Once again, the end of the Cold War has provided an opening for the United Nations to close down one of the proxy wars by which the superpowers once battled one another. The latest beneficiary of this trend is El Salvador, where heroic efforts of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar forced through a peace accord just as his 10-year service terminated and the new year began.
This is not to say the 12-year Salvadoran war was not grounded in indigenous social inequities and murderous hatreds. But the weapons and explosives that killed 75,000 people and wrecked the Salvadoran economy had to come from outside. These means of making war came in vast quantities as the old Soviet Union encouraged Marxist rebellion and the United States responded with Reagan-style anti-communism.
Even before the Soviet Union fell apart, rebels in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) lost an ally with the electoral defeat of the Sandinista regime in nearby Nicaragua. But because the grievances of a long-oppressed peasant population against a landed elite and its military enforcers runs so deep, the civil war continued. Indeed, the United States kept supplying small amounts of military aid to a Salvadoran army seemingly impervious to the teachings of democracy and civilized behavior.
Even as the peace accord was being celebrated by a war-weary population, one military officer reportedly called Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani a "communist." This is a ludicrous term for Cristiani, a businessman, landowner and leader of the rightist ARENA party. But it is typical of the McCarthyist mind-set of militarists who regularly branded the late centrist president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, in the same way.
The Bush administration, which has pulled way back from President Reagan's interventionism in Central America, must now let the Salvadoran high command know it will have no friends in Washington if it tries to wreck the peace accord. If Russia's role is to stop meddling in this hemisphere, the U.S. mission is to prove it will promote peace (real peace) and democracy (real democracy) in the Americas.
The United States can do so by supporting moderate elements in El Salvador, left as well as right. It can also take the lead in combating the endemic poverty that creates turmoil and suffering in so much of Latin America. In the end, only a prosperous hemisphere can be a peaceful hemisphere.