"Why can't the peoples of Latin America look forward to receiving from the United States the kind of backing and the kind of facilities that they have extended to other parts of the world?"
That could be Sen. Henry Jackson speaking, or Sen. Charles Mathias--or any member of the fast-growing group of bipartisan backers of a proposed congressional resolution. It calls for a presidential commission to seek a consensus on "the serious longstanding problems of security and economic development in Central America."
Actually, it was Cuba's Fidel Castro, speaking to a meeting of the Organization of American States in 1959. "If there is really a desire to develop fully the economy of Latin America," Castro continued, "a $30 billion, ten-year loan can make that possible."
So maybe Castro was kidding: by his own instincts (and the Eisenhower administration's), his subsequent turn to the Soviets was probably preordained. But Castro's premise--"if there is really a desire"--is as relevant today as it was 24 years ago. If there was American will, you wouldn't need another commission to find the right way to deal with the root causes of the turmoil that the Reagan administration now says threatens one, two, three, four, maybe a half-dozen Marxist-Leninist "takeovers" in Central America.
You can't fault the initial congressional impulse, given what we have in the way of a coherent, long-headed policy. The case for dishing the whole program off on a "blue-ribbon" commission of impeccably distinguished American citizens is overpowering--in theory--and the bipartisanship is beautiful to behold.
The Senate resolution has 25 co- sponsors, almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. All six Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed it. Now there's word that the president may well steal the congressional thunder by moving quickly to set up a Central America commission on his own initiative.
All this says a lot about the idea's appeal--in political practice. It is a way for the administration to look open-minded. It is something to sign on to for Democrats who don't dare risk getting hung with "who lost El Salvador" by voting down the administration's money for military aid and covert activity, but who do want to demonstrate their dedication to finding a better way to peace and progress in the region.
It has everything, then, except a sense of history. By that, I do not mean the obvious: that Jackson and others freely admit that the problems of Central America are "systemic and chronic and very different from the problems facing postwar Europe."
What sponsors cite in the European Marshall plan is the breadth of its support at home--and the long-term vision. "We can no longer follow the familiar pattern of sporadic attention when we feel our interests threatened by coup or revolution--then abandonment and unconcern," Jackson is arguing. "What we need is a policy that has a 30- to 50-year aim."
He's right. U.S. policy in Latin America has offered, alternatively sweet rhetoric about good neighborliness; the heavy hand of military intervention in times of high crisis; and the back of the hand, more often than not, to precisely the kind of long-haul commitment, based on a broad domestic consensus, that the proposed commission is supposed to come up with.
The shining exception--John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress-- proves the rule. It, too, had a vision measured in decades. In reality, it was lucky to have outlived Kennedy and survived into the early Nixon years.
Its demise was inevitable, given the natural disinclination of U.S. presidents to build on the programs of a predecessor of the opposition party.
If a new presidential commission can find a way to crack that case, it could conceivably confer a measure of constructive continuity on American policy in Central America. Failing that, you have to ask what it could sensibly add to the recent report of the "Inter- American Dialogue," co-chaired by Sol Linowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to the OAS, and Galo Plaza, former OAS secretary general and onetime president of Ecuador. Its American members included former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. David Jones; Chase Manhattan banker David Rockefeller; the conservative former head of the USIA, Frank Shakespeare; former World Bank president Robert McNamara; ex-secretaries of state Cyrus Vance and Edmund Muskie.
Yet, "on two important points," this disparate group reported, "we all agreed: the basic roots of insecurity--and the basic problems of security--in this hemisphere are primarily economic, social and political, not military; and the sources of insecurity are mainly internal to each nation . . . External influences are secondary."
If a new commission could find a way to square that conclusion with the philosophy of the Reagan administration with anything like the success of the Scowcroft Commission with respect to the MX missile, a splendid purpose would have been served. But there has not been a whole lot of interest in Ronald Reagan's White House in the recommendations of the Linowitz/Galo Plaza report..