Future of El Salvador's land reform program hinges on Sunday election

The fate of El Salvador's land reform program, which is supported by the United States, appears to rest on the outcome of Sunday's presidential election here.

If moderate Christian Democratic candidate Jose Napoleon Duarte is elected, government agencies in charge of the program would be restructured to cut down on corruption, mismanagement, and intimidation, which plague the program at present, party officials say.

Rightist ARENA candidate Roberto d'Aubuisson says he favors continuing the four-year-old program, which is intended to give peasants a stake in the land they long worked for oligarchic farmers. But as president of Salvador's Constituent Assembly, d'Aubuisson engineered the destruction of one phase of the plan, and his party has made it difficult for the rest of it to function.

''If Duarte can capture the presidency,'' says Samuel Maldonado, a leader of the US-backed union that represents more than 250 farm cooperatives, ''then perhaps the reform can be salvaged. If d'Aubuisson wins the election, the reform will continue to be thwarted until it collapses, along with all the remaining democratic institutions that struggle for existence in El Salvador.''

The 1980 agrarian reform was designed by the US and a reformist military government that took power in a 1979 coup. The land program was modeled after similar efforts the US attempted in South Vietnam and the Philippines.

The agrarian reform was designed in three phases:

* Phase I allowed the government to expropriate all farms larger than 1,250 acres and turn them into cooperatives to be bought, eventually, by the peasants who work them. A total of 276 farms were seized by the military in 1980.

* Phase II would take farms between 500 and 1,250 acres.

* Phase III would give small farmers direct title to the land they have been renting or collectively farming.

Phase I and Phase III are technically under way. But they have been stymied by the private sector, the military, and large landowners, according to workers on the cooperatives, US labor advisers, and Christian Democratic officials.

Phase II was frustrated from its inception by the oligarchy. The Constituent Assembly abolished it altogether last fall.

''Phase II,'' says one US official, ''was actually the heart of the land reform because it involved some of the most productive land in the country.''

Yet the plan was the nemesis of the oligarchy since its implementation in 1980.

Members of the Salvadorean Communal Union (UCS), which is made up of farm laborers on the cooperatives, contend that at least 90 UCS officials were killed in the first year of the reform program. An estimated 5,000 peasants involved in cooperatives were also murdered during 1980, cooperative leaders say. Thousands of peasants were forced off the land they had been given.

Ironically the worst problems for the reform arose from the US-backed March 1982 elections for the Constituent Assembly. The Reagan administration touted the vote at that time as evidence of ''democracy taking root'' in El Salvador. But the elections strengthened the hand of ultra-rightists and the oligarchy and increased political polarization.

The newly elected assembly, dominated by ARENA (the Nationalist Republican Alliance) and other rightists, put ARENA in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture and technical assistance agencies that help administer the cooperatives.

ARENA now controls the Ministry of Agriculture, ISTA (in charge of providing technical assistance for Phase I cooperatives), the National Agricultural Development Bank, the Ministry of Economy, and IRA (the state regulatory agency for price control, which buys and sells basic agricultural products).

So key agencies and ministries that are intended to foster development of the cooperatives are run by some of the reform's most bitter opponents. ARENA has eliminated some of the projects that were designed to assist the peasants - such as an ISTA training program for cooperative leaders.

Cooperative leaders say they are sometimes denied credit to buy equipment and supplies. They say that when credit does arrive, the amounts are inadequate and often out of season.

ISTA officials have replaced many of the cooperative leaders with ISTA-imposed technicians, who, cooperative members here contend, have misspent profits.

ISTA denies this. ''The accusation comes from a political group, the UPD, and for this reason is suspicious,'' says Jorge Garcia. ''We run a professional program that is outside politics.''

The IRA, cooperative leaders charge, often rejects the corn, sorghum, and beans that cooperatives bring to sell to the food supply and price control agency.

The IRA has told cooperative leaders there is not enough storage space for the crops, which forces cooperatives to sell to middlemen. These middlemen, cooperative officials charge, sell the foodstuffs back to IRA officials at higher prices.

Cooperative leaders also charge the IRA with withholding these foodstuffs to create food shortages to drive up prices.

''The charges are absurd,'' says Armando Villabos, the IRA director. ''We would never accept manipulations of this sort. The reason we withhold food is not to drive up prices, but because we want to wait until the yellow corn provided by the US Agency for International Development has been sold and used. We expect to sell our reserves of corn in about a year.''

FINATA, the agency responsible for implementing Phase III, is alleged to have mishandled claims for land by turning property over to friends of officials or others who do not cultivate it and therefore are not qualified to receive it.

''There have been conflicts over land ownership,'' says FINATA official Tomas Bonilla, ''but they are due to contested ownership of land. Some peasants claim to work particular pieces of land and their claims are challenged. We must then determine who the land actually belongs to.''

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