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El Salvador: the myth of the center

Thomas O. Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American Affairs, recently placed the United States behind "our friends" in El Salvador who are working out a "democratic solution." These friends are pictured as a centrist junta, struggling against both the "extreme left" and an "extreme right." But Mr. Enders offered no fundamental change in US policy. He again rejected negotiations with the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), and he repeated administration intentions of "extending economic and military assistance to counter the disaster visited upon El Salvador by enemies of democracy."

Unfortunately, these very policies are blocking a democratic political solution. Why? Because there is a false assumption at the core of administration policy. The junta we support is no longer centrist. Its president, Jose Napoleon Duarte, is a mere figurehead, and those who wield the power in El Salvador have little interest in a political solution. This myth of a "centrist junta" can only be sustained by forgetting four crucial battles the center lost to the right.

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Battle One: The first battle began when centrist parties emerged in the 1960 s. It reached its turning point in 1972 when a broad center-left coalition posed a serious challenge to 40 years of military rule. Presidential candidate Duarte, a Christian Democrat, joined vice-presidential candidate Guillermo Ungo, a Social Democrat. With the support of the communist National Democratic Union, they ran in and won the only honest elections since 1932. But the army and the oligarchy voided the election; a colonel was declared president.

Battle Two: Following the 1972 election fraud, moderate opposition leaders became targets of government repression. Many, like Duarte, were driven into exile; others put their energies into guerrilla organizations. Most chose a democratic alternative. New "popular organizations" emerged comprising coalitions of peasant, worker, and student organizations and enjoying Roman Catholic Church support. They pressed for immediate social improvements using civil disobedience, demonstrations, and strikes. The right's repressive response aided recruitment. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Paramilitary squads, often linked to security forces, assassinated popular leaders, priests, and politicians.

As the repression worsened, the Carter administration unsuccessfully sought "openings to the center." Washington was relieved when apparently moderate military officers staged the October 1979 coup and set up a centrist junta.

Battle Three: The first junta excluded the left but sought its active support , promising democracy, an end to corruption and repression, and economic -- most importantly, agrarian -- reform. Its two military members included Col. Adolfo Majano, a reform-minded officer behind the coup. Its three civilian members included Mr. Ungo and Ramon Mayorga, rector of the Central American University. But severe repression continued, bringing the first major defection of the center in January 1980. Unable to oust Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, who would not or could not control the violence of the military and the paramilitary squads, Ungo, Mayorga and the entire cabinet (except Garcia) resigned in protest, blaming the right's intransigence for government impotence.

A second junta formed with Christian Democratic support, but the party split. Conservative members were willing to gain right support for reforms at the price of isolation and repression of the left. In March 1980 the liberal wing of the party defected from the junta and the cabinet, echoing resigning junta member Hector Dada's words: "We have not been able to stop the repression, and those committing acts of repression . . . go unpunished; the promised dialogue with the popular organizations fails to materialize; the chances for producing reforms with the support of the people are receding beyond reach."

Duarte joined a third junta, supported by conservative party stalwarts. But even their legitimacy was undermined: the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the three North American nuns and a lay missionary were only the most publicized examples of continued terror, instigated or condoned by government security and paramilitary forces. The junta swung further right in December when Colonel Majano was forced to resign. His replacement was Colonel Garcia, the very minister of defense whose actions had caused the centrist resignations in January. Majano accused the government of complicity with rightist death squads. in February 1981 he was arrested.

Battle Four: In april 1980 centrist leaders who had been forced out of the government, established the FDR, a broad-based center-left coalition. It united the Social Democrats, the liberal Christian Democrats, and members of labor, student, professional, and popular organizations. It established close relations with the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (DRU) encompassing the four major guerrilla groups. The Catholic Church gave it strong support. But in November 1980 six major FDR leaders were assassinated after uniformed soldiers surrounded a Jesuit high school where they were meeting and heavily armed men in civilian clothes took them away. Ungo replaced the murdered FDR president, and the leadership took sanctuary underground and in Mexico City. In early 1981 the FDR and DRU unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the junta.

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The "centrist junta" is a myth. The real center is now allied with the left, its leaders in exile or underground. Calling the junta "centrist" is either studied blindness or cynical doyblespeak. Calling for elections (the administration's "political solution") is not a serious policy in an atmosphere where no opposition leaders would dare campaign. If the Reagan administration is committed to a democratic political solution it must withdraw the military aid it is curently giving the enemies of democracy and support negotiations with the FDR. Our "friends" are not serious about a political solution in El Salvador, and, it seems, neither is our government.

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