Salvadoran Hopes Fade

Sandinista defeat deprives rebels of key ally, limits prospects for talks

HOPE of reviving stalled Salvadoran peace talks is dimming because some military and government officials believe the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua has weakened Salvador's guerrilla movement, observers say. ``The mood that's increasingly common, especially among the military, is that there is no rush to negotiate with the guerrillas, that with the elections in Nicaragua, their time is limited and they [the military] can just wait them out,'' says a foreign political analyst.

Although top guerrilla leaders say they are working to restart negotiations with the right-wing government of President Alfredo Cristiani, there is a danger that the rebels will feel it necessary to launch a major offensive to convince the Army and government of their strength, observers say.

Some Salvadoran Army commanders have stated publicly that the defeat of the Sandinistas will leave the guerrillas of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) isolated and without an important logistical base.

But Rub'en Zamora, a political ally of the FMLN, cautions against assuming the FMLN is a spent force. ``I think that the FMLN will have some logistical problems,'' Mr. Zamora says. ``But it's an error to believe that because Nicaraguan has changed its government, the FMLN here is defeated.''

``The Salvadoran guerrillas are very clever people and they are capable of smuggling weapons through unfriendly countries,'' noted William Leogrande, of the American University.

The FMLN itself says its dependence on Nicaragua has been exaggerated. ``There is no such absolute dependence,'' says FMLN representative Salvador Samayoa. ``Yes, there is a relationship and cooperation, but not of the magnitude they have been alleging for the last 10 years.''

United States analysts also don't expect any short-term effect.

``The FMLN has more arms than people. Arms are not an FMLN problem,'' says US Embassy spokesman Jefferson Brown. ``Our general assumption is that at any given time the guerrillas have enough munitions for a 12 month period.''

``However, there is reason to believe that, by the end of April [when the new Nicaraguan government is to be inaugurated], caches may be resupplied while they have whatever support structures they have in Nicaragua still intact,'' says Mr. Brown. The Salvadoran Army will be watching carefully for any such shipments in the coming months, says Army Chief of Staff Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce.

Although the military strength of the Salvadoran rebels may not be significantly affected, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, the Salvadoran rebels' close allies, could lower morale, especially coming on top of upheavals in Eastern Europe.

``This defeat has hurt but its not a strategic defeat,'' says a senior FMLN official interviewed in Managua. ``The Nicaraguan revolution is not dead.''

``The Sandinistas are trying to build democracy and democracy brings with it risks - to win or lose elections - and they've accepted that,'' says the official.

``What is happening now is the breaking of all models, all of the dogmas,'' says the FMLN official. ``We're sailing on a choppy sea with many dangers and many opportunities.''

Mr. Samayoa, a member of the FMLN Political Diplomatic Commission, says that the Nicaraguan elections can have positive benefits for El Salvador. The Sandinista's willingness to hold democratic elections and invite international observers has gained them, and other leftist groups like the FMLN, credibility, he says.

Likewise, the long-term presence of international observers in Nicaragua has set a precedent that could be used for assuring fair elections in El Salvador, says Samayoa. ``We are convinced we could easily beat the government in fair elections. The people don't want more war, they're worried about the economic problems.''

However, frustration at the Sandinista defeat may cause some FMLN leaders to see elections as a stacked deck and push them toward the military option.

``You always have that concern that the extremes might try to derail any progress,'' says US Embassy spokesman Brown.

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