Few Salvadoreans expect peace to come out of today's planned meeting between President Jose Napoleon Duarte and the rebels who have been fighting a five-year-old civil war.
But the encounter - the first official talks held between the government and the rebels - has swelled hope for eventual peace in a country that has lost 50, 000 civilians to war and witnessed some 1 million people displaced from their homes. Many expect further negotiations to follow this first day of talks.
Both sides have been under heavy pressure from West European and Latin American leaders to negotiate. President Duarte has ignored two requests by the insurgents to begin talks during his four-month-old adminstration, indicating that he would talk with the rebels in a year or so, after his civilian government had fully taken root. When Duarte made his surprise offer to talk during a speech at the United Nations last week, the rebels snapped it up, announcing their acceptance 24 hours later on their clandestine radio station.
But the rebels continue to doubt Duarte's sincerity. And some key figures on the Salvadorean political right also are suspicious of his intentions.
''Is this response by Duarte a serious proposal, or is it another propaganda show?'' a rebel announcer asked listeners late last week. ''In the event that the proposal is only in the nature of a propaganda show, Duarte has made a serious mistake.'' The announcer added, ''If he (Duarte) did it with the aim of seeking a surrender of the FMLN (rebel coalation), his mistake is still greater.''
Right-wing political leader Roberto d'Aubuisson, who lost the May 6 presidential election to Duarte, called today's meeting ''a show'' and questioned both Duarte's and the rebels sincerity. But his criticism was not shared by most sectors of this society.
The President says he will offer rebels the opportunity to participate in 1985 elections for deputies to the Constituent Assembly. But if this is all Duarte offers, it is doubtful any kind of negotiated settlement can be reached. Rebel leaders call for a power-sharing arrangement in a transitional government as a precondition for a negotiated settlement of the war.
''The objective is to present the guerrilla people with the opportunity to incorporate themselves into the democratic process,'' Duarte says. ''According to the Constitution, this - and I want to make sure everybody understands - has nothing to do with the participation of power because power belongs to the people and only through the democratic electoral process is the method to obtain power and not through guns and violence. This has to very clear and understood.''
At time of writing the rebels had not responded to this comment by Duarte. The President's timing of the meeting - scheduled to be held in the northern village of La Palma, which has neither a permanent army nor guerrilla presence - could hardly have been auspicious. Monday is also the deadline set by the presidents of Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia for the acceptance or rejection by Central American countries of their draft Contadora peace accord. The La Palma meeting also comes as the rebels are, according to well-placed sources in the capital, preparing a military offensive. Political observers suggest that a rebel military campaign initiated on the heels of the talks will perhaps enhance the government's stature in international circles and leave the impression that the rebels are the more bellicose of the two sides in this civil war.
Salvador has announced that the Contadora accord is not acceptable in its present form. Only Nicaragua and Honduras have agreed to sign the document as is. Nicaragua's recent decision to accept the plan is widely seen as a diplomatic coup, especially in light of Salvador's objections to the proposal. Duarte's meeting in La Palma, observers here say, will take some of the sting out of Nicaragua's acquiescence to the plan.
The meeting in La Palma will be mediated by Roman Catholic archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. The church was involved in taking one of the two earlier rebel request for talks to the government.
The talks are welcomed by a wide range of political and labor groups, as well as the United States government and West European and Latin American leaders. A Salvadorean conservative businessmens' association, called ANEP, is more reserved. It issued a statement saying ANEP supports the talks as long as Duarte heeds their advice not to agree to any power-sharing arrangement.
Rebels remain concerned about security for the talks. Duarte accepted their call for a six-mile demilitarized zone around La Palma but were clearly worried over the weekend when area Army commander Sigifredo Ochoa Perez took an army battalion to the town.
A right-wing group called the Secret Anticommunist Army said over the weekend that Duarte had committed treason, a remark interpreted many here as a death threat against the President.