PBS takes an inconclusive look at the crisis in Central America

If you are feeling guilty about your confusion in understanding Central American politics, you need search no further for relief. Watch Crisis in Central America (PBS, April 9, 10, 11, and 12, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) and you will be convinced that there is good reason for being confused: Central American politics is overwhelmingly confusing. In four hours of circuitous television, ``Crisis'' producers come to the conclusion you could have told them in the first place: Central American politics is very, very complex.

And it's a no-win situation for any US administration -- left, right, or center -- just as it seems to be a no-win situation for any national government in EL Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua. ``Crisis,'' in fact, is one long series of supposed experts explaining that something went wrong.

But discovering that things have gone wrong is not nearly as beneficial as knowing why things went wrong. We know about that -- we have just been shown the dead peasants to prove it. Almost every episode is punctuated with bloody battles.

This program was completed last November, making it impossible for its conclusions to remain relevant in the highly fluid Central American situation. The crises are still exploding, and it begins to appear that finding one seemingly valid perspective in that area of the world simply uncovers other seemingly valid perspectives.

``Crisis'' carries its commendable search for coolness to an extreme: It is drily pedantic in the midst of tempestuous emotion and mixed biases, droning on as it points up massacres, assassinations, juntas, guerrillas, death squads, peace conferences, and diplomats who want third-world independence at the same time that they exact all the benefits of an ally. Interspersed are newsreel shots, talking-head interviews, spectators, observers, officials -- a series of people who seem to know exactly what must be done immediately, even though the same plan may already have been tried unsuccessfully.

Unanswered by the series are some pressing questions: Who are these people -- rich and poor -- battling for power? Where are the indigenous people of the area? Can such broken-up little states exist independently or must there be some sort of common market or United States of Central America to unify them? Aren't the current crises all part of the battle between communism and democracy, and can there possibly be even a temporary solution until it is resolved whether the United States and the Soviet Union can live in some sort of peace together? Thus, aren't we simply playing out the cold-war game on a new chessboard?

I came away away from its graphic depiction of just about every aspect of the Central American crisis practically wringing my hands in despair, almost convinced that the best thing the US could do is move away from the neighborhood. These are the questions which ``Crisis in Central America'' raised in my mind. And that is fine. But ``Crisis in Central America'' did not manage to come up with any answers or even guidelines to answers.

Might it be that the blandness of the conclusions (or lack of such) may have been influenced by the questionable new PBS practice of granting time to organizations that demand equal time for an alternative arrangements of the facts, `a la the Accuracy In Media (AIM) demand following the Vietnam series, which is resulting in a two-hour response on PBS on June 26?

`Crisis' is a noble effort but inevitably a thankless task. At least the recent WGBH ``Vietnam: A Television History'' series followed some sort of conclusion to one stage of the war and it was possible to look back with some perspective.

``Crisis'' is a production of ``Frontline,'' a series of uneven but most often fascinating documentaries produced by a consortium of public televison stations and a distinguished editorial staff supervised the series, including James Nelson Goodsell, Latin America specialist of The Christian Science Monitor. Austin Hoyt acted as executive producer for the special report under the aegis of ``Frontline'' executive producer David Fanning.

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