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Salvadoran Opposition Figure Ungo Dies After Surgery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guillermo Manuel Ungo, vice president of the Socialist International and the principal leader of El Salvador’s unarmed leftist opposition, died in a hospital here Thursday of complications from surgery.

Although he was a social democrat in a country long dominated by the military and extreme right, Ungo, 62, was a major figure in Salvadoran politics for more than 20 years. His death--following the assassination of his colleague Hector Oqueli last year--leaves his small Revolutionary National Movement in shambles and is a setback for the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of progressive parties that had planned to run Ungo as its top candidate in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly elections 10 days from now.

“This is a loss not just for the left but for El Salvador,” said Salvador Samayoa, a spokesman for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels with whom Ungo once was allied. “Guillermo had a capacity to communicate with different sectors of society. He was honest. He was respected, even when he was sometimes critical of us.”

Ungo entered the hospital Jan. 21 to undergo surgery for a cyst at the base of his skull, according to Gilda Chavez, a member of his party. He died of heart and lung failure resulting from the operation.

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A lawyer by education, Ungo had been a full-time politician since 1972 when he shared a ticket with Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador’s presidential election. By most accounts, Duarte and Ungo won the election, which was then stolen by the military.

In 1979, Ungo joined a civilian-military junta that ousted the government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, but he resigned several months later when it became clear that the military was in control. Amid a wave of repression and assassinations of leftist leaders, Ungo fled the country in 1980.

During his seven years in exile, Ungo and Social Christian leader Ruben Zamora led the Revolutionary Democratic Front, a group of civilian professionals and politicians allied with the guerrillas. In several rounds of peace talks, he sat with the guerrillas across the table from his former ally Duarte, who was elected president in 1984 and died last year.

In his autobiography, Duarte described Ungo as “a good man, intellectual, stubborn, but neither decisive nor charismatic.”

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In November, 1987, Ungo and Zamora returned to their country, polarized by civil war, to rebuild legal leftist political parties.

They had been branded “terrorists” and “traitors” by the military. Underscoring the danger of their return, a seething army colonel said at the time: “Seeing Guillermo Ungo’s face on television makes me sick.” Ads appeared in the newspapers with targets drawn around his face.

Ungo and Zamora never formally broke with the rebels but had been moving away from them since returning to El Salvador. They were the Democratic Convergence’s presidential ticket in the 1989 election that was boycotted by the rebels. The rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Alfredo Christiani won the presidency by a landslide, while the left got minimal votes.

Political observers had predicted that Ungo would win a seat in the Legislative Assembly elections on March 10, although his illness had taken him out of the campaign.

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Ungo was soft-spoken, witty and whimsical. Zamora described him as “a gentleman in politics . . . who knew how to lead, negotiate, reason. He was a survivor. His death leaves a vacuum.”

Oqueli, Ungo’s right-hand man and strategist, was gunned down in Guatemala last year by armed men allegedly working on behalf of Salvadoran rightists.

Eduardo Colindres, a leader of El Salvador’s Christian Democratic Party, called Ungo’s death “a loss for the democratic sectors of El Salvador. His death, like the thousands and thousands of dead in El Salvador, reminds us we are trying to build a society in which all (Salvadorans) can live.”


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