Spotlight on Central America

ABOUT THE REGION GUATEMALA: A civilian leader was elected in late 1985 after 30 years of military rule. The President must deal with a military accustomed to political power, a leftist guerrilla insurgency, widespread poverty, civilian demands to account for the thousands tortured and killed under military rule, and the repatriation of refugees who fled to Mexico.


Since 1981, the US has sent military advisers and given $2 billion in aid to support the fight against leftist guerrillas, which now number some 4,000 to 6,000. In 1984, Duarte became the first democratically elected President in 50 years. The country has become increasingly polarized during the past three years, with right-wing business groups and political parties resisting Duarte's reforms. The 7-year war has drained the economy. Thousands remain homeless after last fall's earthquake destroyed part of the capital.


Honduras, bordering war-torn El Salvador and Nicaragua, is the US's closest ally in the region. In return for almost $1 billion in aid since 1981, it has allowed the US to establish a strong military presence. US troops have helped build bases, roads, and airstrips. In an effort to intimidate the Nicaraguan government, the US has held maneuvers with Honduras since 1982.

Honduras is used as a base for Salvadorean and Nicaraguan rebels, with the contras' main camp located on the southern border. Though the government has tolerated the rebels, it has never formally acknowledged their presence. Border fighting has forced thousands of Honduran peasants to join thousands of Guatemalan, Salvadorean, and Nicaraguan refugees further inside the country. Despite US funding, Honduras remains the poorest country in the region.


Almost eight years ago, Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was long supported by the US. In the first few years of Marxist Sandinista rule, the country saw a dramatic improvement in health care and education. But the burden of the five-year war against the US-backed rebels has drained the economy and led to the stagnation of many social programs. The government has suspended civil liberties, silenced the opposition press, and is at loggerheads with the Roman Catholic Church.


Unlike other Central American nations, Costa Rica has a history of democracy, political stability, and social reforms. It abolished its Army in 1949 and proclaimed neutrality in 1983. It opposes both US intervention in the region and the Sandinistas. Nevertheless, the region's conflict directly affects Costa Rica. The contras launch incursions from Costa Rica's northern border; and 250,000 Nicaraguans have moved to the country.


Panama is the home of the US Southern Military Command, which has been the coordinating point for US maneuvers in Honduras and a base for gathering intelligence on the Salvadorean rebels. Although there is a democratic government, the military effectively controls the country.


Six years after gaining independence from Britain, Belize still has British troops on its soil because of a territorial dispute with Guatemala. Belize remains neutral in regional conflicts.


When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, a handful of pro-Somoza officers went into Honduras and began launching attacks across the border. Today, with US training, financing, and supplies, the rebels (contras) have grown into a force of from 10,000 to 18,000 men. Troops are recruited largely from among poor Nicaraguan peasants. The rebel leadership has displayed a lack of unity and been unable to convince many Nicaraguans that it is a viable alternative to the Sandinistas.


Contadora: Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela have been trying since 1983 to forge a region-wide peace accord on which Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica could agree. An agreement would include: limiting the size of armies; ending outside military maneuvers; reducing and eliminating foreign military advisers; respecting human rights and taking steps toward internal national reconciliation.

The Arias plan: Costa Rica's President presented his own plan in January. The main difference between the two plans is Arias's call for internal democratic reforms. This plan also requires that foreign teams oversee free elections at the end of current presidential terms, and that governments facing insurgencies declare immediate cease-fires and, within 60 days, amnesties.

ILLEGAL ALIENS The great majority of illegal aliens crossing the border into the US are from Mexico. But in 1986 more than 30,000 came from Guatemala and El Salvador.


President Reagan considers Nicaragua's Marxist government as a threat to Central America's security, to US business interests, and, ultimately, to the US's national security. The Reagan administration fears the Sandinistas are establishing a permanent communist presence with close ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba, and that they are ``exporting'' their revolution to other countries in the region.

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