The guerrillas fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador have made their most dramatic effort so far to end nearly a decade of warfare in that country. President Jose Napoleon Duarte should reply quickly and constructively to the rebel proposal while the United States continues to encourage the nascent peace process.
Meeting in Mexico with leaders from 13 Salvadoran political parties, representatives of the five guerrilla factions in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front offered to lay down their arms and "incorporate ourselves into the nation's political life" if the government responds by changing the country's powerful military and security apparatus. In making the offer the rebels abandoned their longstanding demand that the 6,000 regular guerrilla fighters of the FMLN be integrated into the Salvadoran army as a precondition to peace. The proposal clearly caught Salvadoran political leaders by surprise--and impressed them. Even a spokesman for the ARENA party, which has urged all-out war on the FMLN in the past, called the rebel offer "a transcendental step."
This is the second time in as many months that the FMLN has offered a dramatic concession totry to renew a long-stalled peace dialogue in El Salvador. In January it offered to take part in presidential and legislative elections scheduled for later this year if the government agreed to postpone the voting from March to September and guaranteed to protect candidates sympathetic to the rebels. The talks in Mexico were a result of that first rebel offer, which was initially rejected by Duarte as a sham.
Only when the U.S. government, which pours about $1 million worth of military and economic aid into El Salvador each day, expressed interest in the guerrillas' first proposal was it taken seriously. The Salvadoran political leaders traveled to Mexico this week to further explore the rebels' election plan, but they returned to El Salvador with something even more substantial. Now it is time for Duarte and his government to respond.
Clearly much remains to be discussed before peace can come to El Salvador. How will the rebels be disarmed, for example? And will El Salvador's powerful military caste be willing to accept the profound changes that the rebels have suggested? Will the generals reduce the army to 12,000 men, the number that it had when the civil war began in 1979, from the current level of more than 50,000? Will they surrender the control of the Treasury Police, the National Police and other security agencies that have been the source of so much corruption and that harbor some of El Salvador's worst violators of human rights? And what of the rebel demand that several famous human-rights cases, including the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, be investigated?
The answer to those and many other hard questions regarding El Salvador's future can be answered only when Salvadoran government representatives sit across the negotiating table from the FMLN. It is time for that to happen, and the United States must use all its influence in El Salvador to guarantee that it does.