Great Decisions '82; Central America: fire in the 'front yard'?

'We are engaged in a war against those forces that would destroy our homes, our cities, our farms, our nation, our religion,'' says Guatemala President Romeo Lucas Garcia, commenting on growing leftist insurgency in Guatemala.

''We must, and we will, save our society,'' General Lucas Garcia adds.

Behind the general's comment is deepening concern not only here, but also throughout much of Central America, that the guerrilla insurgency is beginning to take its toll on established society.

Leftist forces friendly to Cuba and the Soviet Union are clearly on the offensive in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the former, the guerrillas threaten to gain the upper hand. Their allies are also present in two others -- Honduras and Costa Rica.

Promising radical political, economic, and social change, the insurgents are no longer simply a troublesome group; they are getting bold and strong enough to bring down governments.

That is also Washington's worry. For the Reagan administration, in the words of UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, ''Central America is the most important place in the world for the United States today.''

The countries of the area, once pejoratively called ''banana republics'' because of their small size and their basic crop, bananas, have moved from the back pages of newspapers onto the front pages and onto nightly television. Central America is no longer a backwater of US interest.

The Reagan administration is convinced that the political fate of Central America is crucial to US national security. It sees a leftist, pro-Cuba group of countries in the region as detrimental to US interests in the Americas.

Already Nicaragua, with its Marxist-leaning Sandinista leadership, has moved tentatively into the Cuban-Soviet orbit.

Were El Salvador, which is the current focus of Marxist intent, to follow suit, it would be hard, in Washington's view, to keep the rest of the region from doing the same.

The Reagan administration sees this scenario as a real possibility. So it is pumping an additional $55 million of military aid to the Salvadoran government as it struggles against leftist guerrillas.

The US is shoring up the Salvadoran government on the diplomatic front, too, certifying that the junta is improving its human-rights record. But not all observers of El Salvador believe there is improvement on this score. The Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, recently charged the Salvadoran government is responsible for 12,500 deaths in 1981.

The Reagan view is not universally shared by neighbor nations in the Western Hemisphere, either. Argentina and Venezuela go along with the Washington approach, but Mexico does not. France and several other European countries also disagree with the Reagan assessment.

Indeed, Mexico and France see the guerrilla tide sweeping the area as home grown, albeit with perhaps some Marxist support. They see the promise of radical change under the guerrillas as the way the people of Central America want to go. France is beginning to provide a limited supply of arms to Nicaragua in direct opposition to Washington policy.

Washington faces some clear problems in the situation. Just how far should the US go in involving itself in Central America? It already is supplying $200 million in economic and military aid to El Salvador. More is planned -- not only to El Salvador, but also to other countries.

The specter of a region controlled by leftist forces friendly to both Cuba and the Soviet Union sends shivers through official Washington. But as Washington escalates both its economic and military support of the hard-pressed government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, there are many who recall the US entrapment in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early '70s.

Will that trap be repeated here? Is the situation similar?

There are no quick answers. But the risk to the Reagan administration is high in terms of human lives, resources, and political divisions at home.

Yet the administration argues that it must somehow blunt the leftist challenge in the US front yard. It is keeping its options open. At the moment, more military assistance to El Salvador is planned. Greater economic assistance is likely.

Meanwhile, the struggle for Central America's 20 million people goes on.

Here is a brief rundown on the six nations of the area: EL SALVADOR

This small land is the eye of the storm at the moment. Guerrillas control a significant portion of the countryside and often operate with impunity in the cities. But a military-civilian government that dates to October 1979 and is staunchly supported by the US is in power -- struggling to maintain that power and defeat the guerrillas.The situation is a veritable civil war. In the past 21 /2 years, some 30,000 Salvadorans have lost their lives in the struggle, countless others have been injured, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. Neither the guerrillas nor the government can yet count on victory. But it is clear that growing US military assistance and the presence of some 30 US military advisers have not given the government an edge over the guerrillas.

The war has led to charges of brutality and violations of human rights against the government, and to countercharges of similar violence against the leftist insurgents. There seems little doubt that many of those killed have lost their lives in incidents that are not simply combat-related. But the charges and countercharges are hard to prove.

Meanwhile, the Duarte government is working hard to reform an antiquated social and economic system that has led many idealistic young people to join the guerrillas in hopes of bringing about change. A land reform program that would turn large private estates into cooperative farms, grant ownership of smaller plots to peasants, and open rural credit offices is being pushed by the government.

Although there is debate over its success, there is no doubt that a good deal has been accomplished. Where land reform has been successful, it has generated a peasantry opposed to the guerrilla efforts.

The guerrillas, who have long called for these reforms, argue the government's efforts are not enough. They are basically suspicious of its intentions. They charge also that government troops have engaged in massacres of Salvadoran citizens, and reports of these alleged human-rights violations have caused a worldwide outcry.

President Duarte seems powerless to curb the military, which acts as if it were a state within itself -- brooking no civilian interference. The charges of human-rights violations are leveled not so much at Duarte as at the military.

Amid the fighting the Duarte government has scheduled elections March 28 for a constitutional assembly. This body will be charged with writing a new constitution and deciding whether to retain President Duarte or name an interim chief executive to serve until the next balloting for president, scheduled for August 1983. The guerrillas and their political allies have refused to participate, but martial law and other wartime restrictions have been lifted during the campaign, which is proceeding at this time. GUATEMALA

Back in the 1960s Guatemala was the eye of the storm in Central America. Torn apart by leftist guerrilla bands that held sway in both countryside and city, the country for a time appeared on the verge of anarchy.

The guerrilla groups were bent on bringing down the government and putting a leftist, reformist government in power. But they were eventually defeated as military units became more sophisticated and Cuban-supplied weaponry and training slipped.

One top general at the time declared enthusiastically: ''Never again will guerrillas ever threaten our society.

''Yet 15 years later, guerrillas are again threatening Guatemalan society, as President Lucas Garcia tacitly admits.

In the Quiche region of Guatemala, long a lair of descendants of the Maya Indians who inhabited Guatemala in pre-Hispanic times, leftist, avowedly pro-Cuban guerrillas are operating with the assistance of Indian allies. This new alliance with the Indians worries government officials more than the guerrilla activity itself.

Guerrilla coordination is evident in their ability to bomb skyscrapers in Guatemala City, seize radio stations to broadcast communiques, and kill an increasing number of top Army and police officers.

Although the Guatemalan government is still in control, pressure by the guerrillas is increasing. Using new techniques that the Army is not prepared to cope with, the guerrillas have made inroads not only in seizing territory and keeping the Army at bay, but also in winning support from elements in society.

Despite some efforts at economic and social reform, the Lucas Garcia government is not considered very progressive. Indeed, it has an image of repression.

Whether elections this year tap a military man or a civilian as General Lucas Garcia's successor, the escalating threat of guerrilla insurgency is likely to be the new government's major test.

Guatemala could go the way of El Salvador. BELIZE

This new nation, Guatemala's neighbor on the east, became independent in September 1981. It keeps a wary eye on Guatemala, which has long claimed all of Belize as its own because of old Spanish land grants.

Belize was the British colony of British Honduras for 150 years. Its future is guaranteed by Britain (which maintains a small Army garrison in the new nation), the US, and even Cuba. The Cuban connection stems from promises by Cuban President Fidel Castro to come to the defense of Belize if Guatemala should attack it.

Rich with timber and agricultural land, Belize may also have oil wealth, but so far exploration is little advanced.

For the time being it is more oriented to the Caribbean community than to Central America. But its national radio station proudly proclaims it the new kid on the block, ''the newly emergent nation of Belize in Central America.'' HONDURAS

As the storm in El Salvador and Guatemala escalates, Honduras seems blissfully tranquil. It has just had a presidential election in which the military stepped aside to allow the return to civilian government.

''We are an oasis of tranquillity in a region beset with turmoil,'' proclaims one of the local newspapers.

There are guerrilla bands in the countryside, but they are relatively weak and scattered. The biggest problem at the moment is what to do with Nicaraguan exiles. There are some 50,000 in the country.

Many of them are staunch opponents of the current Nicaraguan government; some were part of the National Guard led by the late Nicaraguan strong man, Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Border incidents with Nicaragua have mushroomed of late, and a growing bitterness between the two countries reminds many observers of the El Salvador-Honduran border war of 1969. Fighting between troops of the two nations then left thousands dead. It could happen again.

What effect this border problem with Nicaragua will have on the transition to civilian constitutional rule remains to be seen. NICARAGUA

Ever since the Sandinista guerrillas defeated the forces of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in the summer of 1979, these guerrillas-turned-governors have edged their nation leftward in a movement that worries Washington and pleases Cuba.

The Sandinistas have not had an easy time. The Nicaraguan economy has not come back from the 18-month civil war that left 50,000 dead, 150,000 injured, and half a million homeless. What was not destroyed in the war or nailed down was taken away by General Somoza and his cronies.

It is also proving hard for the Sandinistas to overcome the political legacy of the Somozas, who ruled for 45 years and did not foster the growth of a civil service.

But the Sandinistas have complicated their own task: By building ties with Cuba, allowing their territory to serve as the viaduct for Cuban and Soviet arms going to Salvadoran rebels, and by attacking Washington on numerous occasions, they have essentially cut themselves off from US aid.

At the same time, Washington is skittish about the Sandinistas -- and has not really held out the full hand of friendship to Nicaragua's new leaders.

Under President Reagan, US policy toward Nicaragua has been increasingly antagonistic. It is unlikely to change. Confrontation is likely to continue and , perhaps, to grow. Nicaragua's leaders clearly support the Salvadoran guerrillas, as well as their counterparts in Guatemala.

Just how much assistance, if any, the Sandinistas are giving these forces is unclear. But the presumption on the part of many hemisphere leaders is that they are increasingly involved in the Salvadoran struggle. That is the view of Venezuela, with whom the Sandinistas are not feuding.

The bottom line is that continuing disagreement with Washington is likely. And Washington appears ready to do as much as possible to isolate the Sandinistas from the rest of the hemisphere, just as Cuba is more or less isolated. COSTA RICA

This nation alone among Central American countries has a democratic tradition. It abolished its Army in 1949 and political parties rotate in the presidency.

But Costa Rica is beset with growing economic trauma. The price of coffee, its chief export, is down; oil prices and the prices of most other imported goods are up substantially; and the country's social welfare policies make it politically difficult to cut government expenditures. Costa Ricans, who have just chosen Louis Alberto Monge as their next president, face more years of austerity as his government grapples with the situation.

Moreover, there is a threat of guerrilla insurgency. Several outbreaks of guerrilla activity have been recorded in recent years. And Costa Ricans are beginning to realize that they are not an island aloof from the troubles of their Central American neighbors.

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