Rethink Salvador Aid

THE inauguration of President Alfredo Cristiani in El Salvador has the Bush administration worried that Congress may cut the $1.5 million a day now sent to that war-torn country. Its message to Congress is ``let's wait and see,'' but the State Department would have us look in the wrong direction. Since 1980, Washington has poured more than $3.4 billion into El Salvador, assuring Congress that the war against the leftist guerrillas was being won and that democracy and reform were eliminating the repression and poverty that caused the revolution. Militarily, however, the guerrillas have neutralized the US-backed Army. They appear able to sabotage the economy indefinitely, mount major strikes, and prevent the Army from imposing a military solution.

Politically, the would-be reform government of Jos'e Napole'on Duarte not only proved corrupt and inefficient, but lacked the power to tame repression by the military or to force the economic elite to accept reform. This failure allowed the victory of the ultra-rightist ARENA party - first in the March 1988 Assembly elections, and then in the March 1989 presidential elections.

Many in Congress are skeptical about aiding a party with close ties to death squads. Former Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson remains a key party leader and will likely direct the majority in the Assembly. There is no evidence, however, that Mr. Cristiani's hands are bloodstained. And the existence of a D'Aubuisson makes Cristiani look moderate.

``We ought to give this new government a chance to prove itself before we start condemning [it] in some sort of knee-jerk fashion,'' Secretary of State James Baker III told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. But what does the administration want us to see if we wait? The Bush administration would like the key question to be: Are death squad killings going to dramatically increase? Yet this question misleads.

First, such activity is already high and growing. Americas Watch, a respected human rights organization, reports that killings increased 150 percent in the first 10 months of 1988. So if the government simply maintains the current levels (about 60 last year), the administration can argue that things are not getting worse.

Second, most death squad activity is not directly the responsibility of ARENA, but of the military. According to Amnesty International, such groups ``form an intrinsic part of the security apparatus.'' Thus the association of death squads with ARENA diverts attention from how the military - armed, trained, and financed by the Pentagon - is integrally involved in death squad activity.

Third, ARENA and the military could maintain or reduce current levels of death squad activity while refining other techniques for repression developed during the Duarte government. For example, there is daily repression of opposition groups, like the recent roundup of 70 members of union and refugee groups, the frequent abusive interrogation of union and peasant leaders, and the military disruption of strikes for higher wages.

There are the bribes and threats against judges who even consider prosecuting military officers. The first judge who began investigating the Sept. 10 massacre of 10 peasants by the military was forced to resign and go into hiding.

He has good reason to be afraid. In May 1988 Judge Jorge Alberto Serrano was killed while presiding over a case involving a kidnapping-for-profit ring run by rightist forces, including two former military officers. It was widely reported that he rejected bribery attempts to grant the men amnesty. Millions in United States aid has been poured into the judicial system in recent years in a failed effort to improve it.

There is also quasi-legal repression. The Salvadoran labor code, for example, deprives agricultural workers (more than half the country's work force) of the right to unionize, strike, or even obtain a collective contract. Many ARENA Party members would like new laws to allow suspects to be held for questioning for 15 days instead of the current 72 hours, thus increasing the chance of abuse and torture. In late April, Defense Minister Vides Casanova met with lawmakers to discuss legislation curbing organizations the military considers guerrilla fronts - a category that could easily be used against all opposition groups.

By focusing on death squad killings, we won't see what is really important: The other forms of repression and lack of reform, which even conservatives admit are the root causes of revolution. It would be far better for Congress to wait and really see - before giving the aid.

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