NEW YORK. — New York -- After the El Salvador peace agreement, it looks as if the curtain is being rung down on a decade and a half of revolutionary aspiration and U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary repression. Now for the hard part in Central America -- to stop it all happening again in ten years' time.
It has been a horrific and bloody business, costing countless lives, gaining something for sure, electoral rule rather than dictatorship, but not measurably altering the balance of power between rich and poor, nor enabling these mini-countries of the volcanic Guatemala trench to escape the feeling that, in the last resort, their destiny is always decided in Washington. Even of the much larger Mexico it has long been said, ''Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near to the United States.'' How much truer this is, despite some extra kilometers of distance, for Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama.
Only Costa Rica has won some room for maneuver, mainly for fortuitous historical reasons. Its early settlers killed off all the Indians. Bereft of slave and serf labor, Costa Ricans were compelled to farm the country more in the peasant smallholder tradition than as landlords. The class and ethnic cleavages that tore at its neighbors passed Costa Rica by.
For the rest of the countries of the isthmus, the history of the century has been a tale of class war, ethnic pogroms, deadly family power struggles -- and American military intervention.
The U.S. Marines were first active when they expelled the British from Nicaragua's Caribbean coast in 1894. Britain hoped to grab the rights to build across Nicaragua a trans-isthmus canal, a scheme overtaken by America finagling a Panamanian ''secession'' from Colombia.
By 1909, U.S. Marines were back in Nicaragua, this time to bring a halt to internal fratricide. The job supposedly done, the Marines left, only to return three years later when the feuding again got out of hand. This time the Marines were given a wider mandate -- to calm the whole region, right down to the Canal Zone. Again they appeared to succeed. But underneath the caldron still boiled; when they pulled out in 1925, class and partisan strife blew up in the revolt led by Augusto Sandino (from whom today's Sandinistas take their name).
The Marines returned yet again. it took them a long seven years to crush the guerrillas, but while doing it they trained a tough new National Guard. When the last Marines withdrew, the U.S. minister to Nicaragua made sure the command went to the most Americanized Nicaraguan politico he knew. As John Womack, professor of history at Harvard, has engagingly commented, ''a character who, having taken a business course in Philadelphia, sold cars, refereed boxing, umpired baseball, read meters and inspected toilets, had become the Nicaraguan consul in Costa Rica, a hustler, a heavy charmer and a real killer, Anastasio Somoza.'' (''He's a sonofabitch,'' FDR later allowed, ''but he's ours.'')
Not only did Somoza ground discontent in Nicaragua, he was in effect U.S. proconsul and regional watchdog, stabilizing American order both to north and south until his assassination in 1956. His rule was continued by his sons. Their writ ran far. They promoted the creation of the Central American Common Market. They urged and materially backed the attempted invasion of Cuba to overthrow Castro. They encouraged the Salvadorans in their war against Honduras. It all came crashing down when the National Guard was defeated by the Sandinistas in 1979.
The Sandinistas not only won their own battle, but they were the source of inspiration (and arms) for the rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. fought them, first by withholding aid, and then, under Ronald Reagan, by arming the contras. In El Salvador, it kept the guerrillas at bay by politically and economically bolstering the center- right, and by giving military training and advice to the army.
A war-weary compromise has now been reached by all sides in both countries -- the ballot box. Although it was first pushed as a solution by the liberals in Jimmy Carter's camp, it became, in time, an acceptable tool of the Bush administration, since it offered a chance in Nicaragua of both ending the hopeless entanglement with the contras, and weakening the stranglehold of the Sandinistas. In El Salvador, it is an acceptable sop to the guerrillas, giving reformers and revolutionaries representation, although delaying their access to power.
But the policy has only bought time. Unless the new-born or re-worked democracies (not only Nicaragua and El Salvador, but Guatemala and Panama, too), with governments that still lean toward traditional landed oligarchic interests, seriously engage in social reform, the storm will return. Will Washington then decide to return too, even in this post-Cold War age?
Sad to say, it might. The old cycle of violence and misery, American intervention and repression, has less to do with communism than with ''stability,'' ''order'' and ''pro-Americanism.'' Tragically for Central America, Washington's impulse to suppress boat-rockers without properly weighing in with aid and reform, is a difficult habit to kick.
Jonathan Power writes a column about the Third World.