El Salvador: learning from history

It would be good if the United States could help the junta now attempting to govern El Salvador to consolidate its power, pacify the country, and follow through on the social reforms it began a year ago.

This was what the Carter administration was trying to do. It did not work. Some may argue the failure was due to a lack of time. A more important reason was that the political polarization of the country had proceeded too far, that violence had replaced dialogue, and that the social order had collapsed into chaos and anarchy.

An even more important reason was that the junta was never able to bring the array of military, paramilitary, and police forces under the political control without which there was no hope of peace. Far from putting an end to the violence, these forces contributed to it with their own wave of kidnapping, torture, and killing. This, in turn, intensified similar excesses by the left.

The Reagan administration has deepened the Carter commitment to the junta but with the important difference that the pressure, such as it was, for reform has been lifted. The Reagan administration has also made outside intervention by Cuba and the Soviet Union the crux of the issue.

This will certainly make it more difficult for the junta to discipline its rowdy security forces. These forces and their sponsors in the Salvadoran oligarchy can only conclude that it doesn't matter to the US what they do so long as they are anticommunist. Right-wing governments and groups throughout the hemisphere will get the same message loud and clear, a message which was reinforced by the restoration of Chile to the good graces of the Export-Import Bank. Cheers must be resounding in the presidential palace in Guatemala.

Although the prospects of success for the Carter policy were dim -- probably so dim as to make the policy ill-advised -- it at least had the virtue of evenhandedness between far right and far left. Through its support of social reform, it was at least offering the hope of change.

The Reagan policy does not even have this to commend it. If the administration is willing to invest enough resources in it, it may achieve some short-term success in the sense that the Cubans and their Salvadoran friends will not take over the country. But the avoidance of such a takeover seems to be the dominant objective of the Reagan policy. The policy will be judged a success in the eyes of its makers if it in effect restores the status quo ante.

Before going too far down this path, it would be instructive to examine some case histories on the basis of short-term benefits versus long-term costs.

The US overthrow Premier Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 because he had nationalized oil and was generally judged to be a troublesome leftist. This produced a quarter of a century in which the US generally had its way in Iran; but compared to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mossadegh was a model of conservatism and international decorum.

The US got excited because Poland was shipping arms to a leftist government in Guatemala in 1954; so that government was overthrown. This produced a generation of pro-American governments in Guatemala, but Guatemala today is in the throes of social turmoil only slightly less than el Salvador.

The trouble with a policy of restoring the status quo in El Salvador is that it was dissatisfaction with the status quo which caused the problem in the first place. The dissatisfaction will not evaporate and the problem will not go away if the Cubans stay in Havana and the Soviets in Moscow. They did not create the problem. Their presence may make it worse, but their absence will not solve it.

The Salvadoran peasant is not likely to share Secretary Haig's view of the geopolitical dangers of Castroism. He is likely to be more concerned about the people who are shooting at him, increasingly with American weapons. If he has to resort to Cuban weapons to shoot back, so be it.

So what is to be done about El Salvador? The hard truth is that there probably is not very much that can be done by the US acting alone, not at any rate at a cost commensurate with the results. When change is inevitable, the best thing to do is to get out of the way and let it happen. This provides a better basis for establishing some kind of relations with the government which emerges from the change, however distasteful that government may be.

It may not yet be too late to reach a political settlement in El Salvador. If a deal is made, it cannot be brokered by the US, especially not while wearing ideological blinders. It might be done by other Latin Americans, notably the Venezuelans, Panamanians, Costa Ricans, or Mexicans, among others --but not if the U S is in the way.

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