Rightists in `Moderates' Clothing?

ARENA PRESIDENCY IN EL SALVADOR

ALONG with the white-and-blue presidential sash that Alfredo Cristiani inherits from ailing President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte today, come the immense problems that defeated the Duarte government. ``The biggest challenges are the economy and the guerrillas, things [Cristiani's] ARENA [party] has always said it could solve easily,'' a close adviser to President Duarte comments.

But the nine-year-old civil war, far from losing momentum, is showing signs of heating up, with rebels increasing their attacks in the countryside and the cities. Nor will El Salvador's war-drained economy be easily revitalized, even with the Chilean-style free market policies ARENA plans to implement.

Even assembling his Cabinet has proved challenging for Mr. Cristiani, diplomats and observers say, since many of those asked have declined the nomination.

Diplomats are concerned that instead of the new, moderate ARENA promised by Cristiani, many key Cabinet positions may end up in the hands of hard-line rightists - allies of the party founder, ex-Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, who is suspected of coordinating death-squad activities in the 1980s.

Major d'Aubuisson was the focus of a rebel peace proposal Monday. The Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) offered to end assassinations and sabotage in return for the trial of d'Aubuisson and others implicated in the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

The proposals also demanded an end to anti-leftist repression, and the disbanding of death squads. The incoming Cristiani government is not expected to respond favorably, critics say, since ARENA has denied the existence of death squads and the use of repression.

Among the slated Cabinet nominees:

Vice-President Francisco Merino, a close d'Aubuisson ally, will also become interior minister.

Mr. Merino has called for the formation of a parallel civilian intelligence network to collaborate with military intelligence in combatting the FMLN. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has warned that such networks would bear too close a resemblance to death squads.

Proposed Minister of the Presidency Antonio Rodr'iguez Porth represents the most right-wing elements of the party. His proteg'e, Mauricio Eduardo Colorado, is the newly elected attorney general.

D'Aubuisson's personal lawyer, Jos'e Francisco Guerrero is slated to be justice minister. Critics suggest he would block any further investigation of the 1980 murder of Archbishop Romero.

Political observers say that Cristiani was indecisive in his most important nomination - that of defense minister. Initially, Cristiani promised the position to the rightist head of the Air Force, Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo, who is supported by ARENA hard-liners.

However, the United States found General Bustillo unacceptable. The US choice was Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, the current Army chief of staff and leader of the influential Military School class of 1966, known as the Tandona, which holds most of the command positions. However, ARENA hardliners blocked Colonel Ponce's nomination, diplomats said, and forced the appointment of a compromise candidate, Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios.

Although ARENA hardliners have criticized the Army's lack of success against the guerrillas under Duarte, analysts don't expect any immediate change in the conduct of the war. ``We aren't going to see a serious increase in repression on June 1, and perhaps even an easing,'' says Rub'en Zamora, of the leftist Popular Social Christian Movement. ``ARENA needs to present its credentials, especially in the United States, as a civilized government.''

Human rights groups, however, say that the military is already carrying out a selective ``dirty war'' against the opposition. Killings of labor activists have increased in recent months, in what some analysts call a ``clearing of the decks'' in preparation for the ARENA government.

While the ``dirty war'' will continue, analysts say, ARENA will put a new emphasis on legal means to clamp down on left-wing groups. For example, police, accompanied by judges, searched several offices of union and opposition groups last week on the pretext of looking for urban commandos, following an attack on military posts.

``I don't think it matters too much who takes over [the presidency] because the policy is already in place,'' notes one Western diplomat. ``The Army will have to apply consistent pressure on the FMLN. This will involve human rights abuses.''

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