Dangers ahead for El Salvador
Sometime last year, Ruben Zamora happened to speak with a member of El Salvador's extreme-right ARENA party in a foreign embassy in San Salvador. Zamora, leader of the leftist "Democratic Convergence" coalition, was surprised to find that he agreed with the rightist about many things: the US-backed, corruption-racked Christian Democratic government had failed to address El Salvador's problems, the economy was a mess, and the protracted civil war was a slow motion disaster. The rightist said he had a solution to the never-ending war.
Rather than fighting for another decade, he said, the military should kill about 100,000 people in a six-month span and then have nine and a half years to rebuild.
The FMLN guerrillas fighting the government have recently proposed another way to end the war. They say that if the elections are postponed for six months in order to allow the Democratic Convergence to compete in a fair race, the FMLN would agree to a cease-fire and accept the results of the elections.
The Salvadoran ruling parties immediately rejected the offer. But the Bush Administration is worried about El Salvador's war becoming an albatross around its neck, and responded favorably. Now ARENA and the Christian Democrats are groping for ways to neutralize the proposal without being seen as intransigent.
Why has the FMLN rejected previous elections?
We in the United States tend to forget that elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy. Even the Soviets have plenty of elections. In 1980, literally one tenth of El Salvador's population marched in the street on behalf of the left. Yet by 1982 military repression made it impossible for the left to run for office. The very process of voting is intimidating: the ballot hardly conceals the voter's choice, and voters must drop the ballot into a transparent box while soldiers look on.
The massacres of 1979-1983 decimated the nonviolent left, but the decrease in murders by 1984 has led to a renewed explosion of political organizing. Imagine, just a few years after the army was machine-gunning demonstrations in the streets, there are again tens of thousands of impoverished people brave enough and desperate enough to march. Despite death threats, exiled politicians such as Zamora and Guillermo Ungo returned to El Salvador last year. Ungo decided to run in the elections (whenever they are held) as the candidate of the Democratic Convergence.
We should not let the fact that the government now murders "only" hundreds a year rather than thousands convince us that the military has stepped down. Just the other day, President Jose Napoleon Duarte announced that he would abide by the military's decision on the FMLN proposal, rather than the other way around. More ominously, death squad activities have risen markedly in the past year. The people have freedom -- as long as they shut up.
Unfortunately for Zamora and other potential victims, ARENA already controls El Salvador's Legislative Assembly and key sectors of the military, and will probably win the presidency in the March 19 elections this year. Unfortunately for ARENA, the FMLN has been winning large parts of the country.
The FMLN has stepped up attacks on the military, including a daylight attack on the National Guard base in the capital. Recently, the rebels have also intimidated two thirds of El Salvador's official mayors into resigning, and the military is afraid to travel on many roads in the countryside, even during the day. A few years ago, US officials were saying that United States aircraft, training, advisors, and money had all but defeated the guerrillas. Instead, the rebels created an alternative government in the quarter of the country where they are strongest and extended the war to the rest of El Salvador. According to eyewitness accounts such as Charlie Clements' Witness to War, the rebel-sponsored government consists of village councils elected by local peasants.
FMLN representatives imply that if the government does not respond to their peace offer with some meaningful counter proposal, they intend to escalate the war to a general insurrection.
Thus the situation is a picture of instability. As the military toys with the idea of a massacre, and the guerrillas threaten to topple the government, each player has incentive to strike first. There are also constraints. If the guerrillas strike prematurely, the government might slaughter all their civilian supporters. If the military reverts to "total war," Congress might withhold US aid.
Or it might not. While in El Salvador last month, Vice President Dan Quayle demanded respect for human rights, but refused to say the United States would condition continued US support on such respect. (Actually Quayle said he "condoned" human rights violations, but we assume he meant to say "condemned"). Would the money keep flowing during a death squad rampage, as it did under President Carter? Would Bush send our troops if the rebels were on the verge of winning? No one knows.
This column leaves huge gaps in the story. I challenge you to fill those gaps for yourselves. I challenge you to find out about that small country where the United States has given so much money to murderers and thieves. I challenge you to use those times when you are fed up with problem sets to read Clements, or Chomsky, or Armstrong and Shenk, or NACLA Report on the Americas, or Zeta Magazine.
Look at El Salvador because maybe, just maybe, our attention today is groundwork for preventing a bloodbath tomorrow.
Barry Klinger, a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, is a member of the MIT Committee on Central America.