The State Department is urging President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador to take more decisive action on issues that are hurting his image as the savior of his nation.
Department officials said that, among other things, Duarte faces a widespread public impression -- difficult to pin down -- that corruption is spreading among top officials, that some of his cabinet members are yes-men and that others are incompetent. Among more concrete difficulties, El Salvador's staggering economy shows few signs of recovery and the 6-year-old guerrilla war remains at a stalemate.
A new crop of bumper stickers testifies to the Duarte grumbling: "I Didn't Vote for Him," and "I Voted for Him but I'm Sorry."
Complaints are the strongest from the far-right ARENA party and from the far left, but centrist labor union members who are Duarte's bedrock supporters also have marched to protest his economic measures. U.S. critics said Duarte remains dominated by his armed forces, and Salvadoran officials acknowledged that the government has not been able to keep Duarte's promises.
"There aren't any ideas, no goals," said one mid-level State Department official close to the subject. "The government as a whole is ineffective." Another official said U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr, who talks often with Duarte, has "expressed concern" to him, "but there's nothing you could really call pressure. They're aware of the problems."
Duarte's chief asset as a leader -- his dominating personality -- has handicapped him in office.
U.S. diplomats agreed that Duarte is at heart a caudillo, a strong man intolerant of criticism who likes to give orders but lets others follow through. Cabinet choices reflect this, they said, as do rewards to followers for two decades of often clandestine support.
The U.S. officials singled out for praise Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Planning Minister Fidel Chavez Mena and Justice Minister Julio Alfredo Samayoa, as well as Communications Minister Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, who is "competent but running all the time for president," one said.
The remaining 11 ministers are "a mixed bag," they said. Salvadoran officials said some of them might be replaced in early June, when such shifts customarily occur. All sides stressed that U.S. diplomats have not asked directly that any ministers be removed, to avoid sparking nationalistic resistance.
Although the U.S. officials did not say so, caudillos have traditionally maintained their power in part by looking the other way while subordinates engage in corrupt practices that put them at the leader's mercy. The new president of the ARENA party, Alfredo Cristiani, charged that this has been Duarte's practice.
"Duarte's philosophy is to expand the role of government into every possible area, and that's an automatic trigger to corruption," Cristiani said in an interview during a recent visit here. "His friends survive, and if you are not a friend you are in trouble."
Using "a propaganda machine never seen in the history of Latin America" and selective government contract awards, Duarte has tried to entrench his Christian Democratic Party at the expense of the others, Cristiani said. "I have strong fears that El Salvador might end up with a process very similar to the Mexican," where one party has ruled since 1928.
Ernesto Rivas-Gallont, Duarte's former ambassador to the United States and now his ambassador-at-large, said Duarte has dealt with the corruption reports by ordering them investigated back to 1970 by the Ministry of Justice and the Monetary Board, which oversees banking, and by reactivating a "probity board."
"He's sending a message that says we have had corruption for many years but it is not a principle of this government," Rivas said. He noted that the two previous probity board directors were slain in office.
Duarte has sought to assert his independence from the military, most recently by breaking up a kidnaping ring run by right-wingers and military officers who held wealthy Salvadorans for ransom while pretending to be leftist guerrillas.
"He handled that beautifully," one State Department official said. "He invited in all the people who might object to look at the evidence and they all shut up."
If the officers are convicted, it will be the first such punishment for any high-ranking military man. So far, however, three of those detained have died in police custody under mysterious circumstances.
The arrests were a sharp blow to the traditional alliance between the Salvadoran elite and rightist soldiers who have long guarded their privileges. But businessmen remain distrustful of Duarte and of his economic austerity program, which has also come under bitter fire from the urban workers hardest hit by it.
All sides agree that monetary devaluation and floating prices hurt, and that the economic good they do is unlikely to be visible to the population as long as the guerrilla war continues. There is no sign of that conflict ending, but neither is there much chance of a guerrilla victory, according to observers on both the left and the right.
Rivas said that all the U.S. concerns, although real, are relatively minor compared to the situation two years ago. "As we run out of crises, we tend to focus on details," he said.