This is a tab the U.S. should pick up

IN THE BEATITUDES, JESUS SAYS: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." If Americans want to be included in that particular brood, we may have to act fast. After nearly two decades of war- making by proxy in Central America, the United States is letting an opportunity to help construct a comprehensive and sustainable peace in the region slip into historical oblivion.

With the end of the Cold War, much of Washington's attention has become focused on what are now deemed more pressing domestic and economic issues like welfare reform, Monica Lewinsky, and making the world safe for American investors. The near past's military extensions of American foreign policy in the Caribbean and Central America may appear a slightly embarrassing relic of a more paranoid age, but places like Grenada, Guatemala, and El Salvador haven't evaporated into the historical mists, even if they no longer attract as much attention as they did in the days when they represented ground zero in the U.S. campaign to protect the western hemisphere from the communist menace.

The U.S. political establishment demonstrated its appreciation of American strategic interests in Central America with something approaching $6 billion in mostly military aid to El Salvador during the dreadful years of strife in that tiny country. That money helped prop up the Salvadoran military during a civil war that occasionally made its way into U.S. headlines after particularly prominent acts of savagery such as the rape and murder of four American church women, the assassination of an archbishop as he said Mass, or the brutal liquidation of a group of meddlesome Jesuits. It ultimately churned through 75,000 less newsworthy lives.

During much of this time, American support for other regional military adventurism found its way legally or otherwise into Nicaragua to maintain the so-called Contra War. U.S. aid also reached Guatemala in the form of military training as it conducted its end of a 36-year civil war that would eventually leave the families of 150,000 people in mourning for those killed in plain sight or for those who joined the haunting ranks of Latin America's "disappeared."

In all, over the last two decades, American administrations have committed billions to support the wars of Central America. But now that the region is experiencing an almost miraculous outbreak of peace, U.S. foreign aid has become a less dependable commodity in Central America. At the height of the conflict in El Salvador, $1.5 million a day, over $510 million a year, poured in. Unfortunately U.S. policymakers can't seem to generate as much fiscal enthusiasm for peacemaking. This year, the U.S. aid commitment may reach $35 million. Development aid to the region has been cut by 60 percent since 1990.

There are many indications that the end of the region's conflicts—though certainly a good in itself—will not be enough to spur the resolution of Central America's pressing economic and social problems. Its emerging civil society and democratic order is precarious at best. The difficult issue of truth and reconciliation will trouble Guatemalans for a generation to come. Recently Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was brutally murdered two days after he released the results of the Archdiocese of Guatemala's "Recuperation of Historic Memory" project. That report attributed the lion's share of the brutality exhibited during the civil war to Guatemala's military.

Some land reform in the region has proceeded with varying success, but true equity, in an economic order that would find feudalism a step in the right direction, remains a distant hope. Crime in both Guatemala and El Salvador is rising sharply, and though jobs—in the form of low-wage assembly work—are returning, extreme poverty continues its pernicious war of attrition against the healthy civil society that best guarantees democracy. As much as 70 percent of the people in Central America continue to live below the region's dismal poverty line.

With Cuban communism on deathwatch and Russia more interested in where its next ruble is coming from, the U.S. can afford to pretty much do as it pleases in Central America—walk away or increase its development aid—and there are many who are not convinced that foreign aid represent a long-term good for developing nations anyway. But the specific amount of the U.S. aid to the region or the form that it takes is less at issue here than the requirement that some attention and practical assistance be provided now—and with a higher degree of urgency than Congress and the president are currently employing—as Central America tries to rise above its recent past and build a democratic and more equitable future for its citizens. It would not take much to return El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to the chaos and waste of war.

Call it a requirement of simple courtesy. When I visit a neighbor and happen to make a mess, I don't just shrug it off and walk away; I help clean it up. American policy helped create and finally prolong the agony in Central America. It's just not good manners to turn our backs on the region now and watch these new democracies falter and fail. If they do, the U.S. may feel compelled to return to Central America to clean up what will assuredly be a greater mess. Central America has already endured decades of the tragedy of war; a little attention now will help prevent the unraveling of another tragedy in the struggle for peace.

Kevin Clarke is the social issues & public life editor for U.S. Catholic and Claretian Publications' managing editor for online products.

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