SALVADOREAN President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's current visit to the United States provides a refreshing refocus of public attention on the critical issues besetting his tiny country. For as Congress pours energy, resources, and political capital into the debate over Nicaragua, an event of major proportions -- the victory of Duarte's Christian Democratic Party in legislative elections last March -- goes unheeded. The unexpected sweep over a coalition of right-wing parties gives President Duarte an unprecedented opportunity to pursue a dialogue with El Salvador's opposition and negotiate a settlement to El Salvador's devastating civil war. Last October, amid an outpouring of public enthusiasm, Duarte convened a first round of peace talks in the town of La Palma. The euphoria dissipated after a second meeting in November, in which both sides presented their maximalist conditions.
The government offered the left a chance to lay down arms and enter an electoral process within the framework of the 1983 Constitution. The opposition FDR-FMLN, meanwhile, demanded a recognition of two belligerent armies in El Salvador and a recomposition of the government and armed forces based on some power sharing.
These two positions are far apart, but recent conversations in El Salvador with actors across the political spectrum revealed virtual consensus on incremental steps to establish good faith as a basis for further discussions. The continuation of prisoner exchanges, respect for civilian neutrality in conflict zones, and improvements in human rights form the core of what the Salvadorean Roman Catholic Church calls ``humanizing the conflict.'' High ranking Christian Democrats as well as top guerrilla leaders considered these measures to be genuine indicators of a desire to further the peace talks.
Yet bolder steps will be needed -- steps that are conciliatory to the other side as well as justifiable on the basis of self-interest. The guerrillas, on the one hand, could slow economic sabotage, particularly of those targets (bridges, power lines) that exact a painful toll on the civilian population. The government, on the other hand, could begin to prosecute (as in Argentina) selected military officers responsible for atrocities against civilians. This would not only enhance the security climate for guerrillas who lay down their arms, but also strengthen civilian authority and contribute to the professionalization of the armed forces.
Never before has President Duarte had as much power to deepen the dialogue process. The March 1985 elections combine Christian Democratic control of the National Assembly with Duarte's control of the executive branch. The Army's guarantee of the election results against pressures from the right makes it difficult now for the armed forces to defy civilian gestures in favor of political reconciliation.
The key to the survival of El Salvador's fledgling democracy lies in the achievement of a political settlement. The existence of 500,000 displaced persons within the country, 48 percent unemployment, and increased demands from a well-organized labor movement create intense pressures ``from below'' that Duarte cannot address without economic reactivation.
But the key to economic recovery lies in ending guerrilla sabotage of economic targets and shifting government resources currently spent on defense to development and social reform. Negotiations, then, are central to President Duarte's ability to deliver to his own social base and to preventing the recurrence of mass demonstrations that have in the past provoked a violent reaction from the right.
The United States government is currently nourishing the illusion that a military victory in El Salvador is possible and desirable. Recent increases in the level of US military assistance and firepower to the Salvadorean Army send a powerful message to the military that they need not talk to the rebels, only kill them. Without the full moral and material support from the United States behind a negotiated settlement, the Salvadorean talks will fail. The alternative is a new whirlwind of violence that will destroy a historic opportunity for peace.
Cynthia Arnson, a Central America specialist, recently visited El Salvador with the Commission on US-Central American Relations.