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Facing Facts in Central American

The Central America Fact Book
By Tom Barry and Deb Preusch
Grove Press $9.95
Reviewed by Ted Yoder

New from the co-directors of the Resource Center in Albuquerque is the Central America Fact Book. As a companion to their 1984 publication, The Other Side of Paradise: Foreign Control in the Caribbean, this work examines the political, economic and historical factors that have transformed this collection of countries into the focal point of U.S. regional security interests.

The book, by Tom Barry and Deb Preusch, is at once an interpretive history and a searing indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

Although direct military assistance to Central America is what makes the U.S. headlines, the majority of the book is devoted to examining the traditional U.S. economic policy of stabilization and pacification. In the 30 years since World War II, Central America has experienced an economic "boom" of giddy proportions, due in large to the incorporation of cash crops such as cotton, sugar, coffee and bananas into the export market.

Today, write the authors, "most of Central America's social, economic and political problems are rooted in the history and structure of the agro-export system." Agrarian reform has become both a political and economic necessity without which no agriculturallybased country can survive.

Through exhaustive research, the authors provide an informative account of U.S. bilateral aid to Central America and of U.S. economic investment in the region.

Transnational Corporations (TNCs) have $5.3 billion invested in the region. And one-third of the top 500 U.S. industrial corporations have operations in Central America. Since 1978 these multinational corporations have ceased expanding their operations in the region but they remain powerful forces in the economies of Latin America. Their contribution to the region's development, however, is debatable. Their operations often take advantage of a cheap, day-labor force to perform labor intensive aspects of manufacturing.

While U.S. trade with the region totals over $4 billion -over half of Central America's extra-regional trade-it makes up less than 1 percent of all U.S. trade annually. And yet, the authors point out, U.S exports to the region exceed imports by several million dollars each year.

The region's severe economic problems have been compounded by heavy reliance on multilateral and bilateral lending. Central America currently has a combined external debt of $18 billion, roughly twice the amount of direct U.S. investment and U.S.- Central American trade combined. Nowhere is this disparity more apparent than in Costa Rica where one-third of export earnings are drained by interest on the external debt.

Barry and Preusch warn that although the Reagan administration has "poured" economic assistance into Central America-between 1980 and 1984 U.S. economic aid doubled the amount given from World War II to 1979-the money has been used as a means to control rather than develop the region.

Under Reagan, direct military aid to the region continued to exceed U.S. economic support. Through various programs, $800 million in military assistance went to Central America from 1981-85, four times the amount allocated in the previous 40 years. At the same time, with the backing of the U.S. government, private aid groups have contributed other types of "humanitarian assistance" to U.S.-backed guerrilla forces in the form of food, medical supplies, military training, weapons, aircraft, and money.

Filled with statistics both for the region and individual countries, The Fact Book is a valuable and much needed resource on a region where disinformation seems to be the order of the day. The book also includes a listing of all major U.S. corporations operating in the region and a chronology of events in Central America from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the present.

The Fact Book is a profoundly disturbing report on the state of U.S. policy in Latin America. History repeats itself. Continuation of the present military and economic policy, the authors warn, can only lead "back to the days when U.S. gunboats were bombarding tropical ports and U.S. Marines were fighting a losing battle against a peasant army in the hills of Nicaragua."

Ted Yoder is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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