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Central America discussed

By David P. Hamilton

Professor Peter H. Smith of the Department of Political Science discussed the reasons for American involvement in Central America with nearly twenty students Wednesday in a forum sponsored by the Political Science Committee on Central America.

Two media presentations preceded Smith's talk. First was a film called Witness to War, a documentary on the experiences of Dr. Charlie Clements, a Vietnam veteran turned Quaker who spent a year in El Salvador giving medical aid to war refugees.

The slide show Central America: Roots of the Crisis followed the film, describing the political and economic troubles facing El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras, the five Central Amercan republics.

Smith then spoke about the political situation in Central America. Many of his comments were derived from his personal experience, since he has visited both El Salvador and Nicaragua within the past year. He said "the attention on events in Central America is focused on El Salvador and Nicaragua."

In El Salvador, Smith said, the war between government forces and rebel guerillas continues despite the free elections held by the government. The violence has moved out of the city into the countryside, where the army arbitrarily sweeps through territory on search-and-destroy missions which often injure or kill civilians, he said.

The right-wing elements in the country continue to demonstrate political strength despite the election of the moderate Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte, Smith said. Duarte's cabinet is filled with conservatives that he appointed out of political necessity, he continued.

These conservatives plan to eventually remove Duarte. They consider him nothing but an "engineer," Smith said. They have also been instrumental in blocking negotiations with the rebels, he added.

The right wing consists mainly of the comparatively few rich Salvadoran families that own most of the land in El Salvador, according to the slide show. These families wield enormous economic power in addition to controlling the army, the slide show said.

Smith said that Duarte has recently come under severe criticism by the right wing for negotiating with the rebels. Duarte arranged the release of several key rebels from jail in exchange for the return of his kidnapped daughter, Smith said.

In Nicaragua, the main destabilizing factor is the continued intrusiveness of the United States, Smith said. The recent $27 million aid package to the contras is keeping war alive and "very explicit" in that nation, he said. In addition, the grain boycott imposed on Nicaragua by the Reagan administration is exacerbating the extreme poverty of the region, he said.

The most serious implication is that "since January of '84 the United States has been dedicated to the overthrow of the Sandinista government," Smith said. The United States was the first nation to oppose the Contadora treaty, a Central American declaration of mutual assistance and non-intervention in internal affairs, he continued.

Smith asserted that the United States could not accept the Contadora agreement because of its clauses preventing outside military intervention. Without US support, the Contadora nations are unlikely to sign the treaty, he said, because most of them currently face economic and political difficulties severe enough to make them reluctant to face US disapproval.

"The question here is really `Why can't the US stop the fighting in Central America?' " Smith said. There are several reasons put forward by the administration, he said, but none of them is sufficient.

The argument that the United States is encouraging military buildup in El Salvador and Honduras to protect American interests in the region is inadequate because US investment in Central America is marginal, Smith said.

The issue of geopolitical security is also minimal, Smith continued. "If we're going to argue about protecting sea lanes and the Panama Canal, we should be talking about invading Cuba, not Nicaragua," he said.

Smith ridiculed the belief that the United States must "stamp out fires" in the region before they become serious "conflagrations" that might tie up US troops. "First of all, whenever somebody starts using metaphors it indicates sloppy thinking on their part," he said. "Nobody is giving any concrete details about exactly what might be necessary."

Secondly, this argument provides excellent reasons for the United States to accept Contadora, which would make US protection of the area unnecessary, he said.

"The current feeling is that it is our moral right and responsibility to exercise power in Central America," Smith said. The challenge to the United States, he said, is to voluntarily give up its hegemony in the area and allow Central American nations more self-determination.

"Our problem is that these [American] policies are not pragmatic," Smith said. "Instead, they're ideologically based, which means they're impossible to defend logically."