El Salvador's Happy New Year

January 03, 1992

El Salvador's long-awaited peace accord puts extraordinary pressure on the United States to put extraordinary pressure on the militants who have brought 12 years of death and destruction to that poor little country. While the collapse of Marxist-Leninist mythology has already isolated leftist extremists and forced them to the negotiating table, right-wing ultras in the Salvadoran military remain a potent obstacle to peace. They must now be isolated and cut off from money and armaments -- a task only Washington can fulfill.

It is also a task this country is morally obligated to undertake. Guerrilla leaders clustered under the umbrella of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front have plenty of blood on their hands and plenty of blood money in their past from the old Soviet bloc, Cuba and the deposed Nicaraguan Sandinistas. But to counter a now-anachronistic Cold War threat from the left, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran military the means to fight a civil war in the name of creating a peace. It is this awkward policy, which implicated the United States so deeply in El Salvador's troubles, which absolutely requires a tough U.S. attitude toward the Salvadoran army command.

It may have been gratifying that Salvador's defense minister, Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, conferred with the two most powerful guerrilla leaders, Sanchez Ceren and Joaquin Villalobos, in the frantic bargaining that produced the New Year's accord on El Salvador. But the same General Ponce was harshly critical of earlier concessions by Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani that, in effect, formed the basis of the peace agreement.

What is sure to outrage entrenched military authorities is the proposed halving of the armed forces, the dismantling of various paramilitary groups long bent on violence and the incorporation of rebel soldiers in a new civilian-led police force.

Until these understandings are put into effect -- until it is established that civilians rather than militarists on the left and right actually control matters in El Salvador -- the agreement will merely be a promise awaiting fruition. What gives the agreement teeth, however, is a provision allowing the United Nations to impose solutions if the two warring sides fail to meet a timetable calling for compromise on details still under dispute by Sunday, a formal end to hostilities by Feb. 1 and completion of the peace process by Oct. 31.

For 12 long years, the United States tried to promote democracy in El Salvador by arming and training a military committed to an authoritarian, elitist, feudal system. The U.S. cause has been helped by the failure of a Marxist resistance intent on imposing its own brand of totalitarianism on El Salvador. But this nation cannot even pretend it has achieved its mission until the Salvadoran military is de-fanged and popularly elected officials can govern in fact as well as in name.

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