THE SCENES ARE TRAGIC and familiar. Crops burn in the fields. Patrols meet ambush on mountain roads. Automatic rifles chatter in city streets at night. Priests are attacked in their churches.
Despite the indolent beauty and the economic promise of this tropical isthmus, political violence has long been the dynamic of Central American history. But today local conflicts attracting big-power involvement threaten to inflame the entire isthmus.
Since 1978 some 50,000 people have died in political violence in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala as leftist guerrillas challenged authoritarian regimes. Earlier this year the U. S. Department of State accused the Soviet bloc of helping to smuggle arms, including U. S.-made weapons captured in Vietnam, to Salvadoran guerrillas. Soon thereafter the U. S. tripled military aid to the Salvadoran government to 35.4 million dollars.
History ordained Central America’s troubled course. Dependence on a very few export crops—cacao in the 17th century, indigo in the 18th century, and coffee and bananas in the late 19th and 20th centuries—made the Spanish colonies vulnerable to political and economic turmoil after they gained independence together in 1821. In the past century alone, scores of regimes, often dominated by U. S. interests, have marched through the area, giving rise to the cynical sobriquet, “banana republics.”
These young nations have lived uncomfortably in Uncle Sam’s shadow. James Monroe put Europe’s powerful monarchies on notice in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was closed to further colonization. But Theodore Roosevelt gave the Monroe Doctrine a twist in 1903, when—vowing to “speak softly and carry a big stick”—he shepherded in the era of U. S. intervention. Since then, United States armed forces have landed in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti. In Guatemala, Washington helped depose President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954, fearing he would deliver the country to Communists.
Colonization left another imprint on Central America’s 22 million people—ethnic diversity. About half of all Guatemalans are pure Indian, descendants of the Maya, while nearly all Costa Ricans are descendants of Spanish colonists. The rest are mostly various mixtures of Indian, European, and African peoples. As in colonial days, stark contrasts of wealth and status divide these peoples. Almost two-thirds are rural peasants, many laboring on large estates owned by a relatively few wealthy families or large corporations, often foreign controlled. Illiteracy on the isthmus is high— close to 80 percent among Indians— disease is common, and underemployment chronic. One in 12 Guatemalan infants dies in the first year. Five in ten young Salvadoran children are undernourished.
“Ours is a history of people starving to death, living in misery,” said Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte. “For 50 years, the same people had all the power, all the money, all the opportunities.”
The memory of Vietnam now haunts Washington policymakers as the violence drags on in Central America. Offering economic aid as well as weapons and military training, the United States is trying to turn authoritarian regimes toward the democracy of Costa Rica and away from both the dictatorships of the past and the threat of Cuban-fostered new leftist dictatorships.
The weary people of Central America long for peace. But many share the concerns of the Reverend Arturo Rivera y Damas, acting archbishop of San Salvador: “Our peace ought not to be a piece of the cemeteries.”