A special program designed to allow as many as 500 political prisoners and refugees from Latin America to resettle in the United States has succeeded in securing the release of only two persons, both from Argentina.
Almost everyone familiar with the stalled humanitarian effor, including State Department officials, U.S. diplomats in the field, members of Congress and human rights groups, agrees that the two-year parole program - approved almost a year ago - has been a failure thus far.
The reason for the failure have become the subject of an increasingly acrimonious debate in Washington, where the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, among others, has blasted the Carter administration for "bungling" the program.
"Our inability to respond in a humane and honorable manner to a program that involves a relative handful of victims of right-wing regimes is a stinging indictment of our sense of values and principles," the Council said in a recent statement that compared the U.S. effort in Latin America with more successful - and far larger - efforts on behalf of refugees from Hungary, Cuba and Southeast Asia.
U.S. diplomats, however, point out that those fleeing Cuba, Hungary and Vietnam were refugees who had either already escaped - in the cases of Hungary and Vietnam - or who were allowed to leave for the United States, in the case of Cuba.
Attempting to persuade governments, whether right-wing or leftwing, to release prisoners considered to be "subversives" is a far more time-consuming and difficult task.
The U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Raul Castro, has been criticized by many liberals in Washington because they do not belive he is fully committed to the human rights campaign launched two years ago by the Carter administration.
Castro is aware of the criticism but denies that more pressure could have been exerted on Argentina's military government. A spokesman for the embassy here said that Castro has "regularly expressed his disappointment over the slow pace of the program" to Argentine officials.
Castro has, to some extent, become the focus of the criticism in Washington because Argentina, with more uncharged and untried political prisoners than any other country in Latin America, is where U.S. efforts have been concentrated. The government here admits to holding 2,700 political detainees in its jails, more than 400 of whom have asked for the "right of option" to go to the United States.
Although only two of these 400 have been released under the U.S. parole program, Argentina did free about 80 additional prisoners last year who chose to resettle in Western Europe or Israel rather than the United States.
About 50 refugees who had fled their native countries for political reasons but were not prisoners have come to the United States under the curren parole program. Following the Chilean coup in 1973, about 2,400 Latin Americans-most of them Chileans-came into the United States on parole visas.
Thousands of Cuban refugees have been admitted under a separate program since 1959.
The U.S. effort got off to a particularly slow start last year because the Argentine government refused to allow U.S. consular officers to interview applicants. It was not until last November that U.S. officials were allowed to interview some of the prisoners they wanted to see.
Even now it can take weeks or months from the time the embassy requests to interview a prisoner who has applied for the parole program until permission is denied or granted by Argenntina's Interior Ministry. The Argentine government has another four months, under its own regulations, to decide whether to release a prisoner once he has been given a "certificate of eligibility" by the embassy.
Although Castro and the Carter administration have been criticized for the poor results of the parole program so far, the status of the 407 prisoners who have applied from Argentina for resettlement in the United States tends to support the administration's position that it is not to blame.
The Argentine government has denied the embassy access to 173 of the prisoners who have applied, has yet to act on requests to interview another 60 of the prisoners, is still considering 68 cases where certificates of eligibility have been granted and has denied five other prisoners their "right of option" to leave Argentina after the embassy said they would be eligible for the program. Sixty-six others who originally applied withdrew their applications.
Argentina's military leaders are known to be particularly wary of freeing detainees, even if they leave Argentina immediately, because a 1973 amnesty is thought to have increased terrorism.