To save El Salvador

El Salvador is in the grips of an escalating violence that cannot leave the United STates indifferent. Some reports suggest that the recent kidnapping and wanton slaying of six leftist Salvadoran leaders -- the latest incident in a spiral of violence that has taken more than 8,000 lives this year -- is part of a rightist offensive throughout Central America to crush the left before Ronald Reagan assumes the presidency. If this is so, the President-elect must continue to make clear that he does not support a right-wing coup against the military-civilian junta ruling El Salvador. His assurances on this score are welcome.

But, unfortunately, Mr. Reagan's advisers have conveyed the impression they are ready to forgo a stress on human rights in Central and Latin America in the interest of maintaining peace and order. This seems to be giving aid and comfort to oligarchical force more interested in preserving the status quo than in fostering social and economic change. Yet the President-elect will not be able to turn the clock back. He will not be able to ignore the ferment sweeping lands south of the US border anymore than could his predecessor. the task for him, as it has been for President Carter, will be to help foster stability in the region without destroying the hopes of the bulk of the population for a better life. In weighing and formulating policy, therefore, it is to be hoped Mr. Reagan is getting advice from all quarters, including voices warning against US military involvement and calling for an international solution.

In El Salvador the resistance to change is especially strong, and right-wing groups are engaging in as much violence as the left. Given the polarization of the country, the ruling junta however shaky, still seems the best alternative to the anarchy that might result if it were brought down. The junta has not gone as far as the left would like. But it is emv barked on a broad social and economic program, including land and banking reforms, which with time could have positive impact. It is partly because of these reforms that the left in El Salvador is somewhat in retreat these days. People in Central America are generally conservative and, if their governments were wise enough to carry out forward-looking policies, leftist causes would have less appeal. Salvadorans, in any case, are weary of all the killing and simply want peace.

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Washington's best course at the moment would seem to be to urge the junta, with its mix of military and civilian representatives, to stay as independent as possible of either the far left or the far right. In other words, to try to hold the middle ground. In this connection it would seem prudent for the US not to supply the junta with lethal military equipment, a move which would tend to strengthen the hand of the ultra-right forces.

Whether the violence in El Salvador can be stemmed is problematic. But one thing is clear: Revolutionary upheaval is taking place throughout Central America, and the United States cannot ignore it. The US has been too intimately involved -- economically, militarily, politically -- and been responsible for too many mistakes in the region to turn its back on it. This could be one of Mr. Reagan's major foreign policy challenges.

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