Hope for Salvador peace fizzles even as junta starts up reforms

Moderation in El Salvador is failing. The military-civilian junta, desperately scrambling to avert civil war and somehow set a middle course between leftist and rightist extremes, has yet to come up with a program to do just that.

The extreme Left and the Right, meanwhile, are taking full advantage of the impasse to further polarize the Central American country. Taking potshots at each other, with both lethal and verbal bullets, they daily bring the country closer to full-fledged civil conflict.

But as hope for a peaceful way out fades, the United States continues to serve up guarded optimism about prospects for solving El Salvador's malaise.A new US ambassador, Robert White, is on the scene -- and working hastily and determinedly to win time for the junta to work its solutions. Latin American observers give the US some credit for intervening last month to prevent a right-wing coup against the junta and for urging the junta to move quickly on its compromise solutions.

These solutions include a broad-based land reform measure that will carve up 50 of the country's largest landholdings and provide land for 1.25 million Salvadoreans. This agrarian program is aimed at defusing one of the main arguments of leftists who point out that close to 90 percent of El Salvador's arable land has been in the hands of 2 percent of the population, the country's aristocracy, since Spanish colonial times, 200 years ago.

But even the quick implementation of the program by the junta in the past two weeks has failed to stem the mounting violence and the increasingly radical rhetoric from both the Left and the Right.

Roving bands of extremists have made San Salvador, the capital city, a place of fear and terror in the past week. Leftist activists set up dozens of roadblocks on city streets, hijacked 10 buses, and then took control of part of the National University, holing up in various classrooms. For a time, Army troops ringed the university's campus, exchanging fire with the leftists, but then withdrew in an effort to neutralize the situation.

Leftist propagandists continued their barrage of criticism of the joint military-civilian junta, calling it "repressive and unrepresentative of the wishes of the people of El Salvador." Different leftist groups took out newspaper advertisements, put up posters, and used radio stations to spread their message.

But rightist elements, who were blamed for a shoot-out in downtown San Salvador March 17 that left 20 leftists dead, also took issue with the junta in a renewed propaganda campaign, calling on the junta to become tough with the leftists.

Attacked from both Left and Right, the junta, which is just now recovering from an internal split three weeks ago, continues to espouse the course of moderation.

"This is the only answer," comments Col. Jaime Abdul-Gutierrez, one of two military men on the junta. "If we can just get across the message that the only way the country is going to survive without being torn apart is through moderate reforms, we may make it."

But Hector Dada Hirezi, whose resignation from the junta March 3 sparked the internal split in the body, charged March 15 that Army pressure makes it impossible for the junta to govern effectively.

"A reformist government that includes the military is a contradiction in terms," he says. And most observers concur that the outlook for the country is grim.

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