Duarte's right flank

SOMEHOW Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and his Christian Democratic government must find a way to broaden the political appeal of their left-of-center views. For understandable reasons, Mr. Duarte has been largely preoccupied with ending the seven-year-old civil war waged against the government by leftist guerrillas. The third round of talks in Sesori collapsed before it started earlier this month when the Army insisted on guarding the village and guerrillas refused to come. But El Salvador is basically a conservative country. And Duarte in some ways has more reason to be concerned these days about losing his normal constituency and the many interests on his political right, including private businessmen and the Army, than about compromises with the guerrillas. A continued effort at talks is likely, but the current hard-line position of both sides argues against much progress.

There is certainly more political freedom in El Salvador these days than before the civil war. Both the right and left freely criticize President Duarte and his close ties to the United States, which has supplied his nation with well over $2 billion in economic and military aid in the 1980s. Also, the guerrillas are not as strong as they were, having lost about one-third of their forces in recent years, largely through desertion. Also encouraging: Army human rights abuses have lessened in recent months.

But El Salvador's economy is in bad shape. Inflation has been running between 22 and 32 percent, and production of coffee, the chief export, is down as a result of drought and war damage to fields. The pinch falls hardest on the lower middle class and unions, who were among Duarte's strongest political supporters in his 1984 election, and he has done little to win them back. He devalued the currency once but has been reluctant to do so again, despite US urging, or to provide incentives for investment which could strengthen the free-enterprise climate.

Duarte's recent concessions to rebels holding his kidnapped daughter did little to increase the Army's confidence in him. The Army is still under civilian control, but is increasingly strong and critical of the government. A coup one day is conceivable. The US, preoccupied of late with the contra effort in Nicaragua, in effect bolsters the trend toward a stronger Army by financing the Salvadorean military's own plan for national recovery. While the job could not be done without military help, Washington should weigh its action carefully.

In mid-October Duarte, whose autobiography in English is to be published shortly, will be traveling north to the US on a private visit, receiving a degree from Boston University. Although the US Congress by then will be stumping for elections, El Salvador's President will press his case in Washington with the executive branch for holding US aid levels steady. Still, his nation is likely to take substantial cuts in this year of Gramm-Rudman. The slice will be hard to take, but could ultimately prod Duarte to make the economic and political reforms that are so needed.

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