Prisoner of Success

Duarte: My Story

by José Napoleón Duarte
Putnam’s, 284 pp., $18.95

José Napoleón Duarte, the president of El Salvador, is probably the first head of state since Nikita Khrushchev to have his memoirs published in another country’s language before his own. Khrushchev had no choice in the matter. Duarte did—and chose shrewdly. His popularity, though at an all-time high in the United States, is at an all-time low in El Salvador. The catastrophic earthquake that devastated the capital city of San Salvador in early October has likely increased sympathy for Duarte abroad while, at the same time, it has deepened discontent at home. “Go back to your base,” is standard campaign advice for an American politician in trouble, and Duarte, with his intuitive grasp of American politics, has done just that by publishing Duarte: My Story in the United States after just two and a half years in office.

Duarte has a story—he is a story—that could not have been more American in its details if it had been dreamed up by a presidential speech writer. The son of a politically progressive tailor and a seamstress, he was a thoroughly middle-class boy, headstrong and conventional at the same time. As a Boy Scout he was called El Loco. In the early 1940s, his father won the Salvadoran national lottery and used the money to send young Napo north to Notre Dame. There he had the requisite encounter with the mysteries of American football and earned an engineering degree. He returned to his country and in the 1960s helped found the Christian Democratic party.

Today a solid majority of Congress is deeply grateful to Duarte for resolving the once bitter issue of El Salvador. Every six months between 1981 and 1984 Congress became tense and divided over the dilemma of defeating the communist insurgency in El Salvador by aiding a brutal right-wing dictatorship. Once Duarte was elected president of El Salvador in May 1984, that debate evaporated, replaced by bipartisan pride. The smart conventional wisdom in Washington now holds that El Salvador provides the recipe for US foreign policy success: conservatives provide the military resolve, liberals the pressure for protecting human rights. Some enthusiasts even go so far as to say El Salvador is in the midst of a “democratic revolution.”

The transformation of the El Salvador debate was an important moment in the development of Reagan’s foreign policy. Congress cut off aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua in May 1984, at the time of Duarte’s election. Since then a key group of moderate and liberal Democrats have become contra supporters, and almost all of them cite Duarte as proof that the administration is sincere about fighting for democracy in Central America. Duarte won one for the Gipper.

Whatever one thinks of Reagan’s policy, Duarte has always invoked America’s good intentions to advance his career and his political goals. His success and his failure, indistinguishable in his autobiography, tell us something about how those intentions have translated into reality in a small country …

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