SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — El Salvador has been suffering civil war for eight years, perhaps the saddest reminder of the ineffectuality of U.S. policy in Central America. Costa Rica, meanwhile, has been the peacemaking nation in the region and last week I watched President Oscar Arias Sanchez begin a new effort at bringing together the warring parties in El Salvador's fratricidal conflict.
Arias met with two senior emissaries of the Marxist guerrillas--the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)--and agreed to convey their proposal for new negotiations to Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte. Arias also offered Costa Rica as the neutral ground for any such talks, to begin as soon as this week.
The U.S.-supported El Salvador government is in trouble from left to right. Duarte's Christian Democratic Party lost control of the Legislature to hard-line conservatives in last March's legislative election. Since then, the FMLN guerrillas have enjoyed unprecedented military strength. Both developments add up to a potential disaster in the war-ravaged little republic, so Arias was ready to give El Salvador immediate priority.
My own extended conversations with the two guerrilla commanders that same week in San Jose suggest that the FMLN believes it is dealing from a position of military and political strength. Costa Rican peacemakers have the same impression. The two rebel commanders told their stories at a San Jose office one afternoon early last week. Jose Mario Lopez is a soft-spoken man with a graying beard. Ana Guadalupe Martinez is an intense 31-year-old woman who said she had been in the guerrilla movement since her university years; she is also the mother of two children and proud of having stayed in the front lines through the seventh month of her last pregnancy two years ago.
Both guerrillas have political sense as well as combat sense; they are leaders in the FMLN network of international contacts. In San Jose, they also spoke for the rebels' civilian partner, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR).
The point they repeated during our discussion was that this is a "propitious moment" for new negotiations with the Salvadoran government. They are convinced that an extreme right-wing candidate will win the presidential election next March (Duarte cannot run for re-election under the constitution); the new man will unleash "total war against the people." This view is privately shared by Costa Rican observers who believe that the war, having already cost more 60,000 lives, will escalate into a nationwide massacre if not settled in some negotiated fashion during the coming months.
Guerrilla representatives of course express self-serving opinions--propaganda is part of warfare--but political and military realities give substance to their claims about the situation in El Salvador. Martinez said, "this is the moment of our greatest growth, our greatest strength, and, above all, of our greatest political influence. I spent the whole last year in combat," she went on, "and I know that never before had the army given up so much territory while the population is organizing itself in so many ways."
Lopez talked about the expansion of FMLN operations: "Three years ago, we moved in six to eight departments (provinces) in El Salvador, out of a total of 14; today we fight in 13 of them . . . . We have built networks of support for the guerrillas . . . . We can move on foot all over the national territory without any great difficulty. The army cannot control us despite efforts to destroy what they call corridors that allow guerrilla forces to move from the eastern corner of the country to the western corner and back again."
Events confirm these assertions. On May 11, a few days before the two emissaries turned up in San Jose, guerrillas blew up sections of a hydroelectric dam 40 miles north of San Salvador, destroying power installations, forcing the government to decree the rationing of electricity throughout the country. Lopez said, "This was a strategic operation . . . . Mine fields surrounded the dam area, and it was guarded by 14 heavy concrete bunkers with a wide field of machine gun and mortar fire . . . . So this was the proof that there are no targets that are invulnerable to our forces."
Guerrilla offensives began earlier this year, scoring major successes against the army even though, according to Martinez, the government had assigned 5,000 men in four special battalions designed precisely to neutralize such guerrilla attacks.
Salvadoran army officers, she said, were becoming "impatient" with their 55 U.S. military advisers, who are accused of still thinking "they're fighting the war in Vietnam that has been over for long years." The Salvadoran officers, by contrast, think that "the wealth of counter-insurgency experience they have acquired in all the years of fighting us is vastly superior to what they're being taught by the Yankees . . . . They think they can give lessons to the advisers."