GUATEMALA CITY, JUNE 19 -- By launching an ambitious plan to merge their economies into a Central American Economic Community, the five presidents of the isthmus have issued a stirring declaration of war on poverty, but with an asterisk: The region's old-line aristocracy need not panic.
For years, debate about how to tackle Central America's endemic poverty has focused on land reform and other strategies to redistribute wealth to the region's destitute majority.
But the five presidents, who concluded a summit meeting Sunday in Antigua Guatemala, took a different tack. In a "plan of action" that includes a timetable for specific policy proposals, they agreed to a coordinated regional approach to promote industrial and agricultural production and attract new investment.
Neither in the plan nor in the lengthier and more general Declaration of Antigua was there any mention of land reform or suggestion of new government social welfare programs to help the poor.
Rather, the goal appears to be to breathe life into the economies of the area by energizing private-sector producers -- in short, a trickle-down approach to aid the poor. "The idea is to help the poor without threatening the basic power structure," said a regional economist. "They're talking about creating income instead of just distributing income."
In addition to lowering tariffs, cutting border restrictions for goods and people and eliminating other barriers to free trade, the five presidents called for a unified approach to rebuilding the region's transportation, communications and energy resources and creating a regional foreign service to attract new investment and tourism.
They further proposed the development of coordinated industrial and agricultural policies to guide regional production. And they instructed the region's economic planners to establish a forum to examine ways of easing the region's $20 billion in debt.
The Antigua agreements were the product of a new lineup of Central American presidents, who, with the exception of Guatemala's Vinicio Cerezo, have taken office in the last year. The new leaders of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are all more conservative that their predecessors, and all are committed to free-market economics.
Conservative politicians in Central America have traditionally represented the established order, defending landed oligarchs despite their countries' grossly distorted income distribution patterns.
But the wave of democracy that has swept the region in recent years appears to be shifting politicians' priorities. For the first time, all five of the countries are led by presidents who were elected in contests widely considered free and fair.
"There's a reason these rightist governments appear to be more concerned with poverty," said one analyst at the Antigua conference. "They're looking for solutions out of self-interest: If they want to win elections, they know they have to do something about the poor."
The question, remains, however, whether regional integration can work at all, let alone benefit the poor.
The last serious attempt to establish a workable common market in Central America, in the 1960s, was bedeviled by regional hostilities and disparities in regional development patterns.
Guatemala and Costa Rica, for example, which already had stronger industrial bases, were able to attract new investments while their poorer neighbors -- especially Honduras and Nicaragua -- saw their trade deficits grow.
Today, the economies of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are all facing serious problems due to war, declining commodity prices and mismanagement. Moreover, the ongoing guerrilla conflict in El Salvador makes prospects for a significant recovery there remote.
"These past 10 years have been gruesome for poor people. They've taken a beating," said Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Enrique Dreyfus. "It's obvious that our problems in the region are so tremendous that we can never make it self-sufficiently."