Central America's longest, bloodiest civil war may at last be nearing an end with the signing of a tentative peace accord between the government of El Salvador and leaders of five leftist rebel organizations. Until a cease-fire actually is declared and implemented, this is no time for celebration. It is time for a renewal of cautious hope.
What led to the breakthrough in United Nations-sponsored talks was a compromise that will allow guerrilla soldiers to join a new civilian-controlled police force but will bar them from the national army. This apparently cuts the "Gordian knot" that has stymied negotiations in the past.
It not only will provide a measure of personal security for rebel forces but may enable them to maintain their domination of territories in Morazan and Chalatenango provinces. Whether the exclusion of rebels from the army will satisfy top-ranking right-wing officers remains an open question. They want amnesty from future charges of crimes or human rights violations, having witnessed the unprecedented conviction of a colonel and a lieutenant (no bigwigs) for the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
The so-called "New York Accords" promoted by U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar indicates that the march of world events is finally overpowering intransigent elements on both sides of a 12-year struggle that has claimed 75,000 lives and destroyed the economy of a poor, crowded Massachusetts-sized nation of 5 million people.
Operating under the umbrella of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Marxist-oriented rebels have seen the Sandinistas defeated in Nicaragua and the Castro regime isolated in Cuba. Meanwhile, militarists who used to count on strong support from the Reagan administration have had to deal with a Bush administration determined to mute the kind of anti-Communist fixation that led to the Iran-contra debacle. The emphasis from Washington has been on civilian rule, constitutional reform and an end to the fighting so long as a government helpful to U.S. interests survives.
President Alfredo Cristiani will have a difficult task. FMLN adherents will try to retain a good deal of autonomy in regions where they are entrenched. Military ultras will resist such de-facto pockets of FMLN authority and will not defer easily to a civilian government they have been accustomed to defying or ignoring.
Here is where the U.S. comes in. Having spent $4 billion in a war to prevent a Communist takeover in El Salvador, Washington should use what funds it now has strictly in the interests of securing peace and freedom through follow-up, detailed cease-fire negotiations in Mexico this month. Unfortunately, U.S. military aid keeps flowing in at the rate of $85 million a year until there is a cease fire -- hardly an inducement to the military sector to work one out.