A New Year's Eve Bid to End a Nightmare : Only Washington can nail down end to El Salvador's war

Many difficult details are still to be worked out in the cease-fire agreement that could end 12 years of civil war in El Salvador. But for now the people of a deeply-divided nation--many living as refugees in Los Angeles and elsewhere--can celebrate a new year with genuine hope that their national nightmare is finally over.

The cease-fire agreement was reached late New Year's Eve at the United Nations, where negotiators for the two sides in the Salvadoran conflict had been meeting for the last two weeks. U.N. diplomats have been trying to work out a peace agreement for two years, but the year-end talks in New York City took on a special urgency because the term of outgoing U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar was coming to an end.

Perez de Cuellar devoted particular attention to trying to resolve the Salvadoran conflict during his final term as head of the United Nations. All the parties involved--the five rebel groups fighting the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani, and the United States, which has propped Cristiani up--knew that a new secretary general who was not Latin American would be unlikely to be as devoted to the difficult Salvadoran peace process.

At the very least, then, a cease-fire in El Salvador is a fitting end to the 71-year-old Peruvian diplomat's career--a tribute to his and the U.N.'s patience and persistence. Sadly, more diplomatic staying power will be needed before El Salvador can truly be at peace. There are still specifics to be hammered out before the cease-fire accord is signed later this month in Mexico City. After that, U.N. representatives will have to oversee several months of disengagement between the two warring factions in a complicated guerrilla war that has already claimed more than 75,000 lives.

INTRACTABLE ISSUES: Among the issues that held up a peace agreement at the end were how to safely disarm 5,000 battle-hardened guerrillas who are deeply distrustful of a government that has been linked in the past to death squads. The government demanded that they lay down their arms in return for guarantees of safety. The rebels demanded secure areas where they could safely disarm, a reduction in the size of El Salvador's 55,000-man army and assurances that rebel fighters who wanted could join a reconstituted national police force. Neither the New Year's Eve cease-fire announcement, nor a subsequent radio speech by Cristiani, explained how this had been worked out or, indeed, whether it even had.

Still, there is cause for optimism in the fact that among the parties praising the cease-fire agreement most profusely were representatives of the Bush Administration. Bernard Aronson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state who oversees relations with Latin America, flatly told reporters that "both sides know that the war is over." Optimistic words, but they can prove prophetic if the Bush Administration puts its muscle behind them.

UNDENIABLE LEVERAGE: After all, the war in El Salvador would not have lasted so long without Washington's involvement. For more than a decade U.S. military and economic advisers tried--with courage but not always with success--to counter the guerrillas' appeal by trying to reform an unjust society and the brutal army that protected it. But the need to commit to the central government grew out of the hysterical atmosphere of the Cold War. For the last couple of years, with the Soviet Bloc collapsing, the logic behind propping up any Salvadoran government started to unravel.

Now the United States has a special obligation to the people of El Salvador. Millions in military aid must be rechanneled to civilian needs and used to rebuild a war-torn nation. And any aid must be leveraged by both the Bush Administration and the U.N. to keep two tough, wary, adversaries talking rather than shooting.

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