Ending El Salvador's tragic war

WASHINGTON — Washington -- ALL DURING the Reagan presidential years, "E Salvador" became the incessant catchword among critics for everything that seemed wrong with U.S. policies in Central America. Under the Bush presidency, we exercise our short memories by forgetting it even exists.

Yet, last month the terrible 12-year conflict in that crowded, tragic country of 4.5 million may finally have ended. And its GeorgieAnneGeyerending may point the way to solutions for other similarly tormented countries.


This major security agreement signed on Sept. 25 at the United Nations, under the wise godfathership of U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, looks good indeed. Signed by the Salvadoran government and by leaders of the Marxist guerrillas, it commits both sides in effect to clean themselves up and live in peace.

Both the right and the left have enough professional and avid murderers in their midst. If they both will now move to purge the army of its corrupt and brutal officers (as the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani agree) and allow the guerrillas to become policemen and settle on land they have long held (as the leftists in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or F.M.L.N., agree), this will surely be the beginning of the end.


But -- what is it that is really ending?

The civil war itself is almost surely ending, and not soon enough for the 75,000 dead, for a poisoned society, for the brutally murdered Jesuit priests, for the numerous best minds and spirits from the country. (Both sides still continue to bluster and even to fight, but circumstances and sheer public exhaustion would seem to preclude any further real drawing out of the war.)

Because Salvador was such a brutal fight, because its irresponsible overpopulation fueled and encouraged the killing, and because it sits geographically in the heart of Central America, the end of the guerrilla insurgency there will have great effects in the taming of the remaining guerrilla movements, such as the Rebel Armed Forces one in Guatemala. (That is one major reason why the group known as "four friends" -- Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Spain -- worked so hard to encourage Salvador's "New York Agreement.")

Indeed, complex things are brewing in the entire Central American isthmus, symbolized by Salvador's watershed agreement.

American policy, which at times under the Reagan administration leaned precipitously toward the far right in Salvador and toward its brutal military, often seemed ineffective in the 1980s in trying to reform the country. American liberals came to see Salvador policy as final proof that American conservatives supported only the old right in Salvador -- and reform moved at such a slow pace as to be almost indecipherable.

But we can see now that American policy -- which was not really designed to support the old killers of parts of the Salvadoran right, but rather to hold the line against Marxist takeover while reforming the country from within -- finally did work.

American military advisers, far from encouraging the savage excesses of the Salvadoran military, nudged and threatened a real if gradual military reform. Meanwhile, from the other side, the cutoff of Soviet military aid to Cuba this fall marks the finale of the Soviet Union's support of Marxist guerrilla movements in the Caribbean Basin. That was the final straw.

On a still deeper level, the Salvadoran accord also reveals the social changes occurring across the entire area. Costa Rica -- democratic, prosperous, quintessentially middle class -- is now the example in place of poor, failing, embittered Marxist Cuba. And the changes occurring in both Salvador and Nicaragua, where the Marxist Sandinistas gave way to democratic elections, show that many parts of Latin America are developing toward democracy now in much the same way that prospering "mothers" Spain and Portugal have.


In short, the right first defeats the left. That is what has happened in both Spain and Portugal since the 1930s. Then the middle gradually comes forward out of the best parts of right and left and creates a new middle-class country in place of those rigid and fanaticized old extremes.

If that is what is happening in Central America -- and it certainly seems so -- then perhaps all the trauma and tragedy will have been worth it for a more reasonable and just future.