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A Rush to Judgment on Duarte of El Salvador

June 19, 1988|Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller is The Times' correspondent in San Salvador.

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR — Normally, we expect a man to die before he merits an obituary, but that has certainly not been the case for El Salvador President Jose Napoleon Duarte, whose political death has been sought by his enemies for years.

From the moment Duarte's terminal stomach and liver cancer were made known, politicians, guerrillas, journalists and academics in El Salvador rushed to set down their conflicting judgments on his life. Duarte, a highly emotional and theatrical man, wittingly contributed to the debate with testimonial letters and a final state-of-the-nation speech.

Nearly 70,000 people have been killed during eight years of civil war in El Salvador. Since the president has not yet died, average Salvadorans have reacted with reserve: "Poor Duarte," they say.

The question that pundits and politicians are arguing, meanwhile, is how history will judge Duarte. The Christian Democrat president returned from exile to sit on a military-civilian junta for four years while paramilitary death squads wantonly slaughtered his countrymen, but then the same Duarte went on to serve as El Salvador's first popularly elected civilian president in more than half a century.

Few people in El Salvador inspire the extreme feelings that Duarte does. Depending on the appraiser's political perspective, Duarte is either tenacious or stubborn, loyal or vengeful, honest or a believer of his own lies. Duarte wanted to build a political middle between guerrillas in the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and ultra-rightists represented by the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA. But El Salvador is still polarized by civil war.

At home, Duarte continues to be viewed either as an idealist, relentless in his struggle for peace and constitutional democracy, or as a megalomaniac who prolonged the war, convinced that he alone could change the course of Salvadoran history.

In that view, he either saved his country from communism or he sold it to the United States.

No one in Salvadoran politics, least of all Duarte, has hesitated to use death as a means of furthering his own political goals. Each year, leftist groups resurrect the memory of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero with a march on the anniversary of his murder, to remind Salvadorans of the tens of thousands slain by death squads and the hundreds of thousands more living in squalid poverty. As if they could forget.

Whenever he has been in political trouble, Duarte has also trotted out the Romero assassination to accuse ARENA party leader Roberto D'Aubuisson of masterminding the death squads in the early 1980s. Last year when leftist leaders returned home from seven years of exile, Duarte countered the fanfare by calling D'Aubuisson the "intellectual author" of Romero's death. But Duarte's government has failed to prosecute D'Aubuisson or anyone else for the crime.

The slaying of human-rights activist Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria last year was similarly exploited. The left carted his cadaver through the streets for days before he was laid to rest beneath a mango tree.

To deflect an international uproar over the killing, Duarte then mounted a campaign accusing the guerrillas of having murdered Anaya. The government produced a captured student, Jorge Alberto Miranda, who said he was a guerrilla and had provided cover for the gunman who murdered Anaya. Miranda later recanted his story and that case also has gone nowhere.

Duarte's imminent death is an inevitable prop in this continuing political theater. And Duarte is El Salvador's master director of political theater, whatever the stage.

In the halls of the U.S. Congress before his inauguration, Duarte single-handedly charmed Democrats and Republicans alike into supporting his government at the rate of $1.5 million a day. At La Palma in 1984, Duarte marched boldly into town, armed only with the constitution, to meet with the guerrillas for a peace dialogue. Two years later, when the rebels refused to attend talks in Sessori, Duarte held a "peace monologue," shouting wildly to invisible guerrillas in the mountains to enter the fold of democracy.

Duarte was a tragic figure in 1985 when the rebels kidnaped his daughter, Ines Guadalupe, and held her for more than 40 days before releasing her in a prisoner swap. Then last year, he stunned even his supporters by impulsively kissing the American flag during a visit to the United States, an act of political suicide among nationalistic Latin Americans.

This flair for drama seems to be, in part, what led ARENA party leader Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth to accuse Duarte of faking his illness to avoid facing defeat and delivering his state-of-the-nation speech to a newly elected Assembly controlled by ARENA. Simple nastiness was perhaps the other inspiration for Rodriguez's editorial in the right-wing Diario de Hoy.

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