In a clearing on the densely forested slopes of the extinct volcano that looms behind the city of San Salvador, the screech of power saws and the pounding of hammers drowned out the sounds of nature last week. On the high ground where the superrich of embattled El Salvador make their homes, another luxurious mansion was under construction. Meanwhile, hundreds of feet lower, the first rains of the season were threatening to wash away the slum shanties of the poor. For Salvadoran President José Napoléon Duarte, fighting for his life against cancer, the scene represented both the betrayal of a promise and the failure of a dream. The mansion was being built for a senior member of Duarte’s own Christian Democratic Party. And, said critics of the Duarte regime, the half-million dollars it would cost have been earned through corruption and abuse of power.
Despite the stricken president’s vow last week that he will “fight it out,” many Salvadorans seemed to have already given up on Duarte’s leadership. A power struggle was under way among Christian Democrats over who would succeed him. And far-right Republican National Alliance (ARENA) members were planning for the victory they expected in the presidential elections next March. When Duarte, a centrist, was elected as president in 1984, he promised to end the civil war being waged by Marxist rebels and bring a measure of social justice to the country of 5.3 million people. But when the 62-yearold president flew to Washington earlier this month for the surgery that established he had inoperable liver cancer, he still seemed a long way from attaining his objectives. The armed forces were making little
progress in the eight-year-old civil war that has claimed 62,000 lives so far. And although some progress had been made toward establishing a more democratic atmosphere, Duarte’s Christian Democrats had been soundly defeated by ARENA, which won 31 of the 60 seats in the national as-
sembly in elections last March.
During the campaign, ARENA had used aerial photographs of the mansion on the mountain as evidence of governmental corruption. According to aides, Duarte wept with rage and frustration at the photographs, but many Salvadorans hold him indirectly responsible for the excesses of his colleagues in office. Said José Imilio Suadi, a leading Salvadoran economist, last week: “He surrounded himself with opportunists. He pushed the par-
ty, gave jobs to the boys. I cannot imagine a more incompetent, more corrupt government.” Still, supporters say that Duarte deserves credit for establishing a centre ground in Salvadoran politics—despite intense pressure from left and right.
At the same time, the United States—which has given El Salvador $4 billion in military and economic aid since 1981—was already preparing for the transition. Embassy officials in San Salvador were expressing the hope that ARENA had broken with its violent past. The party’s former chairman, Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, has been linked with the right-wing death squads that murdered Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and thousands of leftists and suspected rebel sympathizers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ARENA’S new leader, U.S.educated businessman Alfredo Cristiani, who took over from D’Aubuisson this year, projects a less extreme image, and U.S. officials say that the D’Aubuisson faction is in decline. Declared an embassy officer last week: “We are not talking about thugs and bums. We are talking I about good people who just I happen to be extremely £ conservative.”
I However, close associates of D’Aubuisson still occupy powerful positions in the party. One of them, Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, a former military commander notorious for his ruthlessness, is now vice-president of the national assembly. He speaks with obvious scorn of U.S. advisers who counsel respect for human rights, and he calls Defence Minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova a “wimp” for paying attention to them. “It bothers me to hear high-ranking officers say we have to humanize the war,” Ochoa told Maclean’s last week. “War is inhuman. Either you lose it or you
win it. We think we can win it.”
Ochoa’s demands for total war against the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) seem to be well received by lowerranking officers in the field.
“He is loved by the captains and junior officers who are sick of the war and see the high command as desk soldiers,” said a senior European diplomat in San Salvador. But he added, “Total war would mean a bloodbath.”
One reason why members of the high command seem reluctant to precipitate a bloodbath is their evident fear of losing U.S. military aid—totalling over $100 million this year—if they violate embassy guidelines. The American guidelines require restraint by the military, at least a show of respect for human rights, and an end to death-squad activities. In fact, since Duarte was elected, such abuses have declined dramatically. At the same time, the FMLN has extended its area of operations, replenished its ranks and staged a number of spectacular strikes against economic and military targets. Said the U.S. diplomat: “This is probably the best guerrilla army there has ever been in Latin America.” Like Ochoa, the diplomat said that he believed the rebels could be beaten militarily. But he added, “Don’t ask me for a date.”
In the face of continued rebel successes, military abuses and deathsquad killings seem to be on the rise again, according to U.S. officials and human-rights activists. Near the village of San Jose Guayabal—in an area where guerrillas are active, only 20 km from the capital—Isa Campo, a 24year-old landless peasant, sprayed pes-
ticide on a cornfield one day last week. Soldiers slouched against nearby trees, and a helicopter clattered overhead, looking for a small guerrilla unit suspected of hiding in the vicinity. Asked about Duarte’s agrarian reform program, which failed in its promise to break down major landholdings and distribute them to the landless peasantry, Campo said: “My situation was bad. It has not got better.”
Campo declined to talk about allegations of army brutality in the area, although his cousin was one of three men found murdered in death-squad style four months previously. Villagers said that the three were picked up by an army patrol as they returned home from a village fiesta. Their bodies were later found in a San Salvador park,
their thumbs tied together behind their backs. The army promised to investigate, but four months later no charges have been laid.
Defence Minister Vides claims to support the doctrine of protecting human rights and promoting democracy as part of a war-winning strategy. “Eight years ago, I believed we had to win the war first and then worry about democracy,” Vides told Maclean’s last week. “But gradually I came to understand that to win we need the support of the people.”
The real sentiments of army officers are sometimes evident in unusual ways. On the wall of the office of Col. Mauricio Vargas, chief of army operations, hangs a revealing cartoon that he has drawn. It shows a Salvadoran soldier struggling under the weight of baggage labelled “Quislings in Congress” and “Human Rights Watchdogs,” on top of which sits an American military adviser wearing a halo.
Meanwhile, in Washington’s Walter Reed Medical Centre, where he underwent his operation June 7, Duarte was gathering strength for his return home. His doctor and other medical experts have given him only a few months to live, and, indeed, it seems possible that he will die before the end of his term next May. Clearly, under his presidency, war-torn El Salvador has become a less brutal place. But just as clearly, only American pressure—and the threatened loss of U.S. aid—will prevent it from reverting to violence when he is no longer present.
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