SAN SALVADOR — The turmoil in this region in the last decade propelled hundreds of thousands northward to form part of the largest influx into the United States since the turn of the century. Central American exiles flooded sweatshops and factories, bought property, joined political movements in Miami and changed entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Washington.
American immigration policy often reflected who the U.S. government was supporting in Cold War-era conflicts: It was easy for Nicaraguans fleeing a repressive, Soviet-backed Sandinista regime to obtain political asylum. But it was next to impossible for Salvadorans fleeing a repressive U.S.-supported regime to acquire similar status.
This changed at the beginning of the 1990s, when courts and the reality of sheer numbers forced federal authorities to grant temporary protective status to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees, most of whom settled in California.
The question now on the minds of many is whether the end of Central America's conflicts and the slow construction of political democracy in the region is enough to stanch the immigration flow from this area and to entice those abroad to return home.
The answers mirror the vicissitudes of today's Central America. Where there is some measure of stability and greater chance for economic recovery, there is less reason for citizens to stay away. But where unrest and poverty are overwhelming, or where the changes seem more fleeting than permanent, there is little incentive to return.
"In the short and medium term, you have huge problems," said Richard L. Millett, a historian, author and Central America specialist at Southern Illinois University. "You have judicial systems that don't function. If the state violates the rights of the average citizen, the citizen has little expectation of any effective recourse against that violation. You have nothing that comes close to loyal opposition, if you look at the congresses in Central America. You have militaries that are acting semiautonomously. You have rampant corruption."
But in the long term, Millett added, there is real potential for sustaining and strengthening democratic rule--and for encouraging Central Americans to return or remain home--because of fundamental changes in the region and in the world.
Central America is not the same place it was 10 years ago. It is not as isolated as it once was. Its people and leaders are more sophisticated; they now form part of a global network of information and political and economic ties.
With the North American Free Trade Agreement looming on the horizon, Central Americans see an urgent need to be able to compete in the world market. There is awareness at both ends of the political spectrum that unrest is bad for economic recovery and development.
"You have an age in which the state cannot control information, so you can't have the old kind of dictatorships," Millett said. "And you've got a world economy."
Central Americans have learned, he said, "that nobody wants to put a nickel in a country where there is war going on and bodies in the streets. They know they can't go back to the old ways and start killing each other."
In El Salvador--which lost at least one-fifth of its population to exile--clear signs of a gradual repatriation are already visible, as former residents take advantage of a new climate of relative peace after United Nations-brokered accords that ended this country's brutal civil war.
While firm statistics are not being kept, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Salvadorans have returned. Many are starting businesses and building houses with the nest eggs accumulated in the United States; those who fled because they supported the leftist guerrillas are returning to join mainstream politics.
Still, an inefficient judicial system, the continued power of the military and hints of political murder fuel a lingering uncertainty that tempers the desire of many Salvadorans living abroad to go home.
And government officials acknowledge that the still-battered economy can only absorb returning citizens ever so gradually--especially since the economy is so dependent on the millions of dollars that expatriate Salvadorans send home.
If there are hopeful signs in El Salvador, the future in Nicaragua remains bleak.
As rioting over gasoline price hikes in September proved, the vicious circle of economic disaster and political upheaval is digging Nicaragua ever deeper into a hole of misery and isolation.
Some Nicaraguans who had lived in exile during the war between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contras returned home soon after opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Sandinista Daniel Ortega in 1990 presidential elections. But the worsening crisis offers no incentive for Nicaraguans to return in great numbers.
Nicaragua cannot recover without foreign aid, which is starting to dry up, and foreign investment, which is virtually nonexistent.