Blank Check for the Hard Line in El Salvador

Kenneth E. Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College

Mid-September's ground-breaking meeting in Mexico between the Salvadoran government and guerrillas ended with an agreement to begin monthly negotiating sessions with international mediation. Will these talks go beyond public-relations posturing? Perhaps. There are new, strong pressures on the major players to pursue a political end to a civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives since 1980. Progress, however, will be meager until the United States demands serious diplomacy for its billion-dollar investment.

The critical fact that makes negotiations possible is that the 9-year-old war remains stalemated. The guerrillas, strong militarily, continue to take a heavy toll on the army and are crippling the government economically. But victory still eludes them, and the population, though largely sympathetic to the insurgents' reformist aims, is war-weary; almost 70% want a political, not a military solution to the war.

For President Alfredo Cristiani, negotiations at this point are largely a public-relations ploy to show the United States that, despite his party's close association with wealthy elites, reactionary social policy and death squads, he is really a man of peace. But there are mounting pressures on Cristiani to take negotiations seriously.

He came to office in June on promises of economic recovery and an end to the war. But the treasury is almost bankrupt, and deficits, trade imbalances and recession threaten to make the economic crisis worse. It is slowly becoming clear, even to some of his business-sector supporters, that no one will invest in economic recovery until the war winds down, and that a military solution is a distant hope at best.

The growing logic of a political solution is still opposed by many hard-liners in the ruling Arena party and the military. "We have nothing to negotiate" with the guerrillas, Defense Minister Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios said recently. His response to the 11-day unilateral cease-fire that the guerrillas initiated before the talks in Mexico City was to mount major counterinsurgency operations in five provinces.

The guerrillas have pared down many of their longstanding demands, but remain firm on these: the prosecution of military personnel involved in the torture and murder of civilians, and a general reforming of the high command. This is anathema to senior officers. For decades their institution has been untouched by civilian control, their political crimes and corruption beyond the reach of the judicial system.

Continuing a war that is personally profitable and paid for with the lives of junior officers and forcibly enlisted draftees is preferable to giving up their historic power and privilege--as long, that is, as the United States foots the bills. Negotiations will have a chance only when cuts in aid persuade the military that Washington is serious about a political settlement.

The Bush Administration does not seem to share Ronald Reagan's messianic impulse toward Central America, yet Secretary of State James A. Baker III is noticeably unwilling to rethink policy toward El Salvador. He may understand that U.S. policy is in trouble, but he wants to avoid a sustained, acrimonious congressional debate about supporting a reactionary regime and a hopeless war.

Here, too, pressures are slowly building. To many in Washington, the defeat of the Christian Democrats by the ultra-rightist Arena in last March's election signaled a policy failure. Despite the $3.6 billion given to El Salvador since 1980, neither the war nor the poverty and repression that fueled it was close to a solution.

El Salvador is already the third-largest U.S. aid recipient in the world. Now costs will rise, both for continuing the war and propping up an anti-democratic and virtually bankrupt, corrupt government. Supporters of continued aid are reduced to pointing out that at least Cristiani is not Roberto D'Aubuisson, the Arena leader who has been linked to political murders. No one is asking the really important question: Will the Arena government do better than the failed Christian Democrats in ending state terror and economic injustice?

In July an attempt by a House panel to restrict and condition aid to El Salvador failed, but it did lead to the first floor debate on Salvador policy in five years. Last week, an important group of senators on the Appropriations Committee, led by Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) brought forward legislation that would have sent an important message to the military. But a majority in the Senate proved as reluctant as the House to initiate a reconsideration of policy.

The Senate bill would have released $85 million in military aid, but only after the President certified certain improvements in El Salvador. What's more, the final one-third would have been released only if key congressional committees concurred that both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments were making a serious effort to "settle the conflict . . . through . . . negotiations," "protect . . . human rights," and preserve political freedoms.

The Bush Administration and its Senate allies claimed that such conditions demonstrated a premature lack of faith in Cristiani. Hogwash. If Cristiani were serious about pursuing negotiations and ending rights abuses, he would not object to such a bill--and a smart senator would see it as providing Cristiani with exactly the kind of leverage he needs to persuade the military to go along.

Instead, it's business as usual: The United States will write another blank check and the hard-liners in El Salvador will nod at rhetoric about democracy while pursuing their ill-fated war. If future peace talks are to have any meaning, the Bush Administration and Congress must reconsider their reluctance to get tough with the government in San Salvador.

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