The Price of Peace

The five Central American presidents have agreed upon measures for restoring peace to their region. There is little sense and less use in disputes over whether their plan is fair and reasonable. It is both, and eminently so; and, as often happens with reasonable and fair proposals, it cannot be.

The signers of this compact are sitting presidents, who differ about many aspects of public policy but are quite alike in each one’s conviction that his countrymen could not hope to find another head as wise and just as his own. They are incumbent officeholders and, of all the armors that come with office, the thickest-plated is the certainty that whatever is incumbent is for the best and must endure.

El Salvador’s José Napoleón Duarte is a centrist president beset by leftist guerrillas. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega is a leftist president annoyed by rightist guerrillas. Now each promises to withdraw his countenance from the other’s enemies.

We need not much doubt Duarte’s pledge or Ortega’s; the problem is the substance attending either’s fulfillment. The rebels in El Salvador constitute a genuine force; they cannot yet and probably will not conquer, but they hold territory and now and then break out of it to fight by no means uneven battles with government troops. They may indeed have been long enough entrenched by now to live off the land; their support from the Sandinistas has been languid lately, and to have it cease altogether would be more slap than heavy blow.

El Salvador’s guerrillas are not party to the Guatemala accord, and their fires will likely burn on uncooled. The prospects for Nicaragua are better; but their light is no brighter than gray. There is, of course, the chance that the contras will wither away; the bulk of their troops are encamped in Honduras, and the Guatemala agreement clearly forbids them further lodgment, although it is hard to see how the Honduran government could evict them.

When Duarte cuts off the link to El Salvador, the contra supply lines will shrink to a thread; there will not be an airfield open in Central America capable of sustaining a steady flow of weapons. And yet the contras may stay in being as the nuisance that is pretty much all they are already, isolated in rural fastnesses, and bloodied more than bloodying when they come down for an open fight. But they have their base, pinched though it be; and they might well carry on and wait for something to turn up from their great if faltering patron to the north.

The Sandinistas would inarguably prefer to have the war end; but can we really be sure that they think of peace as a passionate necessity? They are not monsters and they cannot be happy about the dead children the contras leave behind to mark their brief and furtive passages with the torch of freedom. But those wounds aside, the contras are more troublesome than perilous and …

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