Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 81 | Marzo 1988


Central America

Military Solution in Crisis

Envío team

Events in El Salvador in 1987 are divided into two phases by the Central American peace accords of Esquipulas II. The first was marked by the continued expansion of the sociopolitical conflict, which, given the circumstances, meant an intensification of the military crisis. The second presented an opening, at least for the moment, for a political alternative. The rapid and virtually total depletion of the available space for this alternative, however, led to an imminent adjustment of forces among the dominant sectors at the end of the year that threatened to wipe out the possibilities for any significant progress in the peace process.

January to July:
The war heats up

The year began with a government decision to introduce a new package of fiscal measures, including a "tax law for the defense of national sovereignty." This package, commonly known as "the war tax," was symbolically the catalyst for a generalized disturbance that ranged from the poorer classes (because it financed a war that not only took a continual toll of lives but also prevented long unmet basic needs from being addressed) to the wealthier ones (who felt that the expense required of them was not producing what they thought should be an easy military victory). The earthquake that hit toward the end of 1986 had also left its mark, and the government's inability to deal with the destruction and resulting crisis contributed to the unrest.

On January 6, opposition members of the legislative assembly decided to declare an indefinite "parliamentary strike" to protest the Christian Democratic majority's policies. This led to a suspension of the state of siege, which the Assembly had renewed every month for the last seven years, and to its termination in May.

A stoppage declared on January 22 by the main business associations belonging to the National Association of Private Business (ANEP) to force the governing Christian Democratic Party (PDC) to radically change its economic policy had an even great impact than the legislative strike. As far as financial and big business interests were concerned, the agrarian reform, international trade policy and nationalization of the banks, as well as various fiscal and monetary packages, had done more damage to the Salvadoran economy than the war itself and were the principal causes of the country's crisis.

This business strike, which coincided with a transportation halt called by the FMLN, was an undeniable success. Although the official report was that government services continued at 100%, President Duarte himself acknowledged that up to 75% of the capital city's businesses took part in the strike. It was a genuine show of force in San Salvador and struck fear into the government once more. Then on February 19 the Supreme Court declared the war tax unconstitutional, indirectly legitimating private enterprise’s ability to twist the government’s arm, forcing it to look elsewhere for funds to finance the war.

While the year began with this serious confrontation between the government and the business sectors, the most important military event occurred on March 31, when the FMLN launched a series of simultaneous operations, the most significant of which was the occupation and partial destruction of the 4th Infantry Brigade post at El Paraíso in Chalatenango. The first official report acknowledged 69 army dead, among them a US military advisor, and some hundred wounded. The FMLN reported that the action had caused more than 650 government casualties. Whatever the actual number, the event had a threefold significance:

1. It made clear that despite recent declarations by highly placed army officials, the FMLN was not militarily defeated. On the contrary, it showed itself stronger than at any other time in the war.

2. The destruction of the El Paraíso garrison was all the more significant because it had been so carefully reinforced after being attacked in December 1983. With this action the FMLN demonstrated that it was a genuine insurgent army, and not just a handful of rebels.

3. The attack also proved, once again, not only that the Salvadoran army and the FMLN were dynamically balanced, but that the war itself was deadlocked and even a medium-range military victory was impossible.

A third important event in this first phase was a strike called by the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (STISSS), which began on May 1 and lasted four months. The prolonged and sometimes violent strike was evidence of the growing radicalization of some sectors of organized labor and made clear that the country's socioeconomic situation was untenable. Even though the STISSS objectives were defeated and it had to bear the burden of sanctions against some of its activists as well as the loss of a good part of its social backing, this outcome dispelled the illusions of many workers as to what they could realistically expect from the Christian Democrats.

Finally, an event of great political import was the success of the fifth and sixth transport strikes called by the FMLN in San Salvador in June and July. While former strikes had only been effective in areas controlled by FMLN forces in the interior of the country, these two had a tremendous impact on the capital city and were a serious blow to the government's only really coherent policy: psychological and military war.

While the attack on El Paraíso and the transport strikes were signs of the war’s intensification, the business strike and the STISSS strike indicated that the war’s effects were expanding into new areas of social life, sharpening the national crisis. The first semester of 1987 showed that the country was on a dead-end path, forced by US policy to seek an essentially military solution to the conflict.

August to December:
Esquipulas II and after

From El Salvador’s viewpoint, the signing of the "Procedure for establishing a firm and lasting peace in Central America" (better known as Esquipulas II) by the Central American Presidents on August 7 was all the more surprising because nothing in the balance of forces within the country gave reason to expect it. President Duarte himself had been one of the most obedient agents of the US policy to obstruct any political solution that did not involve surrender of the revolutionary movements. Neither trying to nor expecting to, the Salvadoran government found a boost in Esquipulas II at the time it most needed one, and took full advantage of it. But to do so, it had to make some initial concessions that brought on new problems and led to a year's end fraught with skepticism and rejection from most sectors of Salvadoran society.

The FMLN was obviously reluctant to accept the letter of the Esquipulas II accords, especially considering that it denied the legitimacy of any "irregular forces" in Central America—though it left open the subtle possibility of treating the Salvadoran insurgents as a different kind of movement than the Nicaraguan contras. Without accepting the Esquipulas accords as a whole, however, the FMLN did acknowledge that it contained a positive contribution to the Central American process and accepted the opportunity it offered to resume talks with the government, initiated long before Esquipulas II.

From August to November, the exaggerated expectations aroused by Esquipulas II, especially in Europe, brought great pressure on the FMLN-FDR to accept the terms of Esquipulas II literally—to lay down its arms and take amnesty. (Europe made the same request of Guatemala's URNG.) But little by little, the realization set in that the specifics of the process had to be worked out in each country.

The opening permitted the two contending parties to talk, and on October 5 and 6 a high-level meeting was held in the Papal Nuncio's headquarters in San Salvador. As on the two previous opportunities—at La Palma on October 15, 1984 and at Ayagualo on November 30 the same year—the new round of talks allowed Salvadorans to become more familiar with the FDR-FMLN positions and somewhat dispel the satanizing aura that government propaganda had created around the revolutionary organization.

The dialogue only revealed the great abyss that separated the two positions, as well as the narrow limits of power within which the government had to negotiate. The FMLN refused to limit the discussion to a cease-fire, which, from its perspective, presupposed acceptance of Esquipulas II and, therefore, its own illegitimacy, preferring to discuss the political-military conflict as a whole. In the end, the talks brought nothing more conclusive than the decision to continue talking, which indeed happened in Caracas two weeks later. That the talks did not break off completely was thanks to the fact that neither party could politically afford to be seen in international public opinion as responsible for preventing a peaceful solution to the Salvadoran conflict.

A renewed outbreak of repression in the country, and in particular the assassination of Human Rights Coordinator Herbert Sanabria Anaya, was the straw that broke the talks. The FMLN decided to provisionally suspend a meeting agreed on for Mexico, and the Duarte government—lacking even the minimum space needed to continue any sort of serious negotiations—grabbed onto the pretext, claiming that it had complied with Esquipulas II but that the insurgents were unwilling to cooperate.

With the closing down of the risky dialogue, the government was more easily able to defend the broad amnesty law approved by the Assembly on October 27. The law applied equally to political rebels and those responsible for the most extreme violations of human rights—theoretically with the exception of Bishop Romero's assassins. In fact, approval of the amnesty law was evidence that the government and the army had come to an agreement to wipe the slate clean on human rights violations attributed to the military, including such gross massacres as those at Sumpul and El Mozote. The declaration of a unilateral cease-fire (which the army promptly ignored) rounded off the Salvadoran government's formal compliance with the Esquipulas II accords, thereby preserving its image in the international forum.

The background to these political processes was an intense flare-up of guerrilla military activity, which brought the country's energy infrastructure to the verge of collapse. Severe restrictions were required, with grave consequences for production and for metropolitan traffic. The FMLN also attacked agricultural and traditional export production centers, further weakening the country's already ailing economic base.

In the second half of November, two top FDR leaders—Guillermo Manuel Ungo of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and Rubén Zamora of the Popular Social Christian Movement (MPSC)—arrived in the country, stating explicitly that they were exercising their full rights as Salvadoran citizens, and not coming in by way of the government-declared amnesty. In a public demonstration on November 29, the MNR, the MPSC and the newly formed Social Democratic Party (PSD), led by Dr. Reni Roldán, formed the "Democratic Convergence." The grouping would attempt to open new space for the democratic Left, capitalizing on the widespread dissatisfaction with the options already available within the spectrum of El Salvador's legal parties.

Both the presence and the activities of Ungo and Zamora in the country put relations between the government and the most conservative sectors and the army to the test. The situation was so tense it threatened to come to a coup when the government reopened the issue of Bishop Romero's assassination, which involved several members of the military.

By the end of 1987, the PDC was surrounded by conflict: dialogue with the insurgents was broken off; the support of popular sectors that had brought it to power was gone; its prestige was lost because of its political powerlessness in the face of the most fundamental problems and its well-known corruption; it was systematically rejected by big business, which held it responsible for the country's economic crisis; and it had absolutely no power relative to the army, which only tolerated it because of US pressure.

Even within its own ranks there was no relief: it was weakened by divisions between supporters of the two PDC presidential candidates, Adolfo Rey Prendes and Fidel Chávez Mena. When we add to this the death squads’ resurgent activity, we come to the end of the year with a government lacking both political and moral resources to do anything but hope for the least possible negative result in the next elections.

Seeing no change, those on both sides of the PDC threatened to wipe out what Esquipulas II had accomplished, and even to abandon its intent. Arguing that the political path of dialogue had failed, this became a justification to continue the war. There was no doubt that this was the aim of US efforts.

The socioeconomic situation has deteriorated

Having examined the broad outlines of the Salvadoran situation in 1987, we can now analyze some of the most significant aspects of the country’s life to understand the year's events. We divide this analysis in three parts: the socioeconomic situation, the war and the political situation.

The earthquake of October 10, 1986 brought a year already short on accomplishments and long on failures to a close in economic disaster—bare survival on a continuous transfusion of US dollars and other international aid that was quickly absorbed by the war and rampant corruption. Throughout 1987, the majority of the government's budget once again had to go to military expenses, at the cost of fundamental needs like education, housing and health.

The official budget, however, does not give an adequate idea of how much the war is actually costing. Even without including disguised, secret or additional infusions, El Salvador's overall US aid constitutes the equivalent of another budget. A November 1987 Senate Report made the following revelations:

1. "For the first time in the history of US aid to other countries, US aid to El Salvador this year exceeds the country's contribution to its own budget: US aid for fiscal year 1987 is $608 million, equivalent to 105% of the $582 million El Salvador contributed to its own budget. Even excluding the emergency aid given because of the earthquake, El Salvador approaches the record of dependence on US aid reached by South Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam war.

2. "In 1987, three dollars of US aid were directed to the war and its effects for every dollar destined to remedy its causes. While this proportion is below the 4 to 1 ratio of 1985, the government's budget application for 1988 shows a ratio of 3.5 to 1. Thus 'economic' aid continues to be used to support military efforts.

3. "There continues to be improper use of US aid as well as corruption in programs financed by it.

4. "In spite of US laws prohibiting the use of economic and food aid for military purposes, we obtained a document that proves that the Salvadoran military have direct power over the principal 'civic action' program financed by the US."*
*A report presented to the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus by Senators Hatfield, Leach and Miller (our translation).

There is no doubt that the problems faced by the Salvadoran economy in 1987 cannot all be attributed to the war: the international market price of coffee, a product that represents more than 50% of the country's total exports, plummeted (from $190/hundredweight in 1986 to $110/hundredweight), causing a serious trade deficit; the country experienced a severe drought that affected hydroelectric reserves as well as basic grains production; foreign aid pledged for earthquake relief and counted on for the public investment program has been slow in arriving. The result of all this is that the per-capita GDP in El Salvador continued to decline in 1987.

The government's economic policy pursued two major goals in 1987: stabilization, especially reduction of the inflation rate, and reactivation. The measure of inflation offered by the consumer price index points to a degree of success in the first goal, not because the CPI has gone down but because it has grown at a slower rate than during the two previous years.

In fact, the rising cost of living has had cumulative repercussions in the deteriorating conditions in which Salvadorans live; while prices of basic products have continued falling, salaries have remained frozen. Using 1978 as a base, a nominal wage of 15 colóns in metropolitan San Salvador would be the equivalent of a real wage of 3.79 colóns. According to the Ministry of Economy, the value of the basic family market basket for the month of March, on which real salaries were calculated, went up to 1,770.88 colóns. A very high percentage of the actively employed population has found it impossible to afford such a market basket, which costs more than four times the minimum wage for workers in commerce, industry and services, and more than seven times that of agricultural workers. This situation, instead of tending to improve, continued worsening throughout 1987. (This leaves aside the unemployed and underemployed population, which together are estimated at as much as 65% of the economically active population).

With space opened for protest by the requirements of the US counterinsurgency project, it is not surprising that labor conflicts have multiplied given the situation. During 1987 there were 46 strikes in the private sector and 54 in the public sector, and no fewer than 55 public demonstrations. But none of this activity has resulted in development of the labor movement; rather, there was a reversal in organizing workers compared to the year before.

Although there were many mobilizations, the numbers participating decreased. Mobilizations like that of May 1st, under conditions very favorable for voicing demands, was barely able to bring together between 5,000 and 10,000 workers in San Salvador. Division and deterioration among labor organizations continued, aided and abetted by the government and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). And, while the actual numbers of labor organizations and of workers belonging to them has probably increased, this growth has not resulted in benefits to the working class.

This reversal can be attributed to the politicization and radicalization of the main labor organization, the National Workers' Union (UNTS), and the consequent fear by many of a return to the violence and repression of 1980-82. Apparently the UNTS concluded that radicalizing its protest activity would stimulate the voicing of workers' demands and be a training ground for political struggle. In fact, the UNTS began to emphasize political demands over strictly labor-related ones, and violent protest over peaceful demonstration, the overall result of which was seen by some analysts as negative. Even though it had certainly consolidated a group of workers committed to struggle, this group represented a minority, without power to bring out or even appeal to the majority of workers. A balanced analysis would be that the challenge of overcoming both an ultra-left radicalization and the simple mass appeal of purely economic demands has not yet been met and is not an easy matter.

The war: Military and psychological

The two tables below show the reports of both sides on war casualties over the last year compared to the previous year. The disparity between the sets of figures is fairly normal. Even if we were to accept the lower figures (those given by the armed forces), the magnitude of this war is evident: 3,285 casualties in an army of approximately 55,000 men represents 6%, or 14.7% if we take the FMLN figures. Based on the army figure, the increase in army casualties from 1986 to 1987 is 22%, while using the FMLN figures it is 31.3%. According to the army's figures, the increase in FMLN casualties for the same period was 3.7%. (Since the FMLN does not report on its own casualties, the only figure available is that given by the army.)

Government propaganda, insistently repeated in the media, tries to present the FMLN as a "band of terrorists," incapable of engaging in military battle and therefore devoted to sabotage and terrorism against the civilian population. But a detailed study of the war’s evolution contradicts this image. There are at least four objective indicators that the FMLN constitutes a genuine military force and is, in fact, more similar to a formal army than to what one usually thinks of as a guerrilla group. These are:

1) The taking and destruction of the Fourth Infantry Brigade at El Paraíso March 31, 1987.

2) The number of armed forces casualties, even according to their own figures.

3) The fact that the US Embassy no longer says that the FMLN will be defeated in three or four years, but is now saying six or seven.

4) The fact that the Salvadoran military leaders go to the US periodically to ask for more massive military aid and the US government itself continues to approve it. If the FMLN were already "militarily defeated," or simply a "small band of terrorists," what sense would there be in such large sums of aid?

Although the most notable FMLN military action was the destruction of the garrison at El Paraíso, it has most consistently focused on small- and medium-scale operations: ambushes, attacks on guard posts and surprise confrontations. The advantage of this strategy lies in the fact that it allows the FMLN to maintain an effective presence in nearly every corner of the country. Its disadvantage is of a more political sort in that these small strikes do not attract much attention and thus have less impact on public opinion.

Numbers do not lie, however, and they indicate that, despite the undeniable improvement in the army's military expertise, the FMLN has inflicted more casualties than in recent years, which means it is accomplishing its strategic goal set out in 1985: to wear down the armed forces, the backbone of the regime, making it ever more difficult for them to replace their losses.

If these facts show a build-up in insurgent action, there are also facts showing military improvement by the armed forces. The army has continued to develop its military mobility and its capacity to maintain almost permanent medium- and even big-scale operations, preventing the establishment of guerrilla enclaves and forcing FMLN forces to stay on the move. At the same time the armed forces have been obliged to guard the main production centers and crucial points of the country's communication and distribution systems without significantly reducing their offensive operations.

Following the strategic requirements of "low intensity conflict," the military has intensified its so-called "psychological war," the goal of which is to win "the hearts and minds" of the civilian population, especially in the principal war zones or those who might sympathize with the insurgents, and to break the morale of the rebel fighters themselves.

It would be an error to think that the psychological war is limited to propaganda; it is the direct descendant of the so-called "dirty war," and its instruments include scare and even terror tactics as well as propaganda campaigns. The primary value of psychological warfare is to instill a feeling of insecurity in people and groups and then offer the protection and help of the armed forces as their "only hope." In this way, the village harassed today for supposed support to the guerrillas will be visited tomorrow by a civil-military team giving food and medical care to the inhabitants, only to be attacked again a few days later or have selected leaders seized, terrorized and then released. Receiving rewards and punishments completely determined by the army makes the villagers feel insecure and in the power of a supreme judge ("the authorities"), whose hostility makes life insufferable but whose benevolence demands payment in the form of total submission.

Among the propaganda campaigns the armed forces have aimed at both the national and international audiences has been the one about land mines. Mines are, without doubt, one of the main FMLN weapons against the military, and army spokespeople have acknowledged again and again that they have been responsible for at least half of army casualties. The army has also used mines, and in both cases their use has resulted in casualties of innocent civilians (an Americas Watch report documented a number of cases resulting from the army's use of the mines).

The civilian casualties caused by the FMLN's use of mines has been magnified and caricatured by army propaganda, in which the FMLN is accused of violating the civilian population’s human rights. The mass media's ambiguous reporting on the location and time period of presumed mine victims has conveyed the idea that the number of such victims is much greater than it really is. FMLN mines have been blamed not only for their actual victims but for others that were never anywhere near a mine.

Beyond the psychological-political success of this national and international campaign, it manipulates human rights for strictly military purposes. Since the army also uses mines, the aim of the campaign is not to do away with their use altogether, thus protecting the civilian population, but to pressure the FMLN not to use them, since they have taken such a toll on army personnel.

The psychological war in general and the campaign against FMLN mines in particular is a concrete case of the politics of human rights in El Salvador during 1987. The guiding principal has been to seek a respectable human rights image rather than act in a respectable way, and this more as a concession to the requirements of international public opinion than a commitment to transform the structures responsible for their violation. In fact, not one of the existing repressive structures has been done away with or even brought to justice. On the contrary, security forces have continued the systematic practice of torturing political prisoners, though in a somewhat less savage manner than at the beginning of the war. The list of dead and disappeared at the hands of death squads over the course of the year, while not reaching the levels of 1981 or 82, was still higher than in the years before the war, when the Salvadoran government was condemned as a violator of human rights in all international forums.

One of the most serious aspects of the human rights situation is that of the displaced and refugees. Given pressure from numerous quarters, including the Honduran government and even the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, 9,000 Salvadoran refugees have returned to the country, taking advantage of the political space recently opened, particularly since Esquipulas II. The most significant return was a group of some 4,300 Salvadoran refugees from Mesa Grande in Honduras on October 10. The significance of this return is threefold: a) it was communal and massive; b) it resulted from the initiative and pressure of the interested parties, to which the Salvadoran government had to give in; and c) it was oriented toward places in or near the conflict zones in the Departments of Cuscatlán, Cabañas and Chalatenango.

In all cases, the returnees—whether displaced or refugees—are subjected to the army's counterinsurgent psychological warfare policy—constant harassment, arbitrary capture, mistreatment, cordoned-off areas to prevent the passage of visitors, food and medicine and to control the movements of the population itself. On some occasions the repopulated areas have again been subjected to bombing and mortar fire and certainly to arbitrary questioning and registration. Representatives of churches or of humanitarian agencies working in those areas are particular targets of this type of psychological warfare; a permanent threat, communicated directly or indirectly, hangs over their lives.

On the whole, the armed forces have failed to isolate the FMLN using a similar strategy to the "strategic hamlet" one used in Guatemala, which was part of the "United for Reconstruction Plan." Repopulation of the war zones—both guerrilla controlled areas and disputed areas—with a docile population ready to serve as a broad paramilitary base has been unsuccessful.

The political situation:
Government and PDC erosion

In general, El Salvador's political situation during 1987 was characterized by two elements: the erosion of the government and the governing Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and the misused opening of new political space, in which the impact of Esquipulas II was key.

In a very fitting characterization, Rubén Zamora captured in a phrase the erosion of the PDC in its most recent months in power: "This government has the rare virtue of having won the enmity of all groups and social sectors."

a) First of all, the PDC enjoys the open opposition of the more powerful business sectors, who attribute the destruction of the country's economy to government reforms. The business stoppage of January 22 and the National Action Movement's call for a coup were the clearest symbolic expressions of this opposition.

b) The PDC has still been unable to win the sympathy of armed forces officialdom, which tolerates the party as a necessary evil in order to receive US aid. Management of the war neither depends on nor even goes through the government, including Duarte, who is constitutionally commander in chief.

c) The majority of the popular groups sympathetic to the government or helped Duarte win the election in 1984 through the Popular Democratic Union (UPD) have withdrawn their support and the UPD broke its social pact with the government. They pulled out on their own, without telling the unions openly opposed to the government, e.g. the UNTS or others, all of which are affected by the continuing war and by an economic policy insensitive to the most critical needs of the people.

d) In December the Democratic Action Party, which until then had shared the government with the PDC (albeit somewhat symbolically), broke its alliance, saying that the Christian Democratic policy was unacceptable. Obviously, this break had a clear electoral purpose, but it shows that even a party without followers would rather be seen by the electorate as independent than as linked to the party in power.

e) Naturally, the governing party's greatest foe is the FDR/FMLN, which sees Duarte and his government as an even more important enemy than merely being the executor of the US project.

It is interesting to find that the conflict is felt within the PDC itself. The progressive embedding of power within a small group of PDC leaders, known as "the trust," which is deaf to dialogue and highhanded in its behavior within the party, has polarized the PDC around the two presidential candidates, Adolfo Rey Prendes (member of "the trust") and Fidel Chávez Mena. The polarization has reached the point of violent confrontation and murder, further polarizing those involved. This internal division is evidence of the party’s political deterioration after seven years in power.

The Salvadoran government has counted much more on support from foreign governments than from among its own population. US support, especially in the form of economic aid and control over the army, has been the decisive factor keeping the PCD in power. This support, however, has in no way been free or disinterested; it is given at the expense of Salvadoran national sovereignty. The Duarte government has been able to achieve only those aspects of its initial political program that coincide with the US plan; in others that are not, it has failed. For example, it has made some progress regarding human rights, necessary to the US Congress and to other governments to justify the approval of massive aid of all kinds, but has been unable to make any progress in bringing the war to an end or in seeking non-military solutions contrary to the US project.

The Duarte government and the US Embassy consider (at least in their public rhetoric) that the reforms established in 1980 have achieved the basic socioeconomic changes necessary to guarantee the new, more just and human social structures necessary as a foundation for a democratic society. On this point, 1987 has seen no essential change: the reforms, especially the agrarian reform, are at a standstill for lack of political and technical energy, with no real possibility of significantly benefiting the people. All objective evaluations agree on the overall failure of the agrarian reform, independent of the reasonableness of its objectives or the benefits it brought in isolated cases to small sectors of the peasantry. In more than a few cases, including the so-called "reform sector," socioeconomic conditions are significantly worse than before the reform. It is not surprising, then, that several of the "reformed" cooperatives are among the most combative organized groups, frequently fighting government policy.

At the end of the year, the government announced its intention to launch the second phase of the agrarian reform. The political motive was clear: to win support before the upcoming elections. The announcement raised sharp controversy in the ANEP organizations, which insist that "before beginning a second stage, the results of the first must be evaluated as an indispensable measure for finding alternative solutions to the serious economic and social crisis in which the country is entangled." Their opposition is more an indication of the entrenched polarization of Salvadoran big business and private enterprise regarding the reforms than of the reforms' objective importance.

All in all, important space has been opened for public debate, allowing expression of positions contrary to government policy and the US project, by the Left as well as by the Right (which has always enjoyed this freedom). One of the most remarkable developments has been the proliferation of television news programs, which now offer the Salvadoran people fairly independent information about events, as well as an opportunity to hear all sorts of opinions about national and international developments.

The most significant result of this political opening is the brief return of FDR leaders Guillermo Ungo and Rubén Zamora, and the formation of the Democratic Convergence. Will the US government try to maneuver this new space to separate the FDR from the FMLN? Or co-opt some of these parties in an attempt to resurrect a program like that of the 1979 Junta? For the moment, the Ungo-Zamora visit made manifest the critical limitations of the new opening, expressed in the government's declarations and threats, the criticism and warnings made by some army spokesmen, the open rejection by some political parties and groups representing private capital, and even direct threats against the two leaders themselves. Nevertheless, the very formation of the Democratic Convergence reflects an opening unimaginable only two years ago.

In this climate of greater freedom, El Salvador's Catholic hierarchy has continued to marginalize itself from any significant influence on the processes within the country. Although it maintains a relatively independent and critical stance, the official word of the Church has become ineffectual, when not easily exploitable by the government. Even Bishop Rivera y Damas' role as mediator between the parties in conflict has been more of an excuse for constraint and ineffectiveness than an opportunity to critically and constructively orient the process towards the perspective of the popular majorities. Instead of the untiring work on behalf of justice and peace that one might expect from the bishops, there is a weariness among them. There is also vacillation in their public pronouncements and consequently confusion among those who look to them for clarity and coherence. Nonetheless, the Salvadoran Church as a whole is still close to the people who suffer and even to those in the struggle.

Into this political context came Esquipulas II. The Salvadoran government, once recovered from the surprise of having signed a document that confronted the United States and obliged the government itself to make a series of decisions for which it did not have enough power, tried to resolve the issue in the quickest possible way, with an eye to avoiding responsibility rather than solving problems.

* It formed a remarkably bland National Reconciliation Commission, the very composition of which guaranteed that it would be ineffectual.

* It decreed an amnesty law, but only after negotiations with the armed forces, which exacted amnesty regarding any claim over its own past human rights violations in exchange.

* It went to the talks with the FDR-FMLN, but with no intention to do more than the minimum required by Esquipulas and with no authority to do other than arrange a cease-fire. The FDR-FMLN went with the intention of discussing the problem as a whole or discussing nothing at all. Under these conditions, the talks could go nowhere.

* The limited unilateral cease-fire later declared by the government, which the army itself broke within a few days over a flimsy excuse, fooled no one.

In sum, the Salvadoran government, more concerned with meeting requirements than with genuinely resolving problems, thus formally "fulfilled" the Esquipulas II requirements. The saying, "The letter kills but the spirit gives life" applies in this case. The measures were carried out more with an eye on camera images than on the victims of the problems.

The year in summary:
A war, a light and inertia

In view of the above facts, the meaning 1987 for El Salvador can be summarized in three points: (1) the burden of the war, (2) the light from Esquipulas II, and (3) the crisis of inertia.

The Burden of the War: No matter what perspective one takes in analyzing current events in El Salvador, it is clear that the war is the country’s all-encompassing reality. This civil war continues to define everything else that happens in the country. It is the framework for the various social forces and for all attempts to resolve the country's problems, whether sectoral or general.

But if 1987 has proven anything, it is that the war is not going anywhere, and certainly not towards a solution to the Salvadoran conflict. Neither the army nor the FMLN has the capacity to achieve a military victory in the foreseeable future and, even if one or the other were able to do so, the continuation of the war would be guaranteed. Either new groups of rebels would rise up or, in the opposite case, counterrevolutionary forces would. Unlike Nicaragua's contras, the latter would not have to be created, since they already exist. This deadlock does not mean there can be no change in the war, but that the changes are balanced on both sides. In other words, the combative and destructive capacity of the two parties is growing equally, and all this assures is more destruction to the country and its ever scarcer resources.

The war’s deadlock is fundamentally due to the tenacious US insistence on a military solution in the area and thus to its systematic blocking of any alternative that does not involve wiping out the revolutionary movement, and in particular, the FMLN. The US project has been imposed on the Salvadoran government largely through control over its armed forces, paid for with massive political and economic aid. That aid has been the only consistent support Duarte has been able to count on during the year. The war is governed by the doctrine of low-intensity conflict, which is followed to the letter; even the political space that has opened is part of this counterinsurgency strategy and has therefore been subordinated to it.

The prolongation of the war, however, is also due to the conviction of the FMLN or, at least of some of its groups, that it is still gaining strength and could win a military victory if it can break the US will to continue supporting the army. Unfortunately, each party to the conflict is convinced that time is on its side and that continuing the war will sooner or later swing the balance in its favor.

The course of events in 1987 has shown more clearly than ever the contradiction inherent in the debate: El Salvador finds itself forced to fight a war it knows not only will not lead to a solution to the conflict, but actually tends to aggravate it, making a solution ever more difficult to achieve. If anything, the contradiction is more serious for the government: it is fighting a war simply to stay in power (as a condition of US support, its only power base), at the same time that the war keeps it from achieving anything, subordinates its policies to the army’s military and business judgment and, therefore, is bringing on the total failure of its efforts, if not its very downfall.

The Light of Esquipulas II: In the context of this war, imposed from outside and with no end in sight, Esquipulas II constitutes a real surprise and a revelation. Although the sense of Esquipulas II is centered more on the problem of Nicaragua than of El Salvador, it unquestionably introduces valid possibilities in both cases.

What is the accomplishment of Esquipulas II? First of all, it is a Central American solution. While it would be naive to think that this alone guarantees its effectiveness, it is also clear that no plan can be effective that does not have the needs and conditions of the Central American peoples as its primary criteria. US policy in the area certainly does not see these as a priority; in fact, one of its fundamental weaknesses is that its own "national security" is its single and much more prosaic priority.

Esquipulas II is a political solution, not a military one, to the Central American problem. In the case of El Salvador, war has clearly been shown to be ineffective as a way out of the country's conflict. It is no longer reasonable to think, as the US Embassy does, that the country can stand six or seven more years of war, which is the Embassy's estimate of what it will take for the Salvadoran Army to win the war.

The accomplishments of Esquipulas II are several, but while it would hardly be objective to speak of its failure, it has not achieved its ultimate goal—to establish peace in the region and, in this case, in El Salvador. Esquipulas II has demonstrated that, while the military alternative provides no solution, the political alternative is extremely complex and difficult. In fact, it is logical that, in the case of El Salvador, the war will have to intensify if formal fulfillment of the accords is to become real fulfillment. There will have to be popular mobilization and more pressure on the economy to force a realistic dialogue—a "humanization" of the conflict, as the FMLN-FDR proposed in May in its 18-point peace proposal (to which the Christian Democratic government made no response whatsoever).

The Crisis of Inertia: In 1987, the destructive deadlock of the war and the ray of light offered by Esquipulas II demonstrated that what is needed for a solution to the Salvadoran problem—and probably for that of Central America as well—is to break the stagnated balance of forces operating in the country. This means looking for alternatives with creativity and flexibility, since the political problem, and the forces and interests at play, are extremely complex. It does not seem realistic to think that the US government will withdraw from Central America as it did from Vietnam, thus any solution will require taking into account its reasonable expectations—and even some of its unreasonable ones.

Last year should prove to the governing PDC that it is going down a dead-end path, not only bringing its political objectives to failure but also alienating itself from the majority of Salvadoran people so much that it is now little more than the manager of a foreign project. The loss of national sovereignty was clearer than ever in the Salvadoran government’s behavior during 1987. The signing of Esquipulas II, however surprising that was even to those who signed it, opened the horizon to resources of power that do not presuppose submission to interests, policies or needs that are not those of the Salvadoran people.

But the FMLN, too, has things to learn from Esquipulas II. It should learn the need for greater political imagination, in order to make the many reasonable stipulations of Esquipulas II viable realities rather than working on the violent radicalization of mass movements in anticipation of an eventual popular insurrection—which is improbable. The fundamental challenge to the creativity shown by the FMLN throughout these years of struggle is to find a way to achieve this by responding to the most authentic aspirations of the Salvadoran people, without betraying their ideals.

There are those who think Esquipulas II shows that the time for armed revolution is passing in Central America and that the time has come to shift the emphasis from weapons to politics. This is, of course, arguable. What is not very arguable in El Salvador's case, is that war as the principal means will neither bring peace nor solve the social conflicts, much less resolve their deeply rooted causes. Esquipulas II shows that new dynamics must be introduced for the process not to end in a standstill. For the principal forces operating in El Salvador, this means political imagination and flexibility. The crisis of the US project and of Christian Democracy, its tool in El Salvador, may be the factor that allows a greater convergence of social forces, thus bringing more pressure to bear for realistic and just negotiations in 1988.

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Modernization and Militarism

Military Solution in Crisis

Dependence and the Military

Steps on the Road to Peace

Between Dignity and Submission

Conclusions: Whither Central America
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