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Proper purpose, wrong method

There is nothing wrong so far as I can see in Washington trying to keep Soviet influence out of Central America. One method used toward that end has also been proper, and apparently successful. Nicaragua was told that Washington would cut off aid unless it impounded shipments of arms in Nicaragua intended for the rebels in El Salvador. Secretary of State Alexander Haig says those shipments apparently have stopped.

But sending US guns to a regime without a formal, public request for guns would be a questionable practice which could turn a proper purpose into a procedural disaster.

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There are four top people in the revolutionary junta which is in control in the Capital, San Salvador. They are President Jose Napoleon Duarte, the civilian front man, Col. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and vice-president, Col. Jose Guillermo, minister of defense, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, commander of the National Guard.

The four have been interviewed by American and other foreign correspondents. They repeatedly have stated that their problem is economic and political rather than military, that they do not ask for more American weapons, and that they do not want US or other foreign soldiers coming into El Salvador to try to help them.

The documentary record which the State Department has sent to friendly countries in Western Europe and Latin America shows a flow of weaspons apparently from Vietnam through Cuba and Nicaragua to the rebels in El Salvador. But there is nothing in that published record to show that Washington has been asked or invited specifically to send guns or soldiers down there in opposition.

President Reagan on March 4 said what the US "is actually doing is at the request of a government." He did not mention weapons or military personnel in that statement.

The four junta leaders badly want, and have asked for, economic aid. But the State Department is asking Congress to vote more military aid.

During the liveliest phase of the cold war John Foster Dulles had a set of standards for judging whether the US would send aid to a country threatened by communist subversion. The first was that the government ask for help. Beyond that they should have control over a majority of the territory of the country, substantial popular support, and a reasonable chance of success. But the first requirement was that the aid be requested.

To send unrequested aid is to lose bargaining power with the person or group to which it is sent. In this case bargaining power is desirable.

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President Duarte seems to be a sincere reformer who would if he could lead El Salvador out of its oligarchical phase where some 300 families own most of the land and live off it in wealth while the rest of the population lives in poverty and on the edge of starvation.

The junta seemed headed in that reformist direction -- and officially it still is. But during 1980 six leading opposition leaders were murdered, so too was the Roman Catholic archbishop, a critic of the junta, three Catholic nuns, and several American civilian economists working on the land reform program. The killing was done by military units connected with the junta. Land reform is lagging.The representatives of the oligarchy seem to be regaining control of the junta.

If aid were sent only when requested and on condition of progress, toward reform and land redistribution, then there would be some chance of winning the bulk of the people over to the regime and setting up a long-term, reasonably democratic government. But if unrequested, unconditional aid is sent chances are that the junta will be recaptured by the ruling families and old habits revived. In that case moderate and reformist elements in the political community will go over to the rebels and the peasantry will tend to follow.

In that case, too, support would go to the rebels not only from Cuba, but also from Mexico, and from West European countries where sympathy is already more with the rebels than with the Duarte junta. The US once more would be stuck with supporting an unpopular military dictatorship which probably would be brought down sooner or later in a revolution supported by Moscow.

Giving unrequested and unconditional aid to a military tyranny is a good way to end up o n the losing side.

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