A Vote Against Violence Needed for El Salvador

Washington should maintain pressure until Salvadorans are assured a democratic election

IN recent weeks, prospects for El Salvador adhering to its January 1992, United Nations-mediated peace agreement have been fast evaporating.

In Washington, the Clinton administration released deeply disturbing documents concerning United States policy toward El Salvador during the Reagan-Bush era. They highlight the White House's detailed knowledge at the time of the full range of the Salvadoran government's involvement in the use of right-wing death squads.

The violence has not ended. Two high-level Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) officials and three other party members recently have been murdered in what are widely considered politically motivated killings carried out by the resurgent death squads. A total of 25 FMLN members have been killed since the signing of the peace accords. Meanwhile, the nation's Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has proved inept in its effort to enroll voters; approximately 676,000 Salvadorans remain unregistered.

Some of the more than 12,000 documents released by the US State and Defense Departments and the Central Intelligence Agency link current Vice President Francisco Merino Lopez to the financing of the deadly paramilitary organizations. Although it has not been conclusively proved by the records, the presidential candidate of the governing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), Armando Calderon Sol, also was tied to wartime death-squad operations through the uncovering of a politically inspired kidnapping plot hatched from his home.

El Salvador's state of security has become so perilous that UN Undersecretary-General Marrack Goulding made a week-long visit to the country to investigate the murders and monitor the government's compliance with the peace accords that he helped negotiate. The reemergence of death squads threatens the March elections, which have been hailed as one of the UN's few bona fide achievements in peacekeeping.

Although the Salvadoran government has condemned the recent murders, President Alfredo Cristiani is unwilling to confront the fact that the death squads are making it impossible for the FMLN, now a civilian political party, to campaign.

Government officials have dismissed the killings as ``isolated incidents'' performed by common criminals. Mr. Cristiani responded to the documents linking former leaders of his party to the death squads as a ``vehicle for an unscrupulous campaign'' against his administration.

If the return to the days of widespread, politically motivated violence is not immediately arrested, the entire peace process could be jeopardized, as it is only a matter of time before hard-liners among the former guerrillas will retaliate against the death squads and their backers.

The March elections are also threatened by the government's refusal to extend the Dec. 20 deadline for processing voter registration applications. In May, the UN estimated that 786,000 Salvadoran citizens remained unregistered. Since then, the TSE's meager efforts have resulted in the processing of approximately 200,000 applications, with the tribunal actually issuing only 170,000 voter identification cards.

IF the processing deadline is not extended, the majority of hopeful voters will be unable to participate in the balloting. Although officially independent of the executive branch, most of the TSE's staff belongs to ARENA, prompting criticism that the government is purposefully slowing registration to ensure Mr. Calderon Sol's victory.

The release of the El Salvador documents should prompt the Clinton administration to speak out against the sordid past role of the US in El Salvador. US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson should display as much vehemence regarding the antics of the Salvadoran government as the administration lavished on the much more minor sins of the Chamorro government in Nicaragua. The White House should demand that Cristiani fully investigate the resurgence of death squads. Washington must no longer propagate, as did Mr. Watson's predecessors, the myth that the human rights abuses never happened or that the State Department is powerless to end them. If the voter registration campaign is not extended, Washington should also be prepared to pressure Cristiani.

Washington's opportunity lies in $55 million in economic support funds that were previously frozen by Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, because of the TSE's registration failures. Disbursement of the funds is delayed while the subcommittee reconsiders the issue. This aid should not be restored until local authorities show that they are sincere about keeping the peace process on track. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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