El Salvador is finally at peace, but democracy faces a tough battle

January 03, 1992|By Julia Cass | Julia Cass,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The settlement ending the 12-year civil war in El Salvador is more than an agreement to stop fighting in a country where 75,000 have been killed. It is a pact to create profound changes in Salvadoran society that, on paper at least, will shift the conflict from an armed struggle to a political struggle.

"We are constructing the basement of a democracy," Juan Jose Martel, a member of the National Assembly, said of the peace process.

A significant phase of that process ended late Tuesday night when United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar -- in the last hours before his 10-year tenure ended at midnight -- achieved accord between the two sides on details of the pact.

But no one can answer the central question: Will a democracy actually arise on this foundation? Can a divided country run by a military dictatorship for most of the century, a country where power has been based on force and violent repression, hash out its differences politically?

"This will be the hardest part," Mr. Martel said. "If you check, you will learn that debate or compromise or negotiation are not our culture. Our tradition has been: If our interests are opposed, we will kill you."

The end of the civil war concludes a controversial chapter in U.S. foreign policy. For most of the 1980s, events in this country -- about the same size as Massachusetts, about the same population (5.5 million) as the greater Philadelphia area -- were bitterly debated in Washington as two Republican administrations sent El Salvador $4.5 billion in military and economic aid to help the army fight leftist guerrillas.

While most people here view the peace agreements as making a substantial change -- on paper -- many expect difficulties in making them real.

This remains a very violent country. People still are assassinated regularly. A recent report by a U.N. team said the team investigated 20 murders in August, September and October. (In 1980 and 1981, between 800 and 1,000 people a month were slain, many by the army or paramilitary death squads. Bodies by the road were a common sight.)

In the final month of negotiations, right-wing forces have made clear their disapproval not only of the details of the proposed settlement but of any negotiations at all, with one group calling President Alfredo Cristiani a Communist for talking with the guerrillas. Another group sent death threats to the U.N. human rights monitoring team.

These groups are assumed to be hard-liners in the oligarchy and military, and many people here believe that the future of democracy depends on the ability to hold these two traditionally powerful forces in check.

Economics, too, will be a difficult test for the fledgling democracy. Many of the conditions that gave rise to revolutionary movements in the 1970s -- poverty, landownership inequity, human rights abuses -- remain.

El Salvador's long war began in 1980, when the military dictatorship crushed a challenge to its power and to the oligarchy's wealth from students, unions, peasant federations and moderate political parties.

Leaders of the groups were killed or forced into exile, and a coalition of Marxist student groups called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front took up arms and fought a guerrilla campaign that kept much of the countryside in bloody turmoil for more than a decade.

Under pressure from the United States, El Salvador elected its first civilian president in more than a half-century, Jose Napoleon Duarte, in 1984. The military remained powerful -- some say, all-powerful in relation to the civilian government -- but it was unable to defeat the FMLN.

Critics such as David Holliday, the El Salvador director of Americas Watch, a human rights group, described U.S. policy as contradictory -- pushing for elections and an end to the killings of civilians while bolstering the military, which was involved in many of the killings.

"The story of the '80s has been the U.S. held hostage to the military machine it enlarged in order to defeat the guerrillas. The administration has kept saying, 'We can't cut aid too fast and destabilize the situation.' In effect, they're saying we aren't supporting a democratic, self-policing body. We're supporting thugs and killers, and we're paying them not to kill. If we stop, they'll kill again. It's a kind of extortion."

With both sides recognizing a military stalemate by the end of 1989, representatives of the military, the FMLN and the government -- now with the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) as the ruling party -- began meeting with United Nations mediator Alvaro DeSoto in March 1990 to negotiate the agreement concluded Tuesday night.

Some people here believe that peace became possible when the economic power of the oligarchy, the old families that own the coffee, sugar and cotton plantations, began to wane.

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