Central America at the abyss

March 29 1982

Central America at the abyss

March 29 1982

Central America at the abyss


It was Wednesday on the road to El Progresso in the Salvadoran province of Usulután. To the right of the highway lay the body of a woman in her late 20s dressed in a pink polyester dress. Between her matted hair and nose was a gaping hole. One of her legs was twisted sideways, her brown thighs smeared with blood. She was barefoot, but she had painted her toenails a dark raspberry. None of the local peasants recognized the woman, but someone guessed she was a

“sindicalista”—a labor union woman from a nearby city. Overhead, zopilotes, El Salvador’s birds of carrion, circled on broad, black wings. Salvadoran journalist Edmundo Cardenal glanced up. “Some day we are going to make the zopilotes our national bird,” he sighed. “They have the best of our country in their stomachs.”

The zopilotes’ bellies will be even more swollen this week as El Salvador’s guerrilla armies strive to live up to their promise to launch a major offensive as a prelude to the tattered nation’s Sunday election. But at worst the offensive will be just another turn of the bloody wheel of Central American politics. Targeted by the United States as the next arena in its global confrontation with the Soviet Union, the region has unwillingly mounted the world

stage in a dance of death. In the past four years at least 75,000 people have died in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. And while many of those are victims of fighting between military rulers and coalitions of reformists whose political allegiances range from extreme left to centre-right, the majority of the victims simply stumbled into the vicious cross fire.

The grimy death on the El Progresso road was far from the region’s only outrage last week. In El Salvador itself,

rebel troops struck into the suburbs of San Salvador and four Dutch television* journalists died mysteriously in a bar5 rage of bullets. At the same time, the^ revolutionary junta in Nicaragua, faced| with internal sabotage and reports of CIA-backed insurgents on the Honduran border, declared a 30-day emergency and pinned its hopes for survival on a peace initiative launched by Mexican President José López Portillo. In Guatemala, the grinding civil war intensified in the wake of fraudulent national elections—and the new guerrilla coalition vowed to intensify its battle to oust the country’s newly elected right-wing president. For its part, an increasingly frustrated Reagan administration, unable to produce proof of the “smoking gun” of Cuban-Nicaraguan involvement in El Salvador, introduced its battered

Caribbean initiative package in Congress and appeared ready to soften its bellicose rhetoric. That move may have signalled a readiness to negotiate on the basis of the Mexican peace proposal, including talks among all parties directly involved—as well as between Washington and Havana.

Indeed, it was a week of picking up the pieces in Washington. And once again, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was at the centre of the debris, following a series of propaganda pratfalls that damaged American credibility at home and abroad. The state department made a succession of gaffes in its increasingly anxious attempts to prove a direct connection between the Soviets and Cubans and the leftists in Nicaragua and El Salvador. For one thing, a Nicaraguan said to have been captured in El Salvador was revealed to be a student passing through the country. Then,

a Salvadoran rebel radio transmitter, supposedly in Nicaragua, was found to be in El Salvador after all. Capping the setbacks, a 19-year-old Nicaraguan stunned U.S. officials and reporters at a state department briefing by recanting his tale of Nicaraguan involvement in El Salvador. U.S. authorities recouped somewhat by sending the man home to a hero’s welcome in Nicaragua. But the net effect of all the blundering was to leave American public opinion more apprehensive about the administration’s policies.

According to recent polls, Americans are united only in one conviction: that no U.S. combat troops should be sent to El Salvador. Meanwhile in Congress, the administration had to fight off a series of moves to stop the White House from introducing troops into the region

or authorizing covert actions there without legislative approval. Liberal congressmen had been alarmed by reports that a CIA-funded, 500-member paramilitary force had been formed to upset the Nicaraguan regime.

The Reagan forces were also heavily engaged throughout the week in pressing for approval of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) after it was introduced formally in Congress. Among other things, the CBI proposes tax credits for American business investing in the area, the establishment of a U.S. import-tax holiday for nearly all goods produced in the Caribbean and a $350million economic aid package. “There’s no question we should have done this a long time ago,” said Thomas Enders, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America. But congressmen predicted that the package will not receive quick passage because Reagan has

linked it to his own strategic interpreta-“ tion of the region’s problems. Not only£ that, U.S. businessmen grumbled that the middle of a recession is a poor time“ to sell investment in a region torn by£ violence. 5

That concern was heightened by de-z velopments in El Salvador. Monitored by an international press corps numbering more than 500, the ruling junta, led by President José Napoleón Duarte, attempted to prepare a smooth walk-up to polling day. But guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, who only a week earlier had nearly paralysed the country with strikes on major cities and highways, refused to co-operate. While the movement’s leader, Cayetano Carpió, was holding talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut, his forces were raiding the suburbs

of San Salvador. At week’s end there was something of a lull in advance of the expected preelection storm. Guerrilla leaders said the aim of their attacks this week will be to harass rather than annihilate. “We see the offensive as consolidating our military position for negotiations,” said Fermán Cienfuegos, a member of the guerrillas’ fiveman general command.

The rebels’ apparent moderation threw into bold relief the immoderate activities of El Salvador’s right-wing extremists.

A little-known group, the Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anti-Communist Alliance of El Salvador, first issued a death list containing the names of 35 foreign journalists alleged to have favored the guerrillas in their reporting. Then, four Dutch journalists on their way to a rendezvous with rebels were gunned down by unknown assailants. Other journalists who saw the bodies in the morgue say at least three of them showed unmistakable signs of torture and bullet wounds in the temple or back of the head: the classic stigmata of victims of the country’s right-wing death squads. The Dutch government swiftly ordered its ambassador to conduct an investigation, and the Duarte government held an emergency meeting to weigh the consequences of the murders on its international image.

The atmosphere was no less tense in neighboring Nicaragua. The ruling Sandinista junta declared a 30-day state of emergency and called up the country’s 46,000-strong militia after saboteurs bombed two bridges on the Honduran border. That is an area where members of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard—said to be Americanarmed and -trained—frequently launch raids from Honduran sanctuaries. And after last week’s incidents, 50 Americans in Nicaragua wrote to the U.S. ambassador in Managua, Lawrence Pezzullo, saying they had proof of clandestine CIA activity in the country. Their letter called on Washington to aid Nicaragua—instead of “arming its neighbors and threatening it with military action.” For its part, Nicaragua sought an early meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss its fear that the United States is planning an invasion. At the same time, Nicaraguan diplomats crisscrossed the Caribbean to hold discussions on the Mexican peace plan with Cuban leader Fidel Castro

and the Mexicans themselves.

Apart from sporadic rebel activity in the capital, Guatemala was eerily quiet in the aftermath of fts violence-scarred presidential campaign. The election of Angel Aníbal Guevara, hand-picked candidate of the ruling far-right Popular Democratic Front, was dubbed a fraud by Guevara’s opponents. And now, mounting strife between the army and a new four-group rebel coalition— the National Revolutionary Unity— threatens to make Guatemala a worse killing ground than El Salvador. In 1980, the monthly death tolls from political violence ranged between 70 and 100. In January, the total rose to 530.

The future of the whole area seems to grow darker almost daily. With its policy roots firmly planted in the same Monroe Doctrine that sent U.S. Marines into Nicaragua in 1912 and the Dominican Republic in 1965, the Reagan gov-

ernment remains committed to fight what it sees as the hand of Moscow in the streets and countryside of the region. “If the U.S. doesn’t act now,” Reagan said recently, “new Cubas will develop in Central America. Meanwhile, Washington’s UN ambassacl°r> Jeanne Kirkpatrick, argued that Central America has keen set alight by arms from outside—not simply by social injustice.

That stance has put Washington at odds with a large body of public opinion both at home and ahroafh European governments, already worried by potential ruPtures in the alliance over SU(,h issues as international finance and Poland, have reframed from strong public criticism. But France, the Netherlands and West Germany all

have close contacts with the Nicaraguan junta and with non-Communist elements in El Salvador’s underground opposition. But the European press has been far less restrained, mounting merciless attacks on a policy that the London Times last week said was “driving these countries into the arms of the Russians.”

The Canadian response has been more equivocal—walking softly and carrying a small stick, as current Ottawa humor has it. After debating whether to send observers to El Salvador’s elections—the final choice was against doing so, which raised Washington’s hackles—Ottawa last week enraged local human rights groups. A late and unexplained instruction to Ambassador Yvon Beaulne at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva led to a Canadian abstention on a Mexican resolution condemning violations in El Sal-

_ vador and elsewhere. The vote

placed Canada in the same camp as Washington and such loyal supporters as Britain and Australia. However, Canadian officials insist that Canada is attempting to develop a Central American policy that is independent of the United States. As an example, they say, opposition to deliveries of arms (to both sides) was reiterated in Washington last month, when Ottawa became concerned about the administration’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Canadian officials say that both they and the Mexicans are puzzled by the difference between Washington’s public hard line against Soviet interference and its private acknowledgment that the region’s troubles spring primarily from poverty and oppression.

Officials in Ottawa insist that

Canada is not nearly as bothered as the Americans about the Cuban presence in Nicaragua—Cuba was a natural source for quick supplies of teachers and technicians. Ottawa is more concerned about the rapid buildup of Nicaragua’s armed forces. But officials concede that the country has reason to be concerned about the possibility of U.S. intervention.

Compared with Vietnam, the battles in Central America are being conducted on a lilliputian scale—in El Salvador, an action involving 200 troops is considered major. But for the U.S. government, and the region’s contending forces, the outcome has taken on Brobdingnagian proportions. The Sandinistas are prepared to defend the fragile, 32-month-old revolution “brick by brick and house by house,” according to Defence Minister Humberto Ortega.

Stressing it is open to immediate talks with Washington, the ruling three-man junta warns it will consider sending troops to El Salvador only if the United States or Argentina—which is playing an increasingly important supportive role on the side of the region’s dictatorships—moves in.

In Guatemala, the election of Gen. Guevara is expected only to increase the armed struggle. The Christian Democratic candidate, Alejandro Maldonado, was widely expected to go underground following the fraudulent result. The Guatemalan military’s increasing activity as an economic force has deeply angered the private sector, which claims that corruption is driving the country to financial ruin. A special point of contention is that in the oil-rich territory of El Petén, lands and rights have been quietly handed over to mem-

bers of the officers’ corps. The remaining landowners and manufacturers who had formed the country’s ruling elite are embittered over being cut out.

El Salvador, too, is on the brink of economic disaster, and could topple over the abyss if the military struggle continues. And while Washington is clearly not prepared to act before Sunday’s elections, its cautious exploration of the options in Mexico’s peace plan gave rise to hopes of a change of direction. Recently, Haig conferred on at least two occasions with Mexican Foreign Minister Jorgé Castaneda. And last week Castaneda met Cuban and Nicaraguan representatives to deliver the U.S. view. For its part, the Nicaraguan junta has agreed to discuss any American proposals that would produce more U.S. aid and lead to a nonaggression pact. In exchange, Managua would guarantee to

curb the arms traffic to El Salvador.

But as combatants and outsiders alike awaited the outcome of events, it was clear that much of the seismic change that has shattered the old mould of political, social and economic life in Central America is irreversible— and incomplete. Even if solutions are found in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, other crises lie ahead. Costa Rica, for one, is near bankruptcy, while the democracy of povertystricken Honduras (page 34) is as fragile as lace. The peace prospects for the region’s numbed inhabitants are still remote; the chances of Apocalypse Again still growing.-THOMAS HOPKINS, with Anne Nelson and Max Stahle in San Salvador, Michael Posner in Washington, Peter Lewis in Brussels, John Hay in Ottawa.