Meanwhile, Back in Central America . . . Problems Continue, Attention Flags By: JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

February 24, 1991

MEXICO CITY — Mexico City--IT'S AS IF THE SCRIPT writers for Central America and Panama had run out of ideas.

Priest killings, peasant massacres, war-maimed children, starvation, raped and tortured nuns, thousands of refugees, the "Just Cause" invasion of Panama, Manuel Noriega's red underwear.

Even a rebel death squad for Salvadoran cows.

American TV viewers have become so inured to the grotesque on the Central American Channel that that they have reached for the remote control and pressed the mute button.

Hadn't the Bush administration pronounced the dawning of democracy, the end of revolutionary ferment and the beginning of a new age?

Who wants to watch the commercials?

* In November 1989, six Salvadoran Jesuits lay like so many dead deer after a hunt.

An enormous Mexican TV cameraman awkwardly panned his lens over the covered bodies. His plastic press credential looked like a hunting license. He moved awkwardly, wiping tears from his eyes as he tried to focus.

Suddenly, his foot slipped on a soft brown lump covered with flies.

The lump was the best brain in El Salvador, that of the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria S.J., rector of the Central American University.

The day before, Father Ellacuria said: "Is this a Divine Comedy or what?" He laughed. "The Americans never learned the lesson of Vietnam: Political conflicts are not solved by military means."

And so Father Ellacuria became another statistic, killed by the military men paid to protect him.

By rough estimates since the 1960s, more than four times as many people died or disappeared in Central America -- about 230,000 -- than all the U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam.

That's 1 percent of the region's population -- the equivalent, in the United States, of 2.5 million people.

* Now in the shadow of an ever-bigger war, Central America has become a backwater once again, all but ignored by the administration.

Presidents tend to define the news. And so the familiar Latin American correspondent in his Banana Republic shirt has added a gas mask and tanker's goggles.

The legions of journalists who flocked to Managua, San Salvador and Panama City have dwindled to a handful. Many of them are now in the Persian Gulf.

Yet the new democracies of this region exist in a world every bit as fragile as before.

Indeed, for many Central Americans, the situation is worse than before the civil wars of the '80s.

The militaries remain entrenched. Principal export crops, such as coffee, are less profitable. And tiny elites continue to control most of the arable land.

The much-heralded democracies are simply new names for the old order. The military occupy de facto seats of power in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

In Panama, the U.S. military is the ultimate force behind the presidential chair -- a fact that became became clear last year when American troops put down a demonstration by disgruntled policemen.

Of the nearly $5.8 billion the U.S. spent on aid for the four anti-Sandinista republics between 1980 and 1990, almost $1 billion was for military aid.

Yet in four of the five central American republics, more than 40 percent of the population is 14 years of age or younger, many of them unable to obtain schooling because they must work to support their family farms.

In Honduras, the poorest of the republics, only 56 percent can read; the average per capita daily wage is $1.31. There is one doctor for every 2,100 persons; in the U.S., it is one doctor for every 410 persons.

A recent United Nations report found seven of every 10 Hondurans living in "extreme poverty."

"Malnutrition is severe, particularly among children, and nearly two-thirds of the population lack adequate housing and sanitary facilities," said a recent World Bank report.

The civil wars and economic crisis produced a monumental diaspora.

The United States in the past 10 years has accepted as legal immigrants more than 335,000 persons from Central America and Panama. No one knows how many illegal immigrants there are. More than 150,000 other refugees live in the region.

But to many experts, these official numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. For example, unofficial estimates put the number of illegal Salvadoran refugees alone at over a million.

* "It should be emphasized . . . that the United States has supported and helped train Latin American military leaders since the 1960s," wrote Monsignor Marcos McGrath, C.S.C., the Panamanian archbishop.

"The region has paid dearly for the United States' misconception that the Latin American military would follow the U.S. practice of submission to civilian authority," he wrote in a dissenting comment in the 1990 report of the Inter-American Dialogue, a blue-ribbon panel that includes former President Jimmy Carter.

The combined military forces of the six countries are roughly 166,000 -- about 40,000 more men than the regular army of Mexico, a country with a population nearly four times as large.

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