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Central America Lives Only on Hope : Ending War Is Simple Compared to Establishing Peace

IF PEACE BREAKS OUT: Last in a series of articles examining prospects for a postwar Central America

November 01, 1987|RICHARD E. FEINBERG | Richard E. Feinberg is vice president of the Overseas Development Council. He has served in both the Treasury and State departments as an international economist.

The Arias peace process initiated in August has raised hopes everywhere that Central America can be free of its decade-long fratricidal wars. On this page last week, voices from the five involved nations expressed their own yearnings for a peaceful future.

Self-knowledge tempers Central Americans' optimism. Many understand that they must change deeply ingrained political attitudes if democratic procedures are to replace death squads. Greed, hatred and vengeance will have to give way to generosity, tolerance and compassion.

As the contributors to this series suggested, important lessons have been learned. Some businessmen now recognize that perennial repression breeds political instability, which is bad for profits. And many leftists have been sobered by the disastrous performance of the Sandinista economy; they now see that a government that threatens the vital interests of the private sector endangers the people's prosperity.

Central America's fate will be woven primarily by Central Americans. Lately, they have selected presidents of unusual stature and vision who are working closely together to mend the region's torn fabric. Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala and Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica are two who have risen above their personal and even national interest in seeking to reweave their region's threads into a brighter pattern.

Outsiders can either ease or complicate this task. Sadly, the Reagan Administration has failed to grasp the historical significance of the Central American peace process. Obsessed with hatred for the Sandinistas, the Administration seeks to destroy the peace process by re-arming the Contra columns and pressuring weak, aid-dependent Honduras and El Salvador to back away from the Arias plan.

Instead, the United States should welcome regional diplomacy undertaken on behalf of democracy and tranquility by leaders who know and admire our country. Supporting such indigenous efforts ought to be a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Third World. But even if they promote our regional interests, locally designed accords cannot be expected to satisfy our superpower security concerns regarding the behavior of the Soviet Union and its allies. Only by dealing directly with Moscow and Havana can we be certain that no hostile bases will be established on the Central American isthmus, and that Soviet Bloc security advisers will go home.

We already have a tremendous advantage over our Soviet and Cuban rivals--our economic might. The greatest contribution that we can make in Central America--for its security and prosperity, as well as our own--is to exercise that strength in pursuit of peace and economic development.

Few Central Americans have been satisfied with U.S. diplomacy. Conservatives label it "unreliable" and "indecisive," while nationalists feel belittled by the weight of our influence. But virtually everyone is united in calling for the United States to help in the reconstruction of the region's war-torn economies.

The Arias plan calls on the Central American signatories to draw up plans for economic reconstruction and recovery and to submit them to potential external sources of finance. The United States should encourage this by offering to help fund such plans--provided they can garner broad political support at home and are designed to become self-financing.

Successful aid programs work themselves out of a job. If international assistance to Central America succeeds, its recipients will gradually replace foreign aid with increased domestic savings, and will be able to buy a rising share of their import needs with their own export earnings. These goals will also require wise economic policies in Central America: interest rates high enough to deter capital flight, and realistic exchange rates to allow exporters to compete in global markets.

But as Central America knows too well, economic expansion by itself does not insure political peace. To be sustainable, economic programs must provide for an equitable distribution of the benefits of growth.

As we know from the American experience, providing good public education is perhaps the best way to spread opportunity widely. Political turmoil and budget crunches have weakened Central America's educational systems, making this a priority target for reconstruction.

Reducing tax evasion by the wealthy, ensuring the availability of nutritious food for the poor, safeguarding fragile lands from ecological destruction, improving health care in rural areas--these all are objectives to be included in a politically sustainable development program.

Many Central Americans wonder if the United States' interest in the region will wane should peace be achieved. This is hardly likely. But it would be in everyone's interests if a higher percentage of the region's financial support came from sources other than the U.S. bilateral aid budget. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund will have a renewed interest in fashioning lending packages for the region if political stability is restored. And once peace is secure, private capital will see the potential in participating in reconstruction.

But as the lucid commentaries published on this page last week made clear, the obstacles to peace are many. And without peace, there can be no economic progress. If the United States is to cease being part of the problem, we must stop fueling strife in Central America. Then and only then can we help fashion development strategies that will make lasting peace possible.

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