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AS WARS END, CENTRAL AMERICA FACES ANOTHER FIGHT

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While Central America is enjoying a breather from its civil wars, the region still faces the equally tough problem of restoring its battered economy.

In all of Latin America, the 1980s are regarded as the "lost decade" because of the economic slide.But Central America had an even tougher time because of the huge government expenditure for fighting civil wars, economic sabotage by rebel forces, the disruption of agriculture and the displacement of as many as 2 million of the region's 25 million people.

The Central American economies were among the fastest growing in the hemisphere during the 1960s, but the economies of El Salvador and Nicaragua actually got smaller during the 1980s.

Just to keep up with the fast-growing population - 46 percent of the region's population is under 16 - the Central American economies have to grow as much as 7 percent every year.

When six presidents from Central America met recently in Guatemala, the topic was economic growth instead of the usual talks on how to end the region's wars.

The reason for the new focus can be seen in the presidents themselves: For the first time, every one of them was elected more or less freely.

The region also is getting a break from the easing of the Cold War - Central America will no longer be used by the superpowers as a bloody battleground. Cuba's economic trouble and political isolation will make it more difficult for Fidel Castro to aid leftist insurgencies.

The easing of political tensions means the countries can turn more attention to economic problems. "It is a uniquely hopeful moment in Central American history," said a State Department policy maker.

The new governments of Central America are more oriented to market economies and are moving away from the past model of state-dominated economies.

The plan now is to negotiate a trade agreement among themselves, an effort to revive the very successful Central American common market of the 1960s.

President Bush announced a plan Wednesday to eventually form a free-trade zone for all of Latin America and the United States.