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A Bit of Hope in El Salvador

Efforts to negotiate an end to El Salvador’s civil war have failed before, so one should not get too hopeful about the latest offer by President Jose Napoleon Duarte to talk with the leaders of the guerrilla factions fighting to overthrow him. But there is reason to hope that the two sides may be more flexible now than when the last peace talks were held in 1984.

Duarte must regain the broad public support that he enjoyed two years ago when he first met with representatives of the rebel Farabundo Marti Liberation Front at the village of La Palma. The popular enthusiasm of those days has faded because the initial talks resulted only in a brief holiday truce and because the economic situation in El Salvador has worsened since then. Even as the battlefield situation has improved for the government, Salvadorans have become more concerned with inflation and high unemployment, and their discontent is reflected in strikes and criticism of Duarte by labor and peasant leaders who previously supported his Christian Democratic Party.

For their part, the guerrillas are no closer to victory than in 1984, and if anything may be worse off against an army that is now more aggressive and better-equipped, thanks largely to training and aid from the United States. That may be why the FMLN responded so promptly to Duarte’s latest invitation to talk peace. The rebel radio station replied affirmatively within a day, and even announced that the rebellion’s leading military commanders would join the FMLN’s principal civilian spokesmen at any peace talks. That is an unprecedented concession by the rebels that could bode well.

But if negotiations are to succeed in El Salvador, both sides must be willing to make key concessions on the fundamental issue that divides them--power-sharing. The rebels want a role in the government before laying down their arms. Duarte insists that the rebels must stop fighting first, and then try to win a share of power in elections. Reconciling those positions will be hard. A good first step would be to discuss a cease-fire. At least then the fighting that has claimed almost 60,000 lives during the last six years could come to a temporary halt.

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