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Central America: How Not to Help the Neighborhood

May 01, 1988|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc, based in Washington, writes on foreign affairs

The dictator defied the firing, kept the army on his side and has so far survived the virtual destruction of the Panamanian economy by U.S. actions. The United States looked foolish, especially when Latin American democracies announced their defense of Panamanian nationalism instead of rallying to the U.S. position.

Last week's turn to quieter diplomacy may finally oust Noriega and may even signal a new U.S. realism. But the fashion in which Panama policies have been carried out is a textbook example of how a great power must not act. At one point Abrams reportedly even proposed kidnaping Noriega, so furious was the United States about failing to have its way.

In little El Salvador, a fresh U.S. approach is needed but nowhere in evidence. American-backed President Jose Napoleon Duarte, a moderate, has just lost his Congress to the extreme right, death squads are back in business and extreme leftist guerrillas are on a major offensive.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz is the man who must finally decide how best he is served in Latin American policies. Shultz has defended Abrams in the past and there are reasons to believe that he shares many of Abrams' views on dealing tough with Central Americans. Yet Shultz, too, has little experience in this hemisphere and he is understandably distracted by other priorities--Soviet summits, arms control, Middle East shuttles, Afghanistan agreements and the Persian Gulf. Still, Central America is an urgency, nearby, in immediate need of reconsidered policies and the people to redefine them.

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