Central America: mounting turmoil tests US and Mexican strategies
American voters might enjoy the variety of party symbols: a fish, triangle, cross, and arrow, among others. But they might not appreciate the invisible ink stamped on each voter's hand.Skip to next paragraph
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The ink is to prevent people from voting more than once. It is invisible (except under an infrared light), because the March 28 election in El Salvador comes in the midst of a guerrilla war.
With the left boycotting the election, people who vote may not want to advertise the fact for fear of possible repercussions from the left.
Normally a Central American election for a constituent assembly would not seem too important to Americans. But this one is, even though it will not halt the fighting here.
The United States is firmly committed to helping El Salvador's center-right, civilian-military junta put down the revolution by the left.
If the extreme right wing predominates in the election and tries to halt or even roll back reforms that the United States supports, the US could be left in the uncomfortable position of backing a reactionary government, some American analysts say. US military support would probably continue, but congressional opponents of such support would have further ammunition for their arguments.
When some US officials first heard about the plan for an election here, they laughed. How could a nation with such a consistent record of electoral fraud hold an honest election in the midst of a guerrilla war?
Now these officials are more convinced the election will be fair. But results from apparently fair elections in the past have been overturned repeatedly by El Salvador's military.
Many Salvadorans are hoping there is at least some truth in the message of billboards, TV announcements, and full-page newspaper ads, all calling out: ''Your vote: the solution.''
''That's what we hope,'' says Guillermo, a heavyset, mustachioed man who works as a guard at a downtown store here. A taxi driver, the owner of a small hotel, and others echo the same hope.
But a hotel employee says she is afraid to vote. Others may be, too. Voter turnout is said to be low in elections even in normal times.
And in one of the northern mountain guerrilla strongholds - who are not participating and are not represented in the election - young men in T-shirts and armed with automatic weapons told this correspondent they will keep on fighting regardless of the election. Most recently they have been fighting the military here in a major attack on their area near Guazapa, north of San Salvador.
Some US scholars think the election has little meaning without the participation of the left and may prolong the fighting if the right wing wins the election and continues to refuse to consider negotiations.
''The elections are actually going to make the situation more difficult,'' says Richard E. Feinberg, a former State Department official now with the Overseas Development Council. Elections will not affect the determination of the left to fight and may reduce the strength of the centrist president of El Salvador's junta, Jose Napoleon Duarte, he says.
On the other hand, Tom Anderson, a Latin American specialist at Eastern Connecticut State College, says that a right-wing party win could (1) stave off a possible coup by the right, and (2) encourage El Salvador's military to seek more aid from the US.