Central Americans, Despite Reagan Polls, Disown U.S. Contra Policy by Big Margin

William Bollinger is director of the InterAmerican Research Center in Los Angeles

Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last month, Costa Rica President Oscar Arias unmistakably directed his message at Washington. "Let Central Americans decide the future of Central America," he pleaded. "Leave the interpretation and implementation of our peace plan to us."

Arias speaks in the name of more than 25 million people from five diverse countries. But does the Costa Rican leader have their support in demanding that the United States halt all aid to the Contras? Is it even possible to know what the "average" Central American thinks about the peace process or Reagan Administration policy?

The answer to both questions is yes. Recent public-opinion surveys in El Salvador, for example, show that Arias has become a political leader who inspires hope and reflects the political outlook of the voiceless majority. Asked which Central American president best governs his country, 54% of Salvadorans polled named Arias, while fewer than 2% chose their own president, Jose Napoleon Duarte. By a 3-1 margin, Salvadorans said they wanted the U.S. Congress to vote against Contra aid.

In looking at how Salvadorans feel about the Arias Plan and prospects for peace, bear in mind that all reliable surveys during the past two years have shown the populace to be profoundly pessimistic. One survey found that more than 78% believed the local economy would continue to deteriorate. Asked in four different polls how El Salvador's civil war could be resolved, almost one-fifth answered "only God" could do it, while another sizeable group said there was "no solution."

The Arias Plan has now broken some of this cynicism. Most Salvadorans are aware of the process set in motion at the August meeting of five presidents in Esquipulas, Guatemala, and are either hopeful or withholding judgment. A month after the agreement was signed, only 39% dismissed it as useless, "a hoax" or "just politics." About half of those surveyed late last year felt the plan had already achieved some results.

When polled about different aspects of Reagan Administration policy in the region, generally only one Salvadoran in four expresses support for the U.S. President's position. Only one in five approves of military aid to the Contras. In fact, more than two-thirds of those interviewed in San Salvador expressed either indifference about the Contra cause or opposition to the war against the Nicaraguan government.

These measures of public opinion may surprise policy-makers in Washington, since the Reagan Administration has circulated its own poll results from El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala that purport to show broad regional support for U.S. policy. President Reagan used these polls in March, 1986, when he announced that in some Central American countries "the rate goes as high as over 90% of the people who support what we're doing." In the case of El Salvador, the Administration leaked polls to the media showing that between 52% and 69% of Salvadorans (depending on the survey) approve of U.S. military aid to the Contras.

How such results were obtained is a mystery, since the polls of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) over the past two years have shown consistently that most Salvadorans are tired of war and oppose military solutions of any sort. IUDOP is a department of the Jesuit-run Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador. The respected polling institute is directed by the university's vice rector, Dr. Ignacio Martin-Baro, S.J., a prominent social psychologist and graduate of the University of Chicago.

In order to probe more deeply into how the people of El Salvador view U.S. policy and the peace process, IUDOP conducted two special random-sample surveys last fall, one a poll of 1,080 adults in the capitals of 10 of the country's 14 departments, the other a poll of 941 adults in 50 different neighborhoods in San Salvador. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in people's homes and covered every social sector, from the most exclusive urban neighborhoods to the most impoverished slums and squatter settlements.

Despite widespread fear still prevalent in Salvadoran society, fewer than 8% of those approached in the national survey refused to be interviewed when told the political nature of the poll. In the poorest barrios, those refusing sometimes say apologetically, "If I talk to you, they will come and get me." But most Salvadorans trust the Catholic university and are appreciative when someone shows respect for their views. Many warm to the interview as they realize the luck of finally having their opinion count and be presented to the national media. IUDOP has now conducted more than 12,000 interviews in all but the four most war-torn departments (Chalatenango, Morazan, Cabanas and La Union).

On every issue posed, substantial majorities of Salvadorans contradicted the positions of the Reagan Administration. By a margin of 2.7 to 1, those interviewed said the United States should withdraw its military forces from Honduras, for example. While Reagan insists that El Salvador is threatened by Cuba and Nicaragua, eight out of every 10 Salvadorans polled said that the United States is the country that most interferes in their nation's internal affairs. Asked what sort of assistance the United States should provide Central American countries, only 3.5% mentioned military aid.

Salvadorans not only oppose specific aspects of U.S. policy, they also tend to disagree with the Reagan Administration's underlying rationale for intervention. Concerning the civil war, most Salvadorans attribute the conflict to their country's "unjust structures," "bad government" or the "quest for political power." Only 6.1% of those polled in San Salvador said the cause was communist intervention or subversion.

One recurring theme in the U.S. policy debate over Central America is the assumption that democracy has been established in El Salvador and the Contras are needed to force similar democratization in Nicaragua. But when IUDOP asks Salvadorans if they enjoy democratic freedoms under the Duarte government, most people say no. About two-thirds judge that political conditions have remained the same or are worsening, and even those who cite improvement are usually quick to add, "but there is still repression."

The polls help explain why President Duarte signed the Arias Plan in defiance of the Reagan Administration. With his war against the insurgents stalemated and the economy in shambles, Duarte's political position has eroded rapidly. His presidential approval rating among residents in the capital now hovers around 13%, with 87% giving him bad, terrible or only fair marks.

Duarte is condemned as harshly by the right as by the left, especially on the economy. His opponents play to public sentiment when they ridicule the president as a vainglorious man who supposedly resented being passed over for the Nobel Prize. Duarte compounded his image as a pathetic tool of the United States by kissing the U.S. flag in front of Reagan during his October trip to Washington. In a subsequent poll, 71% of Salvadorans felt the incident was humiliating, offensive to national sovereignty, "idiotic," "crazy," "typical of Duarte's sellout to foreigners" or the like.

About the only thing greater than the public's cynicism about government is their aching desire for peace and relief from economic crisis, which most people blame on either corruption or Duarte's failure to end the civil war. Thus the president, who was elected in 1984 on the strength of his pledge to bring peace, is in no position to play the spoiler of the regional peace process.

Since Congress has passed into law a certification procedure for Contra aid that makes Reagan the judge of how well the peace plan is working, Arias' task in coming months will be that much more difficult. But he enjoys firm Latin American backing and did not expect a quick or easy process. He seems to understand his historic opportunity flowing from the damage of the Iran-Contra scandal to Reagan Administration aims. In this context it is of no small consequence that, as the El Salvador polls suggest, he is the only player who can legitimately claim to represent the Central American people's most cherished aspirations for peace.

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