Salvador's Magana: consensus builder or military pawn?

Is he a shrewd builder of consensus among warring parties? Or is he an indecisive pawn, unable to provide leadership for his troubled country?

Like all things Salvadorean, President Alvaro Magana (who marks his first year of office April 29) is the subject of dispute.

And how does Dr. Magana - a provisional president, chosen as compromise candidate when no party won a majority in the newly created Constituent Assembly during the March 1982 elections - see himself?

''I'm a very peculiar president,'' said the University of Chicago-trained banker in an interview with the Monitor, adding, ''I don't put pressure on anything.''

Instead, he says, his strength lies in creating an atmosphere of conciliation among military and political leaders, some of whom in the past would rather have shot one another than talked face to face.

On one thing all sides agree: In the past year, under his coaxing, these leaders have begun to cooperate. Last August, four of the five parties represented in the Legislative Assembly signed the Pact of Apaneca, an agreement on a national agenda that takes its name from the Magana farm where it was signed.

Since then, these leaders have worked together to establish the three bipartisan commissions (on peace; human rights; and national political, economic , and social programs) outlined in the pact.

''This (movement toward conciliation) has been a very healthy influence in this period,'' says Dr. Magana, a graying and avuncular man who admits that rather than being president he would ''prefer to be teaching economics and writing a book.''

He adds, ''When I write my memoirs, I am going to tell all the stories of things that have not happened because of me.''

In a nation acutely aware of left-wing terrorists, right-wing death squads, and unexplained disappearances of individuals, killings that ''have not happened'' are important. Over the past year, in fact, officially recorded murders dropped to around 6,000 - half the number recorded the year before.

But the figure still deeply troubles Dr. Magana. ''These are not economic variables,'' he notes, ''these are human lives.''

To some, however, the ''things that have not happened'' are his failing. ''He thinks that by signing a decree, he's done something for peace,'' says one sociologist trained in the United States. ''But in the end,'' he adds, ''you don't see leadership.''

This man, along with several senior staffers in Salvadorean government ministries, sees extensive wheel-spinning in the bureaucracy - lack of clear directives from Cabinet ministers, and a conscious undermining of government programs, such as land reform.

One academician notes that, although Magana is ''very crafty, very savvy,'' he has ''only as much power as the people who want to give him power will give him.''

But to others, the professorial President has just the gentle touch needed as the nation gropes toward more democratic institutions.

''He's incredibly skillful'' at ''building consensus,'' says US Ambassador Deane R. Hinton. He says Dr. Magana's ''main job was to keep the democratic process going'' - something which, in a place where ''the hate level is so high, '' he has done with ''incredible success.''

As El Salvador moves toward its presidential election, which will probably be held in December, Dr. Magana says, ''What concerns me is that the people don't get disappointed in the democratic process.'' ''Otherwise,'' he adds, ''we will fail.''

Part of his contribution to that process, he feels, is his reshaping of the public's image of the presidency. In contradiction to the stereotype of a Latin American president as a larger-than-life ''man on horseback,'' he has chosen a lower profile. Preferring small group discussions, he rarely gives televised speeches. ''I'm not going to inaugurate a theater or a bridge,'' he says, in contrast to the actions of his predecessors.

Nor does he insist on holding all the strings of power. Case in point: As his interview with this writer was beginning, one of his senior staffers came in to discuss gasoline allocations within his department. Two less senior staff members were bickering over the subject. The President's response to the senior staffer: ''Fire one'' of the two subordinates.

His response surprised the staffer: It was an unusual devolution of authority in a country where, traditionally, hiring and firing are political actions taken at the highest level.

''The President is too powerful in this country,'' he explains. ''The first thing we should do is to give less power to the president,'' he says.

Dr. Magana's power arises not from an independent base, but from his relationship with the military. ''You have to realize,'' he says, ''that the Army is a power in this country, like in any third-world country.'' He says he knows many of the military leaders from school days.

He says he has maintained close contact with the officers while serving as economic adviser (and close personal friend) of four presidents since 1960.

So when the nation needed a consensus president, ''I was one of the few civilians that had the confidence of (the Army),'' he says.

Others see it differently. ''They called him San [Saint] Alvaro,'' says one Western diplomat, referring to his practice during his long tenure as president of Banco Hipotecario (a leading Salvadorean bank) of giving preferential loans to military officers. Now, says this observer, ''they all owe him money.''

One economist who worked under him at the bank says that Magana ''managed the bank's finances in order to increase his capacity to have political influence.'' He notes that, when former President Carlos Humberto Romero once tried to remove Magana from a key position, the banker simply threatened to call in the outstanding loans, a move that so concerned the officers that they forced Romero to reverse the decision.

Whatever its source, Dr. Magana's power within military circles is apparently real, however restrained. Now, he says, although he is officially commander in chief of the armed forces, he sees his role in staff meetings more as ''a friend giving advice.''

On other matters, Dr. Magana said:

* The date for the elections ''looks like December now.'' He wants voting to take place as soon as possible, he says. But he knows it will take time to devise a proper electoral register - especially since the guerrillas, who oppose elections, have burned birth records in over 70 villages and towns.

In his personal opinion, he says, ''There would be ways of granting all the parties an honest election without a register,'' as was done in 1982.

* There has been no progress so far on bringing the far left into the electoral process. The newly established Peace Commission has made overtures, he says. But ''I think they have a conceptual problem (on the left),'' and adds, ''if they come to the election, what was the justification for all that fighting?''

* ''Under no circumstances'' would he run for president. ''The country needs a new, permanent government supported by the parties,'' he says, pointing out that he is an independent without a party behind him. ''I feel at home at a university,'' he says. Nevertheless, those close to him confirm that, if the next government gets into too much trouble, he would be willing to offer his services as minister of defense.

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