ON Capitol Hill, a new political center has emerged in the debate on military aid to El Salvador. It is a bipartisan center that sees continued and unpunished human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military, an ended cold war, a resurgent United Nations, and a crippling United States budget deficit.
And it is a center that, because of these factors, has presented a new reality to the Bush administration in its Salvador policy: a halving of the US's $85 million military allotment for El Salvador, the first such cut in the US's 10-year, $4 billion investment in that country.
The flashpoint that ultimately led the Senate to vote Oct. 19 for the cut was the murder last November of six Jesuit priests, allegedly committed by military men and as yet unpunished. The State Department's top official on Latin America, Bernard Aronson, himself wrote recently that it was the military that committed the crime, calling it an ``atrocity [that] has rightly become a turning point for US policy. Either justice will be done or military aid will be cut.''
But in interviews on Capitol Hill, a variety of reasons came up among Republicans who surprised both sides of the aisle by voting for the so-called Dodd-Leahy amendment, proposed by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, to withhold aid. The amendment passed by a healthier margin than expected, 74 to 25. Further, they voted against the administration's proposed change to that measure, which tied aid to a cease-fire in El Salvador's civil war.
Finding a political solution
Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri ``reviewed at some length with the greatest possible care the Dodd-Leahy proposal,'' says Steve Hilton, the senator's press secretary.
``He made the judgment, first, that concern presented in the past by the communist threat has been dramatically changed by events in the Soviet Union and, second, that the approach encouraged both sides to find a political solution within the UN framework.''
The conservative Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia voted for Dodd-Leahy, says aide Grayson Winterling, because it may help Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani ``get control of the military'' in its war against leftist guerrillas.
``We certainly aren't communist sympathizers, but progress has been so slow in reforming the Salvadoran military. And we've been getting a lot of mail from knowledgeable constituents who wonder, with the need to make big budget cuts, whether this aid is worth it,'' Mr. Winterling says.
The administration's proposed change, offered by several Republican senators, ``would have gutted Dodd-Leahy and taken the UN out of the picture,'' Winterling adds. Critics of that proposal, which the Senate defeated 58 to 39, say it would have restored the military aid if the guerrillas did not agree within 60 days to a cease-fire, even one proclaimed by the Salvadoran government unilaterally. Military aid as a stick
The Dodd-Leahy amendment calls for the aid to be restored if the rebels walk out of the UN-sponsored peace talks. If the government walks out, all the aid would be cut.
Administration officials complain that Dodd-Leahy puts an uneven amount of pressure on the Salvadoran government, and hint it may spur a veto of the $15.5 billion foreign-aid bill of which it is a part. Before that, the Senate and House versions must be reconciled. The House measure to cut military aid to El Salvador was passed last June.
Meanwhile, the UN peace talks have stalled over the issue of military reform. But with the Senate vote now in, the calculus has changed for the next round, scheduled for Nov. 4 in Mexico.
A desire to protect the UN as a viable forum for settling disputes came up in discussion at the office of another Republican senator who voted for Dodd-Leahy. ``Given the situation in the Persian Gulf, and the importance of the UN in keeping world opinion together, we didn't want to undermine the UN,'' says the senator's foreign policy aide, speaking on background. The aide also felt that the Dodd-Leahy amendment came close to what the administration wanted anyway, and that it left room for the president to make ongoing assessments and foreign policy decisions. Continued rights abuses
But the bottom line for US policy in El Salvador is that, after 10 years of close involvement and efforts to spur reform, the Salvadoran military is still getting a bad report card on human rights. In a report released Oct. 23, Amnesty International expresses alarm over a rise in killings by death squads believed to be linked to the military.
``Death squads reportedly killed at least 45 people from January to August this year - more than double the figure for the same period last year,'' the human-rights organization says.
The US government does not deny continuing problems with abuses by the Salvadoran military, but argues that not enough attention is paid to human-rights violations committed by the rebels.