Salvador peace talks help Duarte to 'ace out opposition,' gauge military support

As the second round of talks between El Salvador's government and guerrillas begins today, much public speculation continues to focus on the man who won't be there.

From the beginning, Salvadorean President Jose Napoleon Duarte - who has said he will not attend these talks because they are purely technical ones - captured the public spotlight from the guerrilla leaders with his sudden and dramatic offer last month to negotiate.

His private reasons for making this offer and what he stands to gain or lose from negotiations remain a topic of intense speculation among both his countrymen and those interested in Salvadorean affairs.

Although Mr. Duarte's move has provoked increased pressure from El Salvador's extreme right wing, led by ARENA party chief Roberto d'Aubuisson and some of his military supporters, Western diplomatic and other observers of the region say Duarte has been politically strengthened by the move.

These observers see two main advantages coming to Duarte from the negotiations:

* The Salvadorean President has scored a political coup over his opponents on both the left and the right by establishing himself as a ''man of peace.''

* The talks give him a chance to gauge the depth of support for moderate policies in the upper reaches of Salvadorean military.

One Western diplomatic source in the region stresses that in terms of public image, Duarte has come out ahead of the guerrillas through the negotiations. The rebels are split several ways, he says. The armed groups of rebels are split, and there is also a split between the leaders of the rebel fighters in El Salvador and the leaders of the political wing of the rebel movement based in Mexico City, headed by political moderates like Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora.

Duarte, on the other hand, this diplomat says, emerged as ''the spokesman of the united faction, a faction called the government of El Salvador.'' During these talks, Duarte represents not only the political but also the military authority of the Salvadorean government.

Most important, by making the negotiating offer, Duarte has presented himself to the public as the only statesman and peacemaker who has come along on the Salvadorean scene in a long time, this observers says.

''Duarte,'' he says, ''has done a traditional Latin thing. With one bold move , he has aced out his opposition.''

He can publicly dismiss any right-wing opposition as the work of those who don't want peace, who oppose ending the bloodshed, the diplomat says.

On the other hand, he says, by offering to talk with people like Mr. Ungo, Duarte makes it hard for Ungo to say anything nasty about him any more. Duarte has, for the moment, created a situation where anyone who criticizes him puts himself on the same level as d'Aubuisson.

If nothing results from the negotiations, Duarte will still come out as the man who tried to bring peace to his country, and will be immensely strengthened politically in any course of action he chooses to pursue.

One observer who agrees with this analysis but who stresses the effect of the talks on Duarte's relationship with the military, is Lionel Gomez, a former director of the Salvadorean land reform program who left the country after repeated threats on his life.

Mr. Gomez sees Duarte's moves as a useful test of strength with the pro-d'Aubuisson extreme-right-wing forces in the military. The amount of support Duarte gathers in the military at the beginning of negotiations could be a useful sign in judging how much support he might get from the armed forces if he tries to pursue further moderate actions and if he tries to reduce d'Aubuisson's support.

Mr. Gomez emphasizes that Duarte is still in a very delicate position. He has the support of an important segment of the upper officer corps under the leadership of armed forces chief of staff Adolfo Onecifero Blandon, but d'Aubuisson has the backing of a smaller but important group of officers.

The majority of the officer corps, Gomez says, is still undecided, and this is why this current test of strength over the negotiations is crucial.

One critical problem, according to Gomez, is the threat to the physical safety of Duarte and moderates around him. Gomez, along with most other observers, believes that d'Aubuisson will use death squads and political assassination as a tool against his opponents.

Gomez says the death of Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, a top Salvadorean Army commander, in a helicopter crash last month possibly illustrated this. Recent press reports have stated that Colonel Monterrosa's helicopter was downed by a bomb that exploded inside the craft. After speaking with military sources who he said are knowledgeable about the circumstances surrounding Monterrosa's last flight, Gomez says he thinks the bomb was placed in the helicopter by extreme-right-wing military supporters of d'Aubuisson. It is very unlikely, Gomez says, that the guerrillas had access to the heavily guarded helicopter during the last few days before its final flight. Only some of d'Aubuisson's people had that kind of access, he says.

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