RINGING in the New Year with preliminary peace agreements for El Salvador, Central America has a chance for peace in 1992. Beyond ending El Salvador's civil war, the accords push the entire Central American region one step closer to a new era of reconciliation and political pluralism.
A stable, lasting peace, however, will not be achieved unless the New York agreements are fully implemented during coming months in El Salvador - and unless similar agreements are reached in neighboring Guatemala.
The preliminary agreements for El Salvador represent a historic advance. They address many of the basic issues that gave rise to the war - the arbitrary repressiveness of the security forces, the exclusionary political system, and even some of the social-economic inequities.
However, the war in El Salvador is by no means over; the coming months hold great dangers as well as great possibilities. While unable to win the war, the Salvadoran Army can still obstruct peace. Hard-line elements in the security forces, including many top officials, have opposed a political settlement. Now they will doubtless try to block implementation of the agreements, which include provisions for purging 50 percent of the armed forces. Their ability to do so will be profoundly affected by two key actors behind the scenes: the Guatemalan Army and the United States.
Those who oppose peace in El Salvador have always had an important ally in the Guatemalan Army, which is infamous as the hemisphere's most brutal human-rights violator. If that Army is left intact, it will almost certainly be the strategic rearguard for the hardest-line elements of the Salvadoran Army. The links are direct and material. Salvadoran death squads based in the security forces had their origin in Guatemala in the 1970s. Since that time, rightists in the two countries have collaborated closely . The Guatemalan Army was widely reported to have sent special forces and advisers to El Salvador during the November 1989 FMLN offensive.
Sooner or later, lasting peace in El Salvador will also require a negotiated settlement of the 30-year civil war in Guatemala - which has cost the lives of 200,000 civilians (mainly highlands Indians) - and the demilitarization of Guatemala. After years of stonewalling, the Guatemalan government and Army finally came to the negotiating table in the spring of 1991.
The issues in Guatemala are far more difficult than in El Salvador and will take much longer to resolve. Predictably, the process had stalled on the government's refusal to accept any serious proposals for investigating human- rights crimes committed over the years - or even for curbing current abuses, which are on the increase. The government insists that there can be no human-rights agreements until after a cease-fire - in short, reverting to a "lay down your arms" demand that is unacceptable to the in surgents. The entire process will be endangered unless this stance is modified.
International pressure remains crucial - particularly from the US. For decades, the US has been the key supplier of the armed forces in both countries; now it must discipline them. Since the start of negotiations, Washington has sent conflicting signals - acknowledging the need for negotiations, but hesitating to pressure its allies to make significant concessions. If Washington, as it claims, sincerely wants political settlements, now is the time to use its financial leverage.
In El Salvador, the US can demonstrate its support for peace by converting all military aid to reconstruction assistance and forcing the Army to accept the necessary reforms. In Guatemala, the bulk of security assistance has been disguised via Economic Support Funds (ESF), open-ended budget support. Rather than continuing to release such funds (as it has just done), the Bush administration should cut off all security-related assistance in order to wring concessions from the Guatemalan Army.
For the first time in decades, there is hope for peace, stability, and democracy in Central America. The stakes are high: The alternative to peace could be a new wave of bloodshed, even more violent than in the past.