Next Step : Gunning for a New Image : Salvadoran rebels struggle to go ‘mainstream’ after 12 years of war. Dissension threatens their front’s survival.


When presidential elections were held at the height of El Salvador’s civil war, the rebels swept into towns, burned voter registration records and ordered villagers to boycott the polls.

Today, the 12-year war ended, the guns and uniforms exchanged for computers and jeans, the same men and women who once denounced elections as farcical tools of the imperialist oligarchy are planning to join in next year’s presidential contest--with candidates, political ads and a party convention.

Its preparation for elections is only the most visible way in which the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front is struggling to make the change from a well-disciplined Marxist guerrilla army to a democratically run political party.


The transformation--a requirement under U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended the war last year--has been fraught with controversy and pain. Public bickering and disputes over tactics and philosophy have left today’s FMLN deeply divided--and many rank-and-file disaffected and confused.

“There have always been differences in the FMLN,” Schafik Handal, the party’s chairman, said in an interview. “It’s only now that the differences come out daily on your television set.”

Some even wonder if the organization that fought powerful U.S.-backed forces to a virtual standstill after more than a decade of war will be able to reach next year’s elections as a united front--or disintegrate. While discord within the FMLN is not new, it is the timing that is particularly crucial, analysts say, coming as many Salvadorans seek to evaluate the FMLN’s potential to govern and to remain a force for change.

Much of the conflict radiates from a decision by the FMLN leadership to shift the party away from pure leftist ideology and closer to the political center. This means, among other things, establishing contact with many old enemies, including business entrepreneurs and the U.S. government.

“There is a new political reality,” said Joaquin Villalobos, the FMLN’s leading comandante and chief military strategist during the war. “The fight is for the political center . . . and those who think it’s a sin (to compromise) are living in the past. They are political dinosaurs.”

The FMLN formed originally in 1980 as a military-political coalition encompassing five separate, disparate factions, each of which was, in a way, the product of protracted fights within the Salvadoran Communist Party.


Many--but not all--FMLN leaders argue that, since neither side can claim outright victory in the war, the FMLN must negotiate and reach out to other sectors if it hopes to play a role in the next government. With the fall of communism in Europe and the 1990 electoral defeat of the leftist Sandinista Front in Nicaragua, a more moderate approach is simply a matter of political pragmatism, they argue.

But one guerrilla’s pragmatism is another guerrilla’s sellout; the philosophical shift has alienated many supporters who believe the goals they risked their lives for are being frittered away.

Villalobos and other top leaders appear increasingly distanced from their bases, while rifts have deepened among the leaders themselves.

Despite its identity crisis, the FMLN is taking on many of the trappings of a political party. Former rebels have emerged from clandestine lives to work in San Salvador offices; they carry beepers and hand out business cards embossed with the red-lettered party logo.

The vocabulary of confrontation has been replaced with terms like “bridge-building” and a new emphasis on attracting foreign investment. And in one of the more ironic twists, former guerrillas are attending courses on civics and capitalism financed by the U.S. government--which spent $6 billion during the last decade in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the FMLN guerrilla army.

Washington has also sent the FBI to help set up a new civilian police force whose members include former soldiers and rebels.


“If three years ago someone had told me that the FMLN would accept the FBI as advisers to a new police force, my hair would have stood on end,” said Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a member of the FMLN political committee.

“Today we meet with them regularly. . . . We don’t talk about ‘Yankee imperialism’ anymore. We are in dialogue with the ex-enemy. . . . For those (party members) who formed their thinking based on textbooks from Moscow, this process is going to be slower . . . and more painful.”

Just how painful first became clear at a meeting last year of about 250 members of the People’s Revolutionary Army, one of the five FMLN factions.

Leaders called the gathering in the tiny town of Jocoaitique, in the traditional rebel stronghold of Morazon province, to explain the “new reality” to former combatants. As the leaders began to describe concepts such as “market economy,” many in the crowd erupted into shouts accusing their directors of having become “bourgeois capitalists.”

The cracks within the FMLN were obvious again in a dispute at Radio Venceremos, the formerly clandestine rebel radio station that now broadcasts openly on an FM frequency.

Radio Venceremos is controlled by the People’s Revolutionary Army faction, which Villalobos co-founded and continues to head. According to former employees at the station, the radio became embroiled in debate over how quickly it should change from a revolutionary organ to a commercial venture.


Villalobos advocated swift change, according to these sources, including the broadcast of American pop music and lots of advertisements. Those who disagreed and wanted a slower-paced transition were fired or quit in protest.

The credibility of Villalobos and other top FMLN leaders came under its most serious questioning earlier this year in connection with President Alfredo Cristiani’s agreement to purge the army of rights abusers.

Although Cristiani was bound by the peace accords to purge 102 officers named by a civilian panel, the president entered into secret negotiations with Villalobos to devise a plan that would exempt some officers and delay the dismissal of others.

Only the adamant opposition from another FMLN faction, the Popular Liberation Forces, prevented a deal. But public revelation that negotiations had taken place damaged Villalobos’ stature in the eyes of many.

“It was a trauma that left its scars,” said Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who heads the Popular Liberation Forces faction. “But we will rise above it.”

Another devastating blow came with the release in March of a U.N.-sponsored report that, after a seven-month investigation, chronicled some of the worst atrocities of the civil war.


While it concentrated on murders and other political crimes by state forces, the report by the U.N.-appointed Commission on Truth singled out Villalobos and five other top leaders of his faction for the assassination of 11 mayors during the war.

The commission recommended that they, as well as all other offenders named in the report, be barred from holding public office for 10 years, effectively disqualifying some of the FMLN’s most astute, likely leaders.

The report drove yet deeper a wedge between Villalobos’ faction and his fellow FMLN commanders, none of whom were singled out by name despite being equally responsible for a number of war crimes.

A visibly angry Villalobos appeared on local television to accuse his associates of failing to tell the whole truth, saying he was naive to have expected them to do so. He speculated that members of the other factions--specifically the Popular Liberation Forces--were punishing him for his earlier negotiation with Cristiani on the military purge.

The rivalry between Villalobos’ People’s Revolutionary Army, considered the FMLN’s best fighting force, and the Popular Liberation Forces, the largest and oldest of the FMLN factions, is longstanding. Rarely, however, has it been aired so publicly.

Hoping to repair the rift with Villalobos, Sanchez Ceren and the other FMLN commanders announced they would all share the blame assigned by the Commission on Truth and agreed that the top leadership of all five factions would refrain from running for public office. But at the news conference called by the FMLN to make this announcement, Villalobos and his faction were conspicuously absent.


While the divisions and frictions within the FMLN are historical, the disarray now of the left seems to have had the more far-reaching effect of allowing the right to fortify.

With the left unable to mount any sort of effective opposition, Cristiani has been able to waiver on the military purge and other key reforms that his government pledged to undertake as part of the same peace accords that obliged the guerrillas to disarm.

Cristiani’s political party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), easily pushed through the Legislative Assembly an amnesty law that pardons war criminals. Most of the beneficiaries are military men, including two army officers convicted in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests that the right considered sympathetic to the rebels.

And while the left can’t agree on candidates, the ruling party has already started campaigning for the 1994 elections, in which Salvadorans will choose a new president, legislature and dozens of mayors.

“If they (the left) do not define themselves very soon, they will only have themselves to blame if the right stays in power,” said political analyst Luis Dominguez Parada.

One thing the FMLN has going for it, say diplomats and analysts, is its organizational structure. With the grass-roots movement that long supported the rebels, the party has a natural reservoir of volunteer campaign workers.


Party chairman Handal said FMLN members, while having to learn about things like statutes and quorums, have begun house-to-house canvassing to familiarize the Salvadoran public with the FMLN-as-party. “Giving people a chance to talk to the ‘devil from hell,’ which is how we will be portrayed, will be helpful,” he said.

Indeed, the electoral strategy of the ruling party was laid out in its recent convention, when Cristiani cast himself as peacemaker and the former guerrillas as warmongers. Many on the right say that no matter how the former rebels depict themselves as new democrats, they remain Marxists at heart.

To dispel that notion, some in the FMLN are advocating that the left lie low in next March’s elections. Rather than run its own candidate, they say, the left should unite behind a more moderate politician who can attract wider support.

As with other issues, however, the FMLN is divided on this point. The Popular Liberation Forces faction argues that the left can win, and it is backing the candidacy of leftist legislator Ruben Zamora with the hopes of supplying the vice presidential contender.

Villalobos’ faction, on the other hand, says a leftist presidential candidate is too provocative so soon after the war. As part of their new philosophy, these FMLN members argue that a leftist victory would be destabilizing and drive away the investment needed to finance postwar reconstruction.

“In such a (scenario), an election win would not be a victory,” said FMLN political strategist Juan Ramon Medrano. “We must seek the formula that does not polarize.”


Zamora denies that his presidency would be polarizing.

Choosing a candidate for 1994 is only the latest issue that has divided the FMLN. Operatives like Medrano and others from Villalobos’ faction believe that while the disputes may cost the party some veteran followers, the building of a new, more moderate left is the only path to political viability.