Impasse in El Salvador

IN affairs of state, as elsewhere, ripeness is essential. The civil war in El Salvador isn't yet ripe for settlement by the combatants alone. One sadly draws that conclusion as another round of peace talks between the Salvadoran government and the Farabundi Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) ends inconclusively. The stalemated, decade-long war has cost more than 70,000 lives, most of them civilians, but each side stubbornly believes it can strengthen its leverage. Neither side views the benefits of a settlement (except on its own terms) or the price of continued fighting as great enough yet to invest the negotiations with a sense of ripeness.

The main sticking point in last week's talks in Costa Rica was the guerrillas' demands for a major purge of top military leaders, together with other reforms, and that all members of the armed forces responsible for human rights abuses be punished. This was a large step up from previous FMLN demands that the army be restructured and that justice be meted out to those soldiers responsible for certain specified murders.

The government's swift rejection of the new demands was so predictable that observers have to wonder about the FMLN negotiators' good faith; especially given reports that the guerrillas are preparing another large offensive. The proposals seem aimed more at pleasing rebel constituencies than at hammering out a deal with the government.

But the army is equally responsible for the lack of progress. Oligarchic and inbred, the officer corps has stoutly rejected proposals for military reform. The army also has stonewalled against the investigation into the murders last December of six Jesuit priests. Meanwhile, military-backed persecution of labor leaders, leftist politicians, and other ``dissidents'' has proceeded.

What outside factors could help break the deadlock? First, the United States should tighten the strings on the $85 million in military aid budgeted for the government of President Alfredo Cristiani, who appears to have little control over his generals. With the end of the war in Nicaragua and the collapse of international communism, US security interests in El Salvador have diminished. Washington must keep its economic-aid commitments to El Salvador, but a crimp in its military aid might jostle the generals into new openmindedness.

Second, the Central American presidents were creatively instrumental in ending the war in Nicaragua. The time may be ripe for El Salvador's neighbors to assume a similarly active role in stopping another war that can only harm the region.

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