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El Salvador

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El Salvador



Figure 1. Administrative Divisions of El Salvador, 1988

EVENTS IN EL SALVADOR assumed worldwide prominence in the late 1970s as political and social tensions fueled a violent civil conflict that persisted throughout the 1980s. The intense controversy and scrutiny accorded this diminutive nation ran counter to the relative obscurity that had characterized it during its colonial and national history. A backwater of the Spanish Empire, El Salvador passed through the turbulent era of the Central American Federation (1823-41) to separate independence as a liberal state dominated both politically and economically by a landed oligarchy (see The Coffee Republic , ch. 1). The roots of this elite-dominated system lie in Spanish colonial structures; the system bequeathed to modern El Salvador a legacy of economic and social inequality and political authoritarianism--not a promising base on which to build a democratic state.

For many Salvadorans, land tenure crystallizes the inequality of their society. Historically, the elite held title to most of the productive arable land. This was especially true by the late nineteenth century after the abolition of Indian communal lands known as ejidos and the consequent seizure of the bulk of those lands by private owners. Although the desire for land reform has been strong throughout Salvadoran history, no effective change in the concentration of land took place until 1980, when a military-civilian junta government decreed a three- phase program (see The Reformist Coup of 1979 , ch. 1). The impact of the 1980 reforms is undeniable; their scope and significance for the future of the country, however, are matters of continuing controversy. This volume attempts to synthesize divergent opinions on this question, noting both the accomplishments and the limitations of the reforms (see Agrarian Reform , ch. 2; The Land Tenure System , ch. 3; The Constitution of 1983 , ch. 4). Although the term agrarian reform is commonly applied to the Salvadoran effort, the term land reform more correctly describes the program because it failed to follow up the transfer of ownership with credit and other forms of support.

El Salvador's history of dependence on the export of a single agricultural commodity--first cacao, then indigo, then coffee-- locked the country into a "boom and bust" economic cycle that persists to this day (see Growth and Structure of the Economy , ch. 3). Apart from its purely economic effects, such as wide fluctuations in foreign exchange, domestic income, and employment, this system also weakened the country's security. Failure to diversify and the consequent heavy reliance on exports of coffee and the other two leading commodities, cotton and sugar, made producers, processors, and distributors of those products the targets of attacks by antigovernment guerrilla forces that sought to topple the national economy by chipping away at its broad underpinnings (see Major Crops and Commodities , ch. 3). The economic burden of the civil conflict--estimated at approximately US$2 billion in the 1979-88 period--inhibited any effective restructuring and further enhanced the importance of coffee exports as the major source of foreign exchange and the only viable short-term alternative to continued infusions of economic aid from the United States.

Throughout most of El Salvador's history, traditions of political authoritarianism accompanied by repression by the military and the security forces had led to a generally exclusionary political process that only occasionally produced limited reforms in areas such as education and public welfare (see Repression and Reform under Military Rule , ch. 1). As was the case in other aspects of Salvadoran life, however, the cycle of change initiated by the reformist military coup of 1979 and driven by the civil conflict also transformed governmental and political institutions. With encouragement and support from Washington, the Salvadorans promulgated a new constitution in 1983 that allowed for the free election of a president, members of a Legislative Assembly, and municipal representatives. From March 1982 to March 1989, voters cast their ballots in six free and fair elections. Although some commentators have rightly noted that elections alone do not constitute democracy, this record of popular participation in the face of consistent and violent efforts by the guerrillas to disrupt balloting should not be dismissed. To many observers the participation of the leftist Democratic Convergence (Convergencia Democrática--CD) in the 1989 presidential election suggested that the system was approaching a level of institutionalization that might allow it to incorporate all political sectors, even those associated with the previously rejectionist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front- Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional-Frente Democrático Revolucionario--FMLN- FDR).

Although the connections were not as clear as FMLN-FDR propagandists asserted, the continuing civil conflict did have some precursors in such uprisings as Anastasio Aquino's rebellion in 1833 and the 1932 rural insurrection led by communist organizers such as Agustín Farabundo Martí. The latter incident, fed by severe economic distress provoked by the Great Depression, set off the military's bloody overreaction (la matanza), in which thousands of people, mainly Indian campesinos, perished (see Economic Crisis and Repression , ch. 1). Although an aberration in terms of its scope, la matanza also represented a warning of the extreme violence that lay beneath the surface of Salvadoran life. That warning rang out again, in a more complex social and political context, in the 1970s.

Most commentators agree that the refusal of the military to recognize the victory of José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes, one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC), in the 1972 presidential elections set in motion a chain of events that led directly to the violent civil conflict that afflicted the country throughout the 1980s (see Dashed Hopes: The 1972 Elections , ch. 1). The failure of the system to respond to the legitimate political aspirations of an emerging middle class strengthened the arguments of those on the fringes of the political spectrum who preached a revolutionary doctrine. The diverse coalition that initially supported the violent overthrow of the military government included students, disillusioned politicians of a leftist or progressive stripe, "liberationist" Roman Catholic clergy and laymen, peasants, and guerrilla/terrorist groups with ties to Cuba and, after 1979, to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua (see The 1970s: The Road to Revolt , ch. 1; Revolutionary Groups , ch. 2; Left-Wing Extremism , ch. 5). The latter groups saw themselves as the vanguard of a revolution. The escalation of terrorism and paramilitary violence in the early 1980s by both rightist and leftist forces further restricted the range of political action in El Salvador; at the same time, the perception that the guerrilla forces sought to redress socioeconomic inequities brought them adherents at home and supporters abroad.

The reformist military coup of 1979 was an effort by concerned sectors of the armed forces to provide an alternative to leftist revolution and to prevent El Salvador from becoming "another Nicaragua." Although much of the original promise of the coup, e.g., significant agrarian reform, never materialized, the action by the armed forces altered the trend of events by reintroducing Duarte's PDC into the political arena and by providing an entrée for the United States government to play a major role in funding and fashioning a political and military response to the country's crisis. Without United States support, it is likely that the guerrilla forces, which united under the banner of the FMLN in 1980, would have taken power or forced a coalition government by 1983-84. With Washington's support and active involvement, the armed forces expanded both their force levels and their equipment inventory, forcing the FMLN to adopt the classic guerrilla tactics of hit-and-run attack, sabotage, intimidation, propaganda, and rural mobilization.

The nature and proper description of the conflict between government forces and adherents of the FMLN-FDR have been the subject of some debate. This volume has chosen to employ the term civil conflict for several reasons. Although the term civil war is frequently applied to the conflict in the North American press and elsewhere, the scope of the conflict and the estimated level of popular support for the FMLN-FDR were judged to be insufficient to justify that description. Other observers, particularly in the early 1980s, have described the "Salvadoran Revolution" as a movement similar to that which brought the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional--FSLN) to power in Nicaragua. The post-1983 narrowing of the Salvadoran conflict in both military and political terms, however, rendered it closer to an insurgency than to a true revolution; therefore, the term insurgency is also utilized throughout the volume, usually in a military context. In the broader sense, however, insurgency is too limited a description, given the level of social upheaval that accompanied the initiation of hostilities in the early 1980s, the support (however unquantifiable) for the FMLN-FDR among certain sectors of the population, the crippling economic impact of guerrilla attacks, the high number (some late 1988 estimates ran as high as 60,000) of fatalities attributed to military engagements and politically motivated violence, and the unresolved social and political tensions that still prevail in El Salvador. The term civil conflict is thus a sort of compromise and is employed in a broad political-military sense.

The conflict raged on several fronts in 1989. In the field, a battle-hardened and politically indoctrinated corps of FMLN guerrillas frustrated the efforts of the armed forces to eliminate them militarily. A low-intensity conflict, marked by indecisive armed clashes and a constant struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the rural population, defined the efforts of both sides. On the political front, the electoral process represented only the most visible arena of competition. The judiciary, inefficient and biased in favor of the well-to-do, exemplified the need for institutional reform if El Salvador wished to emerge from the conflict as a functional society governed by the rule of law. The Duarte administration (1984-89) took several steps toward reforming the judiciary, but much remained to be accomplished in this area (see The Criminal Justice System , ch. 5).

As it drew to a close, the Duarte government appeared bereft of major accomplishments. Duarte's failure to end the civil conflict, to stabilize the economy, and to maintain his PDC as a viable alternative to the extremes of the right and the left disappointed many of his followers at home and his supporters abroad. Any fair assessment of Duarte's contribution, however, must take into account the extremely trying circumstances under which he governed. With the civil conflict as a constant backdrop, Duarte struggled to exert influence over a military institution with no history of obedience to civilian authority; to implement land and other reforms in the face of determined resistance by the elite; to maintain crucial economic and military support from the United States; and to negotiate an honorable settlement with the FMLN-FDR. The personal stresses of the 1985 kidnapping of his daughter by the FMLN and his 1988 diagnosis of terminal liver cancer also weighed heavily on him and may well have affected his decision making and weakened his influence over the armed forces, the government, and his party. Duarte himself admitted in May 1989 that his most significant achievement would be the transfer of power to his successor, Alfredo Cristiani Burkhard. This would be the first transition in Salvadoran history from one elected civilian president to another.

The new president's party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista--Arena), was a political enigma to most observers. Arena presented two faces to the world; one was Cristiani's, and the other belonged to party founder Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta. The image fostered by Cristiani and his followers was one of comparative political moderation, support for free enterprise, a desire to adjust but not completely repeal the previously enacted economic reforms, and a willingness to explore options for resolving the civil conflict, possibly through negotiations with the FMLN-FDR. Conversely, D'Aubuisson's faction of the party reportedly aspired to restore--to the extent possible--the economic order and landownership pattern that had prevailed before the 1980 reforms (see The Structure of Society , ch. 2). These hard-line areneros also reportedly favored a concept of "total war" against the guerrillas. Also referred to as the "Guatemalan solution" after a violent style of counterinsurgency waged in that country in the mid-1980s, such an approach would inevitably entail sharply increased civilian casualties. In the minds of some observers, D'Aubuisson's reputed ties to right-wing death squads in the early 1980s also called up the specter of sharply increased levels of human rights violations should his faction prove to be the dominant one within the party.

Cristiani garnered an absolute majority in the elections of March 19, 1989, taking 53 percent of the vote; the runner-up, PDC candidate Fidel Chávez Mena, drew 36 percent. The PDC's future was uncertain because of a lack of strong, credible leadership and the widespread popular disillusionment stemming from Duarte's seemingly ineffectual rule. The party enjoyed a firm organizational base, however, and almost certainly would survive as a viable opposition. As had been the case for Arena, the prospects for the PDC will depend to a great extent upon the performance of the party in power.

Cristiani's election arguably acquired a greater legitimacy than Duarte's 1984 victory as a result of the participation of the CD, which ran as its presidential candidate Guillermo Manuel Ungo Revelo, leader of the FMLN's political arm, the FDR. At the same time, the CD's poor electoral showing of less than 4 percent called into question the level of popular support for the FMLN- FDR and for the left in general after years of civil strife.

As his June 1, 1989, inauguration approached, Cristiani's political position was strong, based on the mandate of a first- round electoral victory, his party's effective control of all three branches of government (judicial appointments emanate from the Legislative Assembly), and the recent appointment of an aggressive chief of the Joint General Staff, Colonel René Emílio Ponce Torres. Although some members of the United States Congress expressed concern over the electoral outcome based on Arena's violent image and history, the consensus in that body in the immediate postelectoral period appeared to favor sustained levels of aid conditioned on continued efforts by the Salvadorans to stem human rights violations by military and paramilitary groups. Cristiani's intentions with regard to the future conduct of the civil conflict remained ambiguous during the interregnum. His position on negotiations with the FMLN paralleled that of outgoing President Duarte. "We are willing to talk," he was quoted as saying during the presidential campaign, "but not to negotiate any platform." From this viewpoint, the Salvadoran Constitution and government are established and inviolable, and the only basis for negotiations lies in the integration of the guerrillas into that system. The leaders of the FMLN showed few signs of accepting this course, which they had rejected several times in the past.

The FMLN appeared to show some flexibility in its negotiating stance in January 1989, however, when it announced a plan under which it would participate in and recognize the results of the presidential election under certain conditions. The stipulations included a six-month postponement of the balloting, enhanced security guarantees for the CD, the drafting of a revised Electoral Code, the establishment of provisions for absentee balloting, and the restriction of armed forces personnel to quarters on election day. The proposal dropped the previous FMLN demands for a power-sharing arrangement and the integration of guerrilla forces into a revamped national military organization. President Duarte initially rejected the proposal, citing the unconstitutionality of extending his term past June 1. Consideration of the offer was extended, however, after the United States Department of State announced that it was "worthy of serious and substantive consideration." During a late February meeting in Mexico, FMLN leaders Francisco Jovel ("Roberto Roca") and Jorge Shafik Handal and representatives of the major Salvadoran political parties agreed to curtail the postponement demand from six to four months, but the FMLN introduced new demands for the restructuring of the Salvadoran security forces and a reduction in the overall force level of the armed forces.

The new security-related demands effectively invalidated the proposal, given the lack of enthusiasm or incentive for the High Command to accept a unilateral drawdown of its forces. Duarte's final counteroffer, announced after consultation with the armed forces leadership, called for a six-week delay in balloting, an immediate cease-fire, and direct talks among the executive branch, leaders of the Legislative Assembly, and FMLN delegates. The offer drew an enthusiastic endorsement from the Department of State; the FMLN, however, rejected it.

Observers disagreed as to whether the proposal constituted a genuine effort to resolve the civil conflict or merely another in a series of tactical maneuvers by the rebels. The discussions failed to produce a cessation of hostilities inside El Salvador. FMLN forces continued their policy of assassinating elected mayors; a car bomb exploded on February 21 in San Salvador near the headquarters of the army's First Infantry Brigade; and attacks by guerrilla forces in Apopa and Zacatecoluca left more than two dozen soldiers and civilians dead. In a significant terrorist action, FMLN defector Napoleón Romero, also known as Miguel Castellanos, was assassinated in the capital on February 17. As the March 19 election approached, the rebels' radio broadcasts warned citizens of a nationwide transportation stoppage and an intensified campaign against military installations. Even the CD's Ungo was forced to flee from a March 16 attack on a National Guard barracks in San Salvador. Rebel efforts to disrupt the balloting were cited by some sources as a partial explanation for the comparatively low voter turnout of just over 50 percent.

The assassination of the country's attorney general by an FMLN terrorist on April 19, 1989, signaled the new administration that negotiation and conciliation no longer occupied a prominent position on the rebels' short-term agenda. A number of observers believed that the FMLN would deliberately escalate both rural attacks and urban terrorism in an effort to provoke the extremist wing of Arena into a backlash of repression against suspected leftist subversives, a tactic that presumably would diminish the authority and standing of the Cristiani administration and enhance the popular appeal of the guerrillas. No realistic or credible voices predicted a reduction in the prevailing level of violence or a short-term resolution of the conflict. As the 1980s drew to a close, El Salvador seemed to be locked into a state of chronic instability and conflict.

 * * *

On November 11, 1989, the FMLN launched a major military offensive that brought heavy fighting to San Salvador for the first time in the civil conflict. The kickoff of the offensive followed a decision by the guerrilla leadership to suspend ongoing negotiations with the Cristiani administration. Although the rebels' communique announcing the abandonment of the peace talks cited the October 31 bombing of a union headquarters-- presumably by a right-wing group--the offensive had clearly been in the planning stages for months prior to that event. The late October seizure by Honduran authorities of a weapons cache in a van en route to El Salvador from Nicaragua strengthened the claims of the Salvadoran armed forces that the Sandinista government continued to provide material aid to the FMLN despite numerous denials of such support from Managua.

Throughout October, spiraling acts of political violence had contributed to an extremely tense atmosphere throughout the country. FMLN personnel in late September attacked the home of the commander of the Third Infantry Brigade in San Miguel department and shot to death the daughter of another army colonel in mid-October. In response, right-wing groups bombed the homes of leftist politicians, including that of Rubén Zamora Rivas, the vice presidential candidate of the CD in the 1989 elections. Some observers likewise viewed the bombing of the union headquarters, which killed ten people and wounded thirty, as a response to an unsuccessful rebel mortar attack on the San Salvador headquarters of the Joint General Staff.

The November offensive focused on San Salvador, although the rebels also launched simultaneous attacks in the departments of San Miguel, Usulután, Santa Ana, La Paz, and Morazán. For more than a week, FMLN guerrillas held positions in poor neighborhoods of the capital. Some civilians joined the combatants in erecting fortifications; others acquired weapons and joined in the fighting. According to most reports, the majority of the former group were pressed into service, while most of the latter were members of "popular organizations" (also known as mass organizations)--labor, human rights, and other groups that had served as legal fronts for the FMLN. Heavy fighting went on for more than a week; casualties were high. The Salvadoran armed forces, trained in rural counterinsurgency, not urban house-to- house combat, relied on aerial fire support from both helicopters and fixed-wing gunships to root out the guerrillas. Although this tactic may have spared the lives of some soldiers, it greatly increased the toll on the civilian population. Estimates of those killed in the fighting exceeded 1,000, with more than 30,000 displaced from their battle-damaged homes. Toward the end of the offensive, the rebels briefly occupied positions in the Escalón section of the city, a bastion of the Salvadoran upper class that had never experienced at first hand the violence of the conflict.

On November 16, six Jesuit priests and two women were murdered on the campus of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas in San Salvador. The six, including the rector and vice rector of the university, were prominent leftist intellectuals who maintained contacts with members of the FMLN and were therefore branded as "communists" by the Salvadoran right wing. The circumstances of their deaths, which took place after curfew (imposed when President Cristiani declared a state of emergency on November 12) in an area controlled by the army, led most observers to blame military personnel. President Cristiani condemned the atrocity and attended the priests' funeral. Nevertheless, the blatant nature of the act and the probable involvement of some element of the armed forces raised doubts about the president's authority and prompted calls from some members of the United States Congress to either cut future aid or condition it on the progress of the investigation.

Under pressure from the United States government, Cristiani announced on January 7, 1990, that an investigation undertaken with the assistance of police officials from Britain, Spain, and the United States had determined that armed forces personnel had indeed been involved in the murder of the Jesuits. Subsequently, nine members of the army, including a colonel and four lieutenants, were arrested. The colonel, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, commander of the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy, was also a member of the same graduating class (the so-called Tandona, or big class) as the chief of the Joint General Staff, Colonel Ponce. Some reports claimed that certain members of the officer corps resented Ponce's willingness to "betray" a classmate by acquiescing in Benavides's detention, in contravention of the established tradition of solidarity among members of a tanda. If ultimately brought to trial, Colonel Benavides and the lieutenants would be the first Salvadoran officers prosecuted for human rights abuses.

Intensified controversy and political polarization all but guaranteed the prolongation of the civil conflict. The leadership of the FMLN, who had never favored the incorporation of leftist parties such as the CD into the existing political framework, undoubtedly undertook the offensive with this goal in mind. One major result of the offensive appeared to be a rededication of the guerrilla forces to a strategy of revolutionary struggle devoid of the political involvement represented by the CD and the popular organizations. The resumption of hostilities on a large scale, particularly in the capital, may also have been intended to provoke the kind of right-wing backlash represented by the murder of the Jesuits.

El Salvador's foreign relations, aside from the imperative of maintaining aid from the United States, continued to focus on Central America. On November 26, 1989, Cristiani indefinitely suspended diplomatic and trade relations with Nicaragua in response to strong evidence of Sandinista involvement in providing surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to the FMLN. One day earlier, a light plane carrying such missiles crashed in eastern El Salvador; piloted by a Nicaraguan and with Cuban nationals on board, the plane apparently had experienced mechanical trouble sometime after takeoff from Montelimar, near Managua. The introduction of surface-to-air missiles threatened to restrict the Salvadoran armed forces' use of helicopters in transport, fire support, and medivac roles; the involvement of the Nicaraguan and Cuban governments in supplying such weapons indicated support for the FMLN strategy of prolonging the conflict through military escalation.

The suspension of relations cast a cloud over the summit of the five Central American presidents, held in San José, Costa Rica on December 10-12, 1989, as part of the ongoing peace process under the terms of the Esquipulas II agreement. Despite several heated rhetorical exchanges between the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan governments prior to the summit, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra endorsed the presidents' final declaration, which asserted "solid support for Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani and for his government." The declaration further urged a cessation of hostilities in El Salvador and the resumption of a dialogue between the government and the FMLN. To that end, the presidents called on the secretary general of the United Nations to act as a mediator between the two sides. The presidents had previously requested that the UN establish an Observer Group in Central America in order to facilitate the demobilization of the Nicaraguan Resistance forces (the contras). The December declaration expanded that request to include the FMLN.

For its part, the FMLN initially condemned the presidents' declaration as "neither realistic nor viable." In mid-January, however, the guerrilla leadership announced its acceptance of UN mediation and expressed its willingness to resume negotiations within thirty days. Neither the rebels nor the government, however, gave any public indication of a willingness to alter their previous negotiating positions.

January 23, 1990
Richard A. Haggerty

Data as of November 1988


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