The reports were unequivocal and shocking. As many as 900 unarmed men, women and children had been slaughtered by the government’s crack Atlacatl regiment in El Salvador’s eastern province of Morazán. Correspondents for The New York Times and The Washington Post described in poignant detail the smashed homes and the churches filled with charred bones. Rufina Amaya, 38, a mother who had witnessed the murder of four of her six children declared: “I could hear the children crying. When it was all over the lieutenant ordered the soldiers to put a torch to the corpses. There was a great fire in the night.”
The revelations, received with caution by the state department in Washington, were inconvenient both in content and in timing for the Reagan administration. Washington is preparing to funnel a further $65 million in military aid to the beleaguered junta of President Napolean Duarte. And it is the Atlacatl, re-equipped with U.S. M16 carbines last year, that has so far received most of the training assistance provided by the 54 U.S. advisers working in El Salvador. Now, the White House may find that sending still more
aid will be more complicated than had been expected. A rider to the Foreign Assistance Act, approved by Congress last month, requires the president to certify that the Salvadoran government is “achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces, so as to bring to an end the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens by these forces.”
Still, two days after the reports were published, Reagan contended that the Salvadoran junta was making “continuing progress” in controlling the military. And with no legislative mechanism to challenge his certification it seemed that the aid would go ahead. The only barrier to its progress: a move by Democrat Representatives Tom Harkin (of Iowa) and Gerry Studds (of Massachusetts) to introduce bills in the House this week to ban military aid.
If the atrocity reports made embarrassing reading in Washington, however, they were only one of a series of damaging setbacks for the Duarte government last week. Among other things, a group of 100 guerrillas carried out a lightning attack on the Ilopango airbase just outside San Salvador. Up to half the aircraft there were badly damaged, including four Huey helicopters provided by the United States. The
same day, Defence Minister Guillermo Garcia made the surprise announcement that six national guardsmen would be prosecuted for the murder of four American nuns, found shot to death in December, 1980. That move creates what could prove a dangerous precedent for the death squads whose military members have hitherto enjoyed legal immunity.
Each move seemed to be calculated to have a marked effect on elections, scheduled for March 28. The junta and its administration supporters hope that the voting will provide a “democratic solution” for El Salvador. The guerrillas are hoping that the outcome will demonstrate the depth of popular support for the underground leftist opposition. The odds are against any genuine democracy emerging, however, as four Canadian MPs suggested last week after a visit. With 30,000 people dead and with a tactical impasse among the army, the guerrillas and the death squads—which continue to dump more than 100 bodies a week at the roadsides—the atmosphere is one of fear and electoral paralysis.
In addition, the election lacks the participation of the government’s opponents in the civil war. Of the four major grassroots organizations that once
flourished in El Salvador, two—known by their acronyms BPR and FAPU—are now scattered or underground in support of the left. A third group is the neofascist ORDEN (order). Officially disbanded and severely weakened, its remaining members have joined the military in the death squads and they will probably support one of the two military parties in the race.
That means that the election results will be divided between fragmented rightists and the fourth of the old parties, the Christian Democrats. But the rightists are little more than clubs, and the Christian Democrats retain a mere shadow of their former power. Not only that, the Christian Democrats have been outflanked by groups further to the left and they have been alienated from their popular base because of their participation in government during the country’s recent bloody history.
The campaign is also coming under concerted attack from the guerrilla alliance, representing roughly half the political spectrum—from social democrats to Marxists. Some factions, like the small Democratic Party of Alliance, led by President Manuel Ungo, believe in Western-style open elections. Others favor voting “only after the people have been educated to the point where they cannot be taken in.” But they are all united in condemning what they term the current “electoral farce.” The leftleaning Church Judicial Aid group declared that it was “absurd to push any political plan” when the authorities showed a total lack of respect for human life. “Whatever else is debatable,” it said, “dead people cannot vote.”
In an attempt to dispel some of the doubts about the elections, the junta is relying on a marginal relaxation of repression at home and a strong public relations campaign abroad. Christian Democrat activists have been sent to Europe (where the guerrilla opposition has strong support), Latin America and
the United States. Observers have been invited to monitor the honesty of the electoral process.
In El Salvador itself, the curfew has been relaxed—though unofficially it continues to be enforced by the death squads—and opposition groups have been allowed to publish advertisements stating their case in the national press. A government-appointed election commission has worked out more than 150 regulations. These include the abolition of voters’ lists—because hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared or been displaced—and the substitution of a system for inking voters’ fingers.
But the commission has done more than merely wish democracy into existence. Its deliberations marked the start of violent infighting between the Christian Democrats and their rightist opponents for a share of the spoils of power after March 28. The Christian Democrats are under heavy attack for “wrecking” the country’s besieged economy by attempting to collectivize large farms and nationalize banks and export companies. Maj. Robert d’Abuisson, widely suspected of having masterminded the 1980 assassination of Archibishop Oscar Romero, says the Christian Democrats constitute a Trojan horse. Their declared “communitarian philosophy,” says d’Abuisson aide Mario Radaelli, “is nothing but communism by stages.”
With the left effectively excluded from the electoral process and the only possible change in government being a swing to the right, the election has little chance of healing the country’s wounds. Indeed, polling could make things worse. As one American observer, a priest and a Democrat, commented: “This is going to be another lopsided vote, whichever way you look at it. The elections can only end up discrediting democracy even further among ordinary Salvadorans.”
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