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Peace for El Salvador

AN ``encouraging moment,'' one Salvadoran bishop called the mid-September talks between the Salvadoran government and the guerrillas. These two mortal enemies agreed to begin monthly negotiating sessions with international mediation in mid-October. Current dynamics in El Salvador could add momentum to forces now pressing the antagonists to negotiate a solution to nine years of war and 70,000 deaths. But progress is unlikely until Washington gets smart. The guerrillas recognize that victory remains illusive despite their continued ability to fight the Army to a stalemate and cripple the government economically. The concessions they outlined in their opening proposals underscored their seriousness.

Building on earlier offers, they dropped their longstanding demand for power sharing, for the merging of their forces and the Salvadoran Army, and for a cease-fire to include government recognition of rebel-held territory. They offered to lay down their arms and participate in civilian politics if the government could guarantee a level political playing field and their security. Their most important demand was a housecleaning in the military high command to remove officers closely involved with political crimes and to prosecute ``all those involved in death squad activities.''

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Although the rightist ARENA Party of Salvador's President Alfredo Cristiani represents the most recalcitrant and reactionary forces among Salvador's wealthy and privileged, external and internal forces are creating pressures on the government to take the talks seriously.

Most recently, the Aug. 7 agreement signed by the five Central American presidents in Honduras rejected Mr. Cristiani's argument that there was a ``symmetry'' between the Nicaraguan contras and Salvador's guerrillas, thus implicitly recognizing the internal support and strength of the guerrillas. The presidents urged a ``constructive dialogue'' by both sides.

Cristiani also knows that many in Congress are concerned about his party's association with death squads and about the exaggerated expense of sustaining his government: The $1.5 million a day in US aid makes El Salvador the third largest US aid recipient and absorbs one-third of all aid to the Western Hemisphere.

Thus talks with the guerrillas help portray Cristiani as a man interested in peace. But if Cristiani's current motivation is public relations, other forces could make him more serious.

Until the war ends, Cristiani's promise to solve Salvador's economic and social crisis looks hollow. Increasing production in critical exports like coffee, cotton, and sugar is impossible while guerrillas commit sabotage and wartime uncertainty makes the private sector reluctant to invest.

Further, Cristiani's policies are generating widespread opposition, especially his efforts to reverse the modest reforms (such as land reform), and his strict austerity measures (wage freezes, social service cuts, bus-fare and food-price hikes), which fall hardest on government employees, peasants, and workers. In recent years these groups have organized to resist shouldering costs of a failed military strategy, which has already displaced 1 million people, and caused under- and unemployment of more than 50 percent and a steady decline in real wages. There are now plans to supplement arrests, torture, and death squad activity with a tough ``antiterrorist'' law which would, argued America's Watch, ``suppress the activities of human rights groups, labor unions, the press, universities, and other independent institutions.''

This repression not only risks alienating Congress, but in El Salvador it is forging a potentially powerful alliance between previously divided centrist and leftist groups to put pressure on ARENA. For example recent efforts to increase bus fares led to joint protests by both the centrist UNOC labor federation and the leftist UNTS federation. And even the Christian Democrats now seem more willing to work with the left to encourage reform and sponsor a political settlement to the war.

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Although a political solution makes sense to most Salvadorans, the hard-liners in ARENA and the military still oppose it. They refuse to consider prosecuting guilty officers and reforming the high command. They would rather continue the war - fought by junior officers and draftees - than enter serious negotiations with the guerrillas. ``We have nothing to negotiate,'' Defense Minister Rafael Humberto Larios said recently.

As long, that is, as the US gives the military blank-check aid.

The Bush administration shows no inclination to get tough with the military on human rights and peace negotiations. ``We have ignored the reality of El Salvador'' Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield said recently, and as a result ``we have been bankrolling failure.''

But unfortunately a majority in Congress refuse to insist that aid be strictly conditioned. Relatively mild legislation was recently introduced by Senator Hatfield and Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Harkin that would have placed strict conditions on part of next year's $85 million in military aid. The president and Congress would have to concur that Cristiani was making a serious effort to ``settle the conflict ... through ... negotiations,'' and to ``protect ... human rights.'' But administration allies, with the surprising help of usually knowledgeable Senate liberals like Christopher Dodd and John Kerry defeated this reasonable measure.

Only when Congress and the administration send a strong message that our largess is not unending will it be rational for hard-liners in El Salvador to seek a political solution.

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