Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 94 | Mayo 1989


El Salvador

Time to Negotiate

Envío team

Although the civil war continued to be the single most determining factor of life in El Salvador, the electoral process (only indirectly related to the war) seriously affected the counterinsurgency strategy in 1988. It threatened to strip the democratic facade from the Salvadoran government and left a markedly political stamp on the year. Although this article was written before election day, it is based on an analysis of this important process. We divide the year by the stages of the elections: from January to March, when the municipal and mayoral elections took place; from March to October, when the presidential campaign began with the announcement of the candidates; and from October to December, with the unfolding of the presidential campaign. The FMLN's audacious proposal to enter the electoral process in early 1989 marked a turning point for the country's situation.

January to March: The electoral defeat of the PDC

Since the last two elections, when Duarte was elected President in 1984 and his Christian Democratic Party (PDC) won parliamentary and mayoral elections in 1985, the PDC has been held accountable for political problems, especially in regard to two primary platform pledges: ending the civil war and improving or at least alleviating the economic crisis affecting the great majority of the population.

The 1988 mayoral and parliamentary campaigns avoided the problem of the war, since that would have reflected badly on the armed forces' demonstrated inability to resolve the military conflict. The opposition parties, especially the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), focused more on the government's disastrous economic policy, targeting especially the agrarian reform and the nationalization of foreign trade and the banks.

ARENA developed a two-pronged strategy, attributing the disastrous government policy to corrupt Christian Democratic leadership and offering a "progressive" alternative. Its political slogan, "Let's Change for an Improvement," was well received by the Salvadoran population. ARENA won an overwhelming victory, especially when compared with the 1985 elections

Given that the total vote in 1988 (59% of registered voters and 51% of those eligible) was slightly lower than in 1985, the change means that many of those who voted PDC in 1985 voted for ARENA this time. Does this imply a movement to the right on the part of the Salvadoran electorate? The most common and accepted interpretation is that the change is due to a "no-confidence vote" and that voters leaned towards the party most clearly representing opposition to the PDC government within the legally established framework.

ARENA's electoral victory confirmed that after nine years of war, the regime has no alternative for its survival other than to return power to the same class interests that held it before 1979. Second, it legitimized for the moment the moderate strategy adopted by ARENA in order to regain power after repeated unsuccessful attempts with more radical ideologies. Third, it confirmed that ARENA and the PDC share the same end of the political spectrum in their support of the US-sponsored counterinsurgency program and in their responses to the country's major problems. Thus, they can take turns exercising formal power. Their differences are based on their different problems in attracting support. The PDC cannot gain the support of the Salvadoran people, while ARENA has a negative international image. ARENA's predicted victory in the presidential elections at the end of March 1989 may seriously erode the bipartisan consensus in the US Congress towards the Salvadoran conflict. In addition, ARENA's alliance with an army now led by hard-liners (the "Tandona") will make ARENA less willing to submit to a US strategy.

April-September: The managerial crisis

That the political game in El Salvador is merely a facade became indisputable with the March 1988 elections. The political parties spent two months debating one representative's seat. If ARENA won the seat, it would gain an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly. The problem resolved itself in a tragi-comic opera form when, before the final results were known, a PDC representative changed his affiliation to ARENA, making the additional representative unnecessary to gain a majority. Meanwhile, political divisions reached such an extreme that two "Assemblies" were formed, each one declaring its legitimacy. That the political crisis did not affect the functioning of the country did not mean there was a "vacuum of power," but rather showed that the real power in El Salvador is not based within the political structure of the state. It became clear that the armed forces, and behind them the United States, held the reins. If the calls by some on the ultra-right for a coup d'état were not heeded, it was not because the military respected the constitution, but simply because a coup would not have won the armed forces any more power, and would only have created serious image problems internationally.

After its crushing defeat in March, the PDC, led by Adolfo Rey Prendes, tried to excuse the loss by pointing to problems of the moment, refusing to admit that the voting reflected a judgment on the government. The PDC unraveled in an internal conflict, begun long before, that pitted Rey Prendes against Fidel Chávez Mena. The conflict extended to all levels of the PDC. When Chávez Mena's faction finally won out, Rey Prendes decided to form a new party, the Authentic Christian Movement (MAC), taking with him the majority of the recently elected PDC representatives. This left the PDC with minimal representation in the Legislative Assembly and gave ARENA a boost in the presidential elections.

In this crisis, the idea of a new alliance between social sectors not directly implicated in the conflict took on greater potential. An initiative by San Salvador's archbishop to sponsor a national debate between groups representing the diverse sectors of Salvadoran society was well received. Only the extreme right, which saw a danger to its strategy of regaining power, violently attacked the ecclesiastical initiative. The debate included more than 50 groups (professionals, unions, university students, church leaders, etc) with different political inclinations, and reached significant agreements in favor of peace. Its success forced the political parties themselves to recognize the importance of the desires of a large part of the Salvadoran population, which had to influence the criteria for the presidential campaigns.

October-December: Towards a change

Although the presidential campaign did not officially begin until November, in September the political parties, especially the PDC and ARENA, had already begun their first electoral pitches. ARENA nominated Alfredo Cristiani, considered a moderate within the party, to oppose Fidel Chávez Mena of the PDC. The rest of the candidates had no real chance of winning the presidency.

The biggest surprise was the participation of three parties of the moderate left: the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), the Popular Social Christian Movement (MPSC) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), in a coalition called the "Democratic Convergence" (CD). The MNR and the MPSC belong to the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), allied with the FMLN since 1980. Their participation in the electoral process has actually strengthened the alliance rather than destroyed it. The FMLN did not openly support the FDR's participation because of the danger of legitimizing the elections, but also did not oppose it in order to see what political opening exists, as well as to respect the autonomy of the FDR.

Socioeconomic situation:
The Living standard deteriorates

Even more than in previous years, the country's 1988 budget was oriented towards the war. As can be seen below, defense and security increased its portion of the budget. It should be noted that the budget, as in previous years, does not show us the so-called "secret funds" officially designated to other areas that are directly or indirectly used for the war. The budget also does not include the parallel military budget coming from US aid that is also primarily used for the war.

Comparing current economic indicators with those of the last two years shows that, while the GDP grew a moderate 3%, per-capita GDP continued to decline, although less than in previous years. At the same time, the balance of trade has continued to deteriorate.

According to a series of polls taken in the first third of the year by the Ministry of Planning, 12.6% of Salvadoran businesses said their production had increased from the year before, while 47.3% said theirs had decreased. The results were similar to polls taken in the second semester. More importantly, over half of those interviewed (55.4%) indicated that they did not have plans to invest in the near future.

The following chart presents a monthly index of consumer prices, offering an indication of real inflation over the last four years. Although the estimate is relatively high (a little over 20%), it is clear that the government has scored gains at least in controlling inflation, especially when compared with other countries in the area.

However, real wages and buying power continue to erode yearly, a problem felt by the majority of the Salvadoran population. The loss of basic grain crops due to drought was one of the factors that most affected the peasants and those with few resources. A pound of beans, essential to the common diet, more than doubled in cost (from 1.90 colons in January 1988 to 4.25 colons in June), making its purchase almost impossible.

The seriousness of the economic crisis has not led to increased labor conflicts. Compared to 1987 (100 strikes), the number of labor conflicts in 1988 (70 strikes) was relatively moderate. But social unrest has increased. Popular movements have been more radical and have extended from San Salvador to other important cities. Social unrest appears to have taken new forms: on the one hand, the "no-confidence vote" against the ruling party in March's elections, and on the other, increasing participation in the FMLN. It is impossible to accurately calculate the increase, but the FMLN's actions in the countryside combined with increased actions in urban areas indicates that
they have been able to find the necessary people to rebuild their forces and expand their operations.

The FMLN: Stronger than ever

In 1987 the armed forces reported that they had killed 1,004 guerrillas and injured another 670. In 1988 they reported 914 dead and 702 injured. For their part, the FMLN said that they had inflicted 7,932 casualties in 1988, without specifying dead or injured. In 1987, they reported 8,080.

We will not debate the viability of the statistics here, although both are probably inflated. The army probably added numbers or considered civilians killed to be FMLN members. The FMLN probably included unverified or minor injuries in their numbers. Whatever the final statistics are, and even using the most conservative estimates, the high numbers indicate that the war has stabilized at an elevated level of loss of life.

It seems clear that the armed forces has reached its growth limit and finds it difficult to replace casualties. Forced recruitment is one of the most unpopular practices of the army. It may also be that US military aid has reached its peak and that future aid will be significantly less.

On the other hand, all indications are that the FMLN has significantly increased its ranks, although it is still far smaller than the armed forces. FMLN recruitment is generally voluntary, which gives it an ideological advantage in terms of combat morale. Another crucial aspect of the FMLN's 1988 recruitment is greater presence in urban areas, allowing the FMLN to increase its actions in the cities without drawing people from other areas.

The FMLN has intensified its economic sabotage; energy distribution systems have been especially affected. According to the FMLN's year-end report, it destroyed 2,168 electrical posts in 1988. In San Salvador, rarely does a week go by without electricity outages, with resulting disruptions of economic activity. The FMLN has also increased its sabotage of agricultural infrastructure. In 1988 it called five national transport strikes, at least three of which were extraordinarily effective, including within the San Salvador metropolitan area. According to union information, 32 buses were totally or partially destroyed in the capital because of the strikes; the FMLN itself claims the destruction of 59 vehicles as well as 28 trains. It also destroyed 6 bridges, 53 telecommunications offices and 36 mayor's offices. The increased sabotage has forced the army to increase the sites it needs to guard, weakening its offensive capacity and making it more vulnerable throughout the nation.

The most important new military aspect is the FMLN's demonstrated ability to mount operations in San Salvador, and to a lesser degree, in other cities around the country. It attacks the nerve centers of the armed forces with few troops but with great effectiveness, without decreasing its operations and ambushes in the rural areas of the country. The attacks on the central headquarters of the National Guard, the Ilopango airfield, and the Office of the Chiefs of Staff, all in San Salvador and within a relatively short period of time, using car bombs and mortars or grenade launchers, are among the signs of a qualitative leap in the FMLN's military actions. The May attack on the "November 5th" hydroelectric plant and the destruction for the third time of the 4th Brigade headquarters in Chalatenango were also significant.

All of the above indicates that the FMLN has compensated for the quantitative and qualitative increase in the armies' capabilites due to the millions in aid from the United States. If one also considers that while the Salvadoran army was able to enter the FMLN control zones (Chalatenango and Morazán) yet could not weaken the FMLN rear guard in order to lessen its impact during the presidential campaign, it is clear that the army has lost its advantage. Meanwhile, the FMLN brings the war to the cities, preparing for an expected social movement that could culminate in social upheaval.

The success and consistency of the FMLN's new military campaign, and above all its attacks on the armed forces' nerve centers in San Salvador, have minimized the importance that some analysts had given to the change of leadership within the army. Some thought that the rise of the "Tandona," a more militant generation of officers more closely allied with ARENA than those who held authority in recent years, would signify a change from "low-intensity warfare" to a high intensity strategy. This has not happened, although it cannot yet be discounted, especially given ARENA's possible election victory. On the other hand, it is also possible that ARENA, less dependent on the United States than the PDC, may initiate serious peace negotiations with the FMLN.

Human rights situation deteriorates

1988 brought a serious setback for the supposed human rights policy of the Salvadoran and US governments. All humanitarian organizations, including the government commission itself, were forced to recognize the worsening situation. Without claiming a return to the terror of 1980-82, the number of political assassinations attributed to death squads or the armed forces itself rose significantly.

The increased human rights abuses were noted by the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the first part of the year. This tendency continued into the second half, worsened in the final two months, and in the last week of December three anti-communist organizations—ARDE, COSOR and MAC—all issued death threats. Beheaded corpses reappeared, often with clear signs of torture. "Heavily armed men in civilian clothes" bombed a building at the University of El Salvador as well as the Lutheran Church where Bishop Medardo Gómez works. The San Sebastián massacre in September—ten peasants killed by the Army—was perhaps the most serious action, especially because the army refused to take responsibility and bring to justice those responsible. The crime affected the electoral campaign, and made it difficult for the United States to present itself as able to change the brutal character of the Salvadoran army.

The FMLN also faces accusations of human rights violations, especially for the execution of eight mayors. The revolutionaries claim they are military targets because of their counterintelligence activity in the war.

The Crisis Within the Crisis

Various interpretations have been put forward to explain the significance of 1988's events for the political process in El Salvador.

1. According to the government, the fact that there was no coup d'état during the paralysis following the March 1988 elections, and also that the parties on the left joined the presidential campaign, show that democratization is moving forward.

2. ARENA claims that 1988 weakened Christian Democratic reformism, and was a year of transition toward free-market capitalism.

3. The revolutionaries argue that the ruling party's electoral losses in March and subsequent disintegration illustrate the fundamental failure of the US counterinsurgency strategy. Adding the further strain stemming from the continued economic crisis, the army's loss of strategic initiative in the war, the qualitatively greater integration between the rural and urban war and also between the war and increasingly radical social unrest, the FMLN concludes that 1988 made any success of this strategy much less likely.

4. Some analysts from the Central American University in El Salvador call 1988 a year of transition, which does not mean "that nothing important happened," but that the events are significant "both in themselves and also in how they set the stage for other events."

We will say just a few words about each of these interpretations.

* It is hardly realistic to claim that because there has been no coup and because the Left is participating in elections this indicates an advance of democratization. Elections have taken place during horrendous moments of massive terrorism (1982), and the armed forces' decision not to attempt a coup only means that they would not gain much more power by taking over the executive. A coup would create many serious problems for them. Clearly, the Left's participation in the elections is an advance, but the precariousness and limitations of that participation forces one to view it more as an attempt to open political space than as proof that it already exists.

* It is true that the PDC's reformism is no longer a viable alternative, but its dissolution had been dragging on for more than three years, perhaps since the Constituent Assembly undermined some key aspects of the reforms and, above all, the prolonged war made them impossible to carry out. ARENA's victory over the PDC would not mean the defeat of reformism because to regain hegemony in domestic power and become an acceptable alternative to the Christian Democrats for the United States, has required a change in leadership and a moderation of its political platform.

* While the revolutionaries' basic analysis has a certain undeniable truth, there are some unconvincing points. First, they will probably never actually defeat the army militarily. Second, if the army deals with the social unrest in addition to the war, it is questionable to what point the unrest will go. Third, if the counterinsurgency strategy is able to achieve a turnout similar to the 1984 elections, it can gain new energy, especially if Chávez Mena wins in the second round.

* To classify 1988 simply as a year of transition is correct, in the sense that it is a preparation and foreshadowing of later events. But this does not adequately address the importance of Duarte's downfall and the PDC's disintegration, especially because Duarte and the PDC have been such critical managers of US strategy.

We believe that a better way to interpret 1988's events, one that tries to integrate the final two analyses, is to describe it as a year of "the crisis within the crisis." Duarte's downfall and the disintegration of the PDC is a crisis, but it is one within a much larger crisis brought into sharp focus in 1988 and that the US is trying to resolve in its favor: the probability of a negotiated solution or, if that fails, the triggering of a stepped-up war and massive protests that could, by a more bloody route, force negotiation with the FMLN.

There are some additional points that reinforce this interpretation:

* George Schultz, then US Secretary of State, acknowledged in December that Reagan's Central America policy had failed.

* An analysis of the war in El Salvador by a group of American colonels (Bacevich and others) documents the failures of the counterinsurgency war, whose end cannot be predicted and whose victory will only occur in the light of very unlikely changes in
the country.

* The no-confidence vote suffered in March 1988 by the PDC represents a true referendum on the government's failures and is a rejection by the Salvadoran people, including those who support the regime, of the counterinsurgency strategy.

An unprecedented move: Can elections contribute to peace?

On January 23, 1989, the FMLN presented a proposal that changed for a few weeks the Salvadoran situation just summarized. The heart of the proposal was the FMLN's agreement to participate in the presidential elections and recognize them as legitimate, if they were postponed for six months to create conditions for the population to participate freely and fully, without fear of repression. By the end of 1988, it was clear that the FMLN was militarily dominant; it had extended the war to the cities, and demonstrated the vulnerability of all military installations. It was also clear that the popular organizations had noticeably expanded their social mobilization capacity. The FMLN perceived the potential for a serious social upheaval: from insurrectionary activities to prolonged strikes, as well as new declarations of support for their cause. What was missing was a strong initiative in the political arena, and this took on critical importance because of the upcoming elections.

The FMLN's proposal tried to break into the political arena with an initiative that challenged all assumptions. Its history of rejection and attempts to boycott the elections had left the elections, still so important in El Salvador, in the hands of those designing the counterinsurgency strategy. The FMLN's proposal challenged the parties to measure their forces against the democratic revolutionary forces in the electoral battlefield. In 1980 and on four other occasions they did not have to do more than deal with the shadow of the revolution in the form of abstention. With peace the strongest desire of the Salvadoran people, the proposal to participate in the elections in order to end the armed conflict guaranteed the FMLN strong initial support.

In order to understand this surprising turn in FMLN strategy, one must note first that for years the FMLN has seen the solution to the Salvadoran conflict as political. A military victory is unlikely in the foreseeable future given the US government's decision to continue funding the Salvadoran army. The FMLN's emphasis from 1984 to 1987 on offensive military actions has only been a vehicle for arriving at a political solution that gives a space to the democratic-revolutionary and popular forces among the primary agents in El Salvador's historical process. The war has been wearing down the army through direct military actions, forcing it to rebuild military installations over and over and inflicting heavy casualties that lower troop morale and discourage growth. The economic sabotage has limited the economy's ability to meet the needs of the majority. The FMLN's war, in close contact with the people, has caused the government, the army, the security forces and the oligarchy to view the people as their enemy and continue their repression. The Duarte government's need to support the US counterinsurgency strategy in order to keep itself from being swept away by the FMLN militarily has destroyed its chances of being viewed as a representative of national and popular interest.

The general unraveling of the counterinsurgency strategy also points out the failure of the elections. The creators and managers of the counterinsurgency strategy hoped to come to the elections with a seemingly democratic political center supported by a strong army with little need for repression. Everything has been the reverse. The PCD split and lost its legislative majority and most of the mayors. The army lost the military advantage in the second half of 1988. Repression increased in the rural areas and especially in the capital. Death squads returned, given the defiant increase in social mobilization. In addition, the FDR decided to take a risk and enter the elections.

Based on all this, the FMLN judged that the moment to enter the political arena had arrived. Its plan was to try to change the weakened elections into a legitimate method of demonstrating the military, social and political strength that it has gained in the last years. The FMLN also thus put itself more in line with the Esquipulas II accords.

The FMLN's reasoning had only one nonnegotiable condition—the relatively long postponement of the elections. It argued that the time was necessary in order to break down fear in the country, both the fear of going to the polls and the fear of voting for a democratic-revolutionary candidate, in this case the Democratic Convergence. To help break down the fear, the first two demands of the proposal called for a commitment to stop all repressive activity and to restrict the army, the security forces and the paramilitary forces to their barracks on election day. The third and fourth demands called for the incorporation of the Democratic Convergence in the Central Elections Council, charged with monitoring the voting and inviting and coordinating international observers. It also demanded US neutrality and the right to vote for Salvadorans living outside of the country. These demands clarify the FMLN's view of the elections as illegitimate because of the lack of security and voter representation.

In exchange, the FMLN pledged to accept the election results and the transition period of the current government. It also pledged to respect the electoral campaign, to call on their base to participate and to encourage the people to vote for the Democratic Convergence, to respect the mayors who break their connection with the army and to guarantee a two-day truce before and after the voting. Anticipating the possibility that its plan would be labeled unconstitutional, the FMLN said that "we should put peace above existing laws." With participation in the elections, the proposal meant entering into a negotiating process toward a democratic climate with respect for life, organization and freedom of expression for the Salvadoran people. The FMLN's belief is that such a climate would encourage the majority of Salvadorans to vote for the democratic-revolutionary platform, a popular and reformist one with the goals of sovereignty and full control over the army and security forces and open to future advances in the popular interest.

FMLN flexibility

The FMLN's two most important concessions were 1) to give up their traditional demand to be part of a provisional government before any election and 2) to put aside their demand to unite the two armies. In this way, they countered the traditional US claim that "they want to share power without winning at the polls" and tried not to awaken fears in the army.

The proposal took hold with the people as soon as it was heard. It gained in momentum when the main union federations presented a common platform demanding that Salvadoran parties enter into immediate negotiations with the FMLN about their proposal. They called on the state and the armed forces to join the demands of the people for a political solution.

The UNOC (Christian Democratic tendency), the UNTS (supportive of revolutionary positions), the CTS (centrist), and the AGEPYM (Public and Municipal Employees Association) united in a "workers' movement for peace," demonstrating the urgent popular desire to end the war and begin serious negotiations for reconstruction and national reconciliation. The archbishop of San Salvador and the Permanent National Debate Committee also strongly supported the FMLN's proposal.

The political parties quickly understood the danger of losing support if they rejected the FMLN's proposal. Not one of them declared a firm "No," which would have torpedoed the greatest hope for peace up to now. After initial vacillations tinged with campaign maneuvering, they all participated in formulating questions for the FMLN and agreed to meet in Mexico February 20-21 to discuss the proposal. The fact that the US government had cautiously declared the proposal worth consideration undoubtedly influenced the Mexico meeting and President Duarte's lukewarm acceptance, after his initial refusal to discuss it.

Mexico meeting: FMLN clarifies position

In Mexico the FMLN, having created a massive upset in national opinion in favor of negotiating, submitted a written response to the parties' questions, which focused on the FMLN's acceptance of the electoral results. Would the violence end? The parties did not ask if the FMLN would put down its arms, because they knew this would lead to an immediate breakdown in the negotiations.

They did ask why the proposal demanded that the army be restricted to barracks and be neutral in the elections. The parties noted that, even though the FMLN is an army, it planned to participate in the elections by endorsing the Democratic Convergence. The FMLN's responses, provided two days before the meeting, showed its sense that its proposal to participate in elections in a peaceful and democratic climate is in itself a contribution to peace. The FMLN assumes that since there are neither winners nor losers in the war, no side can be asked to surrender. Furthermore, the causes that led to the rise of the Salvadoran insurgency—lack of justice and democracy for the Majority—are still present. In its response to the parties then, the FMLN, in addition to stressing its demand for a new kind of elections as a step toward peace, clarified the conditions it sees as necessary to make them possible, thus opening up the possibility of peacefully achieving justice and democracy.

The FMLN committed itself to definitively stop the fighting, join the political struggle and recognize the Salvadoran army, if an agreement could be reached with the government and the armed forces to make it a professional army at the service of democracy and sovereignty. According to the FMLN, such an accord would need to cover three points: an end to impunity for crimes such as the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the US nuns and the FDR leaders, and the numerous massacres of the civilian population; reduction of the armed forces to 12,000 to help demilitarize Salvadoran society and the region; and finally, the dismantling of the three security bodies, notorious for their human rights violations. The FMLN proposal is to convert them into one professional police force under the Ministry of the Interior and not the armed forces.

The FMLN thus clarified that its commitment to elections, if they were postponed and truly democratic, would result in its laying down its arms only if the process began with the democratization of the elections and continued with the institutionalization of these democratic gains. The FMLN clarified that it was demanding the army's neutrality in the elections because of its political influence within state institutions—subjecting the judicial system to the dictates of the armed forces, repressing the people and threatening peace in Central America. The army has also impeded the free, independent and mature development of civil society, that is, the organized participation of people lobbying for their own interests. The FMLN declared itself willing to immediately begin negotiation while at the same time preparing for the new elections and working towards the end of the war.

The importance of these answers to the parties' questions cannot be exaggerated. The FMLN unambiguously declared its desire for a negotiated political solution to the conflict. Its proposal arises out of a demand for democratization that would permit the political, cultural and union participation that would make the necessary reforms of Salvadoran society possible, and would open the way for that society's desires for a socialist approach to be heard. Aware of the deep split in Salvadoran society, of the huge task of reconstruction and development that the war will leave, and also of El Salvador's geopolitical limitations, the FMLN wants to use its political, social and military weight in the service of reconstruction. In this sense, the FMLN's clarifications broadened its initial proposal: to accept the challenge of democracy as a road to justice, showing clearly the emptiness of the banner of democracy with which the United States has cloaked its counterinsurgency strategy.

Democratization is thus converted into a revolutionary political program that trusts in the ability of the majority to accept their role as active participants in El Salvador and to work towards nonstatist socialism. Naturally, those who want a restricted democracy in which civilian politicians manage the army and share power with the oligarchy view this type of program with suspicion and even horror.

At the Mexico meeting the FMLN also proposed that the parties center their discussion on figuring out a new date for the elections. In order to do this they set up three working commissions, one to figure out the cease-fire, another to discuss legal and political aspects of the electoral reform and a third to work out international verification and follow-up mechanisms for the political and military accords. These commissions would negotiate between government representatives and the FMLN and between the political parties and the FMLN, leaving for a later stage the formal presentation of the accords to the government and the beginning of negotiations with the army and the Legislative Assembly. The FMLN proposed its representatives to the three commissions, and proposed that the election date be set for four months after the cease-fire, in order to give the FMLN a chance to participate effectively in the campaign. Finally, to address the unconstitutionality of postponing elections, it suggested that the Legislative Assembly, first consulting with the parties, name a provisional president who would hold power only until the elections. The most important new element was the four-month cease-fire before the elections, which without a doubt would encourage peace as well as democracy.

Sadly, while in Mexico the political parties only managed to agree to ask the government to immediately begin negotiations with the FMLN about its proposal and that the parties be part of the negotiations. Duarte and the armed forces had talked about accepting, with certain conditions, whatever agreement the parties reached. The parties put the ball back in the government's court. Time was running out and the government, the army and the political parties each refused to take the initiative. At the same time, the United States maintained an ambiguous yellow light regarding the negotiations, saying only that the FMLN proposal should be looked at carefully.

Army and government response guarded

The army said nothing about the FMLN's initial proposal during the first two weeks, until the defense minister broke the silence on February 7 with a press conference. He confirmed that the army has the right to support "whatever serious and honest decision the parties come to," and added that the revolutionaries' proposal tried to divide the armed forces from the other state organs and encouraged division among the armed forces themselves. The army's top commander, Colonel Ponce, stated on February 9 before the American Chamber of Congress that the army would support any party response "if and only if it is within the political Constitution," making clear that he considered the army to be the interpreter of the Constitution. The defense minister made an even clearer statement on February 13 when he said that postponing the elections was unconstitutional and that the army would be forced to "remove" President Duarte if "he stays one day over his term." Evidently, High-level army officials panicked at the thought of accepting a proposal that could eventually demand that they take responsibility for their actions, purge their ranks and reduce themselves to the role of a professional army when for years they have been the power behind all others. The army's only sign of tolerance was that it did not oppose the political parties' discussions with the FMLN.

On the evening of February 26, President Duarte presented a counterproposal with a virtually impossible timetable. He proposed a meeting of executive and legislative bodies with the guerrillas that would begin March 1 in Guatemala; the political parties were invited as observers. He conditioned the meeting on a cease-fire agreed to by both the army and the FMLN, which would begin March 1, and last until June 1, at which point Duarte would step down as president. The elections would be postponed only until April 30. He asked the Legislative Assembly to support his proposal, and if they did not, to call a national plebiscite for the people to decide the new election date. As an alternative, Duarte proposed that the three state powers decide the election date. In the meeting with the FMLN they would discuss a definitive end to the fighting, the incorporation of the FMLN into the political and civil life of the country, and the recognition of the Salvadoran armed forces as the country's only army. Duarte named the vice president, the first designate to the presidency and the defense minister as his representatives in the meeting and asked the Assembly to name three representatives.

ARENA, who in Mexico had been flexible, unlike the Christian Democrats, this time rejected the plan because they thought it would favor the Christian Democrats, giving them more room in the campaign, making it easier for them to commit fraud and allowing them to capitalize on the people's desires for peace. ARENA also saw that Duarte's proposal left ARENA with the final decision because they controlled the Assembly, making them vulnerable to be blamed for losing the chance for peace.

ARENA was forced to declare that it would not veto the proposal if it could not get a "no" vote from other parties represented in the Assembly. But so doing, it threw the responsibility back to the government and the FMLN. The army quickly declared a unilateral cease-fire while, according to FMLN and international agencies, it went on attacking various targets in the interior. The State Department, in contrast to its earlier cautious reaction, stated this time that Duarte's proposal had "the potential to be the most important chance for peace up to now."

The FMLN gave its response the day after Duarte's announcement. It welcomed Duarte's proposal as positive, but added that the meeting would have to consider the whole FMLN proposal, keeping open any other points the government might want to discuss. The FMLN also said that the meeting should be held in San Salvador as the best location to encourage national unity and to enable President Duarte to attend. Assuming a unilateral cease-fire on both sides, the FMLN added, it saw no reason not to meet in San Salvador. The FMLN agreed to the plebiscite—if held under conditions of total impartiality—and the mechanisms for settling the constitutionality of postponing the elections. It suggested that the meeting take place March 4 and 5 in the Vatican Embassy or the Archbishop of San Salvador's office. It expressed concern over some parts of the proposal. Like ARENA and the other parties, it saw the April 30 date—already discussed and rejected in Mexico—as a way to benefit the Christian Democrats and make electoral fraud more likely. The unilateral cease-fire declaration raised doubts about the army's seriousness. If the army truly planned to hold to the cease-fire, why not work it out bilaterally and make a public commitment before the people and the world? Finally, the fact that the government did not consider the FMLN's proposal in its entirety made the FMLN suspect that the government still hoped for an FMLN surrender.

Because of a delay by President Duarte in responding to this latest plan, the FMLN proposed March 7 and 8 as new meeting dates. It made last-minute attempts to communicate to the State Department the seriousness of its desire to find a peaceful and democratic solution to the conflict. The State Department itself acknowledged that Guillermo Ungo, FDR president and the Democratic Convergence's presidential candidate, was in Washington and in contact with the State Department. With still no response from the Duarte government, the FMLN announced at the end of the day on the 8th that it saw no possibility of negotiating before the March 19 elections that the government and the parties had determined to hold; it reaffirmed its willingness to negotiate "after the elections for war, which will also be corrupt"; and called on its base to "adamantly refuse elections for war," annulling their ballot or refusing to vote. Just days before, the FMLN had denounced the continuing violations of the army's unilateral cease-fire. The war resumed in the first weeks of March and the FMLN announced a transport strike beginning March 16. The Democratic Convergence stated that the political parties and the government had lost their best chance for peace.

Full elections too threatening

Given that allowing the FMLN to show its true force in clean and open elections would be a trial by fire, the United States, the Salvadoran army, President Duarte, the Legislative Assembly and finally, the biggest political parties, all let this chance for peace slip away. The illusion of a military victory over the FMLN and their immediate hopes to govern distorted their view of the Salvadoran reality. Political negotiations with popular sectors with too much support to be co-opted has never been the forte of either the US government or of the Salvadoran army.

The Bush Administration decided to take a chance on a Christian Democrat victory in the presidential elections, at least in the second round. It hoped to convince the army to support this option. There is speculation that election polls showing that the PDC had begun to close the gap with ARENA had encouraged the US position. The United States is not ready to give up its low-intensity strategy to resolve the Salvadoran conflict. If the only peace that interests the Bush administration means an FMLN surrender and the "pacification" of popular organizations, peace will never arrive.

The FMLN will undoubtedly continue using military force while pushing for negotiations, with the people now more clear that its plan to work toward socialism assumes democratization. The movement toward peace and justice in democracy and the proven political creativity of the FMLN has, in spite of the many foreseeable problems, more likelihood than ever to awaken the fundamental hopes for the triumph of the popular cause.

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