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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 69 | Marzo 1987


El Salvador

Shifting Weight at the Two Poles

Nitlápan-Envío team

Three factors have been crucial in determining the political-military balance of the Salvadoran conflict in 1986: the deepening of the economic crisis, the social and political consequences of the October earthquake and the increasingly central role of US policy.

Three decisive factors

The first factor is the economic crisis, which has continued to intensify throughout the year. The "classic" reproductive mechanisms of the Salvadoran economy are rapidly becoming paralyzed, although this is hidden by the huge amounts of US aid and personal dollar remittances the country receives.

When the country's productive indicators are examined, this reality becomes painfully clear. Coffee production in 1986 was half the 1979 level while cotton production reached only 20% of the level traditional in the 1970s (the total area under cultivation has been drastically reduced due to the steep drop in international prices). For the first time in 12 years, El Salvador was not a net exporter of basic grains.

A look at the dollar income from the US—some $2 million a day in US aid and perhaps another $1 million in remittances that Salvadorans living abroad send to their families to survive—indicates that it adds up to more than all of El Salvador's exports. In other words, the Salvadoran economy is being artificially sustained, not only by the counterinsurgency program developed in recent years but increasingly through the people’s own economic survival mechanisms. That these mechanisms have taken on new characteristics within El Salvador's current political-economic context poses a serious question to the guerrilla forces' policy of economically eroding the regime.

New political space has also been opened for the redefinition of political-ideological work, particularly in the cities. Success on this plane could be decisive in the future for either party to the conflict.

The second factor greatly influencing the national situation is the October 10th earthquake. What came to light in the aftermath of the catastrophe, with all its social, economic and political effects, has been and will continue to be converted into a "structural" factor of the current crisis.

The third element is US policy. The role of the United States in El Salvador has become so important that it’s nearly impossible to understand anything that’s happening in Salvadoran society today without taking US policy into account.

Working from a foundation of these three key factors, we will analyze the correlation of forces between the ruling bloc and the grassroots movement throughout 1986.

The bloc in power

The first element in the ruling coalition is the Salvadoran bourgeoisie, which has changed considerably during recent years. The agroexport sector has lost influence in the ruling group while new fractions of the ruling class linked to the service sector and commerce, and with particular ties to US aid, have gained increasing influence in the country's economic life.

The bourgeoisie has also undergone some significant adjustments in the political arena, as it tries to effect a change in its traditional forms of political representation. Historically represented by its associations (ASI, ANEP, etc.), different sectors of the bourgeoisie began in the past few years to form political parties that would more clearly respond to their interests. The current tendency, however, seems to return to and seek shelter in the associations to make their strength felt.

This seesawing between the associations and the parties is evidence of the central contradiction felt by the Salvadoran bourgeoisie, one that reached a crisis point in 1986. On the one hand, the capitalist class is aware of its dependence on US imperialism as the safeguard of its class interests. But on the other, the US counterinsurgency program clashes with its immediate interests, both economic (because of the reforms implied) and political (in that the Christian Democratic Party was selected by the US as the means by which to exercise power in El Salvador). It has been hard for the Salvadoran bourgeoisie to accept the pseudo-democratic reforms that the US proposed, but it also looks to the United States for its very survival.

The ambiguities in the political behavior of the bourgeoisie as a whole emerge from this contradiction. These inconsistencies were quite evident in 1986. Some sectors within the bourgeoisie seemed content to continue the electoral game, accepting elections as the means by which power is exercised, but at the same time, several coups were nearly carried out.

These contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the Christian Democratic government were aggravated by the earthquake. Immediately following it, there was an agreement between the two sectors for the sake of national unity but a rupture very quickly appeared that was so severe it led to a national work stoppage called for by the private business sector. What the bourgeoisie was really looking for was a redefinition of the terms of the US program in El Salvador that would leave it with a greater share of power.

The second element in the ruling bloc is the armed forces, which have also undergone important changes in recent years. The most fundamental change was the development of a "modernized" conception of counterinsurgency apparent in the thinking and attitudes of the officer corps. In the current version of the US-imposed counterinsurgency plan, the military is supposed to hand direct administration of the state over to the Christian Democrats, while it, along with the US advisers, makes the key political decisions.

While this was the overall policy, a tendency in the opposite direction was noted in 1986. As the Duarte administration’s wastefulness and weakness became increasingly evident, the armed forces moved from withdrawal to direct interference. In a sense, then, they have been called upon to take a role that compensates for this weakness. This is most clearly seen in the implementation and administration of the "United for Reconstruction" plan. The armed forces, as an institution, essentially took over, presenting the plan to various social sectors and then implementing it, thus effectively marginalizing civilian sectors of the government. As the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the Christian Democrats deepens, the military sector is taking a more central role in Salvadoran political life in its attempt to strengthen Duarte's hand.

The third element of the ruling bloc in power is Christian Democracy itself. The most characteristic aspect of 1986 has been the Christian Democratic Party’s political deterioration. This is expressed not only in the corruption or incapacity of its leaders, but also in something more profound: the role it has to play as the key instrument in the US counterinsurgency project.

The Duarte government was assigned a very specific role in this project, which includes adopting a series of unpopular measures like the economic packages. It is evident that neither the first package, introduced at the beginning of 1986, nor the second, announced at the end of the year, was a Christian Democratic initiative. Rather they were part of the policies imposed by the US counterinsurgency plan, in which the Salvadoran people, particularly the bourgeoisie, begin to defray the costs of the war.

At the same time the Christian Democrats were forced to adopt measures like this, they were blocked from taking other political steps that might have been desirable for them. One example is related to human rights. All of Duarte's attempts to prosecute anyone in the Salvadoran armed forces have ended in failure.

The need to implement and enforce unpopular economic measures along with the impossibility of adopting other measures to assure some degree of public support have seriously eroded the party's social base. In short, the Christian Democrats are caught in a vicious circle: the more unpopular they become, the more dependent they are on the United States; and the more dependent they become, the more they are forced to implement unpopular policies.

The frustrated dialogue with the FMLN-FDR at Sesori in September 1986 is perhaps the clearest example of the blind alley in which José Napoleón Duarte now finds himself. Among his campaign promises was the pledge to begin talks with the guerrilla fronts, but during his term in office, Duarte has had to concede, bit by bit, to the military forces opposing the dialogue. This weakness has resulted in his taking demagogic, sometimes even ridiculous, positions such as trying to convene the dialogue with the FDR-FMLN without respecting the accords agreed to at La Palma and Ayagualo. In the end, he found issuing his proclamation alone to the people of Sesori, a town occupied and militarized by the Salvadoran army.

In sum, the power bloc as it stood in 1986 represented a clear reduction in Duarte's power vis-à-vis the army and the bourgeoisie. The civilian government’s tendency to cave in and cede ever greater power to the military and private business sectors has increased. The current situation can be summed up by saying that José Napoleón Duarte's fate appears to be to end like the Queen of England, who rules over all but governs nothing.

The grassroots movements

At the opposite pole lie the grassroots forces that, like the other political forces in the country, have undergone important changes over the last three years. The current phase of remobilization and realignment of the forces opposing the ruling bloc is perhaps the newest factor in the Salvadoran correlation of forces and also the one that most demands a careful evaluation.

The remobilization becomes evident when one compares the current situation with what existed in 1980-83. That was a time of retreat for the grassroots movement in the face of the brutal repression it had suffered, but also one that saw significant growth of the guerrilla organizations precisely in response to the government repression. All of today's indicators—strikes, demonstrations, the number of organizations and their membership—demonstrate an important qualitative leap for the grassroots movements.

If the remobilization is clear, the realignment is less so. The tendency is to lay out the quantitative indicators that point to a remobilization and thus conclude that the mass movement is in a stage of clear revolutionary advance, but that is not exactly the case in all instances. The mass movement, in particular its political leadership, still needs to define itself in a revolutionary sense.

For an accurate analysis, it must be taken into account that this remobilization began not with the revolutionary movement but rather within sectors linked to the Christian Democratic counterinsurgency project. The first groups involved were the rightwing unions and mass organizations. The most important point at the beginning of this process was the "social pact" between the Christian Democrats and the Popular Democratic Union (UPD). When it became clear that Duarte couldn’t keep his promises, a number of unions and organizations, until then linked to the government, began to leave the UPD.

At the same time, the most progressive sector of the mass movement, which even has some revolutionary overtones, took on a more clearly defined position. The crisis of the ruling bloc favored the swing towards this grouping of important organizations, linked in the past to the Christian Democrats and USAID but now opposed to the Duarte regime. The CTS thus broke its pact with Duarte and linked up with the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS), and the UPD did likewise. The insurgent forces watched this movement closely and sympathetically.

The most progressive pole of the mass movement, then, began to grow, develop and mobilize. It also established relations with non-worker organizations, such as FENATES which groups together medium-sized capitalists. Nonetheless, due to strategic weaknesses in their political leadership, the strong pressure from the Duarte government, and the divisionist efforts of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD, an AFL-CIO operation), which used dollars as bait, a certain reverse trend was produced within the UNTS. The CTS, UPD and finally FENATES pulled out again.

All these comings and goings suggest that there’s still an open question about the sense of political leadership within these realignments; the political definitions are not yet clear and more oscillations and vacillations can be predicted within the various organizations. Given this, the political perspectives of a possible alliance between these forces and the revolutionary movement could be decisive, if the latter can respect the maturation time needed for each force and avoid the temptations that arise from time to time to push them too fast.

The other element of the grassroots movement is the revolutionary democratic alliance of the FDR and the FMLN. Two main processes can be seen throughout 1986, the first of which was the unity process within the FMLN, whose political and organizational as well as military development proceeded at a stronger and steadier rhythm than in the previous year. The second process is the redefinition of the terms of alliance between the two fronts. In November 1986, a pact was signed that established the fundamental nature of the alliance, defining the limits of autonomy of the FDR and FMLN.

The FDR has tried various times, without success, to enter the country "legally." Duarte has always forbidden it and threatened the leaders who arrived at the airport with imprisonment. The absence of such a "legal" political pole inside the country, capable of bringing together the strong potential of the forces opposing Duarte, is a decisive issue in the strategy of the grassroots movements. There has thus far been no doubt that the US counterinsurgency project is unprepared to allow the opening of real political space in El Salvador that could destabilize the Duarte government.

War and dialogue

This analysis brings us to the evaluation of the two main instruments of struggle—revolutionary struggle and dialogue/negotiations—being used to try to put an end to the Salvadoran conflict and bring about results favorable to social change.

With respect to the war, if one compares 1985 with 1986, a drop in medium- and large-scale military operations by the FMLN can be noted. At the same time the government armed forces have a greater ability to sustain and extend their own large operations in various theaters of the war. The advantages for the Salvadoran government that can be deduced from this are less than clear, however, if an analysis of other, more precise, indicators is included.

In the first place, although the FMLN's large-scale operations have dropped quantitatively, that is not true of their qualitative strategic relevance. Examples would include the successful attack on the barracks of the Third Infantry Brigade in San Miguel, the second largest city in the country, in which the FMLN caused the Salvadoran Army some 250 casualties and partially destroyed the installations.

Throughout 1986, the FMLN put to the test its combination tactic of concentrating and deconcentrating its forces, developed out of the need to strategically respond to the growth of the guerrilla units in both size and combative capacity. To this tactic, which has proven very effective, has been added another offensive one: nighttime attacks.

At the same time, the deconcentration of forces has allowed the FMLN to periodically extend the radius of its actions to almost all departments of the country and increase its recruiting possibilities. The success of guerrilla fronts in their new strategy of dispersion throughout the country lets the FMLN carry out attacks such as the one in San Miguel and use transport stoppages as a mechanism to pressure the government and distract the army at times when it has to re-supply itself militarily. The political and ideological handling of the stoppages by the FMLN is a huge challenge in a prolonged conflict.

Finally, the attrition of government forces by the FMLN increased somewhat; there were an average 600 casualties per month in 1986.

Furthermore, the strategic military plan designed by the United States at the end of 1983 can now be said to have failed. Counterinsurgency plans such as Operation Phoenix in Guazapa and the "United to Reconstruct" plan around the country have not had the effects sought by the government and armed forces.

For example, three years ago the evacuation of the Salvadoran refugees in Colomoncagua, Honduras, on the Salvadoran border, was considered a priority measure by the Reagan strategists, who even arrived to fence them in. By 1986 the pressure to relocate them further inside Honduras had almost disappeared. It seems that there’s no longer interest in the project, which can only be explained by the failure of the 1983 strategic objective of surrounding and isolating the FMLN in the northern strip of El Salvador. Such an objective required cleaning the Honduran side of any logistical support that the refugees could offer the guerrilla forces. Since Duarte's army couldn’t even push the FMLN toward the north of El Salvador, much less surround them there, the US planners also decided to abandon their idea of displacing the refugees, an idea that had raised such a storm of protest internationally.

In the second place, the government armed forces have encountered serious limitations in their efforts to grow in numbers, as requested. They have yet to meet the growth rate planned for 1985, which set the goal of 60,000 men in arms. At the beginning of 1987 they continue stagnated at 52-54,000. To achieve the goal, they had to be able to annually recruit some 30,000 men, but given that the army registers some 6,000 casualties a year and a desertion rate of some 10 men a day (3,600 a year), and has a turnover of recruits every 18 months, the army's military perspectives seem destined to continue stagnating.

This lack of fighting men largely explains the new draft law promulgated by the government. The government forces had to find a way to modify the skewed relation between support personnel and combat troops—currently 2-1, an obviously incorrect proportion for the kind of counterinsurgency war being carried out in the country.

This relation has its origins in the forced recruitment that up to now has only been carried out among peasants with low education levels and, therefore, with less capacity for logistical support work. With the new draft law, the government intends to also draft more technically prepared members of the middle class to replace the peasants in support services, thus lowering the relation to 1-1 and freeing up more peasants to fight on the battlefields.

The fact that the Christian Democrats have had to implement a draft law frontally opposed by the bourgeoisie and the middle classes indicates both the Salvadoran Army’s growth imperative and the contradiction for the bourgeoisie, which wants to win the war without having its children do the fighting. If in 1981-82 the army's bottleneck was in the deficient preparation of the officer corps, now the problem is at the troop level. This obstacle today seems much more difficult to overcome without creating greater political problems for the government.


Different kinds of shifts in the correlation of forces between the poles of conflict in El Salvador took place at the various levels of confrontation in 1986.

In the area of social mobilization the correlation could favor the revolutionary movement if it can correctly interpret the current remobilization and patiently respect the realignment of forces. It is evident that the Christian Democratic government will find it very difficult to regain these forces while its own social base is diminishing and dividing.

Things have changed a lot. In 1980, the development of the revolutionary forces at the political-military level didn’t correspond to the force of the mass movement. In 1983, the growing guerrilla forces were met with silence from a grassroots movement leveled by repression. In 1986, a space has opened for the first time in which the military forces of the FMLN built up during long years of war can be combined with the social forces of the grassroots movement built up during equally long years of suffering and experience.

At the strictly political level, the Duarte regime has suffered a strong deterioration of its internal and international credibility, although this has perhaps not yet been fully felt at the international level. The FDR-FMLN has not yet figured out how to capitalize on this deterioration or gain a more open presence for itself inside the country.

Militarily, the correlation of forces has remained relatively stable; both bands have further developed their forces and abilities. Unlike what is happening at the political level, however, both have lost space to a rising social movement that seems to have abandoned the Duarte project without yet linking itself to a revolutionary project.

The 1987 perspectives are for a prolongation of the conflict. From the perspective of a revolutionary project, the year offers new prospects. If the FMLN can increase its military actions in the cities as well as the countryside, the increase will for the first time be complemented by social and political space that can be gained among the remobilized masses. The political challenge of being able to both channel these mobilizations and express them organizationally and through a viable programmatic platform, remains open to the future.

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Nicaragua at a Glance

El Salvador
Shifting Weight at the Two Poles

Economic Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb

Chinks in the US Plan

Introductory Analysis: Central America's People Put to the Test

A Turn of the Kaleidoscope: Pieces in Motion

In Pursuit of Peace: New Victories, New Challenges
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