Downhill in Central America

The break in diplomatic relations between El Salvador and Nicaragua is a setback for the long effort to negotiate a peaceful solution to Central America's conflicts, but it doesn't necessarily mean the peace process is dead. It can be kept alive if the outside powers that have helped supply weapons for the region's wars, the United States and the Soviet Union, support negotiations in Central America as enthusiastically as they send military aid.

El Salvador's President Alfredo Cristiani announced that his government is suspending relations with the Sandinista government in Managua on Sunday, using as his pretext the discovery of a plane load of antiaircraft missiles that were apparently being smuggled from Nicaragua to the rebels fighting to overthrow the Salvadoran government. Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega responded in kind, saying he was proud to break all ties with what he called "a murderous government." Given the levels of violence in both countries, and the duration of their civil wars, neither Cristiani nor Ortega should take any pride in this turn of events.

The cruel truth is that the diplomatic rupture simply ends the hypocritical pretense that recent relations between Managua and San Salvador have been normal. It has long been known that the Sandinistas provide aid and comfort to the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, and there is abundant evidence that the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military helps the Contra rebels fighting against the Sandinistas.

But neither El Salvador nor Nicaragua could promote subversion against the other without the help of the outside powers who turned Central America into a battlefront in the waning East-West conflict--the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba. From the very start of his long, patient effort to negotiate peace among his warring neighbors, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has said that a halt to outside military aid was needed for the peace process to work. Sadly, his views have gone unheeded in Moscow and Washington.

But to now begin pointing fingers of blame, or trying to determine who started this vicious cycle of military and diplomatic tit-for-tat, is pointless. A more constructive step would be for Presidents Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev to give regional conflicts a high priority at their upcoming summit meeting in Malta. If they agreed to once and for all stop shipping the weapons of war into Central America, the two superpowers would do more to promote peace in Central America than Ortega and Cristiani could ever do to undermine it.

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