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Salvadoran Leftist Leader Bets His Life on Return Home

September 20, 1987|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The stakes in Ruben Zamora's political gamble are as high as they come: life or death.

An exiled social democrat allied with El Salvador's armed guerrillas, Zamora has decided to return home to the country he fled eight years ago after his brother was killed by a right-wing death squad.

Zamora, 45, says he will go back to El Salvador before the Nov. 7 date set in a regional peace plan for cease-fires, amnesty programs and democratic reforms in the Central American countries at war. But he says he will not ask the government for amnesty, or renounce his alliance with the Marxist-led guerrillas as President Jose Napoleon Duarte has warned he must do to enter the country.

"Why should I ask for amnesty if I am not armed?" Zamora asked rhetorically in an interview. "I have not been charged with anything. If Duarte thinks I carried out terrorist acts, then he should charge me, but he cannot decide with whom I make alliances."

Although rightist political killings have fallen dramatically in number since the night in February, 1980, when Zamora's brother, Mario, was machine-gunned at home, they still occur with enough frequency to make Zamora's decision a potentially dangerous one.

Test of Democratic Limits

With the scheduled return of one of its ablest and most visible leaders, the exiled left clearly wants to test the democratic limits of Duarte's U.S.-backed government at a time when world attention is focused on Central America.

Zamora is secretary general of the small Popular Social Christian Movement, which broke away from Duarte's Christian Democratic Party in 1980 to protest the party's participation in the government while thousands of union, church, student and political party activists were being killed by death squads.

For the last 18 months, Zamora's party has been quietly sending activists back into El Salvador, but they work in a kind of surreal, political limbo. They have an office but no sign and will speak to the press but never for attribution. They are organizing illegally but have attended diplomatic functions at which Salvadoran and U.S. officials were also present.

"There is a lot of surrealism in our situation, schizophrenia, even. But that is because there is a terrible gap between (the government's) propaganda and reality. We all have one foot in the war and one foot in the system. The question is how to resolve this," Zamora said.

Zamora's public return to El Salvador may be a start.

'Form, Not Substance'

Like the rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, Zamora contends Duarte has created "the form but not the substance" of democracy in El Salvador.

He said that trade unions and leftist politicians still cannot organize freely in the country without fear of being jailed or killed and that the country is run largely by the armed forces and the U.S. government, which supports El Salvador with about $700 million a year.

The return of Zamora would be a mixed blessing for the Duarte government. It would lend support to the president's declared position that political freedom and democracy exist in El Salvador. But at the same time, Zamora, an able politician, would probably draw dissatisfied peasants, workers and the unemployed away from the Christian Democratic Party, which has been unable to fulfill election promises of peace and prosperity.

The latter possibility may be the reason the ultra-rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance says it does not oppose Zamora's return to El Salvador. The party, whose leader Roberto D'Aubuisson has long been accused of having ties to death squads, hopes to break a Christian Democratic majority in the National Assembly during elections next year.

One potential danger for Zamora is that if he were to be killed, no matter who was blamed, the result would also be a severe political blow for Duarte.

Some U.S. and other Western diplomats analyze Zamora's impending return as a split between the political exiles and the guerrillas, and have suggested a threat to Zamora could come from the radical left rather than the far right.

It is a notion that Zamora and the guerrillas flatly reject.

"I am not worried the left will kill me," Zamora said. "They are not crazy, and there is no internal dispute. What worries me is when the U.S. Embassy begins to say this. Then it can be used as an excuse."

One U.S. official in El Salvador suggested that Zamora may act as a front for the guerrillas--an idea that the armed forces might also harbor.

Zamora's Popular Social Christians and a number of other exiled political, trade union and civic organization leaders make up the Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has functioned as a kind of civilian, political arm of the Farabundo Marti guerrilla front.

The Democratic Front's leaders say that such "democratic openings" as now exist in El Salvador have come about through the guerrillas' military pressure.

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