The Monroe Doctrine, as it is known, affects U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean to this day. It was perhaps never more evident than during the 1970's and 80's when U.S. and Soviet-backed armed groups fought against each other and military governments in four of the five countries in the region. In Central America, thousands of citizens were caught up in the violence: 250,000 dead or disappeared in Guatemala; 75,000 dead in El Salvador; and 20,000 dead in Nicaragua.

Today, seven years after the last peace accord was signed, bringing an end to the 36-year civil war in Guatemala, the region is still struggling to establish rule of law and democracy. Meanwhile local economies are in tatters after years of war and a succession of natural disasters.

To top it off, the coffee industry, a mainstay of employment for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, is reeling from the crash in world coffee prices, which are near their lowest levels in one hundred years. In Guatemala, more than half-a-million coffee workers face starvation. The situation is no better in Nicaragua.

?In general terms this is a difficult moment for Central America,? says Daniel Wilkinson, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch and author of the book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala. ?The countries there emerged from these wars and entered into this new era with the promise of building democratic institutions and accountability. And it's been a very rocky road. And the political and economic situation of the last few years has been difficult. So what hope people placed in a new era of democracy hasn't really panned out.?

Democratic elections in the 1990's brought a series of pro-business, free-market presidents into power in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, who promised to create jobs and fight hunger and poverty. But prosperity has been hard to come by, says Gerardo Le Chevallier, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Democratic Institute in Washington:

?Politically the region is doing relatively well, but economically the region is not doing that well," he says. "And the problem with the political system in Latin America in general, Central America in particular, is the perception that the citizens have that democracy should bring economic progress and better incomes and better living situations for all the inhabitants, and that's not necessarily the case. As you know, democracy is a political system that a country builds, but when the economy is bad or when decisions are made that are not good, it's not necessarily the fault of democracy. But Central Americans tend to blame democracy for their economic problems.?

Opposition parties on both the right and left are benefiting from Central Americans' discontent. Mr. Le Chevallier says the frustration citizens feel may translate into electoral victories for opposition candidates in Guatemala in November and in El Salvador in March when presidential elections are held in each country.

Troubled by Central America's poor economies, Washington sees a solution for the region's woes: more trade. In January 2003, the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced negotiations for the creation of a U.S.- Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. Participants from the five Central American nations and the United States seek to complete negotiations by December 2003.

CAFTA would have relatively little impact on the United States. But analysts say access to the world's richest market could be very important to Central America.

However, regional labor unions and farmers are fearful of the prospect of opening their countries' markets to competition from highly efficient U.S. manufacturers and producers.

Luis Pinto, program coordinator for the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says free trade in the region needs to be introduced gradually: ?A well-constructed CAFTA must take a gradual developmental approach that allows the country to adjust at a pace that is bearable to each one of the populations," he says. "You can't just take it as a whole. It must help build economic governmental human resources that they need in order to succeed in the modern world. You can't just shove something down their throats and expect them to react to that. You need to give them time. You need to allow for several years to go by in order to allow them to adjust to the competition.?

There is one bright spot in Central America, says Luis Pinto: Costa Rica. Its standard of living is fairly high and democracy has been in place since the late 1800's, marred only briefly by two outbursts of violence:

?The Costa Ricans in their limited role both economically and politically in the region chose instead to promote themselves, chose to play ball with the United States," he says. "They looked to see what the United States wanted to hear, wanted to see, wanted to have in the region and they gave them that. It's for that reason that Costa Rica leads the region in technology. They're the ones that are leading the way in the CAFTA negotiations, and they're the ones who have the most to gain by this. And it's because they've promoted an education of all classes. They've promoted elementary, secondary and university level education for everyone in the county which has allowed them to provide companies with a very well educated work force, which is something that these companies are looking for.?

While democratically elected governments in Central America struggle to create a better future for their citizens, human rights activists warn they must also look to the past. State-sponsored violence and human rights abuses in Guatemala, El Salvador and to a lesser extent Nicaragua and Honduras were rampant during the Cold War struggles, says Human Rights Watch's Daniel Wilkinson. Yet almost nobody has been held responsible:

?In the two countries which saw the highest levels of abuses - El Salvador and Guatemala - there were truth commissions set up to investigate the human rights violations that had taken place and to provide information to the country about what had happened," he says. "In Guatemala, where the Truth Commission found that there had been as many as 200,000 people killed, hundreds of massacres, and in some areas of the country massacres that according to this Truth Commission constituted acts of genocide, there still has been virtually no progress in prosecuting the people responsible for those crimes.?

By sweeping past human rights abuses under the rug, observers say it will be hard for Central America to establish open, accountable governments. Without transparency and accountability they say corruption and violence will continue to plague the region and undermine plans for a better future.