Learning from past mistakes

THE Reagan years offer important lessons about United States policy choices in Central America. The next administration should take note. The tendency to view Central America primarily in ideological, East-West terms, focusing first on El Salvador and then on Nicaragua to the exclusion of almost all else, should be replaced by a broader, more balanced approach.

Diplomacy and negotiation should be tools of first, not last, choice for the US. More vigorous US support of the peace process in Nicaragua could still add a vital boost to efforts to reach a cease-fire accord there. The US should also actively support political reconciliation efforts in Guatemala and in El Salvador.

The administration's preference for aggressive, short-term policies aimed at scoring quick successes needs careful review. Less dramatic policies that work well over the long haul serve best and are more likely to draw the broad public support that makes US policy most effective.

Past assumptions that US money can buy influence must give way to a greater appreciation of the Latin need for dignity and self-respect. The April attack on the US Embassy in Honduras, after the US-orchestrated extradition of a leading drug trafficker, should have come as no great surprise to North Americans. Resentment against use of Honduras as the chief base for US-backed contra operations and perceived US manipulation of Honduras policy has long been building.

This administration's preference for unilateral action in Central America, in the interests of greater efficiency and control, has rarely succeeded in its goals. A more earnest US effort to consult and cooperate with other Latin nations is needed. Only after trying every possible bilateral avenue to the removal of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama has the US reluctantly admitted that fuller Latin consultation may be in order.

Strong US rhetoric in support of democracy in Central America should be backed with practical help to develop and strengthen democratic institutions.

Security in Central America is a legitimate US concern. Coupled with the effort to keep Latin Americans free of any foreign domination, that interest is at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Latins have argued not so much with the doctrine's premise as with the clumsiness and extent of US efforts to pursue it by open and covert military intervention. The US should talk with Managua and Moscow to reduce foreign military presence in and aid to Central America.

Past US help in training Latin military forces and the emphasis on US military aid have sometimes backfired. US training for General Noriega and his troops in past years has helped to professionalize them and strengthen their hold on the government. Unfortunately, the massive outpouring of US aid to Honduras in the '80s, aimed largely at encouraging democracy in next-door Nicaragua, has in the process helped Honduran military leaders gain almost complete control over their civilian government.

Severe economic problems, a factor in the fragility of the civilian democracies in many Latin nations, need more US attention. Ways must be found to ease the debt crisis and rebuild damaged economies.

Such constructive US policy changes should strengthen rather than weaken Latin independence. Uncle Sam does not always know best. That theme, often voiced by top US and Latin thinkers in a comprehensive new Inter-American Dialogue report on US policy choices, applies even in the field of narcotics. The US should help Latin producers develop their own strategies rather than impose its own, backed by the threat of sanctions.

US policymakers should take their cue from the regional pride Central Americans are showing through peace efforts. As regional peacemaker, Oscar Arias S'anchez stressed after the Sandinistas and contras signed a temporary cease-fire in Nicaragua in March that Central Americans are teaching the world they can solve their own problems when left alone.

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