Jose Napoleon Duarte

updated 12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1984 01:00AM

Exhausted from a week that had seen the near collapse of his peace initiative, El Salvador President José Napoleón Duarte lowered his heavy frame into the embrace of a hammock at his weekend hideaway. "Our constitution does not allow for a second term," said the man who last June became his nation's first freely elected civilian leader in more than 50 years. "And five years is enough," he said, a grin creasing his battered features. "Five years in these times is like 15 normally."

Duarte's humor and optimism are useful qualities in a job that requires him to sing, dance and play the harmonica while walking the tightrope over a pit of lions. If he is to be the peacemaker in El Salvador's cruel civil war that has killed an estimated 50,000 civilians since 1979, Duarte must complete a superhuman agenda: He must fight the war and win the peace; disarm the rebel left and curb the violent right; retain the confidence of the military, while purging army commanders who have commissioned the right-wing death squads; convince guerrilla leaders that he's not a rabid anticommunist and business leaders that he's not a closet communist; restore law and order while correcting the unequal distribution of land and wealth; and lastly (it sounds almost easy by comparison), revive the country's dying economy. Yet Salvadorans on all sides have a touching faith that the charismatic 59-year-old may bring all this off. "He's egocentric, ambitious and thinks he's a messiah," says a leftist intellectual, "but his sense of vision can help the country. He's sincere and he's won the people over."

In his first six months Duarte moved quickly to assert his control over politically ambitious military officers and to rein in the death squads. When guerrillas seized the country's largest hydroelectric station four weeks after he moved into the Casa Presidencial, Duarte showed himself to be an active commander in chief. He had to weigh the lives of more than 150 government soldiers and civilians inside the power plant, he says, against the thousands he feared might drown downriver if the guerrillas had time to destroy the dam. He ordered an immediate assault, and government troops swiftly recaptured the station, although 60 soldiers were killed in the battle. The colonels were further impressed when Duarte's can-do spirit charmed a reluctant U.S. Congress into boosting 1984 military aid to El Salvador to $196 million.

Presidential jawboning also paid off last October, when the nation's fractious power structure backed Duarte's boldest gamble. In the rebel-controlled town of La Palma, he met face-to-face with guerrilla leaders to initiate a peace dialogue. Duarte went ahead with the historic confrontation although his generals had warned beforehand that his life was at risk. "The guerrillas had 3,000 men around La Palma, and, according to a captured document, they were going to attack and take us prisoner," he remembers. "I felt fear until we heard the whole village cheering. I felt their emotion, I knew I was doing the right thing, and suddenly I felt absolutely calm." The meeting passed uneventfully, and Duarte says he is committed to continuing the dialogue, despite an unproductive second session.

Duarte's pursuit of peace marks him as a possible target for assassination from both the left and the right. One death squad has already called him a traitor and threatened to take "military action" against him. "He's a logical thinker, a very strong man, and his personal courage is unquestionable," says U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering.

"Death threats are part of my life," Duarte notes calmly. "You take the risk, not for personal pride, but for benefit to the whole country." The source of his commitment to peace was obvious when Duarte and his wife of 35 years, Inés, recently hosted a family picnic at their 20-acre coffee farm near San Salvador. Duarte exuberantly kissed his four grown daughters, hugged son Alejandro, the mayor of San Salvador (a second son who lives in Venezuela was absent) and beamed as grandchildren swarmed over him. "I'm not worried if there is a coup d'état tomorrow," he said. "I'm working for peace, for these children, and all children."

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