|El Salvador -
The Economist, May 25th 1991
FROM ROBIN LUBBOCK IN SAN SALVADOR
Bathed in sweat and tropical drizzle, a seemingly endless column of heavily armed troops trudges through the red mud of the sugar-cane plantations in central El Salvador. After days of fighting, the rows of expressionless faces stand in stark contrast to the smiles and handshakes at the peace talks in Mexico and Venezuela, where the soldiers' fate may be decided.
In Caracas this weekend representatives of El Salvador's government and of the left-wing guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) are due to start talking again, under United Nations auspices. Muted success in the talks so far has, for the time being, brought a bout of tougher fighting in El Salvador. Both sides are seeking to assert effective control of land; the army, in particular, wants to claim back territory now held by the FMLN.
Opposition leaders say their presence will encourage the negotiators. But this does not necessarily mean an early ceasefire. Both the army and the rebels accept that they cannot win on the battlefield, but neither of them will stop fighting without further concession and guarantees. The negotiators are under international pressure to show flexibility. But the rebels are determined, and behind the government's pragmatic peace-seekers, stand hard-line soldiers and officials of the ruling ARENA party who think their side has already made enough concessions.
The government side wants serious give from the rebels; in particular, an immediate ceasefire, rapid demobilisation of rebel troops and the return of land recently occupied by peasants displaced by the war. For their part, the FMLN's people want guarantees that they will not be harassed in their political work in the capital. They also seek access to the media, and the allocation of frequencies for their radio broadcasts. Once the fighting has stopped they want a longish period of "armed peace" while negotiations proceed on social and economic reforms and on the future of the armed forced, whose size they want much reduced.
Much depends, too, on the way the government and the army treat the political opposition. This month, for the first time since the war began, elected left-wing politicians (led by socialist, Ruben Zamora) took their seats in the National Assembly. They claim that, in recent weeks, there has been a resurgence of the murky side of Salvadoran politics. In the west of the country Mr Zamora's Democratic Convergence claim that soldiers have captured some of its members and warned them off politics. Last week a leading party member in the area was found dead. Party spokesmen say it looked like a death-squad killing.
The talks in Caracas are likely, under their own momentum, to produce some signs of progress. But there will be no breakthrough unless President Alfredo Cristiani can overrule the powerful forces of his own right wing. As the rainy season gets under way, El Salvador's grim-faced soldiers may have little time to hang up their boots to dry.
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