Locked in Battle

September 25, 2007

officers carried out a bloodless coup against the
government of General Oscar Humberto Romero. Wel-
comed by the United States, and with widespread sup-
port among more senior officers, the coup aimed to
head off a crisis that had been brewing since late 1976. It
offered a middle way between the intransigence of the
Romero government, backed by the oligarchy and big
private enterprise, and the radical solutions proposed
by organizations that were later to form the Farabundo
Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Three factors prompted the coup-makers to act:
structural injustice, which kept most Salvadoreans in
abject poverty; the growing violation of human rights
under Romero; and the mounting unpopularity of the
armed forces, who were tarnished not only by human
rights abuses and their role in perpetuating social injus-
tice, but also by the electoral frauds of 1972 and 1977.
The coup found willing collaborators not only in the
parties which today make up the Democratic Revolu-
tionary Front (FDR), but also in the Communist Party
and, to a lesser degree, among certain sympathizers and
members of the guerrilla organizations. But the first
junta established after the coup, composed of military
officers and civilians, was in power only three short
months before its reformist experiment was blocked by
the oligarchy, big business and the military commanders
who had been left in their posts. The present-day FMLN
also seriously misread events and contributed to the de-
stabilization of that first junta.
Under the leadership of the Christian Democratic
Party (PDC), the attempt to find a "middle road" wore
a new face between January 1980 and March 1982. This
was one of the bloodiest spells in Salvadorean history,
with more than 25,000 killings. By January 1981, the
war had begun in earnest between two opposing armies.
But there were also reforms-above all in the agrarian
sector-despite the active opposition of the oligarchy
and big private enterprise.
This period of "war with reforms" misled many
observers to identify three conflicting strategies: the far
Right's determination to exterminate the FMLN
without reforms; the plan backed by Washington and
the Christian Democratic junta-also dedicated to mili-
tary victory but by different means, including reforms;
and the "extreme Left's" intention of seizing absolute
power through armed violence and mass mobilization.
However, as the March 1982 elections made clear,
there were really only two primary camps: one revolu-
tionary and the other counter-revolutionary, even if the
latter had its PDC/Washington variant and its extreme
rightist one. The attempt of the so-called "center" to
rein in the oligarchy was entirely secondary to the main
goal of destroying a revolutionary movement that was
seen as communist, and so a threat to private enterprise
and the security of the United States in its own
In the two years since the March 1982 elections, a
"National Unity" government--formed to paper over
differences between the parties in power-has pursued
the war against the FMLN as the backbone of its activi-
ties. This war has taken three basic forms:
* a war in the strict sense, backed by the United
States with large-scale funding, training for thousands
of troops and officers, and the presence of U.S. military
advisers, together with pressure on Nicaragua to stifle
the flow of arms and munitions to the FMLN;
* state terrorism, whose tens of thousands of vic-
tims have been regarded by Christian Democrats, the
National Unity government and the Reagan Adminis-
tration alike as a necessary or inevitable consequence of
the war;
* of lesser importance, certain reforms intended to
erode the base of popular support for the revolutionary
Both the extreme Right and the so-called centrist or
reformist options are committed in practice to the first
two methods. The fact that the Christian Democrats os-
tensibly dislodged the oligarchy from government be-
tween 1980 and 1982 and launched some important
reforms makes little difference; the goal of destroying
communism remains identical. This explains the para-
dox of why state terrorism claimed more victims before
the March 1982 elections, when the PDC was in govern-
ment, than under a National Unity government that in-
cluded both the PDC and ARENA-the party accused
of direct links to the death squads. In fact, there is no
contradiction: the Christian Democrats were never able
to control the extreme rightists within the state ap-
paratus and, more particularly, within the armed forces.
I child of the United States and the Christian Demo-
crats. Its program has these characteristics and goals:
"* the basic ideology of anti-communism;
"* the destruction of the FMLN through improved
political and military strategies, involving substantial
increases in military aid and more sophisticated weap-
ons of war;
* elections designed to produce a strong civilian
government, capable of controlling the Army and
security forces;
14Guerrillas guard a bridge in the eastern part of the country.
* greater respect for human rights, curbing the
death squads and strengthening the judicial system;
* support for economic development and improved
living standards for the masses.
Of these, the first two elements are uppermost. If the
others get in the way of the battle against the FMLN,
they will be downplayed or abandoned.
The solution of the "Right" could also be accep-
table to the United States, though perhaps softened
through alliances with less extremist parties. Its main
characteristics are these:
* an anti-communism so fanatical that it legitimizes
any action that succeeds in doing away with "com-
munists"-defined as anyone who condemns social in-
justice or the abuse of power. This definition has pro-
duced the kind of terrorism that has caused 45,000 non-
combatant deaths since 1980;
* a determination to annihilate the FMLN and all its
sympathizers in a style of warfare that designates the
enemy not as soldiers but as "murderous hordes;"
* an attempt to monopolize all power, political as
well as economic and military. This includes the right to
hand pick reliable commanders and senior officers in
the Army and the security forces.
* the annulment of all economic reforms, allowing
the Right to recover the absolute economic stranglehold
it has traditionally enjoyed, with a full package of
incentives and benefits for private enterprise.
p of March 28, 1982 set out to resolve the secondary
conflicts between Right and center-Right. Far from im-
proving the problems of civil war, rightist terror,
unabated economic decline, political polarization and
the breakdown of institutions had worsened between
1980 and 1982. The Christian Democratic junta had lost
any ability to govern with authority, and the party
claimed this was because its mandate came from a deal
with the Army instead of through democratic elections.
Both the PDC and the Reagan Administration saw
elections-which the far Right at first resisted-as a
convenient way of legitimizing their policies in the inter-
national arena and a source of greater domestic support
for confronting El Salvador's ills. The United States,
the Christian Democrats and even the Church believed
the elections would end in victory for the PDC-sup-
posedly the middle-way solution between the extremes
of Left and Right. To their surprise, it was the PDC's
opponents who emerged victorious, both in aggregate
votes and the total number of deputies elected.
Only the swift intervention of the Reagan Ad-
ministration stopped the winning bloc of parties from
carrying out an overtly rightist program of government.
The United States insisted on Christian Democratic ap-
pointments to the new Cabinet and kept the presidency
away from Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, the most
notorious representative of the far Right. As a trade-
MARCH/APRIL 1984 15Repo on, he Am*eria
off, Washington was forced to agree to his designation
as President of the Constituent Assembly.
The outcome of the elections was that matters con-
tinued much as before, with slight variations under
rightist pressure. The Right's biggest gain was the gut-
ting of the agrarian reform, and it enshrined this success
in the new Constitution.
"center-Right" in El Salvador may appear dif-
ferent, but past history and a shared hostility to com-
munism and the FMLN have meant that there has been
little distinction in practice. Against them stands the
"Left" program of the FMLN-FDR, which has chang-
ed considerably over the last four years. The FMLN-
FDR's proposal for a Government of Broad Participa-
tion seems to reflect a decision to abandon revolu-
tionary idealism in favor of a political realism. Its prin-
cipal elements include:
* the demand for a direct share in power, without
that meaning a monopoly of power;
* far-reaching agrarian reform, and reform of the
finance system and foreign trade;
* a mixed economy in which private enterprise
would enjoy a reasonable place, without the abusive
privileges or prerogatives it has enjoyed throughout
Salvadorean history;
* political pluralism, which does not imply immedi-
ate elections, but neither does it rule out elections whose
exact form would be agreed upon later.
* restructuring of the Army and security forces to
remove those responsible for killings and human rights
abuses, and the formation of a new Army from a merger
of the present Army and the troops of the FMLN.
The main means of achieving these goals is armed
struggle. Not that this closes the door to dialogue and
negotiation; on the contrary, the Left has made
repeated positive offers in that direction. The Govern-
ment of Broad Participation is a compromise program.
The goal of popular power based on a worker-peasant
alliance has been postponed if not abandoned, and any
notions of alignment with the socialist bloc or the export
of revolution in the region long ago gave way to a na-
tionalist pledge to non-alignment. Now, the FMLN-
FDR offers a reciprocal security pact with the United
Water distribution in a front-line battle zone. Rnh NickelsherolWoodfin Came
KErUK I UIN lt i1e NIKIL%_A 16by unidentified armed men.
aggravated by the crisis racking all of Central
America. The proposals of the Left appear irreconcil-
able with those of the Right, and only slightly less so
with those of the center-Right. To make matters worse,
the present balance of forces is such that none of the
contenders can hope to prevail either through military
means or by any of the political approaches attempted so far.
The center-Right option, often interwoven during
the last four years with the far Right in its methods of
fighting the war and its condonement or encouragement
of human rights violations, has met with resounding
failure. Admittedly, it has prevented the FMLN from
taking power and stopped El Salvador from falling into
the hands of a threatening pro-Marxist government; the
economy is still standing, at least in the sense that it is
not quite flat on its back; and political life has been
revived to the extent of approving a new Constitution
and holding fresh elections geared toward restoring
constitutional order. But the FMLN has not been
defeated; far from it-the Left is militarily stronger
than ever. And El Salvador remains high on the list of
the world's most violence-ridden countries, where na-
tional life and institutions have broken down to a tragic
The goals of the far Right program may not have
been fully realized either, but their essential methods-
primarily terrorism-have been allowed every latitude.
To escalate that terror further would not only worsen El
Salvador's standing as an international pariah, but
would also imperil continued U.S. economic and
military aid. Without it, in all likelihood, the FMLN
would end up taking power.
The FMLN-FDR has also been unable to achieve
its objectives, through either military means or nego-
tiations. Its battlefield successes, while undeniable,
have neither defeated the Army nor forced its adver-
saries to the negotiating table. It has, however, taken
some initial steps toward recognition by compelling
special U.S. envoy Richard Stone and the Salvadorean
government's Peace Commission to open official talks
with the FMLN as well as the FDR. The spiral of war
between the contending blocs of Right, center-Right
and Left makes this deadlock ever more acute. While
the Right becomes more intransigent, the Left grows
stronger. In this dance of death, the reform initiatives of
the center-Right stiffen the resolve of the frenetically
anti-communist oligarchy and its military allies to op-
pose them; the terrorism of the Right drives thousands
into the armed resistance of the Left. While the conven-
tional war of the center-Right only enhances the Left's
military capacity, the threat of a powerful Left makes
the far Right dig in its heels, confident of its ability to ex-
tract more U.S. assistance-a stance which it saw vin-
dicated by Reagan's "pocket veto" in December.
Washington's position becomes increasingly untenable:
either forced to ally itself with extremist terror from the
oligarchy, or redoubling its commitment to the center-
Right, ironically the least viable contender within the
logic of events in El Salvador.
Such is the calamity engulfing the Salvadorean peo-
ple. The objective problems posed by El Salvador's
history, its recent past and its present are extraordinarily
complex, virtually impossible to resolve. What is at
stake today is less the solution than the issue of who will
design a solution and on what terms.
Four years of war have complicated the situation
still further. Those four years may have brought us close
to the final act of the drama, but so much death and
destruction have not brought the protagonists any
nearer to a solution. The contenders grow stronger with
each new day, and none more so than the FMLN. But
none of them can anticipate a short-term military vic-
tory or political settlement. Unless, that is, we see a
dramatic shift in the positions of all those who play a
major role in the conflict.

Tags: El Salvador, coup, Christian Democrats, FMLN, Politics

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