ANTIGUA, Guatemala — U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III offered Monday to orchestrate an international search for financial aid to Central America's impoverished civilian democracies and their newly formed economic community.
Baker's vaguely defined initiative, outlined at a two-hour breakfast with six presidents from the region, would channel assistance from the United States, Canada, Japan and Western Europe through a multilateral agency like the so-called Group of 24, which coordinates aid to Eastern Europe.
The secretary did not specify how much aid the program would seek, who would control its distribution or how much the United States would contribute. His overnight visit, on the heels of the presidents' two-day summit here, was mainly a gesture of political support for the elected conservative governments and their efforts to end the region's guerrilla wars.
"We recognize that there are fears in Central America that the United States and the industrial democracies will be diverted by the changes in Eastern Europe and ignore this region at this moment of historic opportunity," Baker told reporters. "I am here today at the request of President Bush to make it very clear that the United States will continue to be fully engaged and fully supportive of this regional peace process."
While embracing Baker's aid initiative, Central American leaders sought assurances that it would bring substantial new assistance at a time of declining U.S. aid commitments to the region.
"We told Baker that we view this plan with good eyes, much satisfaction and great hope that the aid will supplement what we already receive," said President Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador, whose country faces a decline of U.S. assistance.
President Rafael Angel Calderon, whose Costa Rican government is in the same bind, said: "The United States is taking the lead in getting the world to give aid to Central America. This is very important, and we all celebrate it."
Baker's visit signaled a new willingness by the Bush Administration to work with Central America as a bloc, now that Washington's regional arch enemy, the Sandinistas, have been voted out of power in Nicaragua.
The visit came a day after the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua adopted an ambitious plan to integrate their economies and invited Panama to join their Economic Community of the Central American Isthmus.
Baker, who watched the end of the summit on television after arriving Sunday night, said: "We congratulate them on this achievement."
U.S. economic assistance to the six countries totals $1.36 billion this year--more than half of it for Nicaragua and Panama, whose previous governments had antagonized American interests and lost U.S. aid. In the four other countries, U.S. assistance has dropped from $702 million last year to $566 million.
Central American leaders said Baker pledged that the new multilateral aid would supplement this year's commitments from the United States and other benefactors.
But Administration officials were careful here not to commit the United States to maintaining its current bilateral aid levels to the region in coming years.
"We're not coming with a proposal that's already been conceived," a senior State Department official admitted. "We're coming with a strong political commitment . . . (to) ensure consistent and focused political and economic support."
The Central American presidents sounded equally concerned about the makeup and policies of the new multilateral aid agency--but satisfied that Baker will listen to their ideas.
Baker said he will "consult closely" with them as the aid program is being shaped.
U.S. officials say the aid agency will be modeled on the Group of 24, set up late last year to coordinate aid to Eastern Europe from the United States and 23 other Western nations.
Under a plan outlined by Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a deputy secretary of state, the aid agency for Central America would be co-chaired by the United States, the European Community and Japan, with a U.S. secretariat.
Some Central American officials have objected to such an arrangement, saying it would allow the United States to continue setting political conditions for its own diminishing aid to Central America while extending those conditions over assistance offered by other nations.
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Enrique Dreyfus said the presidents' "general message" to Baker was: "In the past there's been interference (by the United States) in our affairs. Now things will change completely. We're going to make our own destiny."
Talking to reporters, Baker defended the idea that the multilateral aid would be subject to political conditions--set by the donors as a group--such as observance of human rights.
A Salvadoran development official in the region, who also opposes political conditions on aid, said the presidents were in no position to reject whatever the Administration imposes.
"You put some money up front, and these countries are so short of money that they will do anything to get it," he said.