Playing dominoes in Central America

Most of the time Americans see revolutionary activities in Central America and the Caribbean through a glass, darkly. But, just as we despair of understanding anything in the morass of movements, murders, motives, and misinformation, we get a flash of light, sometimes from the most unexpected of sources.

The Salvadorean guerrillas' clandestine ''Radio Venceremos'' offered one of those moments on March 13. This was the open acknowledgment that the five Salvadorean guerrilla groups in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) ''maintain and strengthen'' relations with Nicaragua, Cuba, and all other forces and governments interested in their cause and that the FMLN has used ''the entire Central American region and other countries'' as supply routes for arms. And to top it off, the guerrilla radio added, ''We are not naive and realize that we can not and should not fail to include our plans within the framework of a regional conflict.''

Now, that sounds like the US State Department talking, and analysts waited for a later ''Venceremos'' broadcast to accuse the CIA of polluting the airwaves with self-serving propaganda. But no retraction came. And why should one, except for purposes of continued deception, for the broadcast simply stated what many analysts have known all along from the flow of events.

It is not surprising that the US government is pleased with this guerrilla confirmation of the essence of its analysis, since many critics of US policy have devoted so much effort to belittling those who subscribe to the ''domino theory.''

The regional approach, which in its crudest form is called the domino theory, is no mad scheme of some Caligarian strategist, though one of its objectives is to box in the US - or, as the guerrilla broadcast called us, the ''kings of aggression, the enemies of humankind.'' Nor is the strategy a mere formula chanted by geostrategic simpletons, as many academics, churchmen, journalists, and others would have us believe.

The naive ones, as the broadcast states, are those who fail to recognize and act upon the frequent interrelationship of national and transnational revolution and to see that the latter is a rational and in some instances demonstrably effective political and military strategy. The guerrillas and their supporters would have been fools not to have adopted it.

The guerrillas know this best of all, for they were fools in the past and paid dearly for it. During the 1960s and early 1970s Latin American guerrillas were distinguished above all by their violence and seemingly insatiable appetite for devouring their natural Marxist-Leninist allies, their own children, and themselves. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the French theorist Regis Debray were in the vanguard of this divisive strategy - in most instances, contrary to the recommendations of the Soviet Union. Even Castro now recognizes that that policy increased oppression and left thousands of guerrillas and others dead or in prison.

Guevara's adventure in Bolivia in late 1966 and 1967 is a perfect example of the earlier ''Castroite'' approach. This involved trans-national cooperation, but only among those Castro then called ''true'' revolutionaries, those few ultraleftists in every country who agreed with him on every point of revolutionary strategy - and there weren't many in Bolivia.

So Guevara's guerrilla band was made up mainly of Cubans and ''Castroites'' from other countries who set out, in the words of Guevara's chief Cuban lieutenant, ''to make another Vietnam out of America, with its center in Bolivia.'' Since Guevara got little support from the pro-Soviet or pro-Chinese communist parties in Bolivia, or from other potential Marxist-Leninist allies in the country, it is hardly surprising that he spent all his time running friendless through the wilds until he was hunted down and killed.

Since the mid-1970s - after a decade of fruitful cooperation in Africa - Cuba and the Soviet Union again began looking seriously toward the Americas. But now Cuba refuses to give materiel support to the squabblers he nurtured 15 years ago - so long as they continue squabbling. US intelligence evidence demonstrates significant Cuban leadership in patching over differences among the important Marxist-Leninist groups in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Once domestic unity is achieved, other conditions being favorable, some hardware follows. This is a logical step forward in Cuba's increasingly rational international revolutionary policy.

The irony is that recognition of the regional quality of revolutionary activities in Central America does not require support for current US policies there. But even a call for withdrawal or a negotiated settlement should be based on a realistic appraisal of what is happening rather than a knee-jerk rejection of a regional strategy which has some things in common with the simple game of dominoes.

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