In Central America, time for change

THE United States policy of going it alone in Central America has failed. Contra aid is a dead issue in Congress. Nicaragua wallows in virtual chaos, with its economy in tatters and its Sandinista leaders, still in power, pointing the finger of blame at Washington. In El Salvador, the other focal point of US policy in the region, the civil war seems to be deepening as Marxist guerrillas launch new terrorist attacks. The Christian Democratic government limps toward elections early next year, which are likely to install the right-wing ARENA party. The Salvadoran economy, too, is battered by war and propped up by American aid. A Monitor series this week indicates the scope of the problems there.

What can a new US administration, taking office in January, do to change direction and work toward the still distant goal of economic and political stability in Central America?

First, it can honor the diplomatic imperative of listening to its allies in the region. Most Latin Americans are convinced that the US, harried by fears of communist victory near its border, has let its own national security concerns blind it to the immediate needs of Central Americans for peace and economic renewal.

Second, it can recognize that meeting these needs demands a long-term, continuing commitment. Historically, the US has popped in and out of the region as American interests dictated - responding to crises and sometimes creating them. Before the Reagan administration began its huge injection of aid to El Salvador in the early '80s, American assistance in the region had dropped way down. Aid has to be maintained, and it has to be directed toward easing the fundamental problems of social inequity and poverty which underlie political instability.

Third, every effort has to be made to snuff out the region's wars. Things are militarily quiet in Nicaragua now, and this presents an opportunity to work toward an accommodation that could include an end to Soviet influence in the country - linked to a guarantee of no more US military support for the rebels. Economic aid to Nicaragua should be an international effort tied to Sandinista willingness to open Nicaraguan society and allow democratic expression.

In El Salvador, the problem of conflict is difficult, since both the government and the guerrillas believe they have a chance for victory. The US should not back down from its deep commitment to the government, but it could hinge continued military aid on a willingness to negotiate with the opposition. Reconciliation and negotiation, not elusive military victory, have to be central to the US policy there.

All these steps require, above all, a change in attitude and perspective on the part of Washington. We hope a new administration will bring that. Our long-suffering neighbors to the south deserve it.

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