By David Ives

Central America has ceased to exist in the eyes of most mass media and in the memories of most citizens of the United States. One might hear about the occasional earthquake or hurricane that hits that region or be vaguely aware that some of the illegal immigrants coming to this country are from somewhere south of Mexico, but for all intents and purposes, the region has unfortunately fallen off the map and out of our awareness.

It wasn't always this way.

In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, vicious wars plagued Central America. The region, especially Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, were often in the headlines because of the so-called right-wing death squads and so-called left-wing guerrillas that fought each other in bitter civil wars that killed many thousands of people. These conflicts became one of many worldwide battlegrounds for conflict between East and West, between communism and capitalism, between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and, for many, between good and evil.

The word "contra," a Spanish word meaning "against," came into usage to describe a para-military group opposed to the Sandinista regime that took power in Nicaragua after that country's long-time and U.S.-supported dictator, Anastasio Somoza, was toppled in 1979. The Iran/Contra Affair or "Contragate," a convoluted, illegal, and ill-conceived operation to surreptitiously fund the Contras by the United States, brought shame to the Reagan administration and sent some people to jail.

Millions and millions of dollars to provide the machinery of war were poured into Central America to support one side or the other in a terrible game, with horrible consequences for the generally poverty-stricken area. To paraphrase a famous quote by the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the former and current president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, the outside world provided the arms and the Central Americans provided the blood.

But on Aug. 7, however, comes the 20th anniversary of the treaty that was the beginning of the end of these Central American wars. It was called Esquipulas II and named after the town in Guatemala where it was signed. Arias, a visionary and inspiring leader, conceived of a peace plan that he presented to the leaders of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States was dead set against it and pulled out all the stops to prevent this peace treaty from being signed, using all the intimidation techniques in its arsenal. The United States sought, as it too often does, a military solution instead of a negotiated one. It was therefore one of most courageous acts in history and should be an example for the rest of the world to emulate that these five small countries decided on their own to make peace themselves, despite pressure from elsewhere to seek a military solution and continue the bloodshed. They wanted peace, not war, and other countries could and should make the same decision despite pressures from elsewhere to do otherwise.

Unfortunately, the world has forgotten about Central America and its strong moral example since the peace treaty was signed. When the fighting stopped, the tremendous amount of money that had been available to support the conflicts in the region in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s dried up. It was as if to say that it were better to support a war than to support the nascent and economically struggling democracies in the region.

Although there are some bright spots, poverty and illiteracy are still rampant in much of Central America because of the long history of conflict there and the failure of the rest of the world, especially the United States, to invest in achieving the conditions for peace and economic growth after those conflicts ended, not to mention to atone for all the unnecessary blood that was spilt in throughout that region. Even the illegal-immigration problem that so many people worry about is directly related to the lack of opportunity and investment in Central American after the wars ended.

I hope that that many people will remember this treaty on its 20th anniversary and realize its importance in the world as an example of how courageous people chose peaceful dialogue rather than more blood-letting to resolve their problems. We should all engage in promoting the construction of instruments for life, not only in Central America, but around the world. Esquipulas II is an excellent, but too long forgotten, example of what can be achieved when countries stop to talk and listen.

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