Washington Certifies the War

September 25, 2007

crisis can ignore the ubiquitous presence of the
United States in the nation's affairs: that much is clear
after four years of civil war. U.S. intervention began to
assume major proportions in 1981; since then, it has
grown steadily. U.S. military, economic and political in-
volvement, and the corresponding weakening of the
Salvadorean regime, have affected every facet of
political life in El Salvador.
Through its involvement, Washington has tried to
set El Salvador's political agenda. It seems to be
Washington's decision whether or not there will be
negotiations with the Left, what military strategy will be
pursued, who will serve as Defense Minister, whether
social reforms will continue, what level of fatalities is
acceptable before human rights violations become a
problem, whether or not the death squads are to be
However, the growing involvement and influence of
the United States in El Salvador and its Central
American neighbors has not provided a solution to the
CUaude Urracal/ygma
crisis. Nor has it given any real indication that a solution
is in sight. Quite the opposite: from a U.S. viewpoint, there may be some hints of short-term progress, but the
overall strategy is in serious trouble, perhaps failing
altogether. And failure would only drag the United
States into a more acute spiral of intervention-in itself
no guarantee of stabilizing the situation in El Salvador,
bringing peace to the region or putting Washington's
mind at rest about its national security,
report makes clear, the U.S. strategy in El Sal-
vador is an integral part of Washington's broader Cen-
tral American policies. Our aim here is not to dissect the
regional strategy, however, but to discern from Reagan
Administration actions and policy statements the forms
that it has taken in El Salvador.
We should note that the regional strategy is the
brain child of the neoconservative school of thought in
vogue in the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the
end of the Carter Administration. Spurning socioeco-
nomic concerns and human rights in favor of national
security interests, the neoconservative ideologues saw
Latin America-and Central America in particular--
as a front-line trench in the war against "Soviet
The neoconservatives insist on branding the region's
problems as a consequence of superpower confronta-
tion. They also believe firmly in seeking tangible short-
term results to boost the credibility of their containment
strategy (for example, turning back fresh "assaults on
power" by "anti-American" or "pro-Communist"
forces). Such victories will supposedly restore the image
of strong U.S. leadership to allies and enemies alike.
El Salvador was selected as the ideal place to display
the new Republican Administration's political resolve
to stick to its campaign promises and to demonstrate its
ability to shape events in its "natural sphere of in-
fluence." Using the arguments of the Committee of
Santa Fe that armed Cuban-backed minorities were at-
tempting to destabilize regimes committed to demo-
cratic change, the Reagan Administration proposed to
"wed the most successful elements of the Truman Doc-
trine and the Alliance for Progress" to provide those
nations with much higher levels of military and eco-
nomic assistance, at least in the short term, to head off
possible victory by revolutionary forces. It also pro-
posed to encourage "governments of national reconcili-
ation" with massive U.S. aid, committing whatever
time and resources proved necessary.
In general terms, the goals of the Reagan Adminis-
tration for the region when it came to power in January
1981 were these:
* to prevent at all costs a guerrilla takeover in El
* to build the political institutions needed to legiti-
mize governments ruled by the military and to overcome
legislative restrictions on the renewal of military assis-
tance (as in the case of Guatemala);
* a substantial increase in military aid to El
Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and improved
cooperation between their armies, in order to defeat
domestic insurgency and counter the "Sandinista
* the economic and military destabilization of Nica-
ragua's Sandinista government and its possible replace-
ment by a regime friendly to the United States;
* the maximum possible isolation of Cuban aid and
influence, both to the Nicaraguan government and to
Six-week conscripts in San Francisco Gotera. Anne Nelson
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 42the insurgent movements in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Despite being repackaged on a number of occasions,
those goals have remained essentially unchanged since
1981: witness President Reagan's address to the joint
session of Congress on April 27, 1983 or the report of
the Kissinger Commission. The only change has been in
the development of new political, military, economic
and diplomatic tactics to achieve the Administration's
X been the overriding aim of U.S. policy in El Sal-
vador. Through continued and escalating military aid
and the presence of U.S. military advisers, the United
States has tried a number of approaches, but with only
patchy success.
Bob Nickelsberg/Woodfin Camp
U.S. Army advisers train Salvadorean troops to use small arms.
First, it has built up the Salvadorean armed forces,
both by increasing troop strength in the Army, Air
Force and Navy and by modernizing their weaponry.
The Army, formerly equipped with G-3 rifles, now car-
ries M-16s (and as an interesting footnote, the security
forces have inherited their G-3s). The Air Force has
modern A-37 fighters and a fleet of 24 helicopters. The
military has new armored units and modern com-
munications equipment. Total troop strength by early
1984, including the security forces, numbered around
40,000; during January the Army conducted a forced
recruitment drive aimed at picking up a quota of 1,000
soldiers from each of 14 departments.
Second, it has improved the technical skills of a large
proportion of Army regulars through training pro-
grams in El Salvador, the United States, Honduras and
Panama. These have trained at least four rapid reaction
batallions and at least 13 light infantry batallions. They
have also strengthened junior officer command skills
and trained Air Force, artillery and Navy maintenance
and support teams as well as paramedics.
Third, it has introduced changes in the conduct of
the war. At the level of strategy, this has meant a shift
away from passive containment towards an aggressive
assault on guerrilla supply lines; the sequel to this is an
"integrated warfare" campaign, centered on winning
the hearts and minds of the civilian population and a
major propaganda offensive. At the level of tactics,
there has been an attempt to introduce non-stop warfare
with small mobile units employing guerrilla tactics and
an increased use of air and artillery support in all opera-
tions,Aue perhaps to the upgrading of ground-to-air
Fourth, it has made changes in how the Army func-
tions as an institution, favoring promotion by merit and
combat experience over the traditional pattern of
promotion by seniority, creating new administrative
divisions (new garrisons and brigades) and overhauling
the command structure.
a support role. Accordingly, its design has been
relatively straightforward:
One, to encourage a set of socioeconomic reforms
-agrarian reform and nationalization of the banking
and finance system. The reforms set out to undercut the
appeal of the revolutionary movement, build support
for incipient "reformist" policies, and develop the
economic levers required to finance the war (basically
through credit and exchange controls).
Two, to encourage the transition from an il-
legitimate de facto regime to constitutional rule. This
was to be achieved by a planned series of elections for a
Constituent Assembly, president and vice-president,
Legislative Assembly and local authorities. At the same
time, a new social contract would be forged to reflect
the supposed "pluralist consensus" within the Con-
stituent Assembly.
Three, to split the FMLN-FDR alliance and foster
divisions within the FMLN. This called for covert oper-
ations by the United States and a vast network of
informers who would also serve to strengthen military
It proved difficult to apply this schema with much
flexibility, and 1982-1983 saw a series of modifications
in Washington's approach. Few of these changes were
the result of initiatives from the Administration; most
came in response to congressional pressure, especially
over the issues of human rights and peace talks. So, for
example, the invitation to the FDR to run in the March
1982 elections came on the heels of congressional ap-
proval of the six-monthly certification process. The Ad-
ministration tried to turn the issue to its advantage, in
hopes that the demand might drive a wedge between the
On occasions when the push for change has come
from the Administration, it has been in an effort to con-
front the problems posed by the Salvadoreans them-
selves, who inconveniently refuse to act as mere pawns
in Washington's hands. The attempt to build a "demo-
cratic center" within the Constituent Assembly, for ex-
ample, came as a necessary response to ARENA's
power-grab of the presidency and its subsequent threat
to reverse the reforms and force through constitutional
clauses even more reactionary than those of earlier
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critical state of the Salvadorean economy and the
regional economy as a whole, and its potential to bring
about social upheaval and fan the flames of insurrec-
tion. Its policy therefore called for massive direct
economic aid to stave off short-term collapse and a con-
certed medium-term effort to stimulate regional
economic growth. The main vehicle for the latter was
the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which later gave
birth to the Kissinger Commission and the proposed
Jackson Plan. Significantly, the CBI was presented
from the outset as a "Mini-Marshall Plan."
As in the political sphere, adjustments were made to
the plan to contend with the problems that cropped up
later. For example, the large-scale donations of food
and medicine to refugees within the country were put to
a twofold political end: first, a means of neutralizing the
explosive potential of half a million Salvadoreans up-
rooted by the war, and second, an ideal way to channel
food and medical supplies intended for refugees to serve
the needs of the war effort.
. early days of the Reagan Administration-came
second only to military action. An intensive diplomatic
offensive set out to convince Western governments that
the Salvadorean insurrection was one further example
of "external aggression" sponsored by the USSR
through Cuba and Nicaragua. The intention was to rob
the revolutionary movement of any support from the
West, build a regional bloc to isolate Nicaragua and act
as a platform for joint military operations, and co-opt
other diplomatic initiatives that proposed negotiated
settlements for El Salvador and the region. Among the
specific thrusts of the diplomatic offensive were:
* the publication of White Papers and other evi-
dence to provide conclusive proof of Cuban-Soviet in-
volvement through Nicaragua and Sandinista responsi-
bility for the Salvadorean insurgency;
* the creation of the Central American Democratic
Community as a substitute for the Organization of Cen-
tral American States (ODECA). The community was
designed to neutralize diplomatic initiatives from other
quarters; it would also provide a forum for reviving
regional security alliances (CONDECA) or invoking
hemispheric security treaties (the Rio Treaty-TIAR).
The "Democratic Community" has played a chame-
leon-like role in response to diplomatic initiatives such
as those of the Contadora Group, but has never ceased
to function in pursuit of its original goals.
Congressional pressure has also influenced diplo-
matic activity, and the Administration has again
diverted hostile initiatives to serve its own agenda. The
example par excellence was the appointment of special
envoy Richard Stone and apparent U.S. support for the
Contadora process. These gestures did not signify any
sincere desire for negotiations or moves to reduce ten-
sion in Central America. Instead, they served to subvert
serious negotiating efforts and make Congressional ac-
tion a dupe of the Administration's strategy.
1 rather more unfavorable and dangerous for the
United States than it was in early 1981. Overall, U.S.
policies have failed more than they have succeeded.
The Reagan Administration has prevented the
FMLN from taking power. But despite the roughly $200
million in U.S. military aid and $650 million in eco-
nomic aid between 1981 and 1983, the FMLN appears a
stronger military and political force today than it was
three years ago. So strong has it grown on the battlefield
in fact, that it would probably overthrow the present
government, were it not for U.S. military assistance to
44 REPORT ON THE AMERICASthe Army and the help of U.S. military advisers.
The war has reinforced the unity within FMLN and
between it and the FDR, in sharp contrast to the effect
of U.S. aid on the government side. Changes within the
Army have encouraged greater corruption and aggra-
vated political splits within the officer corps. Even if the
new military procedures brought in by the United States
were capable of solidifying the armed forces, their ef-
fect would take time to show.
In the political sphere, the reforms have failed to
undercut the appeal of the revolutionary movement
enough to stop its expansion. Nor have they rallied a
large enough or broad enough social base to give an
electoral majority to the Christian Democrats. The 1982
election results appear to confirm this. And though
those elections did somewhat enhance the image of the
Salvadorean regime, their outcome forced the United
States into deeper intervention to head off a swift rever-
sal of the reforms and impose a provisional president
elected by nobody-Dr. Alvaro Magana.
The "National Unity" government that emerged
has survived for two years, but at the cost of heightened
animosity between Washington's natural political and
economic allies in the fight against the FMLN. In fact
the entire process has only strengthened the most
obdurate members of the oligarchy, those who have set
their face against any kind of change. The United States
has found itself compelled to invent a whole series of
political devices to neutralize the oligarchy-the Pact of
Apaneca, the artificial creation of a "political center,"
and enforced changes of command in the armed forces.
As a result, Washington has come close to open warfare
with the most powerful political force on the Salva-
dorean Right, for whose new-found strength it is
directly responsible. Though the transition process goes
on, it grows harder for Washington to pretend that it
represents continuity with the reforms begun in 1979.
Its failure to halt the massive and systematic viola-
tion of human rights indicates one of two things. Either
Washington is absolutely ignorant of conditions in El
Salvador or-worse-the demand for a military victory
over the FMLN is so overwhelming that large doses of
repression-with all the military, paramilitary and judi-
cial machinery involved-is consciously accepted as a
necessity. The Reagan Administration's consistently
reactive attitude to human rights problems has cost it
domestic and international credibility and brought it the
animosity of many allies inside El Salvador. It has also
meant debasing the range of mechanisms which might
potentially open the way to peace and democracy
(namely the amnesty law, the government's Human
Rights Commission, elections and reforms) and turning
them into elements of a counterinsurgency strategy that
sets out to destroy rebellion instead of destroying its
root causes.
Economic policy has been unsuccessful in two
senses, failing to defuse the danger of mass discontent
by not addressing the desperate economic plight of most
of the population, and fueling discontent at corruption.
The only success that massive amounts of aid money
can claim is to have staved off total economic collapse.
As time goes by, it becomes clear that the principal
beneficiary of economic aid has been the oligarchy, and
that the cash influx has been used primarily to buy
political alliances and loyalties.
0 for the failure of U.S. policies: first, an incorrect
diagnosis of the situation, and second, the mistaken
assumption that Washington can control social forces
which in fact operate with a high degree of autonomy in
El Salvador, according to their own interests and agen-
das, in ways that the U.S. Administration fails to grasp.
This has led the United States to a false reading of its
real power in El Salvador-power which is great, but
not absolute-and to the creation of a number of levers
for exerting pressure. Because of its misperception of
local realities, however, the United States, in practice,
has lacked the courage to use those levers. Its threats
have proved empty and the intransigent far Right has
learned that it can get away with calling the Administra-
tion's bluff. The United States has reached a point of
diminishing returns, with greater pressure being re-
quired to effect smaller changes. Two cases in point
have been the controversies over the agrarian reform
and the death squads. Despite the huge U.S. political
and economic investment in the success of the agrarian
reform, the program has gone backwards, with the oli-
garchy emerging stronger than ever. This is the result of
the U.S. inability to combine the injection of funds with
the use of political muscle-the "blank check" syn-
drome-and the inability to grasp that not all
Salvadoreans who proclaim themselves friends of pri-
vate enterprise are necessarily friends of the United
The same logic applies to the recent fight over the
death squads. The fact that the United States has chosen
the armed forces as its main ally, and the military defeat
of the FMLN as its main goal, means that too much
pressure to clean up rightist terror would imperil the war
against the Left. This is because purging the armed
forces of figures tied to the death squads would risk
unravelling the whole fabric of the Army as an insti-
tution. Result: pressure on the death squads has no
credibility. The Right's response has been to step up
death squad activity, so throwing down a gauntlet to the
United States.
The bottom line for Washington is clear from the
conclusions of the Kissinger Report. "Conditionality"
is fine, but only if human rights concerns do not lead to
a "Marxist-Leninist" victory.
The United States' erroneous diagnosis of the Salva-
dorean situation has strengthened the hand, then, of the
forces in Salvadorean society most resistant to any form
of change. This means that the crisis is more explosive
than it was in 1981. But it also means that the United
States has become the hostage of its own policies. And
that is the greatest measure of its failure.

Tags: El Salvador, US intervention, contras, repression, failure

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