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Remember El Salvador? A Crisis Anew

February 08, 1987|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Morrow).

WASHINGTON — These are among the important events that occurred in Central America during the last week of January, emphasizing the endless and deepening contradictions tearing asunder the nations of the isthmus:

--Off the coast of Honduras, as eight Latin American foreign ministers and the secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States visited the region's capitals in search of peaceful solutions for Central America, the battleship Iowa steamed on maneuvers, firing its big 16-inch guns in an all-night demonstration of U.S. power. This was for the benefit of neighboring Nicaragua ruled by the Marxist Sandinistas, whom the United States hopes to oust.

--In Honduras, Frank C. Carlucci, President Reagan's new national security adviser, inspected contra guerrillas as part of a Central American familiarization tour (not including Nicaragua). U.S. Army units began the fifth year of nearly continuous maneuvers in Honduras, not far from the Nicaraguan border, as part of mounting psychological warfare in support of the contras .

--In Costa Rica, new President Oscar Arias cracked down on the contras based in his country, thereby eliminating the threat from the south against the Sandinista regime in Managua that President Reagan wishes to destroy. At the same time, Arias unveiled his own plans for regional peace.

--In El Salvador, the air force killed a score of villagers in bombing and strafing raids and Marxist rebels began executing peasants suspected of collaborating with the army. The seven-year civil war with leftist guerrillas acquired new momentum, with U.S.-supported centrist President Jose Napoleon Duarte the target of right-wing political campaigns aimed at paralyzing his promised social reforms.

As the week ended, the Latin American envoys concluded that no peaceful settlement in Central America was possible in the foreseeable future, in as much as neither Nicaragua nor the United States was prepared to compromise in the slightest. Washington also succeeded in antagonizing Latin American peace-plan sponsors when Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, described their proposals as "fake treaties" pushed "from the left" by Mexico and Peru.

But the dispute over Nicaragua, especially in the light of the scandal linking secret U.S. arms sales to Iran with illegal support for the contras , has tended to obscure rising pressures and tensions elsewhere in Central America.

By far the most important problem is presented by El Salvador, largely forgotten these days by the American public. There all signs point to a new period of acute crisis, almost inevitably requiring still greater U.S. engagement if even relative stability is to be attained.

Thanks to the investment of more than $1 billion in U.S. military and economic aid over the last six years and the training of Salvadoran troops in this country as well as at home, the government was able to prevent a leftist victory.

On the other hand, the Salvadoran armed forces have failed to defeat the guerrillas, and the war remains stalemated with all the attendant perils and costs. In recent months, in fact, the war has become even more vicious as the army launched "pacification" campaigns, including air raids against rebel-held zones; guerrillas have responded with peasant executions and the lethal use of land mines, often killing or maiming innocent civilians. The rebels also appear to be on the verge of launching an urban guerrilla movement to operate in conjunction with rural insurgent units.

Politically the Salvadoran deadlock is harder than ever. Duarte and guerrilla leaders held two peace-seeking meetings in 1984, but they led nowhere. A new encounter had been planned for last September--after a two-year lapse--but the rebels failed to turn up, alleging that that the army was springing a trap. Thus the war is escalating again.

On another level, the social and economic conditions that triggered the leftist rebellion in the first place have not been improved. Unemployment and underemployment stand at 50% of the labor force, inflation is rampant and the miserable Salvadoran living standards are further collapsing. Last autumn's catastrophic earthquake made matters still worse. And prisons are filling up again: There are now more than 1,000 political prisoners. Land reform and other changes promised by Duarte when he was elected in 1984, in what the Reagan Administration hailed as a great exercise in democracy in the midst of the war, have been blocked by right-wing political groups and their military allies.

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