U.S. to Focus on Salvador Rights Issue : Democrats to Monitor New Regime; Bush Will ‘Wait and See’

Times Staff Writer

Bush Administration officials and Democratic leaders, responding to a right-wing victory in El Salvador’s presidential election, promised Monday that they will be closely watching that government’s performance on human rights issues.

President Bush believes that the newly elected president, Alfredo Cristiani, deserves a chance at governing without coming under immediate U.S. pressure on the human rights issue, according to sources familiar with his thinking.

“We continue to press for democracy and for human rights improvements in that country, and we’ll just have to wait and see what kind of actions we get from the new government,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. ". . . We’ll continue to monitor the government and see how they perform in the future.”

Controversial History

Cristiani, who won decisively in the Sunday balloting, was the candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party, which has a history of reported involvement with paramilitary violence and anti-civilian death squads.

Democratic leaders promised increased scrutiny of El Salvador, saying the Arena victory means that U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, a non-controversial issue for the last five years, will once again become a focus of attention in Congress.


Bush appears to have accepted Cristiani’s declarations that he is opposed to the rightist death squads that have murdered thousands of suspected leftists in El Salvador. However, the President is also said to believe that Cristiani must still establish his own identity, free from his party’s blood-tinged history.

‘Pathological Killer’

One of Arena’s top leaders is Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former army intelligence officer who has been accused by U.S. officials of directing death squads. Robert E. White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, once called D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer,” and other officials have accused him of plotting the murder of U.S. diplomats. D’Aubuisson has denied the allegations.

Democrats in Congress said that history will cause them to watch El Salvador more carefully than during the last five years, when Jose Napoleon Duarte, a moderate Christian Democrat, governed.

“It would cause great concern in Congress if death squad activity should increase,” House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) told reporters.

He said that the Arena government will be “closely watched” for its performance on human rights.

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) noted that Cristiani was not his favored candidate for El Salvador’s presidency. But he added: “If we support the principle of local, nonviolent self-determination . . . then we have to support it if those people elect someone who is not our personal choice.”

Preparing Curbs

A congressional aide said members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Latin America already are preparing restrictions on U.S. aid to the country that would mean withholding some funds next year unless Bush certifies that progress is being made on human rights.

“There’s a good deal of agreement in Congress that the situation in El Salvador is not good and is getting worse,” he said. “If Arena has won, that--if anything--will toughen the conditions on aid.”

Said California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House majority whip: “The way the new government governs will determine whether we continue the aid.”

The Bush Administration has requested $98.6 million in military aid for El Salvador, which is battling leftist guerrillas, for the fiscal year beginning in October, up from $85 million this year. It has also requested $287.5 million in economic aid, down from $308 million this year.

At the White House, Fitzwater said the elections “do represent a strong desire by the people of El Salvador for elections and ability to participate in the democratic process.”

‘Concerned About Violence’

Asked whether the Administration has any doubt about the validity of the election results, he said: “I don’t think we’ve reached a judgment about that at this point.

“We are concerned about the amount of guerrilla violence and human rights abuses during the election process,” he told reporters.

“Most of the violence that we have seen documented is from the left, from the guerrilla factions,” he said. But, later, asked whether the facts supported that assessment, he added: “There are all kinds of reports indicating abuses from both sides, and I suppose we shouldn’t try to pin the blame on anyone.”

Vice President Dan Quayle also criticized leftist guerrilla attempts to disrupt the voting. When reporters asked Quayle about the killing of three journalists by Salvadoran troops around election day, Quayle said that he did not know the details of the incidents.

‘Disturbing, Shocking’

“But what ought to be disturbing to the American people, and I know it’s disturbing to the people of El Salvador, is the fact that the FMLN (the rebel coalition) threatened the people of El Salvador with their lives for exercising the democratic right to vote. That is a very disturbing, shocking event, and we ought to be shocked about that,” Quayle said.

In El Salvador, meanwhile, a group of U.S. observers has called the election a success despite widespread violence and a rebel intimidation campaign, the Associated Press reported.

“Based upon our observations, our determination is that the election was free and fair,” the 21-member delegation said in a report released late Sunday.

The delegation, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and including California Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), visited about 50 of the nation’s 262 precincts.

Times staff writer William J. Eaton contributed to this story.