By Ann Florini

To observers unfamiliar with the region, Central America seems to have exploded on the international scene with breathtaking suddenness in the last few years. Turmoil enveloped a region that had seemed for generations to be nothing more than a quiet backwater of the United States. The Nicaraguan revolution united virtually the entire population against a regime that had grown rich during decades of repression, but the future course of that revolution is still uncertain. El Salvador has had three governments in an 18-month period during which nearly 15,000 people have died in political violence, violence which none of the governments has seemed capable of controlling. Guatemala is expected by many observers to be the site of the next explosion, having already suffered several thousands of deaths from political violence in recent years. The commitment of Honduras to a transition from military to civilian rule seems increasingly fragile in the face of the waves of violence buffeting the surrounding countries. Even stable, democratic Costa Rica is threatened with upheaval as its economic problems become more severe, and tiny Belize, preparing for independence from Britain, fears that Guatemala may invade when British troops are pulled out.

Although this turmoil has its roots in a history of political and economic injustice within Central America, it also affects, and is affected by, actors external to the region. Central America (particularly El Salvador) currently is a point of confrontation between the superpowers, with the United States accusing the Soviet Union of fomenting trouble through Cuba in an area that has traditionally been a secure and tranquil U.S. neighbor. Western Europe, seeing this confrontation as unnecessary for U.S. interests and destabilizing to global security, finds itself once again in disagreement with the leader of the Western alliance. Mexico and Venezuela, whose oil reserves have made them regional powers to be reckoned with, would like to see peace return to the region, but do not agree on how to achieve long-term stability. Several transnational actors, notably the Social and Christian Democratic parties, the Socialist International, and the Roman Catholic Church, are involved and influential in Central America.

In response to the international attention that has recently focused on Central America, a group of scholars gathered in Washington, D.C. in April 1981 for a workshop on the "International Aspects of the Crisis in Central America." The workshop brought together Central American and Latin American specialists and experts on broader foreign-policy and national-security affairs to discuss Central America's role in the world today and in the near future. Given the international controversy which Central America has provoked in recent months, it is perhaps not surprising that there was frequent disagreement on most of the points raised at the workshop. This paper attempts to summarize the themes of the workshop and to highlight the major opposing points of view. Where possible, arguments and observations are identified with their proponents.