MEXICO CITY — El Salvador's guerrilla commanders, currently engaged in a dual military and diplomatic offensive, say they hope that President-elect George Bush will pursue a "more pragmatic" Central America policy than his predecessor, one that allows for a negotiated solution to their country's eight-year civil war.
The commanders of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front say they will continue to push for a military victory in a war that most observers consider stalemated, but they say they favor a settlement with the U.S.-backed government.
The rebels see Bush as less of a conservative ideologue than President Reagan and note that he faces a Democratic majority in Congress. "We believe there could be better conditions for an understanding so that at least we can communicate," rebel commander Joaquin Villalobos said in an interview here.
"It is always better to have war and a negotiating table than only to have war," he said.
Villalobos and Leonel Gonzalez, the leading commanders of the rebel front, have quit their fatigues and mountain strongholds for the first time in six years to make a diplomatic tour of Latin America with a message of moderation. In recent weeks, they have met with four Latin American presidents and several Foreign Ministry officials, seeking to build pressure for negotiations.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, author of the Central American peace plan, said after meeting with the rebels, however, that they brought him no new proposals. The new, hard-line leadership of the Salvadoran army, meanwhile, rejected the guerrillas' call for a truce this week during an Organization of American States general assembly meeting in San Salvador. The army chiefs ruled out a dialogue unless the rebels put down their weapons--a condition they say they will never meet.
The U.S. government has spent nearly $3 billion to defeat the guerrillas by building up the Salvadoran military and supporting a centrist, civilian government. While the counterinsurgency strategy prevented a guerrilla victory that appeared likely in 1983, it has by no means defeated the rebels. In fact, the guerrillas have demonstrated surprising strength lately with new urban recruits and a broad network of part-time militia.
The Salvadoran army insists it can isolate the rebels. To prove the army wrong and give force to their diplomatic tour, the guerrillas have taken the military initiative in the last two months with stepped-up urban and rural attacks that have brought the war to its most intense level in three years.
In an unusual, wide-ranging interview recently, the commanders spoke with three reporters at their hotel in Mexico City for two hours. Villalobos, 37, a former economics student at San Salvador's National University, heads the People's Revolutionary Army, one of five groups in the Farabundo Marti front, and is considered the rebels' leading military strategist. Gonzalez, 44, was a rural grammar school teacher before he became a guerrilla and commander of the Popular Liberation Forces.
Their emphasis on negotiations represents a change in focus, as the two have long held that a popular insurrection was inevitable. They said their current, two-track military and diplomatic strategy is timed to coincide not only with the change of government in the United States, but with the deteriorating political and economic situation in El Salvador.
President Jose Napoleon Duarte is terminally ill with stomach cancer, his centrist Christian Democratic Party is hopelessly split and the extreme-rightist National Republican Alliance, whose leaders have been linked to past death squads, is favored to win the March presidential election. The rebels' political allies, the Revolutionary Democratic Front, have returned from exile to run in elections on a platform calling for negotiations with the rebels, and the Catholic Church is pushing for dialogue.
"We hope, after eight years of experience in Latin America, that this Administration has a more pragmatic attitude," Villalobos said.
Villalobos said he hopes the anticipated Cuban withdrawal from Angola and the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan will encourage the United States to pull its aid and scores of military advisers from El Salvador. But his pragmatic political line may have more to do with other political considerations, such as Soviet reforms and the failing economies of the Soviet Union and Cuba, which make Moscow and Havana unable to sustain other countries' economies.
He insisted that the Marxist rebels embrace political pluralism and a mixed economy, and do not plan a one-party Leninist state. Clearly referring to Cuba, Villalobos said that a revolutionary government in El Salvador would be more open than in other countries because the world is more open than it was in the 1960s, when the United States isolated the government of Fidel Castro from the rest of Latin America.