imperfections, democracy can sell itself.

Only a relative handful of poor Central Americans have had this experience -- until now. The children of wealthy Central Americans have been able to study in the US, but few scholarships have been available to aid the poor.

The scholarship concept has gained bipartisan support, including that from the Kissinger Commission. The result was last year's congressional and administration approval of a $3.8 million scholarship program for scholarships for impoverished Central American students, the first 150 of whom arrived in the US this week. They come from all seven Central American nations, including Nicaragua.

Compared with the thousands of Latin Americans -- including hundreds of Central Americans -- who study every year in the Soviet Union, this is a small start.Nonetheless, it is important.

Overall, about 342,000 foreign students each year attend American colleges.

It often seems as though the United States, while understandably concerned with grave present and potential military conflicts in Central America, is ignoring its most potent weapon for influencing people's thinking -- ideas. Now Washington has finally entered the playing field that Moscow and its friends too long have had to themselves: It is a good move for all the Americas.

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