WHEN Amanda Villatoro, one of eight trade unionists recently elected to serve in El Salvador's National Assembly, drives home from work, she clasps her steering wheel in one hand and a pistol in the other. "Some crazed extremist is still likely to see one of us on the street and pop a bullet in our head, believing he's liberated El Salvador from a 'communist traitor, Ms. Villatoro says.
Ending the cycle of violence is one of the greatest challenges to political progress in Central America. Yet the feisty 29-year old organizer and her colleagues see tensions starting to ease as peace negotiations progress.
"Now we've been given a quota of respect, and we're confident in the Assembly we can push through some laws to aid workers," Villatoro says.
For the first time ever, labor leaders form a significant block in the 84-seat Assembly. The trade unionists are likely to ally with the nine deputies from left-of-center parties who entered the Assembly this month. This "Group of 17" is expected to push for rights that their counterparts in industrialized countries often take for granted: the freedom to organize, strike, bargain collectively, and enforce a national labor code.
The return of unionists and parties of the left to Salvadoran politics is but one indication of the historic steps being taken toward greater political participation in Central America. A decade ago, only one nation in the region, Costa Rica, could lay claim to democratic rule. Now all are on that path. Indeed, the myth that Latin America was inherently or culturally disposed to authoritarianism is being laid to rest.
Yet, progress is limited, to varying degrees, by continued political violence and the pervasive influence of security forces. "In Guatemala and El Salvador, the military virtually define the extent of civilian authority and influence most aspects of government policy," according to a report "Latin America in the 1990s," by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
To a large extent, the military's influence is a by-product of war. Increased United States military aid coupled with expansion of the armed forces to combat guerrilla insurgencies have provided institutions already rife with patronage and corruption the opportunity to extend their influence.
"The Army is a business, the biggest business and most profitable in El Salvador," says a former officer who requests anonymity.
In El Salvador, as the Army's ranks swelled, so did its social security fund, which has reportedly grown to well over $100 million. In a small nation, that gives the Army considerable financial muscle - which it flexes by investing in real estate, new businesses (including a funeral parlor), and influencing political decisions which may affect its business interests. In Guatemala, the Army owns one of the five national television stations.
For these and other reasons, a key demand of the leftist insurgents in the current Guatemala and El Salvador peace talks is to reduce the influence of the military in their respective countries. They also want to strengthen institutions - judicial, electoral, law enforcement, mass media - in order to encourage greater political participation.
In essence, the aim is to develop enough trust in the institutions so that rather than turning to a gun, people turn to a judge or a legislator for justice.
In January, Guatemala's second elected civilian government in a row took office. "The process of change is deep and irreversible.
The military understands the winds of change in the world," says Fernando Andrade, a former foreign minister and adviser to the Guatemala peace talks. "Political violence continues," he admits. "But systematic repression of the leadership of the left doesn't exist as a policy now."
His views are at odds with the US State Department's Human Rights Report on Guatemala, which states: "Due primarily to a lack of will, authorities did not stem growing violence during 1990. Reliable evidence indicates that security forces and civil patrols committed, with almost total impunity, a majority of the major human rights abuses."
The trend seems to be continuing under President Jorge Serrano Elias.
"Serrano has said all the right things, done some things. Yet the number of people getting bumped off - it's scary," a Western diplomat says.
There have been a number of high-profile attacks in recent weeks, including the murders of a priest close to the peace talks, a former labor-union leader and left-wing political candidate, and a general.
Police investigators suspect robbery. Human rights organizations point to inconsistencies - such as valuables left untouched - and methods of killing which indicate politically-motivated death squad activity.
Last month, Serrano's Finance Minister Irma Raquel Zelaya quit, reportedly in part due to death threats received after trying to eliminate imaginary positions from the police force payroll.
A Western diplomat theorizes that the current cycle of killings is related to the peace talks. "Somebody wants to throw fear into those engaged in thinking about organizing, once a solution [to the 30-year civil war] is reached," he says.
"A peace agreement won't mean the end of conflict. We need a redistribution of wealth. At the root of the war and the violence is social and economic inequality," says Hugo Morales, a top official with the Union Sindical de Trabajadores de Guatemala (UNISTRAGUA), a labor union of 30,000.
Still, hope for progress seems to rest in the two sets of peace talks now under way - among factions from Guatemala and El Salvador.
Accords, such as the one reached between Sandinistas and contras in Nicaragua in 1990, could be a major step toward reducing the climate of fear that impedes political activism.
"The level of political violence diminished significantly with the end of the war in Nicaragua, although the level of death squad activity under the Sandinistas was never comparable to what we see in El Salvador and Guatemala," says Philip Williams, a specialist in Nicaraguan politics at the University of Florida.
While deep tensions remain over continuing Sandinista influence on security forces, Nicaragua has perhaps the region's most dynamic political participation.
In 1990, for the first time ever, mayors were elected instead of appointed to run the municipalities. The conservative UNO coalition won 99 of 131 municipalities, creating an important new political force. Mayors are now testing the limits of their power vis-a-vis the central government.
Meanwhile on the left, the Sandinista-organized unions are flexing their muscles. "A proliferation of mass organizations, mainly drawn from lower class people, is one of the legacies of 10 years of Sandinista rule. With the Frente no longer in power, these organizations are more assertive and autonomous," Williams says.
Indeed, he adds, it can be argued the pendulum has swung too far given Nicaragua's economic crisis. "Too much participation can lead to instability. The economic pie isn't expanding, therefore the government isn't able to respond to the demands."