What's behind the fighting in El Salvador

As the Reagan administration prepares to step up military aid to war-torn El Salvador and economic aid to the Caribbean region, many aspects of the conflict here remain unclear.

Who is winning -- the government or the guerrillas? What is each side seeking? What are the options for the United States?

Such questions produce as widely varying answers here as they do in the US. Monitor interviews with American and Salvadoran scholars, with businessmen, military and political officials, and Salvadoran guerrillas and citizens underline these differences.

But there is less disagreement about the roots of the conflict, notably the wide gap between rich and poor, the electoral fraud accompanying 50 years of military rule.

There is also a pervasive feeling here, even among some opposed to the guerrillas, that the powers which have ruled this small Central American nation have missed opportunities to reduce the chances of war.

El Salvador is a mountainous, crowded land, with a population of 4.5 million. It has one of the highest population densities in Latin America -- an average of 400 people per square mile.

Most of its wealth has long been in the hands of a few. Until recently, a few thousand people controlled about 60 percent of its farmland, its entire banking system, and most of its industry, says William M. LeoGrande, assistant professor of political science at American University in Washington.

Some 14 percent of the families here receive about 45 percent of the nation's income, according to El Salvador's Ministry of Planning. Those who have not fled to the US or elsewhere live in elegant homes in the San Benito section of this city. Many of the homes are surrounded by high walls and gates.

At the other end of the scale, about 41 percent of El Salvador's families receive about 14 percent of the income. They live in adobe brick homes in rural areas -- some now controlled by guerrillas -- and in the shanties of urban slums.

There is also a middle class, often overlooked by the foreign press. Until full-scale fighting broke out, it was growing, according to Conrado Lopez Andreu , president of El Salvador's Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A drive through San Salvador reveals large areas of middle-class homes.

In 1980, land reform policy distributed some farmland. Banks and international trade were nationalized. But these reforms have yet to touch the lives of most Salvadorans. And in the opinion of critics of the government, the reforms came too late and do not affect a great percentage of the poor or rich.

''Certainly the roots of the problem are social and economic,'' says a professor here (who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions). The 1980 reforms are only the latest attempt at change, following other failed attempts, he says. So, he explains, many seeking change have little faith in the current reforms.

Too often, he contends, reforms have been followed by government ''repression.''

In an interview in an office behind a tall, guarded wall, Mr. Lopez Andreu agrees that there has long been poverty in this country. But, he says, there has been serious poverty in other nations without war.

He follows US and El Salvador governments in blaming the current fighting on Cuban and Nicaraguan assistance to the guerrillas. (But a lower level of guerrilla and government violence preceded the outside assistance.)

Could the fighting have been headed off by earlier reforms by the government?

Perhaps, says Mr. Lopez Andreu. But, he stresses, the vast majority of the people have not joined with the guerrillas or supported their calls for general strikes. Instead, they have kept working and want to continue to work -- in peace. Others, sympathetic to the left, say most of the people agree with the left's cause.

Two dentists complain that their final months of study at a university here were interrupted by leftists lecturing on such topics as how to make bombs. The university was eventually closed by the government. An elderly woman selling sandwiches in a park here says she has fewer customers today because fewer people have money.

Bombings at factories have increased joblessness. The unstable political climate, even before the current level of fighting, has led to a massive loss of investment capital to the US and other nations, reducing the capacity of companies to continue or even keep up with equipment purchases.

Bombs can be heard exploding almost nightly in downtown San Salvador. Streets are usually nearly deserted after 8 p.m. Local residents are concerned about the bombings and what they say is a steep rise in urban crime.On one block, night watchmen point across the street to the rubble of a bread store. It was having union problems, they say. Nearby are a bombed-out nightclub and auto repair store.

The guerrillas are ruining the country economically, says a government spokesman. They cause some $200,000 worth of damage every day, he says, by destroying bridges, power stations, electrical lines, buses, and other targets in many parts of the country.

What is the left seeking?

The Central American University here, a private Catholic institution, which criticizes both sides for their killings, says the left has not been precise enough in explaining to people what they are seeking.

But from previous statements and from interviews with guerrillas here, the pattern of demands emerges roughly in the form of:

1. A reorganized military - to stop the alleged atrocities by military and government forces.

2. Some kind of general distribution of land (how this differs from the current land reform program is not always clear).

3. No outside intervention. (This demand is undermined by the guerrillas' own current reliance on outside arms supplies.)

For its part, the military-civilian junta wants to end the fighting, have widespread participation in the March 28 elections for a constituent assembly, then get on with the 1980 economic and land reforms which many here say are ''irreversible.'' But the left is not participating in the election. Its leaders say they fear for their safety.

The left wants to negotiate a settlement; the right-center government does not. But some individuals within the Christian Democratic party of junta President Jose Napoleon Duarte are said by one Western diplomatic source here to want to negotiate.

In 1972 Duarte was elected president but the military refused to let him take office in what even government supporters here concede was an unfortunate case of ''fraud.'' After a 1979 coup within the military, Duarte was brought into the government.

Who is winning the war?

During a visit here, Lieutenant General Wallace Nutting, who is in charge of US military in this region, said he did not know. He recommends more US military aid but is unable to say how much may eventually be needed.

Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, El Salvador's Minister of Defense, said the government is winning.

The guerrillas are fighting a hit-and-run war - bombing and killing, then retreating. Measuring who is winning in such a situation is not easy. But the left does not seem to be extending its control or semi-control of rural territory. Neither has the government been able to halt the left. Some here call it a stalemate.

Last year's ''final offensive,'' as the guerrillas labeled their nationwide efforts, obviously was not their final one. The recent statement by a top US State Department official that the ''decisive'' battle was under way here, also seems to have been an exaggeration. (The statement followed the bombing of several US-supplied helicopters.)

Some sources here say the war could go on for a long time if both the left and the right continue to arm and train and not negotiate. But that assumes an uninterrupted supply of arms to the left, along with more capture of military materials by the left. And the US is determined to try to block the flow of outside arms to the left.

Meanwhile El Salvador's list of requests for military aid from the US is growing. So is concern by some members of Congress over the future role of the US in this conflict.

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