The real political choice for the United States in this hemisphere is between the contras and the governments of Latin America. Perhaps in all its history, Latin America has never before been governed by such an exceptional group of men as the present: capable, honest, democratically oriented and internationally educated individuals. To name not all: Argentina's Raul Alfonsin, Uruguay's Julio Sanguinetti, Brazil's Jose Sarney, Peru's Alan Garcia, Mexico's Miguel de la Madrid, Guatemala's Vinicio Cerezo, Venezuela's Jaime Lusinchi and Colombia's Belisario Betancur (as well as his probable successor, Virgilio Barco) form a constellation of heads of state offering the United States an unparalleled opportunity for cooperation and the solution of problems.
These men appear on the scene, however, during a period of harrowing economic and social dilemmas. It is far from certain that they will find solutions to these problems. Too many intractable forces--a disillusioned middle class, a mob of urban marginals, a deeply dispossessed working class, a blighted agricultural proletariat--are seething under the veneer of stability. The democratic gains of the last few years, so fervently hailed by those who did nothing to bring them about, run the gravest risks of becoming mere swallows caught in a sudden winter storm. The military, unwilling to administer the crises, are nevertheless waiting in the wings.
One dreams of what leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would have done together with a comparable group of Latin Americans. Certainly not offer them a contra war in Central America, distracting attention from the really important questions of economic survival, draining energies from the internal to the international stage, dividing national opinion and threatening, in sum, the feeble stability of the continent. The last thing that De la Madrid, Alfonsin or Sarney need is an escalating conflict in Latin American territories, leading inexorably to generalized war--by accident, by slippage or by will.
Ronald Reagan's failed Central American policy is less of a danger to Nicaragua, which is geared to defend itself for a long long time, than to the United States' friends on the continent and, eventually, to the United States itself, acting in this matter as its own worst enemy.
Latin governments have repeatedly offered rational solutions to what they consider a very minor crisis in Central America. Why not listen seriously for once? For example: During almost half a century Mexico has offered the United States the most precious of gifts: a secure southern border. In effect, the United States is that rarity in universal history, a great power with only two neighbors, both weaker than itself. But the Reagan Administration seems willing to create havoc in Mexico by forcing the contra war and, eventually, the American war, on Nicaragua.
Mexico, a nation of 80 million, will not be drowned by a red tide flowing from Nicaragua. In fact, well before reaching Harlingen, Texas, any venturesome Sandinista battalions would be blown apart at the Honduran, Salvadoran or Guatemalan borders.
But Mexico would be politically ripped apart by pressures to take sides in an American conflict in Central America as either enemy or satellite of the United States. The Mexican government, seriously damaged by economic, moral and physical problems, would probably lose its strongest claim to legitimacy--the sovereign conduct of its foreign policy--if it caved in to Washington's demands. But it would also suffer grievously, for other reasons, if it seemed to undermine the security of the United States for refusing to follow Washington's lead in Central America. The result would be turmoil on the border, but not for the reasons Reagan paints in his TV graphics.