Critics cast new doubt on reform in El Salvador

President Reagan is requesting substantially increased aid for El Salvador. But critics question administration claims that the US-supported Salvadorean government is making progress in human rights and land reform.

El Salvador's land reform program has come under question again as a result of an audit report produced by the Inspector General of the United States Agency for International Development (AID). The 36-page report, dated Jan. 18, says that while El Salvador's US-backed land reform has accomplished much in the way of redistribution of land, the three phases of the agrarian reform have had ''mixed results.''

Phase I includes landholdings of more than 500 hectares (1235 acres). Phase II deals with landholdings of from 100 to 500 hectares (247 to 1235 acres). Phase III deals with land worked by renters or sharecroppers.

The AID audit report obtained by the Monitor states that most Phase I cooperatives are not financially viable. It also says implementation of Phase II was never begun. Phase III, the report adds, has had ''some limited success'' but also has ''many significant problem areas,'' with less than one-half of the eligible recipients applying to purchase the land to which they are entitled.

AID's management issued a sharp, 12-page response to the audit report, which described that report as a ''narrow, incomplete, and in some cases, inaccurate portrayal'' of the agrarian reform program.

In a move that is certain to be disputed by liberals in Congress, meanwhile, Mr. Reagan is proposing that he decide in his own way - free of congressionally mandated requirements - whether El Salvador is making sufficient progress toward reforms and curbing human rights abuses to qualify for US aid.

Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador, raised the human rights question once again last week when he charged that the Reagan administration was suppressing evidence that the Salvadorean rightist leader, Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, ordered the 1980 assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

In congressional testimony, Mr. White also accused the administration of withholding first-hand information about the activities of wealthy Salvadoreans residing in Miami who are allegedly linked to right-wing death squad activity. Major d'Aubuisson, a former National Guard major, is running for President in El Salvador's elections next month.

State Department spokesman Alan Romberg says the US government was well aware of allegations linking d'Aubuisson and the killers of Archbishop Romero. But he says the information was ''limited and incomplete'' and ''no conclusions can be drawn from it.'' The spokesman says in 1982 and '83 the State Department provided the documented evidence to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Another spokesman says an investigation is being conducted into the activities of Salvadoreans in Miami who are supposed to be funding and directing death squads.

The Reagan adminstration's appeals to Congress for increased aid to El Salvador have been based on the assumption that progress is being made by the US-supported Salvadorean government in combating human-rights abuses and strengthening reforms of the political and economic systems in that country. Of the economic and financial reforms undertaken by the Salvadorean government since 1979, the banking and agrarian reforms have been the most important.

American government experts have tended to agree that the leftist-led guerrilla movement in El Salvador has derived much of its strength from opposition to an inequitable landholding system. It was estimated in 1979 that more than 40 percent of all the land was held by landowners representing less than 1 percent of the population. The US government has consistently argued that while beset by problems and violence, El Salvador's land reform program - which is in theory one of the most comprehensive ever attempted in Latin America - is making steady progress. This was the contention that the US State Department made in its latest comprehensive report on the situation in El Salvador, dated Jan. 16.

But the AID Inspector General's audit report, which was available in draft form well before the State Department's Jan. 16 report was issued, argues that when it comes to Phase I of El Salvador's land reform, most farmer cooperatives are ''overwhelmed with debt.'' It states that in addition to this indebtedness, the main problems in Phase I include excessive cooperative membership, a lack of capable managers and technical assistance, low productivity, unfavorable worldwide economic conditions, and the continuing civil war.

The audit report states that 75 percent of the Phase I cooperatives are located in areas of predominantly poor land - a finding that is disputed, as are a number of others, by the US AID mission in El Salvador.

When it comes to Phase III of the program, usually referred to as the land-to-the-tiller phase, the audit report concludes that more needs to be done. It noted that less than one-half (about 50,000 out of an estimated 117,000) of the individuals eligible had filed applications to purchase land, and, says the report, about one-third of the applications filed did not result in the applicants working the land. It said they were not working the land because they had been threatened, evicted, or had ''disappeared.''

The auditors, who conducted their independent review from May to October of last year, drew on a random sample of 149 applications for the purchase of Phase III land - a sample that some experts consider far too small.

In its response to the audit report, AID's management argued that the auditors had used information and methods of ''questionable statistical value.'' The agency response states that the audit overlooked production data that would have shown that the reform sector of El Salvador's farms had achieved results ''better than or equal to the national average.''

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