OVER the past eight years, the United States has poured nearly $43,000 an hour into El Salvador to bolster the country's fragile political center and defeat its Marxist guerrillas. For a country barely the size of Massachusetts, the transfusion of $3 billion has been staggering. El Salvador is now the fifth-largest recipient of US aid in the world. It has received 14 times as much aid as the controversial contras of Nicaragua.
This is the US's largest counterinsurgency campaign since Vietnam. There have been gains: The effort has helped prevent a guerrilla victory, reduce Army human rights abuses, and establish civilian rule after 50 years of repressive military regimes.
But all this is now threatened. El Salvador seems to be sliding back to the violent, chaotic days of the early 1980s.
Central America's hottest war, which has already cost 65,000 lives, is intensifying. Notorious death squads are swinging into action again. A modest economic upturn disguises a deep dependency on US aid and deteriorating economic conditions for the majority of Salvadorans. And with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte gravely ill, the political center has crumbled from its own inexperience, corruption, and internal divisions.
Nearly everybody here, from conservative Army colonels to leftist political leaders, openly criticizes the US ``project,'' questioning whether it can produce genuine change or end the war.
``The US has flattened El Salvador,'' says San Salvador's mayor, Armando Calder'on Sol, a leader of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). ``It is not reactivating the economy or winning the war, but maintaining a status quo of misery and hunger.''
Leftist politician Jorge Villacorta tangles with his conservative opponent on nearly every topic - but not this one: ``Everyone agrees that the North American project has failed.''
Today, as both the US and El Salvador head toward uncertain presidential elections, politicians, diplomats, and Central American experts in both coun-tries are raising serious questions: Is the massive US aid justified? And why hasn't it brought peace, political stability, or economic recovery?
Symbol of US policy
While Nicaragua consumes most congressional debate on Central America, US policy in El Salvador continues to enjoy a largely unquestioned consensus. The primary reason: It has embodied the hopes of the administration and Congress that US policy can prevent leftist revolution by fostering a viable alternative to military rule.
For a new Reagan administration, El Salvador represented the first line of defense against communism - a project that would shore up the US's weak image in the world. And after its pivotal presidential election of 1984, El Salvador became a potent demonstration of how the US could help engineer a peaceful transition from US-backed military regimes to civilian-run democracies.
The US government was stung by its failure to control the direction of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution. And, as President Reagan took office in January 1981, another longtime Central American ally was under siege by several thousand Marxist guerrillas.
El Salvador's leftist Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) had launched a ``final offensive'' days before Mr. Reagan's inauguration. Though the insurrection failed, US intelligence sources came out with controversial evidence that Nicaragua was funneling arms to the rebels by land, air, and sea.
Panic spread. In the eyes of Reagan conservatives, El Salvador was likely to be the next domino toppled by a Soviet-inspired communist revolution. Said Reagan: ``We believe that the government of El Salvador is on the front line of a battle that is really aimed at the very heart of the Western Hemisphere, and eventually us.''
Within days, El Salvador, a land of only 5 million people, had become a centerpiece of American foreign policy. It was the place to show US resolve, to ``draw the line'' on communist revolution in the third world.
For Reagan, there would be no more Nicaraguas. But for the American people, there would be no more Vietnams.
So the Reagan team promised that no American soldiers would go into combat. It limited the number of US military advisers to 55. And it won congressional approval for an escalation of US support. In Reagan's first term, US military aid zoomed from less than $6 million in 1980 to nearly $200 million in 1984.
But El Salvador's troublesome problems - flagrant Army atrocities, right-wing death squads, and resurgent rebel forces - still worried Congress. It was only when Mr. Duarte was elected President in 1984 that skeptical congressional Democrats began to rest easy. The moderate, US-trained engineer, they thought, would consolidate democracy, combat communism, and save his torn country from violent extremists on the left and right.
The high hopes are now little more than memories.
During his first year as President (following a term as leader of a civilian-military junta), Duarte fought to break the monopoly held for generations by coffee-growing families backed by the Army. He tried to expand the land-reform program and nationalization of banks and export trade introduced by the junta. Using US money as leverage, he wooed the armed forces away from their longtime allies in the economic elite. But he met with resistance from the right and failed to get strong US backing for carrying out the reforms.
``Nobody in the history of Central America has received support like Duarte to resolve his country's problems,'' says a former US ambassador in the region. ``But the [US] administration never let him go. It was never willing to confront the Army and oligarchy in the midst of what it saw as a life-or-death struggle with communism.''
As the relentless cycle of war and economic crisis persisted, Duarte's power and popularity eroded.
In the end, diplomats and Salvadoran officials say, Duarte never had the power to stand up to the Army, the oligarchy, or the US Embassy. He never had the courage to call a halt to corruption. And despite his good intentions, he never redressed the grave social inequities that fuel the conflict.
Consequently, Duarte alienated the very people that elected him. Meanwhile, his government drew fire from the Army and the private sector for being too socialist and corrupt to fight the war and manage the economy. The result: The ultraconservative ARENA party overwhelmed Duarte's Christian Democrats in legislative elections last March.
After the loss, Duarte fell ill and his government became paralyzed by internal splits and corruption charges. Meanwhile, leftist politicians announced that they will participate in elections for the first time since 1972, but refused to break their alliance with the FMLN guerrillas.
ARENA is now favored to win the presidency in the elections next March. If it does, it would likely push for a more aggressive war and roll back Duarte's economic reforms.
ARENA may pose a dilemma for the next US administration because of its notoriously anti-democratic past. The party has worked hard to construct a moderate fa,cade. But many US and Salvadoran analysts say ARENA is still ruled by Roberto d'Aubuisson, a former military intelligence officer suspected of running death squads in the early 1980s.
While it is not clear whether ARENA members are currently involved in death squads, human rights groups say such murders have doubled this year. Recent newspaper reports suggest that, taking their cue from the ARENA victory, death squads are reemerging after a period of relative inactivity. The killing of civilians by the Army and the rebels has also risen sharply.
El Salvador seems to be entering one of the most vulnerable, polarized periods since US dollars began flowing.
The eight-year war has displaced nearly half a million rural peasants, pushing many into squalid shantytowns dotting the capital. Another half million have fled the country. The neediest have been neglected as the war indirectly consumed over half of the country's national budget and of all US aid.
And yet the war remains deadlocked.
Despite three sets of face-to-face discussions, neither side has budged from its negotiating position: The Marxist rebels want nothing less than a share of power and a radical restructuring of society; the acutely anticommunist Army wants nothing more than the disappearance of the guerrillas.
Both sides still push for a clear victory. But for either army, such a victory remains a faraway dream.
Chronology of conflict 1932: Peasant organizer Farabundo Mart'i leads slave-wage coffee pickers in a violent uprising against wealthy landowners. The military government reacts swiftly, slaughtering 10,000 to 30,000 peasants.
1933-72: A de facto alliance between the Army and wealthy families blocks reforms and maintains a cheap rural work force. El Salvador becomes the world's third-largest coffee exporter.
1972: The military steals a presidential election victory from Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and installs its own candidate. Disillusioned activists take up arms against the dictatorship.
1973-78: As repression and economic inequities mount, left-leaning church, student, and union groups coalesce. Five small rebel groups begin sporadic fighting in the mountains.
October 1979: Reformist Army officers stage a US-backed coup and establish a moderate civilian-military junta, hoping to avert the type of revolution that swept Nicaragua three months earlier.
January 1980: The junta collapses when most civilian members resign because of the Army's continued repression and unwillingness to submit to civilian control. In March, another junta, now including Duarte, pushes land reform and the nationalization of banks and export trade.
November 1980: The Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) forms around five rebel factions. Armed forces respond by arresting and often murdering suspected leftists.
January 1981: The FMLN launches a ``final offensive'' with apparent help from Nicaragua and Cuba. It fails, but US aid escalates sharply.
March 1982: The right-wing Arena party gains control over the National Assembly and suspends land reform. The US prevents Arena from naming alleged death-squad leader Roberto d'Aubuisson as president.
1983: Right-wing death squads and Army massacres continue, raising toll of civilian murders to nearly 40,000 in four years.
March 1984: With strong US backing, Duarte beats d'Aubuisson in presidential elections. The US Congress approves massive amounts of military and economic aid.
1985-87: Duarte's Christian Democrats gain control of the National Assembly. The expanded armed forces improve their performance in war and on human rights. The FMLN is forced to turn to a strategy of mines and economic sabotage. But Duarte loses popular support as his government fails to halt the war or resolve economic problems.
1988: Arena wrests control of the National Assembly in March. Duarte falls ill. Death-squad killings and Army abuses resurge. The FMLN launches a fall offensive.