Page 2, 23rd March 1984

23rd March 1984
Page 2
Page 2, 23rd March 1984 — Reagan's battle for El Salvador credibility

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Organisations: Congress, Constituent Assembly


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Reagan's battle for El Salvador credibility

Gary MacEoin looks at the censorship and civil war behind El Salvador's elections on Sunday.

THE SALVADORAN elections on Sunday are most unlikely to satisfy President Reagan's hopes and needs. Every effort by Washington to create conditions that would persuade US and world opinion that these elections would express the will of the Salvadoran people has been frustrated. Instead of a solution, they may prove a trap that will leave the President with unpalatable choices as he pursues his reelection campaign.

For more than a year US specialists in anti-guerrilla warfare have steadily increased their role in directing the Salvadoran armed forces. They have trained thousands of officers and men in the use of the weapons, communications equipment, helicopters and other devices that the United States continues to pour into the country. The guerrillas, nevertheless, continue to expand their control over territory and to engage in steadily more sophisticated warfare.

Late in 1983, under US pressure, the Salvadorans made command changes designed to boost troop morale. A major sweep in Morazan in December was judged

by the US military experts as successful. Yet just before the New Year, the guerrillas were able to mount two major offensives simultaneously. They seized a modern army installation forty miles from the capital, destroying its eight main buildings and securing a large cache of arms. And they destroyed the nation's largest and most heavily defended bridge after a 90-minute mortar barrage. Army casualties in these operations severely hurt morale. No level of US aid will suffice to bring about a military decision in the foreseeable future.

US efforts to curb the death squads have been similarly ineffectual. Vice-President Bush in mid-December delivered a personal note from President Reagan to interim President Alvaro Magana demanding specific measures. For a time the number of death-squad killings declined, but that was small consolation because the victims were being selected more discriminatingly from the political sectors which Washington sees as potentially the centre that can bring peace, stability and national reconciliation.

Such other compliance as Magana could achieve was mostly cosmetic. How could it be otherwise? Even the Kissinger Report admitted that the security forces and associated death squads have committed "thousands of murders". Nobody doubts Ambassador Robert White's assertion that Roberto d'Aubuisson, head of the alliance that controls the Constituent Assembly and a leading contender for the presidency in the upcoming elections, planned the assassination of Archbishop Romero and is a top leader of the death squads. Who will exile d'Aubuisson, and even if exiled, would he not still play the role now being played by other wealthy exiles in Miami as coordinator of the killings?

The election two years ago for a constituent assembly, which chose a civilian president, should have represented a significant step in the process of democratisation. It did not. Dissension within the guerrilla leadership on whether or not to boycott combined with reports of a heavy turn out of voters, as confirmed by outside observers, gave a first impression of honest and representative results. It was, nevertheless, a short-lived euphoria.

Analysis by social scientists of the Jesuit unit zrsity in San Salvador and other experts estt Wished that the official figures were gr ssly exaggerated. Even more basic is the fact that conditions for a legitimate election were lacking. Freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly does not exist. Critical editors and journalists have been assassinated or forced into exile and their newspapers destroyed. Teachers, trade union leaders, professionals and priests are all well represented in the 60,000 victims in the past four years of institutionalised violence, and not a single killer has been brought to justice.

Many Salvadorans voted only because they were afraid of the penalty for not voting. The ID every citizen must carry has a page to be stamped at the polling booth, anybody without a stamp risked being killed as a guerrilla sympathiser. Salvadorans are convinced that the ballot is not secret, a belief reinforced by the clear plastic urns in which they deposit their votes. In consequence, those with antigovernment sympathies protect themselves by voting for the ultrarightist candidates. This helps to explain why, in spite of enormous US support for Jose Napoleon Duarte as the only possible base for a centrist party, the extreme right swept the elections and wrote a constitution ending all efforts at social reform.

Many Salvadorans really hoped that the 1982 elections would start the country toward peace and prosperity. Such hopes have been shattered. The only reason why the many Salvadorans who will have no candidate to represent them will vote is because they need to have their ID stamped.

Since they have no objective interest in the outcome, how they will vote is anyone's guess. All governments make enemies, and d'Aubuisson's regime is no exception. That may make the difference to enable Duarte to edge him out for the presidency. But if Duarte wins, there is no reason to imagine he will be any better able to govern effectively that when he headed the Junta. Many in the ultraright fear him even more than they fear the guerrillas, seeing his program of modest reform — the Washington formula -as the Trojan Horse threatening their monopoly of power and privilege.

In this election year, President Reagan cannot afford to "lose" El Salvador to the guerrillas. Neither can he attempt the military solution which would involve using US troops on the ground, particularly with the deepening crisis in Lebanon. So he must try to continue the military stalemate until after November, and that needs evidence that will persuade the American public and Congress that progress is being made toward democracy. The upcoming elections are unlikely to produce such evidence.

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