Quiet Talks Were the Beginning of the End of the Cold War in Latin America

MEXICO CITY. — Mexico City.--Yuri and Elliott. Bernie and Valeri. The names sound like a foursome on the links of the Detente Golf and Country Club.

They were deeply involved in the endgame that appears to have brought peace to El Salvador, with an agreement that goes into effect Saturday, drawing to a close a 12-year stalemated war that cost 75,000 lives and 4 billion to 6 billion American tax dollars.


The foursome are Russian and American diplomats who were engaged in secret talks that began in 1986. The negotiations stemmed from a decision in 1985 by Presidents Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev to try to resolve their regional differences through discreet bilateral meetings.

Eventually, the talks caused the Soviets to withdraw economic and military support for its Latin allies and helped convince the United States that its strategic interests were not at risk in El Salvador.


In a nutshell, Moscow and Washington decided the Cold War was over in Central America.

The decision helped engineer the 1990 downfall of the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the further isolation of Cuba, which now becomes the next sore spot to be discussed by the diplomats.

And it created the circumstances that led the right-wing Salvadoran government and the Marxist-led rebels to agree to a peace accord brokered by the United Nations. Washington and Moscow were the chief sponsors of the U.N. effort.

"The real culprit from Day 1 was the Soviet Union," said Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., the Reagan administration's first secretary of state. "Vietnam was the same basic issue. From the outset of the Vietnam War, we kept misreading who the villains were. We thought it was a struggle for hearts and minds or China. But it was all part of the U.S.- Soviet global trouble."

Yet when the guns fall silent next Saturday in El Salvador, many will wonder why the peace could not have come sooner and if the 75,000 dead and the 500,000 refugees were the needless victims of cold warriors in Moscow and Washington who inflated a local civil war into an extension of their global conflict.

The cost of repairing the damage may run as high as $1.8 billion, and it remains problematic whether a true peace can be achieved in a land where ultra-right millionaires still finance death squads.

Few Salvadorans will remember the names of the four men who helped achieve the tenuous peace and who are themselves symbolic of the vast sea change in East-West relations that also has gained settlements in Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

There was Elliott Abrams, the cold warrior who headed the State Department's Latin American affairs division in the waning days of the Reagan administration and who was convicted last year of withholding information from Congress about the secret funding for the contra war. His Soviet counterpart was Yuri Pavlov, now teaching at the University of Miami's North-South Institute.


They were succeeded by Bernard Aronson, a moderate Democrat and the Bush administration's assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, and Valeri Nickolaenko, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin America department.

"In the talks we decided that the Central American conflicts should be settled peacefully," recalled Mr. Pavlov in a telephone interview. "I guess the first big outcome of these talks was that we were able to convince our military to stop sending weapons to Nicaragua in 1988. We had already started cutting back on oil and other supplies."

"From our point of view Washington had stopped arming the [U.S.-backed] rebels, and so essentially both sides had a parity," he said.

The decision not to keep arming the contras was made by Congress in 1988 and not by the Reagan administration. But by far the most helpful Soviet decision was to lessen economic aid to the Sandinistas.

The aid cutbacks, the crippling effects of the contra war, the U.S. trade embargo and the Sandinistas' own incompetence, all combined to produce a smashing victory for Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed presidential candidate in the 1990 elections.

In the Sandinista defeat, the leaders of El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) lost their biggest regional ally and its principal supplier or conduit for arms and other supplies.


"When Gorbachev visited Cuba in 1989 he proposed that both sides stop arms deliveries to the region, but this was rejected by the U.S. on grounds that nobody could control how the FMLN was getting its military supplies," said Mr. Pavlov.

Mr. Nickolaenko, Mr. Pavlov's successor, said Moscow never directly supplied arms to the FMLN. Nevertheless, Soviet weapons found their way into the FMLN arsenal via Cuba, Libya, Nicaragua and other allies.

By far the biggest decision in ending the Salvador conflict was made 20 months ago when Moscow and Washington agreed to back the U.N. talks that led to the cease-fire.

Throughout the Reagan administration, top officials continued to believe that the guerrillas could be defeated militarily.

"It seemed every time they got an assistant secretary for Latin American affairs who gained a certain amount of sophistication, he would start arguing for negotiations and get fired," said Michael D. Barnes, the former Maryland congressman who, as chairman of the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, opposed many Reagan Central American policies.

"I believe this war could have been settled years ago but for this continued belief in a military solution," said Mr. Barnes.


A recent Rand Corp. study for the Defense Department concluded that peace talks were not possible until both sides realized that neither could win a military victory. This occurred in November 1989, when the guerrilla final offensive failed to achieve its goal but shocked the Bush administration by its limited successes.

"Up until then the policy had been to win over the rebel supporters and achieve a military victory," said Benjamin C. Schwarz, the author of the report.

"I think the Rand conclusion misstates our goal. What we were trying to do was prevent another Nicaragua, to prevent the FMLN from shooting its way into power," said Mr. Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Mr. Abrams credits three elements that led to the peace accords: The government's success in denying the FMLN a military victory, U.S.-sponsored reforms and the end of the Cold War.

"I think the latter had a profound effect on the FMLN, which now saw the future in a different light, and it also affected the Salvadoran military who rightly feared a halt in U.S. military aid," he said.

U.S.-Russian disengagement from Central America will have little effect on the small but unending civil war in Guatemala. Neither superpower became involved there. Ongoing peace talks have proved fruitless because of an intransigent military.


The last remaining Latin American problem for the Russian-American diplomats is trying to get Cuba to adopt democratic and human rights reforms.

"It is not easy for Cuba to accept democratization," said Mr. Pavlov. "They look at what happened in the upheavals in Eastern Europe and they don't want it repeated there."

"We were in that situation for years," he said of the old Soviet Communist dictatorship. "It's not that people are cowards. It is senseless for people to risk their lives with no obvious outcome. But if there is an overthrow it will be much bloodier than in Romania."