Central America has attracted the world’s attention, but its politics remain those of small, dependent nations with rigid classes, competing families, dominating caudillos and a reliance on force to settle disputes. Impatient outsiders tend to ignore these complexities and interpret Central American politics in terms of two wings and a prayer. In Guatemala and El Salvador, right-wing military forces fight left-wing guerrillas; in Nicaragua, a left-wing government fights right-wing guerrillas. It is only by prayer and the good dollar that the groups in the middle survive.
Since the United States is most comfortable with the groups in the middle, we are often frustrated or easily fatigued by the region’s battles. A decade ago, when I worked on the National Security Council, my nightmare was that Jose Napoleon Duarte, the courageous Salvadoran Christian Democrat, would be assassinated by one extreme or the other. He represented peaceful, moderate reform--favorite words for Americans but anathema to the extremes, which viewed reform and Duarte as a threat to either revolution or privilege. Both wings aimed to eliminate the middle as a first step in defeating the other.
To some, it appears that their wish has come true. Arena, the Salvadoran right-wing party, won the presidential election on March 19 by an overwhelming vote. As the election approached, the guerrillas stepped up their violence. Some leftists said that they wanted Arena to win, as this would polarize the country and increase their prospects for a successful revolution.
Whether the left succeeds will depend on who Alfredo Cristiani, the winner, is: a conservative democrat, who, like Richard Nixon, could negotiate peace with Marxists, or just a clean-looking mask for Maj. Roberto D’Aubussion’s death squads?
The question is the mirror image of the one that is asked of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas or the Salvadoran Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Are the Sandinistas sincere when they profess to want the opposition to compete openly and equally in a free election next February? Was the FMLN’s proposal to participate in the presidential election if it was postponed for six months serious or merely a ploy?
The only people who know the answers are the people who sit at the political extremes. To those on the left, Cristiani is a death mask, the guerrillas are serious about elections, and the Sandinistas are pluralists; to the right, Cristiani is a democrat and the promises of the Sandinistas and the FMLN are a ruse. These answers, however, may say more about the speakers than they do about the region’s actors. They are both more certain and more ambivalent, and that is both their problem and their opportunity. Hard-liners on the right and left have been reluctant to acknowledge the legitimacy of their adversaries, but a decade of war has eroded their certainty, and that has made peace possible.
Since 1979, Central America’s economies have slipped two or three decades. In retrospect, it is clear that impressive, albeit uneven, economic development from 1960-78 gave rise to revolutions that in turn led to more poverty. Both wings now understand that only peace can bring development, and only political compromise will make peace possible. This is the reason for the very real, though hesitant steps by both sides toward peace since the five Central American presidents signed their accord in August, 1987.
The recent Sandinista decision to release the National Guardsmen, the FMLN recognition of the ballot box as the basis of legitimacy, and Arena’s willingness to accept land reform and negotiations with the FMLN--all are serious steps, but they are also half-hearted. The decisions were courageous in that they divided their movements at a time of weakness. At the same time, the extremes are nervous about fulfilling their democratic promises for fear of losing the chance to gain or maintain power. Their peace and democracy initiatives are serious, but unless those steps are encouraged and rewarded in some manner, the groups will be compelled for reasons of internal unity to take steps backwards.
The same pattern applies to Arena (as the National Republican Alliance is known) if it pursues talks with the FMLN and implements its “privatized” land reform. Because of Arena’s militarism and its hatred of the left, these steps will divide the party. If the talks fail, the party membership will reunite and breathe a collective sigh of relief. This does not mean that Arena is insincere about negotiations or that agreement is impossible, only that it will be difficult and needs outside help.
The acceptance by both wings of the validity of elections and the imperative of outside verification provides the crucial framework to achieve peace. The United States and other governments must devise an incentive package to encourage the wings--Arena and the Contras on the right, the FMLN and the Sandinistas on the left--to compromise and make peaceful change a reality.
The bipartisan accord reached between President Bush and Congress on Friday represents a positive and necessary first step for the United States to play an effective role in Central America. But the Administration should not confuse talks on Capitol Hill with negotiations in Central America. The real bargaining will be with Latin America, and it has not yet begun.
After the Sandinistas took power, some argued that the United States should try to rip the “mask of democracy” from their face and show the world that they were really communists. A wise Venezuelan leader proposed a more sophisticated strategy: Instead of taking the mask off the Sandinistas, he suggested, the democracies might try pasting the mask on them. We should pursue that strategy in El Salvador as well as in Nicaragua.