El Salvador's elusive peace

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.

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.''

On the guerrilla side, the largest of the guerrilla groups, the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), issued a communique a few days ago declaring - despite the recent loss of its two top leaders through an internal dispute - that the left is ''winning the war.'' The people, said the communique, ''should prepare themselves for the decisive battles.'' It is the FPL that took responsibility for the assassination on May 25 of Navy Lt. Comdr. Albert Schaufelberger III, the second-ranking American military man in El Salvador. (Another communique this week that bore the FPL emblem threatened to kill other US military advisers.)

The FPL communique claimed that the guerrillas hold the initiative on the battlefield. When it comes to attacks on the economic infrastructure, that has certainly been true. It is the start of the rainy season here, but some analysts think this will in no way slow rebel attacks. Some experts expect increased terrorist activity in the capital city of San Salvador itself. Whether the guerrillas actually launch ''decisive battles'' at this stage remains to be seen , however.

Last week, guerrillas destroyed a large steel bridge located on the Pan-American Highway some 50 miles to the east of the capital. A total of more than 70 bridges have been destroyed over the past three to four years. This week , the guerrillas struck at a major communications relay station in the eastern part of the country.

The government, meanwhile, is planning moves of its own. The Army is supposed to go on the offensive in the major cotton-growing regions in the eastern part of the country. Cotton is the nation's No. 2 export crop, and planting this year has fallen far behind previous years for a variety of reasons, including a lack of security.

Once the Army sweeps through an area, military plans call for the troops to be followed by civic action teams and civil-defense units. The idea is that these civic units will get abandoned farms and schools working again. The model seems to be based to a degree on the US-backed South Vietnamese effort to pacify the Vietnam countryside in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Critics are concerned that Salvadorean troops engaged in such operations will commit human-rights abuses, much as did some of the US-supported provincial reconnaissance units and others who were engaged in weeding out North Vietnam's fighters.

The big push into the eastern part of the country was to begin this month, but there may be some delay because of a lack of able-bodied men to run the civil defense units. Many such men are now to be found in refugee camps in the eastern region. Thousands of others have fled the country altogether. A military observer said ''the hangup'' in the operation is ''primarily logistical'' - a lack of adequate supplies for the push.

Against this background of imminent military action and reaction, the Salvadorean Peace Commission is calling on the guerrillas to stop fighting and to enter elections.

One of the three members of the commission, Francisco Quinonez Avila, a wealthy businessman and member of a conservative political party, said the government has granted amnesty to more than 420 political prisoners out of a total of more than 700. He admitted, however, that the real test of the amnesty law that went into effect May 12 will be whether it can attract guerrilla fighting men and not just those who might have guerrilla sympathies or those who have light sentences and want to get out of prison. So far, only 30 guerrillas have ''come down from the hills'' to accept amnesty, Quinonez said.

''The guerrillas said that this country does not want peace,'' said Quinonez. ''We're giving them the rebuttal. . . . We think it is very important to start looking for opportunities to talk with the guerrillas. This country will not leave anybody in the international community thinking it doesn't want peace.''

Spokesmen for the FDR, the guerrillas' political front, say that the presence of Quinonez on the Peace Commission, along with that of the former foreign minister, means that the commission is not part of a serious peace initiative. The third member of the commission is a widely respected Roman Catholic bishop.

FDR spokesman Ruben Zamora asserted recently that the commission does not have the power to ''make peace or discuss substantive issues.''

''If we said, here is our Peace Commission and we appointed three people without any weight within our country, you would say this was not serious.''

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