Trigger Happy Learning To Pull New Levers In El Salvador

Posted: March 19, 1991

Already there is dispute over the cleanliness of El Salvador's bellwether legislative elections, the first the nation's leftist guerrilla movement

hasn't boycotted. But despite fraud complaints - the vote was March 10 and some ballots are yet to be counted - and despite a U.S.-style turnout (about 50 percent by one estimate), freewheeling politics appears to have made a cameo appearance in this sad land where 75,000 have died in civil war.

Whether it can endure, of course, is another question. But just this once, we'd like to see the positive accentuated in El Salvador. While President Alfredo Cristiani's rightist Arena Party may have clung to a slight majority, the left-wing coalition called the Democratic Convergence appears to have won a toehold in the legislature - a tentative sign that the often-oppressed left in El Salvador can flex electoral, as well as battlefield, muscle.

For its part, the army's high command has acknowledged that more than "a few bad apples" may have been involved in the murders of six Jesuits last year, belatedly offering to assist in expanding the probe.

And from Mr. Cristiani come signs of fresh willingness to bring the armed forces under tighter control, hopefully "civilianizing" a nation that lost its politics (and peace) in 1972 when the army-dominated government pulled a Noriega and voided elections it was losing.

None of these trends is irreversible. Together, though, they reinforce the direction of U.N.-brokered peace talks aimed at a safer voting environment and a law-abiding military - two crucial steps if El Salvador is to become the democracy in fact that it has been prematurely declared.

So, the situation today calls for restraint and patient nurturing, not the application of another dollop of U.S. military aid. That's why President Bush shouldn't make good on threats to reinstate the $42 million withheld by Congress last year. Withheld, the aid is an incentive to negotiations; unleashed, it buys business as usual.

And in bloody El Salvador, the priority has to be finding a way to derail the fighting - not to continue it endlessly.

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