This year, an almost-merry Christmas for El Salvador

It may be small consolation for those who have lost relatives in the war, but the city of San Salvador is in some ways a more livable place than it was just two years ago.

Then a visitor found electrical power blackouts, a curfew prohibiting movement during certain hours of the night, and the threat of bombs exploding in buses and buildings. Today, Salvadoreans say, the capital is much calmer and less troubled.

Other people in Central America, as well as foreign residents here, often remark on the toughness and resilience of the Salva-doreans. They have had to make do with a country that is much too small for all 5 million of them.

Money is short here, but the people of the capital city throng the stores and markets to do whatever Christmas shopping they can. In the finest shopping centers can be found a youthful middle class that somehow has survived the city's turmoil and economic decline. Its members can be identified by their designer jeans.

In the still uncompleted cathedral, a wave of anticipation, then applause sweeps a more modestly attired crowd when Pope John Paul II's visit, set for next March, is mentioned. The cathedral was once the scene of sloganeering and gunfire.

If one wants to look for tragedy, it can be found easily. With unemployment reaching 40 percent of the work force, poverty is still there. Assassinations carried out by death squads believed to be associated with government security forces still occur. But the number of such killings has diminished markedly. Salvadoreans attribute this to pressure on the government coming from the United States.

The terror does not come only from the right. Earlier this year, Nicolas Nasser, president of the International Fair which ended here a few weeks ago, was assassinated by terrorists, presumably from a left-wing group.

But people are still talking about the success of the fair. It was not very international - few foreigners chose to come. Despite the stagnant economy and the always-present possibility of violence, Salvadoreans turned out in tens of thousands.

''People sought in the fair a place where they could have a good time and forget for a while the abnormal situation in which the country is living,'' said the newspaper El Tiempo, adding that the large turnout reflected a longing for peace.

In downtown San Salvador, the garbage collection system seems to have broken down, and the streets are littered with trash. A few slogans on the walls remind one of the days when demonstrators swept the streets and gun battles raged. A few businesses, including the Gran Hotel San Salvador, have kept closed the shutters they brought down in the wake of bombings.

But otherwise the area has an air of bustling normality. Around the corner from the hotel, in the midst of a wasteland of concrete, a tidy shoe store seems to be thriving. Its owners wash the windows repeatedly.

A cafeteria owner who is a staunch supporter of the Salvadorean Army declares that guerrilla cells in the city have been ''reduced by 80 percent.'' It is not clear how he can be so sure of this, but he seems confident that he knows what he is talking about.

''The politicians here are a farce,'' says the cafeteria owner. But he adds that the big turnout for the elections last March showed the guerrillas do not have much support.

Despite signs that the Salvadorean government has tightened its control over this city of 550,000, some people are still prepared for the worst. Many of the factories on the outskirts of the city, look like army barracks, or fortresses, with their towers and guard posts, high walls and barbed wire.

In a downtown area, the US Embassy looks like a prison with its newly added layers of steel and concrete. It appears to have more guards than employees.

Many people in the city do not seem to believe the government's repeated claims of victory in the countryside. Even many government supporters are said to listen to Radio Venceremos, the guerrilla radio. They believe its reports to be more accurate than the government's reporting on the war.

The government has apparently devoted considerable effort in its military operations to destroying guerrilla radio transmitters, but, as just about anyone in San Salvador can tell you, they have not had much success.

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