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Despite tattered economy and ongoing war, Salvador's Duarte rides high for now

President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte is finishing his first year in office riding the crest of a wave, as one political observer puts it. Returning from a successful trip to the United States in which he claims he was promised even greater amounts of US aid, Duarte appears to be in the strongest position of his political career.

His Christian Democratic Party recently wrested control of the Constituent Assembly from the extreme rightist parties. Moreover, last week the Christian Democrats voted to remove the attorney general, a member of the ultra-right National Republican Alliance (ARENA) who had been appointed by the assembly last year.

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His removal, if upheld by the Supreme Court (itself still dominated by the rightist parties), theoretically could open the way for the prosecution of some of those involved in five high-profile killings by death squads or security forces that Duarte has promised to solve. Many judicial observers, however, remain skeptical that the military will allow prosecutions of Army officers.

Duarte's position has been strengthened by divisions within the rightist parties following their defeat in the March 31 Assembly elections. Some of ARENA's most important members and financial backers have left to form a new rightist party called Free Country.

ARENA's slightly more moderate ally in the last election, the Party of National Conciliation, seems ready to move closer to Mr. Duarte's Christian Democrats and will likely be offered posts in the government. At any rate, Duarte has little to fear in the near term from the political right since the next elections are three years off.

The economic right -- the extremely conservative Salvadoran private sector -- could be more of a problem in the short run. But, like the military, they're realizing that Duarte can deliver the goods.

Strangely, for a populist politician, President Duarte brags, in full-page newspaper ads, not about what he has done for his poor supporters, but about what he has done for his arch enemies -- the coffee growers.

They recently received a $1.6 million credit line sponsored by the US Agency for International Development. It remains to be seen whether this will encourage them to cease trying to ``privatize'' the Coffee Marketing Institute, nationalized in the economic reforms of 1980.

Nor is the left an immediate threat to Duarte. The war is stalemated, but this is a big improvement over a year and a half ago. For two years, the guerrillas had been mounting spectacular offensives, and there was some talk of an imminent guerrilla victory. Now the struggle has become a war of attrition, which the Salvadorean Army, backed by the US, appears well equipped to weather.

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Additionally, the rebels have suffered a run of bad luck. Nidia Diaz, a guerrilla comandante and one of their representatives at the La Palma peace talks, was captured along with what appeared to be the entire archives of her organization, the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers. The haul is giving military intelligence analysts a field day.

Another top guerrilla commander, Napolean Romero Garcia (also known as Miguel Castellanos), says he gave himself up under what are still somewhat mysterious circumstances.

Romero, who had headed the urban front of the Popular Forces of Liberation, reports that the guerrillas lack ammunition and are having trouble with recruitment. He also says the Army's stepped-up activity has had an impact on the guerrillas.

Yet, while Duarte is riding high at present, he faces serious long-term difficulties. The economy is still in shambles, kept alive by massive amounts of US aid.

Unemployment is officially put at 36 percent. But counting the underemployed -- the masses who find work only sporadically or spend their days on sidewalks trying to sell goods -- the figure rises to 60 percent. Many put it much higher than that.

Even for those with work, real wages have decreased 54 percent since 1979, according to a report published by the Jesuit-run Central American University.

A recent wave of strikes, while not massive, has shown that the pent-up desire for wage hikes to make up for the declining standard of living, as well the desire for greater union freedoms.

Despite Duarte's election promises to improve living conditions, his response to the unions has been to call for austerity, to break off negotiations with the striking social security workers, and to accuse the striking unions, some of which are led by leftists, of being controlled by subversives.

His unfulfilled promises and red-baiting of the striking unions have alienated even some of the centrist unions, which supported him in past elections.

And it all comes back to the war. While the war goes on, economic recovery will be virtually impossible, unless the guerrillas can be contained to their remote frontier strongholds.

Even in the best case, that would take years, despite the Army's improvements. In fact, the guerrillas are more dispersed throughout the country than ever before.

Peace remains El Salvador's most urgent need, but it isn't clear that Duarte has all the cards, or the desire, needed to enter into serious negotiations with the rebels. Neither the private sector, the Army, or the US favors a negotiated solution to the war.

So while President Duarte is probably at the height of his political career, he faces serious problems that won't be charmed away.

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