Central America caught in wave of violence

Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the core of the current revolutionary ferment in Central America. Political assassination and terrorism are part of the daily round in all three countries.

Over the past 12 months, at least 4,000 people have been killed in El Salvador, and the daily toll there has risen to at least 40. In Guatemala, the total of political murders since this time last year is between 800 and 900. In Nicaragua, the figure for the same period is about 400.

It is in Nicaragua that the leftward revolutionary swing has gone the furthest. Most of the violence that attended the active stages of the revolution is now past. The 400 who fell there were virtually all killed in the tumult following the fall of right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle just over a year ago. So, paradoxically, the currently most peaceful of the three countries is the one that has swung furthest left.

It is this same Nicaragua that is being watched anxiously for the first definitive sign as to whether leftward revolution in Central America can steady itself short of a totalitarianism that would rule out cooperation with the United States.

The bellwether in Nicaragua is the country's middle class. It has so far chosen to stay on and not flee the country, despite last year's victory of the left-wing Sandinistas. If that middle class started to leave in large numbers, it would almost certainly be doing so because it had come to the conclusion that the Sandinistas were going to turn Nicaragua into another Cuba after all.

To the north of Nicaragua, in neighboring El Salvador, the swing has gone from extreme right to shaky center and is being held there with US support.

In Guatemala, the pendulum is still over on the far right. The almost daily violence bespeaks a mainly left-inspired effort to dislodge the pendulum from the extreme position where it has been stuck since 1954. That was the year the US CIA intervened to help overthrow a leftist government and replace it with one of the hard right.

The Carter administration has recognized (in the words of William G. Bowdler, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs) that "we cannot be indifferent to pressures for change" in Central America. Since it broke with Nicaraguan strong man Somoza last year -- too late in the game, some critics of US policy says -- the administration has, in fact, sought to identify itself with change.

Certainly Fidel Castro has better lines of communication than has the US to the nine- man left-wing Sandinista directorate that is the ultimate seat of power in Nicaragua behind the five-man junta that is the official government. (The junta includes two respected non-Sandinista public figures.)

But as an earnest that the US has not abandoned the field, Mr. Bowdler himself was a guest last month at celebrations in Nicaragua marking the first anniversary of the Sandinistas' overthrow of General Somoza. The celebration was also attended by Fidel Castro.

The US Ambassador to Nicaragua, Lawrence Pezzullo, was quoted by Newsweek magazine last month as saying: "The most dreadful theses about this country have not come to pass. Nicaragua is an acceptable model of a country after a revolution -- and that's crucially important for the whole region."

What is not clear is whether the relative tranquility and moderation in Nicaragua are merely tactical (perhaps even counseled by Fidel Castro), or whether the Sandinistas are genuinely set on a revolution of their own design that would permit pluralistic politics and continued free enterprise. Conservative opinion both in Central America and the US leans toward the more pessimistic of these two possibilities. This, in turn, raises the question of whether US policy toward Central America would swing back toward support of the hard-line right if Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House next January.

In El Salvador, the US is caught in the cross fire of a virtual civil war. The victory of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua last summer sent shockwaves across the border to El Salvador, described in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs as a land "burdened with the most rigid class structure in all of Latin America."

In October 1979, in an apparent attempt to initiate reforms aimed at forestalling perhaps violent revolution from the left, a group of young Salvadorean Army officers staged a bloodless coup and ousted hardline, right-wing strong man Carlos Humberto Romero. In his place was installed a Revolutionary Junta of Government (JRG), with moderate civilian and military membership.

Initially the JRG sought to woo the left (radical segments of which called for insurrection from the start) by announcing a progressive reform program. But the oligarchy of the traditional top 14 families still had enough clout with the residual conservative military leadership to block implementation of the program. The original civilian members of the JRG resigned in protest in January and have been replaced by members of the center Christian Democratic Party.

The result has been complete alienation of the left. It has gone into outright armed opposition to the JRG. The danger, of course, is that if the right-wing violence is not stopped, not only the JRG but also the US will be charged with condoning, even orchestrating it.

Moving northward, a still-entrenched right in Guatemala watches with as much concern what is happening next door in El Salvador as the right in El Salvador watched what was happening next door in Nicaragua. Simultaneously the movement for reform in both Nicaragua and El Salvador has roused the once passive and largely illiterate Guatemalan masses -- which include a bigger proportion of Indians than does the population of any other Central American republic.

The rumblings in Guatemala are only beginning. But they are enough for the Guatemalan right, holding the reins of power for a quarter of a century, to start cracking down. The incidence of violence is already so high (to quote Mr. Bowdler again) that it "threatens to polarize and radicalize Guatemalan society."

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