Washington — When the Reagan administration came into office, it focused much of its attention on Central America, determined, above all, that the experience of Vietnam not be repeated there. But Leonel Gomez, a Salvadorean Christian Democrat now living in the United States, says the televised hearings on the Iran-contra affair that he has been watching in his living room here prove that neither the Reagan administration nor most Americans have fully assimilated the lessons of Vietnam. They do not understand, Mr. Gomez contends, why the US lost there, and they do not recognize that they are repeating the same mistakes in Central America.
In contrast, Gomez says, Vietnam's victorious communist leaders spent years thinking about why they won, and they reached some interesting conclusions.
More important, he reports, since the late 1960s Vietnamese military and political instructors have been passing those conclusions on to Salvadorean guerrilla leaders who have traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) for training.
The numbers of Salvadorean leaders sent to Vietnam have not been large. Analysts believe that between 50 and 70 Salvadoreans have undergone training in Vietnam. But, the analysts say, those sent have been among the elite of the Salvadorean guerrilla leadership, and they have subsequently traced the broad policy lines for the rest of the movement.
Gomez and most other analysts of the Salvadorean situation say they believe the guerrillas have, to a large extent, recovered from the military blows they received two years ago with the delivery of US helicopters and other heavy military equipment to the Salvadorean Army.
The main problems facing the San Salvador government in defeating the leftist insurgency, according to most analyusts, are the low morale in the Salvadorean Army and the absence of strong support for President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte among the right, the left, or the population at large. The lack of support, experts say, stems in part from the stubborn economic problems besetting the country and in part from the government's inability to eliminate social problems and official corruption.
Gomez has had considerable exposure to the Vietnamese analysis of the US defeat. He acquired it during long conversations with Vietnamese military and civilian officials in Europe, and in days spent with Salvadorean guerrillas who have been trained in Vietnam.
And today, watching the development of US policy in Central America, he sees history repeating itself.
``US conservatives think that it is the false promises of Marxism-Leninism which ensnare ignorant peasants,'' he says. ``This is largely false. More liberal Americans blame it on social injustice and grinding poverty; this is certainly the root of the problem, but it is not what ensures US defeat.
``The most important weapon the communists have [in the third world], and what makes their victory inevitable, is corruption and the Americans' arrogance and ignorance of third-world societies, which make them not only tolerate [corruption] but often indirectly encourage it.
``Since the US basically has contempt for Latin and other third-world cultures, and has very low expectations from them, Americans often think that the best they can do in these societies is to find some docile, manageable, pro-US leaders, put them in power, and look the other way while they steal.
``In a small society like Salvador,'' Gomez continues, ``corruption is a visible, palpable thing that intrudes on everyone's life. If you're an average Salvadorean, you see the oversized Mercedes Benzes of the military officers, the suddenly sprawling mansion of the recently appointed official and the wives dressed as goddesses, while you know that you yourself have nothing.''
``A Salvadorean peasant,'' says Gomez, who spent many years working with peasants on land-reform projects, ``won't tell you, `They are exploiting me.' He will say, `Where do they get all their money from? It's our money; they're robbing me.'
``The middle classes are often more exposed to and incensed by corruption than the peasants,'' he adds. ``If a man, for example, wants to buy a taxi he has to pay the police chief a large bribe. If someone wants to open a grocery store the cut goes to the director of commerce. If a businessman wants to import materials he must spend thousands of dollars paying off customs officials.''
Gomez says it is the generally demoralizing effects of widespread thievery that have turned many middle-class students into radical leaders.
While some degree of corruption is traditional in many third-world countries, the war situation, the massive injection of US capital, and fundamental US mistakes in choosing the people they support aggravate the problem, according to Gomez.
He says that, according to the Vietnamese and Salvadoreans he has spoken to, the arrogance of thinking that one cannot expect more from the third world and the desire to cut easy deals often leads Americans to surround themselves with the most corrupt and mediocre elements in a given society.
The former land-reform official says that his direct experience in El Salvador bore this out repeatedly. The US did not want to deal with people who were very nationalistic, who would say no to the US when it was in El Salvador's interest to do so. Recently, says Gomez, US officials in the field felt much more comfortable dealing with people who were ``manageable,'' with ``yes'' men whose subservience was paid for when the US looked the other way while they stole.
``North American officials abroad,'' says Gomez, ``don't usually like people who point out their mistakes to them. This was true in Vietnam and is true in Central America. This is why, in part, it was easier for them to organize a contra movement around Somocistas [backers of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle] and big businessmen than around nationalists who were anti-Sandinista but felt strongly that US support for Somoza was greatly responsible for the radicalization of Nicaragua.''
Gomez says that even when the US attempts to promote more progressive measures like land reform, it fails, in part beause of the people they choose to manage it.
``The Vietnamese told me,'' he says, ``that if the land-reform project [in Vietnam] had worked, not only would the Americans not have lost South Vietnam, they would have driven them [the communists] out of North Vietnam. But the projects didn't work because of the people the US put in charge of them and the people the US put in charge of the South Vietnamese government. The projects' money was constantly stolen, and they were mismanaged, since most of the officials running them were appointed because of their family ties with military officers or government officials.''
``Under the management of the people Reagan has chosen to work with in Central America, the contras in Nicaragua, the military leaders in Salvador,'' Gomez says, ``the millions of dollars of US aid becomes a joke. Ask any Salvadorean peasant or middle-class person what they think of the aid and 90 percent of them will tell you that it's a farce - none of them understand the larger policy goals of the assistance.
``When corruption become so massive,'' he adds, ``what you have is the prostitution of an entire society and the relatively rapid deterioration of its main institutions.
``The Vietnamese told me over and over again that this was the main weapon they had to work with, the weapon with which they converted people - not ideology, not Marxism-Leninism.
``And the worst of it is, that through this radical propaganda, the local people become convinced that the US itself is a corrupt society, spreading moral decay throughout the world.''
According to Gomez, ``The Salvadorean guerrillas who come back from Vietnam, and the people they influence, understand this. They understand that the enemy is weak because he is corrupt, and it gives them the certainty that they will eventually win and the courage to continue fighting against tremendous odds. It is not Marxist theory that gives them this courage, it is the daily contact they have with the street boys, the electrician, the lady who bakes bread, who all talk to them of corruption and of their disenchantment with the existing government.
``But,'' Gomez says, flinging his burly arms up in the air, ``the American people don't understand this. They don't understand why they lost Vietnam. They think that it was because of the suffering of the Vietnamese population induced by war and bombings, or because of all the antiwar demonstrations in the US. This is one of the reasons why things have gone badly for them in Central America. This is one of the reasons why they will probably lose El Salvador.''
Leonel Gomez was the assistant director of the Salvadorean Land Reform Institute under the second military junta headed by the Christian Democrats. He was active for nearly 20 years as a organizer of peasants in El Salvador, and he also was involved in prison reform there.
In 1981, after the assassination of the institute's head and repeated attempts on his own life, Mr. Gomez left El Salvador for the United States.
Since arriving in the US, Gomez has lectured widely at institutions such as Harvard University, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He has also written extensively about the situation in El Salvador.
Together with a group of US senators, congressional staff aides, and senior Salvadorean military officers, Gomez played a key role in 1983-84 in helping purge the Salvadorean Army of some of the officers most associated with death-squad killing before President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's accession to power.
The bulk of the information covered in the Monitor's interview was included in a lecture that Gomez delivered at the US Army War College, in Carlisle, Pa..