On March 31, just after the national legislative elections were over, many American reporters in El Salvador seemed close to being in a state of shock. By Salvadoran standards, the vote had been uneventful. The balloting was more or less orderly. Attempts by leftist guerrillas to disrupt the election were scattered and largely unsuccessful. The news that stunned the correspondents came from the Spanish International Network (SIN), a US television company which had contracted to conduct the exit polls. The first SIN results showed that the party of the Christian Democratic president José Napoleón Duarte—described almost universally by the press in the days before the vote as a “beleaguered” leader, with his right-wing enemies closing in on him—had just won thirty-three of sixty seats in the national assembly. Against even his own predictions, Duarte had won the commanding majority he needed to govern.
But the victory went even deeper than that, as Duarte pointed out to the journalists he summoned to his residence that night. “The people got our message,” he said with satisfaction. “They want democracy and peace. This is the same choice the people made in 1972. They reconfirmed it again.” In his first try for the presidency thirteen years earlier, the army robbed Duarte of victory by fixing the results, beating him up, and driving him out of the country. Duarte went into exile for more than seven years, and came back in 1980 to participate in a ruling junta that was steeped in blood. He then stayed quiet until he won the presidency in 1984. By that time, over 50,000 Salvadorans were dead after nearly five years of civil war.
Many in the press were disconcerted that night not only because they had so badly miscalled the results. Duarte’s triumph seemed also to be Washington’s, the vindication after four years of a Reagan administration policy that many reporters in El Salvador believed to be based both on gross exaggerations of the rebels’ allegiance to foreign Marxist allies and on a high tolerance for violence and venality on the part of the right. The administration had argued it could stop the Marxist insurgency by giving political and financial support—some $1.7 billion in aid during the last four years—to the forces of the political “center.” On March 31 it looked as if the administration had been justified. “What happened here,” one disconsolate correspondent said, “is that we lost.”
During the following week, the coalition of the two opposition parties, one of them former major Roberto D’Aubuisson’s rightist ARENA, presented a petition to annul the vote. The coalition’s evidence of electoral fraud—which included claims of interference by the military—was flimsy. But it controlled a majority on the elections council that would pass on the petition. D’Aubuisson’s people were in a position to force a new election.
On April 3, the armed forces called a press conference. Into the dreary auditorium at the General Staff …