Peace Dawns After 12 Ugly Years


SECRETARY of State James Baker III, visiting El Salvador today, opens a new chapter in United States involvement in that strife-weary Central American nation.

El Salvador's 12-year civil war now is formally over, a status sealed by the signing yesterday in Mexico City of the United Nations-brokered peace agreement.

Though continued incidents of violence are likely from disgruntled combatants after the Oct. 31, 1992, deadline for ending all armed confrontation, US policy makers and Latin American affairs analysts expect the accord to stick. What, then, will be the US role there, in the wake of its 10-year, $6 billion program that sought to use military aid and social reform to beat back the leftist rebels and win the "hearts and minds" of the people?

As before, the US expects to be the principal foreign player in the country. The level of money the US can put into development and reconstruction is still being worked out. Administration officials have been on Capitol Hill pushing for new aid, but so far have come away empty-handed.

The mood in the US is generally negative about foreign aid as the recession drags on and as more and more nations come knocking for help. Still, says an aide to a liberal Democratic senator, "the US is morally obligated not to abandon El Salvador after all we've done there. Especially now, with the peace agreement. The hard part begins now. There's a whole generation of people there who know nothing but killing, and they need to be retrained and relocated."

Even if the US can't pump massive amounts of aid into the country for development, it should at least use what it can quickly to start the rebuilding and show skeptical fighters that peace is worth preserving, say administration officials.

El Salvador says it will need $5 billion - two-thirds of which would come from international sources - to finance a five-year reconstruction program. The US is counting on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Community, and Japan to provide a large share.

In his first visit to El Salvador, Secretary Baker will address the National Assembly and talk with President Alfredo Cristiani about aid. Baker's speech is meant to be a "strong demonstration of US support for Cristiani's courage in negotiating this peace," says a US official.

The US can be helpful to El Salvador in other ways, such as encouraging private voluntary organizations to get more involved, encouraging business to invest, and supporting through diplomacy the country's fragile transition out of civil war, congressional and administration sources say. "US diplomacy can play a key role in making sure the peace process continues and keeping in check the elements in both sides that aren't happy with it," says the congressional aide.

Under the peace accord, reached Dec. 31 in broad terms and finished in its detail on Tuesday, the rebel front is to demobilize by Oct. 31. The Salvadoran military and security forces are to be reduced in size, and human- rights abusers are to be purged.

In the two weeks since the 11th-hour peace agreement was reached, analysts have reflected on the 12-year war. Over the years, debate between Washington liberals and conservatives on the war has been fierce - especially during the ideologically-charged Reagan years. But both sides now are coming together in praise of key figures who helped bring about the accord, in particular Cristiani and the US State Department's top official on Latin affairs, Bernard Aronson.

As a member of the right-wing ARENA party, Cristiani came to the presidency with solid conservative credentials that allowed him breathing room with the Army to deal with the leftist rebels. Even rebel leaders have spoken positively about doing business with Cristiani.

Mr. Aronson wins praise for shifting the main US goal in Salvador away from seeking military defeat of the rebels to a negotiated solution.

Other factors converged toward the peace accord. The end of the cold war brought its domino effect of communist regimes collapsing, including the defeat of the ruling Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua. The Soviet Union has collapsed; Cuba is an orphan. In Salvador, the rebels realized they weren't winning hearts and minds by showing their power to destroy.

When the Reagan era ended, Washington lost interest in Salvador - or gave up in disgust as human-rights violations continued. Ironically, that loss of interest may have spurred the peace settlement, says Benjamin Schwarz, a RAND Corporation researcher. Only when Washington lost interest did threats of a cut-off of US aid become credible, moving the Salvadoran government toward compromise, he says.

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