On March 20, 1994, 900 U.N. observers watched El Salvador vote for a president, vice-president, 83 legislative assembly representatives, and 262 mayors. It was the country's first free and fair elections ever, and marked the final step in the formal transition from military to civilian rule, from war to peace.
To a remarkable extent, despite a series of delays and timetable revisions, El Salvador has successfully implemented many of the provisions set forth in the 1992 U.N.-brokered peace agreement between the Government and the Farabun do Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla coalition. The ceasefire and separation of forces has been meticulously maintained; the army's size has been reduced by 50%, and the rebels have disarmed. Unfortunately, however, the critical issues of judicial and land reform have yet to be adequately dealt with, and post-electoral consolidation of peace and democracy will largely hinge on these reforms. A predictable upsurge in isolated, reactionary right-wing violence has also recently occurred. Nevertheless, there is little comparison between the El Salvador of today, and that of only a few years ago.
The tiny Central American country was a different place in the spring of 1989. There was very little sign of the relative peace that exists today, for events during my brief stay at that time were tense. Unlike present El Salvador, no one ventured onto the deserted streets after 8:00 pm, and sounds of gunfire or bombs were not uncommon. One morning I was awakened at 5:30 in San Salvador by a huge explosion. I learned later that the near by police station had been hit by the guerrillas. In San Miguel, I had to walk in darkness at night since the local power station had recently been attacked. The everwatchful, cold gaze of the army was everywhere-in convoys, on street corners, surrounding sensitive buildings.
The country at that time was also divided by an internal border, with the FMLN controlling much of the north and east, and the government the rest. I tried to cross the border, attempting to leave San Salvador and travel the short one-and-a-half-hour journey by bus north to Chalatenango, but didn't make it. Just before the frontier, the army stopped our bus and forced everyone off. The men and women were separated. One by one, each of us was frisked in the hope that a guerrilla or deserter would be discovered. I was told that because the area ahead was "too dangerous" I could not reboard, and would have to wait for a bus travelling the other way to take me back to San Salvador. Despite pleading, I had to watch the bus pull away and leave me with a squad of national guardsman in the middle of nowhere. After 45 minutes, I was relieved to be on a bus going to the capital.
El Salvador's current reality, therefore belies a brutal past, based ultimately on grave land inequities. When the country, together with the rest of Central America, declared its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador's main export was the dye, indigo. However, by the 1850s, indigo prices fell considerably as cheaper European dyes entered the market. Consequently, El Salvador's elite turned to coffee as a replacement and, in doing so, forced Mestizo and Indian communal farmers off the prime coffee-growing land. By the early twentieth century, the semi-feudal hacienda system had expropriated out of existence most of the communal peasant land holdings. Successive military and business interests maintained this status quo.
Although mild reform measures and hope for an end to the inequity and military rule existed during the 1960s, by the early 1970s, a rightist backlash of coffee and military elites reversed the trend. Fall-out from this resulted in opposition parties, the Church, unions, student groups, and, for the first time since the 1930s, leftist rebel groups openly opposing the military regime. Response from the government was severe. Before a reform-minded coup toppled the dictatorship of General Carlos Humberto Romero in 1979, the death toll had reached 1,000 a month.
Continued repression, however, prompted mass civilian resignations from the government in early 1980, including those of the three civilian members of the junta. A second and third coup followed in 1980.
During this period of instability in the late 1970s and early 1980s, several leftist parties responded by forming the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), five Marxist guerrilla groups united to organize the FMLN. This led to an increased military and para-military ('death squad') counter-insurgency campaign, supported financially and militarily by the United States.
Ronald Reagan's inauguration in January 1981 dramatically escalated America's commitment to maintaining a stable regime in El Salvador. Annual military assistance, a mere $5.9 million in 1980, mushroomed to $86.3 million by 1984.
The civil war, commencing in 1980, continued for the next thirteen years, although by 1984, its intensity had been reduced to a low level stalemate. A combination of rebel setbacks, and increased pressure by Washington on the government eliminated the extreme death-toll of the early 1980s; yet abuses still continued. In 1984, the reform-minded Jose Napoleon Duarte was elected president and attempted to control the military and business interests. These efforts failed, and human rights violations increased again with the election of the right wing government of President Alfredo Cristiani.
It was during this election campaign, in the spring of 1989 that I spent several weeks in the capital, San Salvador, and several other cities and towns. I recall seeing the partially destroyed Universidad National de San Salvador surrounded by the army, and witnessing anti-government marchers who would throw bricks through the windows of cars that failed to stop as the demonstration passed through key intersections.
By 1990, however, the end of the Cold War, coupled with war fatigue and a great deal of pressure from the United States and the United Nations, forced the government of El Salvador and the FMLN to sit down and seriously discuss peace. The United Nations Group in Central America (ONUCA) had been in the region since November 7, 1989, yet its man date was largely focused on Nicaragua, and was limited to overseeing agreements that ended external assistance to insurgent groups throughout Central America.
Therefore, the human rights agreements signed in San Jose, Costa Rica on July 26, 1990 by both sides were a significant breakthrough. Following further agreement on April 27, 1991, the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador was established on May 20 1991. ONUSAL, consisting of 51 civilians and 14 police officers, was mandated to monitor all agreements concluded between two parties. When the final, comprehensive agreement was concluded in New York on December 31, 1991 and formally signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992, ONUCA was replaced by a dramatically enlarged ONUSAL mandate.
At an estimated cost of $58.9 million, a military division with an authorized ceiling of 380, and a police division with a staff ceiling of 631 were set-up on January 20, 1992. Deployment commenced on February 7. New duties included the verification of disarmament and demobilization, aid in the set up of administration in former zones of conflict, and enhanced human rights monitoring. The completion date is expected to be in mid-1994, some time after the elections.
The victorious presidential candidate was Armando Calderon Sol of the ruling party, ARENA. Ruben Zamora, candidate for the allied Democratic Coalition and the FMLN (CD-FMLN) took second place, over the Christian Democrat Fidel Chavez Mena.
The problems that plauged the electoral process should not be overlooked. A wave of death squad-style killings began last October, with more than 30 FMLN activists murdered since the accords were signed. Calderon Sol had also been linked to death squad activity according to recently declassified documents released by the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and the CIA.
There is no mistaking the fact, however, that El Salvador has come a great distance since the bloody decade of the 1980s. This progress, coupled with the enormous stakes involved, means that El Salvador deserves to retain a central place on the global agenda.
J Taylor Wentges works at the Organization of American States in Washington.