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El Salvador

 
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El Salvador

THE CIVIL CONFLICT BEGINS

The early reaction of the Salvadoran radical left to the progression of reformist junta governments was characteristically fractious. The PCES expressed initial support for the first junta. Other groups, such as the ERP, condemned such impulses as collaborationist and renewed their call for an insurrection. Although some dialogue apparently took place between Colonel Majano and his supporters and some members of the radical left, the erosion of Majano's position within the military and the inability of the junta governments to stem the tide of right-wing violence, not to mention a certain suspicion among the Majanists themselves of the leftists' ultimate goals, worked against any effort to incorporate them into the governmental structure. Some observers have noted this failure to bring the left into the political process as a major shortcoming of the reformist juntas. It appears, however, that the political will to do so was lacking on both sides. This was particularly true of the Marxist guerrilla groups that had expanded their membership and their aspirations since their establishment as urban terrorist cells in the mid-1970s.

Foreign influences on these Salvadoran guerrilla groups served in large part to convince their leadership of the need to sublimate old ideological quarrels in favor of a coordinated and cooperative effort to arouse the Salvadoran masses. The example of the Nicaraguan revolution served as both an inspiration and a loose blueprint for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua demonstrated the importance of incorporating as many sectors of society as possible into a revolutionary movement while still ensuring the predominance of a Marxist-Leninist "vanguard" group within the coalition. In Nicaragua the vanguard role was played by the FSLN, a group that had represented singlehandedly the pro-Cuban insurrectionist left in that country since the early 1960s. In El Salvador, the situation was more complicated. Clearly, several ideologically diverse (Maoist, pro-Soviet, and pro-Cuban) guerrilla groups could not fulfill simultaneously the role of revolutionary vanguard. Salvadorans recognized a need for unity that was not achieved until Cuba's Fidel Castro took a direct hand in the matter. The negotiating process began in Havana in December 1979, some two months after the reformist coup in El Salvador, and was concluded by May 1980, when the major guerrilla groups announced their unity under the banner of the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (Direccion Revolucionario Unificada-- DRU). Despite some continued infighting, the DRU succeeded in coordinating the groups' efforts to organize and equip their forces.

While the military strategy of the left was proceeding along one path, some opposition parties and the mass organizations were following a similar and eventually convergent course. On April 1, 1980, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario--FDR) was established by the CRM, the umbrella group of the mass organizations. It brought together all five of the mass organizations associated with the DRU guerrilla groups as well as Ungo's MNR, Zamora's MPSC, another party known as the Popular Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberacion Popular-- MLP), forty-nine labor unions, and several student groups. FDR political leaders such as Ungo and Zamora began to travel abroad, where they found political and moral support, particularly in Mexico and among the social democratic parties of Western Europe. Meanwhile, the mass organizations began a campaign of general strikes in an effort to pave the way for a full or partial leftist assumption of power, either through insurrection or through negotiations.

In November 1980, the FDR was struck a traumatic blow when one of its leaders, Enrique Alvarez, was killed along with five other members of the front by a right-wing death squad. This incident underscored the danger of the FDR's strategy of open organization and opposition and contributed to its formal unification with the DRU. Although the leadership of the mass organizations had long been cooperating with the guerrilla groups, the politicians of the MNR and MPSC had sought to steer a slightly more independent path. After the Alvarez murder, however, they felt compelled to make common cause with the DRU; they took this action not only for their own protection but also because they believed that the prevailing level of violence in the country legitimized a violent response. By 1981 the FDR had been united formally with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional--FMLN), the successor organization to the DRU. The first public announcement of the FMLN-FDR was made in Mexico City in January 1981, some four days after the FMLN guerrollas initiated an operation that they dubbed, prematurely and inaccurately, the "final offensive."

The guerrilla offensive began on January 10, 1981. From the perspective of the FMLN, its timing proved to be premature in a number of respects. The guerrillas' logistics network was not prepared to support an operation on an almost countrywide level; the rebels generally were not well armed and clearly were not well trained. The Salvadoran armed forces, although initially taken by surprise, were sufficiently cohesive to rally and beat back the guerrilla attacks. The FMLN hoped to establish operational control over Morazan Department and to declare it a "liberated territory." This major objective never was achieved. On a basic level, the final offensive demonstrated the limited extent of the guerrillas' support among the Salvadoran population. The anticipated countrywide insurrection on which the FMLN had staked so much of its hopes for victory never materialized.

The final offensive was not a total loss for the FMLN, however. It retained military strongholds, especially in Chalatenango Department, where its forces settled in for a protracted guerrilla conflict. The offensive focused further international attention on El Salvador and established the FMLNFDR as a formidable force both politically and militarily; in August 1981, the governments of France and Mexico recognized the front as a "representative political force" and called for a negotiated settlement between the rebels and the government. Seeking to capitalize on such support, FDR representatives carried on a "political offensive" abroad while the FMLN forces dug in, resupplied, and continued their organizational and operational efforts in the field (see Left-Wing Extremism , ch. 5).

On the down side for the guerrillas, however, the armed forces continued to repulse their assaults with relative ease, even without the benefit of United States military aid. The timing of the final offensive had in large part reflected the desire of the FMLN to take power before the inauguration of United States president Ronald Reagan. Although it failed militarily, the offensive still drew considerable attention from observers and policymakers in Washington.

Data as of November 1988

El Salvador - TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Introduction
  • History & Historical Setting

  • Go Up - Top of Page

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