Washington Certifies the War

September 25, 2007

NO ANALYSIS OF THE SALVADOREAN 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 halted. 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, AS THE RECENT KISSINGER COMMISSION 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- MARCH/APRIL 1984 41EL SALVADOR 1984 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 expansionism." 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 Salvador; * 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 threat"; * 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 goals. THE MILITARY DEFEAT OF THE FMLN HAS 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 communications. 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. P OLITICAL STRATEGY HAS PLAYED ONLY 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 intelligence. 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 FDR and FMLN. 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 constitutions. MARCH/APRIL 1984 43EL SALVADOR 1984 III u-ulu dll allu J il vl0 i li, CIvI d ULIIUI I PlU ldy llW I IdV JV I d IIldlll I ay UI U.O. dLIdL yy. Hr E UNITED STATES RECOGNIZED THE 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. "D IPLOMATIC ACTION-AT LEAST IN THE . 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. rHE SITUATION IN EL SALVADOR TODAY IS 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 44REPORT ON THE AMERICAS I 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. TfHERE APPEAR TO BE TWO MAIN REASONS 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 States. 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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.