The Reagan administration is like a juggler on a high wire as it tries to handle the many crises of Central America. Of immediate concern are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The administration recognizes that if it drops the ball in any one of these, it could encourage the crisis there to blow up and reverberate through the others.
El Salvador: This smoldering civil war between the extremes of right and left is now at the heart of the problem of Central America. It is becoming clear that the Reagan administration, while still committed to preventing victory by the left, is concentrating on seeking a political solution.
The need for this was a major topic during Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte's Sept. 20-29 visit to Washington. And this week, a fairly high-powered State Department delegation has gone to El Salvador to exlore "ways in which the US can be helpful in the period of preparation and in the holding of elections," scheduled in March.
Nicaragua: The Sandinistas have taken the anti-Somoza revolution much further leftward than the US finds comfortable. They have backed the Salvadoran left and have lines out to the Cubans and to Eastern Europe. With a regular Army of 40,000 and a popular militia of 70,000, they have the largest armed forces in Central America.
The US accuses the Sandinistas of being both a conduit for and a supplier of arms to the extreme left in El Salvador. The Reagan administration has shown its displeasure by cutting off in April the relatively modest supply of US economic aid which the Carter administration had been sending to Nicaragua in the hope of putting a brake on those in the Sandinista coalition pulling it ever leftward.
The cutoff has added to the revolutionary regime's economic woes. Reports from within Nicaragua indicate a growing disillusionment with the revolution because it has not satisfied expectations. The regime last month ordered further belt tightening. But because the regime still needs the private sector, it lets the latter continue to function.
Guatemala: Here there is the reverse of the situation in Nicaragua. The Guatemalan government is an extreme right regime fearful that victory for the left in El Salvador might pose a mortal threat to itself.
The present mix in Guatemala is potentially explosive. The regime of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia does not hesitate to be ruthless. It is challenged by an incipient left-wing revolutionary guerrilla movement fed by radical elements in the Roman Catholic Church, by an unprecedented upsurge of political awareness of the country's big impoverished Indian population, and by the example of the left in both Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Guatemala is the most populous and the richest of all the countries of the isthmus. It has oil.US aid is only about a quarter of that going to Honduras and less than a tenth of that to El Salvador. It is getting no US military aid at all. General Lucas's hands are too tarnished by political violence.
Yet within the administration there is considerable sensitivity about the consequences of any takeover by the extreme left in Guatemala. That would establish a Marxist -- and presumably pro-Cuban and pro-Soviet -- regime on Mexico's southern border.
There are repeated signs that Washington is exploring ways of closer relations with Guatemala, if only the Guatemalan right-wingers would make this politically possible. A presidential election is scheduled next year. In the past quarter century, such elections have meant little more than a changing of the guard by prearrangement. But next year the election could be a cue for "macho" action -- either on El Salvador or on Belize.
Honduras: The poorest and paradoxically the quietest of the four countries of the isthmus. The rightist military government under Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia is more forward-looking than its counterpart in Guatemala.
Elections due Nov. 29, if unhindered, should give Honduras its first popularly elected government in two decades. So far, the campaign has been relatively free of either political violence or intimidation.
But the calm was broken Sept. 23 by two apparently isolated incidents: the shooting and wounding of two US NCOs from a team of 14 American military advisers in Honduras; and an explosion at the Honduras parliament. The radical Lorenzo Zelaya Popular Revolutionary Command claimed responsibility for both acts against "Yankee imperialism" and its Honduras "puppets."
The US aim is to help Honduras keep itself as isolated as possible from the violence in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. At the same time, the Reagan administration is concerned to improve Honduran efforts to stop any flow of arms from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua across Honduran territory to the left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador.