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Salvador land reform -- and the union that backs it -- in trouble

The United States-sponsored land reform program in El Salvador could be seeing its last days. Always opposed by the nation's large landowners - most of whom would lose their farms to peasant cooperatives under the program - land reform may in effect be demolished as the Constituent Assembly votes on its future this week or next.

The US has viewed land reform as one of the key elements of social and economic progress in this impoverished country - and the US-backed Popular Democratic Union (UPD), a federation of farmworkers, has emerged as the main defender of the program in the assembly and in the streets of this capital city.

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The union is heavily lobbying the nation's legislators, and last week held a march involving 25,000 pro-land-reform demonstrators. But it is not expected to sway rightist legislators allied with the landowners - and the federation's efforts may in fact jeopardize its own future.

At this time, UPD is perhaps the only union allowed to function relatively freely. Other unions have been outlawed or their activities severely curbed. Many of their leaders are in jail or have mysteriously disappeared. The special status granted to UPD comes in part because it has advocated working with the government. The nation's other unions generally call for the removal of the military from its pervasive role in the affairs of the country, say Salvadorean labor leaders.

Now UPD is feeling the heat of the rightist opposition. One UPD leader, Jorge Comacho, has seen his car bombed and reportedly narrowly escaped being kidnapped last week. He now is surrounded with bodyguards. Members of coopera-tives also have been harassed - by violence and sometimes by local army commanders seeking tribute payments, say UPD members.

The future of land reform is being fought in the Constituent Assembly's debate over the nation's proposed constitution. Three articles of the draft document are vaguely worded and could cripple or destroy the land program. At this point, the assembly appears deadlocked over the proposals, with 30 members, led by the rightist National Republican Alliance (ARENA), wanting to quash the program, and another 30, led by the Christian Democrats, fighting to save it.

The reform, in large part designed by US labor advisers, was initiated here in March 1980. It has redistributed 20 percent of the country's land among some 83,000 families. But the program can be said to be only partially effective.

Many of those who rent the redistributed land have not applied for ownership, fearing reprisals by large landowners, labor advisers say. Others on the redistributed land have been unable to farm the land because of the fighting between El Salvador's Army and guerrillas.

The reform program has long infuriated the ultra-right here, and was targeted for destruction by ARENA when it gained control of the Constituent Assembly in March 1982. ARENA has limited the effectiveness of the program by its control over the line of credit and administration of the cooperatives on the redistributed land. Members in the coopera-tives complain of a shortage of capital and basic agricultural supplies.

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The US hopes the UPD, which claims it represents some 60,000 members, can counter ARENA. But few political observers here believe UPD will succeed.

The labor federation primarily represents those laborers who work on cooperatives set up by the government. It is viewed as a legitimate voice of farmworkers, but is ostracized by the nation's other independent unions, which claim it is bankrolled by the US.

The UPD is strongly supported by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) which has worked since 1962 in Latin America promoting labor unions that are deemed anticommunist. AIFLD was created with financial support from the Agency for International Development, the State Department, ITT, Exxon, Shell, IBM, Koppers, Gillette, and some 85 other large corporations with interests in Latin America.

Despite AIFLD's US-government and corporate ties, it is viewed as ''a liberalizing'' influence by the oligarchy here. In 1981 two AIFLD officials, Michael P. Hammer and Mark B. Pearlman, along with Jose Rodolfo Viera, the Salvadorean official in charge of land reform, were assassinated in the coffee shop of the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador.

As the vote on the articles comes before the Constitutent Assembly, the death squads, which are always busy here, have gone public with their displeasure at the program. Mutilated corpses have appeared around the city in the last few weeks with communiques stuffed into the pockets and often mouths of the victims. These communiques range from threats against Christian Democratic deputies who support the reform to the declaration of ''a state of emergency'' because of government dialogue with the guerrillas.

''AIFLD is playing a very dangerous game,'' a Salvadorean political analyst says. ''They attempted to alleviate some of the tension by creating a crevice for social discontent. This, however, is an airtight society which rarely tolerates even a modicum of dissent.''

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