President Reagan may have succeeded beyond his wildest expectations by naming a Central America commission that is something other than a rubber stamp for his policies in the region.
When Reagan announced the Bipartisan Commission on Central America last month, it was widely viewed by its critics as an echo of commissions past, notably the Scowcroft commission, which gave bipartisan coloration and unanimous support to the administration's desire to deploy the MX missile.
But the Central America commission, due to make its long-range recommendations next February, could be an election-year tiger instead of a tabby cat. The chief hope of that comes from the panel's two Hispanic members, San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and Yale economist Carlos Diaz-Alejandro, who take a dim view of Reagan's emphasis on use of military pressure in Central America.
Diaz-Alejandro, who apparently has survived a right-wing campaign against him based on the unproven allegation that he is "soft on Castro," has kept his silence pending completion of security clearances but is expected to play a vigorous role on the commission.
Cisneros, whom many consider the Hispanic most likely to make his mark on national politics, delivered a measured but forceful criticism of Reagan's policies in an interview last week with Washington Post staff writer David Hoffman. Cisneros said the United States historically has shown a lack of respect for and understanding of the desire of Latin Americans to determine their destinies. Speaking of the U.S. role in Central America, he added: "We're not perceived as a peacemaker, but instead as heavy-handed."
Cisneros and Diaz-Alejandro are only two members of a 12-man panel headed by that well-known shrinking violet, Henry A. Kissinger. But Kissinger will be trying for a consensus, and the support of the two Hispanic commission members could be politically crucial for a president who seems increasingly dependent on winning a significant share of Hispanic votes in Texas, California and Florida if he expects to serve a second term.
What Cisneros understands far better than the White House is that the U.S. Hispanic constituency--apart, largely, from the Cuban community in Florida--takes a dim view of Yankee intervention in Central America. This attitude was underscored in El Paso Saturday when Reagan's Mexican-American audience largely ignored an intended applause line denouncing "Fidel Castro, Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi and their superintendents in Moscow."
What the administration is offering Hispanic voters is less a diet of military maneuvers in Central America than a mixed menu of economic recovery and ethnic pride seasoned with patriotic references and a few sprinkles of bipartisan education.
To the president, Central America is a national security issue rather than a political question. He believes that Soviet and Cuban military actions are underlying causes of the region's instability rather than the result of it. This is a view unlikely to pass muster with Cisneros, Diaz-Alejandro or, one suspects, even committee member Robert S. Strauss, a Texan who is a former Democratic national chairman.
Come next year, and the Kissinger Commission report, the administration may have to choose between its Hispanic political strategy or its stark, global view of Central America. This wouldn't be an easy choice for Reagan.
Reagan, who likes old jokes, came up with a new one Friday in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Tampa. It was about a man so successful in business that he opened a branch office and sent a floral arrangement for its grand opening.
As Reagan told it, "When he got there, he was shocked to find that the wreath that was delivered bore the inscription 'Rest in Peace.' He was angry and on the way home he stopped in at the flower shop to complain, and he was going at it and the florist said, 'Wait a minute. Just look at it this way: Somewhere in the land today, a man was buried under a wreath that said, 'Good luck in your new location.' "
Dialogue of the week: Reporter at a White House briefing: "This morning, you said that you had no word from the French about a commitment to send air power to Chad . Is that still the same?"
White House spokesman Larry Speakes: "Well, I would not give you any other indication, but we are in the process of not commenting on the details of that."
Reaganism of the week: (After paying tribute in labored Spanish to distinguished Mexican-American veteran and surgeon Hector Perez Garcia at the convention of the American GI Forum in El Paso last Saturday): "With my inability at languages, you may not have to translate that for the Anglos, you may have to translate it for the Hispanics."