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Central America: Voting for Moderation

14 minute read
George Russell

As Duarte wins in El Salvador, Reagan scores a narrow victory in Congress

For months the twin political battles had raged in the dusty civic plazas of Central America and in the ornate lobbies on Capitol Hill. Hanging in the balance was the future of El Salvador, a nation in desperate search of an exit from its 4½-year civil war. Just as much in question was the fate of the Reagan Administration’s controversial efforts to protect U.S. security interests in Central America.

By last week, both of those drawn-out contests had arrived, if not at a conclusion, then at an important new threshold. In El Salvador, war-weary citizens once again flocked in impressive numbers to the polls to elect, as their President, José Napoleón Duarte, 58, a man who held out the promise of political reconciliation. Yet before the results were even announced, they were already being hotly contested.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Administration made a substantial breach in the wall of congressional resistance to its military and economic support for El Salvador after President Reagan warned, in a hard-line appeal on nationwide television, that failure to break a partisan deadlock posed an apocalyptic threat: that “100 million people from Panama to the open border on our south could come under the control of pro-Soviet regimes.” In a 212-to-208 vote, the House of Representatives approved a foreign aid bill containing about $ 170 million in military aid for El Salvador.

Serving as the backdrop on both fronts was the spectacle of Salvadoran democracy’s springing into fragile bloom. For the second time in two months, the country’s voters had demonstrated their willingness to take their future into their own hands. In even greater numbers than in the chaotic initial round of U.S.-backed balloting on March 25, Salvadorans trudged to the polling booths in 221 of the country’s 261 municipalities to choose a President freely for the first time in half a century.

In all, some 1.5 million citizens, or roughly 80% of those registered to cast their mandatory vote, took part in the surprisingly trouble-free runoff that capped five weeks of vitriolic campaigning. Tallying the official results proved to be arduous. By Friday, after election officials hand-counted the votes from 5,448 ballot boxes, Duarte, leader of the center-left Christian Democratic Party, had won a decisive victory over his archrival, Roberto d’Aubuisson, 40, of the ultra-rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The results: Duarte 53.6%, D’Aubuisson 46.4%.

One of the strongest early indications that Duarte had won handily came from D’Aubuisson. The morning after the polls closed, the slight, nervous former intelligence major appeared at his party’s heavily guarded headquarters in the capital, San Salvador, to make what amounted—almost—to a defiant concession of defeat. Said he: “Our party will work with Duarte if he wins. But if he wins over us, it will be by a slim margin. We remain a real political force in this country that can’t be ignored.”

By the next day, ARENA was doing its utmost to confuse the outcome of what had been an orderly and largely fraud-free election. D’Aubuisson called a press conference to charge that the U.S. was meddling in the election, and that a U.S. embassy official had served improperly as a consultant to the country’s Central Election Commission. ARENA’S official scrutineer was finally ejected by the election commission for repeatedly interrupting the vote-counting process. D’Aubuisson also claimed, without offering proof, that the U.S. had “fixed” the election, and declared that “we are not going to validate this puppet, Mr. Duarte, who they say has been bought by the CIA so it can maintain its interests.” At week’s end ARENA declared that it would refuse to recognize the election results. Meanwhile, the possibility of CIA involvement in Duarte’s election campaign was also being discussed in the U.S. Senate (see box).

The new CIA controversy may have cast a slight shadow over the election outcome, but it did not obscure the achievement of the election. Whatever the Reagan Administration may have spent covertly on campaign activity, the U.S. saw its roughly $7 million investment in the mechanics of the balloting resoundingly vindicated. In contrast to the rhetoric of the campaign, when Duarte supporters called their opponents ARENAZIS and D’Aubuisson campaign workers accused the Christian Democratic leader of being a Communist who would hand the country over to the guerrillas, election day was part festival, part family outing. As street vendors hawked papusas (stuffed corncakes) and ice cream near polling stations, uniformed soldiers casually stood by. Voters chatted, joked and waited pa1tiently in line for hours to cast their votes under the watchful” gaze of vigilantes (poll watchers) decked out in the red-white-and-blue colors of ARENA or the dark green of the Christian Democrats. Election lines moved smoothly, and most of the voting was completed well before the 6 p.m. deadline. Said José Antin Herrera, an election council official in the town of Ilobasco, 35 miles northeast of San Salvador: “We belong to different parties, but we’re all Salvadorans. There are no problems here.”

More significant, the enthusiastic turnout provoked a near invisible response from the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.). Thoroughly unsuccessful last March in their efforts to bully and intimidate voters away from the polls, the guerrillas hardly tried to block last week’s runoff. Their disruptive efforts were limited to a few scattered acts of sabotage and isolated attacks on polling areas that left five government troops and six guerrillas dead or wounded. A few guerrillas went door to door in communities with leaflets urging people not to vote. Once the balloting was over, however, the guerrillas returned to the offensive, blowing up power stations outside San Salvador and the regional center San Miguel. Late last week a five-member commando group of guerrillas held 73 people hostage for a day in a supermarket in San Salvador, after police foiled a rebel holdup. Eventually, the guerrillas gave up the hostages in exchange for an offer of refuge in Mexico.

While the guerrillas showed their disdain, American visitors expressed non-partisan delight over the election process. U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Thomas Pickering took 41 official U.S. observers, including Senators Pete Wilson of California and John Chafee of Rhode Island and a group of Congressmen, around to watch the balloting. Said Chafee: “Anybody who looks at this and fails to be impressed is just immune to sensitivity.” Agreed Angier Biddle Duke, a Democrat who had served as Ambassador to El Salvador in 1952-53: “The U.S. spent chicken feed here, and in return for that investment we have seen El Salvador take a quantum leap forward in its democratic process. Americans can take pride in helping El Salvador take its place among the democratic nations of the world.” Upon their return to the U.S., the official observers issued a joint statement calling the election an “overwhelming repudiation” of the guerrillas.

President Reagan expressed that theme, though in much stronger and more sweeping terms, during his TV address. Reagan has been frustrated, above all, by the determined resistance of the House to his requests for $62 million in emergency military aid for El Salvador and $21 million in funding for the Administration’s not so secret war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Those funds have been approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, but House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, a firm opponent of Reagan’s policies in Central America, has blocked a congressional conference that could release the money. After a meeting with Reagan on Tuesday, however, House Majority Leader James Wright of Texas said that it was time to stop the policy of “not giving [the Salvadoran army] enough to win but giving them enough not to lose.”

The next day Reagan used almost exactly those words during a half-hour nationally televised speech. “We have provided just enough aid to avoid outright disaster, but not enough to resolve the crisis, so El Salvador is being left to slowly bleed to death,” he declared. Conveying both anger and urgency, the President painted a harsh picture of Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan attempts to “spread Communism by force throughout the hemisphere.” Alternately evoking that alarming picture and declaring the Administration’s commitment to programs of longterm, peaceful economic and social assistance for Central America, Reagan implicitly justified his Administration’s policy of CIA-backed warfare against Nicaragua. He summed up his challenge to Congress in martial terms: “Will we support freedom in this hemisphere or not? Will we defend our vital interests in this hemisphere or not? Will we stop the spread of Communism in this hemisphere or not? Will we act while there is still time?”

Between the euphoria of the Salvadoran election outcome and the urgency of Reagan’s address, the Administration’s pitch to Congress produced a quick success. The Representatives attached only a relatively mild proviso to the aid bill, requiring the President to report periodically on El Salvador’s progress in ending human rights abuses, most notably those of the country’s predominantly right-wing death squads (see following story). Said a senior State Department official: “That’s the best of both worlds.”

Administration pleasure over the congressional action was tempered, but only slightly, by a minor judicial defeat in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In its first deliberative action on Nicaragua’s April 9 complaint about the CIA-directed mining of its harbors, the court’s 15 judges ruled that the U.S. should immediately halt any attempts to blockade or mine those ports. State Department Spokesman John Hughes declared that there was nothing in the ruling “inconsistent with current U.S. policy or activities” toward Nicaragua, a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. broke off the controversial mining a month ago. The court’s ruling was not binding in any way.

Nothing in Hughes’ statement, however, indicated that the Administration was about to end any of its other “covert” activities against Nicaragua. Indeed, late last week there were indications that the three major bands of contra guerrillas, totaling some 12,000, based along Nicaragua’s northern and southern borders, were once again trying to form a unified command structure. That effort continued to fail, largely because of internal bickering and jealousies.

In El Salvador, seeking peace while coping with a growing war will be the fundamental challenge facing the nation’s new President after his June 1 inauguration. As Duarte has put it, “All the world knows this country is completely divided. We have to set forth with hope and tolerance to cure these divisions.” At a Christian Democratic victory party after Sunday’s election, he told his cheering followers: “The solution here is democracy, not more violence.”

Short, stocky and legendarily headstrong, Duarte can claim a multiple perspective on his socially stratified land. The son of a mildly prosperous candy manufacturer, Duarte almost always chooses to stress his mother’s humble background, at various times citing her occupation as a domestic servant, seamstress and food vendor in local markets. A 1948 civil engineering graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he picked up an enthusiasm for basketball, Duarte returned to marry his San Salvador high school sweetheart and settled comfortably into a job with her father’s thriving construction firm. Duarte made his first mark on the capital in the ’50s by helping to build close to a dozen of the city’s landmark public buildings.

In 1960 Duarte began to give up engineering for politics. He helped to found the local Christian Democratic Party, becoming its first leader. Three years later he was elected mayor of San Salvador, a position he held until 1970. Rigorously honest, Duarte won admirers among the city’s lower and middle classes by building open-air markets for street vendors and reforming a corrupt municipal administration. He also made enemies among the wealthy by instituting San Salvador’s first municipal tax to stave off bankruptcy.

In 1972 Duarte ran for President against Colonel Arturo Armando Molina Barraza, the candidate of El Salvador’s ruling military-landowner alliance. Duarte’s running mate was a high school chum, Guillermo Ungo.* Conservative businessmen were aghast at the duo’s election promises of land reform and support for organized labor, and by the fact that a front organization for the illegal Communist Party was participating in its National Opposition Union. When Duarte appeared to be pulling into the lead, the government blacked out television coverage of the ballot counting and announced the following day that Molina had won by 22,000 votes.

A month later Duarte incautiously gave vocal support to a coup by young, reform-minded Salvadoran army officers. When the revolt was crushed, Duarte was hauled from his sanctuary in a Venezuelan diplomatic residence, held incommunicado and brutally beaten. His cheekbones still bear indentations from that torture. Telegrams from Pope Paul VI, Richard Nixon and Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh brought about his release; Duarte spent the next seven years in exile in Venezuela.

In 1979 reformist military officers ousted Molina’s successor, General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena. A year later Duarte became the junta President. He helped begin a sweeping land reform and the nationalization of local banks and export industries, thereby further alienating the oligarchy. Conservatives began calling Duarte a “watermelon”—Christian Democratic green on the outside, red on the inside—especially during the recent election campaign, when he declared that he favored a national “dialogue.” What Duarte meant was that he would seek to create a climate in which any rebels who wanted to reject violence could return to take part in future democratic elections. Says Duarte: “Those who reject the political process and remain in the mountains will be nothing more than outlaws. I will not negotiate with guns on the table.” So far, the guerrillas’ response to Duarte’s overtures has been a series of radio broadcasts denouncing him as a tool of “imperialist intervention.”

Duarte faces a host of other problems. Partly because guerrillas have destroyed numerous power lines, bridges and crops, and partly because so much Salvadoran capital has left the country, El Salvador’s economy is in ruins. Local experts consider it a triumph that the country showed no decline in growth last year; in the previous four years, the economy shrank 25%.

During the same period, average per capita income fell 33%, to about $475 annually. Unemployment and underemployment hover at about 45%, even though an estimated 750,000 Salvadorans have fled the country. Duarte’s solution is to stimulate employment with public works programs and a liberal policy of lending money to small businesses.

Duarte also faces problems within one of his own political bastions, organized labor. In the past three years, Salvadoran prices have risen 98%; the government has allowed wage increases of only 20% for private sector workers and 10% for the public sector. Prior to the March 25 election round, bank and water works employees in San Salvador struck to protest the wage situation. In that climate of frustration there is danger that the guerrillas will achieve their goal of winning substantial support within the labor movement.

In the end, Duarte’s strongest ally may be the 41,000-member armed forces that nearly killed him twelve years ago. Most of El Salvador’s 14 departmental commanders are pledged to support the new government. Those known to favor D’Aubuisson are expected to be transferred to harmless administrative jobs or to embassies abroad. One reason for the armed forces’ anticipated compliance is the promise of additional U.S. military aid; last week the Salvadoran army began taking delivery of $32 million worth of ammunition and field equipment.

With more military supplies coming in, the Salvadoran army may pursue the antiguerrilla war more aggressively. According to the Reagan Administration, the rebels are stockpiling Cuban-supplied armaments in anticipation of a major offensive in the fall. The combination of Duarte’s political victory and the Administration’s gains on Capitol Hill are worrisome to a Salvadoran Jesuit scholar, who says, “The electoral process has been a tremendous success. My problem is what will come out of it. I’m afraid our recent advance toward greater democracy will only lead to a more sophisticated war.” Duarte, whose own harsh experiences with Salvadoran reality may have tempered his sense of impatience, responds that “we are trying to get the people back to having faith and hope. We cannot offer miracles.” But to pull El Salvador out of its violent maelstrom, something close to a miracle may be necessary.

—By George Russell. Reported by David DeVoss/San Salvador and Barrett Seaman/Washington

* Ungo, a Social Democrat, joined forces with the guerrillas in 1980 and has now become their chief political spokesman.

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