President Reagan's address to the Organization of American States--with only a grudging and qualified endorsement of the Central America peace plan, with defiance of the plan's explicit prohibition of continued aid to guerrilla forces--was an unwelcome renewal of the Yankee arrogance that has handicapped U.S.-Latin relations.
The U.N. General Assembly, in a rare demonstration of unanimity, had just endorsed the plan. But for Reagan the plan was flawed because it failed adequately to address what is for him the central issue, communism--"communist colonialism"--and the risk that Nicaragua will become a permanent base for Moscow and Havana on the American mainland. For Reagan the heroes of Central America are not the five presidents who negotiated the peace plan, but the contras --the U.S.-funded and U.S.-armed guerrillas fighting the "Leninists" of Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
Reagan's views are not widely shared south of the border. The Central Americans do not share his assessment of the contras as "freedom fighters." The remnants of the Somoza regime that still dominate the fighting command of the guerrilla force belie that appellation. Latin Americans almost universally oppose the contras. Nor do they credit the contras, as does Reagan, with bringing about the peace plan and being the best instrument for enforcing its terms. Rather, they think that U.S. aggression, including the mining of Nicaraguan ports and the proxy war conducted by Washington through the contras, has allowed the Sandinistas to justify their increased repression.
Reagan compounded his criticism by unilaterally rewriting the conditions for peace, going beyond the terms set by the Central Americans themselves. He demanded for Nicaragua a standard of "true democracy" that only a handful of Latin American nations could begin to fulfill, again indicating that he will be content only with the over-throw of the Sandinistas.
Virtually everything that the President said communicated a lack of confidence in Latin Americans--a distrust of their ability to govern themselves, to negotiate a regional peace, to contrive a system of security. There were no reservations, no skepticism, however, when he spoke with fulsome praise of the contras--a bias that betrays his own ignorance of the mixed record and contradictory goals of that force.
Fortunately, the Latin Americans have not been deterred. They are moving ahead with the implementation of the first phases of the August agreement, intent on having the plan in place when the Nov. 7 deadline comes. Nicaragua on Tuesday added a unilateral cease-fire in critical border zones to earlier concessions. The weekend talks in El Salvador established a framework for seeking a cease-fire. And a new round of talks in Madrid has opened dialogue between the government and guerrillas of Guatemala.
Reagan is not alone in his concern about the intentions of the Sandinistas. They will be judged by what they do--as President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, the principal architect of the peace plan, has already made clear. President Daniel Ortega's commitment again Thursday before the United Nations to the plan invites that continued surveillance. If peace is to come, and if the long and painful process of reconstruction is to move ahead, it will be because of the dedication, commitment and ingenuity of the Central Americans themselves. They will be strengthened in that task by trust, not bellicosity--by respect, not skepticism.