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 headquarters marched every senior commander in the entire military; they formed a wall of olive green heavily decked with stars and shoulder bars. There were officers known by journalists to have commanded operations where dozens of civilians were cut down; officers who had flirted in past years with D’Aubuisson’s schemes to carry out a coup; officers suspected of complicity in the killing of American citizens. At the front of the room was the plodding minister of defense, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a warhorse whose chief virtue as a commander is his die-hard loyalty to the military as an institution.
“This is no time to be playing around with the will the people expressed at the polls,” Vides said, slapping his hand on the table. “While the political parties are entertaining themselves exchanging insults on television, we are putting up the bodies. We can’t allow the election to be repeated on the whim of a political party as if it were a game of cards.”
Within hours, the elections council threw out the annulment petition. Tainted as some of its officers were, the military made a strong show of unity to demonstrate, as Vides said, that it “totally supported the efforts of the Salvadoran people to channel its destiny on a democratic route.”
With Duarte firmly in power, Reagan can claim a policy success in El Salvador—a success all the more striking since it seemed so unlikely as recently as eighteen months ago. But on closer inspection the policy that ultimately prospered in El Salvador is not the same one the administration had in mind when it vowed to “draw the line” against communism at the outset of Reagan’s term. Reagan looks successful now in El Salvador largely because his policy makers eventually incorporated into their planning the criticisms of the administration’s most vehement liberal adversaries in Washington and in the press. Reagan, who vowed to free the American people from post-Vietnam fears of intervention, is winning the political battle in El Salvador precisely because his diplomats followed the lessons of restraint the US military learned the hard way during the Vietnam War.
In addition, the Reagan administration owes much to its chief enemies in El Salvador, the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the FMLN, whose ranks are now estimated to number about 8,500 fighters. In 1983 the rebels’ punishing offensives finally forced the Salvadoran military to realize that it had to face either change or defeat. By 1985, the arrogant and hypermilitaristic strategies practiced by key guerrilla leaders estranged many of their former supporters among El Salvador’s poor. In a country where Marxist-inspired radicalism has been a force for some fifty years, the most recent cycle of revolution, which began in 1979, is now over. The FMLN revolutionaries said in communiqués and radio broadcasts this spring that they have postponed their expectations of victory for as long as five years; they will return to gnawing away at the government with a war of small ambushes and booby traps. They are sending their cadre back into the cities to try to revive the urban popular movements that gave rise to the guerrilla armies five years ago. They are reverting to urban terrorism—assassinations and kidnappings—which was their standard practice in the 1970s, when they were no more than small clandestine cells. The FMLN has said the killing of four US Marine guards, two American civilians, and seven other people in a sidewalk café in the capital on June 19 was “only a beginning” of this phase of their war.
Finally, if a successful US policy is one that leaves a country economically sound and autonomous, with antigovernment insurgency waning, and people free to express their concerns without arbitrary government retaliation, and with hope for peace, El Salvador today does not fit that description. Most Salvadorans, regardless of their political views, still live with fear, haunted by memories of the terror of the early 1980s. Many show by their words and actions that they no longer believe, as they seemed to in 1980, that the risks of death, exile, or imprisonment are worth taking for a living wage, a decent house, or the prospect of an adequate education for their children—the needs the people now have more urgently than before. Duarte, perhaps inadvertently, was right on election night: his country has an elected constitutional government that falls between the political extremes, but its people are starting again from where they were around 1972.
The policy of the Reagan administration in El Salvador began to make some headway when conservatives in Washington and San Salvador confronted the issue of the right-wing death squads. In 1982 it was heresy for news reports to assert that the squads had intimate links to the military, and that the overwhelming number of human rights abuses—people murdered, mutilated, tortured, or “disappeared”—came from the right. Now the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, General Adolfo O. Blandón, accepts these facts as commonplace. “I began to go to work against the death squads in September 1980, as soon as I returned from being military attaché in Washington,” Blandón claimed when I talked to him in June in his windowless office at the General Staff headquarters. “But at that time there was a very dangerous division in the armed forces that I believe permitted the development of the death squads. Very little could be done in practice then.”
Blandón is clear about what caused the army to rethink its complicity with rightist paramilitary killing. “We knew that public opinion in the United States and the view of many senators and congressmen opposed to military aid for El Salvador were largely due to our bad image because of the squads,” he said. “Knowing that the aid was absolutely vital for us, we concluded we had to take a strong decision to get rid of them.”
As Blandón describes it, the change of heart in the armed forces was parallel to, although not induced by, that of American diplomats. The first sign of the Americans’ shift came when the former ambassador Deane Hinton met with a group of Salvadoran businessmen on October 29, 1981. No one doubted his anger and conviction when he told them, in his nearly unintelligible Spanish, that “the gorillas of the mafia” had to be stopped. The White House disavowed the speech.
A year later, the FMLN forces started an offensive that swept across northern El Salvador and drove local government constabularies out of dozens of towns. Simultaneously, the best-known death squads, the Secret Anti-Communist Army and the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade, again became active in the capital. One of them distributed a videotape showing four captured union leaders “confessing” to their leftist sins. Their mangled bodies turned up the following day on a San Salvador street. In October nine cut up bodies, one of them of a pregnant woman, were dumped in burlap bags in the rural town of Zaragoza.
Us diplomats in San Salvador remember how, one by one, the most powerful conservative policy makers in Washington changed their minds. By the middle of 1982, the CIA had been asked to look into rightist as well as leftist violence. Intelligence agencies in Washington began to turn up evidence that there were killers both in some rightist political parties and in the security forces. Two conservative advisers circulated an informal policy memorandum to the National Security Council recommending a new emphasis on social justice as a strategy for winning the war, and a crackdown on “errant fascist factions.” Andrew Messing, then the executive director of the National Conservative Caucus, had a falling-out with members of D’Aubuisson’s ARENA party. He felt they did not share the “Judeo-Christian ethic” of American conservatives. A confidential internal memo he wrote setting out his concerns was accidentally distributed to caucus members. When Messing visited El Salvador again, he heard indirectly that one rightist had threatened to kill him.