WASHINGTON — Is the Reagan Administration's Central American policy built on a false assumption? From the beginning, the White House has insisted that what we face there is nothing less than aggressive Soviet outthrusting aided and abetted by Cuba and Nicaragua. It was this conviction that led the Administration to launch its contra war in the first place and then to circumvent Congress to sustain it. As Ronald Reagan said in 1984, if we do not aid the contras , "100 million people from Panama to the open border on our south could come under the control of pro-Soviet regimes."
Claiming that Moscow is supporting armed struggle in Latin America, conservative academics justify the Administration's war. In a new book, "The Bear in the Backyard," Timothy Ashby of the Heritage Foundation writes that Moscow's prime strategic goal "is to create a threat to the United States along its southern border," and he points to "the Kremlin's officially stated acknowledgement of the 'correctness' of Guevaraist-Castroite armed insurgencies," as evidence that Moscow hopes to put the United States on the defensive through these aggressive tactics. The only way to deal with the problem, Ashby concludes, is by aiding the contras.
But do we really face Soviet aggression in Latin America? Does Moscow really endorse armed struggle?
The answer is no. The endorsements Ashby refers to, for example, were made at a forum of Soviet Latin American experts conducted by the magazine Latinskaya Amerika in 1980. Ashby should have read beyond that year. For a time after the 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, Soviet area specialists did indeed ask themselves if they had given up too quickly on the tactics advocated by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the '60s. But such ruminations were short-lived. With the failure of the all-out Salvadoran guerrilla offensive in January, 1981, the Soviets retreated to safer assessments. Soon their area specialists were saying the principal ingredient in the Sandinista victory was not armed struggle but leftist unity. Hence, Communist parties all over the hemisphere were instructed not to take up arms but to make alliances with other progressive forces. This was a variation of the popular-front tactics long advocated for the area.
The new--or restored--Soviet line is reflected clearly in recent Latinskaya Amerika articles. Its January, 1987, edition, for example, not only dismisses the efficacy of armed struggle in most Latin American countries but scathingly denounces its practitioners. Argentine Montoneros, Uruguayan Tupamaros, urban guerrillas in Brazil and the M-19 in Colombia are all described as "pseudo-radical." The M-19's November, 1985, attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogota is labeled an act of terrorism. Other revolutionary groups are dismissed as that worst of all Soviet insults: "Trotskyite."
Nor have Soviet actions in Latin America been more adventurist than its doctrinal formulations. There is no credible evidence that the Soviets have recently given any support to guerrilla groups in Latin America.
And what about Cuba? Has it been supporting guerrilla movements all over the hemisphere, as the Reagan Administration says? That would be less surprising, for all during the '60s Castro argued fiercely with the Soviets--Castro in favor of armed struggle, the Soviets insisting on their cautious popular-front tactics long pursued in Latin America--except for the period 1928-1935, when the Comintern ordered a series of armed uprisings, with disastrous results.
The Soviets won the argument. By 1968, with his own tactics a failure and under growing pressure from Moscow, Castro began to shift toward the Soviet approach. He sharply de-emphasized support for guerrillas and began establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Latin American governments he had once vowed to overthrow. But, it was wondered, might not the triumph of the Nicaraguan guerrilla struggle a decade later suggest to Castro that his original tactics had been right? And might not the post-1979 period see Cuba resuming support for armed struggle on a hemispheric scale?
Though expected, the shift never came. In fact, a 1982 Havana conference of Communist and revolutionary parties concluded that conditions for armed struggle existed only in El Salvador and Guatemala--and the latter was removed from the list after the democratic elections there in 1985. El Salvador, then, is left as the single country where support for guerrillas is even deemed appropriate. And there the Cubans have been cautious, urging a negotiated solution--something they would not have done in the '60s.