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What Aquino can learn from Duarte

PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino arrives in the United States at a time when the State Department has been criticizing her and urging her to use force, not negotiations, to end the communist rebellion in her country. The Reagan administration's solution would presumably be the tough posture also urged on Jos'e Napole'on Duarte when he became President of El Salvador in 1984. Aquino is publicly resisting such pressure. Four lessons can be drawn from Mr. Duarte's experience that show how wise she is to be skeptical of US advice. Start negotiations with small but decisive steps. Aquino seems to understand the need to proceed slowly. She instructed those negotiating with the rebels: ``Listen to them. Hear them out. What do they want from us? What can we give them? Bring the message that we want peace and an end to the killing.'' But this was not the Salvadorean model.

The talks that began so hopefully in El Salvador at La Palma in 1984 disintegrated after the November 1984 Ayagualo meetings, seemingly because each side's demands were contradictory. Duarte, and pragmatists in the military, were willing to offer the left a negotiated surrender: The guerrillas could lay down their arms, accept a general amnesty, and take part in elections. The rebels insisted on power-sharing arrangements that would guarantee their security and political leverage in any postwar regime.

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But this public sparring was not what undermined the talks. At La Palma, both sides had agreed to first tackle smaller, concrete issues, especially ``measures to humanize the armed conflict'' -- a reference to the air war being waged by the military against civilians in contested zones. Before the second meeting, however, the military, backed by the US, vetoed any future negotiations on the conduct of the war. Now the rebels want the new talks to start with concrete issues (prisoner exchanges, respect for medical personnel). But Duarte, limited by the military and the US, is likely to undermine such progress if he makes the primary issue surrender or war. Aquino would be wise to resist pressure to condition the talks on impossible demands.

Failure of diplomacy will weaken presidential control of the military. Duarte has had great difficulty strengthening civilian control over the military. Because the military is the centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy, its power remains unquestioned, and it can continue to thwart progress on human rights, democratization, and negotiations.

Aquino, who came to power through the kind of mobilization that has been prohibited by the Salvadorean military since 1980, still has enough popular support to restrain her military. But as soon as negotiations are abandoned for a full-scale military solution, her control over the military, like Duarte's, will dissipate.

The dangers of reform with repression. In late 1984, Duarte, responding to pressure from Washington and his own military, abandoned negotiations and combined efforts to destroy the insurgents with reforms aimed at undermining rebel support. Aquino can learn from the result. Duarte has alienated the very labor, peasant, and middle-class groups that constitute his power base and thus undermined his entire reform strategy.

These groups are demanding he deliver on his election promises of peace, recovery, and reform. But despite growing US military aid, the route to peace through force has only changed the character of the war, not ended the bloody military stalemate. As long as the war continues, there can be no economic recovery: Investment capital flees abroad while guerrilla sabotage destroys crops, transportation, and power lines. There can be little reform when social goods are sacrificed to swollen military budgets.

To make matters worse, the war-induced austerity and stabilization programs held down wages and salaries as prices increased. When labor organizations struck to recover lost buying power, the government cracked down with military takeovers, arrests, torture, and disappearances. Duarte's former supporters were outraged. They saw the economic sacrifices demanded of them as burdens they had to bear to support a war they had elected Duarte to end, and now Duarte was meeting their wage demands with force.

From mid-1985 on, strikes and demonstrations grew in size. In February 1986, and again in May, thousands from the moderate unions joined with leftist union members in a new coalition and called for salary increases, land reform, an end to persecution, and peace talks. Thus Duarte's new peace initiative and the third round of talks scheduled for Sept. 19. Aquino can avoid giving up on reform if she can succeed in creating a peaceful settlement with the guerrillas.

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US aid can be a two-edged sword. Duarte's internal leverage has come to depend on the US aid he delivers. But the aid comes with strings: The primary goal of the White House, like the armed forces, is the defeat of the insurgents. This means that Duarte cannot oppose the counterinsurgency strategy without undermining his already tenuous position. It also means that the military has little interest in negotiations as long as Congress keeps the pipeline from Washington open.

But Aquino has not yet committed herself to this military strategy, nor does her internal power yet rest on being a conduit for US aid. US aid, however, is needed -- and the administration's interest in continuing military base agreements makes the White House anxious about the communist insurgents. Aquino will have to use her popular support and her political savvy skillfully to escape the box the White House and the military have built for Duarte.

Kenneth E. Sharpe, associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, is co-editor of ``Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America.''

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