Even in the best of times, relations between the nations of Central America have been strained. As often as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica have lashed out at an internal insurgency or put down a coup attempt, they have fought one another. Like peace, economic cooperation has eluded the five republics.
Yet nothing is as crucial as economic development in reducing the region's turmoil. At their summit meeting last week, Central America's presidents took a potentially important step toward that goal.
Symbolically, they met in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala--briefly the isthmus' capital when the nations broke away from the Spanish empire. There they announced a plan to revive a regional common market that foundered 20 years ago amid indifference and internecine squabbling. Much has changed in the interim. All Latin American countries are softening their fierce financial nationalism and trying to pare down bloated public sectors. More sobering, the regional guerrilla wars that have claimed about 150,000 lives have left all five economies in financial ruin.
The plan announced at the summit calls for lowering trade barriers, rebuilding infrastructure and slashing Central America's combined $20-billion foreign debt. The idea is to transform the tiny "after-dinner economies" into one viable financial entity. It has a better chance for success than the debacle of the 1960s because nobody wants to relive the turmoil of the two ensuing decades.