As government and the American people agonize over what to do in Central America, one thing is painfully clear: there is no comprehensive U.S. policy for the region.
The failure to put together a coherent, determined policy stems in large measure from an inability to recognize that the insurgencies in Central America arise from deep-rooted social and economic injustices. The unredressed grievances of the people create fertile ground to be exploited by governments from outside the hemisphere seeking to expand their influence in the region.
Currently, Central American policy is being handled piecemeal both by the administration and Congress. Diplomatic personnel are shifted around; another special envoy is appointed; some politicians on both sides position themselves to ask righteously, "who lost Central America?"; and Congress and the administration gird for abrasive battles over foreign aid. This is not policy-making; it is policy paralysis.
Underlying the stalemate is a general reluctance of the American people to simultaneously embrace two hard facts: first, stability in Central America is of enormous strategic importance to the United States. And second, the chronic poverty, social injustices and human rights abuses in the region undermine stability. Embracing the first fact demands that we face the realities and dangers of Soviet- and Cuban-supported armed insurgencies. Embracing the second fact forces hard choices and confronts us with moral ambiguities with which no one is comfortable.
Clearly, this situation requires a change in the context of our country's deliberations over Central America. United States security assistance ought not to be the sole focus of national debate or the salient feature of our policy. Military assistance should be understood in one way only: it is a shield behind which endangered nations can protect their people from external threats as they work to rectify injustices, build democratic institutions and increase economic opportunities.
The military shield will crumble unless our Central American policy is founded on a long- term commitment to help overcome the economic and social deprivations and the abuses of human rights endemic in the region--what is needed is a commitment rivaling the Marshall Plan in its creativity and sense of responsibility.
The U.S. stake in a stable and secure Central America, in a strategic sense, is as important as it is in Western Europe. And given the long histories of economic and social injustice in Central America, our strategic interests cannot be met if we only champion the status quo. The United States must recapture from the Soviet Union, Cuba and their followers its rightful mantle as the champion of a better future.
We can no longer follow the familiar pattern of U.S. policy in Latin America: sporadic attention when we feel our interests threatened by coup or revolution, then abandonment and unconcern. Our policy must have a 30- to 50-year aim: effective help in building democracies, increased economic opportunity and greater respect for human rights.
Given the current policy stalemate, how can we best achieve a comprehensive, coordinated Central American policy? What is a sensible first step?
Four of us in Congress--Sen. Charles Mathias and myself in the Senate, and Reps. Michael Barnes and Jack Kemp in the House--have intro duced identical resolutions calling for a national bipartisan commission for Central America. Members would be appointed by the president drawing upon knowledgeable leaders from all sectors of American society, including the Hispanic and religious communities, business and especially labor. The American trade union movement has a long record of continuing support for building democracy through labor organization efforts.
The commission would be charged with making policy recommendations to the president and Congress. It would consult with leaders from the region, examine the full range of options, including policies we should pursue in concert with our friends, our allies and multilateral lending institutions. It would explore the potential for coordination among nongovernmental international organizations that could be constructive participants in a long-term Central American policy.
We should not expect the harsh realities of Central America to change soon. The problems besetting those nations are systemic and chronic, and are very different from the problems facing postwar Europe. Recalling the Marshall Plan is convenient political shorthand for stating that our Central American policy needs what the Marshall Plan provided Europe: a clear demonstration of American purpose in the world--mutual security, economic opportunity and the flourishing of human rights.
The Marshall Plan was in the best tradition of bipartisan foreign policy. President Truman, faced with a Republican Congress, knew the legitimate and necessary role that a bipartisan commission could play. The Marshall Committee, headed by Henry Stimson, was more responsible than any other factor for forging consensus in the country on the Marshall Plan for European recovery.
A bipartisan presidential commission for Central America could help the United States act with confidence in its role in the region. In the words of the final Marshall Plan report:
"We cannot make or expect guarantees. But we can make intelligent choices. We shall be engaged in a vast undertaking . . . we are laying the groundwork for a new world with greater opportunities and greater hope."