Central America: mounting turmoil tests US and Mexican strategies

American voters might enjoy the variety of party symbols: a fish, triangle, cross, and arrow, among others. But they might not appreciate the invisible ink stamped on each voter's hand.

The ink is to prevent people from voting more than once. It is invisible (except under an infrared light), because the March 28 election in El Salvador comes in the midst of a guerrilla war.

With the left boycotting the election, people who vote may not want to advertise the fact for fear of possible repercussions from the left.

Normally a Central American election for a constituent assembly would not seem too important to Americans. But this one is, even though it will not halt the fighting here.

The United States is firmly committed to helping El Salvador's center-right, civilian-military junta put down the revolution by the left.

If the extreme right wing predominates in the election and tries to halt or even roll back reforms that the United States supports, the US could be left in the uncomfortable position of backing a reactionary government, some American analysts say. US military support would probably continue, but congressional opponents of such support would have further ammunition for their arguments.

When some US officials first heard about the plan for an election here, they laughed. How could a nation with such a consistent record of electoral fraud hold an honest election in the midst of a guerrilla war?

Now these officials are more convinced the election will be fair. But results from apparently fair elections in the past have been overturned repeatedly by El Salvador's military.

Many Salvadorans are hoping there is at least some truth in the message of billboards, TV announcements, and full-page newspaper ads, all calling out: ''Your vote: the solution.''

''That's what we hope,'' says Guillermo, a heavyset, mustachioed man who works as a guard at a downtown store here. A taxi driver, the owner of a small hotel, and others echo the same hope.

But a hotel employee says she is afraid to vote. Others may be, too. Voter turnout is said to be low in elections even in normal times.

And in one of the northern mountain guerrilla strongholds - who are not participating and are not represented in the election - young men in T-shirts and armed with automatic weapons told this correspondent they will keep on fighting regardless of the election. Most recently they have been fighting the military here in a major attack on their area near Guazapa, north of San Salvador.

Some US scholars think the election has little meaning without the participation of the left and may prolong the fighting if the right wing wins the election and continues to refuse to consider negotiations.

''The elections are actually going to make the situation more difficult,'' says Richard E. Feinberg, a former State Department official now with the Overseas Development Council. Elections will not affect the determination of the left to fight and may reduce the strength of the centrist president of El Salvador's junta, Jose Napoleon Duarte, he says.

On the other hand, Tom Anderson, a Latin American specialist at Eastern Connecticut State College, says that a right-wing party win could (1) stave off a possible coup by the right, and (2) encourage El Salvador's military to seek more aid from the US.

But if Mr. Duarte's Christian Democratic (CD) party wins, the military will feel threatened, Professor Anderson suggests.

Mr. Duarte's CD party is generally seen as centrist on the political spectrum , although some local right-wing critics see it as far left. Some 40 CD mayors have been assassinated in the past two years by opponents. The other parties running are generally considered to be to the right, some to the far right.

The election is for a constituent assembly to be made up in proportion to the votes of the winning parties. The assembly will have the power to change the constitution, name a provisional president or a new junta, or name itself to run the government. It also has power to provide for a presidential election in 1983 .

Leftist leader Col. Adolfo Arnaldo Majano, a former member of the Salvadoran government junta and now in exile in Mexico, recently told reporters he favors elections. But the March 28 election will prolong the conflict in El Salvador, he predicts, because ''the extreme right, who have been intransigent, will be legalized by the elections. . . .''

The reforms of the past two years have been made a major issue by the major parties on the right.

The National Conciliation Party (PCN in Spanish), one of the nation's best-organized, has been very critical of the reform program of the Christian Democrats. Its main support comes from former government officials and businessmen.

The Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) is a new party headed by former National Guard Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson. He has vigorously opposed the CD reforms and called for much tougher military action against the left. He is described by some analysts as ''ultra-rightist'' and even ''fascist.'' But some local businessmen say they like him because he stands for the kind of ''order'' they want for carrying out their business.

Major d'Aubuisson was slightly wounded Feb. 27 during one of two attacks by gunmen. In the first, his helicopter came under fire as it landed in San Vicente; the second, he was hit by a fragment of a hand grenade thrown at his car in San Salvador.

Most analysts here and in the US describe El Salvador's land-reform program, which since 1980 has turned over many private estates to peasants, as one of the most ambitious ever undertaken in Latin America. But assessments vary greatly as to how successful it has been. While some say it has given hope and land to many peasants, others say its great potential remains to be realized.

There has been corruption and mismanagement and some violence mixed with the program, according to some Salvadoran analysts here.

The land program and other reform efforts are also directly related to the conflict here, says a government spokesman. The reforms have given people ''hope ,'' he says. ''If the changes were not succeeding we'd have a general war,'' this spokesman told the Monitor.

Most people interviewed here, even those not too happy about the land reform, say it is irreversible. But the future of this program and others may depend, in part, on the results of the March 28 election.

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