Salvador ruling party battered by mounting charges of corruption. Duarte claims opponents trying to weaken government for own ends

President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's Christian Democratic Party, once considered by many Salvadoreans to be the party of honest government and reform, has been hard hit by recent charges of widespread corruption from the political opposition, business leaders, and some trade unions. President Duarte has denied the corruption charges and accused the opposition of using the allegations to weaken his government.

Yet while the rightist political parties are making the most of the scandals and enjoying the government's embarrassment, many Christian Democrats privately admit that the charges often are true. And they are concerned about the harm being done to the party.

``Yes, it's true that there is corruption,'' says one longtime Christian Democrat who asked not to be named. ``The bureaucracy and members of the party are taking advantage of their position.''

Many of the Christian Democrats critical of government corruption are from the wing of the party led by Planning Minister Fidel Ch'avez Mena. This faction has been excluded from top positions in the party and government by the party's dominant wing, led by Communications Minister Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes. These two competing wings are locked in a bitter battle for control over the party. The outcome will determine who will become the party's presidential candidate in the 1989 elections.

``Corruption today is generalized,'' says business leader V'ictor Steiner, president of the Chamber of Commerce. ``Before you accused the military of doing it, but now it's completely spread throughout the government.''

In the 20 years that the Christian Democrats were an opposition party, they consistently denounced the blatant corruption of past military-backed governments.

Many Salvadoreans had hoped that the Christian Democrats would be different. ``The tradition in this country is for whoever comes to power to take advantage of the situation,'' says Ignacio Martin Baro, vice-rector of the Jesuit-run Central American University. ``We expected the Christian Democrats to be different, but they haven't been. They've been the same.''

Some of the recent charges allege that:

Officials running the state's low-cost food outlets (IRA) have profited by reselling items such as powdered milk on the black market at higher prices.

Officials have used government workers and materials for their private use. Workers remodeling the education minister's home admitted on a local television newscast that they were on the payroll of the ministry and that they used state materials.

The Christian Democratic president of the legislative assembly has abused his privilege of importing cars without paying the high import taxes, a charge that the Christian Democrats acknowledge.

Military officers smuggled trailers filled with contraband goods into the country from Panama without paying import duties.

Government jobs are given out only to those with letters of recommendation from party officials. Teachers have charged that scarce teaching positions only go to party members.

US AID-funded job programs administered by the government credit agency Fedecredito are highly politicized, with party members favored for jobs.

Displaced people receiving US-funded food aid or work programs have had their benefits threatened unless they participated in pro-government marches. The opposition political parties fear that the displaced people - about half a million people constituting a tenth of the population - will be pressured to vote for the Christian Democrats in upcoming elections.

While those accused of corruption have denied the charges, the attorney general has started investigations on two of the cases: the resale of low-cost IRA food and the use of government workers to remodel the education minister's house.

Some Christian Democrats are critical of the way that Mr. Duarte has handled the scandals. ``He should have removed them [the officials charged] from their posts until the situation is clarified. But he hasn't done anything,'' according to a veteran Christian Democrat.

Diplomats agree that Duarte has avoided dealing with the corruption issue. ``It's clear he doesn't want to really know about it,'' one Western diplomat says.

Businessmen are also concerned by Duarte's lack of action. ``I personally know of cases where people have gone to Duarte with information about corruption and instead of firing them, he just shifts them,'' says Donald Drysdale, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce. ``He is surrounded by a lot of irresponsible and corrupt politicians,'' Mr. Drysdale adds. ``He has placed in high places people who have gone through thick and thin with him in the opposition. Now he's reluctant to proceed against them.''

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