The Arias Plan

El Salvador Table of Contents

Throughout the Contadora negotiations, El Salvador's objectives included the preservation of its military aid and assistance relationship with the United States; the resolution of the civil conflict on terms consistent with the 1983 Constitution--that is, through incorporation of the rebels into the established system rather than through a power-sharing arrangement; and a verifiable termination of Nicaraguan military and logistical aid to the FMLN insurgents. On the final point, the Salvadorans felt, along with the Hondurans and Costa Ricans, that the liberalization of the Sandinista-dominated government in Nicaragua was the surest guarantor of success. Given the unanimity of opinion among these three governments and the less emphatic but still supportive response of the government of Guatemalan president Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, the regional consenus of opinion seemed to be that a streamlined, strictly Central American peace initiative stood a better chance of success than the by then unwieldy Contadora process.

The five Central American presidents had held a meeting in May 1986 in Esquipulas, Guatemala, in an effort to work out their differences over the revised Contadora draft treaty. This meeting was a precursor of the process that in early 1987 superseded Contadora. The leading proponent and architect of this process was the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez. After consultations with representatives of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the United States, Arias announced on February 15, 1987, that he had presented a peace proposal to representatives of the other Central American states, with the exception of Nicaragua. The plan called for dialogue between governments and opposition groups, amnesty for political prisoners, cease-fires in ongoing insurgent conflicts, democratization, and free elections in all five regional states. The plan also called for renewed negotiations on arms reductions and an end to outside aid to insurgent forces.

The first formal negotiating session to include representatives of the Nicaraguan government was held in Tegucigalpa on July 31, 1987. At that meeting of foreign ministers, the Salvadoran delegation pressed the concept of simultaneous implementation of provisions such as the declaration of cease-fires and amnesties and the denial of support or safehaven for insurgent forces. This approach reportedly softened the attitude of the Nicaraguans, who had come to the meeting declaring opposition to any agreement that did not require a prior cutoff of foreign support to the contras.

The Tegucigalpa meeting paved the way for an August 6, 1987, gathering of the five Central American presidents in Esquipulas. The negotiations among the presidents reportedly were marked by blunt accusations and sharp exchanges, particularly between Duarte and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra. Duarte's primary concern was Nicaraguan aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas, and he was reported to have pressed Ortega repeatedly on this issue. The Nicaraguan president's responses apparently reassured Duarte, who consented to sign the agreement. His decision to do so despite signals of disapproval from Washington reflected only in part the diminished influence of the Reagan administration in light of the Iran-Contra Affair; it was also a calculated move based on the Salvadoran president's belief that a more favorable treaty was not achievable. The final agreement, signed on August 7, called for the cessation of outside aid and support to insurgent forces but did not require the elimination or reduction of such aid to government forces. If they proved to be enforceable, these provisions would work to the benefit of the Salvadoran government and to the detriment of the FMLN, since the insurgents would be expected to forgo outside assistance while the government could continue to receive military aid from the United States. The agreement also urged dialogue with opposition groups "in accordance with the law" and was therefore compatible with the Duarte government's efforts and preconditions for negotiations with rebel forces. The Salvadorans were already in compliance with the sections calling for press freedom, political pluralism, and abolition of state-of-siege restrictions.

The Central American Peace Agreement, variously referred to as the "Guatemala Plan," "Esquipulas II," or the "Arias Plan," initially required the implementation by November 5, 1987, of certain conditions, including decrees of amnesty in those countries involved in insurgent conflicts; the initiation of dialogue between governments and unarmed political opposition groups or groups that had taken advantage of amnesty; the undertaking of efforts to negotiate cease-fires between governments and insurgent groups; the cessation of outside aid to insurgent forces as well as denying the use of each country's national territory to "groups trying to destabilize the governments of the countries of Central America;" and the assurance of conditions conducive to the development of a "pluralistic and participatory democratic process" in all the signatory states.

A meeting of the Central American foreign ministers held one week prior to November 5 effectively extended the deadline by interpreting that date as the requirement for initiation, not completion, of the agreement's provisions. The Salvadoran government, however, had already taken several steps by that time to comply with the agreement. Direct talks between the government and representatives of the FMLN-FDR held in October failed to reach agreement on terms for a cease-fire. The talks were broken off by the rebels, ostensibly in protest over the death squad- style murder of a Salvadoran human rights investigator. Duarte proceeded to declare a unilateral fifteen-day cease-fire to enable guerrilla combatants to take advantage of an amnesty program approved by the Legislative Assembly on October 27.

Overall compliance with the Arias Plan was uneven by late 1988, and the process appeared to be losing momentum. One round of talks took place between the Cerezo administration and representatives of the Guatemalan guerrilla front in Madrid, Spain, on October 6-7, 1987. President Cerezo discontinued this effort, however, claiming that the guerrilla representatives had taken an unrealistic and unreasonable bargaining position. The Nicaraguan government took a number of initial steps to comply with the treaty, such as allowing the independent daily La Prensa to reopen and the radio station of the Roman Catholic Church to resume broadcasting, establishing a national reconciliation committee that incorporated representatives of the unarmed opposition, and eventually undertaking cease-fire negotiations with representatives of the contras. The optimism engendered by the signature of a provisional cease-fire accord on March 23, 1988, at Sapoa, Nicaragua, however, had largely dissipated by July, when the government broke up a protest demonstration in the southern city of Nandaime, expelled the United States ambassador and seven other diplomats for alleged collaboration with the demonstrators, and again shut down La Prensa and the Catholic radio station. In El Salvador, although the FMLN-FDR had been persuaded by President Arias to accept the plan as the basis for negotiations with the Salvadoran government, neither side made any immediate effort to resume the direct talks broken off in October 1987. A definitive cease-fire, therefore, remained elusive. The Salvadoran government also maintained that the Sandinistas continued to provide aid and support to the FMLN. In January 1988, the Salvadorans protested before an international commission monitoring compliance with the treaty that the headquarters of the FMLN general command continued to function from a location near Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, that FMLN training and propaganda facilities continued to operate in Nicaragua, and that arms deliveries from Nicaragua to El Salvador persisted after the signing of the peace treaty on August 7. The effect of the PDC's political decline and Arena's higher government profile on the future course of the Arias Plan was unclear as the country approached the 1989 presidential elections.

El Salvador maintained normal bilateral diplomatic relations with the countries of Central America despite the strains of regional unrest, uncertainty over the intentions of the Sandinistas, and lingering disputes with Honduras. In the late 1980s, relations with Guatemala, governed by an ideologically compatible Christian democratic government, and with Costa Rica were stable. Differences with Nicaragua were rooted in basic ideological conflict, however, and appeared likely to persist. Although neighboring Honduras was experiencing a democratic transition not unlike that taking place in El Salvador, several points of contention prevented the full establishment of close and cooperative ties. The most intangible of these frictions was lingering ill will, especially between the two countries' respective military establishments, over the 1969 "Football War". Another dispute revolved around the future disposition of Salvadoran refugees residing in Honduras. In early 1988, there were an estimated 20,000 such refugees housed in a number of camps in Honduras, some of which were administered by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Despite ongoing security problems posed by the insurgency, a resettlement program initiated in 1986 by the Salvadoran government in cooperation with domestic and international relief agencies had assisted in the return of some 10,000 Salvadoran refugees. Complete repatriation from the camps, as advocated by the Honduran government, seemed to be contingent on a further winding down of the insurgency.

The main stumbling block in Salvadoran-Honduran relations, however, was the failure of the two countries to agree to a demarcation of their border. This dispute was another legacy of the 1969 war, although it also had deeper historical roots. Several agreements negotiated during the nineteenth century attempted to define the boundaries between the two states, but periodic disputes persisted. The 1969 war further complicated this situation, as Salvadoran troops pushed over a border that had never been firmly demarcated and briefly occupied Honduran territory. So contentious was the territorial dispute that a final peace treaty between the two countries was not signed until October 1980, and even then only 225 of the border's 343 kilometers were definitively delimited. The remaining disputed "pockets" (bolsones) along the border, along with island and maritime areas, were submitted to a joint border commission for resolution. At the end of its five-year mandate, the commission had not achieved agreement. Direct government-to- government talks also failed to resolve the issue. The dispute, therefore, was submitted to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, for adjudication. A decision was not expected until the late 1980s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress