Not since Vietnam has the domino theory enjoyed such currency in Washington. Less than a year after Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza was driven from Managua by the first Latin American revolution in two decades, neighboring El Salvador teeters on the brink of full-scale insurrection. In truth, El Salvador has hardly had a government over the past 12 months. The nation's nominal rulers have long since lost control of their own security forces and today stand isolated amidst a rising tide of political violence from both Right and Left.

In Washington, policymakers are searching desperately for a solution to El Salvador's complex political equation, but the answer remains as elusive as the opening to a Chinese box. The current crisis may have no exit short of civil war-a bloody denouement that would not only shred the social fabric of El Salvador but would also pose grave risks to regional peace. Current U.S. policy, while designed to avoid such a conflict, is not working. While the United States has successfully thwarted two rightist attempts to overthrow centrist governments, the Salvadorean junta today is no closer to finding a permanent solution to its political crisis than it was when it came into power six months ago. The junta's impotence stems from its isolation; it has yet to create for itself any significant base of political support. Such isolation has been a chronic problem for Salvadorean governments, and it is only by overcoming this historical dilemma that the current crisis can be permanently resolved.


El Salvador is burdened with the most rigid class structure and worst income inequality in all of Latin America. For over a century, the social and economic life of the nation has been dominated by a small landed elite known popularly as "the 14 families" (Los catorce), though their actual number is well over 14. The family clans comprising the oligarchy include only a few thousand people in this nation of nearly five million, but until recently they owned 60 percent of the farmland, the entire banking system, and most of the nation's industry. Among them, they received 50 percent of national income.

The tensions inherent in such a social structure are exacerbated in El Salvador by severe population pressure on the land. With over 400 people per square mile, population density is the highest in Latin America. Over 200,000 peasants are landless-a more severe imbalance of land and labor than in Mexico. Unlike most of its neighbors, El Salvador has no undeveloped territory for surplus agricultural labor to colonize; cultivation already extends up the slopes of even active volcanoes. Illegal emigration (to less populous Honduras) acted as a safety valve for the potentially explosive situation in the countryside until the 1969 "soccer war" closed the border. An expanding manufacturing sector offered another alternative to rural laborers in the decades after World War II, but the war with Honduras also pushed the economy into a recession from which it has never fully recovered.

The dominance of the oligarchy and the persistence of rural poverty produced an immense potential for class conflict. For decades, the oligarchy's primary political objective has been to prevent this latent conflict from erupting into class war. Despite its economic preeminence, the Salvadorean oligarchy has exercised political hegemony indirectly. The military has ruled El Salvador since 1931, and the history of the nation's governance has largely been a history of the twists and turns in the political alliance between oligarchs and officers.

This alliance was forged in 1932 when the armed forces took control of the government to suppress a massive peasant uprising. The insurrection, endorsed but by no means controlled by the Salvadorean Communist Party, was crushed at a cost of some 30,000 dead.1 The psychic scars left by this abortive revolution and its suppression disfigured the nation's political culture in ways that are still evident. For the oligarchy, the growth of even moderate opposition has always raised the specter of 1932. A strong current of belief persists among the oligarchs that the threat of revolution can only be effectively met as it was in the 1930s-by bloody suppression.

The military has shared the oligarchy's fear of revolution, though it has occasionally opted for reform rather than repression as a more reliable bulwark against the Left. The coup that has come to be known as the "revolution of 1948" brought to power a coalition of young military officers with a modernist vision. Motivated not only by the fear of radical revolt but also by their desire to see El Salvador develop economically, this modernizing military embarked upon a program of "controlled revolution": moderate reforms (none of which challenged the dominance of the oligarchy) blended with heavy doses of political repression for radical opponents. The oligarchy tolerated such reformism because it promised modernization without structural change, and because an authoritarian regime centered in the armed forces seemed to offer security against the Left.

This practical partnership between oligarchs and officers gave birth to an electoral system that was largely a charade. Moderate opponents could vent their views in periodic elections, but control of the government was reserved for the military's own political party, the Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unity (PRUD). Perpetual electoral victory for the PRUD was guaranteed by the military's power to count the ballots.

The developmentalist program of the military modernizers stimulated economic growth, but yielded no improvement in equity. With economic growth came demographic growth of the urban middle and working classes, both of which bridled at the military's monopoly on politics. At issue was whether the military and its oligarchic partners would allow the creation of a system of politics-i.e., an institutional process for reconciling the conflicting political demands of the nation's significant social groups. The oligarchs preferred the security of authoritarianism to the uncertainty of electoral competition.

The officers were less unanimous. In 1960, a rising tide of civil unrest disrupted the prevailing political consensus within the armed forces. Alarmed at the regime's unwillingness to open the political process and fearful that such rigidity could lead to revolution, progressive officers joined with civilian opposition leaders to depose the PRUD government. The new government promised to accelerate the pace of social reform, offering a program similar to what the Peruvian armed forces would propose eight years later. Such reforms were beyond the oligarchy's threshold of tolerance; it mobilized its conservative supporters within the armed forces, who toppled the new government by countercoup after only three months.

The political system built after the countercoup was a carbon copy of what had gone before. The PRUD was dissolved, but then resurrected as the Party of National Conciliation (PCN). Like its progenitor, the PCN was dedicated to modest reform and political liberalism within the confines of military rule. The PCN also reestablished the military's working partnership with the oligarchy; its program of social reform left unscathed the socioeconomic foundations of oligarchic power.

The deterioration of the Salvadorean economy in the wake of the 1969 war with Honduras set the stage for political turmoil in the 1970s. The proximate cause, however, was the same as it had been in 1960-the military's determination to maintain its monopoly on politics (by electoral fraud if necessary) rather than relinquish power to its civilian opponents. Despite its electoral facade, the Salvadorean polity in 1970 was no closer to having an open political process capable of producing the orderly resolution of political conflict than it had been a decade before.

By 1970, Christian Democrats (PDC) had become the principal focus of opposition. Indeed, the PDC's strength virtually preempted any growth on the far Left. In the late 1960s, when virtually every government in Latin America faced guerrilla challenges inspired by the Cuban revolution, in El Salvador there were none.

The opportune time for a "centrist solution" to El Salvador's socioeconomic ills came in 1972 when the Christian Democrats stood at the summit of their popular support. By all informed accounts, the PDC won the 1972 presidential election. The PCN was able to snatch victory from the jaws of electoral defeat only through blatant fraud and brutal suppression of the resulting protests. As if acting from the script written a decade earlier, the progressive wing of the armed forces joined with PDC leaders to attempt a coup. Unlike 1960, however, the attempt failed, leaving conservative officers in control of the military.

Even the pretense of political liberalism was jettisoned forthwith. The Christian Democrats became the principal target of government repression, which destroyed the party's effectiveness as an electoral opposition, and with it the viability of electoral opposition per se. Most of the PDC's leadership was driven into exile and most of its rank and file was driven to the Left. The PDC contested the presidency once more in 1977, but the result was a foregone conclusion.

The government's assault on the center also created the far Left. Three guerrilla organizations began operating during the 1970s and expanded as the center was demolished. The Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL) was founded in 1970 by radical university students and dissident Communist Party members. A year later, another group of dissident communists joined with radicals from the Christian Democrats to form the Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP), which split in 1975, leading to the creation of the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN) .

The most impressive gains on the Left were made by the "popular organizations." Begun at mid-decade, these coalitions of peasant, worker, and student unions pressed demands for immediate social improvements by staging mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. There are three major popular organizations: the Popular Revolutionary Bloc (BPR); the United Popular Action Front (FAPU) ; and the Popular Leagues of the 28th of February (LP-28), named for the day in 1977 when security forces killed over 100 demonstrators. Though their demands and tactics are similar, political differences among the popular organizations prevented them from mounting any joint actions until early 1980. Most of those differences centered upon the proper long-term strategy for bringing the Left to power, and also reflected rivalries among the armed groups with which the popular organizations are affiliated.2

The growth of the Left terrified the oligarchy, which responded by financing death squads on the right (e.g., the White Warriors' Union, the White Hand, the FALANGE, and others). Local political activists, including peasant leaders, trade unionists and priests, were the principal targets of the death squads during the late 1970s. As in other nations, the paramilitary Right is widely suspected of having links to the government's security forces.

As the 1977 presidential election approached, the second reign of the military modernizers showed unmistakable signs of decay. The government's sporadic attempts to enact a modest agrarian reform law between 1973 and 1976 were blocked by the influence of the oligarchy and the Defense Minister, Humberto Romero. The moderate opposition, led by the Christian Democrats, was in retreat under the drumfire of repression, while both the armed and popular wings of the Left were gaining strength. The oligarchs, meanwhile, were funding their private paramilitary minions. In the face of this growing crisis, the PCN signaled its determination to hold fast rather than compromise by nominating the conservative General Romero for the presidency. He won, of course.


With Romero's election, the regime of the military modernizers became, in effect, a regime of military conservators. Despite popular demands for access to the political process, the authoritarian military regime refused to create a political order it could not control. By its refusal, it produced instead political disorder which no one could control. The rapid deterioration of El Salvador's moribund polity began in earnest after Romero's election.

As so often happens with regard to Latin America, the United States did not become very concerned about El Salvador until the crisis was well underway. A small nation of little strategic importance or economic interest, El Salvador has seldom attracted much attention in Washington. Bilateral relations have ordinarily been governed by regional policies which the United States fashioned in response to exigencies elsewhere. The result has not always been wholly sensible. When counterinsurgency was thought to be an antidote to Cuban-style revolution, and the United States lavished security assistance on Latin America, El Salvador received some four million dollars worth between FY 1961 and FY 1970 even though it had no revolutionaries to speak of.3 It did, however, have a military government which inevitably perceived the flow of arms as an endorsement.

Military assistance to El Salvador was interrupted when Congress began introducing human rights concerns into the allocation of U.S. foreign assistance. In early 1977, El Salvador joined Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina in rejecting further arms aid because critics in the United States found their human rights records dismal. Previously authorized aid continued to flow to El Salvador, but no new authorizations were made until 1979. Concomitantly, economic aid was cut by half, from approximately $20 million to $10 million.

El Salvador first attracted high-level attention in the Carter Administration in June 1977, when one of the right-wing death squads, the White Warriors' Union, accused the Salvadorean Catholic Church of promoting communism, and threatened to kill all the Jesuits in the country. Since several activist priests had already been assassinated, the threat was not taken to be an idle one. Under pressure from U.S. church groups and members of Congress, the Carter Administration launched an intensive campaign to convince General Romero that El Salvador's relations with the United States depended upon preventing the prospective massacre. To underscore its concern, the United States vetoed a $90 million Inter-American Development Bank loan to El Salvador.

The effort was an apparent success. The slaughter of the Jesuits never materialized (though half a dozen more priests were assassinated over the next two years); the activities of the death squads subsided temporarily (reinforcing suspicions that they were operating with official sanction); and the Romero government itself began to ease official repression. In the hope of reinforcing what it took to be liberalization, Washington granted approval for the loan in October.

Unfortunately, this change in policy, intended as an incentive, was interpreted as irresolution. Less than a month later, the government responded to the assassination of industrialist Raúl Molinas Canas by passing the draconian Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order. The Public Order Law effectively made it illegal to oppose the government in any fashion whatsoever. It instituted press censorship, banned public meetings, outlawed strikes, made it a crime to disseminate information that "tends to destroy the social order," and suspended normal judicial procedures for such offenses. Mere suspicion was specified as grounds for arrest. The day after this law's passage ended any pretense of democracy in El Salvador, U.S. Ambassador Frank J. Devine, speaking to the Salvadorean Chamber of Commerce, endorsed the right of governments to do whatever is necessary to maintain public order.4

Far from restoring stability, the Public Order Law accelerated the spiral of political violence and institutional decay. The clandestine guerrilla organizations proved to be beyond the reach of the government's security apparatus or the paramilitary right, so the brunt of the repression fell upon the more accessible moderates. The remnants of the PDC and the social democratic National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) were silenced, leaving only the courageous Archbishop Oscar Romero (no relation to the President) as a public spokesman for the moderate Left. Even the church was vilified by government propaganda, and the death squads resumed their assassination of priests.

The radical Left met the wave of official violence with a counterwave. The armed groups stepped up the bombings, assassinations of government officials, and kidnappings of businessmen both foreign and domestic. The popular organizations began a campaign of occupying government offices and foreign embassies to demand the release of prisoners arrested under the Public Order Law.

Frustrated at its inability to control the growing popular opposition, the military government made one major attempt to demolish its largest foe, the Popular Revolutionary Bloc. Following a March 1978 street demonstration that ended in violence, the government unleashed the largest of the paramilitary rightist groups, ORDEN, on the peasants of San Pedro Perúlapan, a stronghold of Bloc support.5 In San Pedro ORDEN conducted a reign of terror akin to that unleashed by Somoza's National Guard in 1975. The effect was also similar; it further radicalized the rural population, widened the gulf between the government and its moderate opponents, and attracted widespread international condemnation. In late 1978 and early 1979, a series of human rights reports from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Organization of American States, and the U.S. Department of State unanimously condemned the Romero government for its systematic torture, murder and persecution of political dissidents.

When the mediation efforts in neighboring Nicaragua brought the political crisis there to a temporary stalemate in early 1979, the Carter Administration turned its crisis diplomacy to the burgeoning conflict in El Salvador. Abandoning its embarrassing silence on the effects of the Public Order Law, Washington began urging Romero to reduce the level of official violence. As a conciliatory gesture aimed more at Washington than at the opposition, Romero agreed to lift the law in late February. The effect was negligible; political violence from neither the government's security forces nor the paramilitary Right abated.

The fall of Somoza in July conjured up images of Central American dominoes in Washington and prompted a major review of U.S. policy toward the region. Advocates divided roughly into two camps. Those seeking a restoration of military aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras argued that the prospects for order would best be ensured by reinforcing the existing military regimes, even at the expense of human rights. The opposing view, which ultimately prevailed, held that the anciens régimes of Central America had become obsolete and could not be sustained in the long run. Rather than enlisting on the side of military dictatorships that faced eventual extinction, this view ran, the interests of the United States would be better served by policies aimed at managing the inevitable social and economic change. Implicitly, such management meant-as it had under the Alliance for Progress-a search for "openings to the center" and policies to promote the center while containing the Left.

Rent by escalating political violence, El Salvador moved quickly to the top of the policy agenda. The Carter Administration resolved not to repeat the mistakes it had made in Nicaragua, where it failed to break fully with Somoza and enlist wholeheartedly on the side of the moderate opposition until the eleventh hour-several hours too late. Washington pressured General Romero to move El Salvador's political conflicts back into the electoral arena where the Christian Democrats and the social-democratic MNR could retrieve the political initiative from the Left.

Romero responded with promises of reform, including a pledge that the 1980 congressional elections would be internationally supervised to ensure fairness. But he was adamant in his refusal to reschedule the presidential election, which was not due until 1982. Convinced that the tattered fabric of El Salvador's polity would not hold together until 1982, the United States was not satisfied. Neither was the opposition. Even the moderates refused to confer with the government on its promised reforms until the violence of the security forces was ended. Romero would not or could not end it.

By trying to accommodate the United States, Romero undercut his own support on the Right. As order unravelled, so did the partnership between the oligarchy and the armed forces. The government's obvious inability to contain the Left was, in effect, a failure to meet its part of the implicit political bargain struck between the oligarchy and the conservative PCN. Romero's willingness even to suggest a relaxation of repression while the Left was gaining ground signaled to the oligarchs that the government could no longer be trusted to provide for their security. Since the government was no longer reliable, the oligarchs took their defense into their own hands, and violence from the paramilitary Right escalated sharply. That the oligarchs still had allies within the military is confirmed by the fact that, despite Romero's promises, the behavior of the security forces did not change. By the fall of 1979, El Salvador was descending into chaos.


On October 15, 1979, the Romero government was ousted in a bloodless coup led by two young and apparently progressive colonels. Charging Romero with corruption, electoral fraud and human rights violations, the colonels committed their new government to a thorough reform of the nation's "antiquated economic, social and political structures." The oligarchic system, they charged, had not offered the people even "the minimal conditions necessary to survive as human beings."

The colonels moved quickly to establish a popular base by inviting the moderate opposition into the government. Three moderate civilians joined the colonels in a ruling junta, and the cabinet was drawn almost entirely from the centrist political parties. In a dramatic break with the past, the junta also called for support from the country's previously excluded militant Left, saying that the Left "must understand that the government is no longer their enemy." To gain such support, the junta promised an ambitious program of reforms drawn largely from the Common Platform, a list of demands issued in September by a coalition that included all the major centrist parties and one of the Left's popular organizations, the Popular Leagues. The junta pledged to end the repression, create a democratic political system, and institute a wide range of economic policies aimed at improving the plight of the poor. Most important, it promised agrarian reform.

The popular response to these proposals was mixed. Though the moderate opposition parties joined the new government immediately, Archbishop Oscar Romero was more cautious in his endorsement. Acknowledging the junta's good will, he warned that the nation's new rulers could rally popular support only by demonstrating that their "beautiful promises are not dead letters."

On the Left, reaction to the coup was even more equivocal. Two of the armed groups greeted the new government with calls for insurrection; they refused to believe that the military would or could break with the past and displace the oligarchy. By the end of the first week, however, the government's attempts to create an opening to the Left began to have an effect. Encouraged by the junta's support of the Common Platform and its promises to bring Leftists into the government, the Popular Leagues and the Revolutionary Army of the People gave the government conditional endorsement. Though they never offered explicit support, the leftist FAPU and FARN were also impressed by the government's apparent commitment to real change. Finally, in early November the Popular Revolutionary Bloc and the Popular Forces of Liberation agreed to suspend their attacks on the government for 30 days to give it an opportunity to make good its promises.

The junta did not use the time well. The pledge to investigate human rights abuses led to no arrests; the pledge to reorganize the government's security apparatus led only to a cosmetic reshuffling of personnel; and the pledge to conduct an agrarian reform led nowhere. In fact, the government could not even rein in its own security forces. Though the colonels had condemned the Romero government's indiscriminate use of lethal force against civilians, the practices of the police and National Guard did not change noticeably after October.

As the weeks passed, it became clear that more than mere indecision lay behind the junta's failure to act. The issue of the "disappeared" was indicative of the new government's dilemma. Despite its initial promise to discover the whereabouts of some 300 political activists, two weeks after coming to power the junta claimed that it could not find any of the missing. The junta dared not look too closely at the excesses of the Romero regime for fear of what it might find; senior police and military officials were almost certainly culpable in the disappearances. Such a discovery would have shattered the fragile unity of the armed forces-something the progressive officers refused to risk. The same predicament confronted the progressives at every turn because the conservatives objected to every major reform.

This political stalemate revealed in bold relief the historic dilemma of Salvadorean politics. In a closed political system that had never allowed significant civilian participation, public policy was the exclusive preserve of the armed forces. Reforms were inevitably constrained by the government's need to preserve at least a rough political consensus within the officers' corps. The oligarchy, of course, defended its interests through its links with the conservatives in the military. Bound together with their conservative compatriots by institutional loyalty, progressive officers could alter the status quo only in ways the conservatives were willing to tolerate-a tolerance ordinarily defined by the conservatives' fear of the Left. This, of course, was why three decades of military modernizers had failed to produce any significant change in El Salvador's outmoded social structure. It was also why the October junta failed. On every important issue, the progressives caved in to conservative resistance rather than risk a split in the armed forces.

The government's paralysis destroyed any chance it may have had to build a popular base on the Left or the Center-Left. By December all three of the popular organizations and their armed wings had gone back on the offensive, and even the moderates within the government had become deeply discouraged. In a final effort to break the deadlock in the armed forces, two of the junta's three civilian members issued an ultimatum: either Defense Minister José Guillermo García (the leading conservative) would resign or they would. Forced to choose openly between their commitment to change and their loyalty to the armed forces, the progressive officers chose loyalty. Backed by a majority of senior officers and local garrison commanders, García stood fast.

On January 3, less than three months after its birth, the Center-Left government collapsed when two of the junta's three civilian members resigned along with the entire cabinet (except for García, of course). In presenting their resignations, the civilians blamed conservative resistance for the government's impotence and its inability to build a popular base of support. The most dramatic demonstration of disillusionment with the junta and the possibility of peaceful change came at a press conference called by the former Education Minister, Salvador Samayoa. Samayoa explained that he had resigned to "fight for total liberation." He then picked up an AK-47 machine gun and walked out of the room escorted by two masked gunmen.

Despite the government's failure to win the trust of the Left or to retain the cooperation of the Center-Left, the colonels pressed onward. Within a week, the Christian Democrats rejoined the government, justifying their decision on the grounds that there was no other alternative to civil war. A new junta was formed and a new round of reform proposals was issued, including promises to nationalize the banks and expropriate the large landed estates.

Superficially, the new junta seems hardly distinguishable from its predecessor; in Washington, it has been portrayed as a centrist government of progressive officers and moderate civilians who are committed to significant social change. Indeed, the January junta has even carried out (albeit reluctantly and under intense U.S. pressure) some of the promises the October junta left unfulfilled. Yet the new government's strategy for resolving the current political crisis is profoundly different. The October junta sought to combine structural change with a political opening to the Left, which was guardedly willing to let the government prove its sincerity. The junta failed when it was unable to overcome the conservative officers' resistance to reform. The new junta's strategy has been to assuage the Right's fear of reform by combining it with repression of the Left. The goal of building a Center-Left social base for the government has been abandoned. Instead, the government has sought to consolidate, as best it can, a political consensus for reform within the armed forces-even if the means of doing so leave it utterly isolated from the civilian populace. In this sense, the new government in El Salvador is no different from the military modernizers of the past. The reforms it advocates may be more extensive, but its approach to politics is a familiar one-an authoritarian regime centered in the armed forces and buttressed by repression of those who dare to challenge the military's hegemony.

Even the effectiveness of the junta's reform program is problematic. Though the junta has nationalized the banks and expropriated several hundred of the largest private estates, its reforms have been accompanied by a state of siege and wave of repression as intense as any undertaken by the Romero regime. In the countryside, conservatives in the security forces used the repression to obviate the agrarian reform and to terrorize the peasantry. In the cities, the security forces have used the state of siege to wage war against the opposition. In the first few months of 1980, the number of people killed in political violence was nearly a thousand, the vast majority of whom were killed either by the police or the paramilitary Right.

The strategy of reform with repression has destroyed what little chance the January junta might have had to build a popular base of support. The reforms have alienated the Right, and the repression has alienated everyone else. The PDC, a partner in the government, is deeply divided over the junta's strategy for governing. In March, several leading Christian Democrats, including junta member Hector Dada, resigned from the government on the grounds that reform and repression were mutually exclusive. Before he was assassinated on March 24, even Archbishop Romero had begun to suggest that insurrection against the repressive regime was justified.

The conservatives in the armed forces may have been momentarily won over to the cause of reform, but the oligarchy has not. The oligarchs and their supporters on the far Right have denounced the government as Marxist, and the death squads have launched a new campaign of political assassination. Their targets have been not only members of the Left, but also leaders of the moderate opposition and of the government itself.

On the Left, the climate of repression has forged unprecedented unity. In January, all the major popular organizations and armed groups created the Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses to plan joint strategy; in March, the political parties and trade unions of the Center-Left formed a coalition of their own, the Democratic Front; and, in April, the Left and Center-Left came together in a grand coalition when the Revolutionary Coordinator joined the Democratic Front.

The strategy of reform with repression has left the January junta desperately isolated and precariously dependent upon the support of the United States. When rightists in the armed forces sought to depose the government in late February and again in May, there was no significant social or political group in El Salvador which the government could rally to its defense. Only the United States preserved it.


El Salvador has become the first test case for the new regional policy formulated by the United States in the wake of the Nicaraguan revolution. Since the October coup, the policy of the United States has been to support the government of El Salvador in its attempts to carry out significant social reform and forge a viable political center. When the uncooperative General Romero was deposed, the sense of relief in Washington was almost palpable; the October junta seemed a perfect vehicle for reform without revolution-i.e., a centrist regime which was both anti-oligarchic and anti-communist.

The proximate objectives of the United States since October have been to encourage El Salvador's rulers to implement their promised reforms, to protect them from a rightist coup, and to avert an open civil war. The principal instrument for carrying out this policy has been economic and military assistance. In November 1979, the Administration sent the Salvadorean security forces a limited amount of riot control equipment along with six U.S. advisers to teach them how to use it. In the early spring of 1980, $6 million in additional military aid and $50 million in economic aid were reprogrammed for El Salvador, despite Archbishop Romero's personal appeal to President Carter, in which he warned that military aid would merely "sharpen the repression."

U.S. policy has been indiscriminate in its search for a viable centrist government. The Carter Administration has acknowledged no significant difference between the October and January juntas, and therein lies the fallacy of U.S. policy. The October junta tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to address both the socioeconomic and political ills of the nation by blending structural reform with a political opening to the Left. The January junta's program of reform with repression ignores the most pressing political issues: the escalating violence, the growing polarization, and the ongoing isolation of the government.

Confronted with these problems, U.S. policymakers contend that it is still possible to build a political center where none now exists. Both the far Right and the far Left are, purportedly, too fragmented to mount a successful assault on the government. Thus, if the regime can be sustained by the United States in the short run, its program of social reform will eventually attract centrist support.

To this end, the policy of the United States is to encourage the junta to move cautiously (so as to preserve its tenuous hold on power) on three fronts: (1) to implement real social reform, thereby building some measure of popular support no matter how diffuse; (2) to rein in the Right, even if it means removing some ultraconservatives from the security forces; and (3) to enlist the support of the Center-Left opposition, leaving the radical Left isolated on the political periphery. The first two stages of this program are underway now, and the Right's resistance constitutes the most immediate threat to the government's survival. Two coup attempts have already been foiled by the skillful and tireless efforts of U.S. Ambassador Robert White.

The third objective, however, rests upon the unrealistic hope that the grand coalition which has been formed between the Left and the Center-Left can be broken up. In essence, this is an attempt to replay the final months of the Somoza regime, when the United States pursued an identical policy to no avail. Behind its reformist rhetoric, policy toward El Salvador is an attempt to prevent another Nicaragua. What Washington appears to be incapable of grasping is that in El Salvador, as in Nicaragua before it, the centrist forces which the United States regards as its natural allies have joined with the very forces which the United States perceives as its natural enemy-the radical Left. The centrists are no longer in the center.

Failure to comprehend this realignment produced policies that were irrelevant to the balance of political forces in Nicaragua. That is the mistake we ought not to repeat in El Salvador.

The strength of the Left is such that it cannot be contained short of extermination. It has become a veto group in Salvadorean politics-no centrist government can rule without its tacit support and no reform program can succeed in the long run without its participation. The recently unified Left and Center-Left opposition includes everyone but the government and the far Right.

If civil war is to be averted and real changes implemented, the junta must return to the strategy of October: end the repression and try once again to bring both the Center-Left and the radical Left into the government. Though the polarization of politics has worsened since January, the Left might again be willing to halt its attacks on the government if it can be convinced of the junta's sincerity. The principal obstacle to such a change in government policy is the same now as it was in October. No opening to the Left or even to the Center-left can succeed until the repression is brought to an end, and the repression will not abate until the government gains effective control of its own security forces. It cannot do that unless the progressives in the armed forces can be induced to break with their conservative compatriots.

In the current stalemate of Salvadorean politics the impetus for such a change must come from the United States. Rather than giving unqualified support to reform with repression merely because the current government is vaguely centrist, the United States ought to use what leverage it has to induce the junta to open the political system. Without pressure from the United States, the progressive officers will not break with their conservative compatriots, end the political violence, or institute real reforms. The slide into civil war will not be arrested.

Policymakers in Washington object that such a shift in U.S. policy would provoke a coup from the Right. The junta's social reforms have already strained the political consensus in the officers' corps to the breaking point; an opening to the Left would rupture it. The danger of a rightist coup is certainly real. The Right planned a coup in February and another in May but was dissuaded when the United States stated unequivocally that it would oppose a rightist regime. A similar stance might once again deter a coup and give the junta the freedom to pursue a reconciliation with the Left.

There is no gainsaying the complexities of implementing such a policy. In a situation as volatile as El Salvador, the tone and timing of initiatives can be as important as their substance. But the current U.S. policy is no less pragmatic than this alternative. And, whatever the risks, an opening to the Left offers a better prospect for avoiding civil war than does the strategy of reform with repression. As political violence continues and the opposition coalesces around an increasingly radical program, the possibility of a rapprochement with the Left is quickly slipping away.

If the United States hopes to induce the Salvadorean government to broaden its popular base at all, it must become more sensitive to the nuances of using foreign assistance as an instrument of policy. Though the current level of U.S. military assistance is not enough to alter the military balance between government and opposition or to provide the United States with very much leverage, it nevertheless strengthens the impression that the United States endorses the political violence of the security forces. By ending military aid, the United States could send a clear message to the armed forces that it does not support attempts to impose military solutions on political problems.

Economic assistance, on the other hand, not only provides better leverage because of its greater quantity, but is also less likely to be misinterpreted. It can be used both to redirect the junta toward a political opening and to help finance the requisite social reforms. Indeed, political violence has thrown the Salvadorean economy into such a crisis that economic assistance is virtually indispensable. Consequently, Washington's threat to withdraw aid has already been successfully used to induce the government to expropriate the large landed estates, and to deter the Right from expropriating the government.

It may be that no U.S. policy can avert civil war in El Salvador. The Carter Administration has pledged that the United States will not intervene directly in a battle between domestic forces. But in the frigid international atmosphere of the new cold war and a heated domestic presidential race against Ronald Reagan, the pressures for direct intervention will be intense-especially if the current U.S.-supported junta is in place when a civil war erupts.

U.S. intervention, whether in the form of massive military aid or U.S. troops, would be a diplomatic disaster both regionally and globally. In Latin America, it would immediately resurrect charges of U.S. imperialism and shatter our fragile relations with Nicaragua. It would make a mockery of our human rights policy, giving rightist regimes throughout the region an opportunity to repudiate as paternalistic and interventionist U.S. attempts to moderate repression and foster democracy. Furthermore, it would wreak havoc in our relations with most of the Third World; the diplomatic and moral advantage which the United States has reaped from events in Afghanistan would be completely lost. And though it has become fashionable to remonstrate against the evils of the "Vietnam syndrome," sending U.S. troops to El Salvador might prove to be much easier than bringing them home.

There is also the nightmare scenario of a civil war escalating into a regional war engulfing all of Central America. Indeed, the war has already become internationalized to an extent; both Guatemala and Cuba have sent arms to support their respective sides. If the nightmare becomes a reality it will probably be the doing of Guatemala. The rightist government in Guatemala has a history of coming to the rescue of the Right in El Salvador, and has recently warned ominously of the need to halt the "communist tide" before it reaches Guatemalan shores. Though the Guatemalan armed forces have their hands full at home, they might well enter a civil war in El Salvador if the Left appeared to be winning. The revolutionary government in Nicaragua would be hard pressed to stand idly by in the face of Guatemalan intervention, and there is even the remote possibility of a major Cuban response.

Any serious internationalization of a civil war in El Salvador would produce almost irresistible domestic political pressure for direct U.S. involvement. Yet the costs of intervention would be no less severe. It is therefore imperative that the United States do everything in its power to prevent direct intervention in El Salvador by any foreign power. Allying itself with Mexico and Venezuela, which fear instability in Central America even more than does the United States, Washington should use all its moral and diplomatic weight to rally regional opinion against external intervention. For example, the threat of diplomatic and economic sanctions against external combatants by the Organization of American States might prove to be an effective deterrent.


The possibilities for peaceful, evolutionary change in El Salvador appear to have been exhausted. The current U.S. policy of supporting reform with repression is exacerbating the polarization of the polity rather than creating a viable center. The only conceivable alternative-urging the regime to create an opening to the Left-is admittedly a long shot. It may well be that only a civil war can cut the Gordian knot of Salvadorean politics. And civil war will bring with it all the attendant dangers of internationalization and temptations for U.S. intervention.

It is impossible to predict who would win a civil war in El Salvador, but there can be no doubt that the bloodshed would be horrific. The Right favors a solution akin to the massacre of 1932, and the Left is unlikely to be as generous in victory as the Sandinistas have been in Nicaragua. The United States could hardly maintain cordial relations with the government of victors, whoever they might be. In short, the outlook is dismal, both for the people of El Salvador and for the United States.

How can the United States prevent a reenactment of this tragedy in Guatemala and Honduras, the Central American dominoes still standing? In concept, the post-Somoza policy which the United States has adopted toward the region is a great improvement over the policies of the past. Washington has rejected as inadequate the short-term solution of uncritically propping up conservative regimes with economic and military assistance. In its place is a pledge to promote fundamental social and political change.

The success of this new policy, however, will not be determined by its good intentions. First, it will depend upon the ability of the United States to act before full crises develop and the possibilities for peaceful change evaporate. To date, Washington has been so preoccupied with putting out brushfires that it has hardly begun to address the problems which make Guatemala and Honduras candidates for future crises.

Moreover, the success of this new policy will depend upon the resolve of the United States to pursue its stated commitment to change consistently, even at the expense of short-term stability. History offers some valuable lessons in this regard. We would do well to recall that the Alliance for Progress encompassed similar goals, albeit on a more grandiose scale. Yet despite some gains in economic growth, the Alliance produced little basic social change and failed dismally in its efforts to promote democracy.

The Alliance died of schizophrenia. The United States never resolved the contradiction between the Alliance's developmental and security components, between reform and repression. When this contradiction produced authoritarian regimes rather than democracies, U.S. policymakers rationalized reality into a virtue, arguing that the problems of economic growth caused such severe political strains that modernizing nations could not "afford" democracy. The pluralist clash of interests was sacrificed to the peace of authoritarian order. Democracy, so the argument went, would follow in the wake of modernization-a sort of trickle-down politics.

The new policy of the United States toward Central America revives the hopes of the Alliance for Progress, but its application in El Salvador betrays the persistence of the Alliance's schizophrenia. The attraction of the current Salvadorean government is that it promises to square the circle by providing both basic social change and security against the Left. The reality now, as in the 1960s, is that it cannot do both. If El Salvador opts for real change, it can only be accomplished by allowing the Left to return from the political wilderness to which it has been relegated by decades of military rule.

Both Guatemala and Honduras will face similar choices in the near future. Moreover, as the search for democracy becomes a hemispheric concern, Brazil, Argentina and Chile will all confront the issue of how to accommodate the social and political demands of a Left opposition radicalized by years of suppression. The challenge for U.S. policy is not to let the emergence of such opposition elements weaken our commitment to social and political change. The first necessary condition for creating stability in Latin America is to create open democratic political systems that allow the Left to come in from the cold.

1 For a history of this period, see Thomas Anderson, Matanza, University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

2 The Bloc is affiliated with the FPL; the Popular Leagues with the ERP; and the FAPU with the FARN.

4 The New York Times, May 8, 1978, p. 1.

5 ORDEN (short for the Democratic Nationalist Organization) was created in 1968 as a civilian auxiliary to government security forces in the countryside, and grew quickly to a membership of between 50,000 and 100,000.



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  • William M. LeoGrande is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Government and Public Administration, the American University, and the author of numerous articles on Latin American politics. Carla Anne Robbins is a Fellow of the Institute for the Study of World Politics in New York.
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