After El Salvador's 'Acceptable' Election, How Should the U.S. Proceed?

March 27, 1994|By KENNETH E. SHARPE

El Salvador's deeply flawed elections last week were certified as "acceptable" by most international observers. What now should the United States do to promote democracy and peace?

The ruling, ultra-conservative Arena Party won a plurality of votes in the presidential, legislative and local contests. The leftist coalition finished second, and the Christian Democrats, once the darling of the George Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations, finished third.

Rightist presidential candidate Armando Calderon Sol did not, however, get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff and must face the left's Ruben Zamora in an April election. Mr. Calderon Sol will likely win, keeping in power the party that has most consistently opposed reform of the military, judiciary and land-owning system.

The Arena Party used its control of the government to influence the elections. More than 45 organizers and candidates, mostly on the left, have been assassinated in the past six months, presumably by rightist death squads that have historically been linked to Arena and the military. Some 340,000 voters on the electoral rolls were denied voting cards and could not vote. Some deceased voters on the rolls did vote.

But what made these flawed elections so "acceptable" by Salvadoran standards is that the presence of United Nations monitors and peacekeepers kept human rights violations and voting fraud far below that of previous elections, and, for the first time, the left could organize and participate in relatively open fashion.

Even acceptable elections, however, do not create democracies. Now the central question is: Will the government meet the other conditions of the U.N.-brokered peace accords which ended the 12-year civil war two years ago? Three issues are critical.

The peace accords specified that the military would go back to its barracks and law enforcement would be the job of a newly-created police force, the PNC, which for the first time would be under civilian control. By agreement, the PNC is open to former guerrillas, former police members, and new recruits -- but only after each has been screened to check their human rights records.

But the government and military aim to derail the process. They are forcing unscreened and dangerous members of the old police force into the new corps; they have suspended the demobilization of the old national police and delayed deployment of the new PNC. The government instructed PNC commanders to stop cooperating with the Police and Human Rights Division of the U.N., a critical force in monitoring the behavior of the new force.

Since this break, human rights abuses by the PNC have risen sharply. Failure to create a professional, law-abiding police force will doom the accords.

Even a decent police force can do little without a judicial system that can fairly try and punish offenders. That system does not exist.

The Truth Commission created by the peace accords concluded that, "The Judicial System was so debilitated that it became imprisoned by intimidation and vulnerable to corruption." It recommended that the entire Supreme Court resign, as it had failed to ever investigate or punish perpetrators of political violence.

The members refused. But the newly elected Assembly will get a chance to appoint a new court. The United States can make clear that continued aid is dependent on the investigation and prosecution of death squad members.

The repressive political system in El Salvador was designed to prevent the poor and landless from pressing for social justice. Now the country, battered by the 12-year civil war, needs not only aid from the United States in rebuilding, but support for social and economic reforms. Perhaps most important is the distribution of land and credit, especially to former soldiers on both sides and to the inhabitants of the war zones. Unless these former combatants have a stake in the new society, violence and unrest will soon erupt again.

The United States has important interests in seeing that the peace accords are carried out. Long-term peace and stability in the region depend on democratic and social reform in El Salvador. Further, El Salvador is an important test case of U.S and U.N. commitment to use negotiations to end civil conflict in Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Haiti and elsewhere.

The United States also has a moral responsibility in El Salvador: For more than a decade, the United States blocked negotiations and gave $6 billion to a military and government that carried out and covered up the murders of nuns, Jesuits, politicians, activists and more than 70,000 civilians.

Documents recently released to El Salvador's Truth Commission show that we knew exactly who and what we were supporting. This is no time to walk away: We now must help heal the wounds we helped inflict.

Kenneth Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and currently a research fellow at the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the City University of New York.

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