As the five Central American presidents emerged from their two-day summit last week at Treasure Beach, a luxury Pacific resort on the Costa del Sol, 70 km southeast of San Salvador, they made a surprising announcement. The leaders of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala said that they had a plan to end the eight-year civil war between Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government and right-wing contra rebels. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed to hold general elections by Feb. 25, 1990, to guarantee political and media freedoms and to release about 1,600 former National Guardsmen jailed after the 1979 Sandinista revolution. In exchange, his fellow leaders said that they will draft a plan within 90 days to demobilize about 13,000 contra rebels based in Honduras by repatriating them or settling them in other countries. Declared an exultant Ortega upon his return to Managua: “We have dealt the final blow to the war.” If that indeed proves to be the case, the U.S.-backed rebels that former president Ronald Reagan once described as “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers” will be effectively disbanded.
Contra leaders were not prepared to lay down their arms just yet. Excluded from the presidents’ meeting, they said that they would disband only if the Sandinistas implement their promised democratic reforms. But the summit agreement underlined the widely held view
that the contras are a spent force militarily and politically—a situation with which the administration of President George Bush must now come to grips. At the same time, the summit— convened to revitalize the moribund 1987 regional peace plan fostered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias—largely ignored the worsening civil war and growing political instability in the host country, El Salvador, focusing instead on a limited Nicaraguan accord. “The Arias peace plan was designed for Nicaragua,” said one diplomatic observer. “The Salvadoran government sees the summit as a success because they managed to keep themselves out of the spotlight.”
During the Reagan years, Washington had publicly backed the Arias plan—but privately, observers said, had worked against it. Last week, the new Bush administration, apparently caught off guard by the summit agreement, expressed cautious optimism. At a White House briefing last Thursday, Bush declared, “I think we’ve got to work with this process now the best we can.” But at the same time, he pledged that Washington would not abandon the contras, whose current $32-million package of U.S. humanitarian aid runs out on March 31. Still, many American analysts predicted that the contras will eventually retreat to the United States—probably to Miami with its large Hispanic population.
At the summit last week, four Central Amer-
ican presidents overruled Ortega’s insistence on international observers and proposed that each country’s own National Reconciliation Commissions—set up in 1987—would monitor progress on human rights and democracy in the region. The leaders approved a plan for the United Nations to set up military observer units—made up of personnel from Canada, Spain and West Germany—to report on crossborder guerrilla activity. And they repeated their call for an end to all external funding of guerrilla forces—a reference not only to U.S. support for the contras but also to alleged Nicaraguan support for leftist Salvadoran rebels.
The agreements displayed a conviction among Nicaragua’s neighboring states that democratic elections will end the conflict in the region. But in El Salvador itself, where a presidential poll is planned for March 19, there is no indication that the vote will solve the country’s internal problems.
Since 1980, about 65,000 Salvadorans have been killed in fighting between government forces and leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas. Last month, the rebels proposed to join the electoral process—and to respect the outcome—if the March election were postponed for she months and if leftist candidates were permitted to campaign freely. They later sweetened the proposal with a ceasefire offer. But outgoing President José Napoleón Duarte, a Christian Democrat who has incurable cancer, initially rejected an election delay as “unconstitutional.” And Defence Minister Gen. Carlos Vides Casanova said last week that if Duarte remains in office beyond his term, “the armed forces would be obliged to depose him.” Guillermo Ungo, the former leader of the FMLN’s political wing and now a presidential candidate for the leftist coalition Democratic Convergence Party, declared, “They are rejecting a chance to end the war over an issue of six months.”
Still, representatives of El Salvador’s major political parties agreed to meet this week with FMLN leaders in Mexico to discuss the rebel proposal. Whatever the outcome of that meeting, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)—already in control of parliament—is poised for at least a marginal victory in the presidential election. Although the party’s founder, retired major Roberto D’Aubuisson, has been linked to death squads that murdered tens of thousands of leftists in the early 1980s, opinion polls show his ARENA with a narrow lead over the Christian Democrats.
Human rights officials in El Salvador say that if ARENA wins, lower-ranking party members may begin assassinating leftist opponents. And if it loses, the officials predict that ARENA will cry fraud and take vengeance on its enemies. While last week’s summit appeared to improve prospects for peace in Nicaragua, the probability of continued war in neighboring El Salvador seems almost certain.
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