Countdown for El Salvador

December 18, 1991

There will never be a last chance for peace in El Salvador just as, alas, there never seems to be a lack of pretext for carrying on a brutal civil war that has claimed 75,000 lives over the past dozen years. Yet the clock is ticking. If a formal cease fire cannot be reached by the end of the year, the mediating services of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar will be lost as his term runs out.

Mr. Perez de Cuellar has been a driving force in nudging two deadly enemies caught in a time warp to the conference table. On one side are Marxist rebels, members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberal Front (FMLN), struggling on despite the worldwide collapse of communism. On the other are the rightist army strongmen, blind to the reality that Reagan-style U.S. military aid is almost over.

Surprisingly enough, the Salvadoran dilemma has never been put more clearly than by President Alfredo Cristiani, a very interested party. His countrymen, he said last fall, "are easy victims of that abusive and irrational polarity that divided the world. . . on the basis of artificial ideological fanaticism." What a description of the Cold War and its proxy hot wars in the Third World!

Yet Mr. Cristiani, like the late Jose Napoleon Duarte before him, has much less than presidential control of his army. Since he signed the promising "New York accords" brokered by Mr. Perez de Cuellar in September, top military officers have balked over a breakthrough plan to incorporate rebel soldiers (perhaps even officers) into a civilian-controlled police force separate from the army. They have also made symbolic incursions into FMLN regions, thus threatening an understanding that peasants would not be ousted from land holdings established during the civil war. Meanwhile, of course, FMLN subversion and economic sabotage have continued, if at lower levels.

In dealing with two bloodied belligerents, the United Nations, with Bush administration support, is making one last try to get a cease fire in the fortnight left of 1991. Even if it is flawed, even if extremists on both sides carry on their fight, a cease fire would be a forward move. Salvadoran militarists would be cut off from U.S. assistance. The FMLN would face further repudiation by peasants and urban masses thoroughly sick of the violence and hardships of civil war. So the world should hope for Mr. Perez de Cuellar's success. It would be a fitting finale to his stewardship.

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