Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 102 | Enero 1990



Negotiations and Elections: The Only Road to Peace

Envío team

In October, the Bush Administration renewed the US embargo against Nicaragua and got congressional approval for $9 million to assist the most reactionary electoral force in Nicaragua's presidential race-this, despite Nicaragua's compliance with its part of the Central American accords signed in August in Tela, Honduras. That same month the US-backed Salvadoran government refused to consider the FMLN's detailed proposals for a negotiated settlement to the decade-long military conflict in that country.

The next month Congress released the remaining $30 million in "non-lethal" aid to the contra forces-giving its approval to the several thousand who had infiltrated back into Nicaragua in violation of the Tela Accords. As they released the aid, members of Congress had fresh on their desks a detailed summary by Witness for Peace of contra violations of human rights and offensive military actions-both grounds for denying a continuation of that aid. In addition, the contras, in negotiations with the Nicaraguan government, had just refused to budge an inch on demobilizing or even abandoning Nicaragua, even though government negotiators offered successive concessions.

Also in November, military forces of the Salvadoran government killed six Jesuit priests at point-black range, aerial bombed poor and densely populated San Salvador neighborhoods, then broke relations with Nicaragua, for purportedly aiding the Salvadoran rebels. Efforts by some US Democrats to cut back, or even condition, continuing military aid to El Salvador failed just before Congress adjourned for Christmas recess.

Both the Nicaraguan government and the Salvadoran revolutionary forces interpret the refusal of either the Bush Administration or its domestic allies to respond to their multiple openings for a negotiated solution as a decision to prolong the conflict. This violates both the spirit and letter of the successive Esquipulas agreements aimed at resolving the Central American crisis.

Given how untenable more years of bloodshed and economic destruction by what US military strategists like to call "low-intensity war" is, the Bush Administration has returned the region to the brinkmanship crossroads of eight years ago.

As then, the liberation movements of the area are faced with only one other option: forcing the US and its allies to accept a negotiated settlement. If that option fails, however, the regionalization of the military conflict becomes a real threat.

FMLN military offensive to force negotiations

At 8 pm on November 11, the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) launched a military offensive in 50 locations throughout San Salvador and El Salvador's other key cities. The principal objective of the offensive is not to take power, but to force the government to the negotiating table. The accords the FMLN aims for would set the conditions for free and pluralistic elections, which, in turn, would hopefully lead to a period of at least minimal peace and social justice for the country's poor majority.

The FMLN maintains that the March 1989 elections, in which the far right party ARENA took power, are illegitimate, as they took place in the midst of the ongoing civil war. It charges that the country's current Constitution is little more than a counterinsurgency document, giving the military de facto power to rule the country.

The proposal by the Salvadoran revolutionaries to negotiate is nothing new. In January 1989, when Jose Napoleón Duarte was still in power, the FMLN proposed postponing the elections and called for a period of substantive negotiations. The FMLN proposal offered the incoming Bush Administration a political alternative to the costly military option pursued by the US. However, neither Duarte nor the United States accepted the FMLN's offer to negotiate.

In the two rounds of talks held this year between the FMLN and the government (September in Mexico, and October in San Jose, Costa Rica), the FMLN proposal was broadened into the outlines of a program for national reconstruction and reconciliation (see Documents, this issue). The Cristiani government roundly rejected the proposal, based on what it assessed as the FMLN's military weakness. That rejection in turn led the FMLN to a military offensive as the only recourse left by which to force negotiations.

A new kind of war

In its effort to force the Salvadoran armed forces to negotiate, the FMLN shifted its base of operations from the countryside to the most important cities, including the capital, San Salvador. The intent was not to touch off a classic insurrection, but to begin an ongoing strategic siege of key targets by using large guerrilla units that attack, retreat, and then attack again.

This style of struggle, known as a war of positions, includes guerrilla warfare as reinforcement and the temporary taking of positions inside the city. The actions in San Salvador are complemented with parallel sieges in important cities or departmental capitals-including San Miguel, Usulután, Zacatecoluca and Santa Ana-which blocks the army from sending substantial reinforcements to defend the capital. The army has also been forced to completely abandon extensive rural areas, which are effectively functioning as the FMLN's strategic rearguard.

The final results of the current offensive will largely depend on the degree to which the popular sectors support and even join the FMLN military ranks; whether the FMLN can recover large quantities of arms from the army arsenals; and whether it is both able and flexible enough to make the right political and military decisions during these complex moments of the war. These internal factors will in turn be key to determining how broad and forceful international support for a negotiated solution becomes.

The fascist nature of the current Salvadoran government-revealed in its response to the offensive-suggests that a real negotiation, not just a purely cosmetic one, will only be possible when the Salvadoran army is on the verge of collapse. Such an eventuality, however, also increases the possibility of direct US intervention, given the US administration's direct and unquestioning support of the Salvadoran army.

At this critical juncture one of the most essential factors will be international pressure, as well as pressure within the US, to avoid increasing and direct intervention and promote real negotiations that could finally put an end to the conflict.

The US government tried to present Jose Napoleón Duarte and the Christian Democrats as reformist, while continuing to implement its strategy of low-intensity conflict. In 10 years, that strategy has resulted in 70,000 deaths, 6,000 disappeared and about 1 million people displaced-a fifth of the country's entire population. The triumph in the 1989 elections of ARENA-the party of the death squads-forced the US to present the ARENA faction headed by Alfredo Cristiani as "converted" to centrism and pragmatism and thus a legitimate substitute for Duarte. The assassination of UCA dean Ignacio Ellacuría and his Jesuit team has a double significance. In the first place, it condemns a government that carries out crimes of this nature-murdering unarmed priests and indiscriminately bombing the civilian population. Their death also underscores the war of images at play. Ellacuría believed, in good faith, that a real contradiction existed in ARENA This error cost the Jesuits their lives, as it led them to trust Cristiani and the so-called "neo-centrists." While differences and contradictions within ARENA certainly exist, overestimating their importance turned out to be a tragic error.

Just as the killing of the Jesuits and other recent events reveals the true nature of the Salvadoran government, the Bush Administration is also unmasked. Bush has clearly opted for prolongation of the Salvadoran conflict. Both the Salvadoran government and the US Administration face dramatic choices at this moment: accept the FMLN's proposal to negotiate, draw out the war by assisting the fascist elements in El Salvador, or, if the Salvadoran army does indeed falter, become more directly involved militarily.

FSLN political offensive: To protect elections

While the FMLN in El Salvador continues to fight militarily against a strategy planned and designed in the US, the struggle in Nicaragua is being fought fundamentally by political means to defeat virtually the same US strategy, but at a different phase of the conflict.

In El Salvador, the US has demonstrated its will to keep the war going; in Nicaragua, its intent is to block-by any means necessary-the carrying out of free and fair elections. The reason behind this is that the US government is well aware that the FSLN will win in the upcoming elections. Recent opinion polls show the FSLN winning in February by a comfortable margin.

The surveys done so far that can be considered reliable-primarily because they use scientific methods and are willing to explain their methodology and sampling base-are those of ECO, a polling institute affiliated with the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA), or those done under the auspices of Itztani, an independent research center based in Managua, which also receives support from the UCA. Other surveys-including those done by La Prensa, the daily newspaper directed by Violeta Chamorro and partially financed by the United States-have refused to reveal their methodology. Itztani and ECO invited other survey groups-including La Prensa, Univision, Borge SA and CID-Gallup (of Costa Rica)-to take part in a debate about the kind of methodology each group uses but so far none have accepted the challenge.

According to the latest ECO survey, carried out between November 14-19, 83% of those registered plan to vote in February. Asked whom they will vote for, 42.7% of urban inhabitants and 49.8% of those in rural areas said they will vote for the FSLN, while 11.4% of those in rural areas and 20% of the urban population said they will vote for the UNO. The other parties garnered a total of 3.4% in the cities and 2.4% in the countryside. The number of undecided votes diminished from earlier polls-the October ECO poll showed 45% undecided; while 28% said they were undecided in its November survey. The FSLN's advantage over the UNO was 18 points in October and 22 points in November.

These results are backed up by a poll done by Greenberg-Lake, a US firm employed by the Boston-based Hemispheric Initiatives using Itztani interviewers, between November 27 and December 3, when envío went to press. Based on the October registration figures, the poll showed 44% favoring Daniel Ortega, with 27% demonstrating support for the UNO. Greenberg-Lake found the Sandinista supporters to be more "solid" than those opting for the UNO.

This fact, along with the Tela Accords signed in August 1989, in which the region's five presidents backed a plan to demobilize the contras by December 5, led the Bush Administration to step up contra military actions against Nicaragua in September and October. In early November, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said that, since the electoral campaign began, the contras "have increased their presence in Nicaragua to encourage their supporters to register and vote in the elections." State Department sources put the number of contra forces inside Nicaragua at about 5,500: comparatively speaking, this would be as if 440,000 armed and organized terrorists were "encouraging" the US voters to take part in elections.

On November 1, the Nicaraguan government lifted the unilateral ceasefire that had been in place since March 1988. The goal was to protect the elections from this US-financed terrorism. Nicaragua proposed a dialogue with the contra forces, with the presence of both the UN and the OAS, in order to reach agreement on the implementation of the Tela Accords.

If the US government really wanted to strengthen the electoral process in Nicaragua, it would have been able to pressure the contras for some sort of accord between the Nicaraguan government and the contras in their two weeks of talks during November. But there was to be no accord. Nicaragua's three proposals, increasingly flexible, met with a stone wall: the contras would not demobilize, at least until February-when, they say, the FSLN will lose the elections. The US option had not changed: continuing military attacks, economic embargo and political pressure-or "low intensity conflict," as the Administration chooses to call it.

A thorn by any other name pricks the same

In November, UNO presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro went to Washington, where President Bush received her. He declared that the embargo against Nicaragua would only be lifted if UNO wins in February. In October, the US Congress approved $9 million for the UNO campaign, either directly or through one of the many organizations created for that end. (According to Nicaragua's electoral law, $2 million-half of the money directly earmarked for UNO-should go to the Supreme Electoral Council to help pay the considerable costs of the electoral process, but UNO claims it has not received anything from the United States.) Making another proportional comparison to the US population, that would mean that, along with the 440,000 armed terrorists working in favor of a party, that party would be receiving $560 million.

(This calculation is based only on the $7 million just allotted the UNO forces by Congress. It does not include the $3.5 million approved earlier in the year through the National Endowment for Democracy, much of which went to prepare the same forces; or the $5 million that Newsweek, in its September 25, 1989 issue, said was being funneled through the CIA; or the portion of contra aid being given in córdobas to those inside the country to "encourage" voters.)

In November, Congress voted to release the remaining "non-lethal" aid to the contra forces, freeing up another $30 million to last them through February.

In early November, a document circulated in Nicaragua providing important evidence indicating links between the contras and the UNO that are as strategic and as close as those between President Cristiani's government and the Salvadoran death squads. The document is a communiqué signed by top contra leader Col. Enrique Bermúdez and addressed to the Nicaraguan population:

"Nicaraguans: I want to make it clear that the freedom fighters support the UNO presidential slate; we want to express our complete and unconditional support for Violeta Chamorro and Virgilio Godoy. We feel that in the UNO we are practicing true political pluralism because there is freedom for each person to exercise his or her will. The UNO is the freedom fighters and the means to achieve democracy in Nicaragua. I want to denounce the fact that when we met with the CIAV [International Commission for Support and Verification of the Esquipulas peace accords] in our encampments [in Honduras], I noticed that the commission members tended to support the Sandinista dictatorship. I realized that their offer was nothing more than a trap to exterminate us. This is why we freedom fighters will not lay down our arms, and will not accept demobilization, because we are going to guarantee that the elections are clean and honest. That is why we will keep on in the mountains of Nicaragua, with our arms ready against the Sandinistas. We are going to block the Sandinistas' accomplices and collaborators from registering, so we can avoid an electoral fraud. We will guarantee a victory for UNO, all the freedom fighters are ready to win the elections side by side with Violeta Chamorro and the National Opposition Union so that Nicaragua will be a republic once again."

Even Nicaragua's independent opposition is alarmed by the links. Popular Social Christian Party head Mauricio Diaz sees lessons to be learned from El Salvador. "If the UNO wins," Diaz warned, "they could bring Enrique Bermúdez back to head the army. We could then have a 'Cristianization' of Nicaragua, and I'm not talking about Christ."

Three decisive months: The future will be told

The FMLN's struggle for a just negotiation, along with the FSLN's fight for free elections are the means to put an end to the prolonged conflicts in the region. They are conflicts that the Bush Administration wants to continue imposing against the Central American people, and even against the will of the five Central American presidents as expressed in the various documents signed over the course of the regional peace process.

The Nicaraguan and Salvadoran processes are currently in very distinct phases. But the distinction is not so great that it could keep the other Central American countries from the brink of war involving US intervention if the strategic siege by the FMLN is successful. The verbal confrontations between Presidents Daniel Ortega and Alfredo Cristiani and between Nicaraguan and Salvadoran officials in the OAS and UN, springing from Salvadoran accusations that Nicaragua is responsible for the FMLN's offensive, are only a symbol of the current tensions and could point the way to worsening tensions in the future.

If the current FMLN offensive does not result in negotiations, the prolongation of the Salvadoran conflict will increase the already existing tensions in Central America to an even greater and more permanent degree. This situation could well be exacerbated by what would seem to be the growing military and political strength of the Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Although internationally it has gone relatively unnoticed, the military offensive begun in Guatemala on November 13 in support of the FMLN has been front-page news in that country and generated a political-military tension not seen since 1982. The URNG offensive, principally aimed at keeping the Guatemalan Army out of the Salvadoran conflict, has been successful thus far.

Central America's revolutionary forces are aware that this is a moment of crisis for the entire region and an opportunity to achieve peace and justice. But if to the prolongation of the Salvadoran conflict and the growing revolutionary movement in Guatemala we add that fact that-in spite of free elections in February-the contra war could well continue in Nicaragua if the FSLN wins, the whole region would face an extremely unstable situation of conflict with no end in sight.

Between regional negotiations and the continuation of the regional conflict, there are intermediate positions motivated by the differences that exist within each country's internal process. The coming three months will be decisive in understanding what both the short and medium term perspectives are in each of the Central American countries and in the region as a whole.

In proportion to their populations, Nicaragua and El Salvador have each already surpassed in this last decade the number of victims the United States sustained in its four great wars of this century: World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In spite of the losses they have suffered through so much pain and death, the Central American revolutionaries do not fear genuinely free confrontation at the ballot box because they believe in both the justice of their causes and the peoples of their countries.

Both Rutilio Grande and Ignacio Ellacuría, two Jesuits assassinated 12 years apart in El Salvador, have said that the Third World today is the most concrete expression of the Body of Christ in all of history. From its pain, from the wounds caused by the cross, will come the resurrection of these peoples-and life for this great majority of human beings who hunger and thirst for both bread and justice, and are willing to give their lives to construct genuinely democratic and participatory socialist societies.

If in Central America the Bush Administration refuses to let go of a military solution, all of the region will move closer to the brink of war. Negotiations offer the only road to a lasting peace in the region-peace that will end in free elections both in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

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