Nothing illustrates the changed fortunes in the El Salvador war so much as this week's peace talk issue. By his specific offer to hold peace talks with rebel leaders next Monday in the town of La Palma, President Jose Napoleon Duarte showed he was dealing from relative strength. In recent months the Duarte government has gained considerable support at home and abroad. Domestically, it has begun to gain control over the right-wing military, and its Army has been much more effective in the field against the guerrillas. Abroad, the Duarte government has gained increased respect, among West European as well as American political leaders.
By their tentative expressions of willingness to consider meeting with Duarte , guerrilla leaders were indicating that their fortunes have sagged over the last few months. The rebels' military situation has been deteriorating, and they are reduced to conscripting an increasingly reluctant populace in order to maintain their armed force. Since it appears unlikely that they could gain military victory in the near future, rebel leaders have been indicating a willingness in recent months to agree to a negotiated settlement.
The way to peace in El Salvador, however, is through political settlement: This is a conflict that will not be settled solely through military action, despite the Duarte government's recent successes. The Duarte initiative of peace talks should be supported.
At the same time expectations ought to be kept within bounds. No quick resolution to the struggle is likely. The deep distrust and divisiveness that now trouble El Salvador have taken decades to develop. Patience and consistency are requisites for the development of a healing solution. The current Duarte offer, and the tentative response of rebel leaders, are part of the ongoing political process on both sides.
As a practical matter it is vital that specific arrangements be made for extraordinarily tight protection so that the security of rebel leaders and President Duarte can be guaranteed if peace talks are held.
In any such talks, care should be taken to see that the nation's needs are put above the desires of either side. Agreeing on as precise an agenda as possible would help. It is important not to be naive: Substantial elements on both sides would view negotiations as merely another phase of the lengthy struggle for control of El Salvador.
Yet success can be achieved, and a start should be made. The Duarte offer is a good jumping-off place.