Salvador: Junta thinks it has crushed left, but worries about right

High Salvadoran officials beieve they have turned the corner in their long struggle with leftist guerrillas, but they are far from sure that they can hold off the ultraright.

Much depends, they say, upon what Washington does about replacing Ambassador Robert White, who was fired last week by Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

These officials give high marks to Mr. White. One commented: "He was the glue that held El Salvador together" during 1980.

That statement was echoed by this tribute: "Without him during these past months, all would probably have been lost to either the left or the right."

In government circles here, there is considerable dismay that the Reagan administration dumped Mr. White. On the other hand, conservative businessmen and traditional oligarchs say "good riddance."

Conservatives hope the Reagan administration will appoint as ambassador someone who is more in sympathy with their cause.

The US Department of State says Mr. White's ouster does not necessarily signal a change in policy toward El Salvador. It adds, however, that policy toward the Central American nation is under review.

Conventional wisdom here and elsewhere in Central America suggests that the United States is likely to adopt a policy with less emphasis on social reform now that Mr. White has been removed. It is not overlooked that Salvadoran rightists have the ear of many Republican conservatives. Among them is the new chairman of the foreign relations subcommittee on Latin America, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Salvadoran moderates hope that the agrarian, commercial, and banking reform programs under way have strengthened the centrist military- civilian junta enough to fend off efforts to undo the programs.

Leftist opponents of the government, including Marxist guerrillas and Social-Democrats, argue that these measures are little more than a smokescreen to keep the right in power. Little land has really been turned over to peasants , they say.

The right complains bitterly about these same programs, arguing that steps toward land reform show the government is a tool of the left. Moreover it charges the land reform will alter farm production to such a degree that farm output, already suffering, will decline to cause new hunger and starvation.

Defending government programs, one official said, "We are the first government to effectively alter landholding patterns that date to colonial times and to put the land in the hands of the people who work the land."

But only the first of three phases of the program -- expropriation of estates in excess of 1,250 acres -- has begun, and even it is bogged down in paperwork. Many land titles and bonds to pay off former owners remain unissued. The cooperatives the government installed on the old haciendas are swamped in debt and mired in red tape.

The purpose of land reform, which Ambassador White ardently encouraged, is as much social as it is economic. El Salvador is one of the most densely populated lands in the Americas. Overcrowding has made it difficult for the poor to make a living. Sixty percent of the land was in the hands of 2 percent of the population; the best agricultural land was in the hands of a very few people.

"This is what we have had to change," comments one high official close to the landreform program. Hesitating a bit, he adds, "It is working after a fashion."

"Just look at how both the left and the right howl. The left knows we have grabbed an issue that leftists thought was their own, and the right realizes we mean business."

The government, despite the fact that it is holding its own, is still very much on shaky ground. Its strongest asset may be the begrudging support of many humble Salvadorans -- and the fact that many others simply do not support either the right or the left.

Stirred by the call for reforms, those humble folk have in the past responded with support for leftists, but lately they have been turned off by the continued civil strife.

In the past few months, the left has not been able to arouse the masses to demonstrate, strike, or otherwise support its cause.

"We don't have people with us," admits a high officer. "But they aren't against us in that they have not lined up with either the left or the right. That, to us, is a good sign. And it tells you why we think we may have reached the point that we can say we have turned the corner in ou r efforts."

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