Central America has become surrealistic. The Sandinistas, who advertise their revolution as a religious experience, treat the pope to a Roman circus. The military in El Salvador expends more energy in internal, institutional squabbles than in fighting insurgents. And President Reagan calls El Salvador the lynchpin of the Western Hemisphere. No wonder people are confused.

Central America has been plagued by violence for decades without attracting much notice. Why all the attention now? The collapse of the Somoza dynasty in July 1979 broke a psychological logjam for change that had been building throughout the region for decades. The fear generated by the rapid change that followed is as evident in Nicaragua, where self-proclaimed revolutionaries are overwhelmed and ineffective in dealing with it, as in El Salvador and Guatemala, where vested interests cling to the past.

One myth must be put to rest. The Somoza regime fell because it was corrupt and turned all sectors of Nicaraguan society against it. Anastasio Somoza, not Fidel Castro, was the villain. There was no way to save Somoza: even his closest allies in Central America turned their backs on him. The Carter administration was present at the wake, but was hardly to blame for Somoza's demise. The Nixon administration should have advised Somoza not to run for an "illegal" second term in 1974. A political opening at that time would have permitted the moderate, democratic opposition an opportunity to build a political transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The last opportunity to pave the way to a non-violent transition of power came during the OAS-sponsored mediation (October 1978-January 1979). The United States, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, representing the OAS, attempted unsuccessfully to get Somoza to negotiate seriously with a coalition of predominately moderate forces. In aborting that effort, Somoza radicalized the political environment and spawned the popular insurrection that toppled him. He created the Sandinista power base among non-committed Nicaraguans, something the Sandinistas, even with help from Fidel Castro, were unable to achieve on their own.

Somoza dragged the National Guard down with him: the Guard suffered from too close an association with his family. Its destruction sent a very clear signal to the other armed forces in Central America.

Somoza's demise acted as a catalyst for change because it destroyed the illusion of the permanence of the "old order" in Central America. Groups of all political persuasions perceived Somoza's fall in symbolic terms, each calculating--more often miscalculating--how it would affect its future. Enlightened sectors of the military in El Salvador, Honduras and later in Guatemala, for example, embraced reform programs to avoid suffering the same fate as the Nicaraguan National Guard.

The overthrow of the moribund Salvdoran regime of President Carlos Humberto Romero in October 1979 was engineered by a cabal of reform-minded military officers. Three years later, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, similarly motivated, toppled a repressive military-controlled Guatemalan government.

Guerrilla groups throughout the region interpreted the Sandinista victory as evidence that Central America was ripe for revolution. The Sandinistas helped create this illusion by deliberately misreading their own access to power. It was not the result, as they boasted, of their defeating the National Guard, but rather the consequence of a popular insurrection by the Nicaraguan people of all political stripes against the hated Somoza regime.

Castro bought the "domino theory," which local guerrilla groups were feeding him to get his support. As the "godfather" of Latin American revolutionaries, he was unable to ignore their arguments. Indeed, he could not rule out the possibility that the era of Central American revolution had arrived. His intelligence came from covert agents given to action, not objective analysis. So Castro became a believer, conditioning his support on the unification of guerrilla factions in each country.

The oligarchy in El Salvador and its kindred spirits in Guatemala and, to a lesser extent, in Honduras saw the walls closing in on them and mounted a major campaign to convince the political right in the United States that "communism," not their exploitative and corrupt practices, was the root cause of instability.

The internal drama in Central America centers on the interplay of these forces: legitimate political parties scarred by repression and denied the experience to develop political skills; enlightened businessmen tarred by the corruption of a tarnished business sector; an embattled media; and, most important, semi-literate peasants and indigenous people who suffer the failures and abuses of governors.

Opportunists of all stripes, some indigenous to the region and some outsiders, jump on and off bandwagons. Finally, various actors in the international community add their voices. Sadly, the Reagan administration adds the most discordant sounds.

Instead of helping Central Americans search for solutions, we have unwisely become part of the problem. Unwittingly we have inserted ourselves into a play of forces that we neither understand nor can control. Neither the extreme right, which is wedded to the past, nor the extreme left, which offers another form of repression, are viable forces.

By identifying Cuban/Soviet subversion as the cause of the Central American turmoil, we shield the abusive factions from taking responsibility for their failures, and we lessen the pressure on them to change. At the same time, we give the Cubans and Soviets more credit than they deserve among a populace unhappy with the status quo and pressing for change. We repeat the historical error of positioning ourselves, the most change-oriented society on the globe, as seemingly defending the status quo.

Ultimately, Central Americans will have to come to grips with their intimately intertwined national and regional problems. And we can help. There is no surer way to curb Cuban involvement than to strengthen the historical Central American interest in regional cooperation. Cuba is wedded to the extreme left and has little choice but to destabilize and conspire. We, in contrast, can offer assistance and support to build viable institutions and to foster regional cooperation, as we did in supporting the Central American Common Market in the early 1960s.

By speaking intemperately and substituting posturing for thoughtful policy, we are losing support both at home and with an important hemispheric and world audience that is tired of listening to our cliches.