WASHINGTON — NO less a critic of United States policy in El Salvador than former Ambassador Robert White has kind words for the US reaction to the Salvadoran elections. ``I give the Bush administration some credit,'' he says. ``Every statement focuses on human rights. This is a real change from Reagan. I hope the Salvadorans understand this.''
This change has put the Bush administration in a good position to work on this issue with Congress, where the drumbeat for promoting Salvadoran human rights is starting up again, Ambassador White says.
So far, Congress and the Bush administration are echoing each other in their guarded statements about President-elect Alfredo Cristiani, whose victory completes the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party's takeover of all three branches of government.
In the US, both the administration and congressional leaders have indicated a willingness to wait and see how the situation unfolds under Mr. Cristiani, who has made a concerted effort to convince Washington policymakers that he is a moderate. Congress and the administration have hailed the El Salvador vote as a victory for the democratic process, calling the election ``free and fair.''
But some congressmen are hedging their bets. One group of House Democrats led by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has told the administration that it will try to put conditions on aid to El Salvador. The aim would be to pressure the government to improve human rights and to negotiate an end to civil war. Under the legislation, aid could be cut off if El Salvador did not fulfill requirements.
The Bush administration objects to such conditions, calling them congressional ``micromanagement.'' But at the same time, the US, in its recent warnings to the Salvadoran military over rights abuses, has included caveats over the possibility of conditions being put on US aid.
Beyond the heightened emphasis on human rights, the Bush administration has not really begun to focus yet on what to do about El Salvador. It is working first on putting a policy in place toward Nicaragua, a much less complex situation. On that front, the US is now favoring diplomacy over military force, but has shown no signs of wanting to go in that direction in El Salvador.
Washington liberals are pushing for a diplomatic approach, citing the war's stalemate. (According to Gen. Fred Woerner, commander of the US Southern Command, almost no land has changed hands in 10 years of fighting.) These liberals contend that is the most effective way the US can use its financial leverage in El Salvador - by pushing unequivocally for negotiations to end the war.
This would represent a major shift from the strategy of the Reagan years. But despite the $1 million a day El Salvador gets from the US, it's unclear how much influence the US would be able to wield with it. El Salvador relies on US money to stay afloat, and withholding money could only wind up weakening the fragile democratic structure the US is trying to build up, State Department officials say.
With its close allies, the Christian Democrats, leaving office on June 1, the US will soon have much less inside influence with the Salvadoran government.