MEXICO CITY -- Memories of a burned-out boat abandoned on a quiet beach in El Salvador have triggered skepticism about U.S. claims that it has hard proof the Communist bloc is arming leftist Salvadoran guerrillas.
The boat hulk was 'Exhibit A' in Salvadoran government claims Jan. 14 that the Central American nation had been invaded by 100 well-armed guerrillas who landed in the eastern beach of El Cuco aboard five wooden boats.
The government said its troops shot to death 53 of the invaders and captured dozens of weapons. It hinted darkly that the rebels had sailed in from neighboring Nicaragua, ruled by leftist Sandinista guerrillas.
Only hours after the invasion claim was in print, the United States released $5 million in military aid to El Salvador's ruling military-civilian junta, citing evidence of foreign support for the guerrillas.
But the invasion story began to crumble within days. Journalists who rushed to El Cuco reported no sign of the other four boats, no witnesses to an invasion and no bodies of dead guerrillas to be seen anywhere.
Former U.S. Ambassador Robert White later ruefully admitted the evidence available 'did not support' the junta's claims of a 100-man invasion.
An embassy employee put it more succinctly. 'I guess we rushed to believe something we really wanted to believe,' she said.
That propaganda fiasco was remembered by many foreign journalists covering El Salvador when the Reagan administration charged earlier this week that it had undeniable proof of Communist bloc support for the Salvadoran rebels.
Washington based its charges on a sheaf of documents, allegedly captured from guerrillas by Salvadoran security forces, that described rebel contacts with Communist bloc nations which promised to send them weapons.
The papers have never been made public, but there have been news 'leaks' that they showed the Soviets, Cuba and Ethiopia promised military aid and Vietnam promised U.S. weapons captured in the fall of Saigon.
U.S. and Salvadoran officials have steadfastly maintained the documents are legitimate, but reports of their existence raised more than a few eyebrows among neutral observers of the Salvadoran scene.
Deputy Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alejandro Gomez said the documents were legitimate but he doubted the truthfulness of one section dealing with alleged Mexican help for the rebels.
One Salvadoran government official who has seen the documents said he personally believed they were legitimate but acknowledged others had doubts.
'I think you'll find every junta supporter believes the documents are true and every one of our opponents believes they are spurious,' he said.
'And every intelligent neutral observer will withhold judgment until he sees the proof and can judge it by himself.'