It’s Our Moral Duty to Help : * Aid for Central America Is Essential

President Bush is right to hammer Congress for cluttering a bill to provide desperately needed aid to Central America with unrelated spending projects. But one “unrelated” matter does belong in the Central American aid package. In fact, it’s pivotal to finally helping bring some peace to that troubled region: the issue of U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Bush says he’ll insist that Congress stay in session through Memorial Day to enact a measure that will provide $800 million in emergency aid to the embattled governments of Nicaragua’s Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Panama’s Guillermo Endara. The first requests for Panama aid were submitted in January, after all, while U.S. troops still occupied the country after the invasion that toppled Gen. Manuel Noriega. The request for aid to Nicaragua was added after Chamorro’s election in February.

The aid requests bogged down because some congressmen can’t resist the urge to add pet projects to any spending bill. There are 180 amendments to the Central America aid bill, some of them just plain silly. But they should be debated some other time. Central America’s needs are immediate.

The United States has a moral obligation to help rebuild economies that were shattered largely by U.S. pressure--a long Contra war against Nicaragua’s former Sandinista government, and a two-year boycott to undermine the Noriega regime. There are also practical reasons for helping out. In Panama, widespread pro-U.S. sentiment that followed Noriega’s ouster could turn into angry resentment unless the economy is revived. Nicaragua is bankrupt, and without a quick infusion of funds, Chamorro won’t be able to pay salary increases negotiated this week to end a strike called by pro-Sandinista labor unions. El Salvador fits into the aid equation because in a notoriously unstable part of the world the Salvadoran civil war remains the chief source of instability.


While Washington has been focused on Chamorro’s labor problems and Endara’s cries for help, peace talks between the government of President Alfredo Cristiani and Salvadoran guerrillas have quietly been renewed in Venezuela. Cristiani’s taking a risk in talking peace because hard-liners in the Salvadoran military want all-out war. This is the military, after all, that has been involved in some horrendous human-rights abuses, most recently the massacre of six Jesuit priests. Many in Congress fear that without tight controls on the aid they get from Washington, El Salvador’s generals will keep waging a futile but bloody war against their own people. That’s why conditions on Salvadoran aid must be kept in the Central American bailout. If the Administration really wants a lid on Central America’s political turmoil, any money sent to Nicaragua and Panama will be better spent if it is linked with tighter controls on U.S. aid to El Salvador.