SALVADORAN peace talks, set to resume in Mexico City today, are nearing what one diplomat calls "the moment of truth." Negotiators took a three-day recess after eight days of intense closed-door bargaining against a backdrop of mounting pressure on President Alfredo Cristiani from right-wing extremists in El Salvador.
Last week "the positions of each side became clearly known," says a source close to the talks who requests anonymity. "This week we'll see if the positions on the table are final positions or ones from which to negotiate.... This is the decisive week."
For a variety of reasons, this round of the year-old United Nations-sponsored talks began with a feeling that the government and leftist insurgents were at last ready to cut a deal.
The 11-year-old civil war has reached an acknowledged military stalemate. Both the Soviet Union and the United States (which is supplying military aid to the government of El Salvador) favor a peaceful solution.
For the first time, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) delegation includes a team of top field commanders; this shows an apparent intent to discuss specifics of a cease-fire.
In another first, the discussion has narrowed to three main issues: reform of the armed forces, reform of the Constitution, and the mechanics of a cease-fire. Indeed, to speed the process, there are three groups simultaneously negotiating on these points. The talks are also taking place under a deadline.
Unless the two sides reach agreement before April 30, this may be the last chance until 1994 to change the Constitution - a key FMLN demand. Under the Constitution's Article 248, constitutional changes must be ratified by two consecutive legislatures. There is a window of opportunity whereby the current National Assembly could ratify a change before the next (which was elected last month) takes office in May.
The FMLN wants to modify Article 248 to allow constitutional reforms to be approved by one legislature. It wants the police put under civilian control, a need the government has acknowledged. The FMLN also seeks the reform of agrarian laws and the judicial system.
All the demands would require constitutional changes. But it is unlikely such reforms could be drawn up, debated, and approved before the end of the month. In recent weeks, opposition political groups have called for legislation (to reform Article 248) that would allow constitutional change to be done with consent gained during one legislative session.
But the plan has met stiff opposition in the military and government. Vice Defense Minister Orlando Inocente Montano says the proposal amounts to "tossing out the country's constitutionality and breaking the law."
President Cristiani is under growing pressure from some military factions and the right wing of his Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA Party) to concede nothing - especially not Article 248 - and, indeed, to toughen his negotiating stance.
Advertisements splashed across pages of El Salvador's most conservative newspapers have accused the ARENA Party of secretly agreeing to reforms "in an act of treason."
Political analysts say the propaganda blitz by the far right, along with shrill opposition to reform within the military, compelled Mr. Cristiani to make a conciliatory national address this week.
In the speech, Cristiani promised not to bend to rebel calls for the gradual disbanding of El Salvador's military or to demands for recognition of guerrilla-held territory.
Ruben Zamora, one of eight members of a rebel-related political coalition who will take seats for the first time in the National Assembly next month, accuses Cristiani of caving in to hard-liners.
"The president is committing the same mistake that past leaders committed toward the right, and that led all those presidents toward disaster," Mr. Zamora says. "When you start to concede and give up something to the extreme right, there's no end to it."
But forces furthest to the right in ARENA say a democratically elected government is not obligated to broker agreements with an illegal armed opposition.
Salvadoran Army action
In recent days, rightist military and civilian leaders have repeated their opposition to most reforms discussed in the UN-mediated dialogue, including proposals to allow civilians to oversee removal of alleged rights abusers from El Salvador's Army.
Diplomatic sources say government intransigence or impotence could block a breakthrough in the current round of talks, leading the rebels to escalate military activity in order to prove their strength.
The Army on Thursday killed a top guerrilla military commander, Antonio Cardenal, also known as Comandante Jesus Rojas. He was a former Jesuit seminarian and the nephew of Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Rebels say Cardenal and other fighters survived the ambush, but were later executed by government soldiers.
Military officials say they are investigating the charges. Meanwhile, a wave of kidnappings targeting wealthy individuals worries San Salvador's prominent families, further eroding Cristiani's authority. Kidnappers have seized at least three individuals from the Salvadoran business class and are reportedly calling for multimillion-dollar ransoms.
Salvadoran judicial sources say the crimes are reminiscent of a kidnap-for-profit ring orchestrated in the early l980s by military officers and right-wing businessmen.
Opposition politicians speculate that the kidnappings are to raise money while destabilizing the government and weakening business interests supporting negotiations.
"I read in the kidnappings a warning from the extreme right, who are saying to the private sector, 'Look, don't play with negotiations or we could do this sort of nasty things to your sons,' " Zamora says.