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Is democracy really taking root in El Salvador?

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President Reagan's confident assertion this week that there has been significant progress on human rights in El Salvador may have presented a rosier picture than is actually warranted.

But there is considerable evidence that the current Salvadorean government has, to some extent, cleaned up its act on the rights front.

That appears to be true in San Salvador, the capital, and in other metropolitan areas - in short, the cities. In the countryside, however, the record is less encouraging. There, the repression of innocent civilians continues without visible letup.

The Roman Catholic Church's office of legal oversight in San Salvador, which tallies ''murders of civilian noncombatants by security forces,'' says that 1, 296 Salvadorean civilians were killed in the first three months of 1983 - 430 in January, 537 in February, 329 in March.

Still, in the view of numerous observers, the government of provisional President Alvaro Alfredo Magana Borja has responded positively, albeit with limitations, to the entreaties of the Reagan administration on human-rights issues. This was one of the hopeful factors to which President Reagan alluded in his major policy address on Central America to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night.

Yet many careful observers of the Salvadorean scene make clear that the United States cannot be truly satisfied with the Salvadorean attitude and performance on human-rights issues - even given the limited improvement evident in recent months.

President Reagan, moreover, took a much more confident note on the whole Salvadorean situation than may be justified, say many specialists, including people within the administration. His assertion that ''democracy is beginning to take root in El Salvador'' is premature, they say.

On land reform, for example, the President indicated there has been considerable progress in reaching the goals of the program. In three years, he said, 20 percent of El Salvador's land has been redistributed to more that 450, 000 persons - 1 in 10 in the Salvadorean population.

But the land reform record may not be so good. Critics challenge the President on his figures. Exact numbers are hard to ascertain. It would appear, moreover, that land reform analysts in El Salvador's government are less optimistic than President Reagan on this front.


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