Salvadorean buy-out

TO help break the stalemate in El Salvador, a simple continuation of current policies will not suffice. We must do more. The deep internal divisions in El Salvador are caused in large part by the violent reaction of the former ruling classes to the potentially confiscatory consequences of land reform. This is to be expected. In El Salvador, a weak central government is seen as threatening the economic interests of the large landowners, and it is not reasonable to expect them to be complacent about it. There is a powerful historical precedent for this. In the United States in 1860 and following, the Southern slaveholders, protecting their property rights in slaves - an interest morally compromised as property rights in land in El Salvador are not - defied a powerful central government and required it to spend four years reducing them to desolation before they gave up the struggle.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln proposed that the federal government buy all the slaves in the country from their owners and free them. His proposal died in Congress because the abolitionists argued successfully that to buy the slaves, even for the purpose of freeing them, recognized a property right in slaves and represented an unacceptable compromise with the slave power. Others argued that the cost . . . was too high. And so the war went on, at a cost of $150 billion in current dollars and more than 1 million casualties.

No such considerations of moral compromise or cost would arise if the US were to provide genuine compensation for those whose land is being taken and distributed under the land-reform programs.

We should offer to underwrite land reform by guaranteeing 50 cents on the dollar to those who wish to take their money and leave El Salvador. To those who are prepared to remain in El Salvador and invest their money in building the infrastructure and in financing the economic development of El Salvador, we should offer 80 or 90 cents on the dollar. This investment should take the form of municipal and utility bonds, used to build bridges, roads, power nets, waterworks, sewage systems, schools, etc. The bonds themselves, including a dividend of 10 percent for a period of up to 20 years, should be guaranteed by the government of the US. When this reform is put in place, one of the strong motivations to resist land reform and to support right-wing terrorism will have ended. The acceptance of a US-backed bond would constitute a quitclaim to the land being distributed and would clear the way for the prompt issuance of valid titles to the farmers or cooperatives receiving the land. These arrangements would also be decisive in ensuring that land reform, which is essential to building popular support in El Salvador, continues.

This proposal represents a practical means of at once dealing with the problem of right-wing violence in El Salvador and providing needed development funds to improve the lot of the poor in El Salvador.

It is easy for Americans to condemn the activities of the death squads, and set conditions that fly in the face of reality - conditions that, while aiming to advance human rights, will, by ensuring a totalitarian takeover, extinguish them. But moral indignation and verbal attack, no matter how justified, have little or no effect. Those who would limit our response to empty moralizing will ensure that the killing goes on.

We must face the reality, however unpleasant, that even if all military aid were to be withdrawn from El Salvador, the remnants of the oligarchy in El Salvador have it in their power to frustrate land reform and thus to deny any hope of freedom and prosperity. We must provide a way for them to see that land reform, which is certainly in the interests of the campesinos, is also in their interest.

The total cost for Phase 1 land reform already substantially implemented, supposing that half the landowners left and half opted to stay and reinvest their compensation, would be on the order of $166 million, plus accumulated interest over 20 years of $332 million. The total cost of all the land-reform programs would be less than $1 billion: 10 days' cost in current dollars of fighting the Vietnam war.

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