Although the area of Central America is less than that of Texas, it contains six countries, each of which has a sharply different political situation requiring quite different policies from the United States.
GUATEMALA has a brutal military regime allied with semi-feudal landlords and partly conforming to the common American perception of Central America. It has a larger percentage of its population with an Indian mother tongue than any of the other countries. But it also has--unlike the myth--a significant democratic center, which unfortunately has provided hundreds of the victims of Gen. Lucas Garcia's regime. But many free union and democratic political party leaders and progressive businessmen survive. The main military attack on the regime, however, comes from Marxist-Leninist-controlled groups that look to Cuba for support.
HONDURAS has just has just had its second free election in two years. Nobody has given the Honduran army much credit for deciding not to act in the way Americans expect Central American armies to act. Successes for democratic ideas tend to pass unnoticed. The infant democracy in Honduras faces growing danger from current efforts to bring together various small extreme left groups into a unified guerrilla force. This danger combines with that from the expansion of the Nicaraguan army and modernization of its air force to the east of Honduras, and the provocative behavior of Nicaraguan troops along the border, including raids to kill Indian refugees from Nicaragua's Caribbean coastal areas.
Honduras has recently joined with Costa Rica and El Salvador to form a Central American Democratic Community that is receiving encouragement from Venezuela, Colombia and the United States. Most of the political leaders in Honduras understand how much their vulnerability will increase if the revolutionary government in El Salvador falls, but many are afraid that if they give increased support to that government, which is, in effect, defending them, they will accelerate the pressures from Nicaragua's Sandinistas and their supporters around the world.
EL SALVADOR was ruled until a few years ago by a repressive coalition of great landowning families and the army. In 1979, a group of officers, including Gen. Gutierrez and Gen. Garcia, organized a revolutionary coup that threw out the old regime, including two-thirds of all officers over the rank of major, and the top officers of all the security forces, which had been the most active agents of repression. A few months later the new army joined with the Christian Democratic Party, which had been for many years the main left-wing opposition party, to form essentially the current government. This Revolutionary Governing Junta (JRG) turned over all of the large farms from the 200-odd families that had owned them to peasants' cooperatives of the former workers on these farms. There are no more very large landowners in El Salvador. In support of this and another land reform program, the JRG also nationalized the banks and agricultural export businesses; it also enacted and implemented major social reform programs. It is holding elections, in which the army does not intend to interfere, on March 28.
The army in El Salvador believes that the system from 1931-1979, with the army in politics on behalf of the oligarchs, was bad for their country, bad for the army and bad for the majority of officers. They want to have a professional army that can be unified because it leaves politics to the civilians. So they believe they need a democratically elected civilian government to take responsibility for making political decisions.
The current war in El Salvador started in spring-summer 1980 after the JRG had made the major reforms, when five small Salvadoran armed extreme-left groups united as a result of negotiations in Cuba to form the FMLN, which now conducts the guerrilla war against the revolutionary government. The FMLN is supported by Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, the PLO, Vietnam, etc., and France and Mexico. The JRG is supported by most of the countries of Latin American, including all the democracies, and by the United States.
NICARAGUA has a history parallel to that of Cuba--but not so far advanced. There was a very broadly based revolution against a repressive dictator. Then the Marxist-Leninist leadership of the revolutionary forces began gradually to exclude from power all other groups and to gain control of and build up the instruments of force.
Many democratic elements remain in Nicaragua--La Prensa, free unions, the church led by Archbishop Obando y Bravo, five small political parties, some independent businessmen--but they are harassed and under great pressure and have no means of protecting themselves unless democratic groups around the world continually focus attention on their situation and demand that they stay free. The Sandinista-controlled government has already gone back on its written promise to the Organization of American States to hold free elections promptly.
Nicaragua is building a 50,000-man army, which will be much larger and better equipped, by far, than any other army in Central America. It is also brutally suppressing resistance by its former supporters, the black, Protestant, Indian groups on its northern shores. It has already killed many hundreds of them and sealed off the area from foreign observers.
COSTA RICA is the oldest democracy to our south. It is famous for having no army at all, although it does have small security forces under other names. It is now having economic troubles because of low prices for its exports, high oil prices and a failure to reduce consumption in response to the turn against it of relative prices. Its president-elect is Social Democrat Luis Alberto Monge, who has strongly supported the revolutionary government of El Salvador in meetings of the Socialist International. Recently there has been an increase in activity by small armed extreme left groups.
PANAMA'S history has been dominated by its relation to the United States and the canal we built there. President Royo is currently its leader, since the former strongman, Omar Torrijos, who got the United States to sign over the canal to his country and who had worked very closely with Cuba but had begun to turn away from that cooperation, died in a plane crash last year.
In practical terms, Central America, which has only a tenth of our population and a hundredth of our income, has never been important to the United States, and most Americans have had virtually no interest in the mostly depressing politics of these six countries. Now two things are happening that make Central America of new and substantial importance to us. First, there are substantial moves toward democracy in El Salvador and Honduras. These may be aborted, as have other moves in this direction in the past, but they offer real hope of long-term improvement if they can be protected.
Second, Nicaragua, with strong Cuban help, is building an army that, combined with Cuban-supported local Marxist-Leninist groups in other countries, and with Communist assistance from outside the region, creates a substantial danger that Central America could become as communist as Eastern Europe, and in not too dissimilar a manner. This raises the possibility, if the Cuban-Nicaraguan pattern is followed, of our having to take into account armies of many hundreds of thousands of men with modern military equipment near our southern borders. This would be an adverse change in our security situation. It would also almost certainly provide the basis for an internal war in Mexico, which is nominally revolutionary but socially backward.
These political developments, after a generation of comparatively rapid economic growth in the region, do not allow us to have a single, simple policy for Central America. They force us to look at facts and to recognize rapidly changing situations so that we can support democracy when it comes under outside attack and pay attention to our security interests.