Talking but Not Listening

The foreign ministers of the eight biggest democracies in Latin America gathered last week in Brazil for a meeting that has important implications for the crisis in Central America and that could also have a profound effect on future U.S.-Latin American relations.

Officially the two-day session in Rio de Janeiro was the latest meeting of the Contadora Group--Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama--which has been trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the fighting in Central America for three years. Contadora Group diplomats were joined by foreign ministers of a Contadora Support Group of Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay that was formed earlier this year to help along the slow, complicated peacemaking process. The eight nations represented at Rio account for 90% of Latin America's population, its most important economies and the region's most significant intellectual and moral leadership.

The immediately significant announcement at Rio was that those Latin democracies would renew their efforts to bring peace to Central America, joined this time by U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, a Peruvian, and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Joao Clemente Baena Soares, a Brazilian. That will give renewed life to the Contadora process, becalmed recently while the Reagan Administration promoted military "solutions" in Central America--military aid to the government of El Salvador and the contra rebels fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

But a second announcement at Rio should concern North Americans who take a longer view than President Reagan does of this nation's relationship with its southern neighbors. The eight nations plan to make their association permanent, calling it the Group of Rio de Janeiro, and to start meeting three times a year to discuss a range of regional issues--such as Latin America's huge foreign debt.

Anything that improves communication among Latin America's democracies is to be encouraged, but the creation of a permanent new regional group without the participation of the United States should worry farsighted people in this country. For the Rio Group could be the first step toward a concept that some Latin American nationalists have been pushing lately: an OAS without the United States.

To an extent, such thinking grows out of frustration with U.S. policy in Central America. For all that Latin American leaders have pleaded with Reagan to understand the need for a peaceful settlement in Central America, the Administration has stubbornly followed its own course. That is bad enough, but the United States has at times tried to undermine the Contadora process by pressuring client states like Honduras and El Salvador to refuse to cooperate in the peace process.

But the problem is bigger than that. Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all face formidable debt problems. Fragile democratic governments in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are making agonizing transitions to civilian government after years of military rule. Chile faces a major political crisis as its people push for more democracy from an entrenched and repressive dictatorship. And this country's closest neighbor, Mexico, faces severe economic and social problems that will affect our own southern border. Yet, as Latin American leaders see it, the Administration devotes more time and energy to Nicaragua and its 3 million people than to the rest of Latin America combined.

Given the appalling ignorance of nuance and history that results in the arrogance with which the Administration approaches Latin America, it is small wonder that even close friends in the region are wary of further dealings with the United States in the OAS. The formation of the Rio Group is a sign that the United States also needs better communications with Latin America. That means more than just talking. It also means listening. Lately the Reagan Administration has done plenty of talking about Latin America, but has not been listening to what our neighbors say in response.

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