One year ago this week, government leaders in El Salvador talked of peace with rebels who were fighting to overthrow them. The high hopes raised at the meeting have sagged in the ensuing 12 months, and now El Salvador ranks with Northern Ireland and Lebanon as a trouble spot where the cycle of violence seems unending. But it is not unbreakable.
The people of El Salvador displayed their hopes for peace at last year's meeting in the town of La Palma. Thousands converged on the hamlet, waving white flags to cheer the negotiators. They expressed their desires even more powerfully a few months later when they elected a National Assembly controlled by President Jose Napoleon Duarte, who had initiated the La Palma dialogue. In doing so, they voted to repudiate rightist politicians who called for a military victory over the guerrillas regardless of the cost.
The current situation in El Salvador is not nearly so encouraging. Far from any negotiating table, Duarte is desperately trying to reach an agreement with a rebel faction that kidnaped his daughter. Salvadoran security forces recently suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of guerrillas. And the rebels, who stunned the United States by murdering four U.S. Marines a few months ago, now say they will target other American personnel.
All sides share some blame for this deteriorating impasse. Duarte has been slow to use the mandate for peace he won in the elections. He has ignored pleas of Roman Catholic Church officials who acted as mediators at La Palma for follow-up sessions.
The principal cause for Duarte's reticence appears to be the Salvadoran military. The army's leaders still refuse to admit that the guerrillas have fought them to a stalemate and cannot be beaten without more bloodshed and sacrifice than El Salvador can afford.
The military's obstinance is abetted by the Reagan Administration, which continues to pour enough military aid into El Salvador to keep the guerrillas at bay, but somehow never puts the same effort into the quiet diplomacy that might convince the rebels to give up their fight.
For their part, rebel spokesmen have been alternately savage and stubborn, threatening to take more American lives, insisting that peace negotiations cannot even begin until Duarte agrees to share power in his government with rebels and resolves other complicated issues.
While the guerrillas are undefeated, their leaders must realize that total victory for their side is no more likely than it is for the government, and no more desirable. A victory by either side in the Salvadoran war would be Pyrrhic--the winners left to govern an exhausted, ravaged country while the bitter losers withdraw just long enough to restore their strength and renew the fight. The only way to resolve the deep social and political divisions that caused the civil war is negotiations, however unsatisfactory that will be to die-hards on both sides.
Not all is utterly bleak in El Salvador today. The activities of death squads have subsided, at least temporarily, and the political influence of rightists like Roberto D'Aubuisson has diminished. There is still a chance for peace, if the dialogue begun at La Palma is renewed. But the initiative has to come from the rebels, who must realize that Duarte is in no position to bargain away power-sharing as a precondition of peace. Their best bet is to defer such issues and discuss a cease-fire. If the two sides can at least agree to stop shooting, the glow of La Palma need not be entirely quenched.