Never one to be friendly with his workers, Carlos Alberto Guirola left them in a bind. Knowing that he would be forced to turn over his plantation under El Salvador's land reform, Mr. Guirola managed first to sell off much of the livestock and farm machinery and even some of the land.

Now the members of the new farm cooperative are struggling along with land, insufficient credits, and a feeling of uncertainty about the future. That is not all the doing of their old boss. But he certainly did not leave them with fond memories.

Some of the Salvadoran oligarchs were engaging men; Guirola apparently was not. He had interests outside the plantation: membership on the board of a bank and a home in the United States, among other things. Now, all that evokes the memory of this millionaire is a spacious but empty house and a swimming pool that is filling up with weeds.

"He spoke only to the foreman when he was here," said Arturo Fermin Rodriguez , president of the new cooperative.

"He looked almost like a gringo," the small, dark, mustachioed cooperative leader said, referring to the light skin and blue eyes of the former owner.

He used to drive right past this house," continued Mr. Rodriguez, standing in front of the small, two-room, brick-and-cement house that shelters his wife and five children. "But in all those years, he never spoke a word to us. . . . He never even nodded."

Guirola is presumably now living in Miami, returning only occasionally to look after his remaining interests in El Salvador.

But regardless of what he did to make things difficult for the new cooperative, its members still hope to make this a going concern. First they must try to secure some of the land that the former owner sold but they they think should rightfully be theirs. Without it, they may ot be able to survive. Then they must obtain credits and technical advice from the nationalized banking system and government services.

Members of many new cooperatives, not just this one, complain that they are not getting credit in time to purchase the seeds, fertilizer, insecticides, machinery, and other items needed to do their job. But the banking system in this country appears to be close to broke.

this is apparently one of the reasons that the ruling Salvadoran Junta has quietly decided -- with US concurrence --phase that would have touched on El Salvador's most valuable export crop, coffee.

A confidential Economy Ministry memorandum prepared a few months ago argues that the government must make clear to the private sector that it is willing to freeze Phase 2 indefinitely and to undertake no further major reforms of the economy. The junta apparently feels Phase 2 would intensify the already existing demoralization of private businessmen. But it would have benefited some of the country's landless peasants.

A third phase, the so-called land-to-the-tiller program, may also be in trouble. It faces opposition from many small landowners who have close connections with the government and military people.

The only thing that seems certain at the moment is that Phase 1 of the program has succeeded in ousting some of El Salvador's biggest landowners, such as Carlos Albertos Guirola. Less certain is whether the government will have the will and the resources to help fill the gap that those men left and turn this first phase into a lasting success. This is one of the questions that could determine the outcome of the war.

This is, in theory at least, one of the most ambitious land-reform programs Latin America has ever seen. It is certainly more ambitious than anything undertaken so far by revolutionary Nicaragua. Without Phase 2, of course, it looks a bit less ambitious.

But US officials contend the program has already undercut support in the countryside for the Salvadoran guerillas. Yet that contention is difficult to document. In what amounts to a wartime situation, many farmers seem to be too frightened or too wary to talk freely about where their re al sentiments lie.

Another big question is whether the government's mobile, quick-reaction units , now being trained with the help of the United States, will work effectively against the guerillas. The regular Army and the National Guard do not seem to be capable, in el Salvador's rough terrian, of fixing and destroying guerilla units.

At best, these troops are able to keep the guerillas on the move and off balance. The idea for the moment seems to be simply to deny the guerrillas control of certain key sections of the country. But that is a defensive, rather than a winning, strategy.

If the fighting continues at its current low but destructive level, El Salvador is likely to require ever-increasing, massive infusions of foreign aid. The country's gross national product declined about 9 percent in real terms last year. Production of two key export crops, coffee and cotton, is down. This is partly because of uncertainty created both by the war and by the land-reform program. Unemployment now runs as high as 30 percent.

All this adds up to a desperate need for peace and stability. US State Department officials say that as many as 10 nations may be involved at the moment in behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. The two regional oil-producing powers, Mexico and Venezuela, which have been persuing an on-again, off-again peace initiative, are said to be particularly active.

Nicaraguan officials, recently accused of fueling the guerrilla side of the conflict, say they are for a political settlement. So does Fidel Castro. It may well be that the Salvadoran guerillas have not performed on the battlefield quite as well as the Cubans and Nigaraguans would like.

Mexico has ties with the civilian side of the Salvadoran opposition and might be able to help move the political umbrella group of the opposition, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), away from its previous refusal to talk with the Salvadoran junta. Venezuela has ties with the civilian President, Jose Napoleon Duarte.

The problem is that while the civilians on both sides might be willing to talk, they may not be able to "deliver" the men who hold much of the real power on both sides, their military colleagues. If the military men balked, that might be the point at which the United States could use its leverage.

But it is not clear whether the Reagan administration desires a negotiated settlement in El Salvador. Some officials seem to fear that too much stress on negotiations may split the junta and undermine its resolve.

In the absence of a mediated settlement, the junta is hoping to win support away from the guerrillas through the landreform program and through elections.

Some Central America specialists think that in part, because of the failure of their "final offensive" in January, the guerrillas have already lost considerable support. But this support has not necessarily shifted to the government.

The government forces appear to be feared and hated in many parts of the countryside. In some cases brutality on the part of the government's local security forces has undercut any support that might have existed as a result of the land-reform program.

In one instance last February, in the department of La Union, a cantonal commander shot a land-reform promoter in front of numerous witnesses. The assailant stood to lose acreage under the program. One of the victim's colleagues said recently the best that could be hoped for in the way of punishment of the commander was transfer away from his post.

At Rancho El Tatuano, near the coast to the southwest of the city of San Salvador, violence has not been a problem. but it has clearly been at a number of other cooperatives. At one northwest of San Salvador, which has seen several assassinations of cooperative leaders, a farmer was asked what he wanted most.

His reply: "Rain, a tractor, credit -- and peace."

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