Remember El Salvador? A Crisis Anew

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<i> Tad Szulc is author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Morrow). </i>

These are among the important events that occurred in Central America during the last week of January, emphasizing the endless and deepening contradictions tearing asunder the nations of the isthmus:

--Off the coast of Honduras, as eight Latin American foreign ministers and the secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States visited the region’s capitals in search of peaceful solutions for Central America, the battleship Iowa steamed on maneuvers, firing its big 16-inch guns in an all-night demonstration of U.S. power. This was for the benefit of neighboring Nicaragua ruled by the Marxist Sandinistas, whom the United States hopes to oust.

--In Honduras, Frank C. Carlucci, President Reagan’s new national security adviser, inspected contra guerrillas as part of a Central American familiarization tour (not including Nicaragua). U.S. Army units began the fifth year of nearly continuous maneuvers in Honduras, not far from the Nicaraguan border, as part of mounting psychological warfare in support of the contras .

--In Costa Rica, new President Oscar Arias cracked down on the contras based in his country, thereby eliminating the threat from the south against the Sandinista regime in Managua that President Reagan wishes to destroy. At the same time, Arias unveiled his own plans for regional peace.


--In El Salvador, the air force killed a score of villagers in bombing and strafing raids and Marxist rebels began executing peasants suspected of collaborating with the army. The seven-year civil war with leftist guerrillas acquired new momentum, with U.S.-supported centrist President Jose Napoleon Duarte the target of right-wing political campaigns aimed at paralyzing his promised social reforms.

As the week ended, the Latin American envoys concluded that no peaceful settlement in Central America was possible in the foreseeable future, in as much as neither Nicaragua nor the United States was prepared to compromise in the slightest. Washington also succeeded in antagonizing Latin American peace-plan sponsors when Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, described their proposals as “fake treaties” pushed “from the left” by Mexico and Peru.

But the dispute over Nicaragua, especially in the light of the scandal linking secret U.S. arms sales to Iran with illegal support for the contras , has tended to obscure rising pressures and tensions elsewhere in Central America.

By far the most important problem is presented by El Salvador, largely forgotten these days by the American public. There all signs point to a new period of acute crisis, almost inevitably requiring still greater U.S. engagement if even relative stability is to be attained.

Thanks to the investment of more than $1 billion in U.S. military and economic aid over the last six years and the training of Salvadoran troops in this country as well as at home, the government was able to prevent a leftist victory.

On the other hand, the Salvadoran armed forces have failed to defeat the guerrillas, and the war remains stalemated with all the attendant perils and costs. In recent months, in fact, the war has become even more vicious as the army launched “pacification” campaigns, including air raids against rebel-held zones; guerrillas have responded with peasant executions and the lethal use of land mines, often killing or maiming innocent civilians. The rebels also appear to be on the verge of launching an urban guerrilla movement to operate in conjunction with rural insurgent units.

Politically the Salvadoran deadlock is harder than ever. Duarte and guerrilla leaders held two peace-seeking meetings in 1984, but they led nowhere. A new encounter had been planned for last September--after a two-year lapse--but the rebels failed to turn up, alleging that that the army was springing a trap. Thus the war is escalating again.


On another level, the social and economic conditions that triggered the leftist rebellion in the first place have not been improved. Unemployment and underemployment stand at 50% of the labor force, inflation is rampant and the miserable Salvadoran living standards are further collapsing. Last autumn’s catastrophic earthquake made matters still worse. And prisons are filling up again: There are now more than 1,000 political prisoners. Land reform and other changes promised by Duarte when he was elected in 1984, in what the Reagan Administration hailed as a great exercise in democracy in the midst of the war, have been blocked by right-wing political groups and their military allies.

Consequently, Duarte finds himself trapped between the leftists’ guerrilla war and the rightists’ opposition to changes. The National Assembly cannot function because right-wing deputies are boycotting it to prevent import taxes from being approved. Duarte’s inability to act on the reforms has, in turn, given birth to a new opposition movement in the labor unions, an increasingly important force moving to the left and away from the president’s Christian Democratic Party. The unions may soon throw their lot with the guerrillas, altering the power equation in the civil war.

Increasingly, the army is becoming once more El Salvador’s political arbiter, with unpredictable consequences in terms of such democratic institutions as exist in the country. Duarte is constitutionally prevented from running in next year’s presidential elections, and the Christian Democrats’ only plausible candidate is former Foreign Minister Fidel Chavez Mena, quietly supported by the U.S. Embassy. He will have to face a far-right candidate whose victory, which is quite possible, would remove all justification for U.S. backing of the Salvadoran government. A military regime is an equally disturbing alternative.

Whereas six years ago the Reagan Administration saw El Salvador as a crucial East-West battlefield where local guerrillas were supplied with arms by Nicaragua and Cuba, the situation today is completely reversed. Salvadoran guerrillas no longer need weapons from the Sandinistas, and now the United States is using Salvadoran air bases for secret arms drops for the contras in Nicaragua. Along with Honduras, the Salvadoran territory is vital in the American war against the Sandinistas. Should the Duarte government falter, the United States is certain to provide maximum aid.

But the Administration may face problems in Honduras, too. That deeply impoverished republic is the principal operational base for the contras and their U.S. handlers, and it has been turned into a permanent maneuvers area for U.S. ground, air and naval forces. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency run the operations in which the distinction between aid to the contras and the improvement in the quality of U.S. military personnel is largely blurred. Tens of thousands of uniformed North Americans have gone through Honduran exercises since 1983, and a permanent force of about 1,200 men is attached to Palmerola Air Base.

Neither the contras nor the North Americans are popular in Honduras, which increasingly resembles a U.S. protectorate. The estimated 20,000 contras inside Honduras are seen as an alien force threatening to become a factor in internal politics. The country derives economic gain from all the anti-Nicaraguan operations based there, but resentments are growing, and there are indications that a leftist guerrilla movement is quietly developing in Honduras. If it does, the U.S. Administration will have to worry simultaneously about adverse situations in three Central American republics.


Finally, Arias in Costa Rica wants no part of the anti-Sandinista war, and even Panama’s strongman, Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, is publicly opposed to the contras.

The new year, according to all signs and portents, promises to be troublesome and unstable for Central America. Obsessed as it is by Nicaragua, the Reagan Administration seems to ignore the tensions and contradictions surrounding its Latin American policies. To discern the emerging new realities, U.S. policy-makers should broaden their focus and ponder what is happening over the length of the isthmus.