What the United States should be doing in Central America is the reverse of just about everything that President Reagan is currently doing. His avowed aim is to stop Soviet influence from spreading in that region, which, like most of Latin America, is seething with revolutionary ferment. But his policies are so poorly conceived and clumsily executed that they are likely to bring about the opposite of what he intends - exactly as happened with Johnson's ill-fated intervention in Vietnam.
Central America is a poor and backward area. In each country, a few families perch on the apex of a steeply sloping economic pyramid. They own a huge percentage of the limited wealth that exists and live at a level of comfort which contrasts with the squalor of the majority, many of whom in the rural areas are Indians.
In divided societies, where gross inequality prevails, civil war is endemic. These are not nations in any meaningful sense because there is no community of interests to unite the social classes. Nor is there a sufficient middle class to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.
US policy cannot avoid taking sides. But the tragedy has been, with rare exceptions, that we have chosen the side of the wealthy. This shortsighted strategy has been pursued by presidents of both parties. But Reagan has made it worse through his ideological conservatism and his overreliance on military force. The latter is clearly visible in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as in the invasion of Grenada.
Traditionally, the military establishment in Central America is merely an extension of the power of the property owners, the primary job of the generals being to keep their own people under heel. We are the ones who sell, lend, or give them arms and who train their officers. When the latter point at their fellow countrymen the guns which we supplied, is it any wonder that the ordinary people hate us for helping their oppressors?
Our embassies exist generally to assist corporations which do business in the area. The chief concern of a corporation is to protect its investment and make a profit. So, its officials will make whatever deals are necessary with the powers that be. It is understandable then that the communists are able to exploit a situation we have helped underpin. When Castro overthrew Batista in Cuba, he came first to Washington for assistance. Rebuffed by Eisenhower, he turned to Moscow. The Soviets were happy to help Cuba extricate itself from our influence, thus retaliating for our helping Yugoslavia declare its independence from Moscow.
In Nicaragua we have repeated the same pattern. There, the Somozas were greedy parasites that we bred and nurtured. Under Carter we helped the Sandinistas, but that changed with Reagan. Now we are involved in open war from bases in Honduras to overthrow the Sandinistas who have turned to Havana and Moscow. If we succeed in installing a rightist group in power, I suspect that Reagan's ultimate aim is to construct a new canal across Nicaragua, bypassing the one in Panama whose transfer to Panamanian control he so bitterly opposed.
Since our interventions in that region are tilted on behalf of the right against the left, we encourage the Marxists to infiltrate into the leadership of the opposition groups, with support from Moscow channeled via Havana. None of this would happen if we reversed our policy and espoused the cause of the poverty-stricken majority, instead of backing the counterrevolutionaries. If we lived up to the Jeffersonian philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, we would be siding with the mass of the people. Then the communists would have no one to lead nor could they pose a threat to our security.
The US, in other words, should be actively promoting a belated and much-needed revolution for social justice, which cannot be accomplished by promoting corporate investment in profitmaking ventures. Castro and the Sandinistas are pursuing that revolution by the dictatorial methods which we rightly detest. Should we not be offering social justice as well as political freedom, food, land, schools, and doctors as well as elections that are not rigged? When we switch sides in Central America, we shall cut the ground from under the Kremlin by winning the goodwill of the ordinary people whom our current policies alienate.