Getting Out of the Central American Maze

Central America is truly the terrain of Graham Greene, a place of lost hopes, betrayals, and, nonetheless, the possibility of some vaguely defined salvation. It is also a region that has suffered too often from the almost careless interventions of the United States. Washington has always assumed that since the United States is the major power in the region, other nations are necessarily subordinate, useful only when their policies complement our own. This attitude discounts the possibility of strong concerted efforts by the big regional powers. Today, Washington’s single-handed diplomacy may be a serious mistake because the two most important powers, Mexico and Venezuela, have developed strategies of their own for bringing peace to the region—strategies that are showing a surprising tendency to converge.

Recently I traveled through Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, and met with high officials both in and out of government, including Jorge Castañeda, the foreign minister of Mexico; Guillermo Ungo, the head of the Salvadoran Democratic Revolutionary Front; Sergio Ramirez, one of the three members of the ruling junta in Nicaragua; the foreign minister and two former presidents of Costa Rica; the current and former presidents of Venezuela; as well as numerous Sandinists, opposition leaders in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela (there is no effective opposition in Mexico), and diplomatic representatives of the United States as well as of Western Europe and Latin America.

My journey began in Mexico, where it gradually became clear that Mexico is playing an elaborate game aimed at making it the indispensable arbiter of peace in a region it has traditionally ignored. Yet Mexico seems curiously unsuited to taking a leading role in Central America. Its social and economic policies are in disarray. President José Lopez Portillo, a lame duck unable legally to run for re-election, presides over an essentially one-party state that propounds a doctrine of revolution while corruption is rampant and about 70 percent of the population—the growing middle class and the very poor—are excluded from the power and benefits accruing to the groups that dominate the country. Moreover, Mexico is suffering from spiraling inflation, which may run to nearly 100 percent in the next few years unless the next president initiates severe austerity measures. The only hope for domestic change comes from within the ruling party, the PRI, and its candidate, Miguel de la Madrid, who is sure to be elected later this year.

However, despite Mexico’s serious internal difficulties, its foreign policy has remained—and is likely to remain—remarkably consistent. It aims to replace the US predominance over the area, and it espouses political change in Central America, but tries to make certain that change does not mean an expansionist Marxist-Leninism. Since this brand of revolution might end up threatening Mexico itself, Mexican leaders are especially careful to see that the guerrilla movement in neighboring Guatemala does not get out of hand. In short, disturbed by the direction of the Sandinist movement, Mexico is trying to ensure that revolutions like …

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