Mexico and Venezuela have taken the lead in a peace initiative to end the fighting in El Salvador, according to diplomats here. Both of these increasingly influential, oil-producing nations are said to be exerting strong pressure on the government of El Salvador and its opponents to open peace talks.
It is too early to say whether the latest initiative will produce results. But it is being talked about by some specialists in Washington as the most promising of several attempts that have been made over the past few months to find a means of resolving the El Salvador conflict.
At some point, the cooperation of the United States would probably be necessary for a Mexican-Venezuelan initiative to succeed.This is because of the strong ties that the US has with the El Salvador junta headed by President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
Details of the current peace proposals are not available.
The Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs said that in addition to Mexico and Venezuela, other Latin American nations, as well as Canada, might be involved. Other sources said that West German Social Democrats with ties to the Salvadoran opposition might also be trying to facilitate a settlement. Hans-Jurgen Wischnewski, deputy chairman of the party, was quoted on April 24 as saying that Fidel Castro had told him in a lengthy talk that he had come to favor a political solution in El Salvador.
But the US gives the impression of being on the sidelines of the diplomatic activity at the moment.
Speaking informally and not as a spokesman, one administration official said, however, that even if the US disapproved of the Mexican-Venezuelan initiative, it would be "dangerous to oppose it."
This is an indication of how far Central America has come since the days when the US exercised a kind of hegemony over the region. Mexican and Venezuelan influence in the region has grown, partly thanks to the concessionary oil agreements that the two nations have extended to the Central American nations.
The region's two largest oil producers, Mexico and Venezuela recently decided to work together to counter any outside intervention in Central America. In a joint communique issued April 8 at the end of a visit to Mexico City by Venezuela's President Luis Herrera Campins, the two nations warned of the danger of an "internationalization" of the Salvadoran conflict.
Mexico has ties with the Salvadoran opposition but its relations with the Salvadoran junta have long been strained. The Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the political umbrella group of the opposition, has offices in Mexico City. The front has been denounced by the State Department as a mere propaganda front for leftist-led guerrilla groups operating in El Salvador. But Mexico apparently takes the FDR seriously. Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is reported to have helped the FDR solicit funds. Mexico has also maintained friendly ties with Cuba, the nation that is accused by the United States of supplying, training, and even directing the Salvadoran guerrillas.
Venezuela, on the other hand, has been the only major regional supporter of the Salvadoran junta. But there has been some domestic opposition to this role inside Venezuela. Some of Venezuela's Christian Democrats are reported to be distressed with repeated reports that Salvadoran security forces are linked with the death squads that have attacked unarmed, suspected "subversives" in El Salvador.
Previously considered competitors in Central America, Mexico and Venezuela could exert enormous leverage on the parties to the Salvadoran conflict if they succeed in coordinating their peace initiative. Indeed, the main Salvadoran antagonists have begun to show signs of feeling the pressure, with both attempting to demonstrate publicly their belief in some kind of peace process.
Opposition representatives said over the weekend that they were willing to hold peace talks if certain conditions were met. Some US officials felt this might amount to nothing more than a tactical propaganda ploy. President Duarte said he was willing to hold talks, but only if there were no preconditions.
Latin America correspondent James Nelson Goodsell reports:
Two months after the Reagan administration issued its controversial White Paper alleging Cuban arms shipments to leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, Fidel Castro seems to have confirmed its findings.
In conversations with Dr. Wischnewski the Cuban leader insisted that the shipments had ended and did not deny that they had earlier taken place. Dr. Castro did deny that the Soviet Union had been involved.
In a sense, the Castro comments clear the air -- and, according to Washington sources, could be a catalyst in spurring the longstanding but sidetracked Mexican-Venezuelan initiatives on a negotiated settlement of the Salvadoran civil war.
Those initiatives, dating to August of last year, have languished in part because of Venezuelan uneasiness over the Cuban arms shipments.Now that Cuba has admitted its arms role, Venezuela is reportedly ready to reembark on the peace effort.
Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte indicates that he is prepared to accept the Mexican-Venezuelan mediation offer. He has had contact in recent days with Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins, whose early April visit to Mexico for talks with President Jose Lopez Portillo reinvigorated the possibility of Mexican-Venezuelan teamwork on seeking a Salvadoran solution.
The Reagan administration questions whether the Latin American initiative will yield results, but says it believes the Mexican-Venezuelan effort is worth pursuing -- and as early as last February told Mexico City and Caracas that it would welcome the initiative. With the Castro admission now public, Washington is eager for the two governments to rekindle their efforts for a negotiated settlement.
For the Reagan administration, moreover, the Castro comments come at a good time. They give fresh support for its own much-buffeted Salvador policy, blunting criticism of the Reagan decision to send arms to the Duarte government as a response to the Cuban role.
In addition, they present the coalition of leftist Salvadoran guerrillas and political leaders with a credibility problem since some of the leftist politicians in El Salvador have repeatedly denied that their guerrilla colle agues had received arms from Cuba.