US Finds Path to Latin American Peace Hard to Spot

WHILE tensions over ideology and spheres of influence ease in Europe, the Bush administration is still hearing echoes of the cold war in Central America. The latest surge of guerrilla offensives in El Salvador has warmed some of once-heated and bitter US debates familiar from the Reagan years.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration succeeded in lowering voices over policy in Central America when it agreed to phase out military aid to the contras fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. After years of activism, the United States stepped back while the leaders of the region's democracies took the lead in promoting peace in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

But peace is clearly not at hand in El Salvador. And while Nicaragua's progress toward free elections on Feb. 25 has surprised skeptics, talks between the governing Sandinistas and the US-backed contras reached an impasse and broke off last week.

In the US administration, the region continues to be viewed as a stubborn outpost of the cold war, where the export of revolution from Cuba and Nicaragua to El Salvador presents a threat to US security.

Last week, Congress agreed to send another $85 million in unrestricted military aid to the Salvadoran government. But debate on Capitol Hill was sharp. The past two weeks have deepened suspicions about the government and the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador's 10-year civil war. The issue sparked demonstrations in the US: Several hundred people were arrested for civil disobedience on the West Coast while protesting Washington's support of the Salvadoran government.

The immediate flashpoint was the murder a week ago in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests by men, according to a witness, wearing military uniforms. But US support for the Salvadoran government had become more uncomfortable in March, when Salvadorans elected a president from the right-wing ARENA Party. ARENA has been suspected of links to death squads for a decade.

But events played up allegations about the rebel FMLN guerrillas as well. At midweek, the rebels briefly seized a hotel occupied by American military advisers and international officials. The incident mobilized crisis-managers in the White House and seemed to stall the momentum of political support for the guerrillas.

Although the eight heavily armed American Green Berets who were in the hotel remain somewhat mysterious, the incident heightened allegations that the guerrillas use noncombatants in residential neighborhoods as shields. Of the 71,000 people reported killed in the past decade in El Salvador, most have been civilians.

On Saturday, a black, unmarked plane loaded with Soviet-made antiaircraft missiles crashed in southern El Salvador. Its flight plan indicated that it had flown from Nicaragua and was bound for a Salvadoran beach.

The aborted delivery was the latest evidence that Nicaragua and Cuba supply the FMLN with arms from the East bloc. In recent weeks, a truck full of weapons from an Eastern European country, some wrapped in Nicaraguan newspapers, was stopped on the border. An arms cache was found in San Salvador with ammunition bearing the mark of a Cuban factory.

A US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, describes the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and the Sandinistas that govern Nicaragua as occupying a geopolitical time warp - a stubborn pocket of the East-West cold war in the Caribbean Basin.

``They are still very much imbued with the ideology and brio of the '60s,'' he says. ``The trends in the socialist world are kind of leaving them behind.''

Abe Lowenthal, a professor specializing in Latin American affairs at the University of Southern California, sees the guerrilla action another way: ``It always was more home-grown than the [current] administration or the previous administration has indicated.''

The real message of the last two weeks, Dr. Lowenthal says, is that after 10 years of war and $3.5 billion of US aid to the Salvadoran government, the guerrillas are still a formidable fighting force. The United States can redouble aid to the government, he says, or deal with the rebels as a serious force to be bargained with.

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