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Remember El Salvador? Two months ago Reagan administration officials indicated -- with some fanfare -- that they were drawing the line against Soviet expansionism in that small Central American country.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. subsequently asserted that the Soviet Union had a "hit list" for the takeover of Central America. First on the list came Nicaragua, Mr. Haig said. Then, in his view, the Soviets moved on to target No. 2, El Salvador. Next, according to the secretary, would come Honduras and finally the prize, Guatemala, which abuts Mexico, the world's fifth-largest oil-producing nation.

All this seemed designed in part to let not only the Soviets but also the rest of the world know that the United States had overcome the self-doubt that it had suffered from the fall of South Vietnam.

But administration officials have said little about the thorny subject of El Salvador lately. In fact, it merited only one line in Secretary Haig's lengthy major speech to American newspaper editors on April 24.

It turns out that some of America's allies have been less than enthusiastic about the hard-line rhetoric that emanated from Washington. The American public has been more sharply divided over the El Salvador issue than the Reagan administration expected. Congressional opposition to the US military aid program for El Salvador has been stronger than was anticipated. In some places, the "Vietnam syndrome" still lives.

The administration built its case for sending military aid and advisers to El Salvador on the grounds that "massive" Soviet and Cuban assistance to the Salvadoran guerrillas had to be countered. It might soon start building a similar case for aiding Guatemala.

After spending nearly a month in Central America, a reporter returns with the impression that Cuban involvements is an important factor in the regional equation but that repression and economic injustices are decidedly more important in the creation of the insurgencies. Indeed it can be argued that the terror perpetuated through "hit lists" carried by members of certain government security services in Guatemala and El Salvador may be responsible for creating more guerrillas than the Cubans have.


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