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Testing Reagan on El Salvador

The level of United States military and economic aid to El Salvador depends on President Reagan's periodic certification of progress in land reform and human rights there.

The next certification, due Wednesday, must be credible or risk congressional threats to at least $100 million in aid requested for fiscal 1983.

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To be credible the certification will have to take candid account of continued human rights violations by El Salvador's right-wing regime - including new reports of police torture - while seeking to make a case for overall progress.

Perhaps most credible would be a delay in certification in view of current severe questions about rights and land reform. Thus military aid would automatically be suspended, sending a message to El Salvador - and to Congress - that the US is serious about the matter. Quick progress by the Salvadoran rulers could bring quick progress on United States certification.

As it is, last spring the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reacted to land reform setbacks by voting against the abovementioned $100 million, leaving 1983 aid at the '82 level of $66 million. Some members of Congress would cut all aid until satisfied that it is not simply propping up a repressive regime. But it is unlikely that the $66 million - $40 million in economic aid, $26 million in military - would be eliminated even if Congress has doubts about a Reagan certification. Such a freeze at the '82 level would be an irritant for El Salvador's rulers but hardly enough of a penalty - or enough of a reward - to move them .

What would be enough to move them?

Perhaps only a realization that the US administration and Congress are united in refusing to give a blank check to either political or economic repression. By submitting to Congress a credible report on El Salvador the President can foster the unity to determine - and to do - what is best for the people of El Salvador.

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