WASHINGTON — It is often forgotten that Central America was introduced into the national political agenda by a long-shot presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan. Facing elimination from the Republican primaries in 1976, Reagan began to attack Gerald R. Ford for "giving away" the Panama Canal. The issue gave Reagan victories in several key Southern primaries and he went on nearly to win the GOP nomination.
In other words the U.S. Congress has now debated the Central America issue in one form or another for longer than it debated the Vietnam War. Wednesday's House vote on Contra aid launched the fourth and probably decisive phase of this debate. Yet Congress and the public still have little sense of the scope and the stakes. The Panama Canal debate was the first phase. Kevin Phillips, a conservative political analyst, described the canal issue as a "simplistic surrogate for frustrated nationalism" in the wake of Vietnam. Yet the symbolic potency of the issue is what made it politically effective. After the election Reagan kept the issue alive through direct mail and a well-publicized debate with William F. Buckley Jr.
Reagan argued that the proposed treaty was nothing less than an abdication of the U.S. role of superpower. He said the Panamanian government did not reflect the will of its people and the demand for Panamanian control of the canal had first been proposed by the local Communist Party. To cede the canal, Reagan suggested, would be giving in to "blackmail."
President Carter won the battle to get the treaties ratified in March, 1978, but lost the war to define the Central America issue. Within three years, 18 of the 68 senators who voted to ratify the treaty had been turned out of office. Carter, who argued that a superpower must respect the sovereignty of smaller neighbors, had himself been defeated by Reagan.
The second phase of the Central America debate did not concern the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. The rising nationalistic tide that would help elect Reagan in 1980 coexisted with an acute post-Vietnam desire to avoid military commitments, an uneasy mixture that characterizes U.S. public opinion to this day.
The second phase focused on El Salvador and ran from 1981 to 1984. Again Reagan framed the debate by requesting military aid to ward off a "textbook case of indirect armed aggression by communist powers." The bitterly divided Congress acceded to Reagan's request but attached ineffectual human rights certification to the aid.
Reagan effectively ended this phase of the Central America debate in 1984 by appropriating the reformist and human rights rhetoric of his critics. The Administration criticized Salvadoran death squads as "counterproductive" and backed Christian Democratic presidential candidate Jose Napoleon Duarte. Democrats in Congress were appeased and the Salvador issue was no longer controversial.
Reagan launched the third phase of the Central America debate in spring, 1984, when he went public with the Administration's not-so-covert support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. When Congress initially refused to approve military aid, the Administration established the "private aid network" that was exposed during the Iran-Contra scandal. In June, 1986, the President finally persuaded the Democratic-controlled Congress to fund the Contras. Once again Reagan had prevailed in framing the Central America issue: The U.S. intervention in the region was essential to promoting human rights and protecting U.S. national security.
Congress has now reversed itself, concluding the debate's third phase. The vote constitutes a setback though not a defeat for Reagan. Opponents of Contra aid prevailed by invoking the Central American peace process. But the Administration succeeded in making "democratization" in Managua the sole test of that process.
The key question about the fourth phase of the Central America debate is whether the issue will continue to focus on the narrow question of democratization or on the much broader crisis of Reagan policy in the region. The ambitions of the Reagan Administration now confront serious obstacles not only in Nicaragua, but also in El Salvador and Panama, where debate had seemingly been settled.
In Nicaragua, the congressional vote is likely to send the Contras reeling. While never close to defeating the Sandinistas, the Contras had gained ground militarily in the last year because of abundant U.S. aid. The nature of the Contra movement makes the loss of Washington's sponsorship devastating. In January, 1987, Gen. Paul F. Gorman, one of the architects of U.S. policy in the region, said the Contra army was incapable of sustaining itself inside Nicaragua without outside help.