A forgotten agenda


IN THE 1980s, Central America was the bloody, ideological battleground for East and West. Today these countries have a toehold -- if a precarious one -- on democracy.

Now Nicaragua has a democratically elected president, though the communist Sandinistas still control the military. In El Salvador, the leftist guerillas for the first time sanctioned elections held Sunday. And with the U.S. removal of strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega from Panama, and with a succession of elected presidents in Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, it would seem that U.S policy in Central America has worked. Finally, democracy has arrived in the region.

Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy is so reactive and Washington's attention span so short that democracy may not have much of a chance. And all because Central America has virtually disappeared from the U.S. strategic map of importance.

Instead, an anything-but-wimpy President Bush, glowing from the U.S. win over Iraq, has gone on his New World Order road show, hoping to convince the Congress that the U.S. allies in the Middle East -- not all democracies, mind you -- need billions of dollars in weapons to stay at peace.

Oil, it seems, has taken precedence in this short-sighted foreign policy, with democracy taking a back seat to monarchs and dictators who happen to be on our side.

It used to be, the United States would prop up any right-wing, Third World dictator who could keep the threat of communism at bay. Today, with Mikhail Gorbachev promising a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, we're less concerned with the Reds. Now we're emphasizing propping up Arab monarchies to keep the cheap oil flowing our way. And to add salt to the Latin Americans' wounds, we're opening up trade markets and pouring financial aid to those European countries that left the communist camp.

And so our democratic neighbors to the south have been left to struggle virtually alone, trying to keep their fragile democracies alive as overall U.S. financial assistance keeps dropping.

Exactly where does Central America place in Bush's New World Order? Near the bottom, judging from the numbers.

Consider that Honduras, which acted as the beachhead for the U.S.-funded Contras that battled Nicaragua's communist Sandinista government, has seen its U.S. aid drop by 40 percent in the past two years.

And Nicaragua, which after a decade of civil war has to rebuild most of its roads, sewers, electrical plants and other infrastructure, got only $11 million from the United States for that purpose last year. That's a pittance when you consider that in one year, we paid the Contras $100 million to fight the Sandinistas.

And peaceful little Costa Rica, which doesn't have a military to speak of, has seen its U.S. aid drop by 66 percent, to a pitiful $33.4 million.

No wonder Central Americans who can't find work in their economically crippled countries keep flooding states like Florida, Texas and California.

Controlling our borders from tides of illegal immigration should be reason enough for the United States to step up economic aid, to push harder to reduce the region's debts and to broaden trade with Central America. By reducing their debts and drawing more foreign investment, these countries could build up their economies with new jobs and export markets. Naturally Florida and other states with close proximity to Latin America would stand to gain from this economic boon abroad.

But Bush seems too overwhelmed right now with the Middle East to worry much about Central America. So for now the democratically elected leaders of Central America have been left to quell the hungry masses until the next revolt springs the United States into reaction.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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