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SECOND OPINIONS : Cutting Aid to El Salvador Will Backfire Worldwide : Since peace accords ending the 12-year civil war, monetary help from the U.S. has been put to good use and has made a real difference to former rebels.

December 17, 1995|MARVIN DREYER | Marvin Dreyer has been a personal service contractor for the United States Agency for International Development mission in El Salvador since 1989. He is a resident of North Hollywood. For this column, he has changed the names of the individuals he writes about to protect their privacy

SAN SALVADOR — I left the city at dawn and had driven through the sleepy village nestled at the base of the northern mountains by about 9 a.m. I was now maneuvering the Jeep up a narrow mud road in the lush Central American mountains. You see, I work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and I do so because I honestly feel that the efforts of the agency make a difference around the world and, as a result, for us at home.

I stopped at a United Nations checkpoint and explained the purpose of my visit to the rebel forces in the area. I told them I wanted to discuss social and economic reinsertion activities with the rebel commander. You know, reinsertion activities: what the rebels were going to do for a living after the war, and how USAID might assist them in the process.

About a mile past the checkpoint, the road became too steep and slippery even for the 4x4. I set out on foot, up the muddy, boulder-strewn roadbed. After about an hour of walking, the trees closed in around me and the mud was even deeper than where the sun had an early morning's chance to dry it. That's when I came to a large clearing with single-story wooden barracks and thatched Salvadoran-style huts, all canopied by the high branches of the dense forest.

There must have been about 500 FMLN--Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front-- rebels, men and women, most all dressed in military fatigues. I was greeted by the second in command, accompanied to higher ground and offered a fallen tree trunk as a seat.

The rebel commander soon appeared, a young man in his mid-20s. We discussed what those at this enclave might want to do, now that the war was over, and how USAID might assist them to re-integrate into Salvadoran society.

My visit occurred in mid-1992, just months after the signing of the peace accords that celebrated the ending of El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

A couple of months later, I stood in the streets of the capital city as a large group of the rebel forces, many of whom had spent years in the mountains, stood on line to receive household starter kits: a kitchen table and chairs, bed frames, linens, a two-burner gas stove and other odds and ends. The distribution went smoothly.

Sometime later, I strolled through a new village, recently built deep in what had once been an area of the country that had been in heavy conflict. I was there to consult with community leaders about the improvement of the access road and how to creatively provide them with potable water. I smiled to myself as I noticed that almost every front porch had that same kitchenette set distributed in the city.

Another day, as I visited one of the many vocational training centers contracted to assist in the re-integration effort, I was surprised and happy to see ex-combatant women taking advantage of the courses too; some even in the masonry course and others in the automotive training.

I have also traveled to villages to see how the ex-soldiers are doing since they received loans to start up small businesses. Felipe was in the Salvadoran infantry. Since he's demobilized he has opened a small appliance repair center. He beamed as he stood behind the shiny aluminum framed display case in the newly painted front room of his house converted into a shop. He could barely restrain his pride as he introduced the new helper he had recently hired.

On another trip I met Marta. She once cooked for the rebel forces. She used her loan to put up a large thatched porch in front of her humble roadside house and bought picnic tables and benches. She now sells hot lunches to the truckers driving to the northern border.

I met Julio, an ex-combatant scholarship recipient, at a student grievance committee meeting. He is bright and articulate; he will graduate as a civil engineer in two more years, thanks to USAID's program here.

Just last summer, I visited Sergio on his new land. He and his ex-combatant neighbors benefited from the land distribution program. He proudly led me through his black-eyed pea field, where he applied the technology that U.S. consultants had shared with him. The organization had also assisted in linking the community of ex-combatants with a U.S. buyer for their crops. Close to his hut, Sergio's second crop of pepper seedlings dotted the moist earth in orderly rows. He and his neighbor would again sell their entire pepper harvest to a local salsa bottling company. These are good people doing good things.

I'm not a diplomat, nor am I an economist; just a project advisor who works for USAID. I think we all agree that the U.S. government must balance the national budget. However, at least from what I've seen, the USAID program in El Salvador has been a key contributor to the present peace, a peace that impacts upon us in the United States.

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