The Idea of El Salvador in the United States

When one group of U.S. observers at the March 25th presidential elections in El Salvador stopped to interview a man who stood in line to vote, the man asked them, “Why did you come and watch us vote? Don’t you know there are other democracies in the world?”

The implicit irony in the man’s question acknowledged the symbolic importance of the presidential election not only for the citizens of Salvador, but also for their neighbors in the U.S. Once ignored as a backward, feudalistic country with no particular claim on American interest, Salvador now is a laboratory in which American policymakers, with various solutions, seek to affect a fast-forward evolution towards a working democracy. And like research subjects who must fulfill their task with the knowledge that their performance will attract rewards or penalties, Salvadoran politicians play as much to U.S. expectations as to their own people’s hopes for peace. This is the context in which the election, on May 6, of Jose Napoleon Duarte as president of El Salvador should be seen.

Only seven years ago, the country held its last presidential elections marred by intimidation and fraud. The winning candidate, Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, was thrown out of office two years later in 1979 by a group of officers eager for political reform. The new military junta that replaced Romero, however, did not move quickly enough for the country’s leftists, and Salvador’s civil war, which was to claim an estimated 50,000 lives, began in 1980.

In the wake of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the potential for victory by Marxist insurgents in Salvador forced the Carter Administration to rethink its approach to encouraging political democracy in Central America. The Salvadoran government began to receive military aid and assistance with its land-redistribution pro-gram, a cornerstone of U.S. strategy to undermine the appeal of the guerrillas’ agenda.

But while economic reforms were meant to improve the image of the shaky military-civilian junta, the logistical problems of land reform and industrial sabotage by the rebels brought no significant improvement in the standard of living. Damage caused by the civil war is now estimated at $825 million in a country whose 1983 GNP was $3.6 billion, with unemployment at 25-40 percent and inflation at 16 percent.

Land reform, which was to provide a measure of social justice to campesinos, long the subjects of large farm owners, not only resulted in a decline in crop production, but more seriously sparked right-wing violence that sent peasants and liberal politicians into the mountains to fight with the insurgents, by then a broad-based front composed of Marxist and nationalist guerrilla groups.

Dramatic guerrilla offensives and right-wing death squad assassinations brought Salvador’s civil war into the homes of American citizens, and attracted U.S. assistance for the 1982 elections for a 60-member Constituent Assembly that would name a provisional President.

As the U.S. aggressively implemented the land reform program, so it intervened during the 1982 elections when it appeared that Roberto d’Aubuisson, an extreme conservative and former army officer who once tried to stage a coup, would be elected by a coalition of right-wing parties. U.S. officials and the Salvadoran army instead facilitated the appointment of Alvaro Magana, an independent, as provisional President.

The appointment of Magana and the stark image on American television of Salvadoran voters standing in line for hours in the hot sun drew bipartisan support for the Reagan Administration’s Salvadoran policies. But the spectacle of popular participation in the electoral process faded as the civil war continued and millions of dollars of American military and economic aid did not appear to strengthen the political center or the army.

The ballot box produced no miracles. President Magana, too, was unable to identify the murderer of Arch-bishop Oscar Romero or neutralize the death squads. Joan Didion’s Salvador an apocalyptical mood piece, reflected American policymakers’ frustration with the seemingly obscure, internecine rivalries of Salvadoran society.

The need for semi-annual presidential certification of El Salvador’s progress in human rights, as a contingency for further aid, attracted Congressional rhetoric and drew conflicting testimony on the strengths and weaknesses of the Magana government. While some insisted the Central American country was on the road to a U.S.-style democracy, others asserted that Magana possessed no political legitimacy and thus lacked authority to check human rights violations. What was often missing in the congressional debates, as Howard Wiarda, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted before a 1983 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, was an awareness of “how and when and with what implications El Salvador violates its own criteria of human rights as well as when it violates our own or universal standards.”

Hoping to stem pessimism about El Salvador’s chances of establishing a democratic system in the midst of a bloody ‘civil war, President Reagan encouraged plans for this year’s presidential elections in March, and the May 6 runoff. Administration officials anticipated that the Salvadoran’s broad participation in the electoral process would revive Congressional enthusiasm for an increase in aid that already totaled $300 million this year. And, indeed, when Christian Democrat Napoleon Duarte, the U.S. choice, beat Roberto d’Aubuisson in last month’s runoffs to become Salvador’s next president, President Reagan returned to Capitol Hill with a hopeful heart.

While U.S. Senators and Congressmen argued over the correct methods of nurturing democracy and the potential consequences of American military involvement, the Salvadorans themselves were coming to terms with their own expectations and those of the United States.

In 1982, it was assumed that the democratic elections were a formula for pulling the rug out from under the guerrillas and ending the two-year civil war. But in the days before the this year’s presidential elections, campaign promises from political moderates like Duarte included plans to open “dialogue” with the insurgents.

Salvadoran voters were more politically sophisticated. The majority were not supportive of scenarios that included power-sharing with the rebels, nor license for the death squads. Realistic about the need for continued American aid, they thought it unlikely that Roberto d’Aubuisson, who could not secure a U.S. visa, would be likely to attract congressional support.

Duarte, on the other hand, a strong proponent of land reform, spoke out against right-wing violence, two priorities of U.S. legislators. While labor leaders mistrusted d’Aubuisson’s ties to large landowners, Duarte promised union officials a major role in the implementation of the final 30 phases of the land reform program. D’Aubuisson talked of rejecting U.S. aid, if the package included a coercive certification process that tied further aid to improvement in human rights. But most Salvadorans knew that the inefficient 30,000 member army needed outside help to fight the 9,000 to 12,000 insurgents.

Interviews in the American media suggest the candidates’ different responsiveness to U.S. concerns about the proper course for Salvadoran politics. “Human rights prohibits the army from winning against the subversives by using similar tactics,” asserted d’Aubuisson. He proposed to work with private enterprise to improve unemployment and thus stem guerrilla recruitment,

For his part, Duarte said he would reject any violence by the military against the people or the Government. Asked whether he would request the help of American troops in the event that the civil war continued for another year, Duarte said no, but offered a precise analysis of the issues at stake for further aid. Salvador’s new president observed that “if we establish a democratic government and if the trend in the army is also toward democracy, then the idea of (El Salvador) in the United States will also have to change so that it will be like giving aid to West Germany, Canada, Costa Rica or to any of the democratic countries of the world.”

Despite the disappointments that followed the 1982 elections, and the bureaucratic tangles and guerrilla intimidation that marked this year’s elections, the high voter turnout suggests that the majority of Salvadorans share Duarte’s belief that representative democracy is a necessary step towards a resolution of the conflict.

In Panama City, Guillermo Ungo, President of the Democratic Revolutionary Front of El Salvador, and a principal guerrilla leader, insisted that “the decision to hold this election was made in Washington, by Washington and for Washington. Its outcome can only prolong the war and make it necessary to increase United States military aid.” Ungo restated the insurgents’ demands for power-sharing in a transitional government which he says would set the groundwork for a democracy and free elections.

Though some U.S. legislators like Sen. Christopher Dodd (D -Conn.) support the demand for power-sharing, the majority of Salvadorans, seasoned by their exposure to the Sandinistas’ power grab, do not. Even the Catholic Church in Salvador, which has been vocal in its condemnation of human rights violations, does not support this rebel demand. At a Washington, D.C. press conference on March 22, Bishop Marco Revelo, head of the Salvadoran Episcopal Conference and a member of that country’s Peace Commission, explained the minimum conditions necessary to impose a cease-fire between the rebels and the army. Said Bishop Revelo:

The minimum conditions which I feel are justified are to give those who raised arms against the government a general amnesty…. Now the conditions which they are demanding seem to me far too exaggerated. Very simply put, they want a new government before the elections, say a de facto government, which would be a regression on the road to democracy.

Bishop Revelo also stated the Episcopal Conference’s position that U.S. military aid to his country should be continued at present levels to protect a “legitimately constituted” government and its citizens from violence. But asked to assess whether the United States applied adequate pressure on the Magana government to identify and prosecute the murderer of Archbishop Romero, Revelo betrayed some of the Salvadoran people’s irritation with American expectations.

“I believe that the United States is carrying out that pressure,” he said. “Nonetheless, in the United States there are also many political assassinations which have not been clarified. For example, the assassination of President Kennedy.”

Like Duarte, Revelo sees the free elections as a first step towards resolution of the conflict, with a cease-fire following subsequent negotiations , with the guerrillas. Duarte’s ability to stem death squad violence and judicial and military corruption will improve his bargaining position with the rebels. The achievement of these objectives, however, will depend on whether the military and other forces in Salvadoran society accede to the will of a “legitimately constituted” government.

In the immediate future, Duarte will draw, at least, temporary congressional support for further aid. But if the new president cannot speedily implement the reforms required to improve “the idea of El Salvador in the United States,” Congress will again grow impatient with the country’s labored struggle towards political democracy. And if the shrillest opponents of American aid for the Central American country succeed in withdrawing U.S. support, then Salvadorans, themselves, could lose their grip on the “idea” of a better system of government.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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