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The Endless War

In 1983 Central America is a land ravaged by a war without any foreseeable end. While the fighting could be moderated, if not ended, by negotiations, the major power involved in the region, the United States, shows no real disposition to negotiate. Instead, Washington has chosen a military approach to the struggle between the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and their exile antagonists—the so-called contras, based in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica. In the same way, Washington has chosen to support the Salvadoran military in its war against the guerrillas, even though the armed forces demonstrate a wanton disregard for human rights, thus helping to prolong the very war the United States is committed to bringing to an end. The undeclared aim of the Reagan administration is to eradicate the existence of and possibility for “Marxist-Leninist” states in the region. By emphasizing ideological purity rather than the need for workable security guarantees, and by having abandoned diplomacy for military actions, the US has made it virtually impossible to disentangle itself militarily from the region. Even the best-intentioned administration—and there is no evidence that the Democrats offer a significant alternative to the strategy now pursued—will find the task of withdrawal and reconciliation enormously hard to accomplish.

A year and a half ago when I traveled through Central America, I returned believing that there was a reasonable chance for a series of negotiations—between Washington and Managua; between Washington and Havana; and between the contending forces in El Salvador—that could bring about an overall peace settlement.1 Since then, that opportunity has been effectively closed off by the Reagan administration’s single-minded devotion to military solutions.

This fall I again visited Mexico and Nicaragua, as well as traveling to Cuba, Honduras, and El Salvador, and before and during my trip again spoke with high officials both in and out of government. These included the Mexican foreign minister, Bernardo Sepulveda, Cuba’s vice-president and deputy prime minister, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, and deputy foreign minister Ricardo Alarcón, El Salvador’s president Alvaro Magaña, Honduras’s commander in chief General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, numerous Sandinista officials and military men, as well as leaders of the Nicaraguan exile forces located in Honduras. In addition, I had extensive conversations with US military and diplomatic representatives and visited the contested zones along the Nicaragua-Honduras border.

1.

As the most important power in the region, Mexico is an invaluable starting point for any analysis of the turmoil in Central America. Fearing unrest that might spill over into a wider war, the Mexicans have taken the lead over the past two years in seeking negotiated solutions to the tensions between Washington and Managua and, more generally, in searching for an alternative to the militarization of the region. In particular, Mexico wants peace on its southern border where Guatemalan guerrillas are fighting against the regime and using Mexican territory as a haven. In any case, Mexican intellectuals and government officials—even those most hostile to Marxism—do not believe that Mexico will turn out to be “the last domino,” as the Reagan administration fears, even if Marxist-Leninist states come to power in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Ideology is not something Mexicans are much concerned about. Indeed, the ability of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party, to co-opt their opponents is a continuing wonder in Mexican political life. This has not been diminished by current economic adversity—the 80 percent inflation and high unemployment that have resulted from Mexico’s staggering external debt. As the Mexicans point out, the PRI was founded on the ideology of revolution and has become a party of the status quo, with an enormous bureaucracy to support the system of state capitalism that now exists. The Mexican experience at first persuaded the former president, José López Portillo, that the Sandinista revolution could take a non-Marxist path. Now the Mexican officials I talked to are not so sure. The Sandinistas, they observed, seem more strongly drawn to the Cuban model of a centralized Leninist state than to the Mexican political pattern.

Under the new administration of Miguel de la Madrid, the broad outlines of Mexican foreign policy remain largely unchanged, but there is a marked difference in emphasis. Whereas the previous administration seemed to want to displace US predominance in Central America, the new president stresses the traditional Mexican position of non-intervention. When asked, for example, why Mexico did not try to take the place of the Cubans in Nicaragua, many of whom (whatever their paramilitary duties may be) are teachers and medical personnel, the foreign minister said flatly that Mexico had no intention of sending any advisers there. Thus Mexico finds itself in a dilemma: it would very much like to see the Cubans go home, but it is unwilling to be directly involved, preferring to rest comfortably on its principles.

From intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, I heard the same note of caution sounded when we spoke of Mexican involvement in Central America. As Fuentes explains it, the anti-military tradition in Mexico means that it is unlikely that Mexico could ever send troops into Central America, even as part of a peace-keeping force. Paz agrees with Fuentes, but he regrets Mexico’s “isolationism” and the government’s refusal to see the danger to Central America, and even to Mexico itself, should there be a series of Soviet-aligned communist regimes in the region, something Paz frankly fears. By remaining aloof from the Nicaraguan revolution, Paz pointed out, Mexico did not help the non-Marxist democratic forces represented by such figures as Arturo Cruz, the former head of the Central Bank after the revolution. As Paz himself wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the Mexican is always remote from the world and from other people. And also from himself.”

Unable and certainly unwilling to act by itself, Mexico has sought support from the other powers of the region. Venezuela had already aligned its policy with Mexico’s in urging negotiations among the warring factions in El Salvador after the elections of the spring of 1982. Instead, Venezuela’s candidate, the Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte, was forced out of office. Soon Mexico looked for wider support and managed to get it earlier this year with the formation of the so-called Contadora group by the presidents of four nations—Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama. What the Contadora group initially proposed was to separate security issues in Central America from considerations of internal developments, such as the promotion of the democratic process; but now in its October 1983 21-point document of objectives the Contadora group urges governments “to adopt measures leading to the establishment or in some cases the perfecting of democratic, representative and pluralistic systems.”2

At first, the Reagan administration was hostile to the Contadora group, preferring that any mediation include other Latin American states that might not be so hostile to Washington’s emphasis on military solutions to political problems. But by the fall of 1983, Washington had rhetorically embraced Contadora in order to demonstrate its willingness to consider peaceful solutions to both the continuing war in El Salvador and Nicaragua’s support for leftist guerrilla movements. Moreover, as a senior American diplomat in Central America explained to me, Washington soon found Contadora useful as a way of avoiding negotiations: the administration could simply put aside any serious consideration of bilateral approaches that it did not want to pursue by insisting that they be submitted to Contadora. Like the United Nations in its early years, Contadora is universally praised but it is impotent, and it can become a useful mechanism for settling Central American disputes only if the United States is honestly prepared to employ it.

2.

Unlike the Mexican officials, the Cuban leaders I talked to harbored no apparent doubts about their global vocation. Committed to “internationalism” and solidarity with revolutionary movements abroad, the Cuban leaders look to their foreign policy to provide them with successes that have been singularly lacking on the domestic front. By sending overseas about 35,000 troops (from its active-duty forces of 225,000), most of them to Angola and Ethiopia, as well as military advisers to Nicaragua, Grenada, and even as far as South Yemen, Cuba has extended its influence even though this costs the country dearly. Officially, Cuba’s overall debt, in both hard and soft currencies, reached more than $12 billion in 1982, and its imports regularly exceed its exports. Soviet economic aid helps to underwrite Cuba’s foreign involvements, though it is fair to point out that substantial Soviet economic help was forthcoming well before the Cubans sent troops overseas in the mid-1970s. Since 1961, Cuba has received more than $30 billion in economic aid from the USSR; in 1982, this aid came to more than 25 percent of Cuba’s gross national product—all this apart from any military assistance.3

Most Soviet assistance to Cuba is, of course, military aid, which increased after Reagan’s election and the subsequent sharpening of Washington’s anti-Cuban rhetoric. It is unclear, however, what share of such military equipment has been sent on to Central America. My conversations with Cuban leaders, and with diplomats who are in touch with them, suggested a deep reluctance on their part to become directly enmeshed in actual combat in the region. This attitude derives both from a realistic acceptance of the overwhelming US military strength in the region and continued awareness of Cuba’s vulnerability, and from a fear that the Reagan administration may seize any provocation to invade the island itself.

Cuban leaders insist that their military assistance to El Salvador has been significantly cut back. In our conversations they concentrated on possible political solutions, such as power sharing between the guerrillas and the Salvadoran armed forces and support for the Nicaraguan six-point program of July 1983. Castro himself characterized this as a “willingness to sign a nonaggression pact with Honduras and a willingness to reach an agreement on the issue of El Salvador based on an end to all provision of weapons to the contending parties.”4 The US invasion of Grenada is likely to strengthen Cuba’s desire for negotiations in Central America; indeed, Castro acknowledged after the Grenada episode that he could not help Nicaragua if it were attacked by US forces.5

As the Cuban leaders see it, the situation of the guerrillas has improved in El Salvador despite the failure of the “final offensive” in early 1981. In large part, they said, the reason for this improvement is that the five guerrilla organizations that make up the FMLN have finally coordinated their political and military tactics. They added that the guerrillas did so because they listened to Cuba’s advice and then followed it. This analysis of the FMLN was later confirmed by the American military and political officers I talked to in El Salvador.

The very success of the guerrillas, the Cubans told me, makes an arrangement for power sharing desirable, although this would necessarily retard the development of El Salvador into a Marxist-Leninist state; in El Salvador’s case, however, “radical socialism in the short term is impossible.” They point out that the proximity of Salvador to the United States, the existence of a middle class, and the difficult economic situation of the Soviet bloc call for different tactics for eventually converting Salvador into a communist state. The Cubans also reject any other way of allowing the guerrillas to participate in the existing government. They claim that the safety of the guerrillas could not be guaranteed if, as the US government has proposed, they were to participate in elections. Although the Cuban leaders had talked in 1982 of the possibility of introducing peace-keeping forces in El Salvador,6 they now dismiss as worthless the use of such forces, citing their impotence in the Congo in the mid-1960s when Patrice Lumumba was killed.

Cuba, they say, has no role in Salvador because, unlike Nicaragua, Salvador has “a great diversity of social classes, a broader political spectrum and is in a stage of much higher economic development.” Like the Sandinistas now in power in Managua, the Cubans now insist they are prepared to let the Salvadoran guerrillas fend for themselves. Unwilling to let themselves be caught out by the United States as a major arms supplier to the FMLN—which might give Washington the pretext it is looking for to intervene directly against Cuba—they appear to believe that the FMLN can hang on with the arms it captures from the government troops while it continues to press for a share of power, or even win a military victory in a long war that the United States will grow weary of supporting.

As for bilateral relations with the United States, the Cubans are willing to negotiate on issues such as the repatriation of Cuban criminals who were sent to the United States along with other Cuban refugees in the 1980 Mariel boatlift—but only if these issues are tied to the broader range of US-Cuban relations. They showed no disposition to modify any of Cuba’s significant foreign policy involvements in Angola or elsewhere in Africa. The Cubans themselves feel cut off from any approaches from Washington since the resignation of Alexander Haig. The US diplomats at the US Interests Section in Havana have had no contact with high Cuban officials in well over a year. As the Cubans tell it, the meeting Carlos Rafael Rodriguez had with Secretary Haig in Mexico City in November 1981 was encouraging simply because it took place. But the second meeting, with Reagan’s envoy General Vernon Walters in Havana in February 1982, got nowhere. As the deputy prime minister put it: “It was not a dialogue.” Instead, it was a virtual monologue, “full of anecdotes of a life which was rich in anecdotes, but which we knew.”

As I left Cuba for Central America, I saw no hope for a serious dialogue between Washington and Havana. Cuba might be willing to put distance between itself and the fighting in El Salvador, but the United States, for its part, would only negotiate with Cuba if Havana renounced its policy of supporting armed revolution elsewhere, which the Cubans are not prepared to do. Meanwhile, after the Grenada intervention the possibility of military confrontation with Cuba may have increased.

3.

Visiting Honduras after Cuba one comes to understand why a wider regional conflict in Central America is more and more likely. It is in Honduras, after all, that many of the exiles who oppose the Sandinistas and are backed by the CIA are based. These contras were once largely made up of former supporters of the hated Somoza; they now include a number of former supporters of the Nicaraguan revolution who have become disenchanted at the Marxist direction it has been taking. The FDN, as the nationalist movement calls itself, has recently been negotiating with the other group of exiles fighting the Sandinistas, the ARDE, based in Costa Rica. Coordinated operations by the two groups, estimated at about 10,000 men, would present the Nicaraguan regime with a two-front war, but relations between them have always been strained. ARDE, whose military wing is headed by one of the heroes of the Sandinista revolution, Edén Pastora (“Commander Zero”), and whose political half is led by Alfonso Robelo, a high school classmate of Pastora and a member of the first junta of the Sandinista government, is often split within itself. Pastora has been described as resisting the formation of the joint military command with the FDN called for by the CIA.7 Unlike the FDN, ARDE sees itself as made up of “authentic Sandinistas” whose own revolution has been betrayed.

The contras in Honduras reject any ideas of negotiating with the Sandinistas, who they are convinced will spread revolution throughout Central America. “Their ultimate objective,” one FDN leader told me, is “the Panama Canal and the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela.” While the exiles claim military successes all along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border and maintain that their support within Nicaragua is increasing daily, they are also aware of their complete dependence on the United States. The CIA’s financing of their so-called secret war allows them the fire-power they need, but unless they are able to hold and occupy a significant portion of Nicaragua itself within the next six months, they are fearful the United States will abandon them. Meanwhile, the contras call for free elections, a general amnesty, and “the abolition of repressive institutions.”

In fact, while the contras are considered by US officials to be useful as a means of putting pressure on the Sandinistas, neither the US government nor the Honduran army is convinced that they have the staying power to bring down the Nicaraguan regime. To back up the contras and to prepare for a successful military engagement with the Nicaraguan armed forces, the United States has resurrected, with Honduras’s blessing, Condeca, a Central American mutual defense organization that includes Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama (the northern three nations making up the self-styled “iron triangle”). Should open war with Nicaragua come, Condeca would probably be the regional instrument used to head the campaign.

As it is, Honduras has become, in effect, America’s aircraft carrier. Not only are there 3,500 American troops on joint maneuvers with the Honduran army, but the US has also set up the new Regional Military Training Center there. Ostensibly under the control of the Honduran military, this in fact is a training center for Salvadoran and other Central American soldiers under the direction of the US army. A US military base is also reportedly to be built on the Caribbean coast.

In view of these commitments, I was not surprised to be told by the Honduran leaders that negotiating with the Sandinistas in order to ensure Honduras’s security was out of the question. Although in July 1983 the Honduran government captured between ninety-six and 100 Honduran insurgents (which the United States says were trained in Cuba and came over the border from Nicaragua), the government’s main concern is less to prevent such infiltration than to destroy the Sandinista regime and the ideology it expounds. In the president’s office, the foreign ministry, and, above all, in talking with the commander of the armed forces, General Alvarez, I heard only one solution proposed to deal with “the ideological threat from Nicaragua.” This was for Nicaragua to carry out the promises it once made to institute a mixed economy, political pluralism, and nonalignment. If this were done, so the story ran, then the contras would be able to participate in free elections and thus the external threat to Nicaragua would be removed.

How, I asked, would Honduras arrive at this neat solution? “By putting pressure on the Sandinistas and strengthening the Honduran army.” If the Nicaraguan armed forces were to attack the contras by crossing the Honduran border under the doctrine of “hot pursuit,” then things might deteriorate to the point where “Central America will have to respond.” As General Alvarez put it: “We cannot negotiate with a Soviet base.”

Under these conditions, some observers believe that Honduras’s elected civilian government may be threatened. This is not likely, since the government is a feeble one and the armed forces can carry out whatever policies they wish to follow. But the incipient democracy that exists in Honduras may well perish in an atmosphere of increased militarization.

4.

Assaulted by the contras along its northern border, its oil tanks and pipeline damaged by the rebels with the admitted help of the CIA, Nicaragua is clearly under siege. The Sandinistas insist they want and need security. And they are prepared to make important compromises to get it, even if that means cutting off direct aid to their ideological comrades fighting in El Salvador. What they are not willing to do, they told me, is to negotiate the terms of their own rule or the direction of Nicaragua’s internal affairs.

American government officials I talked to in the region are divided over the degree of support the Sandinistas enjoy. There have been clear signs of discontent with the direction of the revolution. Pressure on the trade unions to submit to the control of the Sandinista party is heavy and widespread; freedom to travel outside the country is getting more difficult; conscription will begin at the end of the year; the press is censored; foreign priests who criticize the revolution have been expelled; economic shortages are common, while necessary commodities such as soap, toilet paper, and gasoline are rationed. In addition, the Sandinistas have organized Cuban-style Committees to Defend Sandinism (CDS), local block associations which are used not only to carry out administrative tasks such as the distribution of supplies but also to spy on neighbors. As I was told by a leader of the CDS when I went out to see the organization at work in one of the barrios, “as long as there are counterrevolutionaries, we will need vigilance.” The principal Sandinista leaders, particularly the powerful party organizer Bayardo Arce, I was told, are committed to the Cuban system of organizing such vigilance.

At the same time, private business still makes up about 40 percent of the economy, with prices controlled by the state. (The government controls all banks, all access to foreign exchange, and regulates all imports.) The land-reform program continues. So do ambitious efforts to improve health and education. Above all, I was told even by Nicaraguans who are not enthusiastic about the Sandinistas, the regime receives support because of the pressures—economic and military—inflicted on it by the United States as it pursues its avowed goal of forcing Nicaragua to take the road to pluralistic democracy and to move away from the direction taken by Cuba.

A trip north to the Honduran-Nicaraguan border gives some indication of the ways by which the contras can threaten the peace and stability of the region—and of the confidence the regime displays in the face of this adversary. About four hours from Managua, in sparsely settled cowboy country near the small settlement of El Espino, is the main border crossing into Honduras. After enduring repeated rebel attacks at the border, the Sandinista army has abandoned the frontier checkpoint and pulled back about five kilometers to a better defensive position. At the bottom of a high hill at the border itself, the half-dozen small buildings have been shelled and are now vacant and burned out. A hundred yards to the rear, in El Espino itself, the people have been evacuated and the houses and stores are boarded over. The new border check-point is now established at the Coco River, and I drove with two companions along a secondary road that ran beside the river to try to enter the town of Ocotal, which has been the scene of serious fighting.

Ocotal, with a population of about 45,000, lies on the far side of the river, surrounded by the Honduran mountains, an ideal target for mortar fire from the contras encamped above. The bridge has been shelled and repaired several times, and is said to be too fragile for motor traffic. I was lucky to find a jeep filled with armed militiamen to tow my Toyota sedan across the river, which was about four or five feet deep in midstream. After fording the river, we were able to drive into the town itself and found the local people heavily armed with automatic weapons.

The Sandinistas do not appear to be making use of their regular army in such places, except for officers; instead, they depend on arming and training the militia, which is made up of local townspeople, a practice that will produce better trained civilian combat forces. That night, after a rally in the main square, trucks with uniformed militia set out for the hills where a defense perimeter of foxholes and trenches has been set up and reinforced. Throughout the night there was incessant machine-gun fire, though whether any contras had been engaged in direct combat was hard to tell. This may well have been “reconnaissance by fire,” soldiers firing off their weapons to see if there is any response; some of the firing may have been simply to keep awake. I was told the next morning that every night was like that.

The contras can easily move about in this countryside, but it would be hard to imagine that they could take and hold a town of any size. The local population is busily engaged in building an elaborate network of air-raid shelters for the children and old people. Most important, the people are armed—the clearest sign of the Sandinistas’ confidence. A government will not arm a hostile population, and I was told that local militias had been given weapons in most of the country.

The rebels probably have the most support on the Atlantic coast where the Miskito Indians are located. The Sandinistas have badly mistreated the Miskitos, herding them into relocation camps, subjecting them to a campaign of ideological reeducation. Even when Somoza exploited this area economically, he understood the need to leave the Indians alone. Failing to do so, the Sandinistas have made serious enemies.

If the contras could find allies among the Miskitos and other inhabitants of the east coast who have traditionally distrusted the government in Managua, then, some US officials told me, a “liberated zone” with a provisional government might be set up that would receive diplomatic recognition from the United States and the Latin American governments it backs. Under this plan, the Condeca countries would provide the troops to defend the provisional government; US forces offshore and those based in Honduras would supply logistical support—or intervene directly if absolutely necessary.8 This is not a prospect the more knowledgeable US diplomats I talked to find attractive. They believe it risks a wider war and could even include the participation of volunteers from Mexico and Venezuela fighting on the side of the Sandinistas against a US-recognized “free Nicaragua.”

Faced with these prospects, the Sandinistas are prepared to give security guarantees to the other countries of Central America in return for guarantees from their neighbors—and from the United States—that they need not fear for their own security. This would give them time to deal with their internal problems, or, as they would put it, “to consolidate the revolution” well before their elections now scheduled for 1985.

In July, on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the Sandinistas put forth a six-point program which called for “an absolute end to all arms supplies by any country to the parties in El Salvador,” a tacit admission that Nicaragua had been involved in supplying the guerrillas. It also called for a nonaggression pact between Nicaragua and Honduras and an end to the use of foreign territories to attack countries with internal conflicts.9 When this offer brought no response from the other countries in Central America, the Nicaraguan government spelled out its proposals in a series of four draft treaties dealing with security issues—nonaggression pacts between Nicaragua and Honduras, and between Nicaragua and the United States, a broader nonaggression treaty to be signed by all the Central American governments, and a “draft accord to contribute to the peaceful solution of the armed conflict in the Republic of El Salvador.” The Contadora group was asked to act as guarantor of the treaties.

In Managua, I was shown the texts of the draft treaties. In the treaty directed to El Salvador, the Nicaraguan government specifically proposes that

The High Contracting Parties promise to not offer and, should such be the case, to suspend military assistance and training and the supply and trafficking for arms, munitions and military equipment that may be made directly to the contending forces or indirectly through third States.

The proposed treaties would also permit on-site inspections of Nicaragua and the other Central American countries, and called for fines and other international penalties against any country violating the accords. The treaties were presented “as an indivisible whole, inasmuch as the omission of any one of them would mean that the security of the States of the isthmus…could not be properly guaranteed.”10

Washington’s response was to tell the Nicaraguan foreign minister that these proposals should be addressed to the Contadora group. By refusing even to discuss the Nicaraguan accords, the Reagan administration has demonstrated once again its refusal to separate the question of security from its demands for internal changes, in this case, that the Sandinistas abandon their ideological commitments to make Nicaragua into a Marxist-Leninist state. In so doing, the administration has given up on a negotiation that the senior American diplomats I talked to believe might yield strong benefits both to the US and the region: no Soviet or Cuban bases on Nicaraguan soil; stopping advanced weapons systems from being imported; limiting the Salvadoran FMLN command-and-control operations that are allegedly located in Managua; verification of land, sea, and air bases and the border insofar as possible; and a significant reduction in the number of Cuban advisers in Nicaragua.

The Reagan administration, however, is clearly unwilling to accept the existence of a Marxist-Leninist state in Central America. This was made explicit by Fred Iklé, undersecretary of defense for policy, who said, on September 12, 1983, that if we cannot “prevent consolidation of a Sandinista regime in Nicaragua that would become an arsenal for insurgency, a safe haven for the export of violence…we have to anticipate the partition of Central America. Such a development would then force us to man a new military front-line of the East-West conflict right here on our continent.” The Sandinistas are not alone in asking how this is to be done if not by more intensive war, and with what support from the American public.

5.

In a very different way, the Salvadoran government is also asking the United States to guarantee its security. It expects Washington to train and equip its army until the guerrillas are exterminated or are persuaded to enter the electoral process. The Reagan administration is finding this no easy task when confronted by a military standoff in the field and the continued violation of human rights—including the killing of thousands of civilians—by armed forces committed to the protection of their fellow citizens.

There seems little hope of serious negotiations at this stage. The FMLN has indeed followed the Cubans’ advice. After the murder and suicide of two of their leaders last spring, they have coordinated their military tactics and now display far greater sophistication than they had previously shown; they are able to strike simultaneously at different targets and, according to US military advisers, have taken the initiative after the summer lull during the rainy season. Moreover, the new guerrilla commander, Joaquín Villalobos, who has emerged, both militarily and politically, as the leader of the left, understands the need to offer to negotiate as well.

In their meeting in Bogotá last September with the Salvadoran Peace Commission, the FMLN delegates got nowhere with their demand that a provisional government be formed before the elections that are optimistically supposed to take place in the spring of 1984. Unless there is some kind of joint military command, the rebels maintain that the Salvadoran armed forces cannot guarantee their safety; indeed, when the rebel negotiators suggested that the next meeting be held in San Salvador itself, the Salvadoran Peace Commission reportedly told them that it could not undertake to protect them. To which the rebels were supposed to have replied: “If you cannot guarantee our safety for five hours, how can you guarantee it for five weeks during an election campaign?” This would be a telling question, except that in Salvador no one’s safety can be guaranteed.

I left El Salvador convinced that power sharing is not a realistic possibility for the government. The case for power sharing can easily be made.11 It seems a way to end the war by having the US compel the armed forces to guarantee the security of the rebels while the US would also ensure—by itself or by means of an international peace-keeping force—that the electoral process would not be manipulated. But such a prospect is simply wishful thinking. To begin with, the United States would have to change radically the military leadership of the army. But in favor of whom? The army today, as US diplomats admit, is moving to the right, and hardly disposed to any notion of power sharing. Even the thought that José Napoleón Duarte, the nominee of the Christian Democrats, could win an election is enough to evoke speculation about a coup.

How, then, could the armed forces be persuaded even to entertain the possibility of broad representation in the national assembly? The American strategy has been to do just that, to “professionalize” the army, as the Americans term it, which means changing the nature of the officer corps, whose links to the intransigent right wing are stronger than ever. One way of doing this, US advisers believe, is to train many new cadets at Fort Benning who will become junior officers in the new, enlarged Salvadoran army. The prewar officer corps had about 400 men in it; today, it has slightly more than 2,000 officers. More than 450 cadets are in the current senior class at the military academy, compared to the typical graduating class of the 1970s of about twenty students. But even if this strategy should work and the new armed forces would suppress the death squads and would even protect a left-of-center government, it would take time. Five to seven years is an optimistic estimate, for it assumes the deep intolerance of the officers can somehow be changed by sessions at Fort Benning, and that the younger officers will turn against their superiors.

Meanwhile, the Americans are also trying to produce better soldiers, either by sending advisers, now limited to fifty-five, or by taking whole battalions and training them in Honduras at General Alvarez’s Regional Military Training Center. However, even when individual units fight well, such as the US-trained Atlacatl “quick-reaction battalion,” the Salvadoran army has no unified command running down from the commander in chief. Each “sector” tends to work on its own—and many units still flee from any serious engagement—which doesn’t make defeating the guerrillas, with their own new-found coordination, any easier. Until recently, the Americans tried to persuade the Salvadoran army that it should not only take prisoners but also rehabilitate the provinces in which it has been fighting the guerrillas. By repairing the roads, opening the schools, and improving health care, the army would demonstrate its concern for the local population. As in Vietnam, the government would aim not only to win the battle against the guerrillas but also “the hearts and minds” of the people. Unfortunately, that kind of program requires not only many soldiers, but a willingness to encourage them to undertake what amounts to social reform. In fact few soldiers have been made available for a plan which one of the ablest commanders feels is “made in America” and not suited to the waging of a successful war.

The military situation is, at best, a stalemate. The estimated 6,000 guerrillas can move about at will in the eastern sectors and in pockets in the country to the north and east; by the autumn, they were finally able to gain a corridor from central Salvador to the east where they have their greatest strength. When I was there in mid-October, the San Miguel area was cut off for three days by the FMLN. But when the army arrives in force, the guerrillas scatter, taking their dead with them in order to prevent a body count. The army occupies the territory, leaving the guerrillas to strike again in a different place. Whether the FMLN has any strength in the cities remains an open question; the US military advisers think not. Neither they nor US diplomats claim that the victims of the death squads in the cities are supporters of the FMLN: they are simply people who have been identified, or misidentified, as critical of the right-wing military.

As the war drags on and the Constituent Assembly tries to produce a constitution and plans for the election that President Alvaro Magaña hopes will take place at the end of March, the atmosphere in Salvador is menacing. The right-wing death squads, after a quiet period following the elections of March 1982, are back at work, with the connivance of the armed forces, i.e., the army, the national guard, the treasury police, and the national police, all of which report to General Eugenio Vides Casanova, the defense minister. Casanova was supposed to be a compliant supporter of US tactics, but he has proved to be compliant with the terrorists as well. The Salvadoran Commission on Human Rights, which operates under church auspices, claims that 2,700 people were killed by death squads during the first six months of 1983. Even the US embassy has openly abandoned the idea that there is any clear distinction between the higher military command and the death squads. On November 4, soon after I left, “embassy officials said that participants in these squads were believed to include the head of security for the country’s Constituent Assembly, two intelligence directors from security forces and some army commanders.”12

In this atmosphere, all the Salvadorans I spoke with believe that the candidate of the right will be elected the next president of the country. (American diplomats still say they think Napoleón Duarte can win.) The strongest right-wing candidate would be Roberto d’Aubuisson, president of the Assembly; yet d’Aubuisson has been closely linked to the death squads, and his election would make Congress more reluctant than ever to vote continued aid. Knowing this, the right may try to rally around another candidate, such as the lawyer Francisco Guerrero or Francisco Quiñones, the businessman who heads the Peace Commission.

Whether any candidate sponsored by the right will be able to crack down on the terror seems unlikely. Elections, without the participation of the left, may be free, but they may also produce an outcome which Washington will find unacceptable, as it did the last time when a right-wing coalition wanted to put in their own man. Unlike the 1982 election, which was for a constituent assembly to vote in the president, this time the president will be popularly elected. The US embassy will not so easily be able to impose its own man, as it did with President Magaña. Thus, elections could lead to a worse situation than now exists.

Elections aside, with the continued violation of human rights, US congressional support for the Salvadoran armed forces is likely to come under ever greater attack at home. The right understands this, but prefers to believe that the Reagan administration’s commitment to prevent a Marxist takeover in El Salvador is so great that it will never abandon the army, and the army will never abandon it. Meanwhile, the Americans play for time, fulminate against the death squads, and threaten the armed forces with a cutback in aid if they don’t clean up their behavior.

Some Americans have argued that the US must make it absolutely clear to the Salvadoran government that it will pull out of the country if the killing of civilians is not stopped. Several Salvadorans I talked to made a chilling argument against such an ultimatum: the army, left to itself, might well reenact the massacres of 1932 when up to 30,000 peasants who were thought to have been involved in uprisings against the oligarchs were slaughtered. This may be a fantasy intended precisely to forestall an ultimatum; but there is no guarantee that the army would succumb to American threats, which have proved so hollow in the past.

Without power sharing, the United States will doubtless go on trying to change the nature of the armed forces until it concludes that this is a futile task—something that may finally become clear after the elections. Only at that point could we expect that American withdrawal would be considered, even though this risks an FMLN victory.

Withdrawal of military support would be extremely difficult for any American administration. In Havana, the Cubans now acknowledge their tutelage of the FMLN, and this should be expected to continue. Notwithstanding the claims by the political spokesmen for the guerrillas that they seek a democratic solution and will need good relations with the US, no one can be confident of what would follow a takeover by the FMLN: the result might be as bloody and repressive as the situation is today. The US could make it clear in advance that any installation of Soviet bases or missiles would not be tolerated, should the Russians be foolish enough to attempt this. But it would take a resourceful economic and political diplomacy to retain US influence in El Salvador.

The argument will be made that withdrawal, even from a country where our allies are murdering civilians and are ineffectual in dealing with the enemy, will bring American “credibility” into question: therefore the war must go on. Henry Kissinger, before he was named to head a commission to suggest long-term policies for dealing with Central America, declared that “If we cannot manage Central America, it will be impossible to convince threatened nations in the Persian Gulf and in other places that we know how to manage the global equilibrium.” He could have added that it will also be hard to convince our allies in Europe and Japan that we are acting responsibly—and hence, with “credibility”—if we do not understand when to drop a strategy that has outlived whatever promise it once had.

So far, “managing Central America” has revealed an ineptness on our part that is by now sadly evident both to our friends and to our proclaimed enemies. Our warnings to the Salvadoran armed forces go unheeded. We cannot overthrow the Sandinistas; nor are we willing to bargain hard with them—either bilaterally or with the aid of the Contadora group—to negotiate the security guarantees that they seek, and the agreements to leave others alone they have themselves proposed. Not at least to pursue such negotiations seems perversely self-defeating. But the worst policy is the policy this administration seems prepared to pursue—the increased militarization of the region, which brings about democracy in neither Nicaragua nor El Salvador, and which denies us time to preserve democracy in neighboring Costa Rica and to strengthen its tenuous hold in Honduras. It is a policy of endless war.

November 9, 1983

  1. 1

    See James Chace, “Getting Out of the Central American Maze,” The New York Review, June 24, 1982.

  2. 2

    Text in Spanish published in Granma (Havana), October 7, 1983.

  3. 3

    Figures from US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, “Background Notes: Cuba,” April 1983.

  4. 4

    Castro speech, broadcast in Spanish, Havana Domestic Service, July 26, 1983—FBIS.

  5. 5

    The New York Times, October 28, 1983.

  6. 6

    See Seweryn Bialer and Alfred Stepan, “Cuba, the US, and the Central American Mess,” The New York Review, May 27, 1982.

  7. 7

    See the report in The Sunday Times of London, October 23, 1983.

  8. 8

    See the report in The Sunday Times of London, October 30, 1983.

  9. 9

    The New York Times, July 20, 1983.

  10. 10

    Quotations taken from the English-language version of the treaties, as presented by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Managua, Nicaragua, October 15, 1983.

  11. 11

    For the argument in favor of power sharing, see Piero Gleijeses, “The Case for Power Sharing in El Salvador,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1983. See also Robert W. Tucker, “Their Wars, Our Choices,” The New Republic, October 24, 1983.

  12. 12

    See the report by Lydia Chavez, The New York Times, November 6, 1983, p. 13.

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