Nowadays great changes are announced with explosions, rhetorical and nuclear, that drown out the quiet ones. One that really deserves notice and holds lessons, not least for the United States, is under way in Central America.
After generations of oppression and violence, the landless peasants and urban poor of El Salvador set out 20 years ago to crack the social mold in which landowning coffee growers monopolized water and financial resources, and let the military run politics to keep the status quo. Civil war spread, costing an estimated 75,000 lives.
A coalition of rebel groups formed the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Taking supplies and weapons from the Soviet Union via Cuba, it became part of the cold war. The Carter administration, alarmed, intervened on the side of the government, becoming its provider of weapons, training and advisers. Ronald Reagan subsumed it in his anticommunist crusade.
Today the FMLN is the strongest party in a freely elected legislature and governs the largest towns. The crime rate is enormous, the breakup of large landholdings lags, as does punishment of some war crimes, but democracy functions.
What happened? The cold war ended, Soviet aid ended in 1989, and the FMLN recognized it couldn't win. The government saw the rebels as unbeatable. The new Bush administration concluded that peace lay only through negotiation with the FMLN, and it pressured the Salvadoran government to engage.
Earlier on, groups of Latin American presidents had worked on ways to bring the warring parties together, but a total lack of trust immersed all collective effort in a caustic soup. The only way forward appeared to be through a single impartial mediator.
In 1986, the presidents turned to the United Nations, while remaining helpful backstage. With US consent, UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar put the job in the hands of an assistant, Alvaro de Soto of Peru, who spent the next six years putting together a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. He had to persuade the guerrillas to disarm, while getting the government to alter the role of the military and open the doors of democracy to the guerrilla movement.
After years of perverse UN-bashing, the US joined it in partnership. Neither could have done it alone in El Salvador. But this is no one-size-fits-all solution. The UN can't mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, but Washington can. While in the Western Hemisphere, history rules out Big Brother America.
Sometimes coalitions outside the UN must do the job, as in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. While the mediator maintains confidentiality toward the outside, he's completely open with the parties involved. Tricks and quick fixes such as the CIA has managed in Iran, Guatemala, and Nicaragua backfire sooner or later. The UN Protection Force in Bosnia, set up by the UN Security Council and then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was a conceptual disaster. Nightmares like Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Somalia may have to burn themselves out to the point where the pieces can be picked up.
Circumstances alter cases. The indispensible elements, often lacking in American efforts, are timing, determination and the flexibility to use all available instruments including the UN.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a former correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society