The significance of the March 19 presidential election in El Salvador cannot be overstated. The process was a fair one and, as a result, the first democratic succession to power in that nation’s history will take place on June 1. The real outcome, however, may not be decided for as much as a full year.
Despite the transportation boycott and terrorist threats by the Marxist guerrilla forces prior to and throughout the day of the election, Salvadorans risked their personal safety to vote. They were motivated by a strong desire for change, having grown weary of terrorism, corruption and a crippled economy. The results of their effort should be a clear sign to the United States that El Salvador is crying out for peace, stability and economic recovery.
During the post-election period, U.S. policy toward this war-torn country must remain consistent. Since 1981, the United States has supported three “centrist” governments in El Salvador in their struggle with the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). With U.S. encouragement, these governments enacted reforms and promoted democracy to undermine the leftist insurgency, while attempting to control the politically motivated killing attributed to death squads and security forces.
Ongoing U.S.-Salvadoran cooperation has kept open and given shape to a democratic option that seemed unthinkable in 1980. The United States has since provided $2.4 billion in economic assistance for private-sector initiatives, as well as to the government to repair damage to the economic infrastructure from guerrilla sabotage and the October, 1986, earthquake. It also supports programs in education, health, land reform, human rights and judicial reform. From its inception in the waning days of the Jimmy Carter Administration, military and economic aid to El Salvador has grown to a level that places it fifth among the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid. After virtually no military assistance between 1977-81, the United States has provided more than $800 million in such aid to help equip, train and professionalize the Salvadoran army.
Nevertheless, El Salvador continues to be ripe for a communist takeover. Since the FMLN is not strong enough to win militarily or through the ballot box, it has adopted a strategy of violence that resists the democratization of power.
Through terrorism and sabotage, the FMLN tried to provoke a pre-election outburst of governmental repression. The FMLN now openly hopes that such repression will come about since Arena the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance, has won the presidential election.
The rebels’ course of action is to incite Arena’s extremist element into resuming death-squad atrocities and immobilizing the government, resulting in a cutoff of U.S. aid. An end to U.S. aid would be followed by an army coup and a return to the military’s “dirty war” tactics. Popular outrage would lead to increased support for the FMLN and eventually to a communist victory. Already, the FMLN has killed or forced from office 93 elected mayors and has threatened the judiciary. In addition, many believe that FMLN may sacrifice its own members and blame the deaths on Arena.
In efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the war, the FMLN has insisted on peace through government surrender. This position was outlined in guerrilla documents captured by the Salvadoran army in February, 1988. A communication between FMLN leaders on the peace talks reads in part: “The dialogue is not an end. It is a means. Whatever form a negotiated political solution takes does not mean that we cease the struggle.”
Alfredo Cristiani of Arena captured a majority of the votes March 19 and will become the next president. Before critics of Arena push for an end to U.S. aid, Cristiani deserves a chance to deliver on his pledges to improve the nation’s health-care and education systems, the economy and the central government, and to be a true commander-in-chief. Continued U.S. aid must foster a free-market economy, sustained human-rights improvements and increased military professionalism.
The election demonstrated again the Salvadorans’ commitment to building a modern system of political debate, choices and competition. It is now up to Arena to prove with deeds, not words, that the party is up to the task. Cristiani must demonstrate that Arena has taken a moderate course. As Vice President Dan Quayle stressed during his February trip to El Salvador, the United States will be watching for signs of renewed death squad activity.
If Cristiani and Arena fail, the winner of the March 19 election could well be the FMLN, with serious consequences for both U.S. security and democratic movements around the world.