A `Marshall Plan' Initiative in Central America

PEACE and democracy are the proclaimed objectives of United States policy in Central America. But to achieve them requires a third objective as much as a tripod requires three legs. This third dimension is economic justice - land reform, major strides against poverty, and much more. A well-structured program of regional economic development is essential to this end. The inseparability of peace, democracy, and development has been recognized by US and international study commissions on Central America, and the recent accords of the five Central American presidents. However, there is still no coherent initiative to link these goals in a cohesive strategy.

A dramatic initiative in economic development should not await the arrival of peace and democracy. Peace and democracy are vital to successful economic development. But progress toward economic development, raising hopes for a decent standard of living, is no less vital to peace and democracy. It can be an effective catalyst in the political chemistry of efforts to secure lasting peace and democracy in Central America - ultimately in Nicaragua.

The impetus for democracy and human rights in Nicaragua should not come from US military efforts to oust the Sandinista regime or get it to change its ways. It should come from the standards and incentives of a Central American development strategy in which all the countries of the region are free to participate if they abide by the criteria conditioning aid from the US and other sources. If Nicaragua rejects these standards (or, nominally accepting them, does not honor its commitment) it would be excluded from the regional compact. The result would be continuing deterioration of its already tottering economy in contrast to the emerging achievements of those of its neighbors who do participate - a contrast these countries should make every effort to communicate to the Nicaraguan people.

Any danger to US and Latin American security from Soviet bloc military aid given to the Sandinista government should be countered through the gamut of US relations with the Soviet Union and other countries providing such assistance, and by a high state of US military preparedness.

If isolated from the regional development strategy, the Sandinista regime would, in time, be pushed to extinction or radical reform by explosive domestic pressures. The inter-American and international communities should then be ready to help a democratic Nicaragua (and any other countries initially excluded but now qualified for entry) into productive partnership with the rest of Central America. In the interim, whatever aid the US gives the contras (the armed Nicaraguan ``freedom fighters'' encamped in Honduras) should be strictly humanitarian within the framework of the regional development program. Aid should not be given to preserve an ``ace in the hole'' for a renewed attempt to topple a government we have good reason to detest but no acceptable reason to remove by force.

How the US launched the Marshall Plan in Europe over 40 years ago can be instructive for an economic-development initiative in Central America today. The Marshall Plan, a reconstruction program in industrialized Europe, is not the model for a development program in underdeveloped Central America. But the Marshall initiative that triggered it is applicable. That initiative invited the governments concerned to formulate their own program in national and regional terms, and the US pledged to help ensure the program's success. Unlike 40 years ago, the US can now turn to other developed countries and to international financial institutions for assistance.

It may be too much to expect a US administration these days to declare - as Secretary of State George C. Marshall did in his historic speech on June 5, 1947 - that our motivation is not ``against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.'' But something approximating this level of statesmanship would win us considerable respect in Latin America and throughout the world.

While humanitarian reasons alone can justify such an initiative, it is also a responsible way to address the US security interest in thwarting communism in Central America. Attacking the grinding injustices that afflict millions of people in these countries, the strategy would strike at the very source for extremist ideologies. This strategy should be supplemented by a US commitment to protect these countries against foreign military assault. The basis for such a commitment has been in place for over 40 years in the Rio Pact of 1947, involving an obligation (within the framework of the Organization of American States) to all Latin American countries.

Can the US afford to launch a ``Marshall Plan'' initiative for Central American economic development at this financially difficult time? If the fate of Central America or its member countries is as important to our national security as our government says it is, can we afford not to?

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