Never before has the United States paid so much attention to events in Central America; but never before has the area been in such upheaval. Revolutionary ferment is everywhere; it already has appeared in Nicaragua, where a new left-leaning government has been in power for almost a year, struggling to pick up the pieces from an 18-month civil war.
In neighboring El Salvador, similar ferment is nudging that country toward social and economic reforms that would parallel the intentions of the new leaders in Nicaragua.
And in Guatemala, where the ferment is less evident, but nonetheless strong, the likelihood of change is very real. Revolution in Guatemala may be further off, but it is merely a matter of time, according to local observers.
At an time when the Carter administration is preoccupied with events in Afghanistan and Iran, the present turmoil in Central America "is something we did not need," as a State Department spokesman said recently.
But part of the unrest in the area springs from the Carter administration's earlier emphasis on human rights.
Numerous Salvadorean leftists say they took heart from President Carter's human rights stand and, as a result, were encouraged to launch their own attack on the rightist military regime that was toppled last October by a joint civilian-military junta. Now, to Washington's dismay, those leftists are fighting with the junta.
The US sees the junta as a way to both preserve the peace and ensure economic and social change in El Salvador. It also sees the junta as the means of stemming the turmoil that is spreading from El Salvador to other Central american countries. But Salvadorean leftists are not convinced that the change they clamor of will result from actions taken by the junta.
"The junta is merely one more evidence of the oligarchy's cross attempt to hold on to power," proclaimed a communique by one of the leftist organizations in El Salvador in May.
The Nicaraguan civil war between the forces of Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the self-styled Sandinista guerrillas helps to explain the present turmoil in Central America.
The Somoza government crumbled last July 17 after an 18-month struggle with the Sandinistas who had captured the imagination of many Nicaraguans. That struggle took 50,000 lives, injured more than 150,000, and left 500,000 of Nicaragua's 2.5 million people homeless. When the dust finally settled, Nicaragua's new leaders inaugurated a somewhat pluralistic government and adopted mixed economic policies that have yet to repair the tremendous destruction of the war.
What the future holds is anyone's guess. But there can be no mistaking the change from Somocista Nicaragua to Sandinista Nicaragua. The Sandinistas are nudging Nicaragua leftward and implementing a much more popular government than existed previously. But the changes are being felt far beyond Nicaragua's borders. Central America has not been the same since the Sandinistas took over.
Heartened by the Sandinista guerrilla victory in Nicaragua, opposition elements, including guerrillas, in El Salvador and Guatemala are wondering if they, too, can overthrow their governments in the same way.
This is how the present situation in Central America looks: El Salvador:
The current flash spot is El Salvador, Central America's smallest country. This handsome, mountainous, and overpopulated land has long been ruled by an oligarchy that permitted little opportunity to the masses. But in the past decade, those masses have been clamoring for change. The poor have been supported by elements within the Roman Catholic Church and by an increasingly vocal leftist movement. But the oligarchy and much of the military establishment stands in their way, actively opposing the forces of change.
In the ensuing struggle, armed clashes have become commonplace. The death toll rises almost daily. Since Jan. 1, more than 3,200 Salvadoreans have been killed. Many of those on the left, including church groups, put the blame squarely on the government.
Police in the city of Santa Ana, for example, attacked a hospital June 26 ostensibly used to treat liftists. They machine-gunned to death three doctors, four nurses, and a baby. Later, military officials claimed the victims had resisted. "With what, their stethoscope?" asked a local lawyer.
Such incidents have led a variety of international human rights organizations to castigate the present government of El Salvador, and particularly the military. "They are ultimately responsible," says an Amnesty International report. "They cannot escape this responsibility."
But government leaders in the joint military-civilian junta that has ruled since Oct. 15 say that, despite occasional lapses, the military and the police are not engaged in such activities. Instead, they put the blame for much of the killing on leftist agitators, although suggesting that rightist agitators are also responsible for some of the crime.
Whoever is responsible, the violence is escalating and the country is being torn apart.
The United States finds itself in a dilemma over El Salvador. The escalating violence and the suggestion that the military is acting irresponsibly have led Washington to be skeptical of successive Salvadorean governments. But a recent US policy decision now puts the united States on the side of the Salvadorean government, arguing that the present government is the only alternative to anarchy -- while at the same time urging the joint military-civilian junta to respect human rights.
The junta, for its part, is embarked on a broad economic and social reform program, which includes Latin America's most extensive land reform measure since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This program is aimed at answering the Salvadorean call for such reform and also at undercutting the left, which has made these reforms a cardinal point of its policy.
El Salvador is clearly a focal point of US hemisphere policy at the moment, and it is likely to remain so for some time to come. Most observers see little likelihood that the current confrontation and violence will subside soon. Nicaragua:
If it is El Salvador this year, it was Nicaragua last year -- and as the government in Managua gets ready to celebrate its first anniversary, the general assessment of political and economic conditions in this volcanic land is guardedly good.
That is quite a change from the shattered country of a year ago, which saw 30 percent of its industry destroyed and agriculture set back a couple of years at least.
The Sandinista guerrillas, a left-leaning force that had attracted the support of large segments of the population, were suddenly in charge, replacing the Somoza family dynasty which had ruled Nicaragua for 45 years. The Sandinistas cast about for help from abroad, promising a pluralistic political society and a mixed economic course.
Relief efforts by the US, Cuba, and other countries were quick in coming. But the more serious tasks of rehabilitation, requiring millions -- if not billions of dollars -- were simply so staggering and the money unavailable that most forecasts were gloomy.
Despite dispute in the US Congress over a $75 million aid program that is designed to encourage Nicaragua's battered private sector, the US has put one of the most impressive diplomatic teams anywhere into Nicaragua. Led by Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, the US Embassy is, by all accounts, playing a constructive, supportive role in helping the Sandinistas solve their problems and plan constructively for the future.
Moreover, the Sandinistas, true to their word, have put together a pluralistic society and are guaranteeing private property, encouraging the private sector, and promising to honor all sorts of political rights. The fear that the Sandinistas would embrace Marxism as their sole political ideology has not materialized. In fact, there is some evidence that leading Sandinistas question many Marxist tenets.
Still, Nicaragua is not out of the woods. Its future is very much in doubt. The economy was shattered and remains so. There is little new private investment. And the international lending agencies, international banks, and countries, like the United States, that provide bilateral assistance, have not come to Nicaragua's rescue.
Cuba is there with teams of teachers and medical personnel -- perhaps as many as 2,000. This worries observers in the US, but the Nicaraguans say they will accept personnel from anyone who offers it. And that goes for the US in particular, says Tomas Borge Martinez, one of the nine members of the Sandinista Directorate -- the ultimate authority in Nicaragua.
"Let them come," he adds. "I will welcome them with open arms."
What this suggests is a fluidity in Nicaragua's top leadership, a situation that means the final lines of the new Nicaraguan government have not been drawn. It helps explain why Washington is putting so much attention on Nicaragua and putting such a good diplomatic team on the scene. Guatemala:
Next to El Salvador, Guatemala is generally seen as the most volatile country in Central America. But its volatility is nothing new. A virtual civil war between three Marxist guerrilla groups and the government in the 1960s tore the country apart at the seams.
"Are we heading back toward another such era," asks respected columnist Alvaro Contreras Veliz, in the Guatemala City newspaper Prensa Libre.
The present military government, headed by Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia, was elected two years ago with the promise of restoring the country to civilian rule. But that promise appears further off than ever with the country's two major civilian opposition leaders having been killed by assassins' bullets.
Moreover, the military now talks about remaining in power "for the foreseeable future," as an Army colonel said in May. "If we do not stay in power, the country will fall into anarchy."
Many observers feel anarchy is already the order of the day. They point to mounting violence, which many blame on the government. Right-wing vigilante groups regularly claim responsibility for killings of moderate or leftist politicians, and these groups seem to operate with virtual impunity.
Since February, 15 professors at the University of San Carlos have been killed. In the latest incident, two alleged assassins were picked up by the police, only to have one confess he was a government agent, upon which he was shot to death. The other was doused with gasoline and burned alive.
At the same time, leftist groups, inheritors of the 1960s tradition, are clearly active -- and responsible for killings of more than 30 Army officers in the past six months.
Political disintegration in Guatemala seems to have taken the US by surprise. The US recently rushed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs James R. Cheek to Guatamala City to talk with the Lucas Garcia government about the rightist violence in particular. The Guatemalan President refused to receive him.
Moreover, Washington now plans to replace Ambassador Frank V. Ortiz, a career foreign service officer.Ambassador Ortiz has been criticized by Guatemalan leftists and others for having close ties to President Lucas Garcia. The US Ambassador has protested to President Garcia over the current trend in Guatenalan affairs, but the US is sending a more contentious replacement to get the message across that it does not approve of what is going on. Honduras:
"If Honduras were an island," comments newsman Hector Macias, "the problems of its Central American neighbors would in no way loom large as a threat to Honduras' stability.
"But of course, Honduras is not an island, but a country sandwiched between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua."
In one way or another, newsman Macias' lament is heard frequently in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital -- and the comment suggests the direction of Honduran thinking.
Honduras is the most stable of all four countries, with only Costa Rica to the south enjoying similar tranquillity.
Like its neighbors, Honduras has long had a military government. Its present leader is Gen. Policarpio Paz Garcia, hero of the 1969 "soccer war" with El Salvador.
One does not hear much talk about that war anymore, although just a few years ago Honduras proudly proclaimed they had won against a better-trained, better-equipped, and larger Salvadorean Army, due largely to the gutsiness of then Major Paz Garcia.
General Paz Garcia is clearly liked by many of his fellow countrymen, although observers suggest he may have been a better soldier than a politician. He seems strangely out of place as President of Honduras. At first glance, a figurehead with others running the country. Yet, when he wants to, General Paz Garcia can make his weight felt. He won't be in that role for more than a year, however, since presidential elections scheduled within a year are aimed at returning Honduras to vilian rule -- unless, of course, he decides to run for the presidency.
Even some of General Paz Garcia's most lotal admirers hope he does not run, for they worry that this might spark a nascent guerrilla movement. There have been a few signs of such a guerrilla activity, but so far it has made little noise.
Honduras are enjoying a relatively thriving economy with an increase of 7 percent in the gross national product last year and a similar tally expected this year. Moreover, a growing middle class has allowed more Hondurans to share in this prosperity. It is estimated that the percentage of Honduras' 3.5 million poor has actually decreased slightly in the past five years. A low population growth rate helps. Costa Rica:
If Honduras is an oasis of tranquillity in the region, Costa Rica has a reputation for being tranquillity itself.
This quiet land at the southern end of Central America, however, has increasingly become embroiled in the region's controversies. For a time, it was the staging area for Sandinista guerrilla attacks on the Somoza government in Nicaragua. Its obvious support of the Sandinistas at one point belied its official neutrality. Later ir thought better of the support and took the neutral stance it embraces today.
But the controversies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala are very much a topic of interest and concern in Costa Rica.
"We are not far away from those problems," say s President Rodrigo Carazo Odio. "We cannot escape their effects."
That worries Costa Ricans, and it is a point that San Jose's leading newspaper La Nacion keeps mentioning. "The smoldering embers of turmoil are all around us and we must be ever vigilant," wrote an editorialist for La Nacion.
Yet, with an economy that continues to grow at 5 percent or more a year, and with a low population growth rate, Costa Rica is one of Latin America's most socially progressive nations. There is poverty, but for Central America, it is a low 25 percent of the population. Unemployment, while higher than acceptable, is only 8 percent.
Moreover, Costa Rica is the only true democracy in the area -- with a continuous string of civilian governments over the past four decades. It regularly elects opposition leaders who after a time are voted out for the return of another party to power.
But the turmoil of the area to the north "is an ominouswarning to us," says President Carazo Odio.
And the Costa Rican worry about the problem is ome aspect of Washington's concern. It does not want to see Costa Rica go the way of the rest of the region.