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El Salvador's elusive peace

By Daniel SoutherlandStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 1983



San Salvador

In Washington, some congressmen are calling for negotiations to end the Salvadorean war. President Reagan says negotiations are fine as long as they deal mainly with elections. He is sending a special envoy to the region to help achieve a peace.

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But here in El Salvador, peace seems an unlikely prospect indeed for some time to come. Both sides are preparing major new military thrusts, and they are announcing them in advance.

Beyond the official rhetoric, the prospect is for a long struggle, which, at this point, neither side can win.

In this protracted struggle, a key target of the Marxist-led guerrillas has been the economy. How Salvadorean economy manages to function at all in the midst of persistent attacks on bridges, telecommunications, and electrical facilities is a minor miracle. The country is virtually bankrupt. It depends on United States aid for nearly 25 percent of its capacity to import. An estimated 40 percent of the work force is unemployed.

If there is any good news from El Salvador, it is that this is a resilient people who, once the peace comes, can be counted on to rebuild as intensively as they have fought.

There is, of course, much weariness with the war. But the ''Salvos,'' as some Americans call them, are a tough people - and that applies to both sides in a war that is likely to intensify.

The explanation most Salvadoreans give for this toughness is their long history of struggle for survival. El Salvador is a nation of some 5 million people trying to survive on only 8,200 square miles of volcanic territory - a country slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. The Salvadoreans are widely reputed to be the hardest workers in Central America.

This is a particularly active moment, meanwhile, on the peace front. President Reagan's newly confirmed special envoy to Central America, former Sen. Richard Stone (D) of Florida, is here June 2-4 to talk with, among others, Salvadorean officials and three members of the country's government-appointed Peace Commission.

The Peace Commission has just issued its clearest statement to date calling on all Salvadoreans, including the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), the guerrillas' political front, to participate in elections now expected to take place in November.

A government-appointed amnesty commission is urging the guerrillas to lay down their arms and go democratic. The FDR's spokesmen say that, given the thousands of assassinations which right-wing death squads have carried out in El Salvador over the past few years, it would be madness for the guerrillas to lay down their arms. That would lead to the annihilation of their forces, they say.

Well, then, let's talk about security arrangements for left-wing candidates for election, says the government's Peace Commission.

All this makes for good international relations, perhaps, but it seems to be convincing few Salvadoreans that peace is just around the corner.

In Washington, American officials privately acknowledge that Mr. Stone's appointment as a special peace envoy was mainly designed to placate a restless Congress. Testifying at his Senate confirmation hearings, Stone himself said that a negotiated settlement of the region's conflicts is likely to be ''a long shot.'' A US official referred to Stone's appointment as a ''throwaway'' move.

In San Salvador in his most recent homily, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas said that he had returned from a trip abroad to find the war flaring up again.

Another high-ranking Roman Catholic official, who asked not to be identified, described the situation in this way: ''The talk about peace is rhetoric. No mechanisms are in place that can lead to peace. . . . The extremists on both sides have been so radicalized that their positions are irreconcilable. So the war will continue, and the strongest will triumph. No matter what class of people you talk to here - the poor, the rich, the middle class - that's the way they see it.''