Duarte-rebel meeting hints tide may be turning against leftists in Central America

The remarkable, and encouraging, thing about the meeting between government and rebel leaders in El Salvador this past week was that President Jose Napoleon Duarte dared to do it - and got away with it, alive.

His boldness, imagination, and courage in actually meeting and talking with rebel leaders have been compared to the flight to Jerusalem by former Egyptian President Sadat, a trip that dramatically changed Middle East history and brought peace between Egypt and Israel.

Whether peace can come to El Salvador during President Duarte's tenure in office is only a possibility. But the fact that he could go, meet, and talk with the rebels and get back to his capital still alive shows that he has built a reasonably sturdy political position for himself.

To make the journey to La Palma, talk to the rebels, and get back home has to mean that he has succeeded since he took office last June in gaining the loyalty of a sufficient proportion of the armed forces to protect him from the right-wing ''death squads.'' Presumably those death squads and their rightist allies would have prevented the meeting had they been able to do so.

It has to mean that he can now begin to rely on the Salvadorean Army generals. The pre-Duarte Army was more beholden to the right-wing leaders who were interested in killing, not reconciling with, the rebels. Now he has managed somehow either to neutralize or to defang the political right.

The rebel leaders, in turn, recognized that he had enough control to make it worthwhile for them to talk to him. They recognized by meeting him that it is not a waste of time for them to talk to him. He is a person of authority. He could, presumptively, deliver what he might promise to deliver in a negotiation.

If the meeting accomplished nothing more than to demonstrate to the rebel leaders that President Duarte dares and can meet with them, it has not been in vain. The chances are they went to the meeting partly to find out whether he could do it and survive.

That is now an established fact. And the established fact becomes the basis for future negotiations, just as the Sadat flight to Jerusalem established the ability of President Sadat to proceed toward making peace with Israel.

The fact is a symptom of a general change throughout Central America. The political tide seems to have turned. Until recently it was running to the left. Is it any more? Perhaps it is too soon to be sure. But El Salvador is not the only country in the region where the democratic center seems to be asserting itself and coming alive.

Guatemala and Honduras are practicing a degree of democracy, and apparently making some headway in the process. Costa Rica, once the only working democracy in the area, has managed to remain a democracy in spite of heavy economic problems and a guerrilla war next door.

A decade ago the tide was moving in Fidel Castro's direction. The movement to the left reached a peak in 1979 with the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. The revolution there, backed by centrist democratic forces, was soon taken over by a more Marxist element.

Beginning in 1981 or 1982, the Nicaraguans joined Cuba in supporting Salvadorean rebels. Grenada slipped in the Cuban direction. Fidel Castro had reasonable expectations back in those days of becoming the leader of a leftist empire including most of Central America.

If the tide were still running in that direction today, would the rebel leaders in El Salvador be taking the trouble to go to La Palma this past week to talk to Duarte? Probably not. It would have been a waste of time.

But they did go and that in itself discloses doubt in the minds of the rebel leaders that their cause is sailing atop the wave of the future. For them, perhaps the prudent course is to explore the possibility of joining the political center in El Salvador.

And the Nicaraguans seem to be entertaining similar doubts about the prospects of the radical left. They are in continuing negotiation with the United States. They may even yet find themselves being pushed into allowing an internationally supervised election which they could lose.

These are discouraging days for the political left in Central America, and slightly more encouraging days for the democratic center.

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