Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 99 | Octubre 1989


El Salvador

El Salvador: Transition to ARENA

Envío team

As mid-September approached, Mexico City was making last-minute preparations to host the first talks between delegates of El Salvador's recently elected government and leaders of that country's armed revolutionary movement, the FMLN.

The need for a political solution to Salvador's war, now more than a decade long, was included among the agreements at the August Central American summit meeting in Tela, Honduras. Though Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani arrived at the meeting intent on pushing through wording that would characterize the contras and the FMLN as parallel forces, the summit agreement was clear in its assessment that the two forces are quite distinct and easy parallels simply cannot be drawn. The four other Central American Presidents then insisted, as the FMLN has for a long time, that the guerrillas and the Salvadoran government must engage in a meaningful dialogue if the country's crisis is to be resolved.

With that dialogue now imminent, it is useful to take a closer look at ARENA, the ruling party President Cristiani represents, and what has emerged in its half-year in power.

A tenuous marriage

Asked in late 1988 what the future held for El Salvador, FDR representative Rubén Zamora warned of the dangerous marriage that seemed to be in the making between the total war advocates in the armed forces, who were pushing for a blank check to deal with the country's growing popular movement, and ARENA, the far right party which at that time controlled both the legislative and judicial branches of government, but not yet the executive. That marriage has been consummated, albeit with a number of internal tensions.

If the virtual military defeat of the contra forces in Nicaragua points to a failure of US policy, ARENA's victory in El Salvador's presidential elections this past March also signifies a defeat for the US strategy of low intensity conflict resting on the facade of a "centrist" Christian-Democratic government. In effect, the ARENA electoral triumph has called into question how the US—and the Salvadoran oligarchy—will continue to fight what at this point seems to be an endless war in El Salvador.

In the last year and a half, both the FMLN’s military capacity and the strength of the popular opposition movement in El Salvador—represented by union, student, religious and human rights activists, among others—have grown dramatically. The new government has to find some way to respond to the changing situation.

The common wisdom in the United States is that President Cristiani, who represents what might be called the modernizing, neoliberal forces inside ARENA, differs substantially from Roberto D'Aubisson, a total-war advocate, long discredited in the US for his role in the most brutal waves of repression during the early 1980s. In fact, differences between the two are tactical rather than strategic in the military sphere. The two forces represent complementary, rather than contradictory, positions. The overall objective of both is to turn the tide against the growing popular movement.

There are, however, some real differences in how the two factions view El Salvador's economic future. D'Aubisson's followers are strongest in the traditional Salvadoran oligarchy, which has its economic base in the country's agroexport sector. The Cristiani group is pushing for implementation of an import-substitution industrialization program, and has found strong allies in the US State Department. They also want to privatize more of the country's prime agricultural land, denationalize some interests currently in government hands and generally do what they can to make continued economic investment in the country more attractive to the IMF and other lending institutions. This group controls many of the key economic policy-making positions within the new government while the D'Aubisson group has control over local political appointments, which gives it a free hand in implementing and maintaining a repressive security apparatus throughout the country. Cristiani's people also control the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General's office and other positions that afford them the legal means by which to control the popular movement.

Many within the Cristiani group favor continuing the military model of low intensity conflict, long supported by the United States. The D'Aubisson faction is advocating a more repressive and aggressive war against both the FMLN and the popular movement. Even within this group, however, there seems to be a realization that a return to the "total war" of the early 1980s would be a serious mistake in that it would likely jeopardize continued US funding. Yet increased repression is necessary, they argue, if the Salvadoran government is to regain the initiative in the war. Some analysts of the Salvadoran situation call the more aggressive ARENA line a "refined" model of low intensity conflict (LIC).

Some sectors in the armed forces maintain their wholehearted support of the low-intensity model and resist any upping of the ante, as it were. They are supporting civic action programs designed to win over the rural population, as well as a new AID-funded municipal program to work with the mayors throughout the country. Another sector supports the "refined" LIC model largely backed by ARENA, while yet another faction, most notably represented by Armed Forces chief Bustillo, continues to push for total war.

Refining and redefining

One of the "refinements" of the Salvadoran government's strategy against the opposition comes in the legal arena. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the National Assembly calling for the creation of an "anti-terrorist" law. According to this bill, any publication promoting opposition groups or denouncing the government would be illegal, as would demonstrations, political meetings, marches and strikes. Foreigners tagged as "subversive" could face severe prison terms.

Due to international pressure, discussion of the bill has been postponed in the National Assembly. Undaunted, ARENA is now proposing changes to the penal code—a shift only in procedure, and one likely to garner less domestic and international attention. Even without the legal changes, repression in both the city and the countryside has jumped significantly since March. The air war is on the upswing, with a number of bombing attacks recorded since May, particularly in some of the repopulation centers (areas to which Salvadorans in Honduran refugee camps have returned in the last two years).

The ARENA victory has also seen a deliberate resurrection of the death squads. The Ministry of the Interior, National Police and National Guard—where death squad activity was centered in the early 1980s—are solidly in the D'Aubisson camp.

Opposition steps up

The mass-based opposition groups have increased their activities in response to the disastrous economic situation and increasing repression. UNOC, an organization of peasants and urban workers, was a moderate coalition group instrumental in Duarte's presidential victory in 1982. It later broke with the Christian Democrats and in recent months allied with the leftwing umbrella union organization, UNTS.

The economic crisis and ARENA's ascension to power has also spurred opposition parties once aligned with the Christian Democrats to a realization that only a political solution can lead the country out of its military morass and economic downslide. Many parties and political groupings have met with the FMLN in Mexico City in recent months to talk about its peace proposals and the country's prospects for the future.

Bush fears debate

A small sector within the US Congress is very wary of the new ARENA government. The Kastenmeier bill, with 57 co-sponsors in the House, would cut off all US aid to El Salvador and remove US advisers. Sponsors of this bill and other legislative efforts to cut police aid (essentially aid to the death squads) realize they don’t have the votes to get their legislation through, but there is a higher level of debate in Congress on El Salvador than has been seen in recent years.

The Bush Administration would prefer not to have the kind of open debate generated in Congress by the Kastenmeier bill and complementary measures. Since many congressional representatives have received direct reports from constituents who have visited El Salvador in recent years with religious, human rights and sister city delegations, the State Department (through the US Embassy in San Salvador) is attempting to limit the number of foreigners who can enter the country. A list has been drawn up that includes both people who have visited El Salvador and those who publicly and visibly support initiatives calling for a political solution to the country's problems. These people are either denied visas in the US or other countries or, once they arrive at the San Salvador airport, are told that they will not be able to enter the country. In addition, nine foreign residents in El Salvador who were doing either long-term religious or medical work have been deported in recent months. Other foreign resident religious workers have been denied reentry when returning from brief out-of-country visits.

Negotiations an imperative

ARENA has to move towards negotiations, or at least give the appearance of doing so, given the summit meeting and mounting concerns in the US Congress. The FMLN, in agreeing to negotiations even though two of its conditions (meeting in Salvadoran territory and with the armed forces at the negotiating table) were not met, is acting on its long-held view that political negotiations are essential. Its position is also a tacit recognition of the tremendous war weariness among the Salvadoran people, and that even if a full-scale military insurrection were possible at this moment, the costs would be far too high for the country to bear.

There are some concessions, particularly regarding the military and security forces, that the FMLN is very unlikely to make. At the same time, it is doubtful that ARENA will be willing to give up any share of its considerable power. Yet if the talks do not lead to any significant changes in the country's situation, the future in Salvador could be an increasingly painful repetition of the past.

(As envío went to press, the three-day talks in Mexico City terminated with the signing of an accord in which the two sides agreed to meet in San José, Costa Rica within 30 days to discuss the terms of a possible cessation of hostilities. Although the meeting lasted 12 hours longer than scheduled, a detailed cease-fire proposal brought by the FMLN was reportedly not discussed. A joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting established a process of "permanent" dialogue with "maximum seriousness, reciprocal guarantees" in which neither side could withdraw unilaterally. Meetings were scheduled for every 30 days following mutual consultations for preparing proposals. Representatives to both delegations called the talks "extremely positive.")

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Ushering in Autonomy

El Salvador
El Salvador: Transition to ARENA


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