As events in El Salvador slide away from government control, those who wished for the collapse of the majority Arena government may yet get that wish. They may not, however, have thought through what El Salvador will look like as a plaything of extremist killers, right and left.
The murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers in San Salvador Nov. 16 was brutal and tragic, the work of sociopaths, as were the brutal murders of eight elected mayors last year and several members of President Alfredo Cristiani’s government this year.
Since 1931, El Salvador has been torn by civil wars; it has experienced more than 30 different governments by coup and bloodshed. The roots of the current guerrilla movement go back that far.
Before their recent urban assault, the guerrillas had been laying plans and preparing weapons caches for a great many months. They needed enough ammunition to be able to fire automatic weapons steadily for a battle of 10 days or more. Vast stores of ammunition needed to be kept secret and protected. Stockpiles for the offensive needed to be ordered in advance and assembled from afar.
Even as their delegates pretended to negotiate with the Cristiani government in Costa Rica, therefore, the rebels were preparing assiduously for an urban offensive. This was deception on a grand scale.
It is true that the United States is in El Salvador to help prevent a Soviet-backed Marxist takeover, one whose methods are terrorism and brutal civil war. But another aim of U.S. policy is to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all, a no-holds-barred civil war in which the sociopaths who occupy extremist fringes on both sides try to destroy each other and terrorize the middle. U.S. policy is intended to provide a civil space in which the various elements of Salvadoran national life can settle their differences democratically.
In last spring’s peaceful election, for example, guerrilla-allied candidate Guillermo Ungo received only 3% of the vote.
More recently, armed guerrilla leaders have explained their new urban strategy to journalists by pointing to the hopelessness of merely rural warfare. Therefore, they said, they had to carry their battle to the cities, never mind what the civilian casualties. From their point of view, the worse the casualties the better. Their whole aim is to inflame the people against the government. But no widespread popular revolt materialized to support the guerrillas.
My own trips to El Salvador have persuaded me that there are three main parties to the conflict: the two small but bloody extremes of right and left and the large majority of Salvordorans in the center, who are weary of and hostile to both extremes. The United States should support that majority in the middle.
Indeed, this is the great tragedy behind the deaths of the six brave Salvadoran Jesuits. While often critical of the government and sympathetic to the grievances of many who oppose the government, these good men were by all accounts moderates who supported democracy and civil peace. In particular, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector of the University of Central America in San Salvador, had gone on record in the weeks before his tragic and untimely death to upbraid the extremists among the guerrillas. He urged publicly that Cristiani’s government be given a chance in its efforts to bring peace.
In recent months, the guerrillas have split into two factions. The Moscow group has urged a turn to democratic political contestation; the Havana group is intent on a militant Marxist revolution, employing armed force and a popular front. Before the recent insurrection, Ellacuria told journalists that he had warned FMLN leaders, some of whom are former students of his, that their popular support is at far lower levels than they think.
If the murders of Ellacuria and his colleagues were conducted by “right- wingers,” as seemed intuitively probable to Asst. Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, perhaps they, too, wanted to bring down the government. Whoever the inhumane executioners actually were, they have deeply hurt the government and strengthened the guerrillas. If that was not their wish, their crime was not only morally sociopathic but also politically stupid.
Now, indeed, the American left-wing networks that support the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas are on the march again. They want the United States to cut off aid to the democratically elected government. If the United States does so, the probability of civic peace disappears. There will be no check on the extremists.
The accusation that Cristiani cannot “control” the right-wing death squads also rests on this principle. His government is not strong enough to “control” the violence of the left, either, even violence against his own cabinet and assistants. Against both extremes, the Salvadoran government is a struggling, imperfect restraint; but restraint it is.
If we are to give peace a chance, we must support civil, peaceful procedures in which all voters participate--the left, the right and the predominant center. The alternative is Hobbes. The war of all against all will return. Even vaster torrents of blood will redden the blood-soaked soil of El Salvador.