El Salvador's halting peace talks. Opposition leaders accuse Duarte government of balking at new round of peace negotiations; they disagree on date for round three

Salvadorean opposition leaders are frustrated with what they term President Duarte's footdragging on scheduling a third round of peace talks between the rebels and the government. They were especially angered by recent reports that President Duarte had said the rebels had accepted his proposal to meet in Costa Rica. The rebel leaders made public their own original proposal for talks to be held on June 15 in the guerrilla-held town of Perquin.

The meeting would be preceded by private preliminary talks inside El Salvador on May 30 and 31. The dispute may be based on a misunderstanding. But it typifies the lack of communication and trust between the two sides in the still halting peace talks, which few observers are optimistic about in the short run.

Guillermo Ungo, president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the political group allied with the FMLN guerrilla front, says Duarte has in the past refused to answer written requests submitted through Roman Catholic intermediaries as set forth during the first two rounds of peace talks held last fall.

``On three occasions [in January] we have sent Duarte specific proposals, and to all our proposals Duarte replied with silence,'' says Mario Aguinada of the Farabundo Mart'i Front for National Liberation (FMLN).

The Salvadorean rebels have been the ones most eager to negotiate with the government. They proposed talks to Jos'e Napole'on Duarte immediately after his election as President last May. Duarte didn't respond until his dramatic speech at the United Nations in which he challenged the rebels to meet him a week later in La Palma, on Oct. 15.

The meeting was a success for both sides. It gave the rebels their first de facto recognition within El Salvador as a legitimate political force. It gave Duarte the mantle of peacemaker that helped his Christian Democratic Party win the March 31 assembly election.

But the peace process bogged down during the second round of talks Nov. 30 at Ayagualo. The government only wanted to discuss President Duarte's traditional offer to allow the rebels to surrender.

The rebels presented their own proposal, which would ultimately give them a share of power in the government and merge the guerrilla and government armies, as was done to end the civil war in Zimbabwe. The government promptly labeled the rebels' position ``hard line.''

The peace talks were further complicated by the increased opposition of rightist elements of the private sector and the Army, which favor a strictly military solution to El Salvador's five-year-old civil war.

The Reagan administration, which could exert leverage on the Salvadorean right, is also considered to favor a military solution, especially now that the high amounts of military aid given to the Salvadorean Army are starting to bring results.

The rebels are eager to continue talks. But President Duarte, doing better in the war and facing pressure from the right, seems hesitant. Adding to his reluctance is that public meetings also run the risk of raising -- and later lowering -- expectations among a population tired of the war and eager for a negotiated solution.

The rebels, on the other hand, are eager for the dialogue to continue for several reasons:

It gives them legitimacy. ``By the act of sitting with us -- this is a recognition,'' notes Hector Oqueli, one of the rebels' representatives at the Ayagualo talks.

Given that a military victory is probably impossible, it gives the rebels a chance to move into the political arena and try to rebuild the mass movement that was virtually wiped out by government security forces and ``death squads'' in the early 1980s.

It would build momentum and allow other groups that want a negotiated settlement, such as unions, to participate. These groups would give the rebels a political platform, acting as a counterweight to the rightist groups that oppose talks.

Thus the rebels want to institutionalize the peace process. They are worried that Duarte's current hesitation may signal pressure either from the right or from the United States to end negotiations.

``Negotiations are the only solution,'' says FDR leader Juan Martell, a former Christian Democrat who left the party in 1980 because of its controversial decision to ally with the military.

``The continuing high cost of the war makes a military solution unacceptable for either side -- either the guerrillas or the oligarchy.

``Even if the oligarchy wins in five years, what will they inherit? A destroyed country.''

``The [rebel] front realizes this too,'' Martell adds. ``Inside the FMLN-FDR the will to negotiate is stronger than ever. The problem is that the government isn't really interested in negotiation.''

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