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US Holds to Old Habits in Salvador

RECENT events in El Salvador have made clear the Bush administration's lack of a serious commitment to a "new world order." The State Department is undermining United Nations efforts to broker a settlement between the guerrillas and the military. And any day now the White House could deal a further blow to democracy and UN diplomacy by releasing military aid frozen by Congress. Last fall, Congress withheld $42.5 million in military aid after the Salvadoran government failed to prosecute vigorously the military men responsible for killing six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in November 1989. But there was a sound strategic, not simply punitive, logic behind the aid cuts.

Two major obstacles to peace in El Salvador are the military's refusal to create conditions that would make real democracy possible (respect for human rights, independent courts, freedom of the press) and a refusal to seriously negotiate an end to the war. The key problem is the basic character of the military.

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The military has committed thousands of murders in the last decade to intimidate and suppress legitimate political opposition. No military officer has ever been punished, because the military high command is integrally involved in giving the orders, covering up the crimes, and obstructing investigations.

Not surprisingly, the guerrilla forces will not accept a negotiated solution to the war without a restructuring of the military, and the rule of law backed by a functioning judicial system.

Last November United Nations mediator Alvaro de Soto drafted a working document to help break the stalemated negotiations. The proposal included a major reduction in the size of the military and a mechanism for purging officers involved in human rights violations.

By December there were signs that the army was chastened by the failures of its fall offensives against the guerrillas, the success of guerrilla offensives, and the cut-off of US aid. The high command was seriously considering the UN proposals and was close to signing a cease-fire agreement with the guerrillas. Further, the pre-electoral political atmosphere was open enough that parties in the leftist Democratic Convergence as well as the Christian Democrats were willing to enter the campaign for Assemb ly seats in an effort to wrest the majority from the right wing Arena party.

Signals from the Bush administration then helped push things in a negative direction. In December, the administration expedited the release of more than $48 million in previously allocated military aid. On Jan. 15, the White House said it would release an additional $42.5 million frozen by Congress - but delay the release for up to 60 days to see if the UN-brokered negotiations made progress.

The signal to the military couldn't have been clearer. "We're satisfied ... the vote of confidence Congress had taken away from the armed forces has been restored," said military spokesman Lt. Col. Mauricio Chavez Caceres. The military hardened its negotiation position, moving away from the UN's restructuring and cease-fire proposals.

THE March 10 National Assembly elections demonstrated substantive gains for the Democratic Convergence, who may have gained 12 to 15 percent of the vote as compared to 3.8 percent two years ago. Their call for a negotiated solution to the war is shared by the the Christian Democrats who finished second, but together these opposition parties still lack the votes to challenge the rightist majority held by Arena in the Assembly. The elections have thus given the opposition a platform to press for negotiati ons - but the next move is really up to the army.

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Unfortunately, the army's pre-election behavior worsened after the US announced its willingness to release the frozen aid. On January 21, 15 villagers were murdered in El Zapote. "All the evidence collected in the case leads us to point exclusively to members of the [military's] First Infantry Brigade," reported the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office. In February, the presses of the opposition newspaper Diario Latino were destroyed, most likely by the army.

Soon after offices of the Social Democratic opposition party were bombed by a grenade, and opposition candidates and supporters were intimidated by security forces who ransacked offices.

On Capital Hill 35 senators and 116 representatives signed letters protesting the administration's plans to actually release the $42.5 million - an action that will signal the military that it need pay no costs for its intransigence at the negotiating table and its violence against democracy. But there seems little evidence that the administration is able to break out of old cold war thinking and forge a new policy based on the realities of El Salvador. For the Salvadorans the new world order must look very much like the old.

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