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Sad New El Salvador

The election-night scene at San Salvador’s Presidente Hotel in March had all the trappings of an American campaign. The lobby was filled with party workers, election officials, international observers, camera crews, and security men. For the almost eight hundred foreign journalists in town, a high-tech press room had been set up, with computers, FAX machines, and telephone operators ready to place calls around the world. On television, political commentators using the latest in computerized graphics analyzed the meaning of the day’s exit polls for a country in which three out of every five families don’t have enough to eat.

At about eight o’clock, amid a sudden crush of people, Alfredo Cristiani, the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), arrived to declare his victory. Surrounded by reporters and bodyguards, he made his way through the lobby and out to a thatched space by the pool, where, alongside Roberto D’Aubuisson and other leading party officials, he took a seat behind a bank of microphones. It was a triumphant moment for ARENA. Founded only eight years ago, the party swept the presidency in a landslide, promising a sharp turn to the right for Salvadoran politics. Cristiani, a neat, balding man, seemed imperturbable, the only person not caught up in the excitement. Only once did he betray emotion. When asked how his victory would affect Washington’s policy toward El Salvador, he replied curtly, “You’ll have to ask Washington.”

Washington gave an answer of sorts a few minutes later, when the US election observers held their own press conference in a wing of the Presidente Hotel. The delegation included some prominent conservatives: Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Governor Bob Martinez of Florida; Representatives Robert Dornan of California and Bill McCollum of Florida; William Doherty of the AFLCIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development; Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates; and Peter Flaherty, president of the Conservative Campaign Fund. A few token liberals, including Democratic House Whip Tony Coelho, lent the delegation a blush of bipartisanship.

Although the polls had closed only a few hours earlier, the delegates had already prepared their statement. It was read by Senator McConnell, the chairman of the delegation. Despite widespread threats and intimidation, he stated, the voters of El Salvador had turned out “in huge numbers” to “participate in the democratic process.” Declaring the election to be “free and fair,” McConnell applauded the “courage and tenacity of the Salvadoran people” and praised the government for its “progress” on human rights.

When he had finished reading, the senator added a few comments of his own. “Those of us who believe in democracy ought to be particularly excited by what transpired today,” he said. “Our turnouts aren’t this good in the United States.” Other observers echoed his remarks. “Back home, we worry about rain on election day,” observed Governor Martinez. “Here, it rained bullets, and people still went to vote.” Representative McCullom praised the Salvadoran military for its noninterference in the electoral process, while Representative Dornan recounted his “beautiful” experience in the city of San Miguel, where the streets had become a “lovely mall” of voters.

Salvadoran voters did show a lot of courage on election day. Despite a transportation stoppage declared by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and a series of guerrilla attacks on election day, many stood in line for hours waiting to vote. At most polling places, the voting was orderly, and afterward the ballots were counted without any major complaints of unfairness. For a country in the midst of a war, election day in El Salvador went off remarkably smoothly.

Nonetheless, the observers’ statement seemed misleading in several important respects. For one thing, the turnout was not impressive. About 55 percent of the 1.8 million registered voters cast ballots—admirable under the circumstances, perhaps, but well below the 65 percent who had voted in the previous year’s elections and far fewer than the more than 80 percent who had gone to the polls in 1982 and 1984. Some stayed home out of sympathy for the boycott declared by the guerrillas; others, out of fear of guerrilla violence. Still others failed to vote out of frustration. Since 1982, the country had already held five elections, and none had succeeded in bringing peace or providing additional jobs.

The observers also paid little attention to the violence in the country. Human rights abuses have been increasing on all sides. Death squads linked to the military have returned after a long hiatus, and eight mayors in the countryside have been killed by the guerrillas—hardly ideal circumstances in which to hold an election. Just before and on election day itself, at least seventeen civilians were killed. Most were caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and the army. Two of the victims, however, were journalists gunned down by soldiers. One, a Salvadoran photographer working for Reuters, had been shot after showing his press credential at a roadblock outside San Salvador. Another, a soundman for a Salvadoran television station, died when the van in which he was riding—clearly marked with press insignia—was sprayed by soldiers’ bullets. Another troubling incident occurred when a Dutch cameraman was wounded while filming a battle between the army and guerrillas. When fellow journalists placed the cameraman in a car and began driving toward a nearby hospital, a military helicopter followed and began shooting, delaying their progress for close to an hour. By the time the group got to the hospital, the Dutchman was dead.

Cristiani during his press conference went out of his way to express his regret at the journalists’ deaths and to call for an investigation. The American observers, however, were silent. When the matter was raised, Senator McConnell said, “In eastern Kentucky, it’s not uncommon for people to get killed during elections. We deplore what happened today, but to say that the democratic process was [marred] because of it is a conclusion none of us is disposed to make. The real story is that, despite the violence, democracy works.”

This was a bit mystifying. For observers assessing the fairness of an election, the shooting of journalists would seem to deserve at least some mention. The Americans, however, seemed determined to block out anything that might make the election appear other than an outpouring of popular enthusiasm—a “civic fiesta,” as US Ambassador William Walker described it. Nor did the Americans wait around to see if any postelection problems developed. By the next morning they were gone.

In a sense, the delegates were no different from most other Americans who come to El Salvador—they pay intense attention to elections and are indifferent to everything else. Had the observers lingered, they might have explored some of the more pressing questions surrounding the election. What part, for instance, does the Salvadoran military have in the nation’s political process? What does ARENA’s victory mean for human rights in El Salvador? Most important, will the election help to resolve the war that has consumed the country for the last nine years?


A week before the election, ARENA held a rally in Soyapango, a rough working-class district on the outskirts of San Salvador, and, together with two other journalists, I went there. We arrived a bit early, but already Soyapango’s central avenue was crowded with ardent Areneros. Warming up the crowd on a makeshift platform was a tattered clown, whose tricks, though corny, elicited peals of laughter from the many children in attendance. Next there appeared a squad of heavily made-up cheerleaders sporting teased hairdos, striped ARENA T-shirts, and tight spandex pants. As they shook, swiveled, and shimmied to hot tropical Cumbia music, the crowd of Areneros went wild, waving red-white-and-blue ARENA pompoms with a fervor that seemed slightly menacing.

Suddenly, the emcee stepped forward to announce that the party’s founder had come to address them. “D’Aubuisson! D’Aubuisson!” the crowd shouted as the former army major, dressed in white ARENA jacket, jeans, and boots, raised his fist in triumph. A child climbed onto the stage and presented D’Aubuisson with a basket of eggs, an offering from the people of Soyapango. D’Aubuisson held the basket aloft, then, eyeing an American photographer at the edge of the stage, took out one of the eggs and handed it to him. In El Salvador, handing someone an egg means you intend to cut his balls off. Apparently, D’Aubuisson has lost none of his well-known distaste for the foreign press.

Now, as he addressed the crowd, D’Aubuisson showed off the qualities that have established him as El Salvador’s most popular politician. Handsome, witty, tense, D’Aubuisson usually looks as if he’s just drunk ten cups of coffee. Here he spoke with a swagger, his voice full of mockery. “The American experiment with us is over,” he declared defiantly. “We have our own history to make.” Invoking the flag and the Salvadoran people, D’Aubuisson thundered, “Nationalism is the guide of our experiment.”

Then it was the candidate’s turn. In style Cristiani could hardly be more unlike D’Aubuisson. Where the latter is earthy and outgoing, Cristiani is reserved and stiff. A graduate of Georgetown University, he speaks perfect English, says he likes baseball, and looks elegant even when he’s wearing ARENA campaign gear. Cristiani, forty-one years old, comes from a rich coffee family whose members have branched out into pharmaceuticals and other industrial enterprises; Christiani himself is an adept businessman well versed in the principles of modern management. A relative latecomer to politics—he became active in ARENA only in 1984, as an organizer—Cristiani projects a certain aloofness from politics. Though his supporters call him Fredy, he remains in most respects an Alfredo.

These differences between Cristiani and D’Aubuisson reflect ideological fissures within ARENA itself. Cristiani speaks for the party’s modern entrepreneurial wing; D’Aubuisson for its hard-core supporters in the military and oligarchy. According to widespread reports, D’Aubuisson was deeply involved in the “dirty war” of the early 1980s, when death squads dumped hundreds of mutilated bodies on the streets of San Salvador; Cristiani during the same period was heading the coffee processors’ association and playing squash. In the mid-1980s several close associates of D’Aubuisson operated a kidnapping-for-profit ring whose chief targets included some of the rich businessmen who now support Cristiani. Not surprisingly, relations between the two camps are tense.

With the presidency at stake, however, the two agreed to submerge their differences. D’Aubuisson coveted the top spot on the ticket, but his past made him too great a liability; Washington objected to him, in particular, because of his alleged involvement in a 1984 plot to assassinate US Ambassador Thomas Pickering. So ARENA’s leaders turned to Cristiani, the party’s Mr. Clean. But Cristiani needed D’Aubuisson’s help in getting out the vote, and, in the weeks leading up to the election, the party’s founder was constantly at his side. In return for D’Aubuisson’s support, Cristiani had to accept as his running mate Francisco “Chico” Merino, a close associate of D’Aubuisson, instead of his own first choice, Armando Calderón Sol, the mayor of San Salvador and a relative moderate.

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