Hard lessons for US and the region

EL SALVADOR's forgotten war is coming back to haunt Washington. After four years in the shadow of Nicaragua, this tiny United States ally is poised to become one of the stickiest foreign-policy issues to confront the next US administration, diplomats, Salvadoran analysts, and US officials say.

The increasingly polarized situation here - marked by the rise of hard-line conservatives, an intensifying war, and rising human rights abuses - will likely force the US to reevaluate both its huge commitment to El Salvador and the direction of US policy in Central America, US and Salvadoran officials say.

Since 1980, the US has quietly poured more than $1 million a day into El Salvador. The money has had two objectives: to defeat the Marxist rebels and to build a democratic political center that would fend off extremists on the left and right. Neither has been fulfilled. Further, the progress made toward both is in danger.

``One of the first things the new president could face is a collapse of US policy in El Salvador,'' predicts a senior US Democratic aide with long experience on issues in the region. ``The administration continues to frame El Salvador as a success story. But we're just sitting around waiting for disaster to happen.''

With $3.3 billion in total US aid since 1980, El Salvador has been able to prevent the kind of communist takeover that toppled neighboring Nicaragua in 1979. While turning up the heat on the region's hottest war, it has also cobbled together a fragile democracy, a modest economic upturn, and a more professional, restrained military.

But now, the US ``project'' is spinning slowly out of control.

The interminable eight-year war is heating up. Death-squad murders have doubled this year. The government has failed to remedy the wretched poverty that helps fuel the conflict. And the political center has disintegrated, opening the way for the likely victory of a party with a notoriously anti-democratic past in March's presidential elections.

``The country is becoming so polarized that all the old worries of 1980 are coming back,'' says a Western diplomat, referring to the period when the political extremes plunged El Salvador into war. ``The similarities are eerie.''

So far, only a few in Washington have shown concern about the dark clouds gathering in El Salvador. But the stormy conditions could have profound impli-cations for both the region and US policy, according to a wide range of diplomats, Salvadoran political analysts, and past and present US officials.

These sources clash over what future US policy in El Salvador should be, but they largely agree on what will emerge as the most prickly issues:

Reining in the new leaders. Leadership posts in both the Army and civilian government are soon expected to be handed over to representatives of more aggressive factions with past links to death squads.

The US virtually handpicked President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and the Army high command in 1983 and '84. But it will have less control over new conservative leaders, who openly blame the ``gringos'' for bogging down the war effort. US support for such a government is likely to be far more contentious than backing the centrist Duarte government.

A costly but endless war. The US has spent eight years and $850 million building a professional 57,000-man Army to defeat the 6,000 to 8,000 Marxist guerrillas. The war effort has helped prevent a rebel victory. But after 65,000 deaths, even optimistic US officials say the killing could easily go on for years. Congress will undoubtedly find it increasingly hard to muster the political will to sustain a seemingly endless war.

Roots of revolution. The Reagan administration has portrayed the insurgency as a classic case of Soviet-Cuban expansion. Obsessed with the external threat, it gave short shrift to the internal roots of the revolutionary movement: poverty and injustice. As a result, the US has backed away from Duarte's reforms and distrusted the idea of negotiations. Many Salvadoran analysts doubt the war can ever be won if the lot of the poor is not improved. But to seriously attack social inequities will require a reorientation of US policy.

High costs for the region. As long as the Salvadoran war continues, its two fragile neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras, will be affected by fleeing refugees, fighting on their borders, and the continued militarization of the region. Central America, sapped by large, nonproductive armies and continuing turmoil, is already mired in its worst economic crisis of the century. Stoking the region's hottest war will make it nearly impossible for these nations - both of which inaugurated civilian leaders in 1986 after decades of military rule - to consolidate either genuine democracy or economic prosperity.

Keeping Nicaragua in line. Despite the mounting concerns over the direction of events in Salvador, many policymakers say it must not be abandoned, because it plays an ever-more vital role as the region's main buffer against communism. This is so because just a few hundred miles south Nicaragua is consolidating its communist state after the de facto defeat of the US-backed contras.

US officials and Salvadoran Army officers fear that Managua may soon be freer to aid the Salvadoran rebels more directly. It will be up to the next US administration to reconcile the disturbing developments in El Salvador with the perceived need to support its government.

Inching toward talks. With no military victory in sight, many diplomats and left-leaning politicians here think the US should now push for a lasting negotiated solution. But the obstacles are formidable in this deeply polarized country, where the two armies have not budged from their rock-hard positions.

Another obstacle - perhaps the biggest - has been the US Embassy. Duarte negotiated with the rebels three times - against the US's will. According to diplomats and a senior Salvadoran official, the US encouraged him to drop the talks.

As in Nicaragua, the US policy in El Salvador has emphasized military victory, not negotiation. In his last speech before leaving in August, outgoing Ambassador Edwin Corr advised Salvadorans not to let ``impatience'' result in negotiated concessions with the Marxist rebels.

The US says it supports dialogue, but only within the framework of the Salvadoran Constitution. Under such rules, the rebels would have to put down their arms before negotiating, something they consider tantamount to surrender.

Ironically, the US pushes for exactly the opposite in Nicaragua, where it sides with the anti-government contra forces.

Little room to maneuver. Even with the many troubling signs in El Salvador, policymakers are at a loss for a clear alternative to current US policy. A drastic cut or a boost in aid would add fuel to Salvador's hard-line extremists. Most analysts say the next US administration will have to navigate cautiously through this funding dilemma, avoiding major cuts but trying to use aid more effectively as leverage for change.

Most experienced political analysts here say an increase in aid would send a misguided message of encouragement to the hard-liners likely to come to power. It would also feed El Salvador's debilitating dependence.

``Clearly, just pouring more money down there doesn't help. We've turned them into junkies,'' a Democratic aide says.

Overdependence has become a burden on the donor, the US, as well as the receiver, El Salvador. The US cannot fund this war indefinitely. And it will never have long-term success if El Salvador remains a weak client state that is every day more dependent on US handouts.

Building an independent economy in the midst of war is no easy task. But a prominent economist here says El Salvador's intermediate goal should be to ``diversify dependence.'' It should find other markets and money in Europe, he says.

The dangers of slashing aid are just as great. Even top Democratic advisers say a drastic cut in aid would throw away the US's only leverage for pressuring El Salvador on human rights, judicial proceedings, or even negotiations with the guerrillas. Lacking both funding and accountability, hard-line Army elements could get out of control.

``If the US pulls out, either El Salvador falls to the guerrillas or the Army goes the Guatemala route,'' says one US military analyst. The Guatemalan Army unleashed a terrifying campaign of murder against anyone with sus-pected leftist ties in the late 1970s, soon after the US cut off aid because of continuing human-rights violations.

Most diplomats and military analysts here say the Salvadoran Army would show more restraint than the right-wing politicians pushing to wipe out the guerrillas quickly. But despite its professed devotion to democracy, the powerful Army is so used to ruling that no one expects it to take a back-row seat in the future.

As four US colonels wrote in a report last spring: ``The United States can hardly just walk away from El Salvador without some concern about the Army's role in Salvadoran politics.''

Congress is just beginning to stir on the issue of El Salvador. Last spring, it withheld $5 million in US military aid because the Duarte government made no progress investigating the murders of two US labor advisers by government security forces.

Congress recently approved an amendment to the 1989 foreign-aid bill that shifted 25 percent of El Salvador's economic support funds away from war-related activities to address basic human needs.

While small, these cases foreshadow a future in which Congress wields its influence without drastically reducing aid.

``This is the first real change in how the administration distributes aid since Duarte's election,'' says Caleb Rossiter of the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus. ``It's just the beginning.''

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