Washington paid no attention when the Salvadoran Communist Party split in 1969 in a bitter dispute over whether to lead an armed uprising. In El Salvador, a tiny country dominated by a vitriolically anticommunist army and oligarchy, the revolutionary aspirations of the Salvadoran Communist Party chairman, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, sounded like a hot-headed fantasy. But Carpio had reason to believe in the armed future he foresaw. Today, two decades later, his prescient dream of insurrection has come true.

It was no easy feat to spark a revolution in El Salvador. Carpio's own Communist Party was so cautious that it expelled him for militaristic "adventurism." Undaunted, Carpio reportedly traveled to North Vietnam to study how a Marxist-Leninist party could organize disgruntled students, peasants and workers into a punishing political-military movement capable of leading a revolution to defeat a corrupt local government and end the political dominance of the United States. El Salvador had long been home to a communist party and active workers' organizations, even though the army almost destroyed the party in 1932 when it massacred at least 10,000 people to crush a communist-led peasant insurrection against the landowning oligarchy. Carpio and a handful of followers found fertile ground for new revolutionary war. Six years ago, Carpio committed suicide after losing a characteristically bloody internal power struggle. But his revolutionary vision more than outlived him.

Today El Salvador is wracked by a crippling civil war pressed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), formed in 1980 and named for the leader of the Communist Party executed by the army in 1932. Four of the five Marxist rebel groups that make up the FMLN were organized either by communist dissidents or by independent young Marxists who refused to enter what they saw as an ossified party subservient to Moscow. Eventually even the reticent communists felt forced to join the new generation of rebels in the FMLN or risk being left behind forever.

The Salvadoran guerrillas are now the best-trained, best-organized and most committed Marxist-Leninist rebel movement ever seen in Latin America. The FMLN is an impressive organization led by some of the country's most talented people. Its extensive political, diplomatic, social, financial and military resources make it the shadow government in at least a third of El Salvador and a periodic presence in much of the rest of the country. After nine years of fighting, more than $3.3 billion of publicly acknowledged American aid and the lives of 70,000 Salvadorans and 14 American officials, the Marxist rebels have not succeeded in winning the war. But they have succeeded in their secondary objective of making the war-and, by extension, the FMLN-inescapable facts of life in El Salvador that affect all else.

The conflict now challenges both the Bush Administration and the new rightist government elected in El Salvador in March 1989 amid countrywide attacks by the rebels. It is no easy feat to find an effective policy for the war-broken country, where the recalcitrant right, the Marxist left, a traditionalist army and a wavering center vie for control of an impoverished society that has never had a shared consensus.

A grueling, violent period lies ahead that will defy ideal solutions. After a decade of deep involvement in El Salvador, it seems past time for a review of an American policy that has struggled to achieve goals that may still be attainable, but only if they are fundamentally reoriented. The guerrillas have promised to make the country "ungovernable," and may succeed in doing so. U.S. officials who once confidently spoke of defeating the rebels now speak of remaining in El Salvador "for a generation."


The United States intervened in El Salvador in 1980 principally because it feared the consequences of a victory by Marxist rebels closely allied to Cuba, Vietnam and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. But the decision to intervene carried its own far-reaching consequences, which few U.S. officials appreciated ten years ago.

El Salvador is at war because it is one of the sickest societies in Latin America. Its archaic social structure remains basically colonial. Despite some efforts at change, a tiny urban elite and dominating caste of army officers essentially rule, but do not effectively govern, an illiterate, disease-ridden and frustrated majority of peasants and urban slum-dwellers. Order is often imposed by violence; there is not now, nor has there ever been, a just legal system. The rebels, in short, have had ample cause to lead a revolution.

By intervening in the civil war to stave off a rebel victory, the United States has made itself in effect responsible for ministering to the multiple ills created by centuries of misrule by Salvadorans. That misrule was carried out by the army and ruling elite that American policy is now supporting. In essence, the United States is attempting to persuade El Salvador's rulers to change their ways radically. It is a long-term, controversial and highly problematic task that pretentiously used to be called "nation-building."

In this century, however, almost no outside power has successfully detained a revolution while trying to shepherd a modernizing but still primitive Third World society. It is a daunting labor that the U.S. political system is particularly poorly suited to carry out. That may not mean it is impossible. But undertaking the transformation of El Salvador is an extremely large, risky commitment that American policymakers had best take with the utmost seriousness-because if it is not handled with care, El Salvador could become an even worse tragedy for its people and a foreign policy disaster for Washington.

Following nine years of vicious fighting and the five most honest elections in El Salvador's history, the political landscape has improved but is still rough. The people are polarized, distrusting and uncertainly swinging between increasing conservatism, demoralized apathy and mass migration to the United States. The centrist Christian Democratic Party of President José Napoleón Duarte is in decline due to its own corruption, incompetence and over-reliance on a U.S. embassy that mistakenly encouraged the Christian Democrats to become an anticommunist party of war, forgetting the party's roots in the populist left. Duarte, fatally ill with cancer, has hoped to be the first democratically elected civilian president in El Salvador to hand power over to another democratically elected civilian president. It is an important step, but only a start in the long process of democratization and effective governance.

President Duarte will cede his office to one of his bitterest opponents, the strongly rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as ARENA. ARENA's candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, won the presidency in the March 19 elections, and the party controls the legislature, most municipal governments and the courts. Many Salvadorans were angered by the corruption of the Duarte government, and the conservatives built upon their already hefty base of support. But there is reason to worry about ARENA's new dominance, because it does not express a new consensus but rather reflects the deep polarization of the country. As importantly, ARENA's commitment to democracy and to reform is still very open to question.

ARENA was formed eight years ago as an ultra-rightist party of reaction. It viciously opposed political change with a paramilitary wing whose death squads worked with army units to murder thousands of perceived opponents, almost certainly including the Roman Catholic archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. ARENA gunmen also are believed to have machine-gunned the U.S. embassy, kidnapped leading businessmen for profit and plotted to kill the American ambassador. Military officers and two businessmen who ran death squads for ARENA reportedly ordered and personally observed the murder of two U.S. land reform experts. ARENA's more moderate members, whom Mr. Cristiani represents, do not have control of the party. They must negotiate with ARENA's founder, Roberto D'Aubuisson, the pater familias of the death squads and godfather of the politics of hate. It is a measure of El Salvador's extremism and deep conservatism that D'Aubuisson is the most popular political figure in the country.

The odds are against Cristiani's gaining complete control over the extremists, but he may surprise the harshest critics of ARENA. He and other moderates in the party appear to be searching for more effective and more humane ways to govern. There are many talented Salvadorans, including enlightened members of the oligarchy, numerous businessmen, farmers, villagers and shopkeepers who want the killing to end and who will strongly support a decent government. But ARENA will have to demonstrate whether, having been founded as a party of reaction, it can now become a party of intelligent reform-because neither preservation of the status quo nor return to the past is possible in El Salvador. Meaningful reform must go on.


What sort of reforms are needed? They are obvious. The changes called for include respecting human rights while fighting the war far more effectively, forming government programs that help the poor majority to assist themselves, exploring new sources of economic growth and making farms more productive, while punishing corruption and offering publicly responsive government that involves Salvadorans in running their own lives and the country. The popular demand for change goes far beyond holding periodic elections; it is a demand for full participation in national life and for a decent standard of living.

These are measures that no government in El Salvador has been able to achieve because they require fundamental changes in the country's authoritarian culture, economic structure and political practices. In particular, the economic elite that ARENA represents has obstructed such change for a century and may still continue to do so. Political leadership and personal sacrifice for national democratic gain have never been Salvadoran virtues. But war sobers men, even as it embitters them, and sobered men may yet have a slim chance to turn El Salvador toward sanity.

There are positive developments in the country that can be built upon. Genuine elections have been accompanied by far more open political debate. Salvadoran party leaders are learning the trade of politics and managing a society. The press is growing bolder. Political killings on both sides are rising as the guerrillas reinfiltrate the capital, but are still very far below the numbers of the past. The former near-total domination of the oligarchy is gone forever. Land reform has haltingly begun. The army has largely stayed out of civilian politics, but it still exerts an enormous influence on policy decisions. While the army has become more effective militarily, it still has much to learn on the battlefield. Extreme U.S. pressure may finally force army officers to prosecute some of the killers in their ranks. But that step can only be counted as a permanent advance when the army punishes murderers without being pressured by the United States. That day is far away.

A clearer sign of progress is the formation of a new coalition of small democratic socialist parties, known as the Democratic Convergence. It is led by leftist democrats, including Rubén Zamora and Guillermo Ungo, whom the government allowed to return in 1987 from exile where they fled to escape death squads. The socialists are presently depressed by the bare 3.8 percent of the vote that Mr. Ungo, their presidential candidate, received in this year's presidential election.

The Democratic Convergence maintains a seemingly strained alliance with the Marxist guerrillas, whose military attacks during the election, threats to "blow to pieces or consume in flames" any car on the road, and promises to kill election workers helped sharply curtail voter participation. In a blow to the fragile electoral system, half of the electorate did not vote-most out of fear or apathy, but some out of active opposition to the present order. The Democratic Convergence suffered most at the ballot box; it had been expected to get at least twice as many votes as it did. The Salvadorans who risked voting appear to have held the socialists responsible for highly unpopular guerrilla violence. The Democratic Convergence, however, hangs on to its alliance with the FMLN, saying it wants to serve as a moderating force to convince all sides to make concessions and negotiate an end to the fighting.

Although the Salvadoran electorate appears to have shifted to the right in the 1980s, the future of the socialists and the flailing Christian Democrats could well prove brighter than their present. Only a decade ago a striking majority of Salvadorans supported the democratic left. In 1972 they elected Duarte president at a time when he was still a leftist populist who ran with the socialist Ungo in an alliance openly backed by the Communist Party. The army, urged on by the oligarchy, stole that election, beat Duarte, exiled him and then began to murder those who opposed the military-oligarchic dictatorship. That brutal denial of democracy, which was ignored by Washington, spurred the emergence of the Marxist guerrillas and ultimately the civil war. American officials now say they welcome the rebirth of the democratic left as a force for democratization in El Salvador.

Aside from the United States, the other most influential political force in El Salvador is the army. In these years of war the army has quadrupled in size, fed by nearly a billion dollars of known U.S. military aid and probably considerably more if hidden CIA funds are included. With 56,000 men, the army sees itself as the guarantor and beneficiary of the new U.S.-backed political system created after young army officers led a reformist coup in 1979. Salvadoran army officers, who once ran most regimes, support civilian rule today because they see it as a risky but necessary experiment to ensure the army's survival. They will abort the experiment if ever they feel it threatens the army's survival as an institution, which they consider to be synonymous with the survival of the nation. Such militarism is a typical handicap inherited from the Spanish Conquest and Spanish colonialism that will only slowly be cured as El Salvador matures politically. That is no easy task in the midst of a war that increases the army's power.

The army's mass killing of civilians virtually ended five years ago and probably will not be repeated, because the army does not now feel threatened enough to resort to such tactics and may have learned that mass killing is not a solution. In the most egregious killing of civilians in recent years, a few junior officers are now being investigated for murdering ten peasants last September. But army officers are still a caste above the law, even though a number of them are known criminals, mass murderers and torturers. The army and the political police it controls still kill opponents if they see no other way of dealing with them. Some army units currently appear to be selectively murdering and torturing people they believe are clandestine members of the guerrillas' urban cells.

Because the army is a key political force, ARENA hard-liners like D'Aubuisson can be expected to try to ally with ultra-rightist officers to pressure more moderate officers and perhaps Cristiani. That is the way politics was long practiced in El Salvador-rightists making alliances with army officers to kill opponents, get rich and repress the majority of poor peasants and workers. D'Aubuisson knows the game well, since he is a former army major widely reputed to have been one of the chief killers in military intelligence in the 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when it was closely advised by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, according to several army officers.


The army risks losing the war. Despite improvements by the army since 1980, the rebels have succeeded in prolonging the conflict. This is a major achievement for the rebels, and one that makes final victory by them possible, if not yet probable. The rebels, probably numbering 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, have thoroughly infiltrated the army and know its weaknesses. The guerrillas' current tactics are designed to push the army onto the defensive and sharpen its internal conflicts.

The guerrillas do not intend to defeat the army on the battlefield. Their strategy is essentially economic and political. The FMLN objective is to exhaust the army and keep it on the defensive while the rebels destroy the government's capacity to govern, weaken the public's willingness to endure more suffering and convince the United States to end or reduce its commitment. The guerrillas will then force the isolated government to negotiate its gradual surrender or to fight from a position of weakness.

The rebels are gearing up for a full political-military offensive. Guerrilla combat units maneuver daily across the volcanic landscape, bleeding the army and the economy with raids and sabotage that have inflicted nearly two billion dollars worth of damage-almost canceling a decade of American economic aid that has kept the war-shattered economy afloat, even as the unemployment rate hovers at close to 50 percent.

In the last year the FMLN has occupied the strategic heights of the volcanos overlooking the capital of San Salvador and reinfiltrated the city to harass the army's most important garrisons and carry out several terrorist bombings. The rebels have not overrun army bases. But they are striking in more cities, moving the war closer to the capital and expanding to the once peaceful western part of the country. They have also encouraged thousands of their supporters who were refugees in Honduras to return to rebel-held areas and become a renewed base of support. The uncontrolled Honduran border serves as a relatively safe rearguard for the guerrillas. The army has retaken some important areas from the rebels over the last five years, but has failed to extend government control decisively into contested parts of the country.

Using improved firepower and especially U.S.-provided aerial gunships, the army has forced the rebels to break down from the company- and battalion-size units they once operated in. But the guerrillas have learned to move in units of five to 20 men and can quickly combine for larger attacks. They wage a war of constant small ambushes backed by mines and booby-traps. They also occasionally launch major attacks, backed by strikes and demonstrations by rebel supporters in the cities. The main war zones are to the north of the capital and in the east of the country. Combat regularly occurs within ten miles of the capital, and the rebels are promising to unleash major raids in the months ahead.

The FMLN consists of five Marxist groups: the Popular Liberation Forces, the People's Revolutionary Army, the Central American Workers' Party, the National Resistance and the Communist Party. The first two factions are numerically dominant. Of these two, the Popular Liberation Forces has been most effective in organizing peasants and trade unionists into a combined political-military force. The five factions have suffered in the past from bitter internal wrangling over how best to win the war. But despite continuing differences, they have shown increasing coordination in tactics and strategy over the last two years.

The guerrillas are nationalists (as well as Marxists) who believe that the traditional Salvadoran elite and the army can never create an equitable, modern society, and that therefore the FMLN is the only savior of the country. The government's unimpressive efforts to date give the rebels cause for hope. Their confidence is strengthened by their isolation in the mountains and in clandestine urban cells, and by their extreme discipline and near theological conviction, needed to survive army attacks and rightist death squads. But such ideological rigidity has kept the rebels from comprehending that the majority of Salvadorans do not support them. Despite some efforts at moderation, the rebels still do not seem willing genuinely to moderate the authoritarian Marxism that limits their public appeal.

I have met many guerrilla leaders of left and right in Central America, but I never met any as obsessed with his mission as one of the Salvadoran rebels' chief military commanders, Joaquín Villalobos. His zeal is closely matched by dozens of other rebel commanders and sub-commanders. The FMLN is a resilient movement that no single man dominates, but Villalobos is extremely influential. In a meeting once at his sometime base in the village of Perquín, Villalobos reminded me of accounts of the young Castro, or Mao or Ho Chi Minh-he is that intelligent, that militaristic, that nationalistic, that dogmatic, that egotistically sure of his own destiny. He is responsible for many civilian deaths and probably will do whatever he believes is necessary to win the war. Not surprisingly, Mr. Villalobos is a favorite of two equally determined men-Fidel Castro and Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega-according to several former guerrillas. A former senior Sandinista official contends that the Rolex watch Villalobos wears was a present from Castro.

The majority of Salvadorans are not politically engaged in the war and dislike both the army and the guerrillas. There is a widespread, passionate yearning for peace, to which the rebels ably appeal with a campaign for negotiations-on terms favorable to the rebels. That yearning is likely to grow. The pragmatic neutrality of many civilians is such that past government efforts to form village civil defense units foundered. Civilians are reluctant to become guerrilla targets, a stance that benefits the guerrillas. Also, the army is reluctant to arm civilians. As a consequence, few villages have or want effective civil defense units.

But the rebels and the ARENA government each has a strong base of supporters who are committed to fighting each other. This factional conflict is very different from neighboring Nicaragua, where the people rose almost en masse to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Villalobos once said the history of Latin America is made by "active minorities," not by the quiescent majority. He is trying to prove his assertion in El Salvador, where the rebels intend to be the most active of the country's "active minorities."

The guerrillas probably have more than 50,000 committed supporters and perhaps some sympathy from up to ten percent of the more than five million Salvadorans living in the country. That is ample support to wage guerrilla war. But the rebels cannot win a fair election. They have never had the support of the majority and so far have failed to increase their popularity significantly. There is irony in this because the guerrillas are one of the main forces that has demanded a more equitable and more modern form of government and society. It is the guerrillas' willingness to fight that forced the army, the oligarchy and the United States grudgingly to support reform.

But a great many Salvadorans fear the FMLN will replace a bankrupt system of militaristic, violent capitalism with a militaristic, bureaucratized, single-party socialist model that has also failed. The guerrillas act like autocrats in the zones and refugee camps they control. Like much of the Third World, El Salvador needs policies that sidestep rigid doctrine in favor of pragmatic answers to local demands that reflect Salvadoran identity. Neither lawless, semi-colonial capitalism nor military bureaucracy nor single-party Marxism is likely to lead El Salvador out of its trauma.


Like most Marxists in the age of Gorbachev, the guerrilla commanders who steer the FMLN have appeared to be reviewing their Marxism in recent months.1 They seem to be struggling to define a more flexible approach that would still make them the dominant political and military force in El Salvador, but would not leave them internationally isolated and economically bankrupt. Taking a cue from the Sandinistas in nearby Nicaragua, the Salvadoran rebels have begun to speak of a post-revolutionary system that has at least limited opposition parties, a strong Catholic church and controlled private enterprise. But, as Nicaragua shows, finding a way to "liberalize" revolutionary Latin Marxism is no simple circle to square. In El Salvador, the rebels' dogmatism goes deep, reflecting their ideology as well as the extremism of Salvadoran culture and the terrible war.

The rebels presently shift between reassuring words and terrorist deeds fed by sectarian fantasy. They recently have contacted several leading businessmen to assure them that the guerrillas do not seek a Cuban-style state. But, at the same time, the rebels attacked the recent elections, murdered elected civilian officials and are now predicting "mass insurrection" at a moment when most Salvadorans wish the guerrillas would dry up and blow away.

A sign of rebel efforts to shift their strategy came in January 1989, two months before the last elections, when the guerrillas made a major new political proposal. They offered to respect the results of the elections if the vote were postponed for six months. But they then added a series of conditions that made negotiations tantamount to surrender by the government. The guerrillas demanded that the army be reduced by more than 40,000 men. The guerrillas themselves, however, did not offer to disarm even as they glibly demanded the elimination of the army as an effective force. In addition, the rebels' offer came at a time when their actions, such as murdering government officials and exploding car bombs, have not encouraged greater tolerance. The government charges that the rebels' real goal is to use negotiations to isolate the government internationally, reduce its support in Washington and weaken it in El Salvador.

The government is probably right. Last year the Salvadoran army captured the guerrillas' plans for their strategy during 1989. Rebel officials acknowledge that the documents are authentic-a conclusion reinforced by the fact that the rebels have done almost everything the captured plans state they would do. The documents reveal the most rigid, arid Marxist analysis imaginable and outline a strategy of revolutionary war based on sabotage, terrorism, military attack and negotiation. They raise strong doubts about the intentions of both the Salvadoran rebels and their Sandinista allies and may give cause to expect stepped-up actions by growing Marxist guerrilla groups in Honduras.

The Salvadoran rebels call their strategy Plan Fire. Their main planning document, titled "Strategic Appraisal," was captured by the army. It states: "The tendency of the war is to deepen, and this will be dominant in Central America despite the wave of negotiations. The Yankees are weakened but not beaten and will only leave the heart of the continent if they are politically and militarily defeated." The rebels show scant respect for the pacifist goals of the Central American peace treaty sponsored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias; they point to Nicaragua as their model. The "Strategic Appraisal" states that the peace treaty:

is, was and will continue to be a positive instrument of the revolution despite making it more complex, so long as the revolutionary forces use it offensively to divide and break up, maintaining concessions in a game of symmetry. The Yankees cannot give anything and must ask everything. The Sandinista popular revolution has established the basis for its symmetrical game; we have our own.2

The rebels define negotiations principally as a tactic to win power. The same document states: "In dialogue as such we must have as our central objective keeping the enemy tied at the table with a view to his strategic weakening and the building of a political umbrella against [foreign] intervention. . . . Dialogue is one of the forms of conspiratorial struggle and we must maintain it." The rebels then detail their effort to spur insurrection by destroying the economy and pushing the army to return to mass repression to hold off the guerrillas. "In synthesis, if they [the government] repress on a grand scale insurrection will accelerate as a response to the repression and if they do not do it, the insurrection will advance because of hunger and the crisis."

Despite such evidence of rebel thinking, an elected government presuming to lead a people exhausted by war has little choice but to seek renewed negotiations with the rebels. The government cannot afford politically to refuse to search for an end to the fighting, nor can it afford to surrender the political initiative to the rebels, as it did earlier this year. Even if the guerrillas offer further concessions, however, the government will have strong reason to suspect their intentions.

As the best-organized and most committed force in the country, the FMLN is likely to attempt to take over the government if ever it is able to negotiate a direct share of power. For that reason the government is likely to demand verifiable conditions for rebel disarmament and participation in supervised elections. But such a settlement appears far, far away. At present, neither side in the conflict is willing to trust or even tolerate the other. The Salvadoran army has always repressed the left to keep it from growing. For their part, the rebels want to win. I once asked Villalobos at what point in a negotiated settlement he would be willing to lay down his guns. His terse answer was: "Never." Thus, this is a war that is likely to be fought, militarily and politically, until one side prevails.

The rebels are totally committed but they are also pragmatic. They carry out limited assassinations and terrorist bombings with calculated, rational purpose. The FMLN knows that killing is politically costly and that it is not necessary to kill many in order to scare people into obedience or at least fearful neutrality. Unlike the almost irrational terrorism of the army, the rebels have not raped, tortured or massacred entire villages of people. But they did kidnap President Duarte's daughter, machine-gun a restaurant full of civilians in order to kill four U.S. marines, murder the leading villagers in the town of Cacaopera and set off car bombs at a popular hamburger stand and in front of a civilian health clinic that happened to be beside an army base. In the months ahead, it is likely that the rebels will strike harder than ever, using whatever tactic they believe is most effective.


How is it that a ragtag band of students, aging Communist Party dissidents and a few angry trade unionists and radical Catholic priests built a honed guerrilla army and political organization? They did it slowly, beginning with Carpio's efforts in 1969. They were greatly helped by Marxist allies such as Castro, but by far their most important resource was the deep anger that decades of dictatorship sowed among the Salvadoran lower classes and frustrated offspring of the emerging middle class. They chose to fight, to become Marxists, because to them capitalism means poverty for the majority and de facto dictatorship. That choice was often based on bitter personal experiences of army repression and murders of loved ones, as well as of crushing poverty and rigged elections stolen by corrupt regimes.

In 1981 the FMLN launched a "final offensive" that the army beat back, unleashing a killing spree against tens of thousands of suspected rebel sympathizers. One could not drive around the capital of San Salvador between 1979 and early 1982 without finding tortured bodies of men, women and sometimes children littered along the road. Washington did almost nothing to stop the carnage until 1983.

Badly bloodied, but still determined, the guerrillas sent their best surviving cadre after early 1981 to Cuba and Vietnam for advanced military training, according to several former rebels. They say virtually all top military commanders have had at least some training abroad. Miguel Castellanos, a senior guerrilla commander who deserted in 1985 only to be shot dead as a "traitor" by rebel assassins last February, described his training in Vietnam in 1983. He was in the third group of rebels to go to Vietnam, he told me. His graduation exercise was to stage a mock assault on the former American embassy in what had been Saigon, mastering the Vietcong's techniques. Guerrilla sappers may similarly penetrate the embassy in San Salvador one day.

While the FMLN appears to be highly self-sufficient, no guerrilla army can fight for nine years without significant outside aid. The army captured rebel commander Nidia Díaz in 1985 and found that her personal diary contained plans to send more than 30 rebels to Vietnam and other communist countries such as Bulgaria, East Germany and the Soviet Union for training. It was Castro who convinced quarreling rebel factions to unite in 1980, just as the Sandinistas united at Castro's urging. Today the Salvadoran rebels rely on outside sources principally for ammunition and new weapons, which appear to come from corrupt officials in Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, as well as from the governments of Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua. Sixty percent of the M-16 rifles captured from the rebels have serial numbers that match weapons sent by the United States to Vietnam, according to American officials. Cuba and Nicaragua formally deny militarily aiding the rebels, but there is strong reason to doubt their denial.

Castro, the Cuban ambassador to Nicaragua and senior Sandinista officials helped plan the rebels' 1981 offensive, according to four former senior Sandinista officials, one of whom says he sat in on the planning. The guerrillas' first major attacks, to destroy the country's main bridges and the Salvadoran air force base, were planned and trained for in Cuba. General Rafael del Pino Díaz, the deputy commander of the Cuban air force who defected in 1987, says he personally watched Cuban Special Operations officers training the Salvadoran rebel unit that attacked the air base in 1982 after being reinfiltrated via Nicaragua. When the army captured Nidia Díaz, it found documents detailing guerrilla meetings to secure supplies from Sandinista officials and Castro. One rebel cable to the Sandinistas in October 1983 said: "We thank you for all the help you've given us and we hope it will continue because it is indispensable to defeat whatever form of invasion on Central American soil." Another cable speaks of asking Castro to ensure that supplies from Nicaragua keep flowing.

Last year, Sergio Alejandro Gutiérrez López, the chief of Nicaraguan naval intelligence at the Pacific port of Corinto, defected to El Salvador. He said he personally helped send two large shipments of Soviet arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas at the end of 1987 on orders from senior Sandinista officials. I interviewed a former rebel, now living in quiet anonymity, who also gave a convincingly detailed account of shipping weapons from Nicaragua to El Salvador through 1987. The rebels have traditionally used American-made weapons from Vietnam or captured from the army. But the Salvadoran army is now capturing East-bloc AK-47 rifles and Russian sniper rifles from the rebels and new ammunition that American officials contend is manufactured in Cuba. The guerrillas claim that their AK-47s come from deserting contra rebels who carry East-bloc weapons, but U.S. officials counter that the model of AK-47 captured from the Salvadoran rebels is different from the models used by the contras. The Sandinistas formally deny arming the guerrillas, but often acknowledge a far broader degree of support in private conversations.

Roger Miranda Bengoechea, the chief assistant to Sandinista Defense Minister Ortega, defected to the United States in 1987. He contends that Nicaraguan support for the rebels is directed by an office of the Sandinista party's Directorate of International Relations. American and Salvadoran officials say rebel radio traffic is transmitted daily to safehouses and offices in Nicaragua. Last year Villalobos and fellow commander Leonel González began a rare trip abroad, including lengthy consultations in Cuba and Managua (as well as a meeting with President Arias in Costa Rica). They moved with apparent ease from a war zone in El Salvador directly to Managua and then on to Cuba. They and the other three top rebel military commanders reportedly met together recently in Managua for a general planning session.

If such outside aid were ended, the guerrillas would weaken and probably could never win the war. But they would remain a potent challenge. The rebels are well organized and have enough popular support to continue fighting for years. The FMLN has stockpiled ammunition and, with the expertise they have gained in the long war, the rebels now train and organize themselves. Former guerrillas say the FMLN has invested in banks and businesses in Latin America, Europe and the United States that, along with local "war taxes" and international solidarity groups, yield enough to keep the rebels on their feet. A second generation of young fighters is entering rebel ranks, mostly teenage children of rebel families who have known only fighting. Meanwhile, the government has failed to demonstrate that it can improve life for the majority of Salvadorans.

But even though the rebels are waging the most concerted revolutionary struggle ever seen in the hemisphere, the odds may be against them. Marxists took power in Cuba and Nicaragua by camouflaging their most doctrinaire intentions in a broad-based insurrection to overthrow a single dictator. The long war in El Salvador has made it difficult for the rebels to conceal their narrow ideology. That has made it hard for them to convince the majority of Salvadorans to support the FMLN.

The guerrillas are hitting hard now because they believe the next year is decisive. They do not want the new government to consolidate. Furthermore, they fear that the future might be more difficult if the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev carries out his pledge to discourage the "export of revolution." The Central American peace plan also could make it more difficult for the rebels to get outside aid, especially if the Sandinistas reach an accord with their internal opposition and the United States. The FMLN may be able to overcome such still-theoretical difficulties by relying on Fidel Castro, the aging high priest of insurrection and the rebels' firmest ally. But a willingness on the part of the United States and other countries to take up this issue seriously with Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union might have an effect.


What are the prospects for El Salvador? In the next months the rebels will take harsh steps to make the war bite as deeply as possible. In the last year the FMLN has carried out terrorist attacks in what appears to be a premeditated effort to scare the public into submission or panic. Car bombs in the cities, rebel bans on road traffic and other sabotage and assassinations have resulted in a large increase in civilian deaths at rebel hands. The guerrillas also have murdered eight mayors, a few justices of the peace and a departmental governor, while issuing death threats that have led more than 100 other mayors to resign. Although they have not claimed responsibility, the rebels are believed to have murdered the ARENA-appointed attorney general in April and bombed the family homes of several army officers and the newly elected vice-president.

This is the first time the rebels have appeared to be as abusive to civilians as the army has. But the guerrillas seem to be gambling that their tactics will polarize the situation to their benefit. The rightist government, however, may have enough public support to weather the rebels' blows, especially if the guerrillas' terrorism provokes a public reaction against them. If U.S. support continues, and if the army blunts the guerrillas' current offensive without resorting to massive human rights violations, the government is likely to survive. But a bloody, draining conflict will drag on for years unless the government and the army break the guerrillas' capacity to prolong the war.

The rebels' decision to kill mayors may be a sign that for the first time the FMLN feels politically threatened by improving local government. In the single most effective program in the country, the government and the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) are giving significant funds directly to villages for schools, clinics, roads, water and electricity. Almost all the mayors the guerrillas have killed were directing such village projects.

The village development program, known as "Municipalities in Action," should serve as a model for future American development aid in El Salvador and perhaps elsewhere. It is being expanded into the rebel-dominated north in a broader effort called "Chalatenango '88." Such programs' success should prompt a long-overdue outside review of the way AID has given hundreds of millions of dollars to often corrupt, bloated state bureaucracies in El Salvador. This latter assistance has not bettered the lives of the majority of Salvadorans, and creates greater government dependence on American handouts. AID is the most important but least effectively used agency participating in U.S. policy in El Salvador; its program needs to be overhauled.

But before deciding that such continued U.S. involvement is merited, senior American officials should now step back and conduct a high-level review to find out why the Salvadoran government, army and the U.S. embassy have failed to be more effective after ten years of effort. The main answer is likely to be that the army and government have failed to reform themselves sufficiently. If army officers and politicians in El Salvador do not change their thinking and their policies, U.S. efforts will fail.

Before the Bush Administration commits itself in El Salvador, it also must clearly define its policy objectives in detail and convey them to the Salvadoran government and army, as well as to the U.S. Congress. No steps should be taken until the administration secures Salvadoran agreement on a common, coordinated policy. That agreement is currently lacking. The administration should then carry out its prescription with maximum commitment. Military measures deserve serious attention, but political and economic measures will be even more important. Congress should monitor the progress, pressuring the administration and the Salvadoran government as necessary. There should be no illusion about quick or easy results, but deadlock should not be tolerated. Because this is a controversial and problematic policy, it should be undertaken with humility and pragmatism, qualities too little seen in U.S. actions in Central America. No one has a certain template for reordering this traumatized country, so the way must be left open for a change of course, if conditions alter or the policy proves unsuccessful.

On the military front, U.S. officials should be more aware that they are involved in a deadly serious war against an impressive and totally committed adversary. To end the current military stalemate, U.S. officials should stop telling the Salvadoran army that it is winning the war. The Pentagon, which has not taken the war seriously enough, should wake up to the fact that the guerrillas have succeeded in making the war interminable. To win, the army will have to move permanently into the areas where the guerrillas live and fight them there. But military actions will fail unless supported by government programs.

Such programs should aim at demonstrable economic, political and social development that directly benefits the people in the slums and villages, instead of pumping cash into the central bank to prop up businessmen who have ample savings in Miami. After $2 billion in U.S. economic aid, many children still die from dirty water and worms, and most of those who survive cannot get an education or a decent job. The Salvadoran government should now be pressed to mount effective national campaigns for literacy, local health clinics, birth control, clean water and effective use of land and land reform. It has never attempted to assist the majority in these ways. Better land use will probably mean giving property titles to the peasants now occupying inefficient government land reform cooperatives and providing them with technical assistance to make the land productive. The peasants should not be allowed to sell the land for at least a decade, in order to assure that it remains redistributed.

On the political front, American officials should encourage the Salvadoran government to pass a well-defined antiterrorism law that would allow the army to jail suspected rebels instead of shooting them. The United States should even more strongly pressure the army to stop killing and torturing civilians and suspected guerrillas-and should back this demand with public denunciations and public reductions in aid until the army changes its ways. Notorious past human rights abusers, now protected by an ill-advised amnesty, should be retired. The air force, which is the most politically backward and one of the most abusive units in the military, needs to be shaken up.

Other political goals should be to encourage the growth and physical safety of the democratic left and a free press. Washington should also push for speedy punishment of the army officers who ordered the killing of ten peasants last September, as well as punishment for the already jailed members of an army and ARENA kidnapping ring. The United States should press its current program of judicial reform, which is moribund because of opposition from the ruling class and army. The government's progress on this issue will be a key indicator of its commitment to reform.

Alfredo Cristiani has yet to show how reform-minded he actually is. But any help he seeks to deal with the killers in his own party should be extended within the limits of U.S. law. Suspected death squad members now living in the United States should be deported. D'Aubuisson and several of his cronies, well known to the U.S. embassy, should be listed as suspected terrorists and permanently denied U.S. visas. Americans should never forget that D'Aubuisson publicly defended the men who ordered the murder of two American agrarian reform advisers. He called the killers "patriots." Another close D'Aubuisson associate is the leading suspect in the murder of Archbishop Romero and still another planned to kill the American ambassador.

While taking these steps, the United States should always keep open the option of a negotiated end to the war. It should publicly seek contact with the FMLN and its allies in Nicaragua, Cuba and Moscow. The guerrillas should be encouraged to modify their demands, moderate their outdated Marxism and be offered international guarantees of security to contest the municipal and legislative elections in early 1991. In return, the guerrillas might fairly demand the retirement of army officers who are notorious human rights violators.


In the best of circumstances the United States faces spending at least another decade, billions more dollars and probably more lives grappling with the heavy tasks in El Salvador. Even with luck, it will take additional decades for the country to heal, as is indicated by the experiences this century of Spain and Greece. There is no assured way to knit a unified society out of the tattered remnants of the semi-feudal system that El Salvador, in the midst of war, has begun to abandon but has not yet replaced. Should the Salvadoran government and the army plainly demonstrate that they are unwilling to press reform, then Washington should seek a diplomatic settlement that permits the United States to withdraw. While the American public and Congress will support a Salvadoran government that works to improve El Salvador, they are unlikely to prop up a government that refuses to reform.

If such a day comes, the army may well try to carry out a draconian Guatemala-style bloodbath to destroy the rebels. If instead the rebels win, it is impossible to predict whether their more pragmatic or sectarian side would predominate. The Marxist rebels might well prove a worse alternative for El Salvador. But there are talented pragmatists among the rebels who may have a greater say once the fighting is over. In the event of an FMLN victory, the United States should attempt to reach an understanding with the guerrillas, though it promises to be a difficult relationship. The experience of other countries indicates that it would probably take the rebels at least a decade to establish their authority and discard their most doctrinaire Marxist precepts.

The United States cannot force the Salvadoran army and governing elite to carry out long overdue reforms. Nor can it democratize El Salvador by itself. That is a task that only Salvadorans can choose and complete for themselves. All the United States can do is make a last good-faith effort to convince the government and the army to help themselves by helping their people. This message should be bluntly and frankly delivered to the Salvadorans. If that effort fails, the United States should disengage and seek international support to limit the war that will follow. Americans should then be prepared to show tolerance for whoever wins the Pyrrhic prize of rebuilding a country from the ruins of El Salvador.

1 Diplomats and influential rebel supporters say that the Soviets have asked the rebels to modify their militarism and that the rebels are sobered by the travails of Nicaragua-especially since they are unlikely to get much of a Soviet subsidy should they ever win power.

2 The "Strategic Appraisal" was published in Analisis, the journal of the Instituto de Investigación Cientifica de la Universidad Nueva San Salvador.

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  • James LeMoyne has reported on El Salvador since 1982 and was The New York Times correspondent there from 1984 to 1988. He is writing a book on Central America.
  • More By James LeMoyne