U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders said here today after a series of meetings with Argentine government officials that he expected Argentina would be "active in whatever action is taken in Central America" by other Latin American powers.
Enders, the State Department chief of Latin American affairs, avoided mention at a press conference of reports that Argentina has sent advisers or paramilitary squads to Central America to work against guerrilla forces in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Enders said, however, that "the notion of collective action is there" for Argentina and other countries in the region and that "it is a possibility we should all be aware of."
U.S. and Argentine officials said that Central America was the principal focus of Enders' two days of talks here with Argentina's president and military leader, Leopoldo Galtieri, and other high-ranking government officials.
Later today, Enders was scheduled to fly to Chile for two days of talks expected to center on human rights issues, which have prompted a debate within the administration on whether it can certify to Congress that Chile's military government has made progress on that issue. The certification is necessary for Argentina and Chile before the administration can grant each country $50,000 in military aid included in next year's budget.
Enders' visit came at a time when Argentina's involvement and intentions in Central America have, after months of quiet rumors, become a subject of internal debate and of increasing comment by ranking government officials.
Much attention was focused here last month on the week-long visit to Argentina of the Salvadoran Army chief of staff, Col. Rafael Flores Lima, who elicited the first public commitment by Argentine Army officials to provide military aid to El Salvador.
Flores Lima's visit as well as persistent reports here of Argentine involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador and of the possible dispatch of Argentine forces to Central America have also begun to prompt criticism from human rights groups and political leaders as well as defensive government pronouncements.
Two Argentine political groups, including Christian Democrats and a wing of the Peronist Party, have protested ties between Argentina and El Salvador. Six human rights groups also declared Flores Lima persona non grata.
The criticism has elicited denials from Galtieri and other high officials that Argentina intends to become involved militarily in El Salvador. There has been little official comment, however, on possible Argentine operations in other Central American countries.
Government officials have sought to portray Argentina's policy toward Central America as a moderate one, supporting the Salvadoran government and not recognizing the region's violence in the strict East-West terms used by U.S. officials.
"Argentina gives Latin America first priority," said Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez during a trip to Brazil last week. "El Salvador is part of Latin America. Relations with El Salvador have the first priority . . . . El Salvador's government sometimes asks for some type of assistance. Argentina gives it to the extent that this assistance is justified and is in accordance with international principles."
Costa Mendez also said that Argentina had "normal relations" with Nicaragua--the recent return of the Argentine ambassador to Nicaragua to Buenos Aires, he maintained, was for "vacation."
Such temperate statements have been accompanied by official hints of misgivings over any Salvadoran elections and the involvement of Argentina in troublesome Central American wars.
There is little precedent for Argentine operations in Central America. Although Argentina sent a small force to assist in the 1962 naval blockade of Cuba and has been charged more than once with helping to topple governments in neighboring Bolivia, the country's foreign policy traditionally has been isolationist and oriented more toward Europe than Latin America or the United States.