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LATIN AMERICA : For First Time in Years, U.S. Staying Out of Salvador Vote


SAN SALVADOR — For years, the United States has acted as a major player, for good or for bad, in the political events of El Salvador. Washington blessed presidential candidates, blocked others. It poured billions of dollars into El Salvador, sustaining governments and fattening an abusive army. It helped pay for a civil war against leftist guerrillas.

Today, as more than 2 million Salvadorans prepare to vote in their first open, peacetime elections in decades, leaders on both the left and the right say the United States appears to have retreated to the sidelines.

"This is the first election in many, many years in which the government of the United States will not have a candidate to support, nor a candidate to sink," said Ruben Zamora, who is running for president at the head of a leftist coalition that includes the former guerrillas.

One explanation is an Administration less focused on Latin America, now that the Cold War and the perceived threat of communism have ended.

But another explanation, diplomats and politicians say, is that the political center--which U.S. governments worked for years to fortify--has disintegrated. The two leading candidacies in Sunday's election represent El Salvador's extremes: guerrillas whom the United States fought for 12 years, and the right-wing government, whose party is widely associated with death squads that killed thousands of students, leftists, union workers and peasants during the 1980s.

"The U.S. Embassy is maintaining a presence that is much more discreet," a Latin American diplomat said. "They've decided it's better to step back and let it be. And that's good, because there is a lot of resentment still toward the United States."

This neutrality represents a drastic change. In the 1984 presidential elections, for example, the CIA spent millions of dollars to bolster the candidacy of Jose Napoleon Duarte of the centrist Christian Democrats. With U.S. help, Duarte defeated Roberto D'Aubuisson, the reputed death squad founder who is widely believed to have ordered the 1980 murder of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero.

For this election, U.S. officials here were said to have favored the candidacy of a centrist businessman who would give a moderate face to the ruling right-wing party, or who would rally a coalition of center-left parties in which the influence of the guerrillas would be diluted. Neither plan worked.

The ruling party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, instead backed one of its own hard-line members, Armando Calderon Sol. In U.S. government documents declassified late last year, Calderon Sol was linked to a kidnaping plot hatched by a right-wing paramilitary group. Calderon Sol was closely associated with D'Aubuisson, who died two years ago, and several of Calderon Sol's closest advisers are reputed to have helped organize death squads.

Privately, U.S. officials told Zamora that as long as he hewed to free-market economic policies and stayed away from Marxism, they would not oppose his candidacy, according to a well-placed source in the campaign.

As for Arena, U.S. officials also appear to be keeping their distance. They believe that some members have moved toward the center, diplomatic sources said, but they are not yet sure Calderon Sol is one of them.

Publicly, the United States, which has slashed aid to a fraction of what it was during the 1980s, is declaring neutrality and focusing on support for the troubled electoral process, providing $1.5 million for voter registration and similar projects.

"We look forward to working with whatever government (Salvadorans) freely elect to complete the task of national reconstruction," Brian Atwood, the director of the Agency for International Development, told the National Assembly last month.

Some former rebels still find it hard to believe the United States is keeping hands off or will be able to accept its onetime enemies as governors.

"There are a lot of people who are still very afraid of us," said Ana Guadalupe Martinez, former rebel leader and a candidate for congress.

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