Political space for El Salvador

January 20, 1992

Now San Salvador can brag that "James Baker slept here," an overnight adventure never attempted by former Secretary of State George Shultz. It is a small side note, but an important one, to the signing of the peace accords ending a brutal civil war that took 75,000 lives in a dozen years. To use a favorite Latin American term, there is "political space" at last in El Salvador -- space for rightists, for leftists, for centrists, for United Nations troops, even for Yanquis.

If the cease fire is to take hold, however, if the Marxist rebels are to give up their arms and the oversized army is to be cut in half and accept real civilian control, there can be no political space for those Baker branded as "traitors. . ..vigilantes of violence on either the right or the left."

During the next eight months, El Salvador's task is to implement an accord that is at once ambiguous and yet agonizingly detailed. Disarming and downsizing the opposing forces are only the most obvious of the obligations ahead. Land ownership questions have to be settled in areas effectively controlled by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. A new civilian police force, with personnel drawn from both sides, has to replace the dreaded death squads. Political and judicial reforms must be implemented to ensure a liberalization of Salvadoran society.

These stirring prospects seem more fundamental than the dramatic changes that have already taken place in Nicaragua. In the latter country, a Marxist dictatorship succumbed to right-wing insurgency and free elections last year but political combat still takes place within the ruling families; in El Salvador, the first true elections (in 1994) may put an end to a feudal system dominated by elite landowners and their armed enforcers who, for centuries, have exploited a massive underclass.

Now what is essential is close cooperation between President Alfredo Cristiani, who proved once again that hard-liners can often compromise where moderates cannot, and Schafik Handal, the FMLN leader who talked with Baker and reinforced the message that a U.S. presence will be welcomed by rebels as a guarantee of the peace.

This presence will have to be material as well as moral. After pouring $4 billion into El Salvador to finance a war, the United States is obligated to lead an international effort to finance the peace. The little nation's devastated infrastructure and economy will have to be revitalized if its promised salvation is not to become another cruel mockery.

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