Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 117 | Abril 1991


Central America

El Salvador: UN Mediation and Civil Negotiations

Jesuit of Latin America

Though El Salvador in 1990 offered an example of realistic and reasonable negotiation of an armed conflict, not everything in the negotiating process could be characterized in those terms. For that to be true, there would have had to be a convergence of interests as diametrically opposed as those of the Salvadoran government—particularly the armed forces—and the FMLN. US interests are also part of the equation, given the Salvadoran government's enormous dependence on the United States. The realistic and reasonable elements center around involvement of the UN Secretary General as mediator in the conflict. That may mark an irreversible road to peace, although it will be conditioned by the worsening international situation and increased US ambitions to project itself as the supreme global power.

The first step towards realism was taken in the Central American presidential summit at San Isidro Coronado, Costa Rica in December 1989. At the request of then Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the summit document called on the UN Secretary General to offer any assistance necessary to reopen "the dialogue between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN" and contribute to its "successful development." With this, the Central American Presidents supported a new route to resolution of the Salvadoran armed conflict. Before the declaration of San Isidro Coronado, the Esquipulas framework had offered no possibility for the Salvadoran guerrillas to be considered a legitimate belligerent force.

The Geneva agreement and UN mediation

The FMLN's demonstration of military might in its November 1989 offensive, the armed forces' utterly brutal response and the Salvadoran people's lack of mass support for the insurrection all paved the way to the negotiations that culminated in Geneva on April 4, 1990. The three most important points of the Geneva accord were the active mediating role given to the UN, a change in the negotiating framework subjecting "a cessation of armed confrontation and any act not respecting the rights of the civilian population" to the prior achievement of political accords, and the FMLN's agreement to dissolve as an armed body and reintegrate into civilian life at the end of successful negotiations. Both the government and the FMLN also committed themselves to neither interrupt the negotiating process nor abandon it, thus permitting negotiations to continue even if the war heated up.

No other negotiation of Central American armed conflicts took place in such a secure framework. The 1988 agreement between the Nicaraguan government and the contra forces at Sapoá only had observers (the OAS General Secretary and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo), not mediators. The Oslo accords to "find paths to a peaceful solution to the national problem" in Guatemala and "undertake a serious process culminating in peace" had the president of Guatemala's National Reconciliation Commission and the UN Secretary General as observers and "guarantors" of any agreements that are reached. In neither process was there a clause stipulating that negotiations would not be abandoned under any circumstance.

This novelty of the Geneva negotiations survived its baptism by fire, as it were, when the FMLN launched a military campaign on November 20, 1990 and the war intensified for a month and a half. The importance of the Geneva process was also demonstrated by the relatively little importance given to Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani's successful attempt to interpret the negotiation process to his own liking in two separate Central American presidential summits last year.

The negotiating process was even able to resist US attempts to introduce a resolution in the UN Security Council charging the Secretary General to achieve a cease-fire with no prior political accords having been established. This proposal was introduced without the UN Secretary General's knowledge, and died without being seconded.

A premise of the Geneva accord is the recognition that the Salvadoran conflict has its causes in the profound structural inequities of Salvadoran society. Thus it is not surprising that in May, when the negotiating agenda was drawn up in Caracas, the seven proposed topics addressed all the fundamental aspects of Salvadoran society: the armed forces, human rights, the judicial system, the electoral system, constitutional reforms, the country's socioeconomic problems and UN verification of the accords.

One process with two visions

Before the Caracas meeting, both the Salvadoran government and the FMLN made public their positions regarding agenda and timeline. In terms of the armed forces, the government accepted that "in a democratic society, civilian power...should have unequivocal preeminence over any other power," and that "once pacification is well underway, the armed forces will have to begin to adjust, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, to the normal requirements of a democratic country." The government declared that "the restructuring and institutional evolution of the armed forces are important questions to be discussed as part of the dialogue, but the existence of the armed forces itself is not, in any sense, up for discussion." All the other points formalized in the Caracas agenda were taken up in the government's position with the exception of the country's socioeconomic problems. The government's position was that a "democratic process already exists" in the country.

The FMLN addressed only three issues: demilitarization, democratization and an economic pact. They defined demilitarization to include an end to the impunity with which high-level officers of the armed forces act; the purging of criminal elements in the armed forces; dissolution of the current security forces; reduction in the size of the army; subordination of the armed forces to civilian rule; their professionalization including a corresponding change in mentality; dismantling of the country's paramilitary forces; and, in the medium term, the disappearance of the FMLN as a military force, related to similar processes underway in the rest of the region. Under the umbrella of "democratization" were included all the other points also proposed by the government. In its proposal for an economic pact, the FMLN stressed that the "military, political and social confrontation in El Salvador has economic causes." Contrary to the government's vision of a democratic country, the FMLN's position was that El Salvador's governments have been, and still are, either "overt or covert dictatorships."

These positions made it clear from the start, then, that two very different visions were coming head to head in the negotiation process. This was also apparent around the issue of a calendar. The government pushed for the completion of all three phases of negotiation-agreement on prior political accords and a ceasefire, accords governing the FMLN's integration into civilian life and agreements for verified implementation of the overall accords—between May 15 and October 12, 1990. The FMLN conceived of the process as lasting a year and a half—through December 1991. These divergences revealed the government's essential thesis that the war is the cause of El Salvador's problems as opposed to the FMLN position that the war has its roots in the country's structural problems, which must be addressed if the war is ever to be resolved. The timeline agreed to in Caracas took the government vision as its starting point by setting September 15, 1990 as the deadline for completing the first phase, presupposing that all elements of this first phase would be resolved. It backed off from choosing a final date for the whole process, tentatively proposing a period of two to six months after successful completion of the first phase.

Four public meetings and a confidential process

Since that agenda was agreed to, four meetings have taken place between the government and the FMLN. The first one, in Oaxtepec, Mexico in June, touched on the issue of the armed forces for the first time. The second, held in July in San José, Costa Rica, ended in an impasse regarding the armed forces. To break the stalemate, Alvaro de Soto, personal representative of the UN Secretary General, presented a proposal dealing with human rights, which was accepted.

In August and September, also in San José, the issue of the armed forces was again taken up. The impasse became increasingly acute, as the government proposed minor changes in the armed forces while the FMLN kept insisting on its goal of the disappearance the armed forces as currently constituted. Thus, the improbable date of September 15 came and went with no concrete results. It is worth noting that De Soto himself had alluded to the improbability of this date.

With the passing of September 15, the entire process changed. It became much more confidential and, by mutual accord, the UN representative met separately with each of the negotiating parties and proposed actions to break the stalemate. At the beginning of January 1991, it became public knowledge that a meeting between both parties had been held in Mexico. It was an encouraging sign that the stalemate had been overcome, but the results of the meeting had still not been made public by mid-February.

Human rights: The repatriates

Meanwhile, the FMLN-government accord on human rights, which caused confusion among more politicized sectors of society because it did not include a mechanism for immediate verification, is a huge step forward. For the first time the government implicitly recognized that it, too, is responsible for human rights violations and that displaced and repatriated people have the rights of all citizens, including the right to free transit in the zones of conflict. It accepted mutual commitments in this area, especially regarding UN verification of the accords, which will probably take effect in the first half of 1991. In the wake of this agreement, human rights violations by both sides have diminished.

Negotiation in civil society

The negotiation process has had considerable repercussions in Salvadoran civil society. Though the Geneva accords opened the way for civil society to participate in the ongoing political negotiations, that has yet to take place. Nonetheless, two series of discussions have resulted, one among the country's political parties and another among labor and other grassroots organizations. The only result of the party discussions was an electoral agreement that increased the number of Legislative Assembly representatives from 60 to 84 and proposed guidelines to make the costs of launching an election campaign accessible to a wide range of participants. The second part of this agreement was not approved by the Assembly, which caved in to noisy protests backed by ARENA representatives (even though this party had accepted the proposal in the inter-party discussions.) The FMLN judged the accord as insufficient. The discussions among the social organizations ended with statements by the labor organizations declaring that any and all negotiations were impossible because the government and the private sector refuse to cede on any of the most contentious points (privatization of the country's banks, breaking up of large landholdings, etc.)

Grassroots participation in dialogue

Last year saw a unification of positions of many of El Salvador's grassroots organizations, including the National Union of Workers and Peasants (UNOC, allied with the former Duarte government), the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS, sympathetic to the revolutionary process) and the Committee for National Debate on Peace (CPDN, an autonomous organization). Reviewing the causes taken up by these organizations during 1990, we find that the topics in the forefront of the negotiation process are also present here. All of the different protests throughout the country, however, have demonstrated certain difficulties in taking into account that economic adjustments are necessary and figuring out how to raise the issues in new and creative ways. In any case, the long and successful struggle of all the teachers' unions united in one front against the government's proposal to essentially privatize education must be given its due.

Advances and dangers in negotiation

The negotiation process, as a means to resolve the armed conflict, is on the right road, but it faces a number of dangers, and its relative success depends on the position taken by the UN representative, Alvaro de Soto. One question is whether he will be replaced after September 1991, when Secretary General Pérez de Cuellar's term ends. It is impossible to say what the position of a new secretary general or new representative would be.

The secrecy surrounding the latest stage of negotiations has made participation by civil society more difficult. The FMLN's military successes may have led to a certain degree of intransigence in the negotiations. The renewal of US military assistance may also have convinced the army that, no matter what it does, it can count on that assistance. Although the negotiations have largely determined the agenda of the grassroots organizations, they have overcome the blows received in the wake of the November 1989 offensive, when a state of siege was declared that lasted through April 1990, along with a curfew that stayed in place until February. Since that time, the organizations have become the country's most important social force, much more so than the political parties. The CDNP reacted to the intensification of the war on November 20 1990, declaring that "as social organizations we are against the military force of either the army or the FMLN imposing their economic and political interests [on the people]. The country's economic model and political system should be the product of a national agreement." This autonomy augurs well for the development of civil society—in other words, for the social base favoring demilitarization.

In any case, the most fundamental challenges come from the unorganized population. In a survey carried out by the UCA's University Institute of Public Opinion regarding Cristiani's first year in power, 55.3% of the population still evaluates Cristiani's performance as good or very good, even as 57% says that the economic situation is worsening. More people (24.6%) feel that the FMLN violates human rights than those (15.2%) who give a similar response regarding the armed forces, although 34.8% blame both sides. While the government's credibility has seriously decreased relative to the survey done after Cristiani's first 100 days, the new survey speaks eloquently of the gap between the organized and unorganized populations, and of an even more pronounced gap between the FMLN and the unorganized.

None of this takes away from the heroism and hope represented by the efforts of the repatriated population and others in the liberated zones. But it does lead to reflection about what is needed in a proposal that would give it a broader base of support among the popular majority.

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Introduction and Dedication

The United States: Redefining Central America and the World

The Neoliberal Model in Central America: Gospel of the New Right

The Nation-State Crisis: Ungovernability

Demilitarization: The Other Face of Democratization

Central America’s Grassroots Movement: A Partial Alternative

Guatemala: The Civilian Facade Collapses

Honduras: A Grassroots Party Emerging from Grassroots Organization

El Salvador: UN Mediation and Civil Negotiations

Nicaragua: Political Maturity and Economic Immaturity

Panama: Eternally Condemned

The Popular Alternative: The Agenda and Challenge for the 90s
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