Approaches TO THE Americas : Reagan's Nicaragua Fixation Puts All the Hemisphere at Risk

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist and former diplomat, is the author of "The Old Gringo" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

The real political choice for the United States in this hemisphere is between the contras and the governments of Latin America. Perhaps in all its history, Latin America has never before been governed by such an exceptional group of men as the present: capable, honest, democratically oriented and internationally educated individuals. To name not all: Argentina's Raul Alfonsin, Uruguay's Julio Sanguinetti, Brazil's Jose Sarney, Peru's Alan Garcia, Mexico's Miguel de la Madrid, Guatemala's Vinicio Cerezo, Venezuela's Jaime Lusinchi and Colombia's Belisario Betancur (as well as his probable successor, Virgilio Barco) form a constellation of heads of state offering the United States an unparalleled opportunity for cooperation and the solution of problems.

These men appear on the scene, however, during a period of harrowing economic and social dilemmas. It is far from certain that they will find solutions to these problems. Too many intractable forces--a disillusioned middle class, a mob of urban marginals, a deeply dispossessed working class, a blighted agricultural proletariat--are seething under the veneer of stability. The democratic gains of the last few years, so fervently hailed by those who did nothing to bring them about, run the gravest risks of becoming mere swallows caught in a sudden winter storm. The military, unwilling to administer the crises, are nevertheless waiting in the wings.

One dreams of what leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would have done together with a comparable group of Latin Americans. Certainly not offer them a contra war in Central America, distracting attention from the really important questions of economic survival, draining energies from the internal to the international stage, dividing national opinion and threatening, in sum, the feeble stability of the continent. The last thing that De la Madrid, Alfonsin or Sarney need is an escalating conflict in Latin American territories, leading inexorably to generalized war--by accident, by slippage or by will.

Ronald Reagan's failed Central American policy is less of a danger to Nicaragua, which is geared to defend itself for a long long time, than to the United States' friends on the continent and, eventually, to the United States itself, acting in this matter as its own worst enemy.

Latin governments have repeatedly offered rational solutions to what they consider a very minor crisis in Central America. Why not listen seriously for once? For example: During almost half a century Mexico has offered the United States the most precious of gifts: a secure southern border. In effect, the United States is that rarity in universal history, a great power with only two neighbors, both weaker than itself. But the Reagan Administration seems willing to create havoc in Mexico by forcing the contra war and, eventually, the American war, on Nicaragua.

Mexico, a nation of 80 million, will not be drowned by a red tide flowing from Nicaragua. In fact, well before reaching Harlingen, Texas, any venturesome Sandinista battalions would be blown apart at the Honduran, Salvadoran or Guatemalan borders.

But Mexico would be politically ripped apart by pressures to take sides in an American conflict in Central America as either enemy or satellite of the United States. The Mexican government, seriously damaged by economic, moral and physical problems, would probably lose its strongest claim to legitimacy--the sovereign conduct of its foreign policy--if it caved in to Washington's demands. But it would also suffer grievously, for other reasons, if it seemed to undermine the security of the United States for refusing to follow Washington's lead in Central America. The result would be turmoil on the border, but not for the reasons Reagan paints in his TV graphics.

It seems that a great deal--the respect and credibility of a whole continent; a whole range of political opportunities--is being sacrificed to very little--a preconceived, paranoid and obsessive script. Brazil has had to ask--twice--that it not be painted red on Reagan's maps. President Betancur of Colombia has had to denounce publicly, on more than one occasion, the State Department's penchant for saying that he says one thing in private and another in public. Betancur's latest correction: "All of Latin America opposes the Reagan proposal (of aid to the contras )." Former President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela has warned that all of Latin America would rise against the United States in the event of an invasion of Nicaragua. President Garcia of Peru has declared before the Argentine Congress hat his country would "break relations with the aggressive power" in the case of an invasion of Nicaragua and "do everything in its power to defend the brother country." And the new president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, has wryly suggested that the $100 million in proposed contra aid be given to the Central American countries for economic development. Farmers, scientific researchers, the roofless and quite a few school children in the United States must feel the same way.

Latin America cannot be faulted for criticizing while abstaining. Latin governments have repeatedly offered rational political and diplomatic solutions to what they consider a very minor international crisis in Central America--although it is a major economic and social crisis for those extremely weak countries, more and more dependent on foreign military and financial aid, wherever it might come from.

Why not listen seriously for once to the Latin American solution? It takes care of the security concerns of the United States better than Reagan's theater of horrors. By now everyone knows that the solutions include ending external support for any guerrillas; freezing the acquisition of arms and then diminishing them gradually; suspending international military maneuvers; reducing and finally eliminating foreign military advisers and bases.

Since it is now evident that the Reagan Administration, caught in its own web of fictions, will not give the Latin American solution that serious try, I believe that Latin America should take a bold initiative to negotiate with the five Central American governments and offer Latin Americans--the four Contadora nations and the four countries forming their support group--as guarantors of the peace agreement. This is a Latin American problem and it deserves a Latin American solution. "Left to ourselves," a former president of Costa Rica told me recently in Boston, "we Central Americans would solve this problem in a few weeks."

If any of the Central American governments then faulted on the agreements freely arrived at with the Latin American community--if, say, Honduras were to offer continued sanctuary to the contras, or Nicaragua a base to the Soviet Union, or if El Salvador were to turn its armed power against its traditional foe, Honduras--then all hell would break loose. But the solutions and the eventual sanctions would all be inspired by Latin America, guaranteed and headed by Latin America; the United States would be spared the divisive contests, the debasing rhetoric, the ignorance in high places that have seriously damaged it during these past few weeks.

Men such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) have saved the honor and the voice of the United States for a better, more rational day. The contras cannot win, but the United States and Latin America can lose. It is time to stop playing games, physical or rhetorical, and take serious diplomatic initiatives. The time is now, in the hiatus between voting on contra aid in the Senate and the House. The stakes are indeed high, but not for the reasons Reagan offers. Most of the new Latin governments have the legitimacy to carry through the harsh solutions needed for economic recovery. If they consent to American adventurism in Central America they will end by losing this legitimacy. Economic disaster, erosion of the social fabric and political upheaval will ensue, from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn.

Where will the security of the United States be then?

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