Peace on El Salvador

December 27, 1992

El Salvador, the country named for Christ, is celebrating its first peaceful Christmas season in a dozen years thanks to a remarkable exercise in diplomacy by the United Nations. The vicious civil war that claimed 75,000 lives still rages in people's hearts but national exhaustion plus a dramatic change in U.S. policy gave the U.N. the opening it needed for a cease fire that somehow has held for almost 11 months.

During this period, rebel FMLN armies have been disarmed and demobilized, their leaders have formed a freely operating political party, land is being distributed to the landless and the right-wing civilian government has been mustering its courage to purge the armed forces. Compare this to Cambodia or Angola or Somalia or Bosnia.

It is this last, unfulfilled obligation under U.N. accords signed last January that remains a major obstacle to a more secure peace. A three-man commission has dared to draw up a list of more than 100 top military people, reportedly including Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce, who ought to be cashiered for human rights abuses. Some might be named in mid-January by a U.N. Truth Commission that has been gathering evidence of atrocities. But to tamp down the explosive consequences of such a revelation, a deal may emerge that will allow these militarists to retire as their allotted period of service comes to an end.

That the leftist Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front would even contemplate such an arrangement shows how much it has come to realize it could not achieve victory on the battlefield but has won the right (or the power) to play a key role in the nation's political life. Landmark elections are scheduled for March 1994, and the FMLN already stacks up as the strongest rival to the ruling right-wing ARENA party. A centrist third force of moderates who found themselves on opposing sides in the civil war is also forming.

There are plenty of problems ahead for a country with an #F appalling gap between a small wealthy upper class and poverty-plagued masses in the cities and countryside. But the ,, peace accords have brought signs of economic revival. Funds stashed overseas by rich Salvadorans are starting to flow back. Stores are opening. Construction projects abound. International aid of close to $800 million is being arranged and the United States has forgiven almost $500 million in debt obligations that could never have been paid anyway.

While the Salvadoran civil war was powered by its own internal dynamics, the Bush administration deserves credit for pushing for peace. Abandoning the ideological confrontation of the Reagan era, when American dollars trained and financed some of the most brutal military units, Washington prodded both sides to accept U.N. mediation. The result is a shining example of successful peace-making in a world that could use a lot more of it.

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