EL SALVADOR'S REBELS ATTACK A HOTEL AS WAR RAGES ON IN THE CAPITAL
GREG W. TAYLORDecember41989
FIGHTING IN THE STREETS
EL SALVADOR'S REBELS ATTACK A HOTEL AS WAR RAGES ON IN THE CAPITAL
For years, the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel had been a symbol of rare tranquillity, safely removed from El Salvador’s bitter civil war. Jutting above a lush ravine in the heart of the capital’s wealthy Escalón district, it has a mostly foreign clientele, many working with the country’s ruling elite who live in the expensive homes throughout the neighborhood. But just before dawn last Tuesday, Nov. 21, that peaceful air was shattered by the crack of gunfire as about 150 left-wing guerrillas swarmed over the district, and a small group of them seized the hotel.
Killed: Trapped inside were about 80 guests, including Joào Baena Soares, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), and 12 members of the United States’ elite Green Berets. The rebels, members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, killed two of Soares’s bodyguards and then drove the Americans—who were under orders to avoid a fire fight—behind mattress barricades. President George Bush responded by ordering a U.S. rescue team into the area. But, 28 hours later, before the assault team was in place, the crisis was over: the rebels had slipped quietly away.
After the guerrillas retreated, it was clear that they had gained far more than temporary ground. In full view of the world’s news media, the rebels had shown that they could strike
almost anywhere in the country, raising doubts about the government’s repeated assertions that it was about to win the 10-year-old civil war. The army responded to the rebel attacks with indiscriminate bombing and strafing of the poor sections of San Salvador. Security forces also arrested government critics and detained members of human rights organizations, including Canadian Karen Ridd (page 52). The foreign press was not immune: a Maclean’s correspondent was held for 14 hours before diplomatic intervention secured his release (page 45). And church workers were openly concerned about their safety after numerous detentions and the gruesome murders on Nov. 16 of six Roman Catholic priests (page 48).
In all, the Salvadoran military reported that the fierce fighting since Nov. 11 had claimed the lives of 1,576 rebels and 352 soldiers. There were no official estimates of civilian casualties, although one newspaper reported
on Friday that about 1,500 civilians had been killed or wounded in the new violence. In the United States, following the slaughter of the Jesuit priests, protesters in several cities demanded a cutoff in the extensive American aid to El Salvador. But Congress voted not to cut off military aid, and Bush insisted that Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani had assured him that his government was not involved in the killings. Declared Bush: “Cristiani would not lie to me on a matter of this nature.” Although critics painted a far darker picture of the Cristiani government, the rebels alienated many residents of the capital by moving their operations into the crowded civilian neighborhoods.
Provocation: The standoff at the hotel, still known as the Sheraton although it is no longer owned by that chain, climaxed an 11-day rebel offensive in the Salvadoran capital and in many of the country’s 14 districts. The effectiveness
of that offensive suggested that it had been planned for some time. Its immediate provocation, however, appeared to be the bombing of the downtown headquarters of the leftist National Federation of Salvadoran Union Workers on Oct. 31. Many Salvadorans claim that the bombing, which killed 10 unionists and injured about 30 others, was supported by the governing National Republican Alliance party, known by the Spanish acronym ARENA. Rebel leaders, who had been scheduled to meet with govern-
ment officials on Nov. 20 and 21 in Caracas as part of an ongoing effort to arrange a ceasefire, cancelled the meetings on Nov. 1, and the offensive began 10 days later.
Casualties: In the first hours after the rebels slipped into San Salvador from their strongholds along the country’s northern border, they dug themselves into the rambling slums in the city’s north end.
Many built trenches and barricades amid terrified civilians and jubilant supporters alike, often using the crude sewer system as a conduit to organize their hit-and-run attacks against government troops. Snipers seized high apartment perches to cover the streets below and to defend against incoming air force planes. Gradually, the fighting spread to more of the city’s poor neighborhoods and, after 10 days, into the affluent Escalón dis-
trict. Several observers said that, while the rebels have been successful in throwing both the government and the military off balance, guerrilla leaders were severely disappointed that the country’s civilians did not rise up in massive support for their cause.
The latest round of fighting inflicted heavy casualties on a rebel fighting force of an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 guerrillas, but there were few signs that they were weakening in their resolve. Since 1979, they have been
waging both a military and a political battle against the U.S.-backed government at a cost of more than 71,000 Salvadoran lives, most of them civilian. “The rebels could fight on for another 10 years as they have been,” said one Western diplomat. “What they could not abide was an ARENA government that was gaining the reputation of being moderate.” That reputation is rooted in the image of President Cristiani, 42, as a well-intentioned civilian businessman. However, when he was electz ed on March 19, despite U.S.
1 support for the more centrist 5 Christian Democrats, observ| ers were already questioning
2 whether he could control a 2 party apparently run from bei hind the scenes by ARENA
founder Roberto D’Aubuisson, widely believed to be the godfather of the right-wing death squads. The events of the past two weeks, including the murders of several union officials and the priests, have increased doubts about Cristiani’s control.
One experienced diplomat in San Salvador said that, during the standoff at the hotel on the evening of Nov. 21, a deal was in the works to get several civilians out with the Red Cross. “Cristiani gave his personal word that a truce would be upheld” from around 5 to 6 p.m., said the diplomat. But “the army ignored it,” he added, and used helicopters to rocket ravines behind the hotel. Said Laurence Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs: “The civilian president of El Salvador is irrelevant. He reigns while the military rules.”
Gunmen: For El Salvador, Central America’s smallest country, which has long been dominated by a wealthy group known as “the 14 families,” the battle between extreme leftand right-wing factions has intensified fiercely over the past decade. In 1979, a cadre of young officers overthrew military President Carlos Humberto Romero and promised reforms that they failed to deliver. They were soon displaced by a right-wing military and civilian junta, and leftists reacted by joining guerrilla bands. Then, in
1 March, 1980, in an incident
2 that further polarized the g country’s left and right, gunmen allegedly linked to D’Auu buisson killed Catholic Arch-
bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken human rights leader. Meanwhile, the United States, citing alleged Soviet and Cuban arms shipments to the leftist rebels, began supporting the rightist governments with aid that now has totalled more than $4 billion.
Death squads: In December, 1980, rightwing death squads were blamed for the brutal murder of three American nuns and a lay worker, and the United States suspended its aid. Nine days later, junta co-ordinator José Napoleón Duarte, a Christian Democrat backed by the White House, was named president, and the aid resumed. Although civil rights abuses continued, in 1984, after a chaotic series of elections, Duarte became the country’s first elected civilian president in more than 50 years.
Four years later, in June, 1988, Duarte was confirmed to have incurable cancer. Then, last March 19, ARENA, officially led by Cristiani but allegedly with D’Aubuisson pulling the strings,
AS FIGHTING RAGED, CONGRESS APPROVED $105 MILLION IN AID
defeated the Christian Democrats under Fidel Chávez Mena. Cristiani pledged an open dialogue with the rebels and an end to the death squads. But American aid remained the key to governing.
“Without U.S. assistance,” said Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1977 to 1980, “the El Salvador government would not last more than a few weeks.”
Last week, Bush remained firm in that support. At a Republican political rally in Chicago, uninvited guests interrupted his speech by shouting “Why are we killing priests in El Salvador?” Bush aggressively denied the charge. But thousands of Americans remained unconvinced. In small protests from New York City to San Francisco, the slain Jesuits became the focus for demonstrators who marched on -
streets and college campuses, waving banners and chanting slogans to protest U.S. military aid for El Salvador.
Still, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted by last week to continue to send $105 million in annual military aid to El Salvador. Earlier, the White House had promised to speed the delivery of small arms and antiterrorist equipment to Cristiani’s government.
Burn: The Canadian government, which has agreed to join the 32-member OAS on Jan. 1 after Canada’s refusal to sign on for 79 years, resisted pressure to criticize the United States, which dominates that organization. Said Richard Gorham, Canada’s permanent observer at the OAS: “The options are very limited. Are we going to burn the White House as we did in the 1812 war? Our international arm is not of great magnitude.”
Canadian church representatives, who met with officials in Ottawa late last week to discuss the issue, accused the Conservative government of being afraid to condemn Washington. “The key and indispensable step is to stop the U.S. military aid,” said Rev. Michael Czerny, director of Toronto’s Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice who returned last week from
the funeral of the slain Jesuit priests in San Salvador. “There is no other solution, and we will not be satisfied with anything less.” Bombs: By the end of last week, some optimistic shopkeepers were reopening for business. But the sounds of gunfire and bombs
still resonated sporadically in the capital. At the same moment that Cristiani was declaring at a news conference that the rebels had been defeated, a distant explosion reverberated in the room, causing the president to leap to his feet. As one Western diplomat put it, “This is far from over.”
The rebels were widely expected to launch
another offensive early this week. And White House and Salvadoran government charges that they were being resupplied by Nicaragua gained new strength at week’s end. Salvadoran officials said a light plane that had taken off in Managua crashed in eastern El Salvador on
on Saturday—revealing a cargo of 24 Soviet-made SAM-7 missiles, a U.S.-made Redeye ground-to-air heat-seeking missile and a 7 5-mm antitank gun. On Thursday, Cristiani and ARENA officials had refused a call from the rebels for an official ceasefire. “There is no way the army will accept more talks while the guerrillas are still in the capital,” said one experienced analyst in San Salvador. “Unless the rebels can force them to the table militarily, they will have to fight on to the limit of their capacity.”
Draconian: Declaring that the rebels wanted a cessation of fighting only because they had been so badly beaten, the ARENA-dominated National Assembly considered a bill that would apply draconian measures to even the most simple forms of protest. Everything from painting slo-
gans to occupying buildings would be considered a terrorist act punishable by jail terms of up to 30 years.
Many of the crimes named are related to the “disturbance or subversion” of public order. “Disturbing public order is distinctly a matter
of interpretation,” said one human rights official in San Salvador. “That would give the government great leeway in deciding who to punish.” In fact, said Rubén Zamora, the country’s top leftist political leader, “The repression is not coming, it is already here. The killings of the priests were the beginning. The unions, all of the opposition — we’re all being targeted.”
Other countries could try to intervene. In 1987, leaders of five Central American nations signed a regional peace accord—for which Costa Rican President Oscar Arias later won a Nobel Prize—that called for a ceasefire and subsequent peace talks. Those countries could pressure Cristiani to return to the bargaining table if the rebels regroup and rearm, and
continue battling the army successfully. But only the United States, said Zamora, could exert the kind of influence that would stop government repression.
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