Salvadorans React to Vote to Halve US Military Aid

Article excerpt

THE killings of six Jesuit priests and their domestic workers nearly a year ago continue to cast long shadows over this country's powerful armed forces.

In a pivotal setback for President Alfredo Cristiani and a switch for United States policy, US senators agreed by a near 3-to-1 margin Friday to withhold half of El Salvador's $85 million 1991 military aid allotment.

The eight were allegedly slain by the Salvadoran military. The US Senate's move was a rebuke to the government for its inability so far to find and convict the perpetrators.

The US Congress might still disperse the $42.5 million if the Bush administration determines that Salvadoran rebels have either launched a military offensive jeopardizing the survival of the government or scuttled peace talks. The legislation, nearly identical to a measure passed by the House, also calls for terminating the entire military-aid budget if the Salvadoran government withdraws from negotiations or fails to fully investigate the murders.

While US lawmakers are seeking signs of remorse over the killings from the Salvadoran military, officers here say the sanctions are unwarranted.

Col. Mauricio Vargas, Army deputy chief of staff and one of the few officials available for comment after the vote, criticized US lawmakers for being fooled by "a rebel propaganda scheme" and for "oversimplyfying the aid debate."

"The Congress is seeing the trees, but it's lost sight of the woods," Colonel Vargas laments. "We can't lose the country, and let it fall into the hands of a Marxist-Leninist project."

El Salvador's opposition politicians, meanwhile, heralded the congressional decision, saying the measure could soften the military's negotiating position.

"It sends a clear message to the people that need to hear it that the goose that laid the golden egg has died," says Ruben Zamora, head of the Popular Social Christian Movement. "It tells the armed forces, `Hurry up, the game is over, negotiate now while you still have US support."'

THE congressional vote raises the stakes in monthly United Nations-mediated peace talks that began last May. Negotiations, scheduled to resume in Mexico in early November, have stagnated around the issue of military reform.

Guerrilla leaders are holding firm on a call to reduce the 56,000-man strong military and purge it of human rights violators. Government forces say they will not cut any political deals before rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front agree to a cease-fire. …