Central American nations caught in a whirlwind

The insistent problems of Central America will not go away.

And for the new United States secretary of state, these problems are likely to demand more and more attention in the weeks ahead.

The violent civil war in El Salvador between leftist guerrillas and the increasingly rightist government goes on unabated; a steady political and economic deterioration faces Nicaragua as opposition mounts to the three-year-old Sandinista government; and Guatemala's new military leadership struggles desperately to curb corruption, leftist guerrillas, and rightist death squads.

In the middle of this whirlwind is Honduras with its newly elected civilian leadership. It is a nation that, in Washington's eyes, is the key to eventually pacifying the region. The Reagan administration has clearly put its support behind this goal.

But the plan is frought with difficulty. Some critics suggest that Washington's use of Honduras in this role could escalate the painful confrontations already evident in Central America.

Honduras and Nicaragua, for example, are trading verbal and physical blows. The Marxist-leaning Sandinistas in Nicaragua charge that Honduras-based Nicaraguan exiles are harassing border positions within Nicaragua - and have occupied remote mountain areas along the border, using Honduras as a supply base.

Honduras denies the charges. But government sources in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, privately admit that anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans are in Honduras. In addition, there have been clashes between Nicaraguan and Honduran troops.

The latest incident took place July 20, according to Nicaraguan authorities, who said Honduran troops had opened fire on a Nicaraguan border post in northern Chinandega Province. The growing frequency of these clashes and the strength of exiled Nicaraguans in Honduras are worrying the Sandinista leadership.

Even more worrisome for authorities in Managua is the open opposition of such former Sandinista colleagues as Eden Pastora Gomez, the closest thing to a folk hero in the Sandinista movement. Mr. Pastora, along with former junta member Alfonso Robelo Callejas, has formed a movement to dislodge the Sandinistas from power. The two claim their former colleagues have betrayed the revolution.

Neither Mr. Pastora nor Mr. Robelo, who are in Costa Rica, has much contact with the exiles in Honduras. After all, most of the exiles are former associates of the late Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whom the Sandinistas overthrew in coming to power in 1979. Yet a loose coalition of the two groups is possible, and that could spell significant trouble for the Sandinistas.

For the Reagan administration, unhappy over Nicaragua's ties with Cuba, this mounting opposition to the Sandinistas is a good omen. It does not portend any immediate change in government, but it unsettles the Sandinistas.

It also, in the view of some US policy critics, could lead to a greater arms buildup in the area and the possibility of open warfare between Honduras and the exiles on one side and the Sandinistas on the other - with uncertain consequences for the whole region.

Whether the US is involved in the training of Nicaraguan exiles in Honduras is open to question. But reports of US involvement persist. The anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans are certainly getting advice from Argentine officers with guerrilla warfare experience, according to sources in Honduras.

Reports that Argentine military personnel were in Central America circulated early this year. But after the Falklands conflict erupted, the Argentines were thought to have gone home. Now, it appears, they are still on the scene in Honduras - and in neighboring El Salvador.

In El Salvador, the battle between government forces and the leftist guerrillas goes on. In the past month alone, more than 300 guerrillas and soldiers are said to have died. Guerrilla lairs in Morazan Province in southeastern El Salvador have been attacked repeatedly by Salvadoran soldiers, who in some cases reportedly have the support of Honduran troops who have crossed the ill-defined border in coordinated strikes against the guerrillas.

What role the US plays in this effort is unclear. But it is known that US advisers in El Salvador have been in the Morazan Province area in recent weeks.

Neither the guerrillas nor the government in El Salvador appears likely to gain the upper hand at any early date. The best estimates are for continued fighting with El Salvador torn apart in the struggle. Only if the Salvadoran military gain more support from Honduras and perhaps are provided with more US advisers is it possible that the government will get an edge.

This is one of Secretary of State George P. Shultz's first major problems. Administration direction on El Salvador - staunch support for the government forces - has already been set. But under Mr. Shultz it could be refined. According to associates, Mr. Shultz is keeping an open mind about El Salvador while he tackles the more urgent problems of the Middle East.

Prior to his taking office last week, however, the State Department had begun reshaping some of its Central American policies, putting more emphasis on Honduras in efforts to undercut leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Washington gave a warm reception 10 days ago to Honduras' new civilian President, Dr. Roberto Suazo Cordova.

At the same time, the administration, pleased with Guatemala's new military leadership under Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, has announced stepped-up aid to that Central American country. But, whether he can successfully curb corruption, rightist violence, and the guerrilla threat remains to be seen.

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