AS Salvadorans looked on in amazement last Wednesday, Roberto d'Aubuisson, a godfather of Central America's extreme right, welcomed to the National Assembly newly inaugurated lawmakers allied with leftist rebels. Along with the unanimous support of his fellow deputies, Mr. D'Aubuisson voted these archenemies of the far right into two legislative leadership posts.
But as El Salvador's left-of-center parties take nine Assembly seats - their first since the 11-year-old civil war began - debate has grown over whether this step toward national reconciliation, along with recent advances in the ongoing peace talks, represent profound or cosmetic change.
Politicians, analysts, and combatants agree the country's future still hinges on the United Nations-monitored dialogue expected to resume in the middle of the month in Mexico City. There negotiators will try again to agree on the future of the Salvadoran Armed Forces and the mechanics of a cease-fire.
Evidence is increasing that political space previously closed to the left may be opening. Despite a pressure campaign from the hard-line right, which had called constitutional reform "treason," the outgoing National Assembly last week passed constitutional amendments similar to accords reached during talks between the rebels and the government.
Among other changes, the lawmakers agreed in principle to increase civilian control of the US-backed military and security forces and to create an independent human rights monitor. They also empowered a commission, based on Chilean and Venezuelan models, to investigate the worst political crimes committed in the country since 1980.
In a last-minute reversal owing to pressure from rebel leaders, UN mediators and United States officials, the Salvadoran legislators agreed to give a left-of-center coalition its first seat on the council that supervises elections.
This revision "shows that pressure can make [the rightist lawmakers] come back and change," says Hector Silva, a new deputy from the leftist Democratic Convergence coalition. "It's a message that what we represent in this Assembly is not just nine votes, but other real pressures from outside." Yet many opposition activists remain skeptical.
The governing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA Party, still wields 39 votes in the 84-seat assembly and can block reforms if it continues to get the backing of the National Conciliation Party, formerly the official party of El Salvador's military.
Also, observers agree that the recent round of marathon negotiations fell far short of expectations for a cease-fire breakthrough. Antonio Canas, an analyst at the Jesuit-run University of Central America, argues that the last round of talks collapsed, but that neither the rebels, the government, nor United Nations mediators can afford publicly to admit the failure.
"At first, everyone was euphoric, but now we can see more clearly what happened in the dialogue," Mr. Canas says. "The talks continue to postpone the most difficult issues - the Armed Forces and the cease-fire - and the appearance of progress only hides these sticking points."
Despite this, rebel leaders appear determined to move their struggle from a military to a political arena. Some guerrilla sources say it is crucial for the rebels to achieve a cease-fire this year, if they are to organize politically for the 1994 elections.
Before agreeing to a cease-fire, guerrillas say they want recognition of political and military control in areas they dominate, as well as security guarantees to enable them to campaign actively.
Sectors of the Salvadoran right, meanwhile, say the rebels are negotiating from an increasingly weak position. ARENA Party founder D'Aubuisson, says changing international conditions, not patriotic motives, explain rebel interest in dialogue.
"They've had to accept this critical global moment, enter the democratic process, and begin to speak very pretty words about the meaning of democracy," D'Aubuisson says. But in a rebel-dominated area near the Guazapa mountains, guerrilla commander Walter Funes says rebels are in step with changing conditions.
"Our Berlin Wall here in El Salvador is the Armed Forces," Mr. Funes says. "In Germany, ordinary people were the ones to knock the wall down - here the people will do it, too."