Rebels Thrive in Rural El Salvador. CULTIVATING PEASANT SUPPORT

Article excerpt

JUST hours after leading a rebel attack on a Salvadoran Army unit in the hills above this village, Comandante "Antolin" strolls into town as if returning from a day at the office.

The hills are still smoldering from the Army's barrage of helicopter gunfire. Children continue gathering the fallen shell casings, whistling into them like empty Coke bottles. And fresh Army troops are expected to pass by the settlement in a few hours.

But Antolin, the top regional commander of the leftist Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) - feels safe and sound in Santa Marta.

Freshly shaven and sporting a yellow Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, the 37-year-old guerrilla leader settles in for a long candlelit interview. He doesn't mind being in plain view of the villagers who have resettled here after fleeing Army bombing raids in 1981.

"I've been able to show these people that I'm not their enemy," says Antol'in, explaining how he can venture here without bodyguards - and how he thinks the FMLN can gain the upper hand in its nine- year war against the United States-funded Army.

"The force of the FMLN resides in the people," says the urbane revolutionary, a university graduate who first became involved in clandestine leftist groups 21 years ago. He notes that the guerrillas have reestablished themselves in the Cabanas Department (province) over the past year and a half. "If the revolutionary message reaches people's hearts because it describes a situation that they feel and experience, then there is no power in the world that can stop them."

So far, not even the 60,000-strong Salvadoran Army - flush with over $850 million in US military aid over the past eight years - has been able to squelch the 7,000-member insurgency.

The Marxist-inspired rebels, who are fighting to redistribute the nation's wealth, have strong roots in communities like Santa Marta that have been battered by poverty and repression. They control 29 of the country's 262 municipalities, and have expanded their presence to all of El Salvador's 13 departments - including the capital.

But the FMLN is being forced to play politics. While considered the best-trained guerrilla army in Latin America, the FMLN does not have the force to turn the tide of war in its favor. Its international backers are tired of the war and are pushing for a negotiated end. So are more than 60 percent of all Salvadorans, according to a recent opinion poll.

"We need international support and we need the internal masses," acknowledges Antolin. "If the people's strongest desire is for peace, then we must show our real political will and win the sympathy of the masses."

Pushed to be more flexible by this collective longing for peace, the FMLN is planning to launch a second "peace proposal" sometime before newly elected right-wing President Alfredo Cristiani takes office on June 1.

The new initiative, Antol'in says, will deepen the concessions made in the rebels' January proposal, which called for a six-month delay of the March 19 election while the two sides negotiated an end to the war. Now that the election has passed, he says, the new plan will deal "concretely with the social-economic model that could be implemented."

Antol'in doesn't harbor any illusions of an imminent end to the war.

The proposals, rather, seem designed to wrest the public- relations initiative away from Mr. Cristiani's ultraconservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). …