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How to help El Salvador

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The compassion of the American people goes out to the tortured land of El Salvador. Despite their own wrestlings with personal adversity, they cannot be mindful of the bitter struggle of some four million impoverished and terrorized people to grope their way out of dark misery to a better life.The challenge for the United States, which so long neglected this corner of repression and destitution so close to home, is to foster the kind of political and economic system there which will enable Salvadorans to achieve this end. It is challenge made difficult by the complexity of the situation.

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The essential question is: should the US continue to support the present military-civilian government in El Salvador?

President Reagan is determined to do so, despite warnings from West Europeans , some Latin American leaders, and many American specialists that the US is headed down a disas trous path. Fortunately, the President has said that he has "no intention" of involving the US in the fighting in El Salvador. That is reassuring. The lesson of becoming militarily embroiled in a local civil war should not be soon forgotten. By sending troops to El Salvador, the administration would only succeed in transferring the hatred of the Salvadorean people to the United States.

Providing limited military aid is another matter, however. There are voices within the State Department who feel that the center- right government of President Duarte still has a viable chance of putting down the leftist guerrillas, curbing its own military right wing, and carrying out reforms to win over the masses of the people. The point is debatable. By many sobering accounts, the bulk of Salvadorans today support the leftist opposition -- not because they are communists but because they have been driven to it by the brutality and violence of the military. But, at the least, Mr. Reagan ought not to supply anything more -- patrol boats, equipment, and certainly not advisers -- without demanding something in return. Reform must go forward and the military excesses must be curbed (rightists in the security forces are believed responsible for many more thousands of killings of civilians than the leftists). In this connection, it is appalling that nothing more is heard of the supposed investigation being made into the wanton murder of four American women -- slayings thought to be at the hand of government security police. That hardly inspires confidence in the Duarte junta.

This is not to fail to appreciate President Reagan's concerns about Soviet and Cuban expansionism in Central America and the Caribbean. It is possible that, with better policing of coastal waters, El Salvador will be able to stem the flow of communist arms and thereby thwart the guerrilla movement. But the problem is not essentially a military one. It is a political and social one, and that is what had so long been overlooked by US policy in the region. It is an illusion to think that Cuba or its Soviet mentor have caused the problems there. They are exploiting them, yes. But popular revolution and civil war have grown because of the failure of the local ruling oligarchies -- backed by the US -- to promote social, economic, and political justice. They have grown because of the greed and authoritarianism of the ruling elites. In El Salvador today the rich are inordinately rich and the poor are abysmally poor and illiterate. To label the whole opposition as Cuban- inspired and the poor as a part of a communist conspiracy, therefore, serves only to drive the poor into the leftist camp.

The Salvadoran opposition has hard-bitten Marxists in it, to be sure. They no doubt seek to be the driving force behind the guerrilla insurgency. But the opposition contains many other elements as well -- social democrats, socialists, Roman Catholic clergy -- who are certainly not communists.This is why a political solution, negotiated settlement between the left and the center-right, would seem to offer the best course. The US should bend its efforts in this direction. To do so, it must know the leaders of the left, and it is therefore to be hoped that, without undermining the position of the Duarte government, it is quietly maintaining contacts with them.

It needs to do even more. Much of the ineffectiveness of past US policy in Latin America can be traced to failure to give the region due attention and to heed the voices of its leaders. Mr. Reagan early on showed his interest in improving ties south of the border. He is on the right track. Mexico, for instance, takes strong exception to the US approach on El Salvador. Should not the President therefore be talking to the Mexicans -- and other Latin American leaders -- sounding out their position, making sure he is getting advice from the realists, from those who live cheek by jowl with the nations in revolutionary turmoil? Close communication and dialogue on these and other issues would open the way to greater hemispheric cooperation in averting dangerous conflicts and internal strife.

Washington, in short, must not think that an excessively military approach is the answer to fostering social change and democracy. It cannot be ruled out that a carefully moderated supply of US military aid to the El Salvador junta will, as some US diplomats contend, improve the training and discipline of the Salvadoran Army and thereby reduce brutality. But any policy which does not place its primary stress on economic and social reform -- on the desperate needs and tragically ignored aspirations of the Salvadoran people -- is bound in the long run t o fail. The US policymakers must surely know this.