Salvadorean Army positions itself for new political era

Changes at the top of El Salvador's military command are a result of pressure from younger officers. The changes - which amount to the first major restructuring of the armed forces - will be gradual. They began with last week's replacement of the Vice-Minister of Public Security and the retirement of the Vice-Minister of Defense. But by March 1989, most of the top hierarchy will be replaced, say military sources.

Many of the officers closely identified with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte will be replaced with younger, more conservative officers likely to take a tougher stand in the war against leftist insurgents.

The key factor motivating the change is the younger officers' desire for career advancement. ``The younger officers are getting frustrated after being in the field for five years with no changes,'' says a West European diplomat.

``Every enterprise needs movement,'' says Col. Orlando Zepeda, head of El Salvador's military intelligence. ``There has to be some movement in the armed forces as well. ...''

The timing of the restructuring also represents an Army effort to position itself for a new political era. Currently, there is a power vacuum caused by the absence of ailing President Duarte and the nation is seeing a transition following the defeat of the ruling Democratic Christian Party in March Assembly elections and the rise of the rightist Arena Party.

The lack of change had created a ``serious bottleneck,'' says the Western diplomat. Nobody had expected that either Defense Minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Cassanova or Army Chief of Staff Gen. Adolfo Onec'ifero Bland'on would remain in their posts more than a fewyears following their appointments in 1983.

Over the years, US official policy here has resisted the pressures for change in the military hierarchy because both General Vides and General Bland'on supported Mr. Duarte and the US strategy for fighting the war. The US did not want to add any new factors that might destabilize an already fragile government.

But now the pressure has come to a head and even US officials here say that changes must be made. Still, military and diplomatic sources say Bland'on won't be replaced immediately and Vides is likely to stay on as defense minister through Duarte's final year in office.

General Bland'on responded to pressure from younger officers for his ouster recently by charging that ``recalcitrant elements'' of the armed forces and the rightist Arena Party were plotting a coup. Rumors of a coup were everywhere, especially when the ruling party repeated Bland'on's allegations in order to discredit Arena, its political rival.

Vides, however, denied the rumors. Acting President Rodolfo Castillo Claramont noted that ``for Arena, with the possibilities of reaching power through electoral means, a coup wouldn't be useful.'' And the military, which is already the most powerful institution in the country and which has de facto veto power over most key decisions concerning it, shows no desire to run the state.

Diplomats say the emerging military leadership is more conservative, more independent of the Christian Democratic government and the US, more sympathetic to Arena's stands, and likely to prosecute the war more vigorously. But overriding any partisan political sympathies is the officers' loyalty to the Army as an institution and in particular, loyalty to their graduating class, called a tanda.

The major power block in the new Army hierarchy will be the influential 1966 class. This class, known as the tandona (the big class), because with 46 members it was more than twice the size of previous classes, already controls most of the important field command positions and key posts in the high command.

Still, tandona members will have to move into top posts slowly because the rules of military hierarchy don't allow them to jump over more senior officers who graduated before them.

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