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New Salvador Talks, Little Cause for Hope

August 31, 1986|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda, a professor of political science at the National University of Mexico and political commentator for the Mexican weekly Proceso, is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

After nearly two years' interruption, the Salvadoran insurgents and the government of President Napoleon Duarte agreed in Mexico City last week to hold their third round of talks in the small El Salvador village of Cesori on Sept. 19. This comes as good news to the people of that beleaguered country, but the bad news is that the discussions will probably advance no further than the previous ones.

There are two reasons for this probable failure of the meeting between Duarte and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front-Revolutionary Democratic Front (FMLN-FDR) delegation, which will be headed for the first time by guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos. The first and most important one involves the military and political situation in El Salvador. In spite of the American Embassy's optimistic reports, the military stalemate established in 1981 has not changed in the government's favor. The guerrillas continue to inflict heavy casualties on the army--well above their target of 15 a day. They have also proved quite capable of concentrating troop strength and attacking army strongholds, as shown by their attack on military headquarters in the city of San Miguel at the end of June.

Successful negotiations would require a weakened insurgency, a triumphant Salvadoran army or a politically strengthened Duarte. The first two alternatives are not in sight, although there is no question that the military's performance has improved since the beginning of the war more than five years ago. Their ratio from dead to wounded is far better than before--the wounded are being evacuated more rapidly and receiving better medical attention--and this undoubtedly raises morale. But the revolutionaries have extended their radius of action to areas previously untouched by the war (like Santa Ana, in the west of the country) and are no nearer to being defeated than they were at the outset.

The second reason for low expectations at next month's meeting is that Duarte has not consolidated his power and seems to be less in control than before. In private the insurgent representatives at the Mexico City meeting say they were struck by the great difficulties the government delegation faced each time a decision had to be made during the talks. Despite the high level of the Duarte representatives (Rodolfo Castillo Chiaramont, vice president and foreign minister; Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, the head of the Christian Democratic Party; Fidel Chavez Mena, Duarte's heir-apparent and others), the insurgents felt them much less in command than at the preparatory sessions held in late 1984 and early 1985.

The two sides were not able to agree on an agenda for next month's talks, nor could they reach agreement on a prisoner exchange that was to be negotiated in a parallel set of talks in Mexico City. Once again, it seems that the government delegation was more unable than unwilling to proceed on these issues. For example, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas had given the delegation a list of more than 900 political prisoners whose freedom the FMLN-FDR was requesting on behalf of unions, civic associations and other groups, in exchange for Air Force Col. Omar Napoleon Avalos, but Duarte's envoys only produced a list of 23 names of prisoners they could exchange.

The reasons for Duarte's weaknesses seem clear. He is more than ever caught in the cross fire between his right wing, the Army and the Reagan Administration, which opposes any concessions to the guerrillas, and the resurgent urban, trade union movement that exerts pressure on Duarte to end the war and improve the desperate straits the economy is in. The UNTS, or National Union of Salvadoran Workers, has emerged in the last year as a new, prudent force to be reckoned with, particularly in the capital. Ironically, it owes its strength to the political opening which has occurred in San Salvador since Duarte's election in 1984.

If the Cesori talks in September are held at all--the archbishop's communique in Mexico City did not rule out a change of place or date--they will probably make no progress. There is no better proof of the continued existence of a civil war in El Salvador and of how five years of Reagan Administration support, money and training have not brought the FMLN insurgents any closer to defeat or disappearance. If anything the insurgents are more willing to wait out Reagan's second term, with the confidence that comes from having survived his first six years in office.

The war in El Salvador continues with no end in sight. Nor will there be one until either side begins to overpower the other, or until the United States decides that it can live with the outcome of real negotiations between the two sides, whatever that may be. But this latter option is even further removed than the former: The Reagan Administration is not in the business of saving lives, particularly if they are not American, nor of accepting political realities, particularly if they are not favorable to American interests as it perceives them.

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