SAN SALVADOR — Jose Napoleon Duarte, who became El Salvador's first democratically elected president in 50 years but was unable to end a civil war that battered his nation, died today of cancer. He was 64.
The ex-president's personal physician, Jose Luis Saca, said Duarte died at 11:50 a.m. at home in the fashionable San Benito neighborhood on the south side of San Salvador.
In May, 1988, doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington diagnosed the cancer and removed 60% of Duarte's stomach, but the cancer had spread to his liver. At that time, they gave him from six to 18 months to live.
Duarte governed from 1984 until June, 1989, when his Christian Democrats lost control of Congress and he had to turn the presidency over to Alfredo Cristiani, leader of the rightist Arena Party supported by the oligarchy that Duarte fought so long.
Duarte, who was once arrested, beaten and exiled for his fidelity to democracy, called his inauguration in 1984 "a light in the long night of horror," and he likened himself to Moses delivering a people from their tribulations.
Duarte was crucial to the replacement of an authoritarian, semi-feudal system with incipient democracy. But he finished his term, and his life, burdened by failures, compromises, frustration and dashed hopes.
The war with the leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front continues after 10 years. Poverty remains endemic in this small Central American nation of 5 million, where the staggering economy is dependent on U.S. aid.
"He didn't work miracles," said a high-ranking U.S. diplomat who served in El Salvador for most of Duarte's term. "But he must be credited with instituting the democratic system itself. His great legacy is the transition (of government). The rest pales by comparison."
Duarte's opponents criticized his bombast and messianic complex. Some of his top aides were accused of corruption. His supporters hailed his idealism and fighting spirit. But adversaries and fans agree Duarte played a historic role in El Salvador.