At first glance, it would seem that the wave of democracy that has swept three military rulers out of power in South America in the last two years has moved north. Two Central American countries -- Honduras and Guatemala -- have elected civilian presidents recently. The democratic natures of those elections have been attested to delegations of international observers. These elections follow the installation last year of a civilian government in another Central American nation, El Salvador.
But longtime observers of the region, including Western diplomats and North and Central American political analysts, have serious doubts that truly democratic regimes can emerge and survive in most of Central America. An exception is democratic Costa Rica, where land, and therefore power, has historically been held by a large class of farmers.
In countries where political, economic, and social power is concentrated tightly in the hands of a few, it is hard for any real democracy, which must at least partially reflect the interests of the many, to take hold.
Honduras and El Salvador are allies of the United States, and Guatemala is soon to become one. The Reagan administration hopes that US economic and military assistance will help consolidate its newly elected allied governments and usher in a new era of democracy in the region.
The elections are seen by the Reagan administration as moral victories over Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Despite receiving somewhat qualified approval from other groups of international observers, elections there last November were dismissed as a charade by the US government.
After the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 they insisted on keeping most of the power. They were concerned that political democracy would allow the old upper classes to take over. But most diplomatic observers in Nicaragua say that the Sandinistas have become increasingly nondemocratic out of a desire to maintain power for power's sake. US pressure may have played a part in moving Nicaragua toward the concentration of political power in the hands of the Sandinista elite.
But, observes one Western diplomat here, ``What kind of societal consensus can exist in countries so divided by social problems, as here in Central America? What kind of consensus do the Indians of Chichicastenango share with the governing classes of Guatemala City?''
If these dominant groups in Guatemala City, or for that matter in Tegucigalpa or El Salvador, have held free elections at all, it is in large part a result of the insistence of the Reagan administration, according to analysts in both Washington and the region.
The Reagan administration realizes that in order for Congress to consent to fund conservative, anti-Sandinista, pro-US governments in Central America, these governments must at least ``appear to be democratic.''
In the end, most observers in the region say, whether or not the voting on election day is democratic, it is the dominant powers, the upper classes, the Army, and the US Embassy that call the shots.
Those Central Americans most critical of the recent elections point out that the range of acceptable candidates is a very narrow one. They say that the major candidates are chosen by a small group of powerful people. The only candidates allowed to run, they say, are those that the dominant groups in these countries, such as the Army and business, feel will not seriously affect their interests.
Once a candidate is elected, critics say, he will be able to make some reforms. But he will be unable to make essential changes which will take the basic power away from the minority that has it.
It is this ability of the powerful to block any change that makes the democratic system essentially unstable. With Central America's population growing rapidly, the economies in the region will have to become much more productive in order to feed, clothe, and employ the emerging generation. The semifeudal economic structure existing in most of the region today, structured to benefit only a small minority of the population, is incapable of doing this, analysts say. But in countries like Guatemala, those who hold power refuse to permit changes in the system that has protected them for generations.
The US has tried to bolster this state of affairs by pouring in economic aid and insisting on elections that will meet Congress's approval. But much of the money falls into the hands of the dominant power groups that, aware that in the long run their position is fragile, invest much of it abroad.
When new democratically elected governments like those of Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala face such a situation, they have two alternatives. Neither one leads to long-term democracy.
To make small changes which do not affect the basic power arrangements in the country.
But governments cannot maintain power by making small changes. This course of action creates dangerous discontent. When a reformist-elected government fails to make social changes, it destroys the people's faith in the ability of democracy to solve their problems.
To attempt serious change. The track record of those Central American governments which have done so and survived is poor.
Several Western European diplomats interviewed in Central America say that the situation is greatly complicated by the fact that the Reagan administration, while desiring a faade of democracy, does not support any deep reaching social changes. The administration often acts if Central America was simply a copy of US society and could have its problems solved by money being funneled to the private sector, these analysts say.
It is this seeming impasse that leads one Western diplomat in Guatemala, when asked about the long-term prospects of democracy in Central America, to answer briefly, ``hopeless.'' However, thousands of Central Americans continue to struggle, often at the risk of their lives, for democratic change in the region.
Many Guatemalans, especially urban, more educated ones, sincerely hope that their new President, Vinicio Cerezo, will be able to control the violence and effect real reform.
A majority of the population truly wants democratic change, say observers in the region. Most people in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala do not support actual or potential guerrilla movements.
According to many longtime observers of the Central American scene -- academics, journalists, diplomats -- unless there are sudden drastic changes in US policy or other key aspects of the situation, Central America will probably continue to degenerate into a series of failed democratic governments, right-wing coups, popular uprisings, and further repression.
Some of those who would like to see democratic change in Central America, but are not optimistic about its future, believe that one possible solution might be eventual takeovers by somewhat radical military officers who will push through social change. But the best known example of this, the military government in Peru in the 1970s, did not succeed.
Other observers say that left-wing groups might, after years of bloodshed, take power in most of the area. Some of these analysts say that the left-wing groups would be forced to follow more politically and economically moderate models if they could not obtain large-scale aid.