On the eve of the National Assembly election in El Salvador, policy-makers in Washington were still asking the self-serving question: Will the voting create a "workable" civilian government, one with enough legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. Congress to ensure continued financing of the Reagan Administration's "counter-insurgency" strategy? In other words, will President Jose Napoleon Duarte's Christian Democratic government do well enough to hold on for another year--or at least hold off gains by the far right, which is anathema to congressional Democrats who hold the purse strings?
Preoccupied by their own election year and urgencies elsewhere in Central America, the Democrats seem inclined to let El Salvador slide, rather than asking the necessary tough question: After eight years, is the Administration's strategy any closer to bringing that war to an end?
Despite more than $2.3 billion in U.S. aid since 1981, the Salvadoran military is in a stalemate with guerrilla forces. The counterinsurgency strategy improved the army's position to some degree in some areas until the guerrillas neutralized the strategy by changing their own tactics. Both sides can claim victories as the conflict worsens, but neither can impose a military solution.
Meanwhile, this military strategy--particularly the air assaults and forced relocation of civilian populations supporting the rebels--is undermining the government's stated strategy of reform and growth. There can be no reform as long as the war sacrifices health, education, housing and land redistribution to swollen military budgets. There can be no economic recovery as long as the war encourages disinvestment and the rebels continue destroying crops, transportation and power lines. Most U.S. economic aid simply goes to repair war damage and pay government salaries; its hidden uses finance corruption and capital flight.
Meanwhile, rightist forces in the Assembly have refused to endorse anything but token land reform and have blocked Duarte's efforts to raise taxes to finance social, economic or military programs.
With reform and recovery stalled, the political left has become increasingly attractive to many Salvadorans, giving the insurgency the popular base it needs to preserve the military stalemate.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the Administration's myopia is its continued assumption that elected civilians like Duarte hold power when in fact they merely hold office. Duarte lacks the power to negotiate an end to the war, or even to bring about mild reforms, and he is virtually powerless to tame the agents of repression in his country. He does not have the control over the military high command to stop the abusive interrogation techniques, beatings, death threats, disappearances and assassinations that continue to be used against opponents. There is a non-functioning judiciary, despite millions in U.S. support. No officer has been convicted or even tried for human-rights abuses, and last October's amnesty wiped out any chance of justice by dropping charges against all those involved in army massacres and military-connected death-squad actions.
Actual power continues to reside with a military that tolerates civilians like Duarte because of their usefulness as symbols of democracy. But symbolic leadership is no match for the country's political, social and economic ills, which is why U.S. policy-makers are so concerned about today's elections producing a "workable" government.
The extent of disintegration is apparent from the growing appeal and stepped-up activities of the center-left coalition. Many leaders of labor and peasant groups that comprise this loose alliance were once supporters of Duarte and moved into opposition only when it became apparent that he would not deliver on his promises. Though denounced by the government as fronts for the guerrillas, these groups are largely independent of the rebels, even if many of their demands are similar: salary hikes, funds for hospitals, schools and housing; land reform; an end to persecution, and peace talks with the rebels.
Because of its popular base, this emerging center-left grouping is probably the only potential coalition that might have the ability to effect needed reforms, to end the repression, and most important, to negotiate a solution to the civil war. But as these groups grow in strength, so does the repression of them. Consequently, no candidate of the center-left has been able to organize support and run for election.
Today's vote is not going to stem this deterioration. A Christian Democratic victory will simply leave in place a weak, inept and corrupt administration. Gains by the Arena party will only increase the far right's leverage in blocking Duarte's policies. El Salvador's situation will continue to deteriorate even as the country prepares to elect a new president next March.
The Republican Administration that gave El Salvador its twin counterinsurgency and democratization strategies may one day have to admit that they failed. But the Democrats in Congress will have to share the responsibility unless they start asking tough questions while they are still able to demand some answers.