El Salvador, too, had a revolution several years ago, and is now struggling valiantly to achieve a workable democracy and, at the same time, to achieve a stable economic system and to redress historical injustices.

—Ronald Reagan, May 9, 1984

I

The crisis that first gave José Napoleón Duarte the title of president in El Salvador began on Thanksgiving Day in 1980. A hundred or more armed men calling themselves the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anti-Communist Brigade surrounded a Jesuit boarding school on one of San Salvador’s busiest streets. The political leadership of El Salvador’s rebel opposition, the directorate of the Revolutionary Democractic Front (FDR), was meeting there and the five top leaders were dragged away, tortured, and killed.

By that time in 1980 peasants and workers had been murdered by the thousands. Politicians and soldiers with suspect loyalties, Salvadoran academics, and the archbishop had been eliminated. But the seven weeks after the FDR massacre were a separate chapter in the development of the Salvadoran disaster. Ronald Reagan, regarded as a savior by Central America’s extreme right, had been elected earlier in the month. The guerrillas were building toward an all-out offensive to present Reagan with “an irreversible situation” before he took office, and clandestine arms shipments to back them up were flowing into El Salvador from Cuba and Nicaragua. The Salvadoran military, purged of most of its leftwing officers in the preceding months, was out to break the rebel organizations in the city before the offensive could be launched. The new US administration, the Salvadoran right firmly believed, would have little problem with the means chosen to thwart a communist victory. And no one was immune from those means.

On December 2, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered near El Salvador’s international airport. American aid was cut off immediately and a high-level official delegation was sent down from Washington. Its announced purpose was to look into the killings, but most of its time was spent forcing a reorganization of the government.

That December I found myself sitting one long morning with Raymond Bonner in the first anteroom of the presidential palace. It has since been redecorated with fake antiques displaying the blue and white colors of the national flag, but in December 1980 it was hospital green and dirty, with thick bars on the windows. A hard-faced guardia inspected visitors through a hole in the heavy door. Peasants, who had come as supplicants to one or another official in the palace, lined the benches.

We watched a steady stream of army officers arrive, piling their pistols and submachine guns on a long table by the entrance. There was no information to be had from these impassive, sometimes menacing colonels unbuckling their holsters, and I had the sense, as I often did, that we reporters were deeply ignorant of what was going on in El Salvador.

There was not much interest in Central America in those days. Academics were studying Mexico, Brazil, and the southern cone if they were studying Latin America at all. The US embassies were ranked class IV, which is as low as they get. And news organizations relied on young correspondents with little or no foreign experience. I had been in the region writing for The Washington Post for less than a year. The New York Times regional bureau chief, Alan Riding, had a decade of experience, but in February 1980 Riding stopped going to El Salvador “for reasons of health,” as the telephoned threats in the night put it, and the Times came to depend on Bonner, who had never been a reporter before 1979.

Bonner had been a public-interest lawyer. He was committed to classic, liberal 1960s notions of social justice, and he was nearly forty when he set out to be a foreign correspondent in Latin America. Enthusiastic and relentless, he built his stories, not surprisingly, as he would build a case in court.

Crimes, certainly, abounded. Reporters faced a succession of grisly scenes, appalling carnage, and confusing interviews with politicians who would defend the government one day and resign the next. One sensed deadly patterns taking shape just beneath the flow of events, and felt enormous frustration at not having any good way of getting at them. Everyone was lying and yet each lie seemed to contain some disconcerting truth. Suspicion of one’s sources was both inevitable and prudent. Bonner was naturally suspicious of the US government and the regimes it supported in El Salvador. He was less suspicious of the left.

But we tended to see Duarte as someone special. He was, to the extent that anyone in the United States had heard of anyone in El Salvador in 1980, the best-known member of the five-man “Revolutionary Government Junta,” even if there were times when he appeared out of touch with what was happening around him, even if what he said was always the same.

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He liked to talk about “moral authority” and what he called “the process of control” over the armed forces. I recall one impromptu press conference in April 1980 at the bar of the Camino Real Hotel, only a few weeks after he joined the junta. The archbishop of San Salvador had been killed by a sharpshooter and his funeral had become yet another mad scene of mass killing. Duarte was struggling to shift the blame for the crime away from the government, away from the army, away from the Salvadoran people, explaining, “In this country there is nobody cold-blooded enough to have done this with one single shot.” Duarte said he was trying to carry out his own investigation. There were problems in the armed forces, but “the junta is having a process of control,” he said. “We have the complete upper control. We are trying to get the lower control.” There was no problem with the high command, certainly.

At about this moment a drunken businessman, offended for some reason by Duarte’s presence, urinated on the back of a chair next to him. He leaned his face into Duarte’s and was about to say something to him when Duarte’s bodyguards threw him sprawling across the room, training their guns on him until he cooled off. Duarte paused only briefly. “We are trying to get control….”

But if the old Notre Dame graduate had something of the clown about him in the Sicilian gangster suits that never quite fit him, and if he willfully and proudly insisted on speaking broken English, the face of the reformist of the 1960s showed both his suffering and, it seemed, his sincerity. He had won an election in 1972, been arrested, tortured, gone into exile. One could believe that at heart he was fighting for truth and justice—indeed, in the best sense, for American values.

On that morning in December 1980 as we waited for Duarte in the green room of the presidential palace I think we were ready to believe almost anything he told us. When he finally appeared, he threw his arm across Bonner’s shoulder and then walked us along one of the breezeways above the tropical garden in the courtyard. He talked about the changes that had taken place since the Christian Democrats had entered the junta. “During this year we have obtained moral authority so we can present now a solution,” he said. “If it is not accepted we will leave the government.” The key demand was “complete control of the army,” Duarte told us.

There were more talks. When the delegation from Washington went home and the colonels buckled their guns back on and left the palace, José Napoleón Duarte was “president of the junta.” It was an administrative position and the crucial power of being commander in chief did not go with it. A colonel in the junta got that post, so it became clear very quickly that Duarte’s main condition had not been met. But now Duarte was called Señor Presidente.

The violence went on, and Duarte’s relationship with the military continued to be as tense as it was dependent. He deplored the killing even as his presence, his many unfulfilled promises, served to mask and protect the killers. On December 28 a young American journalist disappeared. Still, on January 2 the United States secretly notified what was now called “the Duarte government” that military aid would be resumed. Two American agrarian reform experts working for the AFL-CIO and the US embassy were shot to death while having coffee with the head of the agrarian reform program on the night of January 3. The expected guerrilla offensive began on January 10 and ended, in failure, a week later. Then, on January 20, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Within days, his administration declared Central America a new front line in the war against Soviet aggression.

Many times since then the Reagan administration has tried to convince the American people how dangerous a rebel victory in El Salvador would be for US security. But the political consequences of those murderous weeks at the end of 1980 have dogged its policy all along. The cases of the murdered nuns and the labor advisers, particularly, destroy the harmony that the Reagan administration has tried to build around its anticommunist theme.

After three-and-a-half years of research by US diplomats, FBI agents, and independent investigators, by journalists, and, on rare occasions, by agents of the CIA and members of the Salvadoran government a great deal is known about those cases and the broader setting in which they occurred. The nuns were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. The labor advisers were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard under the direct supervision of senior Salvadoran army officers and one of their wealthy right-wing friends. The journalist was probably abducted by the Treasury Police. His hands and face were blown off to prevent identification.

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What emerges is a picture of repression gone wild. Those weeks at the end of 1980 tell us where the new government of El Salvador is coming from and suggest, as the Reagan administration continues to support it, send it money, and forgive it, the direction it may go.

Officials of the US embassy and the Catholic church guessed almost immediately that government forces were complicit up to the highest levels in much of the most extreme violence. But officials of the incoming Reagan administration, restating the published views of Jeane Kirkpatrick, argued that violence was an accepted part of the Salvadoran political scene. Kirkpatrick pointed out that Duarte, speaking for the junta, had denied any government involvement. She carefully implied that to suggest otherwise was to play into the hands of the guerrillas.

This was a time, clearly, when the press should have been alert to every nuance. Detailed news stories should have appeared every day and books should have been written to analyze what was happening. But El Salvador was still a story on the back pages. Even the death of the nuns was not given sustained attention, and when John Lennon was shot on December 8 in New York, there was suddenly no time or space for news from El Salvador. Almost all of us went home for Christmas, returning only as the “final offensive” began.

Raymond Bonner stayed. He was determined to find the patterns behind the violence or at least to expose the lies we all knew we were being told. Later, he was pulled out of El Salvador amid rumors that he had become obsessed, had lost his objectivity. Then, in Washington—among piles of documents extracted by the Freedom of Information Act and smuggled out by friendly sources—he finally found what he was looking for. “Distortions, disingenous statements, tortuous interpretations, half-truths have characterized congressional testimony and public declarations,” Bonner writes. “Salvadoran government atrocities have been covered up. Efforts by congressional committees to obtain information have been met with evasive answers.”

Bonner’s is an angry book, full of moral indignation at the Carter administration for failing to live up to its own standards, and at the Reagan administration for not having any. But quite apart from his passion, his careful sifting of facts from the quagmire of official deception should from now on define the terms of debate about what has happened—and is happening—in El Salvador. What many people have asserted, Bonner, finally, has managed to prove.

Consider land reform, instituted in March 1980 and cited to this day as primary evidence that there is a sense of social responsibility in the army and governments the United States has supported since. By January 1981 the head of the US embassy political section had concluded in a dissenting classified cable: “Land reform will prove illusory as a means either of producing greater national wealth or better distributing it.” The first phase “resulted in the creation of government owned cooperatives which promise more of boondoggles and mismanagement than greater riches….”

Bonner shows that information about the flow of arms from Cuba and Nicaragua to the rebels was inflated. The administration, Bonner writes, was willing “to take the smallest piece of raw intelligence and trumpet it as proof positive of outside intervention.” Opportunities to negotiate an end to the conflict were subverted by catch-22 diplomacy: “When the Salvadorans [insurgents] offered proposals in the form of an agenda—such as reopening the National University, release of political prisoners, lifting of the state of siege—they were told these were preconditions. When they offered to negotiate without preconditions, they were told there could be no negotiations without proposals.”

The assistant secretary of state for human rights, Elliott Abrams, comes across very badly in this account. In one well-documented passage Bonner writes:

In congressional appearances Abrams repeatedly made false statements. He testified, for example, that the Salvadoran Army had “several hundred prisoners captured off the battlefield.” In fact, at the time it had few, if any. During another appearance he assured Congress that “several hundred officers” had been dismissed or jailed for human rights abuses. Again, the truth was that few, if any, had. To a House committee in 1983, he asserted that “we don’t know who the death squads are.” By that date the CIA and embassy in El Salvador had sent numerous cables identifying the leaders.

Bonner’s tone remains that of an advocate, and his combative style often has been used by the administration and its supporters to discredit the substance of his reports. The Wall Street Journal has called him “overly credulous.” Deane R. Hinton, who in 1981 replaced Robert E. White as the US ambassador to El Salvador, complained about Bonner’s reporting frequently and publicly. Bonner himself appears to have been stung by the criticism. He now admits he should never have written a story in the Times in January 1982 about two “training sessions” at which US advisers supposedly watched Salvadoran guerrilla suspects tortured. The single source for that story was Carlos Antonio Gómez Montaña, who claimed to be a Salvadoran army deserter and an eyewitness to the incidents. “I suspect now,” Bonner concludes, “that he embellished what had happened, and I do not believe that the American advisers had been present as he described.”

But Bonner’s reporting for The New York Times generally has held up very well; much better, in fact, than that of his critics. Perhaps his most important story in 1982 was the account of a Salvadoran government operation that massacred hundreds of peasants in and around the village of Mozote, the grisly aftermath of which he saw on a trip with the guerrillas. A story by The Washington Post’s Alma Guillermoprieto written after she visited the same locations a few days later came to much the same conclusions about the scope of the slaughter.

The administration, in order to certify to Congress that human rights were improving in El Salvador as a result of its policies, resorted to classic bureaucratic pettifogging to deal with the incident. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders testified before Congress: “There is no evidence to confirm that Government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone, or that the number of civilians even remotely approached the 733 or 926 victims cited in the press.”

Enders was careful not to say that the massacre did not happen. But conservative apologists for administration policy often return to this story and Enders’s response in order to attack reporting on Central America. In the anthology of essays recently published by the American Enterprise Institute, Mark Falcoff writes that among reporters of a new generation “ready to cut its teeth on a new war” there inevitably have been “abuses of reportorial integrity.”1 He cites Bonner’s story on the Mozote killings as a “particular cause célèbre” and quotes a Wall Street Journal editorial accepting Enders’s conclusion that “no systematic killing of civilians had occurred, and in any case the population of Mozote was only 300 ‘before the attack in which 926 people supposedly died.”‘ Falcoff continues, “The journalistic fraternity later defended Bonner on the grounds that he was merely reporting what he was told, not commenting on its veracity, but to some this seemed—given the context—a rather tortured response.”

Bonner has obtained a copy of the embassy report on which Enders based his remarks. It was prepared by the two embassy officers assigned in El Salvador to investigate his story:

What the cable does reveal, and what Enders did not tell the committee, is that the investigators never reached any of the villages where the massacres occurred. The closest they had come was Jocoaitique, several miles from Mozote. Moreover, Greentree and McKay [the embassy investigators] interviewed no one who had been present when the people were killed. “Civilian authorities, church officials, relief workers, and Socorro Juridico representatives were unable to provide first-hand information on El Mozote,” the embassy reported in the cable. The embassy’s report suggested that the peasants were killed in a fire fight, not massacred. But this conclusion was based on an interview with a peasant who had not been present. The peasant “intimated that he knew of violent fighting in Mozote and other nearby cantones,” the embassy’s cable read. The word “intimated” was deleted from the cable released to me under the FOIA. Thus the impression was left that the man, in fact, “knew of” fighting. Also deleted was the following: “He was unwilling to discuss comportment of Government forces saying ‘This is something one should talk about in another time, in another country.”‘

In the case of the murdered nuns, five enlisted men from the Salvadoran National Guard have been detained since 1981. Only after enormous pressure from the United States, mainly through congressional threats to cut off aid, have the legal proceedings against them been moved slowly forward. Bonner obtained a copy of the report on the nuns’ case that was commissioned last year by the Reagan administration. The work of a conservative judge, Harold R. Tyler, it was received, classified, and buried by the administration on December 2, 1983, the anniversary of the murder.

The report shows that without a direct investigation by the US embassy, the case never would have been broken at all. Tyler concluded that “the first reaction of the Salvadoran authorities to the murder was, tragically, to conceal the perpetrators from justice.” Evidence shows that the leader of the group “confessed his involvement in the crime to ranking members of the National Guard within days of the murder. They responded by concealing this fact from the outside world, and ordering the transfer of the killers from their airport posts and the switching of their weapons to make detection more difficult.”

Even if we put aside Bonner’s moral outrage, the deceits he chronicles are disturbing and dangerous—not least because senior members of the administration often appear to believe them. One has the truly disturbing sense that Reagan is sincere when he says El Salvador “had a revolution several years ago.” Such statements are based on false assumptions about the nature of the Central American conflict and the character of America’s “friends” there—about their reliability and probity and professionalism, and in fact their allegiances.

The leaders of the Salvadoran military are not, as Franklin Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza, our sons of bitches. We have become theirs. The Christian Democrats are moderates, but they do not seem able to create a moderate government in El Salvador. The essential conflict between Duarte’s reformists—who have a democratic vision of the future—and the right-wing military, who are needed to fight the guerrillas, is virtually impossible to resolve in the Christian Democrats’ favor. At the same time, even as the military has become almost entirely dependent on United States aid for its survival, its debility has become a strength in dealing with Washington. If it does not get hundreds of millions of dollars, if too much pressure is put on it to change its limited number of commanders, then it may just disintegrate. Thus the United States underwrites the Salvadoran army yet is powerless to direct it.

In the situation that has been created, only the most heinous criminals and incompetents may be singled out by the administration. Roberto d’Aubuisson, for example, is conceded to be a bad man since most evidence, including US embassy intelligence reports, shows that he was directly involved in plotting the murder of the archbishop and many others he deemed subversive. But who was the chief of the National Guard when the nuns, and probably the FDR leaders as well, were killed by members of that organization? Whose top lieutenants—members of his general staff—were directly involved in the murder of the American labor advisers and the systematic cover-up of the nuns case? That man is the current minister of defense, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who has now become the key power broker in El Salvador. If Duarte is to survive in the presidential palace, he must have Vides on his side. Even if Duarte’s own record were clean, he could not look too deeply into Vides’s background. But, of course, Duarte was part of the same governments as Vides. He was the ranking civilian when all the murders, and the massacre at Mozote, and the covering up took place. All these happened during what he called his “process of control.”

II

In Violent Neighbors: El Salvador, Central America, and the United States, Tom Buckley gives an account of his travels through the region that is almost as amiable as Bonner’s book is angry. He starts his book with scenes from the 1982 elections in El Salvador when, after two years in the presidential palace, Duarte suddenly found himself without a job. His party had failed to win a majority of the seats in the new constituent assembly and, in Buckley’s eyes, “Duarte seemed more than ever to be a Don Quixote who had slipped away from Cervantes and found himself in the wrong country and the wrong century—a lost knight errant trying to rescue the fair lady Democracia.”

It was at about that time that Duarte told a number of people he was going to write a book about the murder of the nuns and the events that surrounded it. Buckley does not mention that project, but he gives Duarte’s other personal and political views a full hearing.

Buckley first interviewed Duarte in the spring of 1981, a few months after he became president of the junta. “There is no such thing as historical determinism,” Duarte told Buckley at the end of a long, hard-drinking evening at Duarte’s house. “You can change the laws of history by having the right people in the right place doing the right thing. I think I was selected by my people to be president in 1972. Now I have a second chance. The situation is very different. I have more enemies, and much of the world is against me, but I think I will succeed.”

The world is always against Duarte. Eight months later at his office in the presidential palace he told Buckley, “I’m an illegitimate man in power, and people make the mistake of wanting me to act as though I were the legitimate possessor of the power I have.” Buckley suggests that Duarte’s electoral victory in 1972, when he was beaten and exiled by an army that wanted no part of him as commander in chief, gives him at least some “retroactive legitimacy.” Duarte demurs. “I agree with you, but that’s sentimental, not realistic. When I took office [in 1980], it was not because the people summoned me. I talked to the army to try to gain its cooperation. That meant a deal, a compromise, right at the start. An elected government can always do more.”

What about the wanton slaughter throughout his administration? Or, as Buckley puts it, “Why didn’t he use his influence in Washington to gain control over the armed forces?” Duarte explained patiently to Buckley, as he so often did to me and to Bonner and to any other reporter who happened to be in San Salvador at the time, that even the military high command did not really have control. Duarte then criticized his predecessors in the earlier junta of 1979, including members of his own party who had resigned in dismay and disgust at the army’s conduct. “I could have threatened to do the same thing many times. It might have worked, but it also might have failed. I was unwilling to stake the future of the country on a gamble like that.”

In a secret cable dated June 24, 1981, and quoted extensively by Bonner, Ambassador Deane R. Hinton described the situation more bluntly: “The PDC [Christian Democrats] without the army would be nothing.” Yet at the same time the army deeply distrusted Duarte. “There is,” Hinton wrote in the secret cable, “now circulating among officers a document explaining that a Constituent Assembly which resulted from elections would perpetuate the hated PDC in power, and worse, give civilians the authority to undermine the ‘military institution.’ Col. Gutierrez [then a member of the junta] and Vides Casanova, among others, have told the DCM [deputy chief of mission] and myself of their concerns that elections will result in a one-party state, the retention of Duarte, and the strengthening of their bêete noir, José Antonio Morales Erlich [the other Christian Democrat in the junta].”

Duarte negotiated a deal with the military before he agreed to participate in their junta in 1980. He negotiated again in the crisis of December of that year in order to be named president and gain “full control of the army.” Six months later he was negotiating to be able to hold the elections for a constituent assembly that he mistakenly thought would give him the mandate and the legitimacy he sought.

Now, two years later, in another round of elections, he has at last won the presidency. The Salvadoran people (as well as almost $1 million in CIA funds) have put him in office.2 But as Howard J. Wiarda writes in the American Enterprise Institute collection; elections in the region should be viewed “not as ends in themselves conveying final legitimacy on some leader or party but as part of an ongoing process implying further, virtually continuous negotiations.” Duarte has as much legitimacy, as much moral authority, as he is likely to get. But what can he do with it? What is he up against?

If we look at Richard Alan White’s book we find an attempt to explain the pattern of Duarte’s past and also of his future in White’s analysis of an overall US strategy which combines “reform and repression”: both are a means of stopping what, for White, would otherwise be popular, successful, and much-needed revolutions. In this view, borne out, at least, by the Christian Democrats’ record in the government between 1980 and 1982, Duarte is the agent of ineffectual reform (what the most dogmatic of the guerrillas call “the treason of reform”) that works intimately with the dark and bloody side of the military to crush the rebels. In White’s somewhat schematic book, the guerrillas represent progress but Duarte represents nothing but more of the same.

Buckley, groping for a Draconian solution, suggests sending US troops to El Salvador to arrest D’Aubuisson and send him out of the country, to restructure the armed forces, and to arm Duarte’s supporters as a militia to protect the representatives of the guerrilla front during negotiations. Bonner argues throughout his book for one or another kind of negotiated settlement that might bring the rebels into the structure of power.

Yet, for all that is said in the books under review about the United States’ reaction to the Salvadoran rebels, the picture of the guerrilla organizations themselves remains remarkably onedimensional. The working assumption of some of them, most obvious in White’s study of counterinsurgency, appears to be that revolution is basically a good thing and anything that is aimed at stopping it is suspect. Buckley, keeping his distance from all sides except Duarte’s, writes that he “declined to make a choice between the crooks and the commissars.”

As good as Bonner is when he writes about the weakness and deceit in Washington, he shows little investigative zeal when he writes about the left. His first-person accounts of travel and contacts with the rebels as published in The New York Times were occasionally embarrassing in their romantic, even sentimental, imagery, and the problem persists in his book. At a government prison, Bonner asked a woman inmate if she knew the wife of a guerrilla commander he met on his January trip:

There was silence. Then very softly she said, “I am she.” I thought I noticed that her eyes moistened a bit. But she inquired no further about her husband.

Bonner dutifully recounts the bloody history of infighting among El Salvador’s guerrilla organizations: the schisms, executions, and retributions. But in a few passages one has the sense that he is more generous to their history than they are themselves. The current leaders of the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL) have admitted publicly that the founder of their organization, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, ordered the murder of his second-in-command, Melida Anaya Montes, in relation for her challenge to his authority. To make matters worse, the crime was carried out under the direction of one of Cayetano’s protégés in the well-to-do suburb of Managua, Nicaragua, where Anaya Montes lived, thus greatly embarrassing the Sandinistas. Cayetano finally committed suicide, in the words of an official guerrilla communiqué, “to avoid his responsibility and save his already stained name from the infamy he himself had heaped on it.” Bonner takes note of this, but appears less than convinced. In a particularly muddled passage he writes that “the prevailing theory is that he was distraught that one of his most trusted followers had murdered his top lieutenant and longtime close personal friend; and because Castro and the Sandinista leaders were pressuring him to resign as leader of the FPL.”

Possibly Cayetano both murdered his victim and mourned her, but it does not seem likely, especially since he appears, from the rebel communiqué, to have written notes to his faithful followers before his death claiming he was framed.

Bonner effectively makes the point that the civilians in the first junta established after the reformist coup of October 1979—the civilian Social Democrats and Christian Democrats Duarte agreed to replace in January 1980—were genuine moderates, even though a few subsequently joined the political front supporting the guerrillas. Bonner effectively traces the Reagan administration’s rewriting of history to obscure these facts.

But that part of the past is not to be revived. Guerrilla strategies and goals have changed radically since then, especially since their failed “final offensive” in January 1981, and the trend has been toward greater militarization with an ever diminishing role for the moderates committed to social democracy and pluralism. Having found themselves thwarted repeatedly by US military aid and planning, and now confronting what they believe is certain intervention by US or proxy forces should they come close to victory, El Salvador’s rebels are digging in for a long war with a clear model of the future in mind.

In this fight, as outlined by a lengthy communiqué from the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) high command in January 1984, “the geographic proximity of the Nicaraguan and Cuban revolution and their solidarity in support” are deemed a “key element.” But the hardened Salvadoran rebels consider that “neither the Cuban nor the Nicaraguan revolution required the accumulation of political and military force on the scale of the Salvadoran process. That which it most clearly resembles, perhaps, taking due care not to be dogmatic, is the Vietnamese.” Talk of pluralism has given way to a greater emphasis on building up “the discipline and structures of the party that will permit it to purify and strengthen itself.” A major function of negotiations is to impede US intervention.

The rebels still make conciliatory gestures, such as the recent release of the long-captive Salvadoran deputy defense minister. But, basically, from the perspective shown in the January communiqué it appears that Duarte’s current talk about talking with the opposition comes too late and offers much too little to bring peace.

In fact, on the question of negotiations, Duarte’s present position is virtually the same now as it was when he was no more than president of the junta. It is the same position as that of the interim president Alvaro Magaña, of the US embassy, of the military high command. The rebels and their political allies may not negotiate a share in the national administration. Any talks with them will concern exclusively their participation in the next round of elections for mayors and for seats in the national assembly. In other circumstances this might sound reasonable, but in El Salvador today there are some fundamental reasons why it is not realistic, even if we put aside the usual argument that the government could not and would not guarantee the safety of leftist candidates.

The repression of 1980 eliminated the urban bases of the left—their neighborhood organizers and underground guerrilla cells. The lack of those urban cadres is in large measure what cost the rebels a victory in their January 1981 “final offensive.” Despite recent attempts to revive their influence and activities among labor unions, the guerrillas thus far have been unable to resurrect anything like the mass organizations that enabled them to put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in early 1980.

In order for the rebels to agree to participate in elections, however, they would have to be allowed to revive their organizations in the cities. That would greatly increase the rebels’ chances of winning a military victory, if not a political one. The Salvadoran armed forces are not likely to let Duarte negotiate their potential destruction; much less are they likely to purge their ranks of some of their best fighters just because those men have had some problems with their record on human rights. Nor is the Salvadoran officer corps going to bow to coercion from Washington which puts at risk its cohesiveness and endurance in the face of rebel offensives that all sides know are imminent. Thus a few enlisted men may take the rap, but officers remain untouchable and unpunished for killing American citizens.

In December 1983, George Bush went to El Salvador to demand an end to the death squads and, specifically, legal action against a Salvadoran army captain named Eduardo Ernesto Alfonso Ávila who was directly implicated in the murder of the two US labor advisers at the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel in January 1981. It was hoped that at the very least Ávila would testify against a more junior officer who directed the trigger men but whom the Salvadoran courts refused to hold. Ávila was detained in friendly custody for a few weeks after Bush visited and was then released. When last heard from Ávila was saying he had no idea where the Sheraton Hotel was. Yet Reagan said in his May 9 speech that Bush’s visit had “a positive effect.”

If such detachment from the facts were occasional or isolated it would not be so grave a problem. It is not difficult to accept that the United States has a legitimate security interest in Central America; there is nothing so extraordinary about governments lying now and then to protect their security. But the long-term effect of the administration’s pervasive sophistry is to undermine and discredit its Central America policy just as it faces increasingly difficult tests, and a greater need for national consensus.

“This is a policy of symbols and metaphors,” an intelligence analyst complained recently, claiming that analogies with everything from Western movies to Vietnam tended to be substituted for a careful judgment of relative costs and benefits in Central America policy. From its inception, just after the Iran humiliation, a major goal of the hard-line stand the administration took in El Salvador seemed to be to restore America’s selfimage as the great, the good, and the powerful defender of the free world. To this end, doubters were dismissed as fellow travelers of the Revolutionary Democratic Front; murdered nuns were said to have run roadblocks. Special public relations offices were created to sell the policy and Washington’s approach toward Central America was reduced to “the four Ds”: Democracy, Defense, Development, and Dialogue. Inconvenient facts, as Bonner’s book establishes, were then adjusted by one or another public relations Procrustes to fit the bed they had to lie on.

But what has been created is a policy that has no firm basis in Central American realities or American values, a policy as ephemeral as a politician’s promise. When he took office Reagan was right to think that Americans wanted to stand tall for something they could all be proud of. But if truth and justice are precisely what most Americans think they stand for, they are exactly what the administration’s policy lacks.

There is a much greater consensus on basic policy goals in Central America than one might readily guess from the intensity of debate in Congress. Despite White House complaints, Congress generally has gone along with the administration in funding Central American programs, both military and economic. It has balked only on the covert war against Nicaragua, which by its nature takes place in an atmosphere of deception and danger, and on support for the Salvadoran military.

The Salvadoran elections have given the administration a while longer to stretch the facts to fit its claims. José Napoleón Duarte can be presented as an elected president with “moral authority,” even when, whatever his good intentions, his basic function is to get the army more guns and the army has no use for his good intentions. Congress is more willing than ever to cooperate, but over the long run the administration may find it difficult to convince most Americans that the best way to defend their values at home or abroad is to give hundreds of millions of dollars to officers who murder American citizens, and innocent Salvadoran civilians, and then refuse to hold any one of their number responsible for the crimes. As the war intensifies and, as seems inevitable, the US commitment increases, and then as the war drags on, the appearance of honest conviction that the administration needs to continue the fight will tend to disintegrate.

For a while, one can continue to conjure a vision of Duarte the brave reformist of twelve years ago. One looks at those sad eyes and feels that sincere handshake. One listens to the hopeful line: “We are in a process of control….” One longs to believe him. But the rot in the army remains and it is hard to believe Duarte can do much about it. The four Ds most active in El Salvador continue to be destruction and death, dissembling and deceit.

This Issue

June 14, 1984

  1. 1

    “The Apple of Discord: Central America in US Domestic Politics,” pp. 373–374. 

  2. 2

    See Philip Taubman’s report on CIA funding of candidates in The New York Times, May 12, 1984, p. 6.