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Wary Optimism in El Salvador : Decade of War Has Stripped the Nation of More Than Money

IF PEACE BREAKS OUT: One in a series of articles examining prospects for a postwar Central America.

October 27, 1987|ARNOLDO VILLAFUERTE | Arnoldo Villafuerte is a businessman in El Savador.

SAN SALVADOR — What person in his or her right mind who has lived through El Salvador's civil violence over the last 10 years would not be willing to give peace a chance? The question is: At what price?

Both the extreme right and left have been guilty of bloody human-rights abuses. The business class has been guilty of not providing enough jobs for the mushrooming population, particularly the campesino and labor classes. The government has been guilty of incompetence and nepotism, and of seeing the specter of greed and oligarchic malevolence in anything having to do with business, free enterprise and individual initiative. The communists are guilty of wanting the whole system destroyed. Radical elements of the Catholic Church have been guilty of fomenting class hatred. And the armed forces have been guilty of repression, torture and corruption.

What have we left out? Ah, yes, dear neighbors--a devastating earthquake that cost 30% of a year's gross national product in damages, lopsided terms of trade, the lowest commodity prices in 20 years, an aggressive Marxist-Leninist neighbor, a liberal world press that consistently distorts this nation's reality and the fragile state of its young institutions, and a fickle U.S. Congress that sends inconsistent mandates to policy-makers.

Against this backdrop comes a meeting of the five Central American presidents in the small Guatemalan town of Esquipulas and the prospects of a "long and lasting peace for Central America." Fat chance.

Pursuant to the Esquipulas agreement, the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas of El Salvador met for the third time with President Jose Napoleon Duarte and his advisers, and not surprisingly maintained their tough agenda of "uniting" both armies, sharing power without elections and being recognized as a viable and legitimate political power, among other unconstitutional demands. Of course, the guerrillas also want the five-year-old Constitution dissolved.

Meanwhile, back at home, the opposition parties failed to play ball. They chastised Duarte for meeting with the terrorists rather than building a consensus against a clear Marxist-Leninist strategy that brought Daniel Ortega and his comrades to power in neighboring Nicaragua.

And life goes on in El Salvador.

The guerrillas go back to their hills, and Duarte goes off to Washington and Europe to consolidate his political support and seek economic aid. And those of us who believe in the future of this small nation go back to work, and at day's end to the warmth of our childrens' eyes.

No, I do not believe that peace is immediately at hand--or, for that matter, that a regional war will break out.

The tough communist comandantes in the hills will never put down their arms short of a revolutionary victory a la Nicaragua. But El Salvador's institutions are now flexible enough to take the strain, particularly within the fragile but nevertheless existent democratic process that has begun.

There is within this lugubrious scenario a sense of upbeatness that keeps many of us optimistic about the future of our lyrical land.

There exists a chance that the moderate faction of the guerrilla forces will join the electoral process during future elections, but it seems highly unlikely that their Marxist-Leninist cohorts will follow suit--and may not even allow them to enter the political stage.

The army will continue to clean up its act.

Human-rights conditions have improved.

The United States will most likely continue to support democracy in El Salvador through a three-pronged approach of economic and political reforms, direct economic aid, and military aid to help win the war--which now takes 40% of our budget, leaving little for everything else.

Of course, much depends on the future of U.S. aid to the Contras in Nicaragua.

There are undisputed linkages between the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran situations, which most Americans fail to understand. (This writer was appalled to hear from a savvy but sincere U.S. airline ticket agent in Florida, whose company recently started flying to El Salvador, that she did not know where this country was! One can only imagine what the rest of the U.S. population at large knows about the real issues facing El Salvador and Central America.)

When peace breaks out in El Salvador, the private sector must be primed to create employment, to invest in new factories and to increase agricultural output to make the economy once again vibrant, self-sufficient and free from foreign aid; the private sector alone can't do that, and neither can the government.

The labor movement must not be used for political ends, as it has been by communist and leftist forces that seek out repression from the army for propaganda purposes.

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