LA PALMA A Report on the Negotiations

September 25, 2007

The peace that Duarte has offered is being dropped from his A-37 planes. Radio Venceremos (FMLN), October 17, 1984. I think that the extreme Left is doing everything possible to destroy the possibilities for peace. Napole6n Duarte, October 24, 1984. Within days of the peace talks at La Palma, El Salvador returned to war- as-usual. The Army mounted major operations in three provinces. The guerrillas paralyzed traffic in the east- ern third of the country and moved their attacks into the capital itself. The rhetoric of war replaced the rhetoric of peace. It is easy to be cynical about the peace talks-about the motives that led each side to sit down and talk, about the fanfare that accompanied the event and about the prospects for peace in El Salvador. Admittedly, La Palma was but one day in the life of a country at war-an "event" and not yet a process. But La Palma did mark a sharp break with the country's past, and offered the chance for a still re- mote future of peace. For two days, El Salvador was the scene of once unimaginable events- beginning with the arrival of FDR leaders Guillermo Ungo and Rub6n Zamora aboard a Colombian Air Force plane on October 14, and their 42-mile drive to a guerrilla camp in the mountains above La Palma. Their only protection was the press corps-- a convoy of two dozen cars that nearly drove its prey off the road. On com- mercial radio stations, the terms "ter- rorist" and "subversive" gave way to "los sefiores del FMLN" in a series of unprecedented interviews with rebel leaders. At La Palma, a Christian Democratic leader embraced his son descended from the hills for a day. The Mothers of the Disappeared dem- onstrated. A rebel music ensemble performed. Most importantly, a sector of opin- ion in El Salvador suddenly regained its voice on October 15. Where the word "dialogue" once was spoken in hushed tones, and those who sup- ported it were shot, there was now a crowd of thousands applauding the dialogue and demanding it be sincere. Just as suddenly, the fanatic Right was silenced-if only for a day. They were not part of the celebration at La Palma. They were probably home plotting. The Cradle of Peace Just after dawn, I joined a caravan of buses and trucks chugging up the highway, packed with government employees, peasants and party stal- warts. Many had been given the day off, lunch money and a free ride to La Palma by the Christian Democratic Party. But most seemed to be travel- ing there because they wanted to be part of history-they were curious, adventurous and, most of all, hopeful that they might be witnesses to the be- ginning of an end to the war. There were more soldiers lining the route than I had ever seen before, but even they seemed relaxed, with an oc- casional flower protruding from the barrel of an M-16. Once over the bridge into Chalatenango province, not a soldier was in sight. It has been that way for several years now-the strange passage from Army control, to no-man's land, to the FMLN banner over the highway welcoming visitors to territorio libre. This time, however, there were no FMLN patrols to greet the visitors and ask for "a small donation for the cause." Just hundreds of peasants from surrounding villages walking to La Palma. And a brand new banner proclaiming "An Honest Dialogue Will Bring Peace -FDR-FMLN." In the town of La Palma, now call- ing itself "the cradle of peace," Boy and Girl Scouts provided the only security as they tried their best to keep the crowds in the central plaza under control. People clustered on tree branches until they broke, climb- ed on rooftops and pushed against the human barrier of scouts to get closer to the village church where the twc sides would meet. In the preceeding days, the rebel leaders had bitterly attacked Duarte for creating a "circus atmosphere" and security nightmare in La Pal- ma. Yet as the crowds boisterously cheered their arrival-just as they had cheered Duarte moments before-the exhilaration showed on the faces of FDR leaders Guillermo Ungo and REPORT ON THE AMERICAS r 4Ruben Zamora, and the FMLN com- andantes. In addition to Ungo and Zamora, the rebels' negotiating team consisted of Fermin Cienfuegos, leader of the National Resistance (RN), and Facundo Guardado, of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL). Cienfuegos, a former medical student and an or- ganizer of the earliest guerrilla cells, was a familiar name to journalists who interviewed him in Managua and Mexico back in 1981-82. But Guar- dado was an unknown entity to a press corps largely ignorant of El Sal- vador's pre-war history. A peasant from Chalatenango, he was a founder of the country's first farmworker union in 1972, and secretary general of the People's Revolutionary Bloc (BPR)-the largest mass organization of the Left-until his arrest in 1979. Protest demonstrations and sit-ins ob- tained his release, at a cost of 23 people shot dead on the steps of San Salvador's Cathedral. Guardado had not been seen in public since. Many spectators were disappointed that Joaquin Villalobos, leader of the FMLN's largest military faction, was not part of the rebel delegation, as previously announced. FMLN leaders said it would have taken Villalobos at least five days to walk to La Palma from Morazdn, and charged that Duarte had refused to provide a helicopter. While some people, in- cluding the U.S. ambassador, tried to interpret his absence as a sign of dis- unity in rebel ranks, Villalobos broad- cast his strong endorsement of the talks over Radio Venceremos. Long Lost Friends As the church doors closed behind the rebel delegation, I wondered about the atmosphere inside. Ungo was Duarte's running mate in 1972. Zam- ora was his young prot6g6 in the Christian Democratic Party. Would they embrace after so many years? (Insiders later said they did not, but asked about each other's families as an acknowledgement of the intimacy they once shared.) And how would the rebel comandantes interact with the dour General Vides Casanova, dressed in camouflage fatigues? Was the General there to support Duarte's -n thousand people waited under a burning sun." initiative, or to make sure he didn't overstep the bounds of what the Army might tolerate? For five and a half hours, ten thousand people waited under a burn- ing sun for the two sides to emerge. Government dignitaries and their fam- ilies were crouched on the stone pa- tio of the church-men and women dressed in white as a symbol of peace. They appeared proud of their presi- dent and amazed by the exuberance and size of the crowds. As the hour of decision approach- ed, the Boy Scouts made way for two young men to enter the small space at the front of the church occupied by the Christian Democratic elite. Cameras and rolls of film were strung from their necks. They might have been taken for journalists had it not been for the beards and baseball caps that gave them away as guerrillas, who were checking out the scene before their leaders emerged from the church. The government dignitaries began whispering, elbowing each other ner- vously, until one of them cried out and pointed to one of the guerrillas. "That's Neto! Hey, we went to high school together! Neto, don't you re- member me?" The face under the baseball cap remained impassive, without a flicker of recognition. "I re- member him, too," said another man from the government group. "That's Ruben Zamora's brother!" Neto's face broke into a broad smile. Candies were passed around. The head of El Salvador's Supreme Court joked that he really should arrest Neto. "This is a crazy country," said one woman joyously. "We're at war and peace at the same time." A Plea For Patience The brilliant sunshine became a driz- zle and then a downpour just as Arch- bishop Rivera y Damas emerged from the church at 3:30. Everyone sensed immediately from the smile on the archbishop's face that the meetings had gone well. The Joint Com- muniqu6 confirmed it. The delegates to the talks had agreed to establish a commission made up of four represen- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1984 5itives appointed by each side and a moderator chosen by the Church. The ,mmission's task would be to "de- elop appropriate means to incorpo- Ite all sectors of the nation in the :arch for peace," to "discuss all tose aspects that lead to peace in the iortest time possible," and to "dis- cuss measures to humanize the armed conflict." The communique was strong on procedure and short on substance, but at least the dialogue had not been bro- ken off. The two sides would meet again in late November. No mention was made of a cease-fire and no major concessions were made by either side. But it seemed clear that each side had sought to avoid emphasizing insuper- able differences in the interest of keeping the door open to future talks. By pre-arrangement, the FDR- FMLN delegation and the government addressed the crowd for 15 minutes Trade Unionists Released--A Step Toward National Reconciliation While the eyes of the world focused on the historic meeting at La Palma on October 15, another step toward na- tional reconciliation in El Salvador went unnoticed. There were no TV cameras to cover the release of El Sal- vador's longest held political prison- ers, their nervous journey aboard Red Cross vans to San Salvador's airport and their flight to political exile in the Netherlands. Yet the Salvadorean government's decision to free these ten trade unionists-and the prison- ers' decision to choose exile over re- maining in their homeland-is a re- flection of both the process set in mo- tion at La Palma and the many obsta- cles that lie ahead on the road to real peace. The case of the jailed trade un- ionists-all members of El Salvador's hydroelectrical workers' union (STE- CEL)--dates back to August 22, 1980, when they took part in a na- tionwide general strike protesting widespread government repression. The STECEL workers shut down the country's major electric plants, until they were rounded up by national guardsmen, tortured and interrogated for 70 days and then moved to Mariona prison where they languished for exactly four years. The prisoners became a cause cel- dbre in union circles in the United States and Europe, as telegram cam- paigns were organized for their re- lease and union delegations visited them in jail. Their treatment epito- mized the lack of a functioning judi- cial system in El Salvador: no access to legal counsel, no formal charges filed against them, no trial. Yet prison was still a safer place than the streets. On June 11, 1981, the 17-year-old daughter of one prisoner, Jos6 Valencia, was kidnapped by armed men in civilian clothes. Her body was found days later in a public garbage dump. On August 20, 1982, the wife and 13-year-old daughter of Hector Recinos, the union's top lead- er, were "disappeared" from the streets of San Salvador. "We are the lucky ones," the prisoners insisted to visiting trade union leaders from the United States in 1983. "At least we made it to jail." On October 8, the same day as his speech at the United Nations propos- ing talks with the FMLN, President Duarte announced that a military judge had cleared the trade unionists and ordered their release. Yet the pris- oners, remembering a fellow unionist who was released and then killed by unknown assassins last spring, re- L to r: Dutch Ambassador Bertens with Recinos and Valencia. fused Duarte's offer to open the prison gates until secure arrangements could be made for direct transport to the air- port and exile abroad. One week later, nine of the prison- ers and their families were quietly flown to the Netherlands in the com- pany of the Dutch Ambassador. Dur- ing the long hours of waiting at the airport, they expressed a mixture of joy and sadness. "We are not leaving our country by choice," said Recinos, "but because the death squads force us to do so. Giving us our freedom is easier for Mr. Duarte than punishing those responsible for so many deaths." Since Duarte's inauguration in June 1984, El Salvador's labor movement has begun to slowly recuperate from years of intense repression. Unions that have operated virtually under- ground for the last four years now talk. of plans to re-open their offices and hold public meetings. They have been among the strongest voices supporting a dialogue for peace. But the death squads have already threatened re- :prisals. The Secret Anti-Communist Army issued a communique on Oc- tober 5 warning that unions and union leaders who engage in strike activities "will be targets for annihilation by our forces." One trade union leader has already been killed. If El Sal- vador's civil war is to end peacefully, then Duarte must prove that condi- tions can be created for the armed op- position to enter the democratic pro- cess. One test of progress will be the fate of the labor movement. An esti- mated 8,239 trade unionists were killed, disappeared or tortured in El Salvador between 1979 and 1981, prior to the outbreak of full-scale civil war. Peace cannot mean a return to that past. 6 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 6 REPORT ON THE AMERICASeach. "This is a first step," said Guil- lermo Ungo, "but many more steps must be taken." People in the crowd took the rare opportunity to express their sympathies without fear, shout- ing "Ungo, Ungo!" Fermf.n Cien- fuegos led the crowd in chants of "We Want Peace!" and pleaded for patience to achieve a lasting peace: "You have waited here for five hours but the Salvadorean people have also struggled for 50 years." Napole6n Duarte emerged to the cheers of equally vocal fans. "We never believed it would be possible in a single meeting to formalize all as- pects of peace. We aren't offering miracles. But we're fighting so the Salvadorean people can achieve the miracle of their own liberation." The two sides were never seen to- gether at La Palma. Yet their meeting placed the guerrillas and government in a position of parity for the first time. Two sides to a conflict. Two ar- mies and two political visions. The FDR-FMLN clearly gained an enor- mous measure of legitimacy and rec- ognition in the eyes of those who wit- nessed the spectacle at La Palma, those who watched it live on national television and those who read about in the international press. But what was in it for Duarte? Why Did Duarte Do It? It was a complete turnaround. Since the FDR-FMLN first issued its call for dialogue two years ago, Duarte had rejected any suggestion of sitting down to talk and insisted that the reb- els first lay down their arms. First surrender, then we'll talk, he said. U.S. advisers say the Salvadorean Army has "seized the initiative" in the war. The U.S. Congress has praised Duarte as a true democrat and given him millions in economic and military aid. So why did Napole6n Duarte change his mind? The U.S. press has generally fo- cused on Duarte's personality to an- swer that question. Duarte, the im- petuous man of grand gestures, the gambler, the consummate politician, the messianic believer in his own power to "save El Salvador" from chaos. All of that is true. But what the press failed to note was the political context in which Duarte reached his dramatic decision. There's a saying in El Salvador: "Duarte may be crazy, but he isn't stupid." He has the populist's instinct for reading the public mood. His invi- tation to La Palma was a calculated political move to halt the erosion of his social base, quell divisions within his own party and prepare for the Leg- islative Assembly elections scheduled for March 1985. Things have gone better for Duarte with the U.S. Congress than with his own Legislative Assembly--domi- nated by a bloc of right-wing parties and endowed with considerable power under the new constitution. Duarte has lost every major legislative bat- tle-from agrarian reform to universal conscription. If he is to realize his dream of "saving El Salvador," he must sweep the March elections and gain control of the Assembly. In the weeks leading up to La Palma, however, there were signs that Duarte was in danger of losing his most powerful constituency. The cen- trist labor unions of the Popular Democratic Unity (UPD) had signed a "social pact" with Duarte prior to the March presidential elections. In ex- change for pledges of economic re- forms to benefit the poor, and a clear commitment to seek a dialogue for peace, the unions turned out the vote for the Christian Democratic Party. But in his first four months in of- fice, Duarte seemed more intent on placating El Salvador's conservative business sector with generous conces- sions than with fulfilling his pledges to labor. The UPD unions publicly de- nounced his economic policies and threatened to withdraw their support unless a dialogue with the opposition was initiated promptly. Rivals within Duarte's own party didn't miss the opportunity to play on labor's discontent. Planning Minister Fidel Chav6z Mena, once considered as a possible presidential candidate, advocated more equitable economic policies. Charged with developing a national strategy for economic recov- ery, he stated publicly that recovery would be impossible without peace achieved through political means. There was even talk of forming a new party "to rescue the Social Christian principles" on which Christian De- mocracy had been founded. There were undoubtedly other fac- tors that went into Duarte's decision: pressure from European governments on his recent diplomatic tour; the de- sire to up-stage Nicaragua's surprise acceptance of the Contadora draft treaty for regional peace, and comply- with its call for negotiations to end civil conflicts. Perhaps Duarte wanted to assert his independence from the United States, at a time when the Reagan Administration could hardly oppose a peace initiative. For the moment, Duarte has up- staged his rivals and vastly improved his party's chances of winning a majority in the Assembly. He has dis- armed his critics in Europe and the United States, assured himself of time and money for the war effort, and further isolated his opponents on the right. But Duarte also has taken a huge political risk. His peace initia- tive is a treasonous act to the ultra- Right which already has issued threats against his life. General Vides Casa- nova went along to La Palma, but that is no guarantee of the Army's con- tinued support. How much room does Duarte really have to negotiate? And if the talks break down, who will the people blame? What's To Negotiate? A pact of silence has prevented either side from discussing the sub- stance of the peace talks. But in a "Document of Principles and Norms" presented to the rebels at La Palma, Duarte set forth the central issue of debate: "From this forum I wish to tell the ideologues of El Salvador's rebels in arms to tone down their strategies to adapt to the country's new circum- stances. This is not the same El Sal- vador that they left in 1978 and 1979. A climate of freedom pervades our country. Political parties are respected and their activities are promoted and the people choose their leaders freely. Abuses of authority and violations of human rights have decreased to a min- imum level and those guilty of them are sought out and punished . . . El Salvador has a new society today." NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1984 7During the talks, Duarte presum- ably cited the oft-repeated claims that death-squad killings are down dramat- ically; that the security forces have been reorganized and purged of their most corrupt and brutal elements; that the Army has been "profession- alized" and now respects human rights; and that a new commission has been established to investigate politi- cally motivated killings. The rebel delegation may well have countered with the following points: * Only a handful of Salvadorean officers accused of human rights abuses have been transferred, mainly to diplomatic posts abroad, while the others remain on active duty. Not one has been subjected to civilian or mili- tary justice. * The death squads, generally be- lieved to include off-duty and re- tired military personnel, continue to operate with impunity. In the month of October alone, their victims in- cluded a university professor ma- chine-gunned in front of his home and a trade union leader found beaten and drowned. Humanitarian relief workers have been kidnapped by armed men in civilian clothes, only to turn up days later in the hands of the National Police. Recent death-squad com- muniqu6s have threatened union ac- tivists and teachers. The total number of death-squad victims may have de- clined since Duarte took office, but the structures remain intact and the terror persists. * The main causes of violent death among the civilian population today are the bombs dropped by the Sal- vadorean Air Force and the Army's sweeps into territories contested by the guerrillas. Two recent massacres of unarmed civilians, in Cabafias and Chalatenango provinces, were widely reported in the foreign press and de- nounced by the Archdiocese. Duarte's own inquiry absolved the Army of any wrongdoing. [A recent report by the respected human rights group, Americas Watch, states that, "As best we can deter- mine, these attacks on civilian non- combatants in conflict zones are part of a deliberate policy. The aim seems to be to force civilians to flee these zones, depriving the guerrillas of a civilian population from which they can obtain food and other necessities. The cost of pursuing this policy, in terms of human suffering, is beyond measurement. And, of course, it is a policy that flagrantly violates the laws of war.] The causes of the conflict in El Sal- vador have not been eradicated. And the FMLN will not abandon the armed struggle in exchange for exaggerated claims and vague promises. But nei- ther did the rebel leaders, in subse- quent statements to the press, make power-sharing their bottom line. Ra- ther, they emphasized concrete steps toward the creation of a more just so- ciety: a halt to the bombings of rebel- controlled zones, full respect for human rights and punishment of those responsible for abuses; the right to or- ganize workers in the countryside and cities; economic measures to benefit the poor; and the withdrawl of all U.S. advisers and military aid. If Duarte's document is read as a statement of intent, rather than a list of accomplishments, there is hope that the way can be paved toward peace and truly fair elections. Recent his- tory, including Duarte's first term as president in 1980-82, does not bode well for the future. But La Palma tap- ped and unleashed a new social force: the people's profound desire for peace. The sincerity of both sides will be tested, as will the limits of Duarte's power and the unity within rebel ranks. Waging War And Peace The war most certainly will inten- sify in the months ahead, as each side seeks to demonstrate that it came to the talks not out of weakness but out of strength. There is no contradiction, simply hard reality. But there will be a new arena of struggle in El Salvador, as each side tries to grab the political space opened by the talks. The FDR-FMLN realized long before La Palma that its struggle could not be won by military means alone. In the last year, it has em- phasized the need to rebuild its urban structures and mobilize new sectors in pursuit of basic economic demands. Independent actors, in the trade un- ions and Christian base communities, will also be testing the government's commitment to controlling right-wing violence and carrying out reforms. Death-squad activity can be expected to increase as a result, and left-wing splinter groups, particularly the tiny faction that broke away from the FDR-FMLN last year, may try to sabotage the talks as a "sell-out" of the revolution. Things will get worse in El Sal- vador before they get better. But there will be signs along the way to indicate progress or the lack of it. One litmus test of the government's commitment to peace will be its choice of delegates to the new peace commis- sion and the next meeting in November. If Duarte appoints low- level officials, the FDR-FMLN will most likely respond in kind. If the Army is absent from the delegation, it will be an ominous sign that Duarte has failed to exert civilian control over the military. Another test will be Duarte's pro- gress in fulfilling his promise to inves- tigate specific cases of political vio- lence and prosecute the accused. So far, his investigative commission has said nothing. Nor does it have the power to prosecute. That rests with the attorney general and the courts, both controlled by parties of the ultra- Right. Duarte must be prepared to do battle with these forces, and to let some heads roll in the Armed Forces if his "new society" is really to take shape. The attitude adopted by the United States will have a significant impact on the prospects for peace in El Sal- vador. All indications are that the Reagan Administration had no role in formulating the La Palma initiative. Indeed, it runs counter to what has been the goal of U.S. policy for the last four years: a military victory over the rebels, whatever the cost in human lives and suffering. If followed by serious steps toward establishing re- spect for human rights and the condi- tions for a genuine democracy in El Salvador, La Palma can become the first step toward peace. If pursued as a propaganda ploy, as a ticket to un- limited aid from the United States and further escalation of the war, then there will be no end in sight.

Tags: El Salvador, Peace talks, civil war, FMLN, Jose Napoleon Duarte

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