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  • Salvaging El Salvador
  • Enrique A. Baloyra (bio)

When Alfredo Cristiani, the candidate of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), won election to the presidency of El Salvador in March 1989, many observers feared that hopes for peace and democracy in that war-torn country would have to be postponed indefinitely, if not abandoned altogether. The actual course of events, however, has belied these grim expectations. A series of wide-ranging negotiations between the Cristiani government and representatives of the leftist insurgency headed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) began in early 1990 and culminated with a peace agreement signed in Mexico City on 16 January 1992.

These talks have brought El Salvador closer than it has ever been to defusing its most explosive political problems and establishing a stable democratic system in accord with the rule of law and respect for human rights. With the mediation of the United Nations, the two sides reached agreement on a broad array of issues, including reform of the electoral and judicial systems; the demobilization and reintegration into society of the FMLN guerrillas; the reduction in size and reorganization of the armed forces; the creation of a civilian police force; and various economic and social problems (especially the issue of landownership).

No one in the early 1980s could have foreseen that El Salvador's crisis of transition would end as it has, with a consensus in favor of nonviolent, democratic politics arising among the guerrillas, the armed forces, and the old oligarchy. To be sure, this consensus may spring merely from the view that democracy is a lesser or necessary evil, but that will do for now. Ten years ago, who would have believed that [End Page 70] official negotiators representing a president from ARENA-a party established by a known murderer and former deputy chief of the national security agency in order to restore "reactionary despotism" would receive support from both the armed forces and the business community for face-to-face talks with the guerrilla comandantes of the FMLN-one of the most ideologically rigid leftist insurgencies in the Western Hemisphere? Who would have thought that the two sides, with the help of the United Nations, could overcome the obstacles that perennially separated them in order to agree to a genuine-even if imperfect-peace settlement? If one is to measure what has been achieved in the El Salvador accords, it must be in light of the stunning improbability of the whole scenario.

Some might wonder why the Salvadorans could not have agreed to terms sooner and thereby saved 12 years, spared 75,000 lives, and avoided the disaster of civil war altogether? It is a fair question, but one must not be too hard on the Salvadorans. It took the British over 600 years to go from the Magna Carta to an expanded franchise-along the way they could not manage avoiding Wat Tyler's Rebellion, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, Cromwell's Protectorate, and "massive violence exercised by the upper classes against the lower. "~ By contrast, it took the Salvadorans "only" 60 years to go from the commercial revolution of 1870 to the collapse of the oligarchic republic in the early 1930s, and another 60 to realize that a democratic regime offers everyone the most reasonable and feasible system of mutual guarantees.

The Salvadoran civil war drew in outside actors-the United States, regional influentials like Venezuela and Mexico, undeclared supporters of the rebels like Nicaragua and Cuba, and also some Western European powers-who at times threatened to overwhelm the locals with their own concerns and agendas. Some of these tried to micromanage the crisis through diplomatic and military means, but in the end it was the Salvadorans who determined their own fate.

In order to judge whether the agreements of 31 December 1991, ratified in Mexico City on 16 January 1992, are likely to form an enduring basis for the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador, it is necessary to review the sociohistorical and geopolitical changes that have taken place since the dual crisis of civil war and political transition began in 1979.

Transition and Civil War

Basically, there were two...


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pp. 70-80
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