CAN A political settlement of El Salvador's endless civil war really be near?
Hopes have been raised before, only to fall victim to new rebel offensives or death squad outrages. But the agreement on constitutional reform announced in Mexico City on Saturday could prove more durable.
Typically, cease-fires have been painstakingly arranged only to crumble amid haggling about the substance of institutional reform.
This time, Government and rebel negotiators, aided by an adroit United Nations mediator, boldly tackled the institutional issues first.
They agreed to provisions establishing civilian control of the military, providing for independent oversight of elections, strengthening the judiciary and assuring systematic investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses.
These must now be approved by the outgoing legislature, and confirmed by its recently elected successor.
Agreement on cease-fire terms remains essential for an overall peace. That probably means sharp disputes about who actually controls what territory. But the prior agreement on constitutional reform gives both sides incentive to resolve such conflicts.
Knowledgeable diplomats now talk of a cease-fire as soon as next month.
Why the breakthrough? Both sides seem at last to accept the impossibility of a purely military victory. The guerrillas understand that their original Castroite revolutionary model is now obsolete.
And the government knows that it can at best contain the guerrilla threat, but can never completely eliminate the rebels' military potential or their appeal to El Salvador's poorest people.
This new realism led to the U.N.-sponsored talks, strongly backed by the U.S. and Mexico, two regional powers that have not always seen eye to eye about El Salvador.
But President Salinas of Mexico has taken a more constructive approach to Central American conflicts than his predecessors, while the Bush administration has had little taste for congressional aid battles poisoned by the atrocities of the Salvadoran military right.
A right-wing Salvadoran government and hardened guerrilla commanders agreed to Saturday's pact. Their extremist credentials may have made compromise easier than it would have been for centrists.
Yet there remains a danger that hard-line followers of Roberto D'Aubuisson, linked by Washington to death squads, could yet try to sabotage the emerging peace.
President Cristiani, through economic reforms and political skill, has emerged from the shadow of D'Aubuisson, his onetime sponsor.
But he will need Washington's strong and visible support as he proceeds down the peacemaking path. That's a U.S. policy even critics of past arms aid to El Salvador can gladly support.