Support for Duarte crumbling. Salvadorean Army's defiance of truce signals his loss of control

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Salvadorean Army's refusal to respect a Christmas truce in El Salvador's six-year-old civil conflict has spotlighted President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's deteriorating relations with his country's armed forces. As San Salvador shook from Air Force bombing raids carried out unusually close to the capital city last week, it was clear that the holiday truce -- agreed to by the Roman Catholic Church, President Duarte, the Army, and left-wing guerrillas -- was being openly violated by government forces.

``By bombing in Guazapa, only 20 kilometers [12.4 miles] away from the capital city, the Army wanted everyone to know just exactly what they thought of the truce,'' said a foreign observer.

Col. Sigifredo Ochoa P'erez, in a pointed statement to Salvadorean reporters, said that Duarte may have ordered a truce, but that his (Ochoa's) orders came from the military high command. The high command had ordered no truce, he said.

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``If the Army had felt that Duarte was a popular and strong president, they would never have dared to behave to him as they did,'' said one foreign political observer here, speaking in reference to the Army's breaking of the truce.

And many Salvadoreans say that Duarte has largely lost the support of his popular base -- the peasants and workers who elected him -- because of his failure to make any progress in stopping the war and because he has dealt with the country's difficult economic situation through what are generally perceived as increasingly conservative policies.

Duarte has not built any real bridges to the private sector, Salvadorean analysts say. That sector, one observer says, ``has always hated and mistrusted him and continues to do so. No matter how conservative Duarte acts, they will see still see him as a demagogue and dangerous radical.''

Important sectors of the Army are closely tied to the private sector and to the political right.

Right-wing influence among officers is growing, analysts here say. It follows what are widely perceived in the military as the failures of the Duarte administration. San Salvador is rife with rumors about staff changes that would increase right-wing control in top Army levels.

Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova is slated to retire as an active general during this new year. Many observers here believe that he will be replaced by right-wing Air Force General Jos'e Rafael Bustillo.

Rumors also abound that moderate Army Chief of Staff Adolfo Onec'ifero Blandon will be replaced by the more right-wing Sigifredo Ochoa. The right wing is, according to sources close to the Army, strongly pushing for these changes and may obtain them unless they are blocked by the United States.

During talks this month about the Christmas truce, the Army had been hesitant to negotiate an agreement with the guerrillas that would imply that they constituted an autonomous armed group. The armed forces usually describes the left-wing guerrillas fighting the government as bands of armed ruffians and killers.

According to Salvadorean and foreign sources close to the Army and the ruling Christian Democratic Party, the Christmas truce broke down because of semantics. After pressure from the Catholic Church and from Duarte, the armed forces agreed to a cease-fire through the Christmas and New Year season, on the condition that the word ``truce'' not be publicly used. However, because of a government misunderstanding, one government communiqu'e did use that word. The Army's reaction was openly to break the truce

and publicly to insult the commander in chief, which points to more being involved than a simple misunderstanding over the use of a word.

Relations between Duarte and the Army took a sharp turn for the worse after the kidnapping of Duarte's eldest daughter, In'es Guadalupe Duarte Dur'an, in September. The Salvadorean leader entered into negotiations with the guerrillas for his daughter's release and finally exchanged 96 wounded guerrillas and 22 Salvadorean guerrilla prisoners in return for getting her back.

According to Salvadorean and foreign observers here, not only did the Army see Duarte's agreement as weak and unpatriotic, it also perceived it as violating the basic division of power agreed to when Duarte assumed office.

As one United States analyst here put it, ``When the Army agreed to let Duarte take power, it basically saw him as a convenient democratic window dressing in order to obtain US aid from Congress. However, Army leaders made it clear to Duarte that they were to continue making the basic decisions about the conduct of the war and contact with the guerrillas. When Duarte negotiated directly with the guerrillas, he violated that agreement.''

Salvadorean and foreign analysts here see the US as crucial in deciding Duarte's fate in the coming year. Many analysts believe that were it not for strong US support of Duarte, the Army would move to overthrow him.

However, because the Christian Democratic President has such strong US backing in the Reagan administration and in Congress, which provides the funds for the Salvadorean Army to fight with, most observers here believe an Army coup to be highly unlikely.

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