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Salvador's Morales Ehrlich: Can the middle hold?

The balding man who is protected by half a dozen guards carrying submachine guns has what looks like an impossible job. Jose Antonio Morales Ehrlich, one of two civilians in El Salvador's ruling four-man junta, is in charge of a major land reform program that appears to be running out of money -- and steam.

Morales Ehrlich and his old comrade from the Christian Democratic Party, Jose Napoleon Duarte, now El Salvador's President, joined the government 14 months ago on the understanding that the country's armed force would respect human rights. Dr. Morales Ehrlich admits that trying to enforce that understanding has been no easy task.

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He does not contest allegations that the death squads that continue to assassinate by the hundreds unarmed left-wing suspects and their families have links with some elements of the armed force. He bemoans the difficulty of trying to "educate" soldiers, policemen, and paramilitary fighters to be respectful of human rights, including the basic right to life, in the midst of a war.

On top of all this, Morales Ehrlich has family problems. Some time ago, his two sons joined the left-wing guerrillas who are fighting his government. One of them was captured last year and is imprisoned at Santa Tecla, just west of the capital city of San Salvador. He hears indirectly that the other son is currently outside the country and therefore perhaps safe from harm for the moment.

Guerrillas captured a number of others in Morales Erlich's family -- including a daughter -- during the left's "final offensive" last January. After a few hours' detention and a counterattack by the government National Guard, they were released unharmed.

More recently, someone planted a bomb in the home of Morales Ehrlich's father-in-law. The bomb destroyed much of the house and shattered a piano that his sister-in-law had been playing moments earlier. Miraculously, no one was injured. Morales Ehrlich thinks that right-wing extremists were responsible.

A lawyer and politician by profession, Morales Ehrlich is calm, precise, unhurried. He is patient with a visitor who speaks basic Spanish and asks basic questions about agrarian reform, questions that the junta member with the high forehead has probably answered hundreds of times. He draws neat diagrams in a manner that would please the most Cartesian of Frenchmen. He lists numerous problems facing the agrarian reform program but argues that it is working so far. He denies the contention that his Christian Democratic Party is so divided that he and President Duarte represent one of its smallest factions.

"It's not true," says Morales Ehrlich. "Those who say that tend to be university professors with no idea what the real world is like. . . . I'm a politician. I have to deal with things as they are."

He and Duarte are from a privileged, middle-class background, Morales Ehrlich says, but as politicans they worked their way up from the bottom.

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One of the most fascinating experiences of his life, Morales Ehrlich says, was acting as Duarte's defense lawyer when Duarte was put on trial by the military. In 1972, Duarte was driven into seven years of exile. His crime, it seems, was to have won a presidential election at the head of a coalition that included left-wing elements -- among them, communists.

According to Morales Ehrlich, the military beat Duarte badly at that time. He said they smashed Duarte's cheekbones and damaged one of his eyes. Now he and Duarte are trying to work with some of those same military men, looking, as Morales Ehrlich puts it, for officers who are "serious."

Because he and Duarte have made an accommodation with the military, some of the former colleagues of the two in the Christian Democratic Party have denounced them as "opportunists." The critics are particularly harsh when it comes to the continuing assassinations of Christian Democrats. Losses in the party have been high, and most of them have been attributed to right-wing death squads linked with some elements of the government's security forces.

According to Morales Ehrlich, the death squads include many noncommissioned officers -- sergeants, for example. They are not well educated, he says, and when they kill unarmed civilians, "They really think they're killing communists."

The left is killing a lot of people, too, says Morales Ehrlich. In some cases, he says, the left has attacked families of the government security forces. Then, he said, the security forces looked for revenge.

"A lot of Salvadorans and North Americans are a bit [naive] in their view of this," says Morales Ehrlich. "They think that the problems of this country can be resolved in a week."

"We have to change the way of thinking of the military," he says. "That's where the problem begins. . . . But it's difficult to educate a soldier in the midst of war. It's better to have peace for that."

But Morales Ehrlich contends that the junta is consolidating its control over the situation.

"The extreme right hasn't been able to stop the process of reform," he says. "And the extreme left doesn't have enough popular support."

How does he explain the fact that two of his sons went over to the left and have fought with the guerrillas?

Jesuit priests, some of whom sympathize with the guerrillas, educated his sons in a way that led to Marxism, he said. And much of their education took place in a time of confusion in El Salvador when he himself was in exile in Costa Rica. Morales Ehrlich said that despite all this, he gets along with the son who is now serving a three-year prison sentence and visits him regularly.

"My son is a Marxist," he says. "But we respect each other. We can discuss things. . . . And my son now recognizes that the failure of the final offensive hurt the guerrillas very badly."

He adds with a smile that his two daughters are Christian Democrats.

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