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In El Salvador: A Relic of the Cold War

For all the political passion it has generated, the civil war in El Salvador was never really a major Cold War battlefield. So it’s ironic that as the Cold War fades, the Salvadoran conflict remains deadlocked between factions that once looked to Washington and Moscow for aid.

It has been forgotten amid all the dramatic changes in the Soviet Union since Aug. 19, but two days before the abortive coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the United Nations pleaded with the Soviet and American governments to help break a “Gordian knot” that has stalled peace talks in El Salvador. In a letter to the State Department and the Soviet Foreign Ministry, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said negotiations could not progress without further help from the two superpowers. U.N. spokesmen declined to specify what Washington and Moscow were asked to do. But a close look at the situation in El Salvador leads to a reasonable guess.

What is most needed now is a way to assure the safety of the 5,000 or so rebel fighters who are holding the 55,000-man government army in stalemate. The rebels control about one-third of El Salvador’s territory. Government forces make incursions but cannot take control of those areas. The rebels want official acknowledgement of their territory as a safety zone to which their fighters can withdraw. The government refuses, and demands that the rebels lay down their arms in exchange for a guarantee of safety.

The government’s promise may well be sincere, but given the grisly history of death-squad activity in El Salvador, the guerrillas won’t buy it. So unless one side budges, 15 months of peace negotiations could come to naught. Given the new realities of the outside world, the Salvadoran government should concede.

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Granted, events in Moscow have tipped the scale in the government’s favor, but only slightly. Washington must persuade its Salvadoran allies to press the advantage at the bargaining table rather than pursue it militarily, with all the new bloodshed that would entail. The rebels are undoubtedly hurting because of the loss of Soviet support. But that does not mean they can now be easily defeated. They have proved to be a resilient lot in the past, able to survive under adverse conditions until they can strike at the government. How many more years of fighting--and how many more deaths beyond the 75,000 lives this war has already claimed--will it take to defeat them? And would the effort and cost be worth it? Not likely.

That is why the army must back off, give the rebels time to withdraw to their sanctuaries and then arrange a cease-fire. After almost 12 years of warfare, both sides are so exhausted that once the shooting stops no one is likely to have much stomach to start up again. A simple cease-fire could cut the Gordian knot.


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