Afraid of Peace in El Salvador

February 11, 1991

The Arias plan, which provided a framework for peace of a sort in Nicaragua, never made it to El Salvador. There, the same principles were repudiated by both right and left. There, the very threat of peace brought a renewal of violence.

Peace talks, brokered by United Nations assistant secretary general Alvaro de Soto between the military-backed ARENA government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, probably never had a chance. But just in case they did, the FMLN launched an offensive in November. It received anti-air missiles from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in hopes of reversing the advantage the 57,000-man army had in the air.

Congress had suspended $42.5 million in U.S. military aid because of the Salvador government's failure to bring to justice the military murderers of six Jesuits. President Bush restored it with a 60-day delay. Then in counterpoint, rebels shot down a U.S. helicopter, killing one American aboard and murdering two survivors. The FMLN gives out that two of its men were responsible and will be tried. FMLN trials are notorious with human and legal rights groups.

Next, someone slew 15 members of a family in a remote village. Catholic Church investigators saw the hand of army death squads. The government fingered three military deserters from another family with a personal grudge, and promised a trial. Its trials also are not persuasive.

The FMLN won public relations points by giving its missiles back to Nicaragua, which professes embarrassment at having sold them, blaming lower ranks. The U.S. is speeding up delivery of planes to compensate for those lost. A bloody battle in mid-January left 28 dead, officially 14 from each side.

Misdeeds of the army and government argue against U.S. aid. Misdeeds of the rebels demand it. Under the Arias plan, the left-wing FMLN was to cease fire as, in Nicaragua, the right-wing contras did. When an election could be held in Nicaragua, the public repudiated the ruling left-wing Sandinistas. Given a chance in El Salvador, they might do the same to the right-wing Cristiani government. But so far, neither side is willing to give peace a chance. They are afraid of it. As for the talks, the U.S. has criticized Mr. de Soto for tilting to the rebel side. But he ought to plug ahead, just in case anyone turns out to be willing to play the game fairly.

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