The Central American policy of the Reagan administration has confused both its critics and admirers here. This policy has publicly stood for democratic government and basic human freedoms. Yet it has contributed to a tightening grip of the military on economic and political power in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Reagan policy has publicly called for dialogue and an end to foreign intervention in Central America. Yet it has helped to finance and possibly direct the forces attacking Nicaragua.
A sincere effort by the commission led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to formulate a long-term policy would be a welcome clarification to those here attempting to read the Reagan White House.
El Salvador has had a particularly difficult time dealing with the incongruities of this administration. During the Reagan tenure El Salvador has had four ambassadors. Two of them, Robert White and Deane Hinton, were apparently replaced because of their public condemnation of rightist violence. The replacements of Mr. Reagan's first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, and the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Thomas Enders, were perceived here as a continuing purge of liberal voices in the administration.
The Reagan rhetoric, arms buildup, and the transfer of foreign policy to hard-line national security adviser William Clark spelled a get-tough policy that pleased the ultra-right throughout Central America. Human rights, it seemed , was sidelined for the East-West conflict.
The embassy here found itself stripped of any power to intervene on human rights issues. Ambassador Hinton lamented his inability to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of seven American citizens here.
''The problem,'' says one political observer, ''is that Reagan was perceived as not caring about human rights violations.''
This dilemma was illustrated by the recent abduction and execution of the third-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry, Amilcar Martinez Arguerar, by a right-wing death squad. The US Embassy condemned the abduction in unusually strong language. The next day the conservative (some would say reactionary) newspaper El Diario de Hoy printed an editorial on what it considered to be obvious: The US Embassy has little to do with the Reagan White House, the paper said, and if US diplomats are soft on communism, President Reagan is not.
This past week a rightist death squad submitted videotapes of four citizens here, including one key labor leader, who ''confessed'' to being communist. The day the ''confessions'' aired on television stations here their mutilated corpses were dumped on a side street in the capital.
Last Sunday Roberto d'Aubuisson, leader of the National Republican Alliance, went on national television to charge that US aid money was being passed to guerrilla forces by the leader of a Christian Democratic union.
The US Embassy, rebuffed after condemning the Martinez kidnapping, issued no statement. The criticism of the d'Aubuisson charge came from the White House.
Salvadoreans can be forgiven for being confused. A dizzying array of groups are trying to address the situation. President Reagan sent down special envoy Richard Stone and the Kissinger Commission. There is also some activity by the Organization of American States, the Contadora group, and the Salvadorean Peace Commission. The Nicaraguans have asked that the region's conflict be included in this year's United Nations agenda.
The Reagan administration has endorsed or initiated many of these efforts. But there is also a steady military buildup here and increased rhetorical hostility by the US.
Even provisional Salvadorean President Alvaro Alfredo Magana said this week that dialogue has ended, and a military solution is the only way to end the conflict.