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Hard lessons for US and the region

By Brook LarmerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 1988

San Salvador

EL SALVADOR's forgotten war is coming back to haunt Washington. After four years in the shadow of Nicaragua, this tiny United States ally is poised to become one of the stickiest foreign-policy issues to confront the next US administration, diplomats, Salvadoran analysts, and US officials say.

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The increasingly polarized situation here - marked by the rise of hard-line conservatives, an intensifying war, and rising human rights abuses - will likely force the US to reevaluate both its huge commitment to El Salvador and the direction of US policy in Central America, US and Salvadoran officials say.

Since 1980, the US has quietly poured more than $1 million a day into El Salvador. The money has had two objectives: to defeat the Marxist rebels and to build a democratic political center that would fend off extremists on the left and right. Neither has been fulfilled. Further, the progress made toward both is in danger.

``One of the first things the new president could face is a collapse of US policy in El Salvador,'' predicts a senior US Democratic aide with long experience on issues in the region. ``The administration continues to frame El Salvador as a success story. But we're just sitting around waiting for disaster to happen.''

With $3.3 billion in total US aid since 1980, El Salvador has been able to prevent the kind of communist takeover that toppled neighboring Nicaragua in 1979. While turning up the heat on the region's hottest war, it has also cobbled together a fragile democracy, a modest economic upturn, and a more professional, restrained military.

But now, the US ``project'' is spinning slowly out of control.

The interminable eight-year war is heating up. Death-squad murders have doubled this year. The government has failed to remedy the wretched poverty that helps fuel the conflict. And the political center has disintegrated, opening the way for the likely victory of a party with a notoriously anti-democratic past in March's presidential elections.

``The country is becoming so polarized that all the old worries of 1980 are coming back,'' says a Western diplomat, referring to the period when the political extremes plunged El Salvador into war. ``The similarities are eerie.''

So far, only a few in Washington have shown concern about the dark clouds gathering in El Salvador. But the stormy conditions could have profound impli-cations for both the region and US policy, according to a wide range of diplomats, Salvadoran political analysts, and past and present US officials.

These sources clash over what future US policy in El Salvador should be, but they largely agree on what will emerge as the most prickly issues:

Reining in the new leaders. Leadership posts in both the Army and civilian government are soon expected to be handed over to representatives of more aggressive factions with past links to death squads.

The US virtually handpicked President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and the Army high command in 1983 and '84. But it will have less control over new conservative leaders, who openly blame the ``gringos'' for bogging down the war effort. US support for such a government is likely to be far more contentious than backing the centrist Duarte government.

A costly but endless war. The US has spent eight years and $850 million building a professional 57,000-man Army to defeat the 6,000 to 8,000 Marxist guerrillas. The war effort has helped prevent a rebel victory. But after 65,000 deaths, even optimistic US officials say the killing could easily go on for years. Congress will undoubtedly find it increasingly hard to muster the political will to sustain a seemingly endless war.

Roots of revolution. The Reagan administration has portrayed the insurgency as a classic case of Soviet-Cuban expansion. Obsessed with the external threat, it gave short shrift to the internal roots of the revolutionary movement: poverty and injustice. As a result, the US has backed away from Duarte's reforms and distrusted the idea of negotiations. Many Salvadoran analysts doubt the war can ever be won if the lot of the poor is not improved. But to seriously attack social inequities will require a reorientation of US policy.

High costs for the region. As long as the Salvadoran war continues, its two fragile neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras, will be affected by fleeing refugees, fighting on their borders, and the continued militarization of the region. Central America, sapped by large, nonproductive armies and continuing turmoil, is already mired in its worst economic crisis of the century. Stoking the region's hottest war will make it nearly impossible for these nations - both of which inaugurated civilian leaders in 1986 after decades of military rule - to consolidate either genuine democracy or economic prosperity.