Salvador rebels adapt to long war with new strategy. They focus on getting civilian support and exploiting Duarte's problems for political gains

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

El Salvador's leftist guerrillas have adapted to a disadvantageous military situation and are digging in for a protracted war. This appears to be the consensus among the wide range of diplomats, political leaders, foreign development workers, church officials, union leaders, academics, local political analysts, rural dwellers, and Salvadorean and United States military sources interviewed for this series.

With military victory currently blocked against the large Salvadorean Army, the rebels are increasing their focus on political organizing in an effort to capitalize on the government's sliding popularity, say these analysts.

``There is clearly an attempt to do some infrastructure building, which is geared towards hanging on for the long haul and trying to exploit some of the problems they see in the country,'' says a highly knowledgeable military expert.

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The current strategy of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN), an umbrella group of five rebel organizations, ``calls for a dispersal of its forces throughout the entire country,'' writes Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector of the Central American University. ``The aim is to have each combatant play the role of political cadre as well. Each combatant is called upon to act as an educator and organizer.''

The guerrillas, numbering between 5,000 to 7,000, have been fighting since 1980 for the establishment of a ``more just society'' that would function in the interest of the poor. Since 1982, they have been calling for a negotiated settlement that would establish a ``government of broad participation.'' The US says the guerrillas want to form a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship.

A government official who works with peasants in the countryside reports that the guerrillas are busy building an infrastructure in new areas.

Diplomats, church sources in the countryside, and academics agree that the worsening economic conditions and the declining popularity of the government are opening fertile terrain for guerrilla recruiting. Still, all acknowledge the difficulty in accurately gauging sympathies for the rebels in a society where expressing such sympathies is dangerous.

These same analysts say that neither the guerrillas nor the government have solid support from the majority of Salvadoreans, and the side that can gain that support will be more likely to win in the long term. They say that both sides recognize the importance of winning support and are focusing their efforts to do so.

The Army is trying to present a new face by giving out food and medicine. But it is hampered by the general perception that it has played a repressive role in the past, these analysts say.

The guerrillas, on the other hand, traditionally have benefited from what one Western diplomat calls ``the Robin Hood mystique'' -- the perception that they are fighting for a just cause, the cause of the poor.

Most analysts agree that the government's and Army's propaganda campaign to brand the guerrillas ``terrorists'' and ``subversives'' has had some success. This is especially true in the major urban areas. But in rural areas where the poverty is greater and the guerrillas are a presence, religious sources and development workers report that many of the people still seem to feel more comfortable with the presence of the guerrillas rather than with the Army. But rural support for the guerrillas can vary widely, even in the same area.

Despite guerrilla actions that inconvenience civilians, such as blowing up power lines and periodic week-long traffic stoppages, people tend not to blame the rebels but the war, say religious sources, development workers, and country residents.

The guerrillas have developed a wide logistical support apparatus of people who are willing to take the risk of helping the guerrillas. ``There are people who feed them, hide them, grow crops for them, provide them with intelligence,'' says one Salvadorean academic. In any area where the guerrillas are active, they have some degree of infrastructure, he says.

Diplomats, foreign analysts, and academics say that Army intelligence has improved significantly. Still, they say the Salvadorean insurgency will be harder to defeat than other guerrilla movements in Latin America. The Salvadorean guerrillas have stronger grass-roots ties than other Latin American guerrilla movements, which have been based in the urban middle classes.

The Salvadorean guerrilla movement had strong ties with peasant unions and other sectors of the mass organizations that developed in the 1970s. The guerrilla movement traces its roots back to the failed peasant uprising of 1932.

Not until the 1970s did the revolutionary movement reemerge as a force. In 1970, veteran labor organizer Cayetano Carpio split away from the Salvadorean Communist Party and formed the first guerrilla organization, the Popular Liberation Forces.

According to historians, it was the election fraud in 1972, when the Army stole the elections from Christian Democrat Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, that radicalized many young political activists and set El Salvador on the road to armed revolution. Mr. Duarte was supported by the Communist Party and Social Democrats.

Historians say the Roman Catholic Church's commitment to the poor as breaking the church's traditional alliance with the upper classes and aiding the revolutionary movement. Church-supported peasant unions, formed in response to the deteriorating conditions for the peasantry, met government-sanctioned repression and found the small armed revolutionary movement a natural ally.

The election of the populist Duarte in the spring of 1984 and the widespread enthusiasm accompanying his victory was also a political blow to the rebels, who, analysts say, didn't have an adequate strategy to deal with the elections. Analysts say Duarte's honeymoon period is over and many Salvadoreans are disillusioned with the deteriorating economy and a lack of hope for real change for the vast majority of rural poor. This disillusionment may provide more support for the rebels, these analysts say.

The Army is concerned that the guerrillas will infiltrate the labor movement that is reemerging after the repression of the early 1980s. Even labor leaders who back the government note that it is almost inevitable that the labor movement will share some points of the guerrillas' leftist political program, such as deepened economic reforms and a negotiated end to the war. These analysts predict that labor's discontent will continue as long as economic conditions deteriorate. And few are optimistic about economic recovery in the midst of a protracted war.

In addition to the economic crisis, analysts say the guerrillas are aided by a greater unity within their ranks. In the past, the two major groups -- Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) and People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) -- have had very different strategies.

The FPL has always advocated a Vietnam-style ``prolonged popular war'' that would seek victory in the long run by attrition and political organizing.

The ERP, on the other hand, has always favored bold military blows that they thought could prepare for an insurrection. The ERP, which is the dominant guerrilla organization in the eastern part of the country, has also been criticized by other guerrilla organizations for using harsh measures - such as forced recruitment, kidnapping mayors, and executions of suspected Army informers - that others argue could jeopardize civilian support.

But now ERP commander Joaqu'in Villalobos has articulated a strategy accepting the FPL's basic assumptions -- a prolonged war of attrition. US and Salvadorean military analysts say it remains to be seen whether ERP will also put greater emphasis on the type of FPL political organizing that is seen as a long-term threat.

The government seems to be following the model Veneuzela used to defeat it own insurgency in the 1960s -- maintaining strong military pressure on the rebels while offering them political participation if they will lay down their arms. ``The problem is to involve the left in the democratic process,'' says one Christian Democratic strategist. He says the government would be willing to allow a Marxist group, such as the Communist Party, to operate as a legal political party. This would fill the large political vacuum that exists between the center-right Christian Democratic party and the guerrillas.

The government has said that by making social reforms and improving human rights it will persuade all but the hard-core guerrillas to abandon the mountains. But the rebels say the country's basic structures haven't changed. Some analysts say the government's only clear accomplishment has been in improving human rights.

A wide range of political analysts and diplomatic sources say the guerrillas are not anywhere near accepting, or being forced to accept, the government's terms -- laying down their arms and joining the ``democratic process.'' Although under strong military pressure from a much-improved Army, the rebel's biggest allies in the long run, most analysts interviewed predicted, will be the continuing economic crisis and the government's failure to convince the poor majority of the country that things are improving.

``We often go hungry to feed our children,'' says an agricultural laborer with three children. ``I don't have any land and the majority of people here are like me. That's the reason we have a war. I know many people who joined [the rebels] and they are all poor. As long as nothing changes, the war will go on.''

Last in a three-part series. First two ran Nov. 24 and 25.

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