A new day in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR — San Salvador, El Salvador FOR 11 years, the rightists and the government of this poor, crowded country have waged one of the most brutish and bitter wars in modern history. At least 75,000 Salvadorans have died, often of ghoulish tortures.

The United States entered the fray after 1979 with 55 military advisers and hundreds of millions of dollars, which made America the scorn of liberals who saw us as part of these tropical killing fields.


So what is happening here is astonishing -- the long bloodletting is winding down to what will almost surely be a peace accord between the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the Marxists of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Far more important, it has become a war of subtle moves, of the outcomes of long-term American influences and of original face-saving plans to integrate the guerrillas back into a Salvadoran society that everyone thought doomed.

The first surprise is the fact that rightist Arena party leaders understand what drove the guerrillas to live in "other schemas of life, to believing in other things," as President Cristiani puts it. When the military took over in 1979, they closed the door to politics.


"That does not justify what the guerrillas did," Foreign Minister Manuel Pacas Castro told me soberly, "but it explains why the groups went to violence. We are now constructing an open democracy, so there is no reason whatsoever that these groups need to turn to violence."

As the peace talks with the guerrillas of the FMLN draw to an end, probably by the end of the year, the government plans, first, a general amnesty for them. The government leaders also understand another fact: "The guerrillas need to justify why they waged war for 11 years," Ernesto Altschul, the well-spoken vice minister of the presidency, told me. "We have to be smart enough to give them an elegant exit. Remember, to Latins, honor is very important!"

The crucial next stage, after accords are signed and most of the guerrillas agree to reunite with and to reintegrate into a new Salvadoran society, is being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). If it works, it will be prove to be the most original postwar program since the Marshall Plan.

AID's "municipalities program" has been operating for the last few years. It effectively turns the old Spanish system of political power upside down by funneling substantial amounts of funds directly to mayors. In the villages, councils comprising representatives of all the people choose projects -- a school, a civic building, a road -- and then build it.

Not only will this proven program, which is now present in 99 of 262 municipalities, be vastly expanded after the war's end, AID has ready a $30 million program to train and retrain former guerrillas and even to give officers $18,000 apiece to return to civilian life. This fits in perfectly with the government's intentions to decentralize all of Salvadoran society -- and thus to empower local life in this long-centrally controlled society.

Everyone is quite aware that there will be pitfalls and reversals along the way. But historic circumstances (the fall of the Soviet Union, the FMLN's banker, to name only one) has put Salvador into a position where its fighting sons and daughters must join a new current. That current is local industrialization and a strengthened regional common market.

President Cristiani is impassioned about carrying through the old agrarian reform to a new and final phase -- giving the peasants total title to the land. Since there is no land left to give in this crowded country with its vast overpopulation, he now trusts a "land bank" to aid the poor in purchasing land from owners -- and he looks to substantial industrialization.

As to the new Central American market, these new technocrats of the Arena party have new ideas there as well. "Before," said Foreign Minister Pacas Castro, "we had a common market protected by a fence, with industries protected from outside. Now we have a totally different schema, because we all want to lower barriers and create a climate to export, reform tariffs and bring in foreign companies."


But the Salvadorans, at this strange but hopeful moment in their history, also have one other intention -- one which, if carried out, could stand as an example for much of the world. "We want," Pacas Castro says finally, "to transform our democracy into welfare for the people."