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A Blurred Sparkle of Hope for Salvadoran Democracy as Political Life Deepens

<i> Arnoldo Villafuerte is a businessman in San Salvador</i>

Like a flower whose opening can be detected only by a slow-motion camera, progress of overall conditions in El Salvador must be measured in fragmentary terms.

Unfortunately, no truthful person living in this country can deny that human atrocities and civil injustices are still being committed by criminals on both sides of the conflict. Barbaric death squads still roam the countryside under the banner of anti-communism; on the other side, terrorists still kill innocent peasants in a vain attempt to grab power, which a nascent democratic process has taken from them as sand goes through a child’s hand.

Deaths of noncombatant civilians are down, from a peak of 16,000 in 1981 to about 2,000 last year, according to the unofficial --and traditionally not impartial--Human Rights Commission.

International church groups that openly support guerrilla movements, particularly in certain “refugee camps,” are seldom harassed by the army or the government despite their giving refuge to an armed opposition.

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In April, 25 wounded guerrillas were escorted by army and Red Cross vehicles to their flight to Cuba for rest, all vowing to return to fight.

Both extreme right and extreme left openly criticize the government on national television and in the press--something new in El Salvador and seldom seen in many other countries to this very day.

The Jesuit-run Catholic university, an undeniable intellectual and philosophical haven of the left, openly supports the guerrillas.

All these events are, I believe, manifestations of a young democracy in action.

As expected, the political leaders of the guerrillas, the so-called Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), balked in the 11th hour from joining the March elections; this simply states their fear of taking a tremendous electoral bath--or it may be that their more radical cohorts simply prevented them from running for office.

The FDR has gingerly formed a political coalition with other socialists to form the Popular Social Christian Movement (MPSC) party, but it refuses to sever links with the Farabundo Marti guerrilla front; the government looks the other way.

As a result of corruption, nepotism and downright mismanagement, President Jose Napoleon Duarte’s Christian Democratic Party (PDC) took a tremendous beating at the polls in March; 48% of the vote went to the conservative Arena party, which swept the congressional and mayoral offices throughout the country.

It is unclear whether the Christian Democratic-dominated Central Elections Council juggled the books to snatch one congressional seat from Arena. But it is obvious at this stage that the right wing has an undeniable momentum, possibly to win next March’s presidential election and, in the process, to test the United States’ policy of open and unilateral support for the battered “center,” the PDC. (After lobbying and horse trading, Arena finally took majority control of the National Assembly on May 27.)

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Although many would disagree, I see a blurred sparkle of hope for democracy in El Salvador in all this.

A fragile semblance of political deepening appears on the horizon, manifested by a jockeying for position by all political parties that want to grab the presidential gold next March.

On the other hand, it was interesting to note that, despite 25 years of a strong PDC electoral machine, the traditional populist base of Duarte’s party flatly voted against it in March. This was particularly painful for the president because his son, Alejandro --his political alter ego, his heir apparent--lost the important San Salvador mayor’s race to a moderate lawyer from Arena, Armando Calderon Sol.

Jose Napoleon Duarte is a deeply religious man of conviction--and of controversy. Whatever one feels about him personally, one cannot deny that he has affected the history of this beautiful tropical nation of 5 million people, and of Central America in general and its relations with its northern neighbor. The deep economic reform that he implemented not only affected the landed elite (some say that this was Duarte’s principal motivation, for he is no fan of capitalism); it also put El Salvador in a national Chapter 11: Real gross national product plummeted to 1960s levels. Now the poor and the landless are worse off than ever, while the war devours 60% of the national budget with no end in sight.

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Concurrent to this economic fiasco, however, are unquestionable strides in political progress.

For one thing, Duarte was able to weaken the guerrillas’ agenda, which tried to isolate El Salvador from the international community as a gross violator of human rights. He was instrumental in curbing criminal elements in the military and of professionalizing the armed forces by obtaining vast amounts of aid from Washington and West Germany.

The personal tragedy that Duarte faces goes beyond his serious loss of health. It lies in the fact that his stubborn clinging to rarefied ideals made him a victim of his own philosophy--as when, in the name of loyalty to friends, he allowed incompetent and corrupt cronies to run the machinery of government, or when he swapped efficient private enterprises for inefficient state-run behemoths in the name of social justice.

Now, as this man of good intentions sees both his life and his work coming to an end, El Salvador lies restlessly awaiting its future. One can only hope that the American people will continue to be supportive, and that their next President is a man who does not believe in, or expect, miracles.

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