IN El Salvador's bitter civil war, peace has been as elusive as mercury. Time after time, agreements to agree and preliminary accords between the government and the coalition of leftist rebels have unraveled, as the antagonists pressed for further gains on the battlefield.
Yet the agreement signed at the United Nations New Year's Day has the heft and feel of the real thing. Representatives of both sides say the pact truly marks the end of the war. The certainty in their comments exceeds the mere hopefulness of previous statements.
Evidence of the negotiators' seriousness this time includes their pledge to sign "final" cease-fire and peace accords on Jan. 16 in Mexico City and their agreement to submit unresolved issues to the UN secretary-general for arbitration by Jan. 14. The official cease-fire is to begin Feb. 1, but the combatants are expected to hold their fire immediately.
Credit for the breakthrough is shared. Former UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar deserves praise for his personal interest in ending the conflict and his hands-on efforts in the waning days and hours of his tenure, which ended Dec. 31. The persistence of UN mediator Alvaro de Soto must also be acknowledged.
The United States government skillfully helped nurture Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani's stature as a moderate conservative who could retain the support of the nation's strong right-wing forces while winning the trust of rebel leaders. US diplomats also exerted useful pressure on Cristiani for 11th-hour concessions last week. In the same manner officials from Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela worked with both sides to prevent breakdowns in the talks.
But of course the greatest credit goes to the Salvadoran leaders who, in negotiating the agreement, surmounted the hatreds and distrust that are the legacy of a 12-year war that has taken the lives of 75,000 people.
Healing the chasmic rifts left by the war and by centuries of social and economic injustice won't be easy. Still to be worked out are concrete measures to demobilize the guerrilla forces, reduce the Army, demilitarize the police, reintegrate the rebels into the nation's political and civic institutions, and redistribute land. A long agenda of deep social and economic issues remains to be addressed.
But if the same will and cooperation that produced the peace agreement are brought to bear on these problems, there is reason to believe that El Salvador's darkest days are past.