Dawn for El Salvador

January 17, 1992

El Salvador's long nightmare is finally, joyfully coming to an end with the signing of a formal peace accord between the right-wing government and its leftist foes. After 12 years of civil conflict, after the deaths of 75,000 Salvadorans, after the destruction of the little nation's economy, after the uprooting of a tenth of the population, after wrenching heartache and hardship, the last of Central America's proxy hot-cold wars is shutting down.

And under surprising circumstances: The Farabundo Marti National Liberal Front, a storied guerrilla movement steeped in hostility toward the United States, is now counting on Washington, with the help of 1,000 U.N. troops, to discipline the Salvadoran military and thus ensure the peace.

As leaders from the hemisphere gathered in Mexico City yesterday for treaty-signing, rebel leaders were praising the "positive" U.S. attitude; members of Secretary of State James Baker's delegation, in turn, were encouraging dialogue and mutual trust. What this reflected was the quiet rejection of the Reagan era's anti-Communist crusade in Central America by the Bush administration. This was not only the result of Soviet communism's collapse but the administration's considered judgment that past policies were counter-productive. In the end, U.S. officials brusquely informed Salvadoran military authorities they had no choice but to sign on to the peace.

Mr. Baker, who will be in San Salvador today to address the National Assembly, may choose the occasion to announce a $1.8 billion international rehabilitation effort. This sum, huge by Latin standards, is approximately equal to the economic havoc wrought by the FMLN during the long civil war and approximately double the amount of U.S. military aid sent to stymie guerrilla inroads. If other governments join in, as expected, the reconstruction of El Salvador will be internationalized, as was the peace process itself.

Twenty-one months of arduous negotiations conducted by a revitalized United Nations under the leadership of former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, now a candidate for the next Nobel Peace prize, proved decisive. The Peruvian diplomat worked past midnight New Year's eve, when his term ended, to prod both sides to agreement. U.S. arm-twisters and conciliators did their bit in the background.

For the United States, peace in El Salvador, like peace in Nicaragua, is a triumph, but a triumph made possible by many developments far beyond Washington's control. What needs to be riveted in the collective consciousness of the hemisphere is a very important message: That the bedrock of U.S. policy is to support democracy, human rights and free-market economies throughout the hemisphere. This message was too often clouded when the United States supported existing regimes -- even authoritarian, militaristic regimes -- against Marxist uprisings. With the Salvadoran dawn, may these clouds finally be dispelled.

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