El Salvador junta on the offensive

In expropriating 60 percent of El Salvador's best farmland, the country's military-civilian junta has gone on the offensive against both the Left and the Right.

Just how long the junta can maintain that initiative is, of course, a major question. But for the moment the massive land-reform program -- details of which were released over the weekend -- takes the spotlight away from both the leftist terrorists and the rightist death squads who have received so much attention in the tormented Central American country of late.

Moreover, if effectively managed, the program will bring the first significant reshuffling of landholding patterns in El Salvador since colonial times.

In addition to announcing the land-reform measure March 6, the junta partially nationalized the country's banking system March 7, placing 51 percent of it in the public sector. The remaining 49 percent was left in private hands.

These two moves, coupled with imposition of a state of siege throughout the tiny, overpopulated Central American country, suggest a new determination on the part of the junta to play an activist role in Salvadorean life.

The return of Col. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez, one of the two military members of the junta, from hospitalization in Texas also seemed to strengthen the government. But it was the announcement of the land-reform program that gave the biggest boost to the junta.

Army troops seized 50 of the nation's largest plantations to begin the land takeover. According to government spokesmen, the program will affect close to 1 .25 million Salvadoreans -- about 80 percent of the nation's agricultural population.

Landowners will be reimbursed for their farms with both cash and long-term government bonds. The nationalized land will be given to peasants either in the form of privately owned plots or in cooperative farms to be set up with government technical and financial help.

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