For days there had only been whispers of a coming offensive. But on the eve of last Sunday’s elections, the tempo of El Salvador’s civil war once again quickened. A drive by up to 5,000 army troops kept left-wing rebel forces pinned down in the distant northern province of Chalatenango. But other guerrilla groups moved into the capital.Then, in a 60-minute assault on the central market—the first major attack in the city in a year—they inflicted several casualties. “Elections are rumored,” ran the black humor at the U.S. Embassy. “War is confirmed.”
Indeed, Sunday’s much-heralded elections for the Constituent Assembly seemed likely only to add one more wild card to an already high-rolling Central American game. In Guatemala last week, the fraudulent election of Gen. Angel Aníbal Guevara was promptly nullified by a coup that baffled analysts. In New York, Nicaraguan head of state Daniel Ortega Saavedra went before the United Nations Security Council to charge Washington with plotting to invade his country. Then, even as Salvadorans voted, Washington was abuzz with reports that the Reagan administration, bowing to political necessity, was awaiting the result of the polling to launch peace talks with its traditional opponents: the Cubans, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua—even the left-wing leaders of El Salvador’s Farabundo Marti Liberation Front.
The Guatemalan drama, a mere two weeks after the election, brought the presidential term of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia to an end three months ahead of schedule. As tanks rolled into the central plaza in front of the presidential palace, an ambiguous group describing itself as “the military youth” proclaimed a bloodless coup. And the city did indeed remain calm. But the political situation was chaotic. At least three different juntas were proposed, only to be set aside.
One name that was on all lists was that of Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt, a popular army figure and a presidential candidate for the Christian Democratic Coalition in 1974, when he was widely believed to have been robbed of victory. As the post-coup turmoil began to settle, Rios Montt was named acting president, with two dark-horse young officers at his side and a fiveman military advisory board at his back. Guevara was last reported in Miami, while Lucas, his outspoken brother, Gen. Benedicto Lucas Garcia, and other members of the ancien régime were in jail.
Guevara’s “electoral victory” had been deeply resented by a wide spectrum of Guatemalans.
One complaint of the “military youth” was that arms-deal frauds had resulted in inferior weaponry for the ground troops and Miami bank accounts for their superiors— the dealers. But there are doubts
that the coup will greatly affect domestic policy. Washington announced that it saw no reason to revise its negative human rights assessment. And for his part, Rios Montt promised a zealous renewal of his predecessors’ anti-insurgency campaigns.
Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s case was argued firmly before the Security Council last week by Ortega—and equally firmly rebutted by the United States Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But careful listeners claimed to discern an unexpected mildness in the exchanges. It may have had something to do with a forecast by Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda—who has been acting as an intermediary in the region—that the Americans and Nicaraguans would hold a high-level meeting, “probably soon.” At week’s end Castañeda’s optimism was confirmed by U.S. Undersecretary for Latin America Thomas Enders, who said that such a session will indeed take place.
Rumors of impending talks involving Salvadoran guerrilla leaders and U.S. officials were strong enough to embar-
rass Secretary of State Alexander Haig—who was holding talks with Salvadoran Foreign Minister Fidel Chavez Mena and his Costa Rican and Honduran counterparts. After White House and state department spokesmen had ruled out any change in Washington’s attitude to the guerrillas, Haig himself appeared before TV cameras to supply the definitive denial. But somehow the vehemence of the statements merely fuelled more speculation that policy changes may be imminent.
However, American hopes of détente in El Salvador—Ambassador Deane Hinton last week strongly urged the winners of Sunday’s elections to hold talks with the left—seemed likely to be frustrated. For their part, President José Napoleón Duarte’s Christian Democrats seemed willing to accept that advice. But Maj. Roberto d’Aubuisson’s right-wing ARENA alliance, which has promised to break the guerrillas in two months if elected, hinted strongly that if it is illegally deprived of victory it may well launch a coup.
ANNE NELSON in San Salvador, with Michael Posner in Washington.
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