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El Salvador's latest junta totters

The large floral clock that greets the visitor driving in from San Salvador's airport tells the wrong time. Around its concrete base are scrawled the words, "Get the dogs out of government."

The scene suggests the mood in this strife-torn country. And for the junta installed just two weeks ago -- the second since October -- time already is running out.

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"They're even weaker than the junta formed in October," says Dr. Fabio Castillo, an opposition leader and former rector of the national university. "They have no support, either from the 'popular movement' or from the 'oligarchy' [the word used here to describe the tiny but all-powerful ruling families who control the economy], to whom they seem too radical.

"The faces have changed, but real power remains with the military, which represent the oligarchy," he adds.

Also remaining are the crises that led to the current impasse.

Back in October, following a bloodless coup staged by a group of reform-minded young military officers, some in the opposition thought change might be possible.

Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, whose election a president two years before was viewed by many to be the result of a fraud, had fled to Guatemala. The officers named a junta of three civilians and two military men to meet the public clamor for reform and to quell the social unrest that threated to explode into civil war.

But to prevent a dangerous split within the Army, the young officers compromised with the military's right wing and named a hardliner as minister of defense. Also, one of the civilian junta members had close ties to the prominent families, as did the ministers of justice and the economy.

By late December, it was evident that some of the promised reforms would be delayed, although the new government had raised salaries and wages and begun to take action on some longstanding economic and social problems. But charges of renewed repression were aired by opposition groups and internal squabbles within the new government were surfacing.

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The civilians on the junta, together with the Cabinet and other top officials , resigned en masse -- and the military scurried to reconstitute the joint civilian-military junta. It turned to the Christian Democrats, whose political base had been all but destroyed over the last decade, and a new junta was named Jan. 9.

"If history is anything to go by, the new junta is also doomed," says John McAward, director of the international program of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, remembering events in 1944 and 1967, when El Salvador's military rulers gave way to civilians, only to retake power several months later.

Now, however, the situation may be different. For the first time, the opposition has begun to band together, forming a national coordinating committee.This could spell trouble for the military.

For years, the generals repressed most forms of "respectable" opposition: In 1972, they took the election away from the Christian Democrat leader, Jose Napoleon Duarte, and began the dismemberment of the party.

Repression against all opposition intensified, with military action against teachers, students, peasants, workers, labor leaders, and clergy. In response, counterattacks by the leftist paramilitary groups mounted, which in turn sparked the creation of a right-wing group, many of whose 60,000 members were armed, to bolster the police.

The Roman Catholic Church also played a part. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, primate of San Salvador, strongly condemned the violations of human rights by the military. The military, in turn, began to criticize the church.

The Christian Democrats have come to government in this newest junta with an ambitious program calling for nationalizing the banks and foreign commerce and for massive land reforms. They believe that such a program will meet popular demands and avoid armed confrontation. But there are doubts the military and the prominent families will permit such a program.

And if the program does not get off the ground, increasingly large numbers of urban workers and rural laborers are likely to join with the militant leftist groups. Although many have reservations about the tactics of the leftists, there is a feeling of growing desperation here that makes the leftist movements more attractive.


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