U.S. Claims of Success in El Salvador Ignore Reality

<i> Morris J. Blachman is associate director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of South Carolina and co- author of "Confronting Revolution: Security Through Diplomacy in Central America" (Pantheon). </i>

The Reagan Administration has insistently argued that U.S. policy is succeeding in El Salvador. Backed by $3 billion in U.S. aid, the Administration’s counterinsurgency strategy has crippled Marxist guerrillas, it is claimed, while an electoral strategy has begun to create a democratic, reformist government that is removing the roots of revolution.

As evidence, the Administration points to the series of elections held in 1982, 1984, 1985 and this year. Proponents note that for the March, 1989, presidential elections, some leftist parties--under the umbrella of the newly formed Democratic Convergence--will be participating for the first time since 1972. Choosing civilian officeholders through relatively free and fair balloting was unheard of in El Salvador’s history and, for the Administration, is the symbol of U.S. policy success.

But focusing attention on the elections overlooks three major problems that elections are not going to solve, and could make worse: The war is going badly; the electoral strategy is not bringing democracy or reform, and may well increase polarization and spread insurrection.

--The war is going badly . The U.S.-backed counterinsurgency strategy improved the army’s position until the guerrillas (the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN) neutralized the strategy by changing their own tactics. In the last two years the FMLN has greatly expanded its political support base, penetrating new areas of the countryside as well as urban areas. Its mines have taken a disastrous toll on army lives and morale. It appears able to sabotage the economy indefinitely, mount major strikes and prevent the army from imposing a military solution.


To cite recent incidents, in a Sept. 1 attack on a National Guard post in Tejutepecque, 13 government troops were killed and at least 12 wounded. This attack was soon followed by a series of coordinated attacks throughout northern El Salvador, including a major attack on the garrison at El Paraiso. In the northern provinces of Chalatenango and Morazan the guerrillas move freely and exercise administrative control over some towns and villages.

Evidence I gathered during a trip to El Salvador in July confirms a study published in March by four U.S. army lieutenant-colonels attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “The FMLN--tough, competent, highly motivated--can sustain its current strategy indefinitely. The Salvadorans have yet to devise a persuasive formula for winning the war,” the officers’ report said.

-- Elections are not bringing democracy or reform. The Salvadoran government has failed in the more important task of addressing the root causes of the insurgency--the economic, social and political problems that led to revolution.

Land reform has been severely limited, and the beneficiaries are being driven under by lack of credit, technical assistance and marketing support. Real wages continue to drop. Underemployment and unemployment is more than 50%; 27% of children under 5 are malnourished. A growing infant mortality rate is the highest in Central America. More than a third of the population has been driven from homes by the war and the 1986 earthquake.


The arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture and disappearance of labor and peasant leaders has continued unpunished. In recent months, right-wing death-squad killings have begun to climb again, more than doubling last year’s rate. Killings of civilians by army and guerrillas are also rising. San Salvador Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas described the situation as “the law of the jungle.”

Behind often sterile debates about rising and falling numbers is the human suffering. Last Feb. 26, the army seized Felix Antonio Rivera, 25, and Mario Cruz Rivera, 16, from their small village of Tepemechin. They forced them to run barefoot through a burning field, then tortured them within earshot of a farmer who described their cries of agony. The family members who came to bury them found parts of their bodies missing.

The government has failed to change official institutions that allow or encourage such brutality. Despite millions of dollars in U.S. assistance spent to reform the judiciary, the court system and police are still so corrupt, fearful or in such complicity that no officer has been punished for involvement in political murders. In May, one judge, Jorge Alberto Serrano, finally threatened to prosecute rightist officers, long associated with the death squads, for running a kidnap-for-profit ring that netted millions. On May 11, the death squads killed him. The message to the military and the right is clear: They can kill, torture and “disappear” opponents with impunity.

Indeed, in August, two former death-squad members publicly admitted that powerful members of the National Republican Alliance, or Arena Party, are seeking to use the Legislature--which they now control--and the 5,000-member Municipal Police--which they control in the capital--to reorganize and rearm the death squads.

Nor is the military about to check itself. Indeed, when known death-squad leader Col. Mauricio Staben was detained last year for being part of this rightist kidnaping ring, and with the U.S. Embassy pushing for judicial action, Staben’s military colleagues went to Duarte and demanded his return to active duty. He was returned. There was no investigation. -- Elections are leading to polarization and possible insurrection. This is not as surprising at it may seem. Elections have helped open some political space by moderating repression enough to allow more freedom to publish and organize. Centrist and leftist union and peasant groups--often in coalition--are increasingly demanding an end to repression, a reformed judicial system, the right to strike, salary and wage hikes, land reform and, above all, peace talks with the rebels. Such renewed organization could be seen as a sign of real democratization. But the U.S. Embassy has joined with the military and government in denouncing most such opposition as sinister fronts, and repression against activists has been persistent.

The precipitous loss of voting support for the ruling Christian Democrats by former backers gave Arena its Assembly victory, and is likely to do so again in the presidential elections next March. Such a rightist victory would likely end the fragile hope of finding a nonviolent alternative and could spark widespread popular protests and insurrection. A deteriorating military situation, stalemated reform efforts, threat of an ultra-rightist electoral victory and increased polarization should trigger a major re-evaluation of fundamental U.S. policy assumptions. Simply tinkering with the mix of force and reform will not bring a solution. Eight years of U.S. policy has demonstrated Washington’s power to encourage elections--but no matter who wins, the Christian Democrats or Arena, the United States does not have the power to get recalcitrant elements in the military and the oligarchy to accept real reforms or to allow popular groups long excluded from the political process a place in that process.

Facing reality in El Salvador reveals some unpleasant truths. There will be no reform until the war is ended. There will be no end to the war until there are negotiations that provide a secure place in the political system for peasant, labor and other popular organizations, parties on the left and the guerrillas. And there will be no negotiations as long as the United States backs continued war.