Commanders of El Salvador's guerrilla front and the leaders of more than a dozen Salvadoran political parties arrived here Monday to discuss a rebel proposal to postpone the date of that country's forthcoming presidential elections as a step toward peace.
Their two-day meeting at this Mexican government resort marks the first time during nine years of civil war that the Marxist-led rebels have sat down with civilian leaders from the entire political spectrum, including the far-right Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party as it's popularly called.
Although few, if any, gains are expected from this meeting, it is significant that the talks are being held in spite of opposition from the powerful Salvadoran armed forces. Defense Minister Carlos Vides Casanova has suggested there could be a military coup if ailing President Jose Napoleon Duarte remains in power beyond the scheduled end of his term June 1 to accommodate the rebel plan.
Last month, guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front announced their unprecedented offer to take part in elections if the balloting is postponed from the present date of March 19 to Sept. 15. The rebels said they would back Guillermo Ungo, presidential candidate of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of leftist parties, and would respect the outcome of the vote.
The Farabundo Marti leaders have since offered a 60-day cease-fire around the election date, but they have not made clear what would happen to their guerrilla army, estimated to number 7,000, if they lost the vote.
The rebels are expected to make another offer during the meeting here, possibly reducing the length of their proposed delay in the elections from September until July.
The American Embassy in San Salvador considers the proposal to put off the elections as a propaganda maneuver by the rebels. The Arena party, which predicts victory for its presidential candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, on March 19, opposes any delay. And President Duarte's Christian Democratic party says that it will support a postponement only if there is a consensus among all the parties for such a move.
All Parties Represented
Nonetheless, all of the political parties sent representatives to this meeting, all of them apparently wanting to appear to be peacemakers before the election.
About 20 politicians from San Salvador arrived at midday Monday in this resort, 85 miles southwest of Mexico City, and sat down to lunch with two of the five comandantes of the guerrillas' general command and three members of the rebels' Diplomatic Commission. Rebel commander Schafik Jorge Handel shared a table with Mayor Armando Calderon Sol of San Salvador, a leader of the Arena party. Another rebel commander, Francisco Jovel, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Comandante Roberto Roca, was seated near Hugo Barrera, a leader of the far-right Liberation Party.
A diplomat who attended the lunch said that the men, who knew each other before the war and who have fought each other for nine years, talked about their children and told anecdotes from their college days.
'A Certain Sadness'
"There was a certain sadness that came and went," the diplomat said.
Before lunch, Handel told reporters: "This is a beginning of a process of national consensus-building. This does not exhaust the process, because the army, the government and the National Assembly are not here. They should be here at the next step."
The representatives of the political parties declined to speak to reporters before the meeting.
Handel said that the talks are aimed at "reforming the electoral process so that it serves peace."
Rebels Ask Safeguards
For an eventual election, the rebels are calling for safeguards so that they can campaign, the confinement of military forces to their barracks on election day and guarantees for absentee balloting. They also want international observers on hand as a guard against electoral fraud. The guerrilla commanders rejected claims by the government and the armed forces that postponing the election date would be unconstitutional.
The rebels are expected to launch a major military offensive if the Duarte government proceeds with elections on March 19 as scheduled.
In San Salvador on Sunday, Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez said in his homily that the election date should be changed if doing so will guarantee an end to a war that has taken tens of thousands of civilian lives.