Alfredo Cristiani
Alfredo Cristiani; drawing by David Levine

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.

For ARENA to win, it had to reach beyond its traditional right-wing base—well-to-do business people, supporters of paramilitary terror, and conservative peasants—and appeal to middle-class professionals and ordinary workers. These groups in the past have backed the Christian Democrats, but five years of mismanagement by the Duarte government had left many of them disaffected. During my stay in El Salvador, it was hard to find anybody with anything good to say about the pescados, or fish (the party symbol), as the Christian Democrats are known. At a time of economic collapse and soaring unemployment, Christian Democratic officials were building ostentatious mansions with stolen US funds. Equally exasperating was Duarte’s failure to end the war despite his repeated promises to do so. By the end, Duarte probably had more supporters in Washington than he did in El Salvador.

To win over the disaffected Christian Democrats, ARENA fashioned an appeal largely devoid of ideology. Cristiani’s speech at Soyapango was typical. Instead of dwelling on the usual ARENA themes—the dangers of terrorism, the communist threat—he concentrated on attacking the pescados. “In 1984,” he declared, “they told us that there would be work for all. It was a lie. All they’ve done is bring more hunger to the people.” Cristiani promised better health care, new housing, more schools, and repaved roads. “With an honest government,” Cristiani asserted, “we’re going to rescue our country from its crisis.”

For a party generally associated with the rich, it was a remarkably populist message, calculated to attract new groups to ARENA. It was repeated everywhere—at rallies, on billboards, on television and radio. ARENA bought huge chunks of air time, and it was hard to turn on a TV set without seeing its seductive made-in-America commercials. The party’s campaign song was so catchy that I occasionally found myself humming it unconsciously. “Vamos al cambio,” it urged—“Let’s have a change.”

The message certainly hit home. In the final days of the campaign, I attended a number of ARENA events—rallies, press conferences, briefings for campaign workers—and the sense of momentum was palpable, making the party seem an irresistible movement ready to engulf everything in its path. Not only coffee growers and bankers but also peasants and factory workers, students and shopkeepers, seemed to be drawn to the party. In a field of eight parties, ARENA took 53.8 percent of the vote.

This raised a perplexing question: How could Salvadorans vote in such large numbers for a party with so lurid a past? Was a vote for ARENA a vote for death squads and disappearances? In some cases, yes. Anticommunist sentiment runs very deep in El Salvador, and many Areneros fervently hope that the party will find a way to eradicate the left, no matter how drastic the means and no matter how much the United States might object. But many other ARENA supporters—especially recent converts—are far less fanatical in their attachment. If there’s one word to describe these followers, it’s tired—tired of the war, tired of rising prices, tired of blackouts and transportation strikes. They longingly hope that ARENA, the party of the rich and powerful, can somehow put things right.

The question is, which ARENA won—D’Aubuisson’s or Cristiani’s? Not a few Salvadorans believe that ARENA will unleash the army to attack people on the left, that there will be a return to the bloody days of the early 1980s. During a visit to a left-leaning neighborhood in San Salvador, I was told that guerrilla sympathizers were already stockpiling medicine in anticipation of a bloodbath. Yet most of the political analysts I spoke to were not convinced. “I don’t share the apocalyptic scenario,” said Ricardo Stein, a former professor at the University of Central America in San Salvador. The landslide Cristiani won, he explained, gives him “enough clout to have at least an equal voice with the more nasty elements in the party.” That could change, of course, if the guerrillas step up their attacks on high ARENA officials. The launching of more actions such as the bombing on April 14 of the house of Vice President–elect Francisco Merino will surely strengthen the party’s most violent elements.

Any rise in human rights abuses would endanger the continued flow of US aid and this would undercut Cristiani’s main goal—releasing the energies of business. “ARENA’s motto is ‘Salvador first, Salvador second, Salvador third,’ ” a former high government official with many friends in the party told me. “It should be, ‘money first, money second, money third.’ These people want to make money, but they can’t if people are disappearing all over the place.”

Those expecting ARENA to dismantle past economic reforms are likely to be disappointed. Rather, the party will probably take a more indirect approach. During the campaign, for instance, Cristiani said he would not reverse El Salvador’s land reform of the early 1980s, in which large estates were expropriated and turned into peasant cooperatives. The reform has had mixed success—many cooperatives have suffered for lack of adequate financing—but the program remains popular, and reversing it would be politically disastrous. Instead, ARENA says it plans to award land titles to individual members of the cooperatives. This would free peasants to sell their land, and many no doubt would do so, to wealthy farmers eager to reamass their large holdings.

More generally, ARENA will look for ways to cut back government intervention in the economy and let the invisible hand of capitalism go to work. If it does, it’s hard to see where the party is going to get the money needed to deliver on the populist pledges—to provide better housing and health care, for example—that Cristiani made during the campaign. “ARENA has made a lot of promises about helping people,” the former official notes. “But none of them will be fulfilled. These people are going to cut social services, not increase them.”

The main obstacle to ARENA’s economic program is the war. As long as the fighting continues, investment will lag, and, along with it, economic growth. This has led to much speculation about a possible deal with the FMLN. ARENA might seem the least likely group to strike a bargain with the leftist guerrillas, but, as Salvadoran analysts like to point out, it was Richard Nixon who went to China. During the campaign, Cristiani repeatedly expressed his willingness to talk with the rebels. And, with very little publicity, ARENA officials held three secret pre-election meetings with FMLN representatives, in Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica—a possible prelude to more formal talks.

If ARENA does sit down with the FMLN, what will it find?


Thursday, March 16, three days before the election, was the blackest day in El Salvador’s nine-year civil war—literally. For days, FMLN guerrillas had been blowing up power lines in San Salvador, and on Thursday night the capital went entirely dark. I had spent the early hours of the evening at the house of a West European diplomat, talking about politics by candlelight. When we finished, at about nine o’clock, the diplomat offered to drive me home. Outside, San Salvador had never seemed eerier. The streets were completely deserted, the houses all shuttered and dark. As we sped past block after desolate block, the city looked as if it had been wrapped in a shroud and was awaiting burial.

The blackout was part of a general guerrilla offensive mounted against San Salvador in the weeks before the election. Every day, from dawn to dusk, bombs went off throughout the capital, shutting off not only electricity but the supply of water to many parts of the city. In addition, the guerrillas had declared a paro, or transportation stoppage. Any taxi or bus caught on the roads was subject to being blown up. Gas stations, too, were ordered to shut down, and most did. In an effort to end the stoppage, the military used dozens of heavily guarded army trucks to transport people, but the city remained largely paralyzed.

It was, in many ways, an impressive show of power. To appreciate it, one need only compare the activities of the FMLN in San Salvador to those of the contras in Managua. For years the CIA implored the contras to make their presence felt in the city—by blowing up bridges, cutting power lines, painting slogans on walls. Visitors to Managua, though, had trouble finding even a single anti-Sandinista graffito. In San Salvador, by contrast, the guerrillas have established a network of “urban commandos” adept at manufacturing bombs, committing acts of sabotage, laying ambushes, and carrying out assassinations. Altogether, the commandos probably number no more than two hundred people, but they are helped by thousands of couriers, informers, drivers, and other sympathizers, all combining to make a powerful fifth column capable of disrupting the capital’s life when the FMLN gives the order. Overall, the FMLN is thought to have between six thousand and seven thousand highly disciplined troops, making it the most powerful guerrilla army in Latin America.

Yet the display of power during the election campaign proved highly costly to the FMLN. It’s one thing to ask people to remain at home out of sympathy; it’s quite another to blow up taxis and buses. The paro kept many people from getting to work, causing them to lose several days’ pay; as usual, the poorest suffered the most. Equally unpopular was the rebels’ sabotage campaign, which forced residents to go days at a time without electricity or water. Most damaging of all was the FMLN’s efforts to disrupt the electoral process. Several days before the election, urban commandos shot and killed Francisco Peccorini, a seventy-four-year-old conservative professor active in efforts to eliminate leftist influence from the National University. Around the same time, the FMLN, in statements on its underground radio, threatened to take action against people involved in preparations for the election. On election day the guerrillas mounted attacks at some twenty locations across the country, making it the heaviest day of fighting in years. Many Salvadorans, consequently, could not exercise their right to vote.

The FMLN thus squandered much of the credit it had earned two months earlier, when it issued an ambitious peace proposal in which it offered for the first time to participate in elections without being included beforehand in a coalition government. The guerrillas had demanded, however, that the elections be postponed for six months to allow them time to organize. The government was caught by surprise. President Duarte at first rejected the propsal, but he was forced to reconsider it under pressure from the United States.

Finally, in February, representatives of the FMLN and of El Salvador’s political parties met for talks in Mexico. The guerrillas offered to lay down their arms and take part in the political process, but only if certain structural changes were made, among them a sharp reduction in the size of the military and the prosecution of military officers guilty of political killings. Duarte proposed postponing the elections until April 30. By then, the army was getting very nervous and it made clear its position that delaying the election as demanded by the guerrillas would violate the constitution. And so the dialogue came to an end. The FMLN had played its hand very shrewdly. By offering to participate in the election, it came across as moderate; by demanding conditions that the army would never accept, it made the military look intransigent. For its apparent flexibility, the FMLN was praised by governments throughout Latin America.

On election day, however, the rebels did their best to disrupt the voting. A peace proposal one month, a violent offensive the next—what exactly were the guerrillas up to? In an effort to find out, I went to see Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the University of Central America, El Salvador’s most prestigious educational institution. Ellacuria, a Jesuit who is austere in appearance and gentle in manner, stays in close touch with rebel leaders, making him a recognized source for the FMLN’s internal deliberations. (In fact many of the leaders were his students.) For months, he explained, the guerrillas had been engaged in a period of “reflection and replenishment” aimed at reassessing their strategy. The comandantes, long accustomed to thinking of armed revolution, had haltingly arrived at a more modest vision, Ellacuria said, adding, “The general idea is that international circumstances will not allow a Marxist-Leninist government in this region—only a progressive democratic one.”

The change in attitude was prompted by a number of important developments. One was a diplomatic tour undertaken last fall by Joaquín Villalobos and Leonel González, the top two rebel commanders, who spent three weeks traveling about the continent from Mexico to Argentina. The trip—their first out of El Salvador in six years—apparently had an effect on their thinking. Everywhere, democracy was the watchword, with heads of state and foreign ministers urging the guerrilla leaders to seek a negotiated settlement. Particularly emphatic was Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, who pressed the Salvadoran rebels, as he has the contras, to lay down their arms and enter the political process. Meanwhile, the one Central American country to have experienced a revolution, Nicaragua, was on the verge of economic collapse, undercutting whatever appeal it may once have had as a model.

Globally, too, the setting of the guerrilla struggle was changing. In Washington, Ronald Reagan’s implacable anti-communism was giving way to a more pliable variety, creating new diplomatic openings. In Moscow, the hallowed principle of “proletarian internationalism,” of coming to the aid of fraternal revolutions, was undergoing revision. Mikhail Gorbachev, concentrating on his domestic problems, was cutting back Soviet commitments abroad. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, negotiations in Angola—could Central America be far behind? On the ideological plane, too, glasnost and perestroika were forcing Marxist movements around the world to reexamine their first principles, and the Salvadoran guerrillas were no exception.

What emerged was the FMLN’s own variety of “new thinking.” Its key points were summed up in a lengthy paper written late last year by Joaquín Villalobos, the most powerful of the FMLN’s five commanders. Its title: “An Open, Pluralistic and Democratic Revolutionary Project for El Salvador: Propaganda or a New Political Reality for Change?” Intended primarily for external consumption, the paper was shopped around Washington and New York, eventually landing in Foreign Policy magazine (Spring, 1989). Though containing some standard Marxist rhetoric, the article was for the most part a model of moderation, using words like “flexible” and “pragmatic.” “It would be dishonest and ridiculous to deny the influence of Marxism and Leninism within the FMLN…,” Villalobos wrote. “But we do not convert the tenets of Marxism-Leninism into dogma that might isolate us from reality.” Taking note of assertions that a revolutionary victory in El Salvador would produce a Pol Pot-like regime, Villalobos offered this reassurance:

It is neither possible nor necessary to carry out a plan to eliminate totally the private sector, to establish a single-party system, to bar other parties from the media, to break with the church, to eliminate elections, to enter into military pacts with foreign powers, to allow foreign militaries on Salvadoran soil, or most ridiculous, to allow nuclear weapons on Salvadoran territory. The FMLN pursues an El Salvador that is open, flexible, pluralistic, and democratic in both the economic and the political spheres.

In line with this pragmatic approach, the article called for a negotiated end to the war.

This seemed a startling change of direction. Joaquín Villalobos, the most brilliant of FMLN generals, is also its most dogmatic. His faction, the People’s Revolutionary Army, has undergone periodic schisms and purges. The most notorious occurred in 1975, when Villalobos ordered the execution of a fellow commander, Roque Dalton, a noted Salvadoran poet, after he returned from a stay in Cuba, allegedly infected by heretical ideas. For years, Villalobos has been calling for a popular insurrection, a spontaneous uprising that would violently sweep away the old order. Now, suddenly, he was preaching pluralism and democracy in the pages of Foreign Policy. Which was it, propaganda or “a new political reality for change”?

“This article was not a caprice but part of an effort to plot a new strategy,” Ellacuria told me. He called it the “Vatican II of the FMLN”—a historic document charting a fundamental change of direction. Villalobos, the most militaristic of comandantes, had been forced by events to temper his views. “This reflects a very deep change in the FMLN,” Ellacuria said.

He emphasized, however, that this was not the whole story. Villalobos’s article in Foreign Policy, he explained, was only the second half of a much longer document. The first half, virtually ignored in the United States, has recently been published by ECA (Estudios Centroamericanos), a journal put out by Ellacuria’s own University of Central America. This section—entitled “Popular Insurrection: Wish or Reality of the Social Struggle?”—is far harsher in tone than the Foreign Policy piece. Here Villalobos inveighs against the United States, charging it with imposing a “dictatorship” on El Salvador and pursuing a policy of “genocide” there. He dismisses the elections as a charade incapable of preventing the “generalization of violence by the masses.” The country’s sharp economic decline and deepening social misery, he declares, are producing a “distinct strengthening” of the “insurrectional struggle.” Likening the war to a game of chess, the commander asserts that the FMLN holds in its hand “the decisive piece—the masses—and it is going to use them to achieve checkmate.”

Clearly, Villalobos continues to harbor his dream of provoking a Nicaragua-style insurrection in El Salvador. Few people outside the FMLN believe that such an uprising is possible. According to polls conducted by the University of Central America, the FMLN’s level of support has been low for years. In a sense, Villalobos’s continuing belief in insurrection shows just how far out of touch with the “masses” the guerrillas really are.

None of this, however, diminishes the importance of the FMLN’s peace proposal. For all the talk of insurrection, the rebels must know that they cannot achieve a military victory while the United States continues to back the Salvadoran government. Moreover, every election held in El Salvador, no matter how imperfect, further implants the notion of representative democracy. By negotiating, the guerrillas are seeking to adjust to this reality. Even if talks fail, the FMLN knows that they can help to create divisions within the Salvadoran government and weaken congressional support for military aid to El Salvador. Essentially, the FMLN is following a classic two-track policy: negotiate but carry a big stick. For the moment, says Ellacuria, “Negotiations are in the forefront. But if that fails, [the guerrillas] will return to the military path.”

This analysis, while explaining a great deal, omits one key element: the FMLN’s growing viciousness. For all the guerrillas’ new thinking, their tactics remain decidedly primitive. According to the human rights office of the Catholic Church, the FMLN in 1988 killed forty-four civilians, thirteen more than they killed the year before. Some were casualties of car bombs, a new weapon introduced last year. Though directed at the military, these devices frequently misfired, killing civilians. In February, the FMLN, responding to a public outcry over the weapons, announced that it was suspending its use of them.

In the countryside, guerrilla land mines have killed or wounded hundreds of innocent people—including many children—leading to strong condemnations from human rights groups. The guerrillas have also demanded the resignation of all the mayors in the country, charging that they are part of the US “counterinsurgency program” in El Salvador. Many of the country’s 262 mayors have stepped down; of those refusing to do so, eight have been executed. The rebels have recently extended the same threat to justices of the peace. Such tactics have been ruinous to the FMLN’s prestige.

Even an ally such as Rubén Zamora is critical of the guerrillas’ strategy, as I discovered when I saw him in his office soon after the election. Zamora is coordinator of the Democratic Convergence, the only leftist party to have run in the election. An economist trained at Essex University, Zamora in 1979 served as a minister in the reformist government backed by the Christian Democrats. In early 1980, however, he and his brother Mario, the country’s attorney general, were publicly accused by Roberto D’Aubuisson of being guerrillas. Not long after, masked men entered Mario’s house during a party and shot him to death. Rubén went into exile and joined the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the political arm of the FMLN, serving in effect as its foreign minister.

With the signing of the Central American peace plan in 1987, Zamora, together with his FDR colleague Guillermo Ungo, decided to return to El Salvador to test the new political climate. Both men retained their ties to the FMLN, and, before launching the Convergence, sought, and received, the guerrillas’ blessings. Ungo was named the party’s presidential candidate.

During the campaign, the Convergence’s links to the FMLN caused many problems. The Salvadoran military regarded the party as little more than a communist front, and party officials were frequently threatened; throughout the campaign, Zamora wore a bulletproof vest. Nonetheless, Convergence officials remained optimistic, hoping to win 10 percent of the vote and place third, behind ARENA and the Christian Democrats.

But party leaders had not anticipated the FMLN’s antielection blitz, which hurt the Convergence more than any other party. By ordering its supporters to stay home on election day, the FMLN cost the Convergence many potential voters. The transportation stoppage, too, caused special problems for the Convergence, which, unlike the other, better financed parties, owned few cars or trucks for carrying people to the polls. The guerrillas’ brutality also cost the Convergence voters; though Zamora and Ungo explicitly denounced the FMLN’s killings of mayors and other civilians, the attacks inevitably rubbed off on the party, eroding its support In the end, the Convergence won only 3.8 percent of the vote, placing it a dismal fourth.

Party leaders felt double-crossed. “The FMLN has the right to say the elections are no good, but it has no right to stop people who are going to vote,” said Zamora, his voice controlled but flecked with exasperation. Referring to the guerrillas’ new thinking, he said, “If you’re going to accept pluralism, you have to accept the fact that other people are going to have valid ideas other than your own.” The experience has raised doubts about how much space the FMLN would allow social democrats like Zamora should the guerrillas ever come to power.

The Convergence’s unhappiness with the FMLN’s recent tactics has led to speculation about a rift between the two groups. Zamora dismissed any such suggestion. “Such a move might make our political situation easier,” he explained, “but it would be less effective in terms of achieving our overall goal, which is a political solution to the nation’s problems.” Only the FMLN, he maintained, has the power to bring about fundamental changes in El Salvador, such as the prosecution of those responsible for committing political crimes. Of the 70,000 people killed in El Salvador during the last nine years, a large majority have been people like Mario Zamora, civilians targeted by the military and death squads. Yet not a single officer has been punished for these crimes.

I mentioned the Nixon-in-China talk I’d been hearing about ARENA. Zamora laughed. “You have to take into account their ideology,” he said. “Cristiani is going to have a lot of pressure from inside his own party not to make any concessions to the ‘communists.’ ” In any case, he said, what ARENA planned to do was irrelevant. “The real power in this country is the army and the United States,” Zamora said. “To the extent that there has been no progress in negotiations over the nine years of the war, I blame them.”


“Chalatenango ’88” is the latest in a series of programs in El Salvador designed to win people over to the government side. Every week, the mayors in this northern province meet with the local military authorities to discuss the projects their communities need—roads, schools, power lines, and the like. The program, paid for primarily by the US Agency for International Development, is intended to improve the government’s image in the region. It’s not an easy task. Chalatenango is FMLN territory, and the guerrillas move about the region at will. They have killed at least one local mayor. That, however, has not deterred the rest from attending the weekly meetings, held in the auditorium of a hospital in the city of Chalatenango.

I attended one of these meetings in late March, a few days after the election. More than a dozen mayors attended the session, which was chaired by the local military commander. Before getting down to business, the colonel briefed the mayors on the military situation in the region. He described in detail—and with no little pride—how the army had beaten back several recent attacks by the “terrorists,” inflicting many casualties. As he got to the end of his report, the colonel suddenly paused and, looking uncomfortable, recounted how a local soldier had gotten drunk over the Easter weekend and thrown a grenade into a peasant’s house, killing five people and wounding one. “It was a very destructive act,” he said by way of apology. He then quickly moved on, asking the mayors about their water projects and schoolhouses.

The session pointed up the hybrid nature of the Salvadoran armed forces. During the last eight years, the Salvadoran military has been considerably transformed. Hundreds of young Salvadoran officers have gone to the United States for training, and hundreds of US advisers have come to El Salvador. The army has been given new uniforms, new rifles, new helicopters, and, most importantly, new instructions for dealing with the civilian population. Today, the Salvadoran military is not only much larger and better equipped than it used to be, it is also more professional and better behaved. Nonetheless, in practice, the army is continually reverting to its old ways, committing abuses with a regularity that nullifies all the good will it seeks to engender. In its ability to control brutality toward civilians, the Salvadoran military remains an unreconstructed force.

The contradictions between what the army claims and what it does are all too evident. Colonel Mauricio Ernesto Vargas is commander of the army’s Third Brigade, located in the eastern city of San Miguel. The brigade is one of the army’s most active units, and Vargas one of its most forward-looking commanders. In an interview, Vargas told me of the informal “school for political and ideological orientation” he runs for his troops. Among the instructors are: officials from the national election commission, to talk about the value of elections; representatives of the Red Cross, to discuss the Geneva conventions; journalists, to lecture on freedom of the press; officials from the agrarian reform institute; representatives of the Chamber of Commerce; and members of the government’s Commission on Human Rights. “Human rights and liberties are the raison d’être of democracy,” Vargas said, sounding like Jimmy Carter.

Yet that same day, while walking through San Miguel, I saw four army trucks rumbling down one of the main streets, each filled with twenty or so grim-looking teen-agers. They had just been “recruited” for the army, which, in El Salvador, means that they had been picked up on the street and inducted on the spot. In most cases, soldiers simply wait at bus stops and seize everyone who looks strong enough to carry a rifle. Boys of fifteen are commonly picked up. In many cases, the conscripts are whisked away to training camp even before their families are notified. Not exactly an effective way of appealing to the local population.

Another example: three days after the election, the army, stung by criticism over the deaths of the three journalists, called a press conference at its headquarters in El Salvador. About one hundred and twenty angry, anxious reporters crammed into an airless, tomblike briefing room to talk with Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Chief of Staff René Emilio Ponce. General Vides, a smooth, amiable man, began by offering the journalists his “greatest condolences.” “We’re very proud of how we behaved during the election,” he said. “Nonetheless, the news about the reporters makes us very sad.” Noting his “true desire to prevent these things in the future,” the minister opened the floor to suggestions. For more than an hour the journalists poured forth their concerns, and Vides listened intently, scribbling occasional notes on a pad of paper. Toward the end of the session, he observed:

In the last ten years, the image of the armed forces has changed. Complaints about human rights are much fewer than they used to be. Eight years ago, eight hundred people were being killed a month. Today, the figure is only twenty a month. We’re human. We can commit errors. But we have a genuine desire to investigate these matters.

Vides’s statement might seem to be a welcome change from 1982, when four members of a Dutch television crew were killed on their way to guerrilla-held territory. In that case, the army refused to investigate the matter despite persuasive evidence that soldiers had ambushed the journalists. In the recent case of the journalists, by contrast, several soldiers have already been detained and an investigation is taking place.

Yet the number of human rights abuses in El Salvador remains extraordinarily high. The twenty-per-month figure cited by Vides works out to a chilling 240 political murders a year. The death squads have reappeared, attacking students, teachers, unionists, and peasants. In a report issued shortly before the election, Americas Watch observed:

One fundamental element in democratic governance—the establishment of the rule of law and its extension to all sectors of society—remains conspicuously absent in El Salvador. The military and death squads continue to kill with impunity, secure in the knowledge that gross violations of human rights will at worse bring bad publicity, but certainly not criminal punishment. The politicized and intimidated judiciary continues to evade its responsibility for the provision of justice to a nation of victims.

This description helps to answer one of the pressing questions to emerge from the March election: Will ARENA’s victory result in more human rights abuses? In fact, abuses have been rising steadily for the past year under the Christian Democrats. “Everyone is saying that ARENA is going to allow the military to do whatever it wants,” says a former high Salvadoran official. “Maybe it will. But it’s important to remember that, under the Christian Democratic government, the military did everything it wanted anyway.” President Duarte, for example, at the start of his term, set up a special commission to investigate five prominent human rights cases, including the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Anulfo Romero. The investigations went nowhere. All evidence indicates that, for much of Duarte’s term, senior military officers consistently ignored his wishes.

The rate of killings in El Salvador has less to do with the party in charge than with the level of left-wing activity in urban areas. “When there are 120,000 people demonstrating in the streets of San Salvador, as there were in 1980, you might find you need to kill five hundred a month,” observes a West European diplomat. “When there are only five thousand to six thousand demonstrating, then you might find you need to kill only five or six a month.” Only in the last year or so has the FMLN managed to reestablish its networks of urban supporters, which were liquidated by the death squads in the early 1980s. And, with this revival of guerrilla activity, the armed forces have been applying their own form of summary justice.

Among the most vocal critics of the Salvadoran army I encountered was a former US military adviser with many years’ experience in the country. Originally a strong booster of the Salvadoran military, he early on had an experience that changed his attitude for good. It came when he was training the Atlacatl Battalion, one of several “rapid-reaction” units that the United States set up in the early 1980s to improve the army’s search-and-destroy abilities. One day, the adviser learned to his horror that members of the battalion had gone on a rampage and killed one hundred peasants. Today, he says, the army continues to kill civilians. “The commanders still have their eyes and ears, their right-wing anticommunist squads,” he told me heatedly. “Anybody who’s vocal, they go out and kill them.” He adds: “Upgrading the life of the rural peasant is not something high on their list of priorities.”

The adviser’s experience illustrates an important paradox concerning relations between the United States and the Salvadoran armed forces. Over the last eight years, Washington has invested more than $800 million in the Salvadoran army, helping to transform it from a ragged band of 17,000 into a much more efficient army of 57,000. In the process, though, it has greatly increased the power and autonomy of the army, turning it into a swollen, uncontrollable organization accountable to no one but itself. In some cases, the very elite units that have received the most attention from the US have been those most guilty of committing human rights abuses.

The Salvadoran air force is a good example. At the start of the war, the air force was a flying scrapheap of some twenty aircraft, most of them obsolete. Today, it has 135 aircraft, including 72 helicopters, all supplied by the United States. The US has helped modernize the air force’s base at Ilopango, just east of San Salvador, turning it into one of the best-equipped facilities this side of the Panama Canal. This has immeasurably increased the power of the air force and of its chief, the hard-line General Juan Rafael Bustillo, who runs Ilopango as his own banana republic, wholly independent of the government. Not surprisingly, the air force has been implicated in many human rights violations. It was an air force patrol that shot the Reuters photographer, and an air force helicopter pilot who attacked the van carrying the wounded Dutch cameraman.

Today, the Salvadoran military is by far the most powerful institution in the country. It’s not as blatant in exercising its power as it once was—generals no longer sit in the Presidential Palace—but on matters that really count, the military always gets its way. Thus, when the recent talks in Mexico between the government and the FMLN threatened to gain momentum, the military, using the constitution as a cover, intervened to stop them. Later, during the election campaign, Defense Minister Vides Casanova let it be known that the army would not tolerate a strong showing by the Convergence. Indeed, it is assumed in El Salvador that the military would never allow the Convergence to take power, no matter how clearly it were elected.

This might seem a trivial matter, given the Convergence’s recent electoral performance. Yet the party’s importance is out of all proportion to its current size. For of all the parties active in El Salvador today, the Convergence is the only one to place the matter of social and economic justice at the heart of its political program. The lack of such justice remains the chief cause of El Salvador’s ongoing agony. The FMLN’s violent practices may have discredited left-wing politics in El Salvador, but that should not obscure the depths of popular discontent and misery in the country. The average Salvadoran today lives little better than he did in 1932, when the military, seeking to put down a broad popular uprising, massacred an estimated 30,000 peasants. As long as the Salvadoran military continues to enforce the status quo, El Salvador will remain ripe for violence and instability.


The political situation in El Salvador is likely to get worse before it gets better. The FMLN has responded to ARENA’s victory by vowing to make the country “ungovernable.” By attacking the attorney general, as it did on April 19, as well as other high-ranking officials, the FMLN seems determined to provoke a wave of repression, thus sharpening the country’s already acute polarization. In this setting, an agreement between the government and the guerrillas would seem further away than ever.

If there is any hope, it rests with the superpowers. Only when the United States and the Soviet Union decide that a negotiated settlement is in their best interests will an agreement become possible. The two nations seem to be nearing that point. Mikhail Gorbachev may have had El Salvador in mind when, during his recent visit to Cuba, he declared that it was time to get beyond the notion of exporting revolutions. More privately, say diplomats and analysts knowledgeable about the FMLN, the Soviets have been pushing the guerrillas toward a settlement for some time.

The Bush administration, too, seems to be moving in the direction of a political settlement. It sent its strongest signal at the time of the FMLN peace proposal, when the State Department leaned on the Duarte government to reconsider its initial rejection. This is a refreshing change from the Reagan years, when the White House summarily rejected all peace feelers.

If Washington really wants a deal, though, it’s going to have to confront El Salvador’s generals and colonels. For any settlement is going to entail a major change in the status and role of the armed forces. In the first place, an accord ending the war would almost certainly result in a sharp cut in the size of the military, from its current manpower level of 57,000 to perhaps half that. A settlement would also require safeguards against abuses by the army. The insurgency in El Salvador got underway, in part, because of the army’s repressive activities, and until those activities are brought under control, it’s hard to imagine the FMLN agreeing to lay down its arms.

Finally, an agreement would require that the military allow a place for the left in Salvadoran political life. For an institution accustomed to seeing communism in every flicker of reform, this is an unthinkable step—unless the United States says differently. US military assistance gives the White House an important lever over the Salvadoran military; it certainly seems time to use it.

Otherwise, the situation can only deteriorate. After ARENA’s victory, I asked many people what they thought would happen next. From taxi drivers to veteran politicians, everyone seemed to have the same premonition: ARENA takes office and tries to reactivate the economy. But the war continues, sabotaging all efforts at recovery. Unemployment, already close to 50 percent, rises. Inflation soars. Corruption spreads. The public grows more and more disillusioned. With the right having failed, people look to the one remaining alternative. As one young Arenero told me, “ARENA has five years to deliver. If it fails, then the left takes over.” If the economy continues to decline under ARENA, the Convergence, a speck today, could become a major political force.

That would not please the army. Any serious bid for power by the Convergence would almost certainly precipitate a coup. And thus the cycle of violence in El Salvador would start all over again.

April 20, 1989

This Issue

May 18, 1989