MEXICO CITY -- The bloody Salvadoran civil war effectively ended yesterday, the last of the Cold War conflicts that divided ++ Central America and confounded three U.S. presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George Bush.
Price paid: An estimated 75,000 dead, over 1 million refugees and the expenditure of more than $4 billion in U.S. tax dollars.
Representatives of the Salvadoran government and the rebel Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) signed the long-negotiated 94-page cease-fire document yesterday, ending 12 years of fighting Feb. 1.
But for a moment it seemed difficult to remember what all the fuss was about, especially in an obscure, tiny country like El Salvador with a population of about 5 million.
That the United States became involved was part of an East-West conflict that today does not exist.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, President Bush and congressional Democrats have more recently made it known that the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador had to be settled quickly and peacefully.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Bush administration's
decision to de-emphasize Latin America, and the leftist Sandinista's fall from power in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections, all created the atmosphere to end the fighting.
But for a time earlier, the Salvadoran Marxist-led guerrillas epitomized for the Reagan administration a direct threat to U.S. security, causing it to spend millions in defending governments of questionable legitimacy.
In the course of the bloody conflict, U.S. churchwomen were raped, distinguished clerics were murdered and hundreds of innocent people were massacred, all at the hands of the U.S.-armed military or its civilian allies.
The FMLN is held responsible for the death of scores of government officials and some U.S. advisers.
Few North Americans understood that the roots of the conflict were essentially political, at a time when the United States found that military dictatorships in Latin America were an acceptable bulwark against Moscow and its only Latin ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Yesterday Cuban Foreign Minister Isidoro Malmierca, Mr. Castro's representative at the signing ceremony, seemed as isolated as the island he represented.
The minister was surrounded by newly elected presidents, such as Nicaragua's Violeta Chamorro and Guatemala's Jorge Serrano Elias, all of whom have been urging Cuba to adopt democratic and human rights reforms.
Yet it would be a mistake to view the Salvadoran cease-fire as a victory of the West over the East or even of U.S. policy.
What the Salvadoran rebels gained in 20 months of U.N.-sponsored peace talks would have been unthinkable in 1979 -- direct political participation by the left, judicial reforms, a police force under civilian control and a diminished army barred from intervening in politics.
By far the biggest gain will be a new political world, replacing one that was long dominated by a few extreme-right millionaires and their allies in the military and that is now eclipsed by an entire nation clamoring for an end to the brutality of the last dozen years.
All major political forces are now focusing on the presidential elections in 1994, when the FMLN and its its leftist allies are expected to form a new coalition capable of challenging the ruling National Republican Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym ARENA.
One had only to look at one of the rebel signers yesterday to see how much the political world had changed. The signer was Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a senior rebel commander, who as a young leftist activist in 1976 was kidnapped by the National Guard and brutally tortured for months.
Under the accords, the National Guard will be disbanded.
At the time of Ms. Martinez's abduction, the National Guard's chief of intelligence was Roberto D'Aubuisson, an extreme-rightist who became ARENA's charismatic leader and an implacable foe of the peace talks.
Late last year, Mr. D'Aubuisson, who is ill with cancer, did a
sudden turnabout and announced his support of the talks, thus strengthening the hand of President Alfredo Cristiani and ARENA's moderate faction.
At the same time, one had only to hear the words of another person at the signing yesterday to understand how much the world has changed.
Bernard Aronson, the assistant secretary of state for Inter-AmericanAffairs, said the United States should have stood by the late President Napoleon Duarte, a moderate, when he was overthrown by the military in 1972, setting off the chain of events that led to the war.
In defending U.S. policy supporting the Salvadoran government, Aronson said: "The U.S. didn't create the roots of the war. If the U.S. was not involved, I don't think there would be peace today and these reforms."
Mr. Aronson accompanied Secretary of State James A. Baker III to the signing ceremony here, joining the presidents of six Central American republics, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and the Spanish prime minister, plus U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gahli.