Vietnam admits economic mistakes, downgrades grandiose projects

Vietnam has announced a shifting economic course for the 1980s - after concluding a thorough-going critique of its shortcomings over the last six years.

The new approach downplays grandiose industrial projects and favors medium and small-scale enterprises. It promotes economic ''technocrats'' -- but, as before, stresses economic partnership with the Soviet Union as the foundation of development.

Hanoi has also signaled that it will not soon end military occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia), despite the burden this places on Vietnam's economy.

In downplaying the large-scale programs announced in 1976, Vietnam plans to focus more heavily in the '80s on agriculture and supplying the people with basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, and medicine.

These shifts were announced during the recently concluded Fifth Vietnamese Communist Party Congress in Hanoi. The congress witnessed much criticism of weak economic performance since the Fourth Communist Party Congress in 1976.

Perhaps the most dramatic step by the congress was appointment of General Le Duc Anh, believed in charge of military operations in Kampuchea, to the party's ruling politburo. This appeared a signal to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the occupation of Kampuchea is unlikely to end for some time.

Also promoted to the enlarged 152-person central committee is a group of technocrats, among them agricultural specialists, a geologist, and an oil expert.

Despite rumors of friction between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, the congress stressed ties between the two countries. ''Cooperation with Soviet Union,'' party chief Le Duan declared, ''is the cornerstone of our foreign policy.'' Leaders were unstinting in their praise of Soviet aid, and they seem clearly to have decided that the Soviet Union and East European countries will be Vietnam's main source of trade and aid in the coming years.

References by Le Duan in his opening address to the need for ''best possible use'' of foreign aid appeared intended to mollify Soviet anger at waste of their assistance --once again a subject of talks between Hanoi leaders and visiting delegates. The Soviet representative at the congress promised aid and commerce would greatly increase in coming years.

Hanoi avowedly hopes to develop ''large-scale socialist agriculture'' in the '80s, and it clearly seeks Soviet aid in this and other programs.

While they repeated their willingness to reach a settlement with China, Vietnamese leaders made it clear that they did not expect this. China remains the main enemy, and Vietnam remains on a half-war, half-peace footing.

Despite its emphasis on small-scale projects, the party has not abandoned its plans to push through the collectivization of southern agriculture, even though there is deep unhappiness and disruption of food supplies caused by recent unsuccessful efforts to do this.

The politburo members in charge of this program, Vo Chi Cong, and To Huu may, however, find little sympathy for their approach to the issue from a new politburo member, Vo Van Kiet. Until recently Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) party chief Kiet is viewed by southerners as having a more flexible approach to building socialization in the south.

Le Duan's opening speech began with a promise of frankness. Admitting serious economic and social problems in the six years since the last congress, Le Duan declared, ''the central committee wishes to criticize itself severely before congress.'' He quickly qualified his self-criticism, however, by adding that the party's leadership in these years has been ''generally correct.'' That set the tone for the congress.

Dropped from the party's 13-member ruling polituro were five septuagenarians whose careers had actually come to an end several years ago. Among them was General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had faded out of the limelight two years earlier. With them goes Nguyen Van Linh. His election to the politburo in 1976 made him seem a rising star. Now he is presumably being held accountable for economic-policy failures.

Moving up is Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's flamboyant foreign minister, who becomes an alternate politburo member, thus almost catching up to senior politburo members Le Duc Tho and Van Tien Dung, with whom he -- then a very young revolutionary -- once did time in a French colonial prison. One of Thach's deputy ministers, Dinh Nho Liem, like Thach a party activist-turned-diplomat, joins the central committee.

So too does Mme. Nguyen Thi Binh -- well known to Americans from the war years, when she was foreign minister of the provisional revolutionary government. Other prominent figures from that era are dropped: Xuan Thuy, one of Hanoi's principal negotiators at the Paris peace talks and General Tran Van Tra, one of the deputy commanders -- with Le Duc Anh -- of the final assault on Saigon in 1975.

The five septuagenarians at the very top of the party, however, men like Le Duan, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, and head of state Truong Chinh, remain firmly entrenched -- not because they were not responsible for past failures but , as one observer close to Hanoi put it, ''because they are so senior that only they can decide when to step down.''

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