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A week of Mixed Signals

6 minute read
Walter Isaacson

The U.S. still has trouble shaping its Central American policy

Secretary of State Alexander Haig said last week that the renewed attention the Reagan Administration is placing on its Central American policy is designed to “put the current state of play into sharper focus.” Yet the play at his State Department seemed, as Alice said of her own Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. Does Washington sincerely want to pursue negotiations to reduce tensions between the U.S. and Nicaragua? Is Central America a “global” problem that requires the participation of the Soviet Union and Cuba? Should the U.S. keep trying to prove outside involvement in El Salvador? Another week of mixed signals in trying to articulate its Central American policy did little to clear up such questions.

As Haig concluded discussions a week ago with Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, the prospect for negotiations between Washington and the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua seemed better than ever. Mexican President José López Portillo recommended such talks as a way to reduce the tensions arising out of the U.S. contention that Nicaragua is directing the subversion of El Salvador. “A process of negotiating may be starting,” predicted Castaneda. Haig, who had earlier reacted coolly to the plan because it did not deal with arms shipments to rebels in El Salvador, said that “these differences have been narrowed.”

Haig became upset, however, at the public interpretation that Mexico was negotiating on behalf of the U.S. The next day, he told reporters that the proposals being discussed are merely reiterations of ones made by Washington last August, namely that the U.S. would restore aid and friendly relations with Nicaragua if that country scaled down its military buildup and ended arms shipments to the Salvadoran rebels. Haig downplayed Mexico’s role. Said he: “The U.S. will present and receive proposals on its own behalf.” One of the main reasons for the Haig-Castaneda meetings, U.S. officials said, was simply to “massage the Mexican ego a little.” In addition, the talks might dampen domestic liberal criticism of the Administration’s hard-line approach.

Castańeda, unfazed, forged ahead with a series of meetings with Nicaraguan and Cuban leaders. In so doing, he allowed the Sandinistas to call Haig’s hand. “We have never accepted the U.S. charge of an arms flow through here, but that does not mean we are unwilling to discuss the point,” said Sergio Ramirez Mercado, a member of Nicaragua’s three-man junta. Nicaragua also called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council so that it could present its case. The Administration, whose sincerity about desiring a negotiated accommodation with the Sandinistas has been in some doubt, found itself diplomatically cornered.

Haig also found himself having trouble with the question of Soviet and Cuban participation in Central American negotiations. He feels the El Salvador struggle is part of the global problem of Soviet adventurism, and should be treated as such through talks with all parties involved. When he said this at a rambling background briefing, his view of the “global” nature of the problem, attributed to a “senior State Department official,” was prominently reported. Asked if he agreed with the unnamed official, President Reagan replied: “I always have trouble about wondering who these senior officials are. I haven’t met any of them yet.”

When the mystery of the anonymous official was resolved, a spokesman said that Reagan’s remarks were “in jest” and that he agreed with Haig’s view. But Haig, by then, was restating his position in response to right-whig dismay over the possibility of involving the Soviets in a Central American settlement. His clarification: “Salvador is at once a global, a regional and a local problem. That does not mean, nor did it ever mean, that the Soviets, or the Cubans for that matter, must be invited to the negotiating table.” Said an aide: “The boss was trying to get back to the white line in the middle, but he damn near went off the road.”

Haig’s difficulties come at a time when the Administration has been suffering a string of setbacks in trying to justify its El Salvador policy. The most dramatic was caused by a young Nicaraguan captured in El Salvador, who had been flown to Washington on the understanding that he would tell of his role as a Sandinista leader of the Salvadoran revolt. State Department officials walked him through his expected testimony, which had been shown on television in San Salvador earlier. But at a press conference three hours later, he recanted his story. Officials feel that attempting to prove that the Nicaraguan was lying, or trying to prolong the issue by releasing evidence of his previous version, would serve no real purpose. At week’s end the Administration released an eleven-page report charging that Cuba has increased its arms shipments to Salvadoran rebels in the past few months in an attempt to disrupt the upcoming election of a constituent assembly there. The weapons flow has “reached unprecedented peaks,” the report said, since guerrilla leaders met with Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana in December. No intelligence data were released to support the charges.

To a large extent, the Administration now can do little more than sit back and wait for Sunday’s election. The voting is being boycotted by the left and threatens to produce either a low turnout or a victory by ultra-rightists (see WORLD). Either result would undermine U.S. policy, which has been based on the hope that the campaign would solidify power for the centrist regime led by President José Napoleon Duarte. Administration officials said that if the far right wins in El Salvador next week the President’s aid plan for El Salvador, part of the Caribbean Basin package sent to Congress last week, would be reviewed. “Whatever new government is established,” said one official, “it must be committed to the reforms launched by Duarte under the Carter Administration.”

—By Walter Isaacson. Reported by Gregory H. Wierzynski/Washington

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